Saturday, May 10, 2008

A tale of two Ecks

In different ways a strange week for two Scottish coaches. Alex Miller sets off from Rafa's shoulder to Japan where he is charged with taking JEF United Chiba (no me either) off the foot of the J-League.

Miller managed Morton, St Mirren, Hibs and Aberdeen in Scotland before winding up in the Anfield boot room in 1999.

Something of a draw specialist his greatest achievements in Scotland were European qualification for St Mirren and then moulding the Love Street side that would win the Scottish Cup after his departure for Easter Road. In Edinburgh he stayed loyal during the club's flirt with bankruptcy and the Wallace Mercer takeover bid. He guided Hibs to the UEFA Cup and won the League Cup in 1991.

But most Hibs fans still remember his time as dour and uninspiring. A decent coach but not a man manager. Maybe that won't be a problem when he deals with players through interpreters. He's always had detractors, many of them at Pittodrie, and his PR skills are cruelly betrayed by a demeanour that made him look like Uriah Heep at a wake as he "celebrated" Liverpool winning the Champion's League.

Still Japan offers one last fling as his own man and a not to be sniffed at salary to top up the pension.

Elsewhere Alex McLeish takes Birmingham into the final weekend of the English Premier League with relegation still a threat. I think it's fair to say that Alex has more friends in the media than he has amongst the fans of the clubs he has managed. The pundits on Radio Five seemed taken aback tonight when a Rangers fan suggested that the faithful at Ibrox, Easter Road and Fir Park would not be surprised if Birmingham go down.

In a week dominated by talk of fixture congestion I cast my mind back to Chick Young's constant bleating about big Alex outperforming Martin O'Neill. Of course in those days Chick didn't like to use the excuse that one of McLeish's SPL triumphs came on the final day of the season, days after Celtic lost the UEFA Cup Final.

Still he won trophies with Rangers before he turned a bit crap. He started well at Motherwell and left as they were getting crap to go to Hibs where he couldn't stop them going down, won the First Division, had a decent season, then half a decent season then left when they got a bit crap. One thing you know he is not is a stayer.

Am I surprised Birmingham might go down? Nah, not really. I'm not really sure that McFadden was ever going to shine in a relegation battle and I'm not sure that once the speeches are over McLeish has the tactical ability to change things when the game starts slipping away.

Close though and they might just do it. Expect him to be lauded once more as a great guy and a fine manger. Maybe Alex Miller could borrow his PR man. One thing is for sure though, if the worst does happen I would far prefer Miller's Eastern exile than McLeish's challenge in the Championship.

Going going Gow

I notice that The Scotsman is reporting that Alan Gow is on Hearts' radar for next season.

Should make a pleasant change for him. He's not been on Walter Smith's radar all season.

Boom, and indeed, boom!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

By George, keep it shut. Or a Chick has kittens

"They are being punished for their success in reaching the Uefa Cup final. And it's something that the SPL and everyone in Scottish football has got to look at."

Not a Rangers insider talking but national manager George Burley. This is getting really dull and I'm not sure that Burley really needs to weigh in. He's apparently upset that he's had to pick Rangers players for his next Scotland squad despite the seven games they still have to play.

I'd like to ask George why his team are playing a friendly at this stage of the season? I'd like to ask why he needs to see the Rangers players after the 555 games they have played already this season?

And why only blame the SPL? If we need an extension then could George not have picked up the phone and persuaded his own paymaster to move the date of the Cup Final back by a week. Why not? If Rangers are being treated so badly the cup final could surely have been sacrificed.

Unsurprisingly George has one supporter though. Little Chick Young, invoking Jimmy Shand, Christopher Columbus and Morecambe and Wise in a blistering (in his own mind) few sentences, argues that this is the time to "put a bomb" under the administration of our game.

Now Chick is right that the SPL needs to be changed, although he does rather forget the role that Rangers played in creating it, but the season has to end some time.

And Chick forgets that allowances have already been made for Rangers, he forgets that if our league is not geared to success in Europe then the Old Firm are the victims of their own failures, he forgets that he was vocal in supporting the insurrection that got the Old Firm games cancelled before Scotland played Italy.

So there we have it. Walter Smith has accepted the fixture schedule as it now stands. But David Murray, the incredible reappearing owner, George Burley, the national manager trying desperately to make people care about a nothing game, and little Chick Young, the pantomime dame of Scottish football, stand united in raging against a decision that will not be reversed.

Please can we get on with the game.

League still on, UEFA Cup still on, games still dull

Barry Ferguson's solitary goal was enough to seal victory for Rangers as they embarked on the run of games that will end in glory or disaster.

Another game that wasn't hugely pleasing on the eye - except perhaps for the watching Dick Advocaat - needed the captain's well taken goal to keep the pressure on Celtic. The lead at the top of the table has now been cut to four points with Rangers still having two extra games to play.

So the Ibrox side are arguably back in the driving seat. Victory against Dundee United on Saturday will cut that gap to a point and pile the pressure on Celtic to perform against Hibs on Sunday.

The question is if the sluggishness that seems to have entered Rangers game can be shaken off against United or if another game, played with one eye on the bigger European prize, will mean another slip up.

The games may be dull but the results continue to provide tension.

The result also means it is pretty much as you were in the race for third. Craig Levein pretty much admitted that the UEFA Cup race, as previously mentioned here, is turning into a last man standing battle between three teams that are showing real signs of fatigue. The teams remain pretty much as they were at the time of the split. Which means the deciding fixtures may well prove to be the last day of the season when Hibs host Motherwell and United face Celtic.

Again the real excitement is proving to be in the results rather than any performances on the way. SPL thrills are an acquired taste.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


King Kev has spoken. The eternal optimist is worried that the FA Premier League is becoming boring. Indeed the messiah's second (third? fourth?) coming is not going to be like the last time around. Kev's playing for the best of the rest title. For everyone outside the 'Big Four' fifth is where it's at.

Blackburn Rovers were the last team to win the top flight outside of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea's Johnny Come Lately billionairres.

But the feeling goes that its not all that dull because the title, the UEFA Cup slot and relegation will all be decided on the last day. So a league within a league (or leagues within a league) is alright if they all provide some drama.

That is certainly the interpretation that suits the media. Sky have been able to bill every weekend for the last three months as the biggest since, well, since the last one. But what then is the point of being Wigan? Safe, sound and bereft of any real meaning except that not being relegated is an achievement. Is that enough?

And what does this say about the SPL? Not since Aberdeen in 1984-85 has the Old Firm hegemony been broken and only twice in that time (1994-95 and 2005-06) have they failed to make up the top two.

This year might be a special case because the fixture debacle has, perhaps, artificially prolonged the title race. The UEFA Cup race is still alive as Hibs, Motherwell and Dundee United scrap it out to see who can finish less badly. We now know that the failure of the grand Gretna experiment meant that relegation was a foregone conclusion before a ball was kicked.

So there is still something to play for but is it exciting? Rangers and Motherwell still have games in hand which is making it difficult to keep tabs on the runners and riders. But that's not really drama as much as a succession of unfortunate incidents wrapped up in a pitiful administrative system.

The main talking point of the weekend was the award of a corner kick that wasn't to Celtic. Sure, titles can turn on such incidents but when the referee becomes the story then the quality must be questioned.

At 1pm in Aberdeen on Saturday you wouldn't have known a game was on, even if you were driving past Pittodrie. The locals all said the same thing: for the Dons the season ended weeks ago. Last night Setanta were bigging up the battle for seventh(!) place as an important match. Clearly someone had forgotten to let the Hearts players see that bit of the script.

In essence, with relegation decided so early every team from Aberdeen down have been playing for nothing for a couple of months or more. No amount of real or imagined drama at the top can make up for the lack of quality or passion that so many nothing games delivers.

So if the English league is dull then it's hard not to see the Scottish game as duller. Should we be worried? What's the point in worrying? This is the way it is. We put up with it, we dust ourselves down and we get on with it. That's the SPL way.

Is it worth it?

Up on the roof.

Two intrepid souls find a new way to watch Hibs and Rangers in a not so very scintallating no score draw.

Apparently they left at half time to get a carry out. Which, if nothing else, probably made them the envy of the fans inside the ground.

Seriously guys, there must be 100 pubs within a mile of the roof that were showing the game on TV.

I hear Rod Petrie is trying to track them down to get them to pay for a match ticket.

Get the games played

David Weir denied the season had aged him
Scottish football is determined to scupper Rangers' European ambitions. That's the message pouring out of Ibrox after the refusal to extend the existing extension to the season. According to David Murray (funny how success can drive Mr Murray out of his hiding place) we will be the laughing stock of world football after the Russian FA happily cancelled four Zenit games to allow them to prepare for the UEFA Cup final.

The SPL have, however, stuck to their guns and the games have to be played. The SFA have also insisted that the Scottish Cup Final will go ahead on Saturday 24th May as planned.

These are the right decisions. The postponement caused by Phil O'Donnell's death were unforeseen. The postponements caused by the weather were unfortunate, although they were compounded by the poor decision to let Gretna groundshare.

The cancellation of Rangers game against Gretna to allow them to prepare for a European fixture was misguided. But the subsequent refusal to cancel Aberdeen's league game before they played Copenhagen means that the SPL would have difficulty justifying more cancellations.

Motherwell, Hibs and Dundee United are all still very much involved in the race for third spot and European qualification: they cannot be expected to further disrupt training schedules to help Rangers cause.

Celtic are, against all the odds, still in the title race. It would be difficult to ask them to agree an extension that will strengthen Rangers' hand.

And Queen of the South will already have been kicking their heels for a month so moving the Scottish Cup, still in name the blue riband event of the season, was always a no go.

The Russian authorities, only a few weeks into the league, did not have these factors to consider because time is on their side. An extension would have further damaged the SPL's credibility. This season's fixture congestion has been laughable enough without turning the last few weeks into a pantomime.

The fact that Rangers still have to play St Mirren makes a mockery of the already creaky premise of the SPL split.

And there are a few other points to consider: Rangers should have been able to beat Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup in one game, there has already been an extension that would appear to inconvenience everyone except Rangers and, finally, the crux of the matter is that a team with Ranger's European ambitions and resources should have a squad to cope with the pile up.

Are we really to believe that this group of players will be unable to find the energy that will sustain them through the biggest night of their careers? That their failure to wrap up the title is solely due to the fixture list? Or that they will somehow be forced to struggle against a team that were part time only one year ago?

The bleating from Ibrox needs to stop before it sounds like excuses are being prepared early. They should be above the moans as they reflect on a season that has confounded expectations. And they should realise that the SPL is not around to suit the whims of a big club.

United they stand

Celtic fans are not falling over themselves to congratulate their Old Firm rivals on their sterling efforts to improve Scotland's co-efficient. At least not if Che Timavara over at ETims online is to believed.

His thesis on Rangers season reads like an insight into one man's clinical depression. At one point I feared this was turning into a suicide note but Che pulls back from the brink and promises to emigrate instead.

Is it just me or are some of his points about Rangers standing for more than just football somewhat negated when the same website has this stirring article invoking both the power of the Virgin Mary and the memory of the old Pope to assist Celtic's title bid?

How forward looking this little country is. A plague on both their houses, I fear.