Friday, August 07, 2009

Book review: Cloughie - Walking On Water

Cloughie: Walking On Water is billed as being the life story of one of football most extraordinary managers. That story has, of course, been told elsewhere by both Clough himself and others in fact and in fiction.

Walking on Water retreads some of this ground – the phenomenal goalscoring record at both Middlesbrough and Sunderland, the anguish of a career cut short, the sheer joy of seeing a football philosophy capture imaginations and hearts at Derby and Forest, the bitterness of rejection by England as a player and manager – but also provides Cloughie's final verdict on football at large.

Unsurprisingly he's unimpressed with a lot of what sees. Arsenal are compared to the Leeds United of his nightmares although by the end of their unbeaten run (a stretch which knocked Clough's Forest out of the record books) he has been converted and calling for a statue of Arsene Wenger to be erected outside the FA as a reminder to all of how football should be played.

Recent events give the pages dealing with Sir Bobby Robson and added poignancy and Clough's old spark and nous are evident in his summary of the way Freddie Shepherd mismanaged Newcastle. But his affection for Sir Bobby completely contradicts Robson's recollection of a meeting between the two early in their management careers.

Robson's anecdote (basically Clough telling him to "fuck off") nudges you to the conclusion that Clough, so vehemently opposed to indiscipline off the pitch, could be narky, ill tempered and vengeful off it.

That conclusion is borne out by the break up with his old partner Peter Taylor. Clough, in his twilight years, is full of the regret of age over how he allowed the feud to go on until it was too late.

The Taylor episode is one of a few mistakes Clough will admit to. Leaving Derby in a fit of pique, taking the Leeds job to prove a point, staying too long at Forest and, most tragically of all, not realising how in thrall he was to alcohol until it was too late.

Writing this late in his life Clough remains astute about many of the big issues facing football. His chapters on what makes a great manager are compelling, his dismissal of today's TV commentators and pundits are completely on the nose.

It's intriguing to imagine how Brian Clough would have fared in the modern game. He admits to being unable to handle the problems Justin Fashanu brought to Nottingham but would he have learned enough to adapt like a Ferguson or Robson?

Poor health brought on by his drinking meant his career was short but by then he was already past his prime. Would he have quickly become an anachronism in the brave new world of the Premiership?

We'll never know but as an insight into the philosophy and approach of unique manager Walking On Water more than passes the test.

A small stylistic point. John Sadler, acting here as ghostwriter, was a friend of Clough's and he's made a fair stab at capturing the Cloughie rhetoric on the page. Unfortunately it begins to jar quite quickly.

Like Mohammed Ali's poetry, with Brian Clough the delivery was everything. It can look hollow and self indulgent when written down.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

We'll always have Moscow

Even for me getting a prediction wrong before the start of the season is quite impressive. But I'll admit Celtic's last minute heroics in Moscow proved me wrong. Had I actually bet my house on them winning I'd be writing this from somewhere more exotic than Edinburgh.

But Celtic did it last night and fair play to them. Their fans and those strange football followers who understand the labyrinthine complexities of the co-efficient applaud them.

Of course, churlish as it is to point this out now, tomorrow's final qualifying draw could see Celtic up against it again. A trip to the Emirates or some equally glamorous location will still be a tough ask.

For now though Celtic should be enjoying the feeling. And last night's draw has a couple of important meanings.

Firstly Celtic have got the away record off their backs. They've been unlucky, at times they've been heroic, but they've also lost to teams away from home that they should have beaten. Even if there are no easy games in Europe anymore the 23 game run has seriously dented any assertion that Celtic should be considered in the top tier of Europe.

That's now gone and should bring comfort and confidence to the players in either the Champion's League or the Europa League.

Secondly Tony Mowbray has avoided "doing a Strachan." Wee Gordon's relationship with the fans was what a counsellor might call complex. But the Artmedia Bratislava debacle kicked things off to the worst possible start.

Mowbray has been hailed as returning hero and there clearly seems to be a bond from the terraces that eluded Strachan. But football is fickle and defeat in Moscow would have left Mogga's position as flavour of the month that little bit more shoogly.

More than anyone else the manager will be aware that victory on Wednesday was not a defining moment and the road ahead remains a testing hike. But he'll also know that defeat could have been defining. He's too intelligent, too steeped in the game not to be relieved that the first hurdle has been cleared.

So a good night for Celtic. They'll be hoping that UEFA's ball janglers make it a very good week tomorrow.

Average football matches for under a tenner!

I know I might be the only football fan without access to Sky but, anyway, that's how it is.

I often make grandiose pronouncements about refusing to pour any of my hard earned and ever dwindling cash supplies into Rupert Murdoch's filthy empire.

And although I do believe that, there is a more prosaic reason. It seems I live in the only flat in any municipal area that can't receive either satellite or cable.

Apparently it's a major drawback of having neighbours are that are a) dead (a graveyard), b) oversized (a football stadium) and c) mysteriously quiet (a builder's yard that's a possible front for international money laundering).

The upshot of all that is that Setanta was a godsend. Not only was I given access to the strangely alluring Rebecca Lowe but I could also enjoy live football.

So Setanta's passing left me as bereft as Kilmarnock's accountant. Thankfully the Yanks, in the true spirit of John Wayne, have ridden out of the sunset and saved me.

If you have a Setanta card (or a Top Up TV box) then you can subscribe to ESPN. Phone the nice people there before the end of August and you'll get your first month free and the connection charge is waived.

It's £9.99 a month which, depending on when you signed up, is probably about what you were paying into the fast flowing drain that was Setanta.

As well as Rebecca, the SPL and the games from down south you'll also get Russian, German and sundry other European leagues. And the chance to see Mr Beckham have a hissy fit at US soccer's most militant supporters.

Bet you can't wait.

Oh, and I believe the bizarre spectacle that is Ultimate Fighting will also be available for the sadistic insomniacs amongst you.

(It would be remiss of me not to mention that ESPN is available on other platforms.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Reading the tea leaves

OK, I'll admit I got just about every call wrong last year – although I did redeem myself slightly by identifying Tony Mowbray the moment wee Gordon stepped away from Celtic.

But like Yves Makalambay I'm prepared to pull my gloves back on, hurl myself back into the fray and flirt with yet another calamity. These, then, are the Scottish Football Blog's SPL predictions for 2009/10.

Champions: Celtic, Celtic, Celtic. I said that last year but I'm even more convinced this time out that Rangers won't be able to match the pace Celtic set. Last year Rangers relied on a late push as Celtic stumbled. This year I'd guess their chance comes if they hit the ground running as Mowbray's philosophies and endless talk of looking players in the eye takes time to bed in. Even then I'd fancy Celtic to reel them in.

Third place: Will Lazlo keep Hearts in the hunt? I'd expect Dundee United to challenge (I got that wrong last year as well) and Craig Levein will be smarting at their failure to make Europe last season. So despite the Jam Tarts' iffy pre season I'll say third place is a fight between the tangerine half of Dundee and the maroon part of Edinburgh.

Mid table mediocrity: Jim Gannon seems to have a track record of performing in difficult circumstances. That might be enough to keep Motherwell free of relegation worries. There is a Yogi fuelled buzz at Easter Road but John Hughes will know himself that there are deficiencies throughout the team. Hibs will throw off last season's torpor but the top six that the board demand will be the height of their ambitions. St Johnstone should be able to make a decent show of themselves but will be hoping that Derek McInnes remains in charge throughout the season while St Mirren will be hoping to prove that they are definitely well established in the top flight.

Looking over their shoulders: Falkirk and Aberdeen are condemned to start the season after European humiliations that got the reigns of Eddie May and Mark McGhee off to the worst possible starts. How the managers and players react will define their seasons but I don't think either will do much other than flirt with the bottom before surviving with something to spare.

Condemned men: Hamilton face the difficult second season syndrome and they face it without their star player. That will lead to some squeaky bum moments but they will be spared as Kilmarnock go into freefall. Rugby Park is offering all the home comforts that so beguiled the young Oliver Twist when he first arrived at the orphanage. Jim Jeffries is a good manager and a good man but this year the constraints placed on him will be simply too much.

First for the chop: Casba Lazlo must be setting some sort of Romanov managerial longevity record but you still feel the axe constantly hovers. Jim Jefferies might well walk sooner rather than later with his season promising to turn into a tragicomic epic. Eddie May has much to prove but Falkirk are noted for their loyalty. A bad run for Rangers might see Wattie shuffled upstairs before the season's out. But my best guess is that with so many changes over the summer this will be a season of relative stability in the SPL dugouts.

Star man: It's not been a summer of marquee signings. Celtic will hope Marc Antoine Fortune gets over his Dinamo disasters to make an impact. Elsewhere the new signings seem to offer more hope than expectation. If Hibs can find a cutting edge then the role of Merouane Zemmama will be crucial. If they can't then all his trickery will be more window dressing than anything else.

One to watch: The Old Firm is an inhospitable place for young players. John Fleck seemed set to break that trend. He still might but it will be interesting to see if can stop acting like an idiot long enough to establish himself. At the moment he risks being the poor man's Barry Ferguson. The campaign to install Stephen McManus as a tartan John Terry overlooked some of the Celtic captain's limitations and ignored the fact that England's John Terry is somewhat limited himself. This is a season for him to prove himself.

An impact from leftfield: The signing of Danny Cadamarteri seemed to shock the Arabs. A career of unfulfilled potential has been given an SPL lifeline. Craig Levein will be hoping for an Indian Summer from the one time next big thing.

I will, of course, revisit this in May 2010 to provide further credence to the theory that I should never be allowed to cross the threshold of PaddyPower's fine website.

Summer lovin'

Gordon Smith is a man who, judging by his ever present tan, enjoys summer. For years now he has preached the joys of summer football with an evangelical zeal the equal of anything Billy Graham ever managed.

Perhaps he is scarred by memories of turning out on the mudbath pitches that British football used to do so well. Perhaps it's because a free winter would allow him to celebrate the festive season in more hospitable climes.

Whatever the reason he'll use any excuse to start banging the pulpit and extolling the virtues of soccer summers. Little surprise then that our abysmal European results gave Smith the chance to pull out his soapbox and head for speaker's corner.

Walter Smith apparently agrees with him – although that must be qualified by the knowledge that the Old Firm would agree to play in Siberia if it meant gaining a passport to English football's fortunes.

Smith, who this time seems guilty of trying to influence the work of an independent review body by galloping his hobby horse to the top of the agenda, may well be right.

But summer football would raise issues that Smith can't provide answers to. You're hard pressed to find a football fan who thinks the glut of changes in the modern game are all good. The powers that be think there is no limit to how far the supporters can be pushed. But would such a massive change be a step to far? The minute fans start voting with their feet the game is up.

Holidays, major televised sporting events and the simple comfort of age old habits suggest that football would not be promised a golden summer. And Scotland, already the runt of Europe's litter with the bizarre concept of the split, would again be out of line with Europe's major league as well as Fifa and UEFA's efforts to standardise the season.

And is summer football the cure all? Are we to accept that Aberdeen, Falkirk, Motherwell and Celtic all came a cropper because of match fitness. Aberdeen were humiliated at home and Falkirk lost to Lichtenstein's only professional team, a team that were relegated last season. That fact their squads are primed to be ready to play in snowy Decembers can only partially explain the lack of professional pride and basic ability that allows those meek capitulations to take place.

Gordon Smith's addiction to the gimmickry of summer football hides the fact that he seems less keen to address those deficiencies that pose a much more real threat to the health of the national game.

Smith, and others, should be posing the big questions and stimulating debate. But his blind adherence to the gospel of golden summers raises the wrong question at the wrong time.

Sir Bobby Robson

You can blame Princess Diana. You can blame the general dismantling of the British stiff upper lip. Whatever you blame it's hard to argue that we are beginning to devalue death by continually leaping into orgies of grief.

How can the great lives be properly marked when the Prime Minister mourns the death of racist reality TV stars? If Gordon Brown speaks ever so sincerely over the death of Jade Goody then what else can we do but doubt his sincerity as he emotes on the death of World War One veteran Harry Patch.

I wrote about this before, shortly after the death of Tommy Burns. A tongue in cheek response not to the death of a decent, honest man but to the idea that death – and so the life itself – is seemingly now measured in the length of the applause, the number of floral tributes and the amount of disruption caused to the fixture list. And, I must say, the Celtic fans took no little exception to my temerity: although their outrage, whether real or faux, seemed to somewhat illuminate my argument that we were in the hold of a facist fetish of death and grieving.

If the death of every one who has been on TV or appeared in Heat becomes the "loss of a legend" then the death of true legends is inevitably devalued.

But cynical as I am, I have found something moving, something totally genuine to the outpouring of grief that followed the death of Sir Bobby Robson.

Here was a football man through and through. He didn't survive at the top for so long, including eight years as England manager which coincided with the tabloids casting aside responsible journalism and turning into a rabid hunting pack, without a strong dose of steel in his soul.

That he did this while retaining the air of an avuncular uncle says much for his essential decency, his essential humanity. Of course the verbal slips helped the image, an unwitting PR dream from a man who probably had no truck with corporate image builders.

His "morning Bobby" greeting to Bryan Robson is the stuff of football legend. On the same trip a player was listening to his Walkman (link included for younger readers) and was singing along. Bobby overheard the refrain "the heat is on" and immediately began racing around checking the radiators and speaking darkly about Mexican schemes to sabotage his players by turning on the central heating despite the stifling heat outside.

My own favourite was a book signing when a girl asked Bobby if he'd signed many books. “Hundreds” he replied as he signed away. When she got home he'd written a lovely message. Inevitably he'd signed it "love, Bobby Hundreds."

His place in the national psyche was assured by a heady combination of Pavarotti, Gazza's tears and Nick Hornby's intellectualising of football. It survived his extended European sojourn and was cemented by the emotional return to St James' Park as a kind of grandfather for the national game.

But if he was a link to the rebirth of English football so he was also a link to a simpler and purer time. The recounting of his miracles at Ipswich over the last few days imbue his achievements there with a Corinthian spirit. Truly, we will never see their likes again.

In those days he couldn't have envisioned how Sky's millions would remove players from the orbit of the fans who no longer paid the major whack of their wages. Similarly the cult of manager would have astounded him and, as much he was proud of his protege, he must have looked a Jose Mourinho and sometimes wondered what kind of monster he had created.

He spent time down the pits before joining Fulham. This tied him to the likes of Stein and Shankly and also grounded him and so many footballers of his generation in a reality that is completely alien to the sort of millionaire players who so spinelessly took his beloved Toon into the championship.

As long as Bobby was around there was a link to a simpler time. Part of the grief surrounding his death is caused by the realisation that whatever direction football now takes the possibility of turning back the clock is gone. Robson had come to embody values that were disappearing from the game. They are now gone forever.

But above all the grief comes from the desire to pay tribute to a man who found wealth and success but never lost his pure enjoyment of the game. He called himself blessed to have lived his life. Such was the infectiousness of the enjoyment he took from his work, his enthusiasm for what he would always think of as the beautiful games, that those of use who followed his career felt some of those blessings rub off on us.

On Friday a radio phone in had the story of a group being shown round at Newcastle. They came face to face with Sir Bobby. One of the group, as happens when meeting a hero, become tongue tied. Feeling the need to say something he chose, bizarrely, to express his admiration for the great man's shoes.

Many managers would not have stopped to chat in the first place. Those that did might well have called security when opinions on their shoes were offered.

Sir Bobby on the other hand took his shoes off and handed them to his stunned interrogator: "You have them, son."

A small, quirky tale in a sea of anecdotes from the great and the good. But one, it seems to me, that provides a glimpse into the essential nature of a life well lived by one of the true football men.

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.