Saturday, August 15, 2009

SPL fixtures (and predictions)

The SPL returns today. I know this momentous moment in the nation's cultural and sporting life is being celebrated. Up and down the country flags are being raised as an entire population quivers with anticipation of finding out, in about 10 months, which one of two evil empires will win the league.

Anyway. Here goes:

Aberdeen v Celtic
The lunchtime curtain raiser. As the ESPN anchor will no doubt christen this one. Aberdeen are in funk of financial and European inadequacy. Celtic have one eye on Arsenal. Celtic will win.

Hibernian v St Mirren
The stability of Gus McPherson versus yet another new broom sweeping the stench of under achievement out of Easter Road. Funnily enough this is a match up of two of the teams who should be better placed to see off the Setanta shortfall. That won't matter tomorrow. Hibs have been goal shy but look firmer at the back. For all their apparent rediscovered flowing football though the jury's out on their ability to handle physicality. With that in mind St Mirren should have a game plan. Draw.

Kilmarnock v Hamilton
How will Hamilton handle some key departures. How will Kilmarnock cope with a pre season of such financial turbulence that a strike was almost called by suddenly militant players? Today won't answer those questions unfortunately. Hamilton to win.

Rangers v Falkirk
Much anticipation at Ibrox as Walter Smith gets set to unveil his radically overhauled squad. Oh, right then. Eddie May has given the Bairns a face lift. He'll still lose today though.

St Johnstone v Motherwell
The new boys hoist their First Division flag against Jim Gannon's new look Motherwell. St Johnstone to kick off with a close home win.

Dundee Utd v Hearts (Monday)
The first skirmish in the fight for third? Possibly. Not an easy game to hit the ground running. Draw.

So there we have it. I'm not a great fan of the first day of the season. Always feels like a bit of a let down as the players try to shrug off the torpor of endless friendlies. So today (and Monday) will probably be low on thrills.

To keep up with the latest action the BBC's SPL page has had a makeover during the off season (and the day one table always makes pleasant reading for Aberdeen fans - at least until 4.48pm).

No blogging in the afternoon from me. But if I can drag myself away from the rain soaked barbecue I'll probably try and tweet. Enjoy.

Time to look forward

In countries across the world the pre season build up always has the feel of a phony war.

Sadly this year in Scotland has seen the phony war produce a number of high profile casualties.

Falkirk, Motherwell and Aberdeen out of Europe. Scotland all but out of the 2010 World Cup. That's the football side.

Off the pitch Setanta have disappeared into a financial quagmire. Sky and ESPN have come in and picked up the scraps but ensured the 12 SPL clubs are frantically rewriting budgets.

The Scottish Football League's handling of Livingston, combined with the internal wranglings over the SPL TV deal and growing disgruntlement over the governance of the SFA, has added to the impression that Scottish football is run by plonkers.

Oh, what a lovely summer.

But tomorrow the SPL finally kicks off. Will it offer a cure for our all our ills?

No. It won't. It will be grimly predictable as ever. Same top two. Probably same top six. Probably much the same in the basement.

But we need this year to at least provide some compelling drama within that repetitive narrative.

It would be nice if the title wasn't decided by one of the Old Firm being slightly less bad than the other.

It would be nice if a number of teams brought through and sustained talented and exciting youngsters.

It would be nice if the season's most enduring tale didn't involve the national team captain getting pissed and then pissed off.

It would be nice if the blazerati could knock their heads together and come up with a plan for a reorganisation of the game that offers real hope for moving forward.

It would be nice if clubs could reconnect with their fans and recognise that the supporters are what sustains the game.

It would be nice if we could get through a season without a bigotry controversy, real or manufactured.

It would be nice if things were different.

Will they be? Who knows? I don't. I don't hold out much hope. But my predictions are often crap.

Tony Mowbray's commitment to playing "proper" football remains admirable. Let's hope it can survive the pressures of Celtic.

Ranger's financial stagnation means their squad has stagnated. Let's hope that doesn't mean the SPL is a one horse race.

Craig Levein's dictatorship at Dundee United continues to gather pace. Let's hope this year's results are strong enough for him to keep the support of the powers that be. An example of a club finding success through stability would be a powerful message to other clubs.

St Johnstone and Hamilton both surviving this season would continue to breathe life into the SPL. With decent managers and honest squads they can give hope to others that ambition can bring its rewards without having to flirt with financial ruin.

Many reasons to be pessimistic. A few that bring some optimism. But after a long, hard summer we can only hope that the SPL kick off quickly delivers a few of those fabled green shoots of recovery.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Thursday look-a-like

To cheer us all up a Thursday look-a-like featuring Frank McAvennie and Betty from Emmerdale. Thanks to my brother for the shout on this one.

By the way, occasionally a Google search for Frank comes up with a sponsored link: Talk to Frank - Your Drugs Questions Answered.

You couldn't make that up.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The ba's burst

Norway 4 : 0 Scotland

Stone the crows. That was bad. Really bad, Berti Vogts bad.

Excuses and mitigation first. The red card was probably justified but you might still feel slightly hard done by. And we'd had a couple of minor sights at goal by that point.

And the free kick was deflected. But if you turn your back and jump into a free kick then the ball can go anywhere. Them's the breaks.

Of course really there can be no excuses. Hopeless, clueless, rudderless, leaderless, naive. Write a list of adjectives that shouldn't describe an international football team. Scotland were every one of those things tonight. And more.

We could have lost six or seven. And we did actually concede five before a moment of generosity from the officials denied Carew the goal that his performance deserved. A towering, pivotal performance that was amplified by the woeful inadequacy of the Scots.

You're hard pushed to find any heroes tonight. This was a team bonded by anonymity and coherent only in their woeful inability to come together as a serious international football team.

Gary Caldwell and George Burley will be the fall guys. And Caldwell was certainly silly to get his first booking and stupid to not avoid trouble in the minutes following that.

But with ten men Scotland looked like they had only five players on the park. For international footballers that reaction is not good enough. Not nearly good enough.

The calls will be for Burley to go now. Tonight. This minute. Many will want him to jump off the plane over the North Sea to better atone for his sins.

But who wants to inherit a team that's on the verge of failure. Let Burley see out this campaign. Then get a new man – if you can find one – before the Japan game.

Mathematicians will say qualification is still possible.

But maths doesn't win football matches and the job of raising that group of players seems too much. Even a second place in the group would probably not be enough.

We've failed to beat Norway and Macedonia so far in this group. That's not the form that deserves play off places let alone a seat at Fifa's South African jamboree.

"Whatever could have gone wrong tonight went wrong." That was Burley's reaction to this enormous failure.

After coming so close to Euro 2008 we were looking to take the next step. For that we needed a new leader. We were looking for Churchill. We were given Mr Mainwaring.

The sound of laughter you hear? That's coming from somewhere in Birmingham.

Norway v Scotland: Team news

The Scotland team to face Norway:


Caldwell, G
Caldwell, S



First impressions:

No place for McFadden: Impact sub? I would have thought tonight might have been a night to use him to create a spark.

Lone frontman: Miller supported by McCormack and Commons as well as Brown and Fletcher. Puts pressure on the midfielders to score because there is a good chance Miller won't (remember Amsterdam - one touch, two touch, three touch, tackle!).

Holding midfielder: No place for the veteran Hartley. Replaced by the young gun that is 49 year old Graham Alexander. I don't really understand why that decision's been made. We'll see if it works.

Comeback kid: Callum Davidson back for the first time in seven years and, at 33, another injection of true youthful vigour.

Keeper: No surprise that Marshall plays with Alexander spending the last couple of weeks trying to talk himself out of both the Rangers and Scotland teams. There's modesty and there's being a bloody idiot.

The verdict: Remains the same. We can do it in a dull and methodical way. It's pretty close to the team a lot of people would have picked with the players in the squad. We might hear more about some of the more leftfield decisions if it all goes wrong though.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Scots can crack Norse Code

Injury call offs, an unfortunate schedule and a bloody idiot refusing to shut up.

It’s often difficult to distinguish George Burley from the condemned man waiting for the hangman to knock at the cell door. But sometimes the air of despondency seems to be just about justified.

Of course injuries and the timings of international matches can’t be controlled by the Scotland manager. And he can’t legislate for either the infernal whining of the ridiculous manchild Ferguson or the Glasgow media’s insistence on reporting his every word despite the clear evidence that King Barry is now but an inglorious footnote in the history of Scottish football.

Still it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that if George Burley fell in the Clyde he would, in fact, drown.

But let’s accentuate the positives. The squad, although lacking experience in some areas, is as Burley picked it. There have been injuries but none of the last minute call offs that the international manger usually suffers.

Both teams are approaching this as a must win if they are to keep their alive their chance of clinching second place behind Holland. For Scotland a second place finish will not only deliver a play off boost but could also provide a much needed boost to our seeding for future qualification tournaments.

And we certainly can win. Fletcher and Brown might still need a bit of time to gel but they can provide the nucleus of a strong midfield, a midfield that can actually be more balanced in the absence of Barry Ferguson.

James McFadden’s return will please both the manager and the fans, a morale boost that should transmit to the squad while Ross McCormack has impressed already and will look to make another impact.

Scotland can win. Some might say Scotland should win.

But there’s always a chance we won’t. For me there is just too much plodding ordinariness in the team. Sometimes the better players can raise those around them and sometimes it works the other way around. That’s the tightrope the national boss must walk.

I don’t doubt that Burley has the experience and skills to do the job. But I don’t think he’s been comfortable in it from the beginning. And when you’re dealing with the players only intermittently with no real margin for error then not being comfortable in the role is one hell of a drawback. Somewhere along the line that issue needs to be addressed.

But not today and not tomorrow.

There’s a game on and that is the important thing.

I’m going for a dull, dull game brightened only by Scotland emerging victorious. But it will be close and the safer bet might well be on the draw that is neither one thing or the other for either side.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Scots wey hey?

I can’t quite figure it out but I really think I’m beginning to care less and less about Scotland.

I’ll watch the game on Wednesday night. And I’ll be keen for us to do well. But I’ll be watching more in hope than expectation, I’ll be an armchair fan with very little invested in the result.

The thought of taking a trip to Hampden, far less trekking to Oslo, fills me with absolutely no wonder at all.

I was as incensed as the next man when Barry Ferguson and Allan McGreggor "shamed the nation." But it strikes me that the most emotional interaction I’ve had with Scotland since the Italy game (maybe even before as it always looked like we had too much to do) is being annoyed at a couple of neds acting like neds are supposed to.

And that seems odd to me. What’s going on?

Maybe its simply the inevitable apathy that is bred by repeated failures. When I was two Scotland played in the World Cup. They repeated that every four years (apart from once) until I was 18. They also notched up two Euro’s in that time.

We might not have done much when we got to major tournaments but by God we were as good as anyone at getting there.

Maybe the run of recent failures has made my formative years seem like a golden age of achievement. Maybe I’m simply getting old and turning into one of those "in my day, X, Y, Z were much better" grumpy old idiots that go to every football ground in the land.

Maybe it’s the manager. Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown made being dull a virtue. George Burley strikes me as being one of the dullest men to have ever walked on the Hampden turf. I’m sure he’s not as bad as he seems but his mournful delivery and apparent “woe is me” reaction to every minor setback doesn’t inspire confidence.

If you’re going to pitch yourself as a duller version of Craig Brown then you really need to get success quite quickly to have any hope of capturing the public imagination. Chris Iwelumo sclaffing at a chance that Douglas Bader would have put away comfortably is probably not the level of glory you’re aiming for.

Then there’s the players. James McFadden might be a throwback who repeatedly has the pundits in raptures but is he a figure for a nation to rally around. Chick Young obviously thinks so. Clearly agreeing with Chick is out of the question so we’ll need to look elsewhere.

Stephen McManus? Nah. You can’t command the respect of a country when you’re clearly not good enough to live up to a hysterical press billing. Not even the new Colin Hendry let alone the new Billy McNeill.

Alan Hutton? Craig Gordon? A full back and a goalkeeper who may or may not get first team action for their clubs this year.

Scott Brown and Darran Fletcher? They need to come to the fore. If they don’t grab this squad, and the nation, by the scruff of the necks then nobody else well. But are either of them yet the characters that we need to galvanise a country?

So the manager and players aren’t helping me get over this growing disconnection. What else is there?

The fans. The fabled Tartan Army. The best fans in the world.

What a bunch of guys. But, you know, I find them increasingly cliquey and arrogant about their status as the best fans in the world. And all the enforced jollyness looks like bloody hard work.

Drinking all day and still having the energy to stand and sing catchy, if antiquated, ditties into a freezing night sky in a country you’d never heard of the last time Scotland played in a World Cup takes discipline. This is no longer going to the game with a few mates. This is football supporting as an endurance sport, fandom taken to Olympian heights. Smile though your heart is breaking…

Well, actually don’t. Somewhere along the line we’ve got confused. We seem to think that the only alternative to a destructive rampage through foreign cities when we get beaten is a laughter fuelled rampage through foreign cities when we get beaten.

Seriously, why the need for such extremes? Is the constant, maunfactured atmosphere of extreme happiness not exhausting. If I was a fully paid up member of the Tartan Army – I think I’m too misanthropic to be allowed – I’d be fecking knackered the whole time.

So there we have it. A lack of success. A manager who seems to be aiming to come across as a kind of inverted Ally Macleod. Players who are decent, honest and hardworking. But not players who are flirting with greatness. And loveable fans who are becoming increasingly less loveable because of their constant need to appear loveable.

The result is an increasing distance between myself and the national team. I watched the Holland game in particular with a sense of detachment. I wanted a good game certainly. I wanted Scotland to do well. But really I approached the game with the lack of passion you’d expect from a neutral. As I’m not becoming any less Scottish that’s strange.

Maybe it’s just me. I’m prepared to accept that. I am failing in my patriotic duty, a disgrace. People fought a war for my right to support Scotland. And I fling it back in their face.

Fine. Except I’m not sure it is just me.

The international game is being devalued by the neverending reach of the major European leagues. But Scotland, a small country used to punching above their weight with a weak domestic league, shouldn’t be in that position. The national team should still be a focal point.

And for many people it still is. But I don’t think I’m alone in becoming less passionate, less wrapped up in the country’s success and failures. And that’s a trend that worries me and one that I can’t find a cure for.

Livi-ing the dream?

So Scotland’s lower leagues kicked off on Saturday.

Dundee, powered by spending that is the envy of most SPL clubs, started with a win over Morton. The hope at Dens Park will be that they’ve done enough to buy promotion.

But although the cash offers an advantage, money on its own is no guarantee of success. Inverness will be looking to bounce right back up – their prolonged stay in the top flight has given them an SPL mindset and they’ll be eager to prove last season, however inconvenient, was but a temporary blip.

Elsewhere, Dunfermline will be aware that each season in the First Division makes it that much to escape back to the SPL.

But really what does any of that matter when the SFL is so clearly in thrall to a cult of amateurism? The lower divisions of Scottish football are never going to be a hotbed for brilliant football and multi million pound deals – that doesn’t happen when you’re the smallest of sprats in a miniscule pond.

That doesn’t mean they can’t provide drama and intrigue, bring through exciting talents and encourage clubs to become focal points in their community.

If all that was the case then supporters and interested neutrals would have looked on Saturday with optimism at the thought of a season full of potential, full of the highs and lows that make football so enduringly appealing.

Instead we got a shambles. And the blame for that lies with the incompetents that run the Scottish Football League. Everyone of those men (and, inevitably, it’s all men) should be asked to hand over the blazers and disappear.

I have nothing against Livingston. I’m delighted for their fans that they’ve survived. I fear that they remain unsustainable but they’ve had a stay of execution which offers time to prove me wrong.

To survive to the start the season they needed a number of things to fall into place. Amazingly, and at the last possible minute, the jigsaw came together. Livingston were spared and, thanks the largesse of the SFL, they remained in the First Division.

By committing themselves to sparing Livingston the SFL contravened their own rules. My guess is that they feared a club dying in the present climate. With money so tight Livingston represent the most extreme case of a general trend. The blazers feared that the lights going out at Almondvale would lead to a flurry of closures and implosions elsewhere.

So they broke their own rules but they did it with reasonable justification. The business sense of propping up struggling clubs is questionable but the decision being taken on compassionate grounds is entirely understandable.

So there we were. Livingston saved. The SFL compromised but intact with a full portfolio of member clubs for the new season.

And then the amateurism began to mingle with the malevolence of those little men in their blazers. Livingston, the First Division club with the First Division business plan, were told – with what? 24 hours notice? – that they would actually be playing in the Third Division. Just like that.

Resentment that Livingston were given special treatment and lingering resentment at the behaviour of the owner who drove Livingston to the precipice seems to have motivated the SFL into what accounts to an act of murder against a football club they had just saved.

And so the new owners, who stepped in with their own cash thanks to the apparent benevolence of the SFL, were royally screwed. You would like to think the consortium’s previous links with Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton – and some of the ill will that was left behind – had nothing to do with the knife in the back. You’d like to think that but you’d almost certainly be wrong.

Malevolence and small minded bitterness is what the people who form the labyrinthine subcommittees of the SFL and SFA do best. These men are the baddies from a hundred Ealing comedies. But this time nobody's laughing.

They gave to Livingston and then they took away. Because they can. And if there’s one thing a blazer likes it proving that he has power.

Understandably Livingston didn’t want to complete their fixture before the laboriously long appeals procedure had run its course. No problem said the SFL. Only you’ll start in the Third Division on minus 15 points if the appeal goes against you. That appeals process is fundamentally flawed – what else could it be? – because the people who sit in judgement will largely be the people who made the original decision.

My own view has long been that our attitude to the lower leagues is misguided. There shouldn’t be such resistance to closures and there shouldn’t be the constant rush to elect new members when the worst does happen. Relegation from the bottom division would also help to freshen things up.

But none of that has happened. Instead we’re left with the farcical situation of the SFL allowing Livingston to continue, apparently in the belief that they could be a viable business, only to then turn round and make it virtually certain that the business plan was doomed to failure.

Whatever else has gone on at Livingston the fans and players don’t deserve that.

What I find most depressing is how unsurprised I am. You expect the SFL to be run by incompetents. To their last blazered belly they never disappoint.

The game needs fresh ideas and a fresh approach. One governing body for all football run by professionals with the passion, drive and wit to make things happens would be a start.

It’s time for a night of the long knives at the Scottish Football League. Be quick though, because you can be sure they’ll be planning to stab you in the back first.