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.

What Mike said...

“In the 55th minute of the match Rangers were in possession of the ball and attempted to clear it from their defensive area. As is normal practice, I started to run towards the half way line, anticipating the ball being cleared from defence. The clearance, however, was not successful and the ball struck Noel Hunt of Dundee United, who then played a very quick “one-two” allowing him to chase the ball into the penalty area closely followed by David Weir of Rangers.

“At this point, given the very quick change of the direction of play, I was caught out of position and my line of sight was partially obstructed by another player. “I saw Noel Hunt fall to the ground with David Weir in close proximity behind him. As my vantage point was extremely poor it was not possible for me to say what or, if any, infringement had occurred.

“Given this significant doubt in my mind it would have been improper for me to simply conclude that an infringement had occurred on the opposite side of the field of play from me. On this basis, I had no option but to allow play to continue amidst the appeal for a penalty kick.

“I have now had the benefit of seeing the incident again on television. I believe that were it not for the fact that I had been caught out of position by the quick transfer of play I would have awarded Dundee United a penalty and would have cautioned the Rangers player David Weir. In my opinion there was another defender in close proximity with the possible opportunity to make a defensive challenge on the attacker.

“In the 71st minute Dundee United were in possession of the ball and Danny Swanson shot towards the Rangers goal from approximately 30-35 yards. The ball appeared to me to be deflected off a Rangers player and entered the goal. “As I turned to award a goal to Dundee United it was brought to my attention that the stand side Assistant Referee had his flag raised signalling that an offside infringement had occurred. I also noticed that a Dundee United player required medical treatment.

“Having made sure that the player received the required treatment, I then went across to the Assistant Referee and confirmed that he was signalling for an offside infringement. He confirmed this was the case and informed me that a Dundee United player had been in an offside position and that he had played the ball prior to it entering the goal.

“I informed the Assistant Referee that it appeared to me that the ball was deflected off a Rangers player. The Assistant Referee told me that he had not seen it touch a Rangers player but had definitely seen it played by the Dundee United player, David Robertson. Given that David Robertson was behind the Rangers player, my view was such that I could not tell if the ball had been played by Mr Robertson last before entering the goal. Consequently, I decided to accept the advice of my Assistant Referee.

“Again, having had the opportunity to review the incident on television, it is clear to me that the ball is not played by the Dundee United player Robertson who was, however, technically in an offside position and was in close proximity to the ball.

“I can understand the difficulty faced by my assistant referee in this incident and why, David Robertson may have been considered offside.

“Again, with the benefit of seeing the incident again numerous times on television, I consider it would have been more appropriate to conclude that the player, David Robertson, was not involved in active play and would have allowed the goal to stand.”

Referee Mike McCurry argues his case in his spat with Dundee United boss Craig Levein.

What Craig said...

"We'd have been as well going at that point, really. Mike could have phoned me this morning and said 'Rangers are going to get three points today, just tell your lads to stay in the house.'

"It is impossible to win here in important games, impossible to win. The referee has bottled it. He bottled it because he knew that if he's given the penalty he would have to send Davie Weir off. In this game who gives a toss about Dundee United, eh? Who cares?

"What will happen now is I'll get my wrists slapped for having a go at the referee. But that guy knew it was a penalty kick but knew the game was so important to Rangers that he couldn't give it because he would have had to send Davie Weir off. His assistant probably had a better view of it but he's not going to put his head above the parapet.

"It's Rangers… it is Ibrox… you can't win. An important game going for a title decider? You can't have Dundee United winning that game.

"I'll be sitting in front of six or eight guys, in front of some disciplinary committee in a few weeks time getting a fine, that's what will happen now, I'll tell you something, after the CIS Cup final (in March] I did my absolute best not to have a go at the referee (Kenny Clark] for denying us a blatant penalty. Maybe some people have mistaken kindness for weakness on my part. There is no doubt if you add what happened today I have every right to be furious. Every right.

"Mike McCurry's not going to referee another one of our games this season. We played well, made chances, passed the ball. They did everything they could to try and win today, be entertaining, try and show that coming here they are not scared, not going to bottle it, and they did that. But what's the point?

"Noel Hunt got punched in the face at the goal, a deliberate punch by Kirk Broadfoot, and Cousin head-butts Lee Wilkie. It is not my players that need to worry about discipline, the referee should control the Rangers players.

"A season long is how you end up in third place or fourth place or fifth place, but these decisions add up. It might be that an extra £125,000 for a league place is added to my budget, in fact I know it would be. It might mean an extra place for me next season. It might mean, when I get an injury I could put a good player on rather than a kid. Do people not think about that? It is all about the pressure on Rangers, that's what it's all about?"

Craig Levein expands on his spat with referee Mike McCurry.