Monday, August 03, 2009

The bleak mid summer

The SPL does Europe in style
I ended last season moaning about the quality of football on show in Scotland's top flight. If last year's SPL bunfight depressed then the close season has piled doom upon misery for Scottish football watchers.

Setanta's demise gave Lex Gold the chance to prove his assertion that the SPL remained an attractive proposition. Turns out that it's not attractive enough for Sky and ESPN to jump headfirst into a bidding war.

Cash strapped already the SPL clubs suddenly found a chill wind blowing through the holes in their accounts. Cloth had to be cut accordingly leading to perhaps the least exciting transfer window for some time.

Dundee's spending spree apart the story down the league's has been equally gloomy. Livingston survive for now but the Scottish Football League's decision to spare a business that looks all but unsustainable will, no doubt, have ramifications down the line.

The fantastic campaign by Stirling Albion's support brought optimism but not success. Big and small, football's prostitution to the ego's of businessmen is increasingly difficult to reverse.

And then came Europe. Where to begin? Falkirk slumped out before August began. Motherwell heading the same way and Aberdeen humiliated. Summer football cry some. But the lack of fighting spirit Aberdeen displayed points to a deeper malaise. Massive cultural shift though it would be, changing the calendar is an exercise in cosmetics. Rudderless and broken, Aberdeen would have struggled if they'd been playing for six months.

Celtic might survive their trip to Moscow but the odds look like favouring a drop into the Europa League. Tony Mowbray's new dawn took 90 minutes of squandered chances to disappear into the night.

Rangers, of course, are already into the Champion's League proper. But any of the Ibrox faithful who are still shutting their eyes to the financial crisis in Govan must have had that blind faith sorely tested by the club's inability to buy a single player. Walter Smith knows that he'll need miracles to eke another season of heroics out of his honest but inferior squad.

Coefficients will tumble. Bank managers and creditors will become increasingly nervous. And the fans will still be expected to pay for a product that doesn't look like it's in a position to improve. The new season will be as interesting as ever but all the pointers just now suggest that it's unlikely to be particularly entertaining, far less a stage for top class football.

A root and branch review is underway. It's sorely needed but it will almost certainly be an opportunity missed. It's one of the many quirks of politics that incompetence is rewarded with consultancies and directorships: for a review of Scottish football to work it would need to think the unthinkable and be presented by a personality capable of uniting and inspiring. If that was the job description then we can only assume that Henry Mcleish got JR Tolkien to write his application.

So we are, in the words of a Great Scot, doomed? Well, no. We will survive like we always have. The season will throw up the normal stories and subplots. Already the case of young John Fleck looks intriguing and throws up more questions about discipline at Ibrox, even with Barry Ferguson's peg lying empty in the dressing room.

Vladimir Romanov, even if he remains absent, will serve up stories at Tynecastle. On the pitch Tony Mowbray will stick to his philosophy and how long Celtic's players take to learn it will have a massive bearing on the outcome of the title. Craig Levein will look to improve on last season and have United going the distance in the battle for third while Easter Road is purring at the return of Merouane Zemmama.

So we will march forward or, at the very least, trudge in the general direction of forward.

But this close season has thrown up a number of hard truths for Scottish football. How they are digested and how we respond to them will shape how brightly we emerge from the depths of our current despair.