Sunday, November 23, 2008

Behind closed doors

The room is no longer smoke filled. The older man's colleagues in the wee Parliament had seen to that. But the lingering smell of Havana suggested that, after hours, this place was a smoke easy. The younger man, dressed in an expensive suit, nurses a brandy. He stares wistfully into the glass. Is he looking for something? Or are scenes from the past 20 years flicking through his mind?

Older man: "20 years, Dave. Quite an effort. What's left to achieve?"

Younger man: "John, John, John. So much left to achieve, so much. Well, a buyer that will give me my money back at least."

Older man: "And an end to the social blight of sectarianism?"

Younger man (snorting): "Johnny Boy. I signed a Catholic. I signed a team of Catholics. I signed up for every scheme. And still they want a blue Asda in Larkhall. What can we do?"

Older man: "I've brought together warring factions in Belfast, run a health service in another country, persuaded cabinet cowards to fight illegal wars. A little local bother in Glasgow? Nae bother."

Younger man: "John. We're dealing with the great unwashed here. We take their money, we get their ignorance. 20 years. I've lost my innocence. This is your pension, mate. All that shit, it's just there. Don't push, push or who will buy my Broxy Burgers and your Paradise Pannini's?"

Older man: "Aye, aye David. But these bastarding Nats at Holyrood, they don't understand, they put the pressure on. And I'm getting it from these idiots that run the old party now. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it's more your problem than mine, pal."

Younger man: "Aye, so it is. And if you could find a way of making every lapsed Catholic in Scotland as passionate about their heritage on a Sunday morning as they are on a Saturday afternoon they'd make you Pope."

Older man: "I don't know David, is there nothing we can do? I'm thinking beating up backbenchers was easier than this."

Younger man: "Well, I've got the press coming in this week. You know the deal. Free access in exchange for fawning tributes to 20 glorious years. And a bit of free advertising to try and sell the bloody thing."

Older man: "And? Where do I come in?"

Younger man: "Well, I'm thinking, I'll have a right go at you. You pretend I've hurt your feelings and fire right back. The press get in such a tizzy about two silly old buggers getting involved in a pissing contest that they forget we're doing bugger all to sort these cretins out."

Older man: "Brilliant Dave, my son, absolute genius. You ever think about politics? Seriously, you could have a future there."

The end.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Birds, booze and broken dreams

I'm thinking I've made a bad choice. The women, the drink, the cigars, the hours spent doing nothing.

Not a bad life being an Old Firm keeper. There are drawbacks, of course. Artur Boruc for one must regret a few of those Polish lagers when he's pulling on Celtic's figure hugging shirt. Not so much a rippling physique as a wobbly belly like jelly.

And Allan McGreggor must sometimes think life's just far too complicated to even bother showing your appreciation for the young ladies. But still, you know you're living the dream when your life becomes an Eagles lyric.

And sometimes I think that could have been me. Not that I dreamed of playing for the Old Firm. But, many moons ago, as I picked myself up from the patch of mud that passed for a pitch, grasping the ball that I'd plucked from the air to make my second penalty save of the afternoon, that dream was within touching distance.

Alas it was not to be. The eight goals that I conceded from open play dented my confidence. And I'd have looked truly shocking in a skin tight Nike jersey.

Saturday Special

One of the benefits of feeling like crap is being able to spend an afternoon submerged in Scottish football. A small benefit to be sure, but paupers in a credit crunch can't be too choosy.

So our afternoon kicks off at Love Street where Artur Boruc, apparently no stranger to love, showed himself to be quite street as well, avoiding a red card when many a ref would have stubbed him out like a discarded cigarette.

St Mirren held their own but, as Scott Booth mentioned more than once in yet another turgid Setanta co-commentary, you need to take your chances against Celtic. Boom, boom. 2 nil and Celtic are cruising. We've seen it all before.

With about half an hour to go last Saturday Jimmy Calderwood was staring at three points on the road, Mixu was staring into the abyss. Two goals later and Hibs have a point that feels like a win, Aberdeen a point that feels like the death of a reasonably close friend.

Jimmy's woes continued at Ibrox as Ranger closed the gap to four points again. If depression lingers then Hibs proved what a difference a last minute Steven Fletcher sclaff can make by running out 4-1 winners at Motherwell.

Hibs fans of a certain vintage may remember the heady Alex Miller days when Brian Hamilton powered the midfield. The engima of Hamilton, it was said, was his ability to play well away from home before freezing at Easter Road. No enigma, the guy was terrified because of the stick he took in Leith. With apathy and antipathy rolling down from the stands at the moment might the whole Hibs team be suffering from the Hamilton syndrome? Time will tell.

Across Edinburgh Hearts continued their strange season. Third in the league with a win over Falkirk. Will that please the Jambo faithful? Or are they suffering from withdrawal symptoms? A message to the Gorgie Boys: a team that isn't imploding might make for a duller life but sometimes simple is good.

Dundee United continued their Jekyll and Hyde season with a draw at home to Hamilton. Accies finding a bit of form again but I had really expected Levein to have led United to a comfortable third place by now.

Inverness continued to haul their themselves away from the relegation battle with a fine win over Kilmarnock, Mehdi Tauoil getting into a spot of bother and no doubt ensuring the redoubtable Mrs Jefferies will be welcoming home something quite removed from a bundle of fun this evening.

So we are...well, where are we? Hamilton close the gap on St Mirren who really, really need to start scoring goals. Celtic and Rangers are as they started, Hearts get a sliver of breathing space over United.

And Hibs move into the top six but remain only a couple of wins off a bottom of the table scrap. This league produces few winners and few losers but yet again there's confirmation that this year's big question is not who's best of the rest but who's the runt of a dismal litter.

No place for Pulitzer

Nice article over on about the merry band of men who have the often unenviable job of covering the national game for a living.

It is easy for those of us who choose to write about Scottish football for either love or some deep lying psychological flaw to sit back and criticise.

I think Matt Vallance sums up things up with his tongue in cheek sympathy for:
The 'Praetorian Guard,' the chief football writers of the various national newspapers. You have to feel sorry for these guys – in every match they cover, at least one team will be wearing either green and white hoops, or a royal blue or navy blue jersey.
That is, of course, part of the problem when we hope for consistently strong journalism (not, sadly, in sport alone). The pond is just too wee. The need to keep sources on side gets in the way of the blunt truth.

Which leads to the frustration that many of us feel when we turn to the backpage. There are exceptions of course. But they tend to just prove the rule.

It's also one of the reasons why the now daily macho chest beating on Radio Scotland and elsewhere is so annoying. The hacks with microphones may be the kings of their jungle. But when your jungle is nothing more than a back green, what does that actually mean?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hand of God botherers

Apathy had set in long before a nightmarish cold took away any lingering pretence of interest that I had in Scotland's friendly with Argentina.

I don't actually know why we played the game - reading the reports I can see little evidence of this being much of a learning process for a manager whose qualification hopes are already hanging by a thread.

Do the players learn from testing themselves against the best? Apparently that's the theory but this Scotland line up was no closer to being the starting team against the Dutch than this game was to being a rehearsal for a likely World Cup semi final.

But it was a glamour game, the blazer buttons were polished and the little SFA was at the centre of attention. They love that, love it more than they hate to see swathes of empty seats at the national citadel.

And, of course, there was the added attraction of Diego. I wish him well, I really do. Not because of the Hand of God and the pathetic idolatry of the Tartan Army in the absence of any of their own glory to celebrate, but because someone with that much talent should remain involved in the game.

Who but the most die hard Englander could ever be happy if our lingering memories of Maradona were of a greasy permed chubster, fat nose covered in the remnants of his last snort, arguing with Pele over whether drugs busts or Viagra touting are the hallmarks of the Greatest Player Ever?

Unfortunately one of the die hard Englanders is our own assistant manager. I couldn't care if the Scottish coaches came from Outer Mongolia. But Terry Butcher shouldn't have been allowed to get involved in the media scrum. However honourable and pure the intentions in Argentina were, making Diego coach was always going to result in a media pantomime. Butcher provided the hacks with another angle and the former hotelier just couldn't resist.

So Hand's of God, Russian linesman and handshakes or not become our memories of the game. Not the rather tasty goal or the so-so performance of Scotland.

All in all, not a great week I would say.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bhoys To Men

In the end, I suppose, they were robbed of the three points that their commitment and effort, if not perhaps the general flow of the game, deserved.

So Celtic claw back some pride and make the away game in Denmark look like being the match that will decide if they are to play in Europe after Christmas.

Two points from two home games, albeit one against the champions, is not much to show from this campaign.

Make no mistake Celtic's Champions League campaign has been disastrous. The draw against Aalborg was one of the most insipid home performances you are likely to see in Europe this season. The Old Trafford game was, as the man said, men against boys.

So last night may have restored some pride, brought a little faith back to the masses, but it can't be used to mask the fact that Celtic have taken a big step backwards this season. Another season of tit for tat with the boys in blue won't make up for that.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nacho Nogo

Ooh, aah, Nacho Novo's Da?
Should we welcome Nacho Novo into the Scotland team with open arms?

He's lived here for years. His family is Scottish. He would give George Burley an option that he's sorely lacking at the moment.

But. But. I'm not convinced. National teams should have an emotional attachment. The ties with the native land have to be powerful enough - you have to want to play for the team like the fans do. International football, and the fans who slavishly follow it, deserves nothing less.

In the Novo case how could it look like anything more than an aging player accepting second best after missing out on his proper team? I am aware that some people have said accepting Novo into the Scotland team would be mature, would be a sign of a grown up, multicultural Scotland. Hmmm.

I think it would take a lot more than Nacho playing at Hampden for Scotland to grow up.

And I don't hold with the argument that a lot of players with less connection than Novo have played before. Many of us have always felt uneasy with the Craig Brown tactic of scouring family trees. Novo may be the logical conclusion of that pattern but it is a trend we should be moving away from not embracing.

There is also the question of other players doing similar things with other countries. Inescapably we think of James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady. Without agreeing or disagreeing with those two I would say that they at least have made the decision early in their careers and obviously feel a strong emotional attachment with Ireland. That in itself is nothing new - as Pat Crerand proved in his autobiography when he claimed that playing for Scotland was always second best.

I also feel that widespread adoption of the passport rule will severely undermine the international game. Countries that can afford to ship in the best young talent from around the world would suddenly have the very best players qualifying for their national teams. That is wrong.

International football is already creaking, despised by the money that runs football. If Novo was given a Scotland cap would the game not descend into the farce of beach volleyball where Brazil's second best players can jump ship to the well known beach volleyball centre that is Georgia?

The modern games treats fans badly enough, to allow international football to be further devalued would be an insult too far.

Paddy Crerand: Never Turn the Other Cheek


Football's obsession with the big names means that the star men are always on display.

No surprise then that the ever predictable ITV Champion's League coverage should scan the crowd for Fernando Torres when Liverpool went 1-0 down.

Truly a case of millionaire footballer is expressionless when paymasters lose goal to former paymasters.

The intriguing thing was young Torres appeared to be sitting next to Tony Booth. Was it actually him?

What were they talking about? Was Fernando asking how Tony's son in law was finding retirement? Was he asking about Tony's tempestuous love affair with Coronation Street's Pat Phoenix? The travails of socialism in Spain and England?

ITV should get their best man, or failing that Matt Smith, on the case.

Sticks and stones

Is Gordon Strachan right to be so annoyed that a besuited - and you would suggest slightly tipsy - Jambo called him an arsehole?

Surely he gets called much worse every week - often by his own fans. This weekend showed once again that supporters increasingly consider nothing about a player off bounds when it comes to shouting abuse. And fans visiting the citadel of bonhomie that is Celtic Park will be fully aware of the extent of the vocabulary Celtic fans can turn on when faced with the supporters of 'wee teams.'

So why the fuss? Was it because this was a fan who had paid good money? That's a bit naive, my experience of football hospitality is that the fans are better dressed but equally boorish.

Was it because this was a solitary fan? In which case is Gordon condoning the gang mentality that can see thousands shouting abuse at players and managers? And will Hearts look to take action against whole sections of their support the next time they call a referee an arsehole or, God forbid, worse?

Was it because it was after the game? I'd say that would be a bit unrealistic of Gordon. Emotions run high, and are unlikely to have simmered down completely only half an hour after the final whistle.

Of course maybe Gordon was just annoyed because he doesn't think he's an arsehole. Surely a subject where objectivity is impossible?

It all seems a bit of a storm in teacup to me, another in a long week of them. Another example of how Gordon's never been entirely comfortable in the crazy world that is life as an Old Firm manager.

Was it because this was a solitary fan? In which case is Gordon condoning the gang mentality that can see thousands shouting abuse at players and managers? And will Hearts look to take action against whole sections of their support the next time they call a referee an arsehole or, God forbid, worse?

Was it because it was after the game? I'd say that would be a bit unrealistic of Gordon. Emotions run high, and are unlikely to have simmered down completely only half an hour after the final whistle.

Of course maybe Gordon was just annoyed because he doesn't think he's an arsehole. Surely a subject where objectivity is impossible?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Life of Reilly

A belated happy 80th birthday to Lawrie Reilly.

The spearhead of the Famous Five that achieved such dominance in the Scottish game for Hibs in the early 1950's Reilly also performed spectacularly for Scotland and scored five times in five visits to Wembley.

He remains Hibs most capped player and it seems inconceivable now that someone playing for a side outside of Glasgow's big two could become such a mainstay of the international side.

Reilly's 22 goals from 38 caps gives him the second best goals average for any player who has pulled on the dark blue more than 10 times.

That it is Hughie Gallacher who leads him in the record table provides a fitting contrast: the tragic Gallacher's destructive retirement could not be further removed from the dignified life Reilly has led away from the game.

Still a regular at Easter Road, Reilly - and his surviving Famous Five comrade Eddie Turnbull - provides a welcome reminder of a different time in Scottish football.

And, yes, Lawrie remains as perplexed as anyone as to how the Easter Road Scottish Cup jinx survived the dominance of the Famous Five.

Great Scott!

Harry Redknapp improbably turns Spurs from zeroes to heroes, from villainy to last gasp valiance in the blink of an eye.

Joe Kinnear rants, raves and ruminates but turns Joey Barton from A Wing to A list as Newcastle rediscover some sort of fire in their bloated Geordie bellies.

And who completes this list of improbable sixty something success stories? Who's next to silver surf the tide of glory?

Probably not Jocky Scott. Newly installed as manager of Dundee, Jocky is back. His tenth managerial job - although the third time he has been at the helm at Dens. One of the great survivors of the Scottish game is Mr Scott, his 61st birthday speeding towards him as surely as night follows day.

And, when I say one of the great survivors, I mean one of those great underachieving characters that seem to punctuate this great, incestuous mire we call Scottish football.

Good luck, of course, to Jocky who does seem to have a love affair with Dundee. And good luck to the long suffering Dundonians in dark blue who might find this appointment another test of their spectacular patience.

Jocky managed to get a draw with Airdrie United today, a result which actually moved them closer to the automatic drop zone thanks to scores elsewhere.

A case of third time lucky? Or familiarity breeding contempt? We shall see...

A welcome injury?

It's clear that footballers don't like to be injured. But sometimes it's maybe not a bad thing...

For those of us that like to see Scots prosper down south - and who find Chelsea victories as welcome as Jonathan Ross at a dinner party hosted by Andrew Sachs - we could take some comfort from Craig Gordon's enforced absence from the walkover at the Bridge.

That sprained ankle has had a knock on affect for one of Gordon's old Edinburgh Derby foes. Nick Colgan found himself sitting on Sunderland's bench, the much travelled and never knowingly convincing Irishman now the third choice keeper at Sunderland.

At least Craig should find his place in the team ready and waiting on his return.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Dull Days Ahead

Are we right to predict a dull season in the top flight?

I think so. We know before a ball is kicked that its going to be a two horse race but we can hope that one of the "diddy" teams will make enough of an early run to cling to the green and blue coat tails for a time.

Not this season. Two mediocre Old Firm sides now sit nine points clear of the team in third. Only one other side has a positive goal difference. Only seven points separate the team in third from the bottom side.

As for Europe: Three down, one in a coma waiting for the life support to be turned off.

We can't look to Hampden for salvation with the World Cup campaign having wilted in the Macedonian heat before being murdered by George Burley's lone wolf.

So the football this year doesn't look great but no doubt the subplots will be as enthralling as ever.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Beyond Words

Supermarket giant Asda says it had no plans to change its famous green logo to please shoppers in a Rangers-mad town. 
Politicians claimed supermarket bosses were "pandering to prejudice" over suggestions they could change their traditional green and white livery at a new store in Larkhall, Lanarkshire.
Apparently Subway and Moss Pharmacy have already changed their company livery to appease locals. And green traffic lights get smashed.

With apologies to Tom Nairn, Scotland will never be free until the last numpty Ranger in Larkhall is strangled with the last King Billy scarf in the country.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pool of Darkness

If his retirement plans are for real this time then this might be the last season we can enjoy Sir Alex Ferguson chewing gum on the touchline.

But if Liverpool win the title? Surely Fergie won't walk with his very own forces of darkness on top.

Has he spent the best part of a quarter of a century trying to "knock Liverpool off their fucking perch" only to exit the 'theatre of dreams' when they clamber back up?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Let's Go Round Again

The first Edinburgh derby of the season comes around and it's full of surprises. For a start both managers are still in place which might be seen as a miracle in itself.

And Derek Riordan is back for Hibs. Back kissing the badge, back scoring the goals.

So much seems the same.

The rumours: Deeks is only getting half what he was on at Celtic, he's shattered the concrete ceiling that was Easter Road's wage structure, Rod Petrie is paying half his wages out of his own pocket and on and on.

The nights out: Deeks trying to sneak into an Edinburgh nightclub despite the city wide ban (you would think club captain Rob Jones would know better than to be an accomplice in that sorry escapade).

But the goals have come and so have the points which makes it seem worth it for the Hibs fans.

Come Sunday though one thing will need to change for the prodigal to complete the fairytale. Hibs have never beaten Hearts when Riordan has appeared on the score sheet...

The Boyd Done Bad

5pm last Saturday. George Burley is being hailed by the press for the double substitution that led to Chris Iwelumo's debut goal, the winning goal.

Somewhere in a darkened corner of Hampden Kris Boyd decides to turn his back on his national team. Nobody cares.

One moment of inexplicable madness can, of course, change a lot of things. Iwelumo was to be fall the guy. Burley the incompetent, blind to the match winning potential of the Ranger on his bench.

And Boyd's decision to quit the national team in disgust was, if not applauded, at least understood in some quarters. Burley was left to defend himself for making the change that cost Scotland the game.

But here's the thing. Boyd was benched by Scotland for the same reasons that he's benched by Rangers. We're constantly told that he doesn't work hard, doesn't do enough for the team.

Boyd seems to think that his goals are enough. His managers disagree. Through stubbornness or through a lack of ability Boyd refuses to change.

And then he throws his toys out of the pram. Not in a spectacular, Duncan Ferguson, I'll never be back kind of way.

Rather in a "this Scotland thing ain't big enough for the both of us, I'll be seeing ya when Burley's a goner" kind of way.

Not so daft Kris. With the qualifying campaign all but dead in the water and Burley not endearing himself to the mass of Scotland's fans in the stadium or in the press box, Boyd will be thinking that he can wander back the minute Burley walks. At this rate that could be sometime next autumn. Not a big price to pay for the striker, is it?

But here's the news Kris. The way Scotland play now, the way we are so comprehensively not as good as our opponents means that maybe, just maybe Walter and George are right. Maybe goals aren't enough. And if he's still not changed then maybe when a new manager arrives and Kris dramatically announces his return he won't find the welcome as warm as he'd like.

That turn of events might seem like justice to many of the Scotland fans who think Boyd has behaved abysmally.

Points of view

So, ages ago I wrote about Izac Cowie the Airdrie fan banned from all Scottish football grounds for three years. I also mentioned that Lothian and Borders' finest had arrested a number of people believed to have been involved in violence at a recent Edinburgh derby. I was applauding the authorities for taking action against people who think football goes in hand with being an idiot.

At the time someone, anonymously, commented:
"Do you believe everything you read in the newspapers? Izak Cowie never said anything about airdrie bieng in the premier league by the time his ban is up.He was escorted to the back of the sheriff court as not to talk to press who were just after a story.He isn't an old nutter either, he has a family who he looks after and provides for.He is a normal guy who might enjoy a little excitement at the week-end.He will serve his time and get back to the football."
Well, clearly I don't believe everything I read in the newspapers. But I do believe that Cowie spoke to the press.

I also believe that a man approaching 40 who chooses to go to football games and make Nazi salutes is an idiot even if he does manage to provide for his family. Either that or he really believes in some sort of neo-Nazi facism. Which I would suggest doesn't really make him a normal guy or, in fact, a role model for his own or anyone else's children.

As for the excitement that he gets from making Nazi salutes. If only we could invent time travel he could fly back to the Nuremburg Rallies and get his thrills with Adolf and the rest of the cuddly, fluffy mass murderers whose party and memory he is so keen to honour.

And that was that. Until earlier this week another anonymous returned to the fray with this:
"But they are nowhere near as much a problem as ignorant arseholes like you waffles on when you don't know what you are talking about all the edinburgh cases have been dropped so civil liberties have been abused without just cause. With this in mind you might want to climb down from your Old Bill bumming band wagaon. As for this quote 'Nor do I believe that every media outlet in Scotland would gang together to make up a quote and attribute it to a nonentity like Cowie.' really don't know how stupid you can be every paper prints the same story just word it different and a nonentity as you put it is much easier to gang up on and stretch the truth to get a story as they can not retaliate or reply as idiots like you will read your paper and self appoint yourself judge and jury."

Now this could be the same person. They certainly share the same cavalier attitude to proper nouns and punctuation. And they are both seeking to justify something that is abhorrent.

Having worked in the "media" I know how they operate and the quote from Cowie was not made up - however much he and his supporters may wish he'd said nothing, he was unable to keep his trap shut because he shares the same need for self justification as my correspondent.

Why anon waited so long I'm not sure but his timing was unfortunate. No charges were brought following the Edinburgh clashes. I don't know why. Clearly old anon thinks it was because they weren't guilty: I on the other hand wouldn't dream of anointing myself "judge and jury."

But members of the groups involved have shown themselves to be guilty of similar elsewhere. Two Hibs casuals have been found guilty of violence and - this is how much these "normal" guys love football - one of them is actually a Hearts fan but chooses to ally himself with the Hibs casuals. Maybe he gets better pies.

As ever when people seek to justify the unjustifiable anon invokes civil liberties. Well, and forgive me if I am "bumming" the police, sometimes the police do need to take decisive action.

I wonder if anon is a casual himself or if he has simply never seen them in action. Maybe that is the only explanation for his desire to defend an abhorrent group of people who, when faced with a simple decision between right and wrong, between acceptable and unacceptable, take the wrong road.

And when these "fans" are doing what they do best what happens to the "civil liberties" of the people caught up in their inane battles who just want to watch a game or simply have the temerity to live in Falkirk, Edinburgh or Dundee?

I may be ignorant and many would agree that I'm an arsehole but if being an ignorant arsehole means recognising how wholly unacceptable the behaviour that anon defends is then I'll take that every day of the week.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

For crying out loud

An under-15's cup final. A great day for all involved. A special day for the youngsters.

And so it comes to pass that, as Leith Athletic beat Ayr Boswell in the Edinburgh International Soccer Tournament on Sunday, the Ayr manager is sent off and one of the players headbutts the referee.

Absolutely brilliant. And we wonder why we don't bring many youngsters through these days. It seems the touchline parents are still alive and well. No doubt the professional players who question each decision will be blamed. I'd say the boy probably has some issues that need to be worked through. But the manager that got sent off must take a large portion of the blame.

Would you expose your child to this?

I'm getting old and reactionary but I'd ban every Ayr Boswell team at all age groups for a year. That might, just might, send out a message.

Vlad Laughs Loudest

Vladimir Romanov's "other club" gave him his most famous victory over either half of the Old Firm tonight and, a contrarian to the core, he refused to bask in the glory.

Questioned by Dennis the Menace's ginger, less articulate big brother (or Jim Spence as he's called on the radio) Vladimir claimed that FBK Kaunas had achieved more by beating Andorran side Santa Coloma in the previous round. Take that David Murray.

With Kaunas riding high Vlad also used the opportunity to clear up his revised ambitions for Hearts. It seems that he now looks on Hearts as a club that can help youngsters develop before selling them on.

Still controversial, he claimed that, given the sickness at the heart of the Scottish game, he could try for forty years and never knock Rangers and Celtic off the top. The ambitions have had to change.

Where does this leave Hearts? Who knows? The fans might like some explanation of this apparent change of emphasis. No doubt the message from Tynecastle will be that the supreme leader was misquoted - if so then it's a clear case of shoot the interpreter.

But right now Kaunas would look to be the more promising side in the empire: will that have any bearing on Mr Romanov's commitment to Edinburgh?

The Good, The Bad, The Farcical

The Bad: Sorry Walter, you're out of Europe five days into August. Queen of the South have lasted longer. And, given your ill mannered outburst last week, you have made it clear that the buck stops with you and you alone.

The Good: Look on the bright side, no chance of crying into any microphone you find about a fixture pile up this year.

The Farcical: The BBC Scotland caller blaming the Kaunas result on the SPL's failure to change last season's fixture list. I half suspect this was a Celtic fan on the wind up. Only half though, given some of the Rangers fans you meet.

Kaunas 2, Rangers 1 - Over and Out

Farewell Europe. What a difference a close season makes. After the UEFA run last year Rangers crashed out of Europe tonight after losing to Kaunas.

For those readers who enjoy the discomfort of either of the Old Firm I suppose now is the time to have a hearty chuckle.

For Rangers this is a truly shocking result. Where did it all go wrong? Hmmm.

Kaunas, although inferior on paper, had more match fitness. Carlos Cuellar and Barry Ferguson were missing. The new signings hadn't the luxury of time to gel.

And, simply, Rangers were poor tonight. So poor in the second half that you wonder if they can play that badly again. If they can then this year will be more of a struggle than anyone would have predicted a month ago.

But there are other reasons. I wrote earlier today that Rangers stretched every sinew and maximised the ability of this group of players to reach the UEFA final last year. In doing so they played a defensive style that meant they had to ride their luck against better teams.

As many of us predicted Walter Smith - stubbornly, arrogantly - refused to change that style. That meant tonight Kaunas - again I stress a cheaper and inferior side - were invited to come at a Rangers team that ran out of ideas at one all. This Rangers team had this result coming. It's a very expensive lesson.

Where now? Smith has to change the style, there is no question of using the SPL as a warm up for Europe this season, they need to be more positive. Kris Boyd should be given a chance, the signing of Kenny Miller might well begin to look a major mistake. Signed to play in Rangers' European style where does Miller fit now?

Money? 90 minutes in Lithuania have created a chasm between the two Glasgow clubs. Rangers may need to sell to balance the books: Carlos Cuellar, able to play for anyone in Europe this season, suddenly looks a whole lot more available than he did this time last week. If that happens Smith has a headache: David Weir showed tonight that to cope with the ravages of time he needs someone of the stature of Cuellar alongside him.

One game, one bad result. At this level that sometimes all it needs. Can we now see that this Rangers squad are just not good enough to play at the level the club aspires to?

I think, to an extent, that is the case and that brings a whole series of problems. Not only can Rangers not now afford replacements, they also find themselves in the unenviable position of paying too much for mediocrity. That means it becomes very tricky to recoup your outlay on players.

I say again, it was just one game. But, right now, Rangers are a club in crisis before the season has even begun.

A couple more bad results and Walter Smith is going to be hanging that famous club tie on a very shoogly peg!

Reffing Hell!

The SPL kick off may be delayed by a referee's strike.

For the love of God, how much more ridicule can football in this country survive?

Bad enough that this fine band of men make so many ludicrous decisions. Bad enough that you are unable to question them. Bad enough that some clown thought it would be a good idea to have them sponsored by Specsaver.

Now we're being held to ransom as the men in the middle demand something approaching a 74 percent pay rise. 74 percent. Robert Mugabe would cringe at that level of inflation.

They have claimed they want to be paid a similar wage to countrparts in similar European leagues.

Quick question: other than the distortion of the wages paid in Glasgow does the SPL pay comparative wages to players?

First reaction - tell them to go whistle. Ship in some referee's from elsewhere and see if the standard improves.

Second reaction - we need, unfortunately, to do a deal. If the league doesn't kick off at 12.30 on Saturday then what little credibilty we do have is going to be shattered.

Can we afford to let that happen?

Still Questions in Leith

According to the Edinburgh Evening News today Hibs stars (stars? how many of them actually qualify as stars?) have been holding "clear the air" talks following their dismal pre season.

A sign of a group players taking responsibility for their collective incompetence? Or a sign that problems do exist at Easter Road?

I'm thinking the latter. I wonder just what role Rob Jones has as club captain - it seems clear that much of the John Collins saga revolved around Jones' leading a player revolt? Does he think is bigger than the managers?

I think this one is going to run and run. Right now I'd say Leith isn't big enough for Jones, Mixu Paateleinen and Rod Petrie. Something or someone is going to need to give. Interesting times for the Cabbage.

Rangers Face Destiny

Rangers biggest European game? Last season's UEFA Cup final, right?

No, actually. Try tonight's qualifier for the Champion's League. Don't think so? Then try this. Rangers are 90 minutes away from going out of Europe before the domestic season has started. Out of Europe. No UEFA Cup to break the fall.

Was last year's run a flash in the pan? It was certainly a team achieving something that was at the very limits of their ability. But to go out of Europe this early would be a disaster, a massive disaster.

Remember Celtic are in the group stages this season. The clubs are so close at the moment that a big cash boost for one or the other can make a real difference. So if Rangers fail tonight the ramifications carry on until next season.

High stakes. A high cost of failure. And if they do fail - as I mentioned here - do cracks begin to show in Walter Smith's second reign?

Should be an interesting one.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Some SPL Predictions

We are but a heartbeat away from the new season. So time for some very unscientific predictions:

First managerial casualty:

Mixu. Almost certainly. If the rumours have an ounce of truth in them then a humping by Clyde could mean he's away before the start of the season. To be swiftly followed, I'd guess, by Rod Petrie.

Third place:

Dundee United. I've got a feeling that Craig Levein (man least likely to be sacked) will have got United even stronger this season. Could be third at a canter.


I've got a feeling Hamilton might make a strong enough start to survive. So take your pick from St Mirren, Kilmarnock and Hibs (see above).

A season of reasonable contentment:

Falkirk. Top six again. A cup run. Yogi's stock will rise further.


Celtic again I think. There's a chance Rangers might struggle a bit this year. Celtic might not need to do much to keep the title.

Last Chance Saloon:

Csabo Lazlo. Just because the Heart's job is last chance saloon in perpetuity. Jimmy Calderwood, bit of an enigma at Aberdeen - needs to get the fans back. Kenny Miller, surely now is the time to deliver.

Wattie You On About?

A plaintiff cry from the manager's office at Ibrox: "Trust me and shut up."

Walter Smith has been hurt by the critics as they've lashed out at both Kenny Miller and Smith himself.

"If their reason for not liking him is because he played for Celtic, personally I thought those days were past. They are for me, so if that's not acceptable to everyone else there's not a great deal I can do about it, except do what we are paid to do and hopefully win football matches.

"If the player has been here before and people's reasons for not liking him are because they don't think he is good enough, then that's fine. But my opinion matters and I think he will be good for the team. That's how I look upon him. Everyone is entitled to their opinion."

Couple of things in there. "I thought those days were past" - really? And does Uncle Watty also think that the morning before Old Firm games the fans of both sides go to multi faith church services and pray for peace?

"Don't think he's good enough" - well, as I've written before, they don't.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion" - yes, they are. But by rising to the fans the manager looks a bit small. The old "but my opinion matters" line is not really becoming in a man of Wattie's experience.

The final quote that really matters though: "I just see that Kenny is a player who can help the team in the manner we play at the moment." Which can be translated, again I've written this before, as "same old, same old."

Rangers are going to be playing the same way this season and if the fans don't like that it might be a long year. The risk for Smith is that the team played to their limits to achieve what they did last year and still missed out on the big rewards. Can they hope to repeat even those heroics this year? I don't think they can.

And if that is the case then the signing of Miller might go from being a cause of some disgruntlement to a focus for a whole lot of ire and the pressure on Smith will start to build. Might not happen that way. But it just might.

A New Leaf?

Could things be turning around at Vladimir Romanov's Tynecastle circus? Vlad has promised to get "less and less" involved with the team, says he'll listen to Csaba Laszlo's opinion and has been waxing lyrical about happy, smiling players.

Still not much action on the transfer front, and the results in pre season haven't been brilliant, but is there a glimmer of hope for Hearts fans? Time will tell. But it seems there's a real chance that it'll be the maroon side of Edinburgh who have much more to laugh about this year.

The Greed That Binds

"It's incredulous that, despite our attempts to explain this rationally to other clubs, some of them refuse to accept our approach."

So says ex-knitwear model and current Rangers chief executive Martin Bain about the reaction of the "tiny ten" about the Old Firm's decision to add a 5 percent handling charge on to the sale of away tickets for their fans.

First a small point of order: Mr Bain can be "incredulous" if he wants but, I would argue, "it" must be incredible not incredulous.

Secondly: There is a way of rationally explaining things. Claiming to not be working in tandem with each other, Celtic and Rangers sent out exactly the same letter (word for word) on the same day. Some coincidence that. That smacks of the two big beasts ganging up on the smaller kids. That's bullying not rational explanation.

Mr Bain also suggests that the proposal is in the best interests of his club. That might well be the crux of the matter. The best interests of Rangers. The best interests of Celtic. Not the best interests of the other 10 clubs.

The reaction from the "tiny ten" is because:
  1. They either pay the extra 5 percent themselves or charge the Rangers and Celtic fans. They can't afford the hit themselves but if they charge the fans, who will immediately blame the home team for the price hike, they risk falling attendances. They can't afford that either. Catch 22.
  2. As one club director said: "What next?" 5 percent now 15 percent next season. There comes a time when the other clubs feel they have to make a stand against the Old Firm. Now would appear to be that time.
  3. By bouncing the other 10 into this the Old Firm create a interesting conspiracy theory. We're always told by Parkhead and Ibrox that the problems they have with crowd behaviour comes from their away fans. If, as seems likely, the other clubs cut Rangers and Celtic out of the ticket distribution they can say they have washed their hands of their away support. Therefore Celtic and Rangers as clubs are entirely blameless for any problems that occur. Again, the "tiny ten" are backed into a corner.
I hope the rest of the clubs hold out on this one. It seems always to surprise fans of the Old Firm that other supporters often lump their clubs together as one focal point for hate. It's episodes like this that explains why that happens.

Because while the fans get lost in rivalry and one upmanship the two clubs act in concert to force the whole of the SPL to bend to their will.

Maybe now the other 10 can say "enough is enough."

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Dismal Nothingness

Do friendlies mean anything at all? Most managers would say they're a valuable way of gauging a team's readiness for the season ahead. If they win. If they lose they'll write them off as merely a fitness excercise.

So who knows if they do mean anything?

But three events in Scottish football show that friendlies can have a far from positive impact.

Example 1

Peterhead 4, Aberdeen 0

A full strength Aberdeen humilated by their local rivals. This result is so cataclysmically bad that it can be written off as a freak, a unique conflagration of Jimmy Calderwood's worst nightmares. But it's an absolutely shocking start. Players have gone (some have bucked the trend and actually stayed) and the fans need reasons to come back. Losing 4-0 to Peterhead doesn't encourage people to come back.

Suddenly the start of the season is about as welcome in Aberdeen as the thought of a wet weekend in Skegness. Sharing a caravan with Jimmy Calderwood.

Example 2

Fulham 3, Celtic 1

Another bad result. In the long run probably one that means absolutely nothing but a crap result anyway. And, like everything at Celtic, nothing is quite as simple as it seems. Celtic have set off on a grand pre season tour to raise brand awareness/prostitute themselves to the highest bidder but it appears that at least some of the baggage of the last couple of years remains.

Allegedly Gordon Strachan was involved in an altercation with a Celtic supporter and had to be led away by stewards. Same old, same old. At least at Southampton the night before Stachan's name was chanted from the stands. Chanted by Southampton supporters, but it's nice to feel a little loved.

You'd have thought the drama, emotion and ultimate success of last season would have led to some thawing of relations. Not so, it appears. The Celtic job is like the Hearts job in reverse: Hearts have decent fans and a nutcase chairman, Celtic appear to have a decent board and mental fans.

Example 3

Hibs ?, Barcelona ?

OK so this game hasn't been played. And the minute Hibs took the game they lost all control and can't be blamed for the ticket prices or the venue.

But...between 8000 and 11000 tickets sold is a worry. Comparisons might be futile but comparisons will be made with the Hearts game last year - Hibs will not come out of that well.

Where are the fans? Voting with their feet, I guess. No signings, a new stand that the board can't seem to decide whether or not to build, problems, problems, problems.

The fans won't be at Murrayfield, they'll probably not be at Easter Road when Middlesborough and Wigan roll into town. But watch out for a large away support when Hibs kick off in the SPL at Kilmarnock. Rumour has it that a major fans protest about Rod Petrie begins then. Watch this space.

So friendly season continues to mean nothing. But for at least three SPL sides the silly season means getting off to the worst possible start.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Pitfalls of a Prophet

Aiden McGeady yesterday signed a new five year deal that will keep him at Celtic until after his 27th birthday.

After signing on the dotted line McGeady said:

"I want to be remembered in the club's history rather than just a player who had a couple of good seasons and then jumped ship. The thought of being a legend is a bit far away just now, but that's what I'd like to be remembered as."

Good on him. Nothing in football is as simple as that of course. We'd all profess our love for our emplyers if we were offered the kind of enhanced deal that, I'd guess, young Aiden has just been given.

But why do footballers insist on making these pronouncements. How long before McGeady leaves and those words come back to bite him on the bum?

And, more pertinently, why do we as fans believe anything that our heroes tell us anymore?

Goalie Moly

The whole sorry search for a keeper at Easter Road continues. After Phil Imray, recently of the mighty Wellington in New Zealand, did little to impress against Raith he has joined young Ivorian Lamine Meite in being shown the exit door.

Neither triallist impressed Mixu Paatelainen more than what he's already got. What he's already got is calamity prone Yves Makalambay, gaffe prone Andy McNeill and untried Robert Grof. How bad can the other two be?

Seriously, though, the travails of the goalkeepers at Easter Road point to a wider malaise at the club. When a club that has the pretensions of Hibs can - rumour has it - only afford to sign a player if they can sell a player of the stature of Clayton Donaldson then something is wrong.

The natives are getting restless. Many feel Mixu is not the answer. Most would appear to feel that he is definitely not the answer if the board continue to insist that the manager of Hibs must be skilled in doing his job with one hand tied behind his back.

How long before the fans start to vote with their feet? The message to Rod Petrie is a simple one: you can't play a training ground or a shiny new stand in the first team.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Friendly Fire

The pre season is in full swing now with the SPL clubs getting their preparations for the season fully underway.

A quick roundup:

After the disaster of the Intertoto Cup Hibs were held to a no scoring draw against Raith. Good news for the Hibs fans: There was a mystery triallist in goals. Bad news for the Hibs fans: He was 24 year old Phil Imray of Team Wellington in New Zealand. The Hibees crying out for an experienced keeper look set to be disappointed as the board continue to hoard the biscuit tin.

New Hearts manager Csabo Lazlo also tasted disappointment in Fife with the Jambos losing 1-0 to Dunfermline. Lazlo played Michael Stewart in the supporting role behind lone striker Gary Glen. Lazlo, however, would prefer to play two orthodox strikers so he may well be borrowing Mixu's begging bowl before long. Top marks to the Scotsman's Anthony Brown, incidentally, for calling a corner "a flag kick" and returning match reporting to the 1940's.

Rangers came from behind to beat Lotte 3-1 with Kris Boyd (surprise, surprise) and John Fleck the scorers. Andreas Velicka started up front and there was also a welcome return for Andy Webster. With Rangers in action in the Champion's League qualifiers in a fortnight it remains to be seen if Boyd can cement his place in Walter Smith's starting 11.

All of this is, of course, pretty much meaningless. But at least it's football!

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Miller's Tale: Same Old, Same Old

"But in my opinion he's the best all-round Scottish striker at the moment. Boydie (Kris Boyd] has his goals, Faddy (James McFadden] has great talent and a wee spark, but pound for pound you'd have Kenny starting in your team before anyone."

Ally McCoist on Kenny Miller. Not, perhaps, what the Rangers fans want to hear. The Rangers supporters were so against this signing that they stopped their Scottish Cup celebrations to protest about it.

Partly it's his recent history with Celtic. But partly it is his poor goalscoring record. Not many players have played for Celtic and Rangers. Miller has failed at them both. He is not the player you sign if you want to turn your back on a reputation for dourness. Neither is Kyle Lafferty (10 goals in 83 league games) although he does have potential. And Andreas Velicka will have a lot to prove.

McCoist says Rangers have to emulate Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. I'm not sure the Dutch ideal of total football is strikers who don't score.

Time will tell. But Walter Smith and McCoist looked on last year as a success. Expect more of the same from Rangers this season.

Book Review: Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion by Gordon Burn

Duncan Edwards and George Best. Entwined in Manchester United’s history and mythology. Separated by only a few years, they may as well have been from different worlds.

Edwards, the man child, the phenomenal athlete who would run all day for Matt Busby and who stood to conquer the world. Best, a man child in a very different way, the prodigy who did conquer the world.

One life snubbed out on a snowy Munich runway. One life snubbed out by an inability to cope with a world that his talent had created.

Edwards was the epitome of a lost breed of footballer: he trained and he played to a phenomenal level. But when he was done he went home, went to the cinema, shyly courted a girl.

Best provided the blueprint for every player who has ever had the world at his feet and then pissed it all away.

Burn brilliantly examines their backgrounds, their motivation and their character. Bobby Charlton overshadows the book: sensible, dull Bobby, forever dealing with survivor guilt, battling to keep Big Dunc’s memory alive as Best created a new reality for footballers that Charlton could never understand.

Matt Busby is here to, more complex than the genial patrician of United legend, looking on them both as sons. And never understanding how he had lost them both.

Burn comes to grips with immortality: Edwards, still talked about in hushed tones, but remembered in the name of a boarded up pub that attracts nothing but junkies. And Best, remembered in full technicolour, but also as a gaunt, broke drunk who took every second chance and flung it away on booze and birds.

In their own ways Edwards and Best created the Manchester United we know today. They also created the idea of a modern footballer. One was left to go blameless into eternity. The other was left to kill himself.

Burn transports us back to Manchester in the late fifties when Edwards ruled the roost in a quiet understated way, full of optimism but level headed to the end. And then to the 1960’s when Best, always too complex to enjoy optimism, turned the professional dream that Edwards had into something squalid and dirty. Faced with the twin temptations of football and celebrity Best chose the latter. When he crossed that line the end was as inevitable as it was painful.

Burn handles all this expertly. We end up with a study of the nature of fame and celebrity. Munich denied Edwards the chance to live with celebrity. Charlton survived and chose the route he thought best honoured Edwards. Best chose the route that brought him adulation, the route that a hundred reality TV stars dream of. It was a life that Duncan Edwards could never have imagined and a life that George Best could never escape.

Welcome Annan

Congratulations to Annan Athletic on becoming the latest club to join the Scottish Football League.

By staying clear of the central belt the SFL have followed the pattern of recent years. By choosing Annan they've at least given the fans who didn't go to Gretna games the chance to not go very far to not watch Annan. You see, it all comes together.

The process did seem to throw up the possibility that the closed league structure may soon end. The pyramid system, much whispered about over the years, could finally become a reality to end the stagnation of our lower divisions. I'll believe that when I see it.

If it does happen how about a complete change of structure? The SFL, SFA and SPL. Scotland does not need three jealous, bickering, blazer filled organisational relics running the game. A streamlined body working for the good of the national team, all clubs and all fans.

Utopia beckons!

Hibs Endure Euro Misadventure

The sun didn't shine on Leith yesterday. In fact it rained on Rod Petrie's latest European parade. Another drookit Intertoto disaster.

Before the game Mixu didn't so much dampen down expectation as concede defeat. And so it came to pass. Now the players are back far too early and the club has a pointless trip to Sweden to contend with.

And, crucially, fans that weren't convinced by Mixu last season have a lot more ammunition to write the big Finn off. Mission accomplished? Given the manager's apparent discomfort about the whole escapade you find yourself asking just how much the board actually consults with the football staff. Was John Collins right?

For all the smug posturing at Easter Road about Mad Vlad, Mr Petrie and company continually prove that there is more than one way to mismanage a football club.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Search Is (Still) On

Goodbye Motherwell! Hello, eh, umm, Motherwell?

Silly season saga number one has ended as it began with Mark McGhee still manager of Motherwell, albeit with an enhanced salary, and Hearts still looking for the man to rebuild the Romanov dream.

Actually this saga hasn’t been confined to the silly season. McGhee came close to doing some kind of deal with Hearts in the winter at the same time as he was courting the Scotland job. The tragic death of Phil O’Donnell made leaving Motherwell impossible then.

Which leads us to where we are now. McGhee, one foot on a plane to Vilnius and a meeting with Vladimir, took a phone call from John Boyle and decided to stay.

Not anymore, he said, the younger McGhee jumping from club to club like a sailor on shore leave. Motherwell deserved some commitment and he was going to give them it. Although a cynic would say that, in the meantime, the threat of leaving has won him an improved contract. Which is true but it is still a long way short of what Hearts were offering so money was clearly not the only consideration.

An ultra cynic would say that McGhee has stayed to make it easier for him to accept the Celtic job when Strachan takes his leave later in the summer. But that, of course, is possibly no more than mindless tittle tattle.

But where are Hearts now? Managerless in the close season after being rudderless all season. Craig Levein is an option. Billy Davis too.

But, and much as the Romanov caucus at Tynecastle won’t countenance such argument, the same question still hangs over Gorgie. Does a manger need to sacrifice too much of himself to Romanov to consider taking the job?Craig Levein has become Eddie Thompson’s favoured son at Dundee United. He has been allowed to reshape the team and has a massive say in the off field direction the club is taking. A “sensational” “shocking” return to Tynecastle would seem unlikely.

Billy Davis is a stranger one. His career follows the path of an angry little man. There have been successes but there have been far more fall outs and walk outs. Maybe he feels he’s seen it all in football boardrooms now and will have no qualms about tackling the erratic Lithuanian. Or, more likely, he’ll hold out for a job in England.

So where do we go from here? Stevie Frail has auditioned for the job longer than most managers. But he’s failed to prove himself and would be unpopular with fans.

And the fans, as much as anyone, need the stability of an appointment sooner rather than later. They don’t have the stomach for a season like the one just passed. They would, I feel, prefer a familiar name to another Eastern European. For once the same old, dull names that crop in Scottish football would be a source of comfort.

And there is another, intriguing name. Jim Jefferies willingness to consider the Dunfermline job suggests that he has had enough of simply surviving at Kilmarnock. Could he, along with the prodigal son Steven Pressley, be persuaded to replicate the Smith – McCoist formula at Tynecastle?

Thursday, May 22, 2008


And that was that. The much hyped Judgement Day endeth. Against large, if not quite all, the odds the SPL helicopter has landed on the streets of Dundee. The streets of Aberdeen run with the tears of a hastily reworked treble dream that has crumbled into dust like that quadruple dream of only eight days ago.

The final battles were the story of the season. Celtic somehow know how to win. Rangers just lack the quality to take the final step.

Gordon Strachan becomes the first Celtic manager since Jock Stein to win three titles in a row. Will that be enough to secure him a place in the hearts of the faithful? This might still be the valedictory moment of a Celtic career that could have delivered little more.

Where now for Rangers? A Novoless cup final where Queen of the South will surely fancy getting fired into a team that looks dead on its feet. A team that is struggling not just because of fixtures but because the sheer strength of will that carried a mediocre team this far was always going to exhaust them.

Did Celtic deserve it? Does the league table ever lie? Difficult to know. We can say that all Celtic could do was storm down the final straight. Each Celtic victory seemed to have the effect of Kryptonite on Rangers' group of Clark Kents. Every faltering step that Rangers took the stronger Celtic's claim seemed to look.

And now that's it. A season that has been tragic, farcical, controversial and exciting. A season that has been short on quality but strong on incident. A season that will no doubt be falsely remembered as a classic because of the way the title was decided.

What can we do but look forward and wait for more of the same next season?

Enough is Enough

I blame Princess Diana. We have become a nation that mawkishly salivates at the prospect of public grieving.

That Tommy Burns was a great guy I have no doubt. That we need to view his funeral through the full glare of the media is more troublesome.

Maybe it's what he would have wanted. Maybe it's what the family wanted. Or maybe not.

But this outpouring of grief that we see every time a public figure dies is beginning to devalue the very notion of heroes or legends. Every funeral is bigger, more moving and more important than the last.

I was half expecting Sir Elton John to appear singing a reworked version of Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting in tribute to Tommy's crucial role in the peacekeeping process that followed the Battle of the Boyne.

Tonight of course all bets will be off. See how long lasting this orgasm of mourning is. Listen to the Celtic fans celebrate the life of a very Catholic man who saw friendship as the path to defeating bigotry. Then listen to the vitriol pouring from the stands celebrating a conflict that took place on another island, an island that is moving on.

Listen to the Rangers fans saying how decent Walter and Ally are. How they were proud of their management team at the funeral, how Tommy was a decent guy who loved his country. Then listen to the vitriol from their stands as they celebrate being up to their knees in fenian blood. In Tommy's blood.

Read the Daily Record preach the mantra of peace in our time. Read them dedicating this peace to one man as they genuflect at the altar of St Tommy. Then read them defending, even applauding, the Rangers fans who rampaged in Manchester. Read about the carnival atmosphere but don't ask them to mention that the carnival raved to the tunes of Billy Boys and terrorists.

And then ask yourself, as we fall over ourselves to honour Tommy Burns, how hollow these tributes are. And ask if this decent guy deserves the insult of a mock national grief that is instantly forgotten when a football match kicks off.

The Fun Finally Ends

How many times have fans wished that both sides of the Old Firm would lose? Well tonight they can. And that would be the fitting finale to an SPL that might have been exciting but has been low on quality.

Despite Rangers' Euro escapade. Despite Celtic's late fightback. Despite another final day reckoning there has been a dearth of quality about both teams this year.

So maybe if they were both to lose it would sum up the season for two teams that are pale imitations of their former selves.

Certainly Aberdeen and Dundee United will be up for it. Watching another team lift the trophy in your own backyard is a fairly shit experience. At least if you beat the team you can knock some of the immediate sheen off their jubilation.

Tonight will be a test for both Rangers and Celtic in different ways. If Rangers miss out then it will be a test of their resolve that this has been a successful season whatever happens. Are the two cup competitions enough? Will defeat mean the pressure is cranked up on Smith to radically rebuild in the summer? How much goodwill has Smith got to use up?

At Celtic will the board have the guts to stand by their man in the face of a support that has been resolutely unconvinced by Strachan? Will Strachan feel that his luck has been spent to its very limits this year and walk away?

Big questions for another day. But, for tonight, lets hope we get our excitement from who can lose by fewest rather than who can win by most.

What the Champions League final told us

1. History counts for something: Man Utd over egg the historic legacy/club of tradition/do it for Sir Matt stuff. But are Chelsea fans not embarrassed that the only dignitary they can find to lead the team up the steps at the end is Peter Kenyon? United had Sir Bobby Charlton, arguably the most famous English footballer of all time. No doubt Kenyon was relishing leading the winners. Hubris.

2. Edwin van der Sar's honesty: "Fucking hell" is the most refreshing post match quote for some time.

3. England's brave John Terry: Mr Chelsea volunteered to take the final penalty. The culmination of years of believing his own hype. He was the wrong man to take it. An old fashioned centre half (and arguably the worst centre half on the pitch) should be aware that he was the wrong man. He is blind to this because he feels Chelsea's destiny is now linked inexorably to John Terry's destiny. The sight of Terry on his arse, crying gladdened the heart.

4. Frank Lampard: It would now seem official that the media consider Francis to be the only man in Britain to have ever lost a loved one.

5. Take your chances: For all their dominance in the second half Chelsea's only goal was lucky. They couldn't get another. Likewise Manchester United came very, very close to regretting the chances they missed in the first half. Profligacy led to penalties.

6. Ronaldo: Can score against Chelsea and perform on the big nights. But is still prone to stupidity and took the worst penalty of all time. Until John Terry's.

7. Drogba: A moody wastrel. Justice that this big girls blouse should be sent off for handbags. If red wasn't deserved on the night it was deserved for the pathetic figure he has cut this season.

8. Ashley Cole: Is actually a decent player. He should remember that.

9. Rooney: The cross for Tevez and the pass to Ronaldo proved just how good he is. World class, if jettisoned by tactics.

10. Essien: Terry could take lessons in character from his team mate. Roasted by Ronaldo for 45 minutes in the second half he was a man transformed. Quality.

11. John Terry, Referee: Two players are having a minor tiff. Terry sprints across and starts shouting and shoving. This is not peacekeeping. Time and again he does it. Clive and David on ITV thought Vidic over reacted to Terry trying to calm things down. Terry was calming Vidic down by grabbing him round the neck. The man is an idiot and Chelsea should sell him. Ironic really that in a team of millionaire buys it is a homegrown player who has developed the biggest, and potentially most divisive, ego.

12. Avram Grant: A strange looking man who appeared to have some sort of disability at the end. Got them one further than Jose though. That should, but won't, be enough for Abramovich.

13. ITV: Their "Russian" video pre match was patronising and quite probably racist. Never failing in their search to find the lowest common denominator and then lower the bar even further.

14. Ballack: Unlikeable but quality when he chooses. Could have eased the pressure in the first half had he not wanted to spend most of the night copying Jonny Wilkinson. A great player though and looked like he cared at the end, unlike:

15. Anelka: Crap penalty, crap person. As his manager and teammates teetered on the verge of total emotional breakdown he stood and smiled at the end. Odious, stupid or both.

16. Paul Scholes: Ran the first half show. Legs gave way in second half and that helped Chelsea as much as it hindered United. Should have been replaced earlier.

17. Fergie: The greatest of the greatest. Looks stupid without his glasses though. And Nike should be aware that dressing a 66 year old in a white cagoule makes him look like a refugee from a bowls tournament.

18. Andy Townsend: "Chelsea could have done no more, genuinely, they could have done no more." Terry and Anelka could genuinely have scored.

19. Steve Ryder: Copious lacquering or wig. We deserve to know.

20. The game: Was a belter. Thankfully.

And finally:

21. David Taylor: The big UEFA job turns out to be as one of Platini's man servants. In the past eight days must have handed his boss about 1500 medals. Hope he's paid well.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tommy Burns

A shock to hear of the death of Tommy Burns today. I'm too young to really remember him as a player although I do recall a classy veteran in his later years at Celtic and at Kilmarnock.

As a manager he didn't excel at either Celtic or Reading. But he did provide entertainment with his style of play at Parkhead and signed some quality players.

And as a coach he was obviously talented at communicating with, and connecting with, players. An unwitting victim, along with the rest of Scotland, in the Berti balls up he went on to become an integral part of Scotland's revival.

He also appears to have been a decent guy with friends throughout the game. Sadly missed but fondly remembered.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A blue do

As I write Newsnight Scotland is about to begin, promising discussions about the violence in Manchester last night and the disastrous state of Scottish newspapers.

They could combine the two and mention Gerry Duffy, Nick Sharpe, Kenny Angoye, Brian Lewis and Robert McAulay. They were the "journalists" who combined their rich talents to write the main story in today's Scottish Sun.

The Greater Manchester Police were to blame for the violence. The soaraway Sun had witnesses to prove it. Willie Smith of Govan told how "they just started charging us." Matthew Skeoch felt "their behaviour was absolutely shocking. It was a disgrace."

Rangers fans UEFA Cup final violence ManchesterI'm told the Record's coverage was similar. The feeling continued into a press conference this morning. The police, the council and the big screen engineers were variously told to take the blame by members of the Scottish media.

And then came the bombshell. The police released TV footage that clearly showed this was more than a few fans pissed off that the TV wasn't working. This was a return to the days of hooliganism most recently displayed by English fans.

It was clearly a minority. But it was also clearly instigated by Rangers fans, or at least the sort of fan that wears a strip and wants to fight the police, and continued for a good few hours.

So where were the journalists? They clearly weren't on the scene. They weren't listening to Radio Five which had eyewitness accounts through the night that were saying something completely different to the quotes The Sun pulled in. This included a Scottish Manchester United fan who claimed his brother was left requiring 30 stitches because, in the absence of anyone else, United fans were the "fenian bastards" closest to hand.

Some journalist caught on. Graham Spiers wrote about it in today's Times. But The Sun, the Record and others missed it.

Maybe they didn't want to annoy Rangers fans. Perhaps, but the condemnation coming from the Rangers supporters officials would suggest that there is no stomach for the actions of the minority.

In today's Sun there is talk of "loutish attacks," "a knife thug" and a "brute." This could have described the stabbing of a Zenit fan. It didn't though. Rangers in Manchester was rather a tribute to the brilliance of each and every fan.

OK, so the journalists aren't very good and don't get paid much so they maybe didn't fancy actually going out in Manchester and finding the true story. But they did know about the trouble that followed the big screen breaking down.

So the paper that carries daily attacks on individuals who deserve "asbos" thinks it's OK to descend into mob rule if a TV breaks. Brilliant. Let's get a mob and bottle the editor of the Scottish Sun when his paper gets something so hideously wrong again.

Were they not prepared for trouble? The number of people. The amount of drink. I'm not saying the press should want trouble but surely it's part of their job to predict that something might kick off.

Or is Graham Spiers right? Are the Scottish press cowed by a football club that cares more about its image than about actually tackling the problems within their support? Are newspaper men taking the bait of the PR people in Rangers employ?

Last night a majority of Rangers fans enjoyed their team getting surprisingly close to a European trophy. But a minority embarrassed the club. Rangers have to admit that, however much Martin Bain tries to duck the issue, and the Scottish press have to hold them to account.

We have to isolate and stifle the hooligans as we have to stifle and isolate the bigots. If Rangers won't or can't do that then the press must. If last nights violence embarrassed Scotland then this morning's papers humiliated the Scottish press.

As an addendum and just to prove that these idiots are truly indiscriminate this You Tube video (28 seconds in) shows one Rangers fan attacking another. Who can say why? Another ludicrous image from a bad night.

Coming up short

And so the impregnable quadrilateral of Scottish and European football has eluded Rangers.

We shouldn't be surprised, Rangers got to the final despite their limitations. The defensive game (which - love it, loathe it - worked) was borne from the failings of the squad.

Finally the luck ran out.

Zenit were just better. Quicker, cleverer, more expensively assembled. The longer the game stayed at nil nil the more chance Rangers had. But the first goal, late as it was, killed them. Sure, there was penalty claim: yes, we've seen them given but, crucially, the ref had already turned down a similar one for Zenit. Novo had a chance which he should probably have left to McCulloch. And that was about it.

Rangers feat was getting this far. That surprised everyone including their manager. The final was a step too many. Now domestic battles lie ahead. Walter Smith and co will really earn their corn as they strain to lift this group of players for the games that remain.

It was an incredible run. It wasn't pretty. The excitement only flickered briefly. But they got there. Like Celtic in 2003 that was to be the true measure of their achievement.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How to Escape Archie

Archie Macpherson on the phoneA career that has been marked by periods of sustained buffoonery has surely reached its nadir with Rangers UEFA Cup run.

That Archie Macpherson is still around says something quite horrific about the quality of Scottish commentary. If Rangers had scored or conceded half the number of goals that, at first sight, Archie has thought have gone in then we would now be lauding the most exciting European campaign in history.

A fascinating insight into Archie's own little world came during the bore draw with Sporting at Ibrox. Clearly confused that a snooker legend was playing for Rangers Archie took it upon himself to rename Steven Davis. Thus it was an explosive run from Neil Davidson that did absolutely nothing to threaten the direness of the match.

Elsewhere Scotsport will give us the chance to see Andy Walker's continuing battle to master the autocue and, with luck, the strangulated vowels of Terry Butcher.

Funnily enough Terry's Wikipedia entry contains the following statement:

"For some bizarre reason, even though Butcher lived in Sydney for less than a year, he now speaks with an Australian accent."

Amusing though that is, Terry has always spoken like that. A peripatetic childhood to blame I think.

So if you can't stomach Scotsport where else can you go?

Drive to Berwick: Watch the main ITV network coverage of the game. But that will mean putting up with Matt Smith. And Andy Townsend. Andy Walker and Archie might be bad. But at least they're bad and Scottish.

Radio Scotland: The commentary will be better. But you'll have to put up with the increasingly cliquey cronyism of Richard Gordon and the mob. And Chick Young will be there.

Radio Five: Provides the best commentary throughout the season for the EPL and the Champion's League. Scottish coverage mostly kept to a minimum though and may struggle to cope with Rangers being centre stage. Manchester venue also gives opportunities to speak mainly about Sven, United and next week's "big" final.

Watch something else: BBC1 has The Apprentice (Boys). Might Sir Alan strike upon his trickiest challenge yet: make a programme for Scottish TV that is worth more than a bucket of warm spit. Channel 4 has Half Ton Dad (if any young Rangers fans are missing pops he might appear on this if you don't catch him cavorting half naked in the stadium).

Go out: not to a pub with a TV obviously. Unless it's a Celtic pub where you'll probably get a rerun of the Lisbon Lions.

Paper trawl

The press websites have been getting giddy with excitement as kick off in Rangers "biggest ever game" draws nearer.

Guardian Unlimited had been getting some stick for not covering the game in more detail this week (although when I saw the headline "Bland, Decrepit, Unrelenting" I felt sure it was going to be an article on Broadfoot, Weir and Cuellar) but hit back with a trio of articles.

Be careful what wish you for Rangers fans: Kevin McCarra's measured article defending Smith's defending team is countered by Jonathon Wilson looking back on the violence of Rangers' last European win in 1972 and Scott Murray's tongue-in-cheek piece about Rangers and the triumph of mediocrity (truly though - Kirk Broadfoot in a European final?).

Predictably the Ibrox hordes have been foaming at the mouth. The responses are along the usual lines: everyone hates us, Guardian journalists are left wing, IRA loving polemicists and Celtic fans are worse anyway.

Seriously, get a life. Some of these fans seem to just wait to feel offended so that they can start to moan. If you want to be a big club take the criticism. How such a monumentally large club can contain so many people with a persecution complex is beyond me.

Elsewhere The Scotsman looks at a once in a generation day of desting for the players. Some of the Celtic comments seem to verging on suggesting that the UEFA Cup is a diddy cup. Which it is, of course. But it was a diddy cup in 2003 as well and they seemed pretty keen to win it.

Perhaps wisely the downtrodden web staff at Scotsman Towers didn't open up comments for Mike Aitken's article about the violence of the Cup Winner's Cup Final in 1972. Wisely but rather depressingly. In 2008 football fans can't have a debate without it being hijacked by the vitriolic outpourings of Old Firm supporters.

Over at The Times Dick Advocaat comes in for some pretty stern criticism for refusing to tackle Zenit's racist supporters by what I believe is known as "doing a Souness." So if anyone knows a black Maurice Johnston please point him Napoleon's way.

Seriously though this does raise some intriguing points. And ridiculous as it was that Souness should stoke controversy by signing Johnston at least he did and, most of us, moved on. So although finding a moral highground for Rangers on this could be like tackling a trapeze wire on a quad bike we can at least say that Zenit have some catching up to do.

Elsewhere in The Times Graham Speirs adjusts his cordouroy and asks if UEFA Cup finals maketh Walter a great manager. Well no, probably not in the first line of greats, but a good Scottish manager nonetheless. And well done to the poster who argued for Martin O'Neill's inclusion in the Premier League of Scottish managers. Good going, my man.

And if you really want to suffer it The Sun has around 25 pages devoted to the match. I gave up before the Record.

You what?

Colin Calderwood delighted as Lee Miller extends Aberdeen stay

Headline from Times Online today. Why on earth would Colin Calderwood care?

Glad that our paper of record has such an on the ball sports desk.

Good news for Jimmy Calderwood though as he rebuilds for next season.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Movement Arra People

Sir Walt leads the loyal masses
Good to hear that a convoy of Rangers fans set off from Ibrox today en route for their destiny in Manchester.

Not too many to go now before they equal the 3456099 Celtic fans who swam to Seville for the final in 2003.

Farewell Gretna as Hearts Face More Questions

Kick idiots out of football
Part one of our staggered end to the season and Gretna sign off from the SPL, probably from football, with a victory against Hearts.

So the Gretna farce ends on a high note. The players have, if nothing else, shown some professional pride. But tonight's crowd of just over 1000 tells its own story. Gretna never belonged in the SPL. Fairytales are fine. But sport is about more than easy headlines and brief feelgood factors. The whole Gretna escapade has been embarrassing and another blackmark for Scottish football's men in suits.

What of the Tynecastle tragedy? Some things that are clear: Stevie Frail is not up to the job, too many players don't care, the fans deserve answers.

Where for art thou Romanov? Who can say. The pantomime with young Roman at the club AGM might have been entertaining but the fact is that a bottom six club with that level of debt is unsustainable. It's doubtful if Hearts can ever sustain the debt but it's a definite no go if they remain in the wrong half of the table.

Even Vladimir's most trenchant supporters must be beginning to wonder what's going on. Some Hearts fans insist on telling me that Craig Levein or Mark McGhee will be in charge for next season. Seriously? Why would these two intelligent, successful men choose to dance with the devil?

And why, if he was willing to pay for either of these men, would Romanov not have moved sooner to replace Frail as Hearts stuttered through the season? One wonders just how large Frail's mortgage is to persuade him to suffer this whole sorry saga.

Nice as it is to see the buffoon George Foulkes' weekly mea culpas there remains the possibility that, by hitching his skirt for a passing Lithuanian, George may not only have prostituted the soul of club but succeeded in only postponing the demise of Hearts. (How low a profile fellow culprit, Councillor Steve "Fester" Cardownie, keeps these days.)

Yet Vlad has the unpredictability of the madman. Perhaps this summer will see the appointment of a new coach, the arrival of some quality signings, concrete evidence of stadium development. Then we will eat our words and Hearts will rise again.

Because if that doesn't happen the Scottish game will be left with an even bigger hole than the one Gretna have just disappeared through.

Know Your Employees

"Judge him over five seasons."

So says David Gold, co-owner of Birmingham City and paymaster of Alex McLeish. In a strong message of support for his manager Gold paid tribute to the man who he thinks will get City back to the top flight. That said, Gold thought he would keep them in the top flight so he might not be a great judge.

Some fans are grumbling that Steve Bruce would have kept Birmingham in the league if he had not been replaced by McLeish, who now has a two for two success rate in keeping struggling teams in the drop zone after inheriting them.

All conjecture of course, but as McLeish faces up to salvaging his oh-so deserved reputation in the most competitve league in Britain, the distant rumblings that Gold can hear are probably not the sound of Aston Villa and West Brom fans chuckling.

Rather it is likely to be the sound of McLeish dusting down his prime managerial tactic and searching hastily for the exit door.

Sir Alex is more than United

When pundits hand out plaudits they can't help but buy into the great game of comparisons.

So Sir Alex Ferguson must be measured against Brian Clough, Bob Paisley, Matt Busby et al. They point to his singular European triumph as evidence that Paisley and Clough surpassed him, they point to his attitude as evidence that "gentleman" Sir Matt was somehow the bigger man.

But for the pundits down south football ends north of Newcastle (many of them would prefer it football stopped north of the trophyless citadel that is the Emirates and Wenger's Bash Street Kids) they rarely take into account what Ferguson did with Aberdeen.

Breaking the Old Firm stranglehold of the game, coming close in the European Cup and winning the Cup Winners Cup meant before he even travelled to Old Trafford Ferguson had already achieved greatness. With Aberdeen Ferguson had already "done a Clough" - although arguably Ferguson's successful run at the Dons was more sustained than Clough's at Forest - with a provincial side.

The achievements at Old Trafford - a bigger club than Clough ever succeeded at - surpass Busby. Which leaves only Bob Paisley and his three European Cups. For my money Ferguson's continued dominance domestically put him at the very least on a par with Paisley.

But when you take the achievements at Aberdeen and United together Ferguson's 10th Premiership is simply further proof that Sir Alex is the best of the best.

What Does It All Mean?

It is probably good that someone other than a Romanov has come out and questioned the standard - if not the integrity - of referees in Scotland.

One mistake is forgivable - two such serious errors suggest either incompetence or an official being influenced by external factors. If it is incompetence then McCurry and his linesman should pay the penalty and serve time outside the SPL. If they were influenced by the crowd - and you can imagine these results going the way of Celtic at Parkhead or either of the Old Firm at Hampden - then the SFA need to completely overhaul the way our officials are trained.

In actual fact I've seen so many errors by McCurry that I'm inclined to believe that this is just another measure of his gross incompetence. Gordon Smith is disingenious in accusing Craig Levein of questioning the integrity of McCurry: Smith has been around football long enough to know that if you're not good enough you get shipped out. What's the difference for referees?

Smith made much of being a football man when he got the job. By throwing this back around at Levein he shows that he's learnt the bureacrats art of politicking. Other than that he has done nothing to suggest he was the right man for the job. A refreshing change would have been for Smith to say "actually, Craig's got a point. If this standard of refereeing continues then the integrity of the game will be called into question. Let's do something about it now." Some chance.

It is noticeable that following the "corner" awarded to Celtic against Motherwell last week the internet message boards were full of Rangers fans crying foul. This week the reverse is true. Old Firm supporters view Scottish football through a prism of their own prejudice.

What they fail to realise, and what Sir David Murray fails to realise when he launches attacks on the SPL and the SFA, is that the Old Firm's bloated sense of their own importance has left the whole of the Scottish game inexorably weighted towards Glasgow's ugly sisters.

What they want the normally get. And, as was proved on Saturday, if one man's incompetence is highlighted in the full glare of title run-in then it is going to be easy to people to point to officials being scared by the size of Rangers or the size of Celtic.

So we need to raise the standard of refereeing in Scotland. We need to show we have referees who are good enough to do the job, wherever the game is. We need a chief executive at the SFA who will at least accept the premise of a legitimate debate. We need to applaud, not crucify, Levein for asking the questions.

We need a new dawn. Because a title showdown and a European run for the big two does not hide the fact that Scottish football is uninspiring right now. We expect Rangers and Celtic to win but we expect them to start each game on a level playing field. If the officials are not good enough, if they can't handle the pressure, then they must be removed.

But, of course, this is the real world. And nothing will happen. Levein, who has rebuilt United and sent a team out that was more than capable of achieving something against this Rangers side, will be harshly punished. Now ask yourselves what would happen if Rangers and Celtic found a referee that agreed with neither of them? My guess is he'd be out on his ear before Gordon Smith had time to bury his head in the sand.