Thursday, April 02, 2009

Networking behind the goals

How we used to interact
Another football networking site is preparing to launch. ExtraFootie is the footballing answer to Facebook for UK supporters. Or so they are claiming.

Fantasy football, forums, a resurrection of the pools (are the pools not still going?), supporters pages and a profile to network with.

All sounds fine but I'm not convinced it will take off. Other sites are already available but none seem to have really caught fire. So time will tell. Maybe it's time, on the day that Chelsea's Stamford the Lion began to tweet, that football began to explore the potential of the internet more fully.

The problem is that Facebook, Bebo or whatever can already offer most of these services and a lot more besides without the user having to define themselves by their love of a team.

And fans forums already exist where people can mingle and network with like minded individuals. My experience of these forums is that they quickly become cliquey and put off new users - at first FootieExtra can be an antidote to that but pretty soon it will risk the same thing happening.

Aside from anything else, of course, football supporting is a fairly tribal pursuit. Will fans from one club want to mingle with fans from other clubs. And if not the whole network idea is kaput.

But what do I know? They could be launching at the right time. if England have a good World Cup next year, the site explodes and the brains behind it quickly cash in before the next big thing comes along. We'll see.


It looks even worse on video. Who are they making a point to? The media? The manager? The trembling SFA chief? The Tartan Army?

Still, no doubt there's a welcome in the Hampden inner sanctum for both of them.

Gordon Smith backs manager over Rangers' stars (Late April Fool)

The view from the Scotland squad
Gordon Smith on the Cameron House Two:

"He's made a decision; I know exactly why he's done it – he's told me his reasons. I'm going along with that just now.

"After the game's passed, George and I will have an opportunity to sit down and discuss what's happened in the last few days and review the situation and how it's been dealt with."

Smith revealed Burley did not consult him or the SFA board over the matter:

"We weren't involved in the decision at all. It's George's decision how he was going to deal with the situation that's arisen. He has to deal with behaviour and any sanctions that are taken.

"He also picks the team 100 per cent. It's his decision whether the players are away from the squad.

"We have to give him autonomy in that respect. But we'll be reviewing the situation – I've told George that."

Is all our information wrong Gordon? Are you scared that the Rangers fans would turn against you?

Or, speaking before the match, did you think you could sack Mr Burley and all this would be forgotten.

You always back the manager or you say nothing. Simple.

If the BBC interpreted Ferguson and McGregor's gestures and body language correctly tonight then the two of them have shown exactly where they stand. Pretty much in the sewer.

Some of the booing before the game is laid right at Mr Smith's door.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Just. Scotland 2:1 Iceland

We got there. And no more.

To borrow a phrase: At the end of the day the result was what mattered. And we got it.

Not without a scare. Not without a period of domination in the first half that we failed miserably to convert into a lead. And not without a period in the second half when a poor Icelandic side took the momentum.

But we won and we should, if nothing else, have put second place and all that back into our own hands.

McCormack again gets pass marks. Hutton showed what we've been missing. Gordon proved that George Burley's "no first team, no Scotland game" mantra is misguided. Fletcher did well up front.

Gary Teale and Gavin Rae coming on? Strange. At least they inspired Captain Barry to drag himself away from the sulks for a warm down. They might also prove that the manager will drag us to second place through luck and not much else. That debate must remain unsolved until September.

None of that, of course, is enough. Yet. Let's be optimistic. A play-off place might well be within reach.

Two men down

Just an hour or so till kick off. And again I'm not really sure what to say. On paper you feel this game should be far easier than people seem to be expecting. Remember we've already gone over there and won - this is the simple bit against a team just beaten by the Faroes.

But how distracting has the preparation been? Seems to be a problem with some Rangers players, a little case of history repeating itself at Ibrox with Smith and McCoist unable to halt a slide back to the unprofessional (although successful) days of Smith's last reign.

If Barry Ferguson was aware of a curfew and willfully ignored it then it really should be time to edge him out of the starting eleven. A captain with that much experience should not let themselves get into this position - he's 31 now so you can't really excuse him for being a bloody idiot. McGregor? What a time we're living in when both Old Firm keepers seem to be pretty much crazy. As I pointed out on Twitter earlier, at least there was no rowing boat involved.

April Fools dealt with, what can we expect tonight. Not more of the same. It's a home game against inferior opposition and it seems likely our formation will be a lot different. I still worry that Fletcher and Miller are unlikely to spark a goals bonaza so it will, as ever, be important that Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown get forward in support.

Hopefully Craig Gordon will be fully prepared despite the strange build up. He won't let us down and should, after tonight and recent events, be installed as Scottish number one again. At the back McManus will be hoping to show that he is now full time captain material - the only question mark is his injury but if he's been declared fit then good luck to him. It's unlikely that Hutton will last 90 minutes but he will offer something that we've been missing.

I don't predict a classic but I think we might end up winning with something - not much, but something - to spare. C'mon boys, don't let me down!

How bad are we?

During my trip to Holland a few weeks ago I noted with interest, if not surprise, that almost every decision by the referee or linesman was greeted with a barrage of missiles (coins, lighters etc) thrown by the home support.

Now the mighty ADO Den Haag have a reputation for being a bit crazy but speaking to people in Holland and watching a bit of football there and here it seems to me that this is not an isolated incident. It certainly happens elsewhere in the continent (remember the infamous pig's head at Barcelona?) far more regularly than it happens in Scotland.

I happened to have in my possession that night around a dozen AAA batteries (don't ask, suffice to say bargain hunting can survive the exchange rate if you know where to look) which, were I of a mind, would have been quite wonderful objects to throw. I'm quite sure they would have been binned had I been searched going into a Scottish ground. In The Hague the security guard patting me down just looked at them, nodded (clearly a fellow tight arse) and waved me on my way.

Likewise a couple of years ago a London derby (Chelsea and Spurs, for reasons of precision) ended with ten people getting stabbed within two miles of the ground. Coincidence? Nah, probably not.

Now I don't want to get bogged down in a "we're marginally less criminally minded than you" argument. But are UEFA cracking down on Dutch clubs? Are the Metropolitan Police embroiling all Londoners in a bout of communal soul searching as the Strathclyde force did a couple of weeks ago in Glasgow?

I don't think they are. But Rangers and Celtic fans - a minority of whom probably deserve all they get - are watched like hawks. You can read in The Observer's excellent "Said and Done" column almost every Sunday how UEFA and FIFA take what might, extremely charitably, be called a softly, softly approach to racism (as Dave Zirin in Welcome To The Terrordome notes they're not above a spot of institutionalised racism either) yet they seem to be prepared to be a lot harsher on Scottish sectarianism?

Are we, as a minority football nation, picked on because we are relatively insignificant? Well, you can hardly say the ADO Den Haag are a powerhouse of European football so the reasons would seem to run deeper than that.

I think partly we are bringing this on ourselves. When you start having rows about the hokey cokey you know that the battle against sectarianism is a long way from being won. It makes the whole country look backward. But our politicians are essentially inviting the footballing authorities to come in and hammer us.

You see, if you're a politician, it sounds great to moan about sectarianism. The majority of us who abhor prejudice can't argue with that, right? Absolutely. But there is a trade off - what about the sizable minority that support the Old Firm? Now they're not all bigots but even some of those that aren't might soon get pissed off at the constant abuse their team is getting.

So our politicians cop out. They raise the issue and say it's just terrible. Very pleased they are to lead the moaning. But they seem to forget their leadership credentials when it actually comes to doing anything about it. So here we are, a grown up country, own parliament and everything, and a bunch of elected clowns saying "Oh, look at us in Scotland, we've got all these bigots that we can't do anything about, please help."

That makes it very easy for UEFA to smash Rangers the next time they go abroad. Far easier than it is for them to smash Spain for having a vocal racist element in the stands and in the dug-out.

Again, I'm not saying that what we hear in Scotland is any better or worse than racist chanting (in fact if we look closely there remains a racist undercurrent in a lot of Scottish stands) but we are now a victim of double standards in our treatment by the footballing authorities.

Why don't our politicians set up a European wide consultation to rid football of all bigotry and violence? Why don't they work with UEFA and FIFA to set punishments that will actually really harm the clubs in question - by which I mean really, really harm their bank balances rather than denting their reputations?

Any politicians wondering why, for all Rangers bigot busting bluster, the problem remains need only look at themselves. Talking about doing something is not the same as actually doing it. Martin Bain might well have learnt that watching Holyrood Live.

Our politicians started the debate but weren't prepared to finish it. They could have started something across Europe. Instead they were content just to have opened their mouths. That has given UEFA carte blanche to use the Old Firm as its whipping boys. That in itself is no bad thing but the problems, in Glasgow, London, Barcelona, The Hague and Rome all remain unsolved thanks to a combination of UEFA's essential corruptness and the craven opportunism of Holyrood's finest.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Friends like these?

Who would be an international manager? George Burley has been on a hiding to nothing since he got the job. Fabio Capello has to keep his cool in the face of increasingly hysterical attempts to get him to pick a woefully out of form and uncomfortable Michael Owen.

George and Fab are both bearing the brunt of some dishonest journalism. The group of Scotland players that took such great strides under Walter Smith was already beginning to creak by the time Alex McLeish presided over the failure to qualify for Euro 2008. Although some of Burley’s decisions have been questionable he is too often constrained by the lack of resources. The same lack of resources that Mcleish offered as an excuse for a timid defeat in Georgia that all but killed our World Cup plans.

But McLeish didn’t suffer the opprobrium of the Glasgow media in the same way that Burley has. Some of the pundits and journalists may well be making a principled stand against someone they see as an inferior manager intent pushing the team down a blind alley. If that were the case would they not have given him more time to show what he can do? Instead Burley was found guilty and then set the almost impossible task of getting the press on side before he’d even started. In truth anything he achieves with this Scotland team will be despite the fans in the media.

The difference? Why can one do no wrong and the other do no right? It’s a pattern that’s followed McLeish down the years – even in the darkest days at Rangers there were those in the media that would have defended him to the death.

His mates mainly. McLeish has cutely played the press throughout his career. In the lean times the friendships he’s developed have been allowed to cover a multitude of sins. Burley, apparently less comfortable in public, doesn’t have those relationships. Spending much of his career down south robbed him of the chance to ingratiate himself in the insular world of Scottish football. The result is the ongoing backlash now he’s back at Hampden.

In England, Capello has to answer the same questions about lost wunderkind Owen at each international fixture. One of the first generation of true English global superstars Owen has made money and found fame as being the bland, dull, boy next door antidote to Brand Beckham. Part of that role has been to cultivate journalists keen to tell us how this ordinary multimillionairre is just like any other bloke who happens to commute to work by helicopter.

Those journalists he charmed during his ascendancy are now on hand to act as cheerleaders. Paul Hayward often takes the lead. But then as Hayward moonlights as Michael’s biographer we would expect that, wouldn’t we?

This blog, of course, is based entirely on my opinion so who am I to judge? And Burley, Capello, Owen and McLeish are well paid wealthy men who can take whatever stick they get and run whatever media campaigns they want. I accept all that.

But when the media becomes so obsessed with its own agenda, when it bleats on and on about something until it becomes a distraction that managers and players do not need, then there is a problem. When that happens, and I really think we’re now past the point of no return, it is journalism itself that is devalued and it is us, the paying punters, who are short changed.

The man who was king

The Big Man shows off a few trinkets
Maybe there is a danger that those of us who don’t go to bed at night dreaming green and white hooped dreams might be beginning to forget about Jock Stein. In the 40 odd years since his Lions tamed the Lisbon heat to conquer Europe the game has moved on. The Celtic of today would be all but unrecognisable for a man who belonged to a different era and who, you guess, would be unlikely to have approved of Scottish football or European football in its modern incarnation.

Perhaps less damagingly to the heritage of the beautiful game there is also a risk that those of us who suffered the wretched death throes of Scotsport might have allowed it to slip our minds that in Archie Macpherson, despite the increasingly frequent “misspeaking,” we have a throwback to the days – many claim the glory days – of Arthur Montford and Alex ‘Candid’ Cameron.

So it seems timely that these two should come together, one the posthumous, looming subject and the other the enthusiastic, admiring yet often critical biographer, in Jock Stein: The Definitive Biography, a book that often reads like a ballad not just for a lost genius but of a distant and increasingly, it seems, mythical past.

Amidst the blether we hear all but constantly about the Old Firm hatred Stein was a man born of one tribe who came to embody the other. Sectarianism seems to have appalled him - on one occasion he leapt into the crowd to disperse a group of singing bigots - he nonetheless framed his Celtic career in the battle to crush Rangers.

But the stern, gruff disciplinarian that has travelled down the years was every bit the media football showman that Brian Clough - another genius who couldn't handle the dour Yorkshire of Leeds - is cited as inventing. Indeed that leap into the terracing was timed to coincide with the dull Rangers boss Willie Waddell appealing for a little bit of peace, love and understanding from the Ibrox masses. Stein stole his thunder.

Managers like Stein are all but a lost breed but his legend lives on in the dugout at Old Trafford. Perhaps, in time, we will recognise Sir Alex Ferguson's genius to be his enduring ability to adapt the disciplinarian, ultra controlling Stein model to suit the modern game - a trick that sadly eluded Stein as his reign at Parkhead ebbed away.

On matters media Stein also set the tone for Ferguson, at once prickly, controlling, paranoid and generous. As a teetotaller he could have been a fish out of water with the drinking men on the football press corp. Instead he charmed, bullied and beguiled in equal measure. Only latterly in his Scotland years did the media stop singing from the song sheet he laid down.

The record, of course, speaks for itself. Stein's achievements will never be matched - could never be matched - in a changed game.

Macpherson recounts the tale with vigour and with genuine attachment to a subject he came to know well. True, as we might expect from Archie, some of the turns of phrase are odd - one in particular involving the pros and cons of protected sex leaves you with images that you really wish you'd never had - and the often leaden style of his later commentaries translates itself too often to the page.

For all that, however, the author has the benefit of having known Stein in the years leading up to that fateful night in Wales. As Stein mellowed he shared his memories: a rich seam that Macpherson mines lovingly, aided by solid gold anecdotes from players such as Jimmy Johnstone and Tommy Gemmill.

The flip side of such a strong character is shown as well. The win at all costs attitude is perhaps best displayed by the resentment felt by some of those celebrated, blazered Lions who feel the team was too quickly ripped apart as the manager tried to repeat the alchemy of 1967.

Warts and all, this is a fitting tribute to the greatest and most irreplaceable force Scottish football has ever known.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pun intended

More reliable than an internet connection
The glamorous life of the international football journalist? Not quite. As Christopher Davies shows in Behind the Back Page: Adventures of Sports Writer there are drawbacks. True you get to see the best games (in theory) and talk to the superstars (not always a pleasure) but along the way you have to deal with internet connections, airports, bad hotels and boredom.

It is, in short, just a job.

But it’s a job that Davies has done for a long time and – if never reaching the hallowed upper echelons of the football scribe – has done well.

Unfortunately the full flavour of that career is not quite captured here as the book takes the form of a diary covering his last days on the Daily Telegraph.

There’s still plenty of time for reminiscing – and Davies is cute enough to realise that a Brian Clough or Jack Charlton anecdote always goes down well – but the day to day stuff can leave you feeling that Davies’ career deserved to be defined by more than his last two international tournaments.

The Superbowl entries – Davies is a long time chronicler of American sport’s big event – offer an interesting perspective on the annual jamboree. Depressingly, of course, in these times of security, media control and mega bucks the journalists experience of major events is similar whatever the sport.

The most startling thing about the book is just how eager Davies is to share his love of puns. Playing on words, dredging through his joke book, this humour is emblazoned on every page. At times it’s genuinely funny. At other times what works at the bar doesn’t always work on the page. That means it can be an occasionally wearing experience rather than the laugh out loud hoot that is obviously intended.

That aside there is plenty here to keep the football fan going and the 2002 World Cup chapters offer an interesting sideways look at how big events – think Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy, a room full of players and mouthful of inventive swearing – which may captivate or appal the fan are simply another headache to be negotiated on the way to a deadline for the media pack.

There have been better sports books, there are better books on journalism and there are funnier books. But it remains a pleasure to read a book by a veteran foot soldier of the trade, somebody who – despite the grumpy old man fa├žade – clearly remains in love with both sport and his job.

Songs, joints and a share of the points

ADO's lucky charms

ADO Den Haag 1:1 NAC Breda21st February 2009
The Hague

There are a couple of things you should bear in mind before visiting ADO Den Haag.

Firstly, take some form of ID. They will insist on photocopying your passport or driving licence with your ticket. I didn’t have any, obviously, and had to beg to be let in.

Secondly, if you are given the option of "loud" or "quiet" seats you are a victim of Dutch understatement. Quiet translates as mental. Loud translates as even more mental. You can take your pick from there.

The ground itself is brand new. It’s not massive and it wasn’t full for what was a potential relegation tussle with NAC Breda. It is in the middle of an industrial estate a few tram stops and a bit of a walk away from, well, anywhere really. You get the feeling that the football fans are tolerated and no more by an urbane, international, royal city.

That rules out pre match drinks and you’re then given tantalising glimpses of beer and wine in the stadium kiosks. Unfortunately you can’t buy it until after the game so you’re kind of stuck if you need a drink. Thoughtfully Den Haag take your mind off your thirst by employing the man who may – or may not – be All Holland Karaoke Champion to treat the crowd to some songs of yesteryear. Standing in the centre circle mugging for all he was worth he truly inspired the masses to new levels of being almost interested.

When you take your seat (there are numbers on the ticket but these seem to be disregarded – which makes you wonder why the night has to start off with a complicated ID related debate) you soon realise that the lack of alcohol is merely a discouragement rather than a total deterrent in the battle against drunk fans.

This being Holland the coke bottles full of vodka are augmented by joints of all shapes and sizes in mind boggling quantities. Truly there was something in the air.

This was particularly prevalent in the "loud" section which seemed to be made up by the "young team" of one or more of Den Haag’s more partisan supporters groups. It would be too much to say that greasy mullets and dirty leather jackets were de rigeur but they would certainly help you blend in.

This is an all seater stadium where actually sitting is frowned upon – although the woman in front of us rather quaintly covered the seat in tissues before sitting down. If not for sitting, the seats do serve the valuable purpose of allowing fans to vent their frustration by kicking them repeatedly until they fly free of their bolts and collide with the backside of whoever is standing in front.

The game itself began badly and then clung grimly to the idea of mediocrity throughout the first half – this was lower half of the SPL stuff at best. The pitch seemed to have been liberally covered in sand which inspired the players to play like camels.

With some Laurel and Hardy defending giving Breda the lead the only moment of brevity came when the visitor’s centre forward did his hamstring. Not that you want to laugh at an injured player but the whole crowd chanting the A-Team theme tune when the medics trot on is seriously worth importing to Scotland.

The second half was an improvement as both teams remembered how to control the ball and play a pass. This coincided – but was probably not inspired by – the introduction of a full back who appeared to be some sort of cult hero for Den Haag. He was also one of the slowest full backs I’ve seen since about 1985. Physically imposing, to see him trundle up the flank was like watching John Regis run the 200 metres in frame-by-frame slow motion.

At this point I became somewhat distracted as the young gun next to me began to dispel any fears that a huge drug and alcohol cocktail might have a detrimental affect on your balance. As he teetered on the tiptoes of one foot at the very edge of his seat he displayed all the gravity defying qualities, if not the grace, of a ballerina. That he could do this while rolling a joint in one hand could only be applauded.

A cute free kick from one of their more experienced players brought Den Haag level and brought a new intensity to the crowd who when they had finished celebrating – mainly drunken stumbles and man to man hugs so physical that there would have been homoerotic undercurrents but for the lingering suggestion of violence – they began to scent that this could be one of those nights when Den Haag nicked one of their legendary late goals. It was not to be. A frantic last fifteen minutes ensued but neither side could find the decisive goal.

As unsatisfying as a draw always is we began to get the feeling that our comrades behind the goal, having gone through disillusion, celebration and male bonding, were now looking for something else and a goal either way would have sparked some dodgy scenes. Both teams may have wanted the points but the draw made our tram journey a hell of a lot nicer.

Dutch friends tell me that Den Haag have a reputation for violence and casuals. Having been in The Hague when Dutch internationals have been played I can see that a threat of things getting out of hand is probably always there. But on a cold night in February they were a lot of fun to watch.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not quite real Roy of the Rovers stuff

How do you write a biography of a comic strip character? It's not an everyday question but it is certainly one worth considering before you sit down to write a biography of a comic strip character.

From the start it seems a quandary that Mick Collins has been unable to solve in Roy of the Rovers: The Unauthorised Biography.

And that's a shame because along the way Collins allows those of us of a certain age to wallow in nostalgia as we look back on the epic playing career of one of the game's great talents.

The books comes across as a hybrid. Here it's a pure biography of Roy, there it's a study of the decline of the once mighty British comic industry, turn the page and suddenly its a potted history of the characters that shared the comic with the antics of Melchester.

Each of these is enjoyable but sharing one book it is impossible to do them all justice.

Collins also can't seem to get the tone right. At times he seems to think writing a hagiography of an ageing comic star is no job for a grown man so adopts a knowing, mocking tone that jars with his stated intention and soon becomes waring.

Similarly he seems to lose the thread of his own argument. First he notes the change in football, society and childhood expectations as being the reasons for Roy's downfall - a pattern that the comic industry as a whole can attest to.

Then he points the finger of blame at the writers for becoming too repetitive and too outlandish.

Which was it? We're not quite sure because the author has already told us that the stories were cyclical because the audience was always changing - so the second earthquake at Mel Park may have been the second time the earth moved for Roy but for the majority of readers the first had happened before their parents were born.

And from the outset we are told that Roy had to be part footballer, part moral leader, part super sleuth, part one man crime statistic and part superhero to keep the readers attention and fill the pages during the long summer months.

It's no coincidence that Roy's death throes came as Collins' own interest waned - he had outgrown the comic like generations had before him.

That this book is a missed opportunity is a shame because along the way Collins raises some interesting points about how football, society and the interaction between the two has changed. And for those of us who used to follow Melchester Rovers as religously each midweek as we followed our teams each Saturday there are plenty of welcome reminders of our long gone childhoods. The book is, in fact, a perfectly enjoyable read. In the digestion, however, this reader remained unsatisfied.

The real biography of Roy Race has already been told in the perfect form - the comic strip - in the excellent Playing Years compendium. This book could and should have been a welcome companion piece to that if only Collins could have made up his mind about what he wanted to say.

In the end, of course, Roy was of his time. He was the vibrant, magical, mythical antidote to what Rodney Marsh has called a "grey game played by grey people on grey days." In the days of Sky anointed, technicolour millionaires competing for hero worship there is little place for Roy of the Rovers - except in the memories of those who were lucky enough to be there.

Netherlands 3 - 0 Scotland

Can I say much? Probably not. Another tale of what might have been, lost dreams and happily drunken fans.

Sometimes brave displays and happy drunks are not enough. Were they enough tonight? I honestly don't know.

We started well, much better than expected. We had Holland rattled and De Jong's yellow card was the least they deserved. Arguments could be made that they should have been down to ten men before half time.

I felt they were rattled, turned up for a walkover and weren't sure what to do when it turned out they had a bit of battle.

But when we had the chance to make a statement our hero in waiting failed. Kenny Miller is not an international striker. Through on goal he took one, two, three touches. It would have been four but he was tackled. A striker would have scored. Miller didn't even win a corner.

The goals we lost were poor. Last time we were there we lost six goals. Surely, that in mind, you place a premium on concentration. Apparently not as two free headers kill us.

The referee wasn't great but he blew very early on the goal that never was. Fletcher pulled a shirt - normal jostling - but did we expect a decent performance from a ref we already suspected was dodgy?

The disallowed goal leads to a penalty (stone waller) and we're dead. Game turning decision? No. Had we scored a team so far superior it's painful would have scored more or contained us.

But we knew this was a hiding to nothing. What do we learn?

We should learn that Ross McCormack is now an international footballer. Gary Teale isn't and never was.

Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown deserve more than to be lumped into an all singing midfield trio with Barry Ferguson. The captain has had his day and is entirely peripheral in the team Burley wants to create.

Our defence can take injuries, suspensions and more but concentration needs to be drummed into them.

And Kenny Miller, for all his running, can no longer be considered an international striker.

And, of course, that we always run the risk of losing to teams that are so much better than us. But. But - we had a chance to make an impact tonight. And sadly some of our players let us down.

We were unlikely to beat Holland but let's try and beat other sides before we beat ourselves.