Thursday, December 31, 2009

Scottish Football Decade: The National Debacle

Earlier this year I wrote a slightly critical blog about the Tartan Army. I stand by that but it doesn't alter my desire to see Scotland do well. And that means any review of the international decade must be tinged with sadness.

For the first time since the seventies we've failed to take our place at an international tournament. Along the way we've suffered some humilating results, we've been battered in the world rankings and we've gone through a handful of managers.

We began the decade as spectators at Euro 2000 and we ended it with the thoroughly miserable qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup.

Our first qualifying campaign of the noughties was led by Craig Brown. Finishing third in the group behind Croatia and Belgium. At the time many of us felt Brown might have gone on too long. If we'd known what was to follow we'd have been begging him to stay.

That most provincial and inward looking of organisations, the SFA, seemed to be trying to usher in a new era when they appointed Berti Vogts to the job in 2002. It was a marriage made in the inferno's of hell.

In fact Vogts took us to a play off which started brightly before the Dutch hammered us in the away leg. That 6-0 humiliation was one of a series of big losses to France, Wales, Hungary and South Korea. When it came to losing, Scotland under Vogts were happy to get spanked by any country with 11 fit players.

Vogts had to go and duly did in 2004. He blamed the media. Most of us blamed his scattergun approach to selection, apparent lack of tactical nous and complex personality.

Walter Smith inherited the Vogts mess and steadied the ship. He couldn't get us to the 2006 World Cup but he was able to steer us back up the world rankings and take us to the top of our Euro 2008 group with a famous victory over France.

And then Smith went back to Rangers and a nation groaned. Traitor or pragmatist? He returned to his spiritual home and some still find that hard to forgive. Whatever your opinion it was a lesson in the ongoing devaluation of international football and the increasing primacy of the club game.

Alex McLeish, battered by his own experience at Ibrox, took over and continued where Smith had left off completing the double over France along the way. In a group that included France and Italy there could be no room for error. Sadly an away defeat to Georgia was the one failure we couldn't afford. McLeish, reputation restored, left for Birmingham and the revolving door at Hampden spun once more.

George Burley was next up. His appointment was initially welcomed and his brief spell at Hearts had given his profile in Scotland a positive boost.

From the start it seemed like our hope were misplaced. Burley was let down by his players and scheduling. But his inability to bring cohesive tactics to the squad, odd selections, brittle media persona and apperent problems with man management counted against him. In truth sections of the media had it in for him from the start. That's unpleasant but not insurmountable if results are good. They were not.

The 2010 World Cup failure ended Burley's career although he was crazily allowed to stay on for an ill fated trip to Japan and a total catastrophe against Wales.

So now we turn to Craig Levein. A new manager for a new decade. Hopes for optimism? Perhaps, but it won't be easy.

Let's just hope in 2019 we've got some happy memories of the decade that went before.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day fixtures

Scottish football at ChristmasThrough the fog of turkey, wine and discarded wrapping paper the Scottish Football Blog brings you our SPL predictions for the Boxing Day fixture card.

Celtic v Hamilton

The Celtic revival took an almighty bump at Tynecastle last Sunday. Once again they were the authors of their own downfall. If they can take their chances they should get back on track with a home win today.

Dundee United v Kilmarnock

We can't beat about the bush. Losing Craig Levein is a massive blow for United. How much it will impact on their season remains to be seen. Kilmarnock have their own troubles down at the wrong end of the table. Draw.

Falkirk v Hearts

Which Hearts team will turn up? The one that draws with teams like Falkirk.

Motherwell v St Johnstone

Motherwell need to do some ship steadying following a bad run and the tanking of the season last week. I fancy St Johnstone to nick this one though. Away win.

St Mirren v Aberdeen

Neither team are in a rich vein of form and that mean's we won't see a classic here. Low scoring draw.

Hibs v Rangers (Sunday)

The game of the weekend. Time for Hibs to show if they're really up for the challenge. Both sides are on form so it would be nice to think this game can be a cracker. Could be close but I've got a feeling Hibs might just do it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas cheers

As football reaches saturation point there are few days when a game is not within easy reach of the armchair fan. For those of who might, after reasoned argument, still consider ourselves to be young Christmas Day is football free zone.

But that’s not always been the case. League fixtures in Scotland were common on Christmas Day until relatively recently. I don’t know if this phenomenon had its roots in the tradition of celebrating New Year with rather more vigour than Christmas. It wasn’t until the mid fifties that Christmas Day became a national holiday in Scotland.

I’m sure there must be a link between that and the tradition of fulfilling fixtures on Christmas Day long after England had given up on the idea.

Anyway this mildly diverting bit of trivia was brought to my attention by The Guardian’s Knowledge page and it is from their site that I’ve gleaned the following:
As David Ross's website scottishleague points out, in Scotland, the last scheduled round of league fixtures was for Saturday December 25, 1976. However, a combination of reluctance to play and poor weather reduced the card. No Scottish top division matches were played, and these were shifted to Friday 24, Sunday 26 and Monday 27.

Of the two games that were played on Christmas Day itself, Clydebank and St Mirren drew 2-2 in a top-of-the-table first division clash and Alloa beat Cowdenbeath 2-1 at home in the second division. In addition, Dundee's official history lists them as winning 1-0 away to Montrose on Christmas Day - but another source suggests that this match was in fact played on Monday 27th.

The last time a full set of Christmas Day fixtures was played in Scotland was in 1971. Celtic beat Hearts 3-2 at home, Dundee United beat Dunfermline by the same score at Tannadice, and Kilmarnock overcame Morton 4-2 at Rugby Park. Other results that day were: Airdrie 1-1 Clyde, East Fife 1-1 Motherwell, Falkirk 0-3 Aberdeen, Hibs 0-1 Rangers, Partick 0-1 Ayr, and St Johnstone 0-0 Dundee.

Meanwhile, the last games played on Christmas Day in England were in 1959, when Blackburn beat Blackpool 1-0 at home in the old first division and Coventry beat Wrexham 5-3 in the third.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: SPL Champions

It would be nice to be writing a different article. One where I could wax lyrical about the SPL being one of the most open and competitive leagues in Europe. But I can’t. I can’t because Celtic and Rangers dominated the league in the past decade to a far greater extent than they have ever done in the past.

The truth is the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, as it is currently called, is a league within a league. The rest are playing for third. It’s depressing and it makes all our teams weak. Unfortunately it's not about to change.

The SPL in its current guise was only a year old as the old century turned into the new millennium. In 1999/2000 Rangers overcame the non-challenge that John Barnes presided over at Celtic Park to win the title. It was a harbinger of the seasons of doom to come that Celtic, despite Barnes’ Colonel Blimp impression, finished second.

John Barnes comedy failure did, in it’s own way, transform the landscape of the Scottish game. Surveying the wreckage of the Barnes experiment Celtic were forced to find a saviour. They duly appointed Martin O’Neill.

Just three months after O’Neill arrived in Glasgow Rangers spent £12 million on Tore Andre Flo. The pendulum of power had swung to Parkhead.

O’Neill won the title in 2000/2001 and successfully defended it a year later. By this time his foe in the Rangers dugout had transformed from Dick Advocaat into Alex Mcleish, poached from Hibs in December 2001.

And it was McLeish who was to earn the bragging rights in 2002/2003 when Celtic lost out on the final day – just days after their defeat in the UEFA Cup Final. O’Neill got the upperhand again the following year before McLeish nipped in again in 2004/2005 to deny O’Neill a final championship as he departed to move out of football temporarily to care for his wife.

That was to prove McLeish’s last title. Debates have raged over who was the better manager. In the end both won seven trophies, although O’Neill won one more league title and one more Scottish Cup. O’Neill reached a UEFA Cup Final, McLeish took Rangers into the last 16 of the Champion’s League. These comparisons are essentially pointless but, if I were asked to make the argument for either one, I’d have to go for Martin O’Neill.

In the end McLeish’s departure was messy and he took Rangers to third place in the league. That was their worst position in almost twenty years and, given the dominance the two clubs now enjoy, it's unthinkable for a manager not to guide them to first or second. It shouldn’t mask the good work that McLeish did but it remains a bad, bad addition to his CV.

With O’Neill gone it was the turn of Gordon Strachan to take the Celtic hotseat. It was the start of a relationship that had all the traits of a classic love-hate affair. Without the love. Whatever his battles with the Celtic fans, however hard he found dealing with the Scottish press and however embittered he eventually became Strachan delivered on his remit.

It was Strachan who became the only manager to win three straight SPL championships, the first Celtic manager to do so since Jock Stein. But for a late collapse in 2008/2009 he would have made it four before taking his leave.

Strachan also provided a stability that seemed lacking at Rangers. Alex McLeish was replaced by Paul Le Guen and Rangers had suddenly found their own John Barnes.

The story of Le Guen’s time at Rangers covers nobody in much glory. The players that undermined him, the board powerless to stop it happening and a manager who had failed to grasp the culture of the club. A shoddy mess.

In their desperation Rangers sent for Uncle Walter. The former manager had survived a bruising stay at Everton before rejuvenating his career by reviving the fortunes of the Scottish national team. Rangers had found their man and the Tartan Army were left to cry into their lager.

Walter Smith brought stability back to Rangers. And then he brought the league title back to them. For that he’s been awarded with the loss of his contract, conclusive proof that Rangers mismanagement of their affairs extended beyond Paul Le Guen.

Any survey of a decade of champions must make mention of Rangers winning their 50th league title: even Scotland’s uneven playing field can’t detract too much from that remarkable achievement. They’ve now got 52, Celtic have 42. And all the rest have 19 between them. It’s a gap that is only going to get bigger and bigger.

And what of Alex McLeish’s third place fiasco? It was Hearts who broke the stranglehold. Early in the season they looked like they might even win the whole shebang before Vladimir Romanov threw the first of a great many wobblies.

Some have begun to think that no team will ever repeat Hearts feat of splitting the big two. They might well be right. But as the decade ends and Rangers travel to Edinburgh to face third placed Hibs there might just be a glimmer of hope. A win for Hibs would throw them right into the title race. How heartening it would be if one of the last acts of this decade was to open up the possibility of a different name in the top two as the next decade begins.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Warning: Omerta Code broken.

It had to happen eventually. And it fell to Merouane Zemmama to do the talking. Following Hibs win against Aberdeen on Saturday, the jinky Moroccan trickster, faced the question that every one in green has been avoiding. Hibs, he claimed, are setting out to win the title:
All of our players are motivated and I think we will win this game. The gap between us and the Old Firm is closer than it has been. Normally Rangers and Celtic are maybe ten or 15 points ahead but now we are only five back. When you are trying to win the title you have to win every game and that's what we will try to do.

Rangers had a very good result against Motherwell and their confidence is sure to be pretty high, but our confidence is also very good at the moment. We need to keep going now to catch the Old Firm. We need to win our next game against Rangers and then keep on winning. We are looking to go as far as we can, so why not go for the title?
This confidence might come back to haunt him when Rangers come calling on Sunday. It’s also the last thing John Hughes will want to hear. And it has been greeted with disbelief in certain quarters. Andrew Smith turned his report into a lecture about how misguided Zemmama is.

The shock of it. The cheek of the man. A player in a football league actually wanting his team to win something.

There was far less outcry when Kevin Thompson, a man who is to diplomacy what Jeremy Clarkson is to global warming, suggested that the Old Firm would be 25 points clear by the end of the season. Only the Old Firm can win trophies, only Old Firm players can shoot off at the mouth.

All of this is press talk of course. It has no bearing on anything.

But the most remarkable thing I encountered over the weekend was the way a lot of Hibs fans reacted to Hearts beating Celtic. Almost to a man they were long faced about it. They’d rather see Hearts fighting relegation (an unlikely eventuality that would weaken Hibs financially) than keep themselves within touching distance of the top two.

They all think they’re fighting for third place. Nothing more.

As the season pans out there is every likelihood that things will turn out like that. But right now Hibs are point behind Celtic and five behind Rangers. If they can beat Rangers on Sunday there is a chance they could be in second place by the end of the festive fixture list. Why are the fans not savouring that prospect?

Of course Hibs might, probably will, drop away but surely everyone involved with the club should be hoping to stay in the mix for as long as possible. Is it not better to be looking a top of the table clashes in January or February than accepting third or fourth place in December?

So good luck to Zemmama. If the press don’t believe him and the fans don’t believe then maybe his confidence will be infectious enough to get through to his teammates. If that happens then, heaven forfend, we might suddenly find ourselves with a league that at least makes a slight nod in the direction of competiveness.

Will he, won't he?

When George Burley was finally relieved of his duties as Scotland boss I put together a list of the men I considered to be the runners and riders. I had this to say about Craig Levein:
Few would argue with this and we could expect to see Scotland adopting a revolutionary new approach based around organisation and cohesive tactics. But Levein is only 45 and master of all he surveys at Dundee United where the bare trophy cabinet points to what he considers to be unfinished business. Will the call of his nation appeal? I'd predict he'll quietly rule himself out in the weeks ahead.
In the intervening weeks Levein has surprised me by refusing to rule himself out. Indeed some might say he has actively courted the SFA. And now, apparently, the SFA are set to offer him the job.

He has made it clear that he wants an expanded remit. I would have thought that would scare the SFA but by going public with their approach they must have a certain confidence in the package they’ve put together. If there is any lingering animosity between him and head honcho Gordon Smith then Smith should be applauded for casting that aside and pursuing the man he believes to be the best candidate.

But Levein’s battles with the SFA have always been bigger than personalities. At times he seems to view with little more than contempt an archaic organisation that he clearly believes to be out of touch and clueless. So why sign up with them?

Maybe he thinks he can change them from the inside. If he can then all of Scottish football would applaud. But, you know, I’m sure Mrs Tiger Woods was comfortable that she’d be the one to change her man. Life doesn’t always work like that.

So there is an element of surprise in Levein taking things this far. But is he the outstanding candidate?

I was going to say no, if only because an attack on him would let me talk about his comedy whack on Hearts teammate Graham Hogg in a friendly against Raith Rovers. Overall, however, I would be happy with a Levein appointment. And if you can get a 12 match ban for attacking your own player in a friendly then you’ve clearly got a passion for football.

You would think from some of the press he’s received in the past few months that Levein was practicing alchemy at Tannadice. He’s not. He’s created a team that performs better than average in a weak league. It ain’t rocket science.

But he’s organised, can explain a game plan and have confidence that it will be carried out by players who respect him. They’re all traits that have been sadly lacking in the Burley era.

We don’t know what the recruitment process has entailed. Some might see this as slightly too quick, not leaving time for an assessment of all the contenders. On the other hand maybe Smith and his fellow Chuckle Brother, George Peat, are finally showing the decisiveness we’ve been crying out for.

So this has the potential to be a happy week for the national team. Except he’s still got to take the job and I don’t think that’s a forgone conclusion.

Scottish Football Decade: The Scottish Cup

There is comforting stability about the Scottish Cup, the world’s oldest national trophy. It’s always been there, it always will be there.

There’s still something special about the trip to Hampden on a sunny May day, about smaller clubs going all out for an upset in the earlier rounds, about the joy of it all.

Unfortunately, this being Scotland, we must temper that giddy idyll by pointing out that in the first decade of the 21st century Rangers and Celtic continued their dominance of the trophy.

And after we bade farewell to Tennent’s the SFA struggled to find a sponsor. If nothing else this confirmed the suspicion that the allure of cup competitions has dwindled in recent seasons.

Then we were landed with two of football’s strangers sponsoring arrangements. In 2008/2009 we had the Homecoming Scottish Cup to celebrate the Scottish Government’s year long (was it really only a year?) celebration of tartan frippery.

As the decade peters out we have the oxymoronic Active Nation Scottish Cup.

Naming rights aside the decade started off as it would continue with Rangers thumping Aberdeen 4-0. The bald fact of the scoreline masks the drama of the game. Aberdeen lost veteran goalie early on with a fractured jaw after what might reasonably be called a horrific, accidental, clash with Rod Wallace’s boot. With no ‘keeper on the bench Dons manager Ebbe Skovdahl was left with no option but to play most of the match with Robbie Winters in goal.

The following year it was the turn of Celtic to take home the trophy. A comprehensive 3-0 win over the cup’s perennial underachievers Hibs was achieved with a minimum of fuss. Hibs finished third in the league that year but in truth had run out of steam at the turn of the year. The loss of Russell Latapy to general partying in the lead up to the final overshadowed their preparations and their long wait was destined to last at least another decade.

Given the nine wins they amassed between them it’s been a quirk of the noughties that the Old Firm have only once met in the final. In 2001/2002 Rangers edged a cracker of a game by what Dougie Donnelly might call “the odd goal in five.” Barry Ferguson was the star man, a glimpse of the potential that he has never really fulfilled.

And so it went on. Rangers beating Dundee one year, Celtic marching past Dunfermline the next and Dundee United after that. A certain dull inevitability and a sobering blow for us non Old Firmites after the heady days of the 1990’s when Motherwell, Aberdeen, United, Hearts and Kilmarnock all took home the the honours.

It was Hearts who struck the solitary blow against the depressing duopoly with a tense penalty win over the minnows Gretna (a semi-final hammering of Hibs made things sweeter still for the Tynecastle faithful.) This was the season that the Romanov revolution blew like a strange wind through Scottish football. Sadly it was also the season we became aware of Romanov’s idiosyncratic tinkering. A season of success at Tynecastle but also a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Stat fans might also like to know that this was the largest final crowd of the decade.

It was back to normal business the next season as Celtic once again put Dunfermline to the sword although the Fifers take credit for being the only team outside the big two for making two of the decades finals.

In 2007/2008 Rangers got the fright of their lives before beating Queen of the South, after Gretna, the second of the decade’s finalists to be drawn from outside the top flight. And Rangers duly won their fifth cup of the decade in 2008/2009 when they beat Falkrik 1-0.

That win was Rangers 33rd moving them just one behind Celtic in the all time standings. Depressingly Queens Park lie third on that list. Their last win came in 1893. Hearts win over Gretna moved them joint fourth with Aberdeen on seven wins.

So there we have it. The tournament itself has perhaps lost some its lustre but it retains a special place in the nation’s sporting life. Yes, we had to endure a depressing Glasgow dominance but nine other teams made it to the final.

Eight of them did not get the denouement of their dreams but you can bet they all got on to their supporters buses full of enthusiasm and optimism. The cup can still inspire and will remain to do so. We need look no further ahead than January for that when Irvine Meadow’s improbable journey takes them to Easter Road. There is no better way for the Scottish Cup to usher in another decade.

And we'll always have Clyde's 2006 win over Celtic to chuckle about. And Inverness' in 2000. And again in 2003.

1999–00 Rangers 4 – 0 Aberdeen
2000-01 Celtic 3 – 0 Hibernian
2001–02 Rangers 3 – 2 Celtic
2002–03 Rangers 1 – 0 Dundee
2003–04 Celtic 3 – 1 Dunfermline Athletic
2004–05 Celtic 1 – 0 Dundee United
2005–06 Heart of Midlothian 1 – 1 Gretna
2006-07 Celtic 1 – 0 Dunfermline Athletic
2007–08 Rangers 3 – 2 Queen of the South
2008–09 Rangers 1 – 0 Falkirk

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seeing the future quicksmart

Sometimes I get predictions right. Like this week I predicted I'd not have much time to write my predictions. And I got that right.

But, of course, a shed load happens that I don't have time to write about.

Rangers swat aside Dundee United. Celtic concede three in 19 minutes and then come back to draw. Good night Vienna?

Gordon Smith dons his John Forsyth style blue rinse and, like Blake Carrington wooing Alexis Colby, he goes after his nemesis armed only with a bunch of roses and a bedside charm.

Will it work on Craig Levein? Time will tell.

In the meantime I present my predictions in one sentence per game only:

Aberdeen v Hibernian
Should be an away win all the way, and will be.

Hamilton v Dundee United
Hamilton have confidence, Dundee United think their manager is off, a draw.

Kilmarnock v Falkirk

Rangers v Motherwell
Rangers will probably walk it but I'm showing faith in Motherwell to get a draw.

St Johnstone v St Mirren
A hunch and nothing else - draw.

Hearts v Celtic
Away win.

34/84. Dearie me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: League Cup

Scottish League Cup final 2001The Mickey Mouse Cup. The Diddy Cup.

Funnily enough it's always the fans of teams who have just been knocked out that are quick to dismiss the League Cup with any number of witty nicknames.

Sour grapes, perhaps, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Cooperative Insurance Cup is the poor relation in Scotland’s triumvirate of top trophies. Not even always the bridesmaid, more always the wedding guest that we only invited at the last minute because a lot of people couldn’t make it.

Given such a downtrodden place in our footballing psyche you might half expect the League Cup to be the spiritual home of the lesser lights of the Scottish game. By which I mean every team that is not called Rangers or Celtic.

Alas, in the “noughties,” this was not to be. Like Japanese Knotweed the Old Firm combined to smother the life out of everyone and everything else, determined to snatch even the lesser of Hampden’s two days in the sun each year.

Of the ten finals played since 2000 only two have not featured one side of the Glasgow divide. Given their individual success it is perhaps a blessing that we’ve only seen two Old Firm finals: Rangers winning 2-1 back in 2002/2003 and Celtic taking the 2008/2009 game 2-0 in extra time.

We should also be thankful that the stranglehold was at least broken twice. And both winners had a tale to tell.

Hibs were clear favourites in the 2003/2004 with Bobby Williamson’s young side overcoming the inhibitions their manager placed on them to beat Celtic and Ranger en route to what most expected to be a walkover against plucky little Livingston.

So it was that a stunned Hibs support sat in silence as manager Davie Hay and Stuart Lovell, Livingston captain and a much maligned former Hibee, marshalled the West Lothian side to a 2-0 win.

Having lost a semi final to Ayr United in 2001/2002 Hibs again proved that there are few like them in Scotland when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That made Ayr the only side from outside the top flight to make the League Cup final so far this century.

As a personal footnote to that final I witnessed Williamson in conversation with a revered former Hibs player in the days before the game.

Within earshot of his young charges Williamson said: “I cannae agree. The last thing they’ll be doing at Hampden is enjoying it.”

We'll never know how damaging to the nerves of the team Williamson’s attitude was but it hardened my opinion that, whatever people say, there are sections of the “Largs mafia” who have been a cancerous growth on our game. Uganda is not far enough away for Bobby Williamson.

As for Livingston, a first national trophy seemed evidence that their 3rd place SPL finish the previous season was no fluke. Sadly they flew too close to the sun and have suffered myriad disasters both on and off the field since then. That day, however, brought memories that will sustain those trying their hardest to restore their club to the top flight.

Hibs fans eventually got their own day of joy when John Collins guided them to a 5-1 win over Kilmarnock in 2006/2007. A late spring snow shower did little to halt Hibs as they ran riot in the second half and the massed choirs of Leith cleared their throats in memorable style. Some would be forgiven for thinking that the future was once again bright. First John Collins and then Mixu Paataleinen would soon given them reason to reconsider their optimism.

Livingston and Hibs made but brief cameos in a League Cup decade that was again dominated by the Old Firm. As well as beating each other, between them they chalked up victories over Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, Ayr United, Motherwell and Dundee United.

Before Dundee United took Rangers to penalties in 2007/2008 only Motherwell had managed a goal against the Old Firm in a League Cup final in the 2000s. And that was in a 5-1 defeat against Rangers.

The result has been a series of anti-climatic finals that have served little more purpose than to be extended celebrations for one half of Glasgow. The sponsors, of course, dream of the final being between the Glasgow giants. Well, last year their dream came true and it was probably as woeful a match as the previous nine combined.

The League Cup still soldiers along and those clubs that make it to Hampden will always enjoy it.

It is possible, however, that the next decade will see further moves towards some form of European league or even tentative moves towards some form of British knockout trophy. If that happens then the League Cup is likely to fall off the schedule.

Would there be mourners? Probably, but even they would be hard pushed to deny that the last decade has hardly been a persuasive argument for the unique selling points of our least cherished trophy.

1999–00 Celtic 2 – 0 Aberdeen
2000–01 Celtic 3 – 0 Kilmarnock
2001–02 Rangers 4 – 0 Ayr United
2002–03 Rangers 2 – 1 Celtic
2003–04 Livingston 2 – 0 Hibernian
2004-05 Rangers 5 – 1 Motherwell
2005–06 Celtic 3 – 0 Dunfermline Athletic 2006–07 Hibernian 5 – 1 Kilmarnock
2007–08 Rangers 2 – 2 Dundee United
2008–09 Celtic 2 – 0 Rangers

Just the ticket

The world of Scottish football is endlessly fascinating. Where else in our national life would a bout of handbags between the heir to a grocery empire and a former male model provide headlines like "It's War?"

But tonight's clash between Dundee United and Rangers has provoked such a skirmish. It's hardly been an Ali-Foreman type bout but both Stephen Thompson and Martin Bain have been almost fierce in their prolonged game of "he said, she said."

For the record, and without delving too deep into the incident, I believe that most people would expect free entry to a game if they had already paid to watch an abandoned game. United's decision to charge half price for tonight is probably technically correct. After all it's one and a half game's for the price of one and half games.

But I'm guessing that this is not the kind of bargain that built a convenience store empire in Dundee.

In a brave attempt to distract attention from United's money grabbing, Thompson claimed Bain misrepresented the ticketing arrangements in a brave attempt to distract Rangers' shareholders from the Ibrox financial catastrophe.

Which would have been like Gordon Brown distracting attention from the banking bail-out by accusing David Cameron of leaving the toilet seat up after going for a piss.

An easily avoidable contretemps. Gentlemen, grow up.

Anyhow, to the business of the fitba.

Before we were so rudely interrupted I had this to say about the original fixture:
Enough has been written about Rangers this week. Suffice to say they can get reasonable domestic results in the bleakest of circumstances. But I'm going to back a home win here. United will be keen to make amends for their cup loss on Tuesday and I can seem them doing a number on Rangers.
So I predicted a home win. Normally when I do that the away team walks it.

Has anything changed in the meantime? Well, both clubs have continued to impress domestically with much talk in excitable quarters of United maintaining a title challenge.

They slipped up in that aim with a draw at Tynecastle on Saturday while Rangers continued with their almost freakish ability to follow European woe with domestic wins against St Johnstone.

United will take heart from the not inconsiderable scalp of Celtic that provided much hope for a Fortress Tannadice type creation.

I am tempted to back them again. But I won't. Draw.

My record: 34/83. More Chesney Hawkes than The Beatles.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Blowing the whistle

Referee Tiny Wharton, the Scottish Football BlogApparently, during his time managing in England, Jim Gannon refused to talk to Sky Sports for a number of months. Not in an Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp type bust up. No, Jim wouldn't talk because he got a bad picture from his satellite dish at home.

An amusing anecdote but also a sign that Mr Gannon is not above taking an unconventional approach or taking on the big boys.

So perhaps it's no surprise that it's the Motherwell manager who is the unofficial shop steward as certain managers go loco over the issue of poor referees in the SPL.

Some managers have refused to get involved. Others have backed Gannon. Craig Levein, and can anyone remember a time when he wasn't at war with the authorities, has jumped on board. So has Csaba Lazlo, although you suspect that much like Fergie calling the ref a fat knacker this is a good way to distract attention from the Tynecastle malaise.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment came from Gus McPherson. Gus is, of course, an increasingly likeable arch pragmatist and his response was as to the point as you might expect. Referees, he surmised, are no worse than last year.

And it's Gus that's probably hit the nail on the head. As Jim McLean pointed out in Friday's Daily Record, the role of the referee is now analysed like never before. Tiny Wharton was safe in the knowledge that his every decision would immediately be scrutinized by such footballing behemoths as Craig Burley.

Burley's black and white opinions of every foul, offside and booking are aided by instant replays from every angle. Even then Craig is wrong as often as he is right. Which might suggest that we are all guilty of imperfection and error and we can expect our referee's to display human frailties on occasion.

Football is also now a business. Big money is involved and the pressures are great. In an age when relegation brings with it the threat of bankruptcy each decision has major ramifications.

There, if I may widen the scope of my pontification, a societal change at play as well. Everybody now expects everything to be perfect and we are too willing to slip into the role of hard done by, helpless victim when things don't go our way. Ireland's mammoth session of greeting over Thierry Henry's gifted left hand was proof positive of that.

For all these changes though not much has changed. Supporter's of teams outside the Old Firm have always claimed a ref would develop acute myopia whenever a blue or hooped shirt transgressed. Rangers and Celtic supporter's have always claimed that certain referees are of certain religions. And every fan in the land has been united by the apparently certain knowledge that all referees are of questionable parentage.

What seems to be different this time is the extent to which Gannon and others are prepared to unleash their scorn. Unprecedented. So vitriolic that the referee's are even threatening to strike.

They're are good referee's and there are some who are not so good. And the very best referee's will still sometimes get it wrong. In much the same as there are good players, bad players and good managers, bad managers.

I don't agree with Gannon and his cohorts. Things aren't as bad as they are making out. And, utlimately, I think they're doing the game a disservice.

I would like changes. I'd like the appeals procedure to be quicker, clearer and more transparent. I'd like the referee's to face the press after a game and provide the rationale for certain decisions. And I would like more responsibility handed back to to the men in the middle. We have to trust them to apply common sense to the unique circumstances of every game.

All of these changes rely on a wind of change blowing through the corridors of power at the SFA. This I think gets to the heart of the matter. This public row is because managers are frustrated at the SFA, the refusal to change, the refusal to even discuss. Many of our problems can be traced back to the fact that it is the SFA, not referees, who are not up to the job.

In the short term, of course, we risk referees being scared to do their jobs as they see fit. In that sense each Gannon rant is self defeating. In the longer term it's going to be harder to persuade people that being a ref is a viable option. The talent pool will get ever shallower.

Whatever Jim Gannon is trying to achieve, he's doing the game no favours going about it this way.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: Europe

And so the decade ends. Or doesn't depending on who you believe and what patience you have to live through another thousand pub bore discussions that you hoped had run their course in 1999.

In the time honoured media tradition of such year/decade/century closing moments the Scottish Football Blog is looking back on the decade lumbered with the terrible nomenclature. Ladies and gentlemen, the "noughties."

Where better to start, in our most woeful of years, than with our European decade:

Celtic and Rangers in UEFA Cup finals. The record books will show that in this decade Scotland could boast of two European finalists. The same figure as the 1980s. In fact, in four of the six decades in which we've played European football Scottish clubs have only failed to make a final in the 1950s and 1990s. Moreover both Celtic and Rangers reached the knockout stages of the Champion's League, new ground for Scottish sides.

So the current gloom is only transitory? Well, probably not. Both those finals were in the UEFA Cup which was, by the turn of the millennium, but a pale shadow of the tournament that Dundee United came so close to picking off back in 1987. And Rangers and Celtic in the latter stages of the Champion's League are like the paupers being let into the Manor House once a year. They like what they see and they get a small slice of pie. But the gentry just want to get rid of them.

2009 probably offers a better insight into where we stand. One way or another six teams, half our top flight, set off on European trips this summer. Not one will still be there when the Christmas turkey is roasted. To cap it all Standard Liege's goalkeeper scored the goal that pushed the final nail in the coffin of our coefficient. It's not going to be easy in the twenty-tens.

There have been some highs along the way. Jimmy Calderwood's Aberdeen made it through Christmas in 2008 to serve a little reminder that there are more than two teams in Scotland. On the other hand, Aberdeen only played in Europe three teams this decade and failed to get out of even prequalifying in 2000.

Other teams had some brave performances, good results. But so often it was all too little, too late. Hibs beat AEK Athens at home but lost in extra time. A brave result but Hibs' European decade seemed to revolve around misjudged, ill fated Intertoto Cup adventures. The bad has outweighed the good.

Or Celtic with their UEFA Cup final, including the green hooped invasion of Seville, and their Champion's League knockout appearances. But what of the inability to win on the road, the debacle that was Artmedia Bratislava?

I'm not picking on those two teams. I'm saying for Hibs and Celtic, read Scottish clubs in Europe. One step forward, two massive punches in the face backwards. Success has proved illusory, mediocrity might now be seen as level to aspire to.

The truth is that UEFA have seen the future of European football and countries like Scotland are not an integral part of it. Unless the governing body is suddenly gripped by a desire to level the playing field and embrace the concept of inclusiveness then we are destined to live off crumbs.

We should, however, be able to produce more teams that are harder to beat, that can discover a game plan, stick to it and get the job done. Like most things, when we search for the answers to our European conundrum we might begin to look for answers closer to home.

Hello: Livingston, Gretna, Queen of the South and Falkirk made their European debuts. The Bairns shortlived adventure this season made them the 19th Scottish club to play in European competition. Falkirk, Queen of the South and Gretna fell at the first hurdle. Livingston got through a preliminary round before going down to Sturm Graz in the first round proper of the UEFA Cup. Proof that the romance of Europe is not easily converted into a rocketing coefficient.

Fifty years: In 2005 Hibs travelled to Germany take on Rot-Weiss Essen to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their pioneering role as the first Scottish club in Europe. Back in 1955/56 Hibs dispatched of Essen in the first round and went on to reach the semi final of the European Cup.

Two finals: Celtic in 2003 and Rangers in 2008 made the final of the UEFA Cup. After a long drought from Dundee United's appearance in the same final back in 1987 this might well be seen as a sign of some progress. Probably not much progress but desperate times call for desperate clutching of straws.

Fans: Fairly or unfairly Rangers' UEFA Cup final will be remembered by the violence that erupted on the streets of Manchester. Rangers had found some European pride and, sadly, much of it was ripped away. Tell me the rights, tell me the wrongs. The fact is mob violence is ugly, a throwback, and Rangers fans that night shamed the club and shamed Scotland.

Today In The SPL

A week that began with the rumble in the tunnel at Hamilton ended with the rumble in newspapers over the terrible referees that blight the Scottish game. About which more, I'm sure, later.

Anyway this week's SPL fixture list looks a little like this:

Aberdeen v Hamilton

That Hamilton actually won their game against Hearts last week has been somewhat overshadowed by the events that followed in the tunnel. Radio Scotland's Charlie Mann seemed to think witnessing the stramash transformed him into a breathless hybrid of Norman Mailer chronicling Ali and John Simpson liberating Kabul.

Leaving all that aside it was proof, as I predicted last week, that Hamilton will get a few results this season that will keep Falkirk fearful and others in the bottom six looking over their shoulders. Consistency will be the key. For Mark McGhee last week's defeat at Celtic will have confirmed the feeling that Aberdeen lack the depth required to fight for third right now. They should, however, be strong enough to clinch a home win today.

Hearts v Dundee United

Csaba Lazlo and Craig Levein are two of the leading exponents of the new referee hating craze that has swept the dugouts of the SPL. But with Lazlo scrambling to keep out of the basement and Levein attempting to plot a route to the toppermost of the poppermost they have little else in common. Hearts need the spirit and organisation that Dundee United rarely lack but Lazlo can't seem to find it. An away win. Possibly quite comfortably.

Kilmarnock v Hibernian

John Hughes joined the chorus of approval that seems to greet big Kevin Kyle's every move this week. He also said that Hibs won't be splashing the cash. So rumours that the Easter Road abacus is working over time as they plot an Ayrshire raid for the giant hitman might be wide of the mark.

Tittle tattle aside Hibs appeared to hit something like the form Hughes demands against Motherwell last week. Rugby Park has not been a happy hunting for them in the past but, like those around them in the bottom six, consistency seems to be the enemy of Kilmarnock at the moment. Away win.

Motherwell v Celtic (12.45 kick off)

Like an overweight, lagered up skinhead in an ill fitting shellsuit waging a war of attrition on a suspected local paedophile, Jim Gannon is launching metaphorical bricks through the window of any referee he can find. It's a battle he obviously feels he needs to fight but there is a danger that it distracts from the good work he's doing at Fir Park.

A few wins has lightened Tony Mowbray's mood slightly but it's clear that the Mogga Project remains very much a work in progress and tomorrow would seem to be the sort of tough game that will offer evidence of the success he's having in papering over the considerable cracks in his team. I'll back him to do it tomorrow with a tight away win.

Rangers v St Johnstone

Tom Cruise watched Rangers lose their final game of a disappointing Champion's League campaign during the week. Anyway who makes a joke about Rangers attracting crazed religious fanatics would do well to grow up.

On paper this should be the game that sees Rangers begin their campaign to reassert some level of domestic dominance. But football isn't played on paper, or so my Bumper Book of Football Cliches tells me. For that reason I'm going to take a long shot on this one. I can see the Saints taking a point back to Perth. So there.

St Mirren v Falkirk

The promised land of 11th place seems to be forever out of Falkirk's grasp at the moment. For all the points against Celtic and brave, if futile, performances against Hibs it is these games they need to start doing something in. Everyone else in the bottom six beating each other is going to do them no good unless they can start winning games themselves.

On the other hand St Mirren know that if they slip up tomorrow the bottom of the league will suddenly concertina and everyone will run the risk of getting squashed. Is it to early in the season for fear to start playing a factor? I hope so, I suspect not. Draw.

Where we're at: 32/76. Pah!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dan's the man?

It seems that the SFA supremo Gordon Smith has cancelled a meeting with Dan Petrescu's agent to discuss the vacant Scotland manager's role.

The Unirea Urziceni manager's application was a surprise. As an ambitious young manager enjoying a first season in the Champion's League, the Scotland job would appear to be a less than glittering prize.

The SFA are, however, perfectly right to seek further information from the Romanian's agent Frances de Souza before moving the candidacy forward.

That Smith has now cancelled the meeting is also understandable given the de Souza's apparent leaking of the details. Such indiscretion does not fit in with Smith's preferred timescale or the cloak of privacy that remains the SFA's favoured modus operandi.

All that aside I can't quite get my head round Petrescu's initial interest. Other than fond memories of his trip to Ibrox this season I can't see any particular connection between him and Scotland. At 41 and with more successes than failures on his CV he is too young to be wanting to join the travelling circus of international managers who traverse the globe to fill odd positions.

Maybe his candidacy is genuine and Gordon Smith is right to want to investigate it further away from the glare of publicity. But I am sure that the SFA will also be considering the possibility that they are being used in Petrescu's and de Souza's long term game.

Sending his CV to Glasgow was Petrescu saying he wanted the Scotland job. His agent leaking the news was Petrescu doing his best John Inman impression and bellowing "I'm free" to clubs and countrys across Europe.

If that is the case then it is further evidence that our national job is not quite the attractive vacancy that we would like it to be.


So the panto season descends.

And wasn't Michael Stewart happy to get straight into the slapstick comedy. His red card was harsh, his subsequent Tony Adam's style, vein popping tirade at the referee was stupid and his tumble in the tunnel is already becoming the stuff of legend.

From Stewart's tunnel tumble to the mass tunnel rumble ensured that Sunday's game against Hamilton was not just any other defeat for the beleaguered Hearts team.

It is perhaps too easy to draw a parallel between the psychology of a team enduring a run of poor form and the psychology of a club in turmoil.

Easy, but perhaps not too far from the truth. Chick Young tackles this in his BBC website column (technophobe Chico still won't call it a blog) and for once gets it just about right.

An absentee owner, a manager unsure of his position, players who aren't good enough and others that are being dragged down by them. And a list of unanswered questions longer than Tiger Woods' cocktail waitress call sheet.

Apparently Vladimir Romanov is now taking a keen interest in his Lithuanian basketball team. The sports involvement seems to massage his ego. But he remains a pragmatist: this is no sudden conversion to American sport. It's simply that running a basketball team in Vilnius is likely to be a damn sight cheaper than running a team capable of winning the SPL.

None of its his fault, of course. The rotten core of Scottish football defeated his grand plan rather than any folly on his part. His yes men at Tynecastle are powerless to turn the tide of events.

Rumours swirl around Edinburgh like the wind on the Castle Esplanade. There is nothing unusual in this, of course, gossiping about the misfortunes of others has sustained the city through centuries of winter chills.

But we all know that the financial situation at Hearts makes the Icelandic economy look like a viable business model. Wicked whispers, which remain just that, suggest to me that at least one big Hearts name is now conceding that administration might be the most satisfactory of likely outcomes in the next few months.

Against this miserable backdrop the players have to try and do their jobs each week. It can't be easy, it is made harder still by a signing policy that agrees to the recruitment of players who are just not up to the task. Such a situation must lead to frustration. It's easy for that frustration to boil over as they did on Sunday.

And all that becomes part of a vicious circle. With no money and suspended fines hanging over them Hearts can ill afford the disciplinary record that their financial situation must be partly to blame for.

Added to that is the SFA's apparent threat to investigate "non-monetary" for future misconduct. At this stage in their season a points deduction could be catastrophic.

As with much of the Vladimir Romanov reign, things could get a whole lot worse before they get better for everyone with Hearts in their heart.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The SPL Weekend

Finally we come off the back of a European with a Scottish win under our belts. That it was ultimately futile stands is a fitting tribute to our misadventures abroad this season.

With Rangers and Celtic still trading places at the top both Hibs and Dundee United continue to move along very nicely. All they can do is keep the pressure up and hope that the Old Firm haven't yet got all their dropped points out of their systems.

Celtic v Aberdeen

Their last two victories have given Celtic their first back-to-back home wins of the season and Tony Mowbray will be keen to make it three tomorrow. He might have hoped for easier opposition than an Aberdeen side buoyed by last week's win over Rangers. If three home wins in a row is uncharted territory for Celtic this season then two Old Firm scalps in a row is the stuff of historical legend at Aberdeen. I don't think this one will be easy for the home side but I can see them coming through.

Dundee United v St Mirren

If unbeaten records are an indication of form then United and Hibs are currently the teams to beat in the SPL. St Mirren are currently bracketed with Hearts and St Johnstone as a team that knows they need a consistent run if the top six isn't to slide out of view. So much to play for here but you have to fancy United to keep their run going with a home win.

Falkirk v Rangers

After a couple of heartening results Falkirk hit a brick wall against Hibs last week. In a less than classic match they made a good fist of keeping Hibs at bay without really threatening. Rangers will be looking to bounce back from defeat at Pittodrie and regain the domestic invincibility that provided a much needed shield from their financial and European woes. Everything points to an away win. But, what the hell, I'll give Falkirk a second Old Firm point.

Hibernian v Motherwell

Hibs look to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 matches against a Motherwell team out for revenge for their home defeat earlier in the season. Motherwell keep on going and will be keen to narrow the gap between the top five. The last couple of weeks have seen Hibs playing a bit sloppily without conceding which is no bad trait for a side with pretensions of a successful campaign. I'm leaning towards a draw although no result would really surprise me.

St Johnstone v Kilmarnock

Last week's defeat against Hearts has left Kilmarnock looking over their shoulder and fearing a Falkirk resurgence. It seems almost every team is woefully short of consistency at the moment. St Johnstone at least can trade on the enthusiasm that comes with rejoining the top flight. Kilmarnock on the other hand must guard against fear entering their game: a lowly league position and an empty bank account do not make for a happy life. Home win.

Hamilton v Hearts (Sunday)

Will the real Hearts please stand up? A strong showing against Hibs that only won a point, a home capitulation against St Johnstone and then an away win against Kilmarnock. It's a strange mix. Hamilton have struggled as many predicted they would but have shown themselves to be capable of springing the odd surprise. I'm not convinced this will be a game to tell the grandchildren about. Draw.

What's the score: 30/71. As much good as a warm bucket of spit.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Preview: Celtic v Hapoel Tel-Aviv

It’s funny what managing Celtic can do to a man. Gordon Strachan was the quick witted, Match of the Day, rent-a-joke pundit before taking over. By the time he left was a snarling bundle of rage, unable to decide if the fans or the media were most deserving of a Strachan savaging.

When Tony Mowbray arrived he gave the impression of a man doing the job he was born to do. Not a press conference would go by without Tony providing a lengthy discourse on the football that Celtic are supposed to play, the football the fans deserve.

Are we really only at the start of December? What have those few short months done to Mogga? The articulate student of the game, the dugout philosopher, has become the man who starts a press conference like this:
C'mon, let's go, I'm busy.
And goes on to rubbish whatever slim chance his side have of progression:
We need Hamburg to lose two games and it's highly unlikely they will do that as they are a high-class team.
And then rounds it all up by delivering a less than convincing boost to players already short on confidence:
I think the lifeblood of any club is new talent. The club has got to evolve. Players stagnate if they stay at clubs too long.
As promotion for the big event this was the press conference to give Don King nightmares. Even those Celtic fans who have already bought tickets might now be considering staying away.

The truth is Mowbray is right.

The Europa League, in common with much else this season, has been a poor, poor campaign. It’s only useful role will have been to confirm to him those players that he can’t trust to take the club where he needs them to be.

His anguish and frustration will have been the heightened by the realization that the number of players he can’t rely on is longer than he could have imagined.

Other than to cheer up his own fans – and give Scottish football a modicum of self respect – tonight’s game really serves no purpose for Tony Mowbray. He knows what is going wrong and he knows that he needs to make changes.

There is probably not another manager in Britain looking forward to the January transfer window as much as Mowbray.

His record so far has been almost unbelievably poor for a Celtic manager. He’s made it clear that the talent at his disposal must hold their hands up and accept a healthy dollop of responsibility for that.

January is his chance to start the revolution he promised. If he still can’t change things after that then these last few months will begin to look like a honeymoon period.

And another thing...

Numpty of the Week: Take a bow Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) Deputy General Secretary Dave Moxham.

Calling on the Celtic fans to protest about Israeli invasion of Gaza at tonight’s match was one of the worst ideas by a union leader since Arthur Scargill looked in his bathroom mirror and thought he saw the man that could bring down Thatcher staring back at him.

Football games are not the place to make political protests, not the place to find answers to questions that, I’d suggest, are rather bigger than anything Mr Moxham deals with in his working day.

If they’re about anything more than a game they should be about celebrating what unites us not what divides us.

For a leading member of Scotland’s political community, with the backing of former Glasgow Lord Provost Alex Mosson, to attempt to hijack the game like this is astonishingly misguided at best, horribly irresponsible at worst.

And how would UEFA react? Perhaps it has escaped Mr Moxham’s notice that Glasgow has a bit of a reputation for football being poisoned by religious hatred and the politicising of supporters.

Any organized, premediated protest is likely to have far reaching consequences in the eyes of the footballing authorities and is hardly likely to promote the city as a welcoming football destination.

No doubt many Celtic will sympathise with the Palestinian cause. Others might have conflicting views that they might like to share with the world at large.

But they have to realise that a football match this evening does not offer them a platform to make any sort of reasoned protest. Mr Moxham, whose commitment to this issue I'm sure cannot be questioned, should be ashamed of his attention grabbing attempts to encourage them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fight Club

Anyone wondering why Richard Gough’s managerial career has stalled somewhat can sleep easy. He’s not carved a career in the noughties because he subscribes to a brand of football that became outdated in the 1970’s.
In my time at Ibrox we had a core of very strong characters. Mentally, we were very strong and I think that’s why we had so many bust-ups. There was Mark Hateley, Ally McCoist, Andy Goram, John Brown, Stuart McCall and Ian Ferguson – a lot of nasty people, in the best possible way. I think that’s what Rangers are missing right now: a few nasty pieces of work.

I read a quote after the Stuttgart game that I would have stuck up on the wall. Aleksandr Hleb was their best player and came off the park saying he didn’t have a scratch on him.

I know the game has changed in terms of referees clamping down on physical stuff but when he comes out and actually says he expected a rough, tough physical game and didn’t get one then that should stick in the defenders’ minds. That should be an alarm bell, a light going on in the head of their defenders. When I was defending, I would say that if people are going to come into our area of the pitch then they’re going to get hurt and we’ll see how brave they are. That was our job. If they wanted to come into our penalty box, they were going to find tough people. I feel that’s not happening now.
Right, well that’s cleared that up. If only Rangers had kicked Aleksandr Hleb they’d have survived in Europe. Sometimes football is such a simple game it amazes you.

Not as simple as that, Dickie. The players you mention would probably have been able to get near enough to Hleb to kick him. Some in the current Rangers team aren’t good enough to get that close.

Unlike, say, a Ferguson, they’re not even good enough to be that kind of destroyer.

Also, and I’m sorry to point this out, but the merry band of mercenaries that Gough mentions did not exactly set Europe alight, apart from that one season when they almost snatched a place in the Champion’s League final.

If there’s the old way and the new way, Rangers better hope for a third way quite soon.

All of this was by way of excusing the training ground fracas between Kenny Miller and Madjid Bougherra. Happened all the time in Gough’s day apparently. And it has happened elsewhere over the years as well.

There are differences though. It all depends on circumstances. In a winning team a training round fight can simply be an expression of a desire to retain a competitive edge, even to drive others around you on to greater things.

A training round fight in the aftermath of a European exit between a player who has just been dropped for turning up late and another who has publicly berated said player for turning up late might be a sign of slightly greater dressing room unrest.

Gough continued:
I don’t want to go on about it too much but I feel there is a dearth of quality. At the Stuttgart game last week even the crowd weren’t their usual selves. They weren’t getting on the team’s back because they maybe realised that it simply wasn’t there.

It was a strange atmosphere at Ibrox that night, like the fans were simply accepting that’s where we are.
Hmmm. "I don’t want to go on about it too much."

Richard, I think Walter Smith would concur heartily with that.

Can anybody hear us scream?

St Andrew’s Day and the Homecoming finale. Yesterday was a good day for our national cup competition, the world’s oldest national trophy, to make a splash with the entry of the big names into the third round draw.

A live broadcast during the main evening news would have caused people to sit up and take notice. With junior side Irvine Meadow still involved the draw was always likely to be rich in the romance and cliché that are the lifeblood of this kind of event.

Which all leads me to ask exactly how the SFA managed to bag the coveted 2.30pm slot on Sky Sports News?

Who did they possibly think would be watching at that time on a Monday afternoon? Are we now concerned that Scottish football is not positioning itself properly to win the always crucial “I’m-just-watching-because-I’ve-seen-that-Diagnosis-Murder-before-and-the-Ocean-Finance-advert-is-on-every-channel” market?

For those of us stuck at work the coverage provided on the SFA’s own website will forever remain a mystery. It seems that all of us stuck at work trying to find out what the hell was going on caused the site to lose consciousness for a while.

There has been a concern for years that interest in the (We’re Not An) Active Nation Scottish Cup has been dwindling. But if the organisation charged with running it can’t be arsed then why should anybody else?

Anyway, rant aside, the draw was made and Irvine Meadow got the tie of their dreams (at least those dreams that involved a side that may or may not finish in the top three, rather than their real dreams about the Old Firm) with a trip to Easter Road. It’s nice that, in their debut cup campaign, the junior mob have been paired with a team with such rich and cherished memories of the Scottish Cup.

Elsewhere, the tie of the round is Hamilton v Rangers. Or, if you’re a normal person rather than a Sky Sports scheduler, you’d probably choose Aberdeen v Hearts.

I’m sure you’ve seen it by now but the full draw is below. Ties on 9/10th January. An early tip for me would be Dundee United but I fancy the final to be an Old Firm free zone so it really is up for grabs this year.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Motherwell
Hamilton v Rangers (Sunday 10th, Lunchtime kick off, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports)
Morton or Dumbarton v Celtic
Hibernian v Irvine Meadow
St Mirren v Cowdenbeath or Alloa Athletic
Raith Rovers or Peterhead v Airdrie United
Dunfermline v Stenhousemuir or Cove Rangers
Forfar v St Johnstone
Clyde or Livingston v Dundee
Albion Rovers v Stirling Albion
Aberdeen v Hearts
Edinburgh City v Montrose
Partick Thistle v Dundee United
Ross County v Inverurie Loco Works
Ayr United v Wick Academy or Brechin
Kilmarnock v Falkirk

Friday, November 27, 2009

But seriously...

Oh, think twice,
'Cause it's another day for you and me in paradise

So warbled 1980s drummer, singer and Kinnock-bashing baldy Phil Collins. It would be nice to think that, even in these dark hours, Tony Mowbray is still so elated about landing his dream job that he finds himself serenading Mark Venus with that very chorus.

Somehow it seems unlikely. Tony clearly felt that his team had done enough to merit a win against Dundee United on Sunday but as long as his defenders can’t concentrate for 90 minutes results like that will happen.

And each time they do the ire of the fans will grow and grow. Still, as a wise man said, you can’t hurry love.

In the meantime it keeps the SPL bubbling along quite nicely:

Aberdeen v Rangers (Saturday lunchtime on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports)

They’ve never been easy lovers these two and Pittodrie will be as welcoming to the boys in blue as ever tomorrow. Rangers have struggled here recently and a fired up Aberdeen side will be looking for more of the same. Thus far Rangers have pretty much avoided European hangovers this season but their failure in that competition must be raising some doubts amongst the squad as the transfer window looms and no owner appears. They’re still top of the league though. A close one that either side could win but I’ll back a low scoring, or no scoring, draw.

Celtic v St Mirren

These two served up a dire match in Paisley which was enlivened only by Paddy McCourt’s individual goal. I remain adamant however that his effort was made to look better than it was by five or six St Mirren defenders diving out of his way as if felled by some kind of invisible touch. You can bet Gus McPherson will have warned them against any repeat. In a season of discomfort Celtic have also been short on home comforts and they’ll need a spark from somewhere to break down St Mirren tomorrow. From where? That, Mr Mowbray, is the question. I’m going for a home win though.

Hibs v Falkirk

Given Falkirk’s current plight they could probably do without John Hughes’ suggestion that there should be a statue of him outside the Falkirk Stadium. It’s enough to make Eddie May offer him outside – no jacket required. Actually the fickle mistress of form shows that Hibs have taken two points from six and Falkirk four from six. Does this mean anything or are the league positions a better guide of the likely outcome? Hibs are running a Hibs Reunited scheme tomorrow to get lost supporters back. The home side will probably be reunited with that winning feeling as well.

Kilmarnock v Hearts

What the feck is going on at Tynecastle? As ever we can’t answer that one so sitting back and admiring Csaba Lazlo’s increasingly desperate attempts to get himself sacked must suffice. Last week’s home defeat to St Johnstone will have knocked the stuffing from the Hearts players and, I’m afraid, this season might get a whole lot worse before it gets better for the Gorgie boys. Starting tomorrow? The transformed Kevin Kyle would run thru these walls for Jim Jefferies and I’m backing him to make the difference tomorrow.

Motherwell v Dundee United

Two sides with ambitions to finish in the upper echelons of the SPL meet at Fir Park. Jim Gannon has rebuilt Motherwell against all odds. Craig Levein and his players will be full of confidence after their late win against Celtic. I would fancy United to be stronger in this one but Gannon continues to plug away with a squad that seem to react his coaching. For that reason I’m going to back the scoring draw.

St Johnstone v Hamilton

Hamilton must have been left wishing it would rain down after they gave Falkirk their first win of the campaign last week while St Johnstone will have the strength of two hearts following their comeback win at Tynecastle. It’s early days still but Hamilton know that allowing Falkirk to move within touching distance might have ramifications come the business end of the season. St Johnstone will be looking to find the bit of consistency that will allow them to build some momentum. I think they might find it tomorrow with a home win.

So far, so poor: 27 out of 65. Groovy? Kind of, love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Over and out

It seems hard to imagine now, having seen them dumped out of Europe with a match to spare, that Rangers’ Champion’s League group was actually interpreted as a cause for optimism when the draw was made. Not looking quite so easy now.

It was, in fact, a group of modest talents but one that still proved too much for Rangers to handle. Only Seville stood out as offering a top European pedigree and duly humiliated Rangers at Ibrox. Unirea, the newcomers from Romania, matched that 4-1 scoreline in Glasgow before Stuttgart completed an unfortunate treble with their 2-0 victory last night.

All very depressing for Rangers fans and for anyone who likes to keep an eye on Scottish football’s European co-efficient.

Where do Rangers go from here? The fans will point to the European travails as an excuse for more investment rather than more cost cutting. The businessmen and bankers currently trying to steady the ship are likely to take the opposite view.

January’s transfer window looms large. Allan McGregor has re-established himself and quality goalkeepers are always in demand. Madjijd Bougherra’s inability to catch a plane points to a man who knows his Glaswegian journey is coming to an end. Kris Boyd enjoys more popularity with the fans and suitors down south than he seems to with the Ibrox coaching staff.

Those would be the three most obvious departures, there may be more.

While Neil Alexander is a solid enough deputy in goals, Bougherra’s departure would leave Walter Smith dependent on a 17 year old, a 39 year old and a converted attacked to cover the two positions at the heart of defence. Boyd might lack something against the better sides but which team would not fear losing a man with an uncanny knack of scoring in the run of the mill league games that win titles?

All this will be occupying Walter Smith’s mind just now. But will he be around to oversee the transition after January? So far there is no word on his future or what sort of package Rangers would be able to put together to attract a replacement of the calibre that will be demanded.

By then, of course, a new owner might be in place, the debts eased and the club again building for the future. Or they might be continuing in this same, uneasy limbo.

Last night finally gave us the answer we had been expecting since the Romanian’s knocked in their third in Glasgow a few week weeks ago. Rangers out of Europe and deservedly so.

But most of the questions that have been asked of Rangers this season, both on and off the pitch, remain unanswered.

For now the fans, complete bystanders in most of this saga, can simply wait and hope.

Frank Beattie

It’s maybe to our shame that those of us who don’t count ourselves as Kilmarnock supporters might never have heard of Frank Beattie, whose funeral takes place tomorrow.

Beattie, or Big Frank, played for Kilmarnock from 1953 to 1972, playing over 600 games in his one club career, earning the love and respect of the fans as the “heart and soul” of the side.

His greatest achievement came in 1965 when, almost unimaginably today, he led the Ayrshire side to the championship. The team that pipped Hearts to the league were unfancied journeymen and Beattie’s unswerving loyalty and commitment to the cause galvanised them into a side capable of beating all comers.

The moment of Beattie’s greatest triumph also represented a watershed moment for Scottish football.

Between 1950 and 1965 Hibs and Hearts (twice each), Dundee and Aberdeen joined Kilmarnock in breaking the Old Firm stranglehold.

Since 1965 only Aberdeen (three times) and Dundee United have been able to stop the momentum of the Glasgow sides.

Those statistics suggest that Frank Beattie belonged to a different era. Perhaps he did. But the affection with which is still held at Kilmarnock are a reminder that the qualities that fans most admire in footballers and in men are rarely forgotten.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To replay or not to replay

See, there we all were giving George Burley a right good kicking for not even getting us a play off place. And he was doing us a favour after all. What misery he saved from, what tortured nights of the soul, the sheer injustice, the pain of being denied by a cowardly act of cheating. That's a hard one to get over. Just ask Terry Butcher.

So this blog is full of sympathy for the Irish players, management and supporters. I watched the game on Wednesday and Ireland played very well and the French pretty poorly.

And then Thierry Henry stuck out a hand and juggled the ball. It was unclear on the TV at first and you can understand how the officials failed to spot it. I have scoffed at the additional linesman in the Europa League this season but maybe, just maybe, they would have spotted it.

Henry has now admitted his craven act of illegal opportunism. He's even said a replay would be the best decision (cunningly waiting until FIFA had said no way) and spoken of the temptation to quit following the fallout of his act of madness. Such a thorough mea culpa suggests that, if nothing else, he really values that razor contract.

The whole affair stinks. The way FIFA changed the rules to ensure their favoured four received easier play off fixtures was typical of a governing body that has lost any relationship it once had with the meaning of sport. Their incompetence and crassness provided a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

But the hysterical reaction is over the top. Outrage seemed to be the default position. But which of us has never seen a game turn in our favour thanks to a player conning the referee. Which of us in Scotland don't remember with a touch of pride Joe Jordan's handball against Wales in 1977? With a little smugness Maradonna's hand of God in 1986? With a little horror the disputed England goal in 1966?

In Roy Keane's typically brutal rant he came closest to addressing the real issue when he mentioned the dodgy penalty that had turned a tricky tie in Georgia in Ireland's favour. The good decisions and the bad decisions, the acts of fair play and the acts of cheating. They do even themselves out, as hard as they might be to take at the time.

The saturation coverage of football has reached such a level that everybody must have an opinion on everything. Fair enough. But I feel more comfortable when politicians aren't demanding replays from FIFA or risking diplomatic incidents because of what's happened on the football field.

As much as the Irish are entitled to feel hurt, as much as Henry deserves to be pilloried, they are simply passing actors in a play that we've all seen a hundred times. Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn't. And rarely does one incident, one moment of madness, genius or simple cheating decide a football game.

By the time Henry used his hand (my own opinion: the first touch might not have been deliberate, the second was cynical act of a man who valued his own reputation over the spirit of the game) Ireland should have already been through. John O'Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane all wasted chances to put the game beyond the French.

I would have loved Ireland to go to South Africa. And it's a shame that they lost in such a cruel way. So give Henry the opprobrium he deserves. But don't demand a replay because it sets a bad precedent. Where does it end? And what would it mean for Ireland the next time one of their players anticipates a challenge that never actually comes but wins a penalty nonetheless?

Football is an emotional game. It can lead to temporary madness. But the massive overreaction to the events of last Wednesday night did Ireland no favours. As might have been predicted, FIFA's playoff charade worked only to lessen the standing of the game they were intended to celebrate.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back To business

Another international break and it all went a bit medieval. After being slain in a distant land we embarked on a spot of regicide. So it's bye, bye George and hello .... ? God save the king, whoever he might be.

We don't know. Walter Smith and Mark McGhee have already said they don't want the job. Jim Jefferies won't talk about it, Craig Levein is hotly tipped but United are extending a half threatening, half protective arm around his shoulder. And Csaba Lazlo, inevitably, wants the job.

And the other seven SPL managers are no doubt praying that they don't pick up the paper to find their names thrown into the hat.

The SPL holiday may be the moment when normal order is restored and Rangers and Celtic - suffering, like lovestruck teenage boys, the pain of rejection - reestablish themselves and take control of the league once and for all.

Or maybe not. It seems unlikely that either Tony Mowbray or Walter Smith has found the key to reinvigorating sides that are back pedalling quickly towards the chasing pack. Although we must always point out that it is the big boys from Glasgow who continue to sit atop the league table.

So what does the weekend ahead have in store?

Falkirk v Hamilton

A six pointer in the early season relegation skirmishes. Things would look even grimmer for Falkirk if Hamilton were to sneak a win here although the Bairns should be boosted by their thrilling draw with Celtic last time around. And they've signed Pele. Hamilton haven't signed Pele but they look a far more cohesive outfit despite their struggle for consistency. Despite that I'm going for a home win. It's the law of averages and all that.

Hearts v St Johnstone

A goalless draw with Hibs last time out was the least Hearts deserved but it was a performance that highlighted their inability to score goals. St Johnstone have scored 17 goals to Hearts' nine in the first eleven games. But they've conceded 23 to Hearts' 17. It's Hearts defence that has them a point ahead of St Johnstone as things stand. I expect a spot of leapfrogging on Saturday though as the Saints get their second away win of the season.

Motherwell v Aberdeen

Fifth play sixth in another of Saturday's six pointers. Aberdeen have been blowing hot and cold which, I fear, makes them rather tepid. Motherwell have bounced back from a couple of setbacks to remain very much in the mix at the top of the table. It would be remiss of me not to mention the spice added by the return of Mark McGhee who seems to have found it far harder to settle in Aberdeen than he did at Fir Park. More glumness for him this weekend as I back the home side for a win.

Rangers v Kilmarnock

Rangers can sneak ahead of Celtic in the overnight table if they beat Kilmarnock, a team that have often huffed and puffed to very little avail against both sides of the Old Firm. We've already seen how difficult what Mr Craig Burley would insist on calling the "provincial sides" can make it for Rangers this season. More of the same on Saturday. For sure. But the Ibrox masses will still be rewarded with a home win.

St Mirren v Hibs

The goalless draw at Tynecastle was proof that, impressive as it has been, John Hughes' Hibernian revolution is not yet complete. They'll be looking to bounce back but can expect some stubborn resistance from St Mirren. That said Gus McPherson will still be disappointed with their home form as they struggle to turn St Mirren Park into a fortress. I'll tip Hibs but wouldn't be shocked with a draw.

Dundee United v Celtic (ESPN, Sunday)

We have to wait for Sunday for the pick of the games and United will be desperate to take advantage of the stuttering Celts. Tony Mowbray will be just as keen to get a decent performance and kick start a decent run of form. I've got reasonably high hopes that this will turn into a watchable clash, perhaps a bit low on true class but intriguing nonetheless. I'm going to back a United win. The SPL might be back but it's still going to be a topsy turvy season for a few weeks yet.

The form book: 23 out of 59. If I was an SPL team I'd be in sixth and half place. Exactly mid table. A platform to push on or a slippery slope?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Say What You Mean

It was a contrite and regretful Gordon Smith that broke the news of George Burley's departure. Or was it? Interpreting for the cynical:
The decision was taken after a meeting with the board of directors and, subsequently, the national coach. The board was in unanimous agreement.
The rest of them agreed with my decision. I then met George and told him to "get tae."
It should be stressed the decision was not a direct consequence of Saturday’s unacceptable 3-0 defeat to Wales but, rather, a realisation that the expectations of the supporters, the Scottish FA and George, himself, were not being met.
My God, we were bad on Saturday. There’s nothing like being gubbed by the Welsh reserves to get us shaking in our blazers. Still I only got really worried when the fans started booing me.
On a personal note, I would like to thank George for his contribution and, on behalf of the Scottish FA, I wish him all the best for the future.
On a personal note, I’ve been a stunning failure in this role. Thank you, George, for providing everyone with an even bigger numpty by way of distraction.
I should point out that the Scottish FA stands by its decision to give the national coach our full support despite failure to qualify for the World Cup play-offs. It would have been negligent not to have given George every opportunity to rebuild and revitalise the squad in light of the improved performances in the last two qualifiers against Macedonia and Holland. Unfortunately, the adverse results in the two subsequent friendlies against Japan and Wales provided confirmation the improvement could not be sustained.
Keeping George was the cheaper option so we kept our fingers crossed and said our prayers. Speaking of prayers, it was a miracle he managed to find a team that could beat Macedonia. As George Peat said to me then "if there’s even a slight chance you’ve got a miracle worker on a contract, you don’t sack him." Sadly he turned out to be more Brian than Messiah.
We now have four months until our next scheduled match, against Czech Republic, and will therefore utilise the intervening period to ensure we attract the best possible replacement to take Scotland forward.
Anybody not currently in employment who is happy to work for free should get in touch.

The Chance Of A Second Chance?

It did not take Chick Young long. In his obituary of George Burley's reign as national team boss the great oracle of our game points out that a new manager means a new chance for Kris Boyd, Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson.

Fair enough. A new broom and new beginnings. No manager taking the job should have his hands tied.

Likewise the new man (if it is indeed it is a man: let's not reduce our options by ruling out half the population without serious consideration) should not be the subject of a press campaign to get anybody included in his squads.

Barry Ferguson is the past and we need to be looking at the future. He could have had a role as the team's elder statesman. But age did not bring maturity. The drinking perhaps should have been an internal issue. When it erupted in public, however, it all but sealed Burley's fate.

Was the captain contrite? No, like a spoilt schoolboy given a national stage he chose to act like a prat and offend the nation. That rightly ended his national career. Full stop.

Allan McGregor was, perhaps, misled by Ferguson. But Allan McGregor is not 10 years old and should have known better than to get involved in prolonged sequence of acting like a bloody idiot. Will any manager feel he can trust him? As my old headmaster so nearly used to say: "Sorry, Allan, but if you fly with the craws then you run the risk getting a bloody great bullet up your arse."

Which leaves Kris. Dear Kris. The Boyd Wonder.

Is the national squad of a country struggling with paltry resources the place for a drama queen? Kris Boyd may think he turned his back on George Burley but in reality he threw a gigantic hissy fit that was as much of a two fingered salute to the Tartan Army as anything Barry and Allan managed.

With the supporters downbeat and apathetic will they be willing to welcome back someone who turned his back on them? Will the players who have been through these lowest of times welcome back the fellow warrior who walked away?

For what he will contribute to the cause is Kris Boyd worth taking a risk on? I'd say the divisive nature of any recall would be a hell of a call for the new manager. If it was me I'd leave him in the cold.

Yes, I know he's a prolific goalscorer. But here's a thing. All I've heard over the weekend is the wonders that Walter Smith managed as Scotland manager. Well Walter shares Burley's view of Boyd's effectiveness in big games.

So the new manager has a choice of ignoring Boyd or picking him for the off chance of a hat trick against San Marino and then a flounce off home when he's not picked against Spain. Mud sticks. It's Boyd's own fault that he's done most of the mud slinging himself.

Monday, November 16, 2009

It could be you

And so George Burley's reign ended as we knew - and in his heart of hearts he must have known - it would. The sheer inevitability of his sacking was blatantly obvious at around 3.30 Saturday afternoon.

In truth it has been inevitable throughout a 14 game reign that never looked like building momentum. The flickers of life that were detected during the defeat to Holland and the win over Macedonia proved to be but brief glimpses of what might have been.

We now have time to make a sensible and considered appointment for the next campaign. To do that we'll need a strong, forward looking organisation staffed by footballing men of stature.

Sadly we'll have to make do with the SFA of Gordon Smith and George Peat.

So who are the runners and riders?

Graeme Souness: Ruled himself out before anyone could rule him in. Included here for two reasons. Firstly his damning indictment of the players at the new manager's disposal suggests that this is a job few will covet. Secondly the rumour that Gordon Smith wouldn't enjoy being overshadowed by a big personality like Souness sounds depressingly possible and could cast a long shadow over the recruitment process.

Craig Levein: Few would argue with this and we could expect to see Scotland adopting a revolutionary new approach based around organisation and cohesive tactics. But Levein is only 45 and master of all he surveys at Dundee United where the bare trophy cabinet points to what he considers to be unfinished business. Will the call of his nation appeal? I'd predict he'll quietly rule himself out in the weeks ahead.

Jim Jefferies: He would bring organisation and might be considered the right age. Would he inspire the fans to shake off their growing apathy? No. Nothing against Jim but a bigger character is needed to repair the damage of the last year. He might be qualified but he's not the figure we need to rally around.

Jimmy Calderwood: See above. Jimmy and his tan would be the Harry Redknapp option: probably qualified, probably a good guy but the national job is no longer a sinecure position to reward a solid but unspectacular career.

Walter Smith: Will the SFA be searching for smoke signals from the financially impoverished offices of Ibrox. Tempting to see the last few as a series of events conspiring to deliver Walter back to Hampden. But if he is to leave Rangers at the turn of the year would he want to have another shot at another thankless job? And would he be able to produce the alchemy that raised the hopes of the nation last time around? Or might he suggest to his loyal deputy that the Scotland job is the escape he needs? And would Ally McCoist be considered by the SFA?

John Collins: Young and still relatively inexperienced. If he wants the job he has the, ahem, self confidence to believe that he can do it well. With no other options presenting themselves at the moment he might well throw his hat into the ring. But if he felt the powers that be at Hibs were reactionary, how will he take to the SFA? Questions remain over his man management and that must be a consideration if this group of players are to be scraped off the ground.

Gary McAllister: Not an unblemished record in a short coaching career. The decision not to join Burley's staff now looks like a wise move. Other countries have not been slow to take a risk on relatively inexperienced coaches with long international playing careers. But a risk it would certainly be.

Mark McGhee: A long shot but might the Scotland job offer him a get out from an Aberdeen job that is clearly frustrating him? Would need to be decisive though and must also realise that his career needs stability at this point.

Billy Stark: Doing well with the under-21's. Promoting from within offer a comforting reminder of what we must now consider to be the Roxburgh-Brown glory years. Good results in age group matches don't always translate though so Billy might be best left out of the spotlight.

Johnny Foreigner: All the above point to a small pool to choose from at home. The Berti Vogts years remain a painful memory but there's a whole world of coaches out there who have international experience. Would anybody of stature consider the Scotland job? The recruitment process will have failed if it doesn't at least investigate some options.

AN Other: Would any of the Scottish managers currently plying their trade in the top three divisions of English football consider the national job to be better than what they have at the moment? It's probably unlikely and that rules out a number of options that would otherwise have been shortlisted. A name, however, might still emerge from leftfield. And management is a precarious business. The SFA won't rush this and unforeseen option may well appear as they mull over their decision.

So there we have. It's a long list and there are no names that jump out at me. The available choices don't inspire and I'm not sure how much pulling power the job has for those in employment.

These are bleak times to be taking a difficult job. It's more in hope than expectation that I wait to see if the SFA can get this right.

If they are struggling then maybe they should just choose someone from the #whymeforscotlandmanager thread on Twitter.