Friday, August 21, 2009

Yes, another bad night

Is there any point in dwelling on it?

We endure bad result after bad result.

We wonder how much more we can take.

How much more of Dougie Donnelly looking crestfallen? How much more of being laughed at?

And then we think: "Actually, no, stuff this - we’re not as bad as people are making out."

But suddenly, look out, a sucker punch.

Even by the miserable standards of this summer Hearts were bad last night.

They went to take on a decent – but not exceptional – side and suddenly the Tynecastle players didn’t appear confident in their teammates or in their own ability.

Up front was one of the few professional sports people outside of Japan that I would be confident of beating in a 100 yard dash. But not only was Nade slow – an affliction that can make him more appear more clueless than he actually is – he looked like he didn’t care. The Hearts fans should find that unforgiveable.

Was it a surprise? Not that Hearts lost. But that the tie should be so comprehensively over after the first leg is a bit more of a shock. This is, after all, the side that have most consistently been the “best of the rest” in Scotland.

The Romanov money may no longer flow down the Tynecastle terraces but they still pay reasonable wages and are enjoying a welcome period of stability. They will have expected more. And their fans should have got more.

The loss of an early goal is always difficult. But Hearts lost that goal through a series of individual mistakes. Not only did they fail to respond but they continued the same way. Individual performances were riddled with errors. The collective was blunt, shapeless and ultimately spineless.

Scotland, Falkirk, Aberdeen, Motherwell, Hearts. The list grows and grows.

This year has been exceptionally bad. But how much more catastrophe can we take before this becomes a habitual pattern?

A last 16 place in the Champion's League for Ranger or a Europa League run for Celtic is not enough. We need to look into these problems, find a solution and put it into practice. And we need to do it pretty quick.

Inglorious barstewards

Well then. Things just keep getting and better. This week’s starter for ten: which team has contrived to be more miserable against foreign opponents? Falkirk? Aberdeen? Motherwell? Scotland? Or Hearts, who took our apparent incompetence to yet another gloom laden trough last night?

Truly this is the summer of Scottish football’s Inglorious Basterds.

But we’re back to the regular diet tomorrow. The deep fried Mars bar supper that is the SPL.

Here’s the predictions. Last week I got a whole two out of six right which I think means that in the world of top class punditry I’m more Christian Nade than Usain Bolt.

Falkirk v Hibs (12.45):
ESPN’s second televised game. Expect much talk of two passing teams. The return of Hughes, Cregg, McBride et all will be mentioned. And Eddie May used to play for Hibs. So not so much a football game as a reunion of incestuous lovers. Falkirk got some credit for the way they lost to Rangers last week. Hibs huffed and puffed past St Mirren’s ten men. Falkirk will have a point to prove to Yogi and the Hibs support will be boosted by the signing of Anthony Stokes. Could be close but I’ll go for an away win.

Celtic v St Johnstone:
Although luck was bemoaned as Celtic Park on Tuesday Arsenal showed enough to show that there is a gulf between the top of the EPL and the top of the SPL. Expect a chastened Celtic to prove that there’s a gulf between the top of the SPL and the top of the First Division. Expect that. And then look at what St Johnstone’s old gaffer managed against Manchester United on Wednesday. Dreams, as Gabrielle pointed out, can come true. Probably won’t though. Home win.

Hamilton v Aberdeen:
Well, then. Both lost three goals last week. On the face of it Hamilton had the poorer result losing to Kilmarnock. But Aberdeen were as disappointing as you would expect from a team that had just suffered a continental humiliation not seen since those two twins mimed for the UK on Eurovision. Billy Reid has lost players and brought players in. Mark McGhee has lost players, lost games, moaned long and hard about finances and finally persuaded a couple of players to move north. I would say a draw but Inside Left reminds me that Accies beat the Dons this time last year. On that basis and because Aberdeen seem to be punch drunk – if not fully concussed – I’ll take a home win.

Motherwell v Kilmarnock:
Jim Gannon would do well to take a long hard look at dear old Jim Jeffries demeanour during this one and see exactly the toll the SPL has taken on that once happy-go-lucky charmer. Both Jim’s are seeking to fix it so they can nurse their teams through a period of financial turbulence. Kilmarnock, yet again, hit the ground running last week and Motherwell showed grit to get a point against St Johnstone. I think that gives Jim J the edge but I’ll go for Jim G to get another point.

St Mirren v Dundee United:
Danny Cadamarteri. How they scoffed. But Craig Levein’s man did the business on Monday. Another win will be an indicator of the consistency the manager wants but St Mirren will be feeling a tad robbed after almost holding out with ten men last week. I still make United the favourites though so I’ll go for an away win.

Hearts v Rangers (Sunday):
Dinamo Zagreb are a good side with quality players. Let’s all agree on that. And then put it to one side to ask just what the hell Hearts were playing at. There’s coming up against a good side and there’s a performance like that. Having played like a pub team trying to take on Brazil following an all night lock in with a free bar the Gorgie side will need to raise themselves against the Champions. Without the aid of hydraulic lifting gear they probably won’t be able to rise enough. Away win.

So there we have it. By my reckoning if I’ve called them right then Rangers, Celtic, Dundee United and Hibs will top the table on Monday morning with St Mirren, Hearts and Falkirk forming an orderly queue in the basement. As ever time alone will tell.

Scottish Football Blogs Total So Far: 2/6

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Homeless World Cup

You might have noticed a new advert at the bottom of the page. It's for the Homeless World Cup which kicks off in a couple of weeks in Milan. 48 teams of homeless people from around the world will travel to Italy.

Milan is the seventh tournament and the event has grown and grown since it sprang to life in Graz in 2003. Afghanistan were crowned champions in Melbourne last year.

A couple of Scottish connections: The tournament was devised by Mel Young who started the Big Issue in Scotland and is one of the world's most respected social entreupreuners. The Homeless World Cup is based at Easter Road. Scotland won the 2007 tournament. Edinburgh was host city in 2005.

The stats that matter: One billion people are homeless around the world. Football can unite people of all nations to move towards one common goal. 73% of the players involved in the Homeless World Cup significantly improve their lives by beating addictions, finding work or accomodation or moving into education. Many players are now working in football and some have become professional players.

Football is big, bloated and often ignorant. But the Homeless World Cup shows that it can still inspire people, bring people together and improve lives.

I'll post more as the tournament gets closer. In the meantime please visit the Homeless World Cup website to find out how you can help.

Mirror, Mirror on the net

I don’t buy the Mirror often. I kind of had my fill of the modern day Mirror when researching an essay on the decline of what was once a decent, campaigning paper and was by then a paper run by Piers Morgan.

And their coverage of Scottish football has been squeezed to non existent in the last decade. In their favour they do have Oliver Holt. Not only a fine journalist but also the son of Emily Bishop from Coronation Street. Surely the finest claim to fame of any working sports hack.

So if nothing else the new Mirror Football website offered the chance to see if Oliver would ever again break his self imposed silence on being the son of a soap legend.

But the Mirror promised big things. In fact so heavily did they trail the opening of their football archive online that I actually got the impression it would form a much larger part of the site than it seems to at the moment.

The launch is a critical move by the Mirror. They’ve bucked media trends by actually taking on staff and heavily promoted a site that has been painstakingly developed. With a World Cup on the horizon – and England all but guaranteed to feature in South Africa – the football website was the first of their big moves aimed at redefining their online presence. But has it worked?

You can clearly see the development that’s gone into it and the fascinating resources that the Mirror has available. But you might not be able to navigate to them very easily. When I logged on on Tuesday there was actually an article posted telling people how to use the site. I think the internet’s reached the stage where most users are beyond needing someone to hold their hand round a site. But the fear at the Mirror was obviously that people have been struggling.

And that’s entirely down to poor design. The homepage looks like a web designer has simply got his Mac to be sick on it. It’s like the months of development have been spent coming up with ideas and then deciding to use every single one from day one. On the homepage. It’s too much. I’m also confused by the lack of coherence between the design of the football site and the Mirror’s other launch the 3AM site. If the Mirror brand is the selling point then you would expect the sites to be have a lot more in common than they do.

The content is actually fine. The sheer number of posts seems to prove that the Mirror is taking this seriously rather just producing some half arsed extension to the paper (see Scotsman, Herald etc). The advertising’s not hugely intrusive and, with patience, you can find everything you would need.

But that jam-packed home page needs work. This is a crowded market. At the moment the Mirror seems committed to the football site. But in this climate how long will that last? In my opinion a fairly basic design cock up has prevented Mirror Football from hitting the ground running. And hitting the ground running is exactly what it had to do.

So pass marks but only just.

And Oliver’s still not letting on about what Norris is like in real life….

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of myths and madness

What did Old Firm fans do before the internet came along? Probably sat in the pub making up conspiracy theories before going out and beating up somebody who looked like "one of them."

Thanks to the genius of t'interweb they can now blog their paranoia. I dip into only occasionally. At the moment judging by the headlines on the news page ("Free Market Benefiting Both the club and the Nation") they seem to convulsed by some sort of collective silly season.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Promotheus' latest offering:

Public mistrust of the BBC continues as the corporation attempts to mask the antics of Celtic thugs.

Questions must be asked regarding the motives of those in charge at Pacific Quay.

News related to the Glasgow North-East by-election in the last few weeks has noted that David Kerr, the SNP candidate for the Westminster seat, is a member of the sinister Opus Dei. Kerr, who has already caused controversy with elitist remarks regarding one of Glasgow's universities and a camp impression of Reformer John Knox with childish comments about Rangers, is a former BBC Newsnight Scotland editor, and was previously the assistant editor of Reporting Scotland before becoming a reporter for BBC Scotland.

That someone with such sinister links is able to worm his way in to an influential position within the Scottish media should be of grave concern to the Scottish public. Moreover, one would hope that our parliament will remain free of an individual with such condescending and elitist views toward people he is aiming to represent.

Leaving politics aside, BBC Scotland news over the last few years, including during David Kerr's time at Reporting Scotland, has managed to increasingly alienate Rangers fans on several occasions: labelling a Rangers player a "c--t" on their official website; tagging an image of Nell McAndrew, who modelled a new Rangers kit, as "hunc--t1"; point-blank refusal to ever mention the IRA-fest at a Letterkenny hotel attended by Celtic officials, even when the video footage was mentioned in every other major news outlet; taking a lead in a one-sided, anti-Rangers campaign continued under the thin veil of an anti-sectarianism initiative; and using our money to pay for reporters to attend a Celtic supporters' provofest in Benidorm, and then lying about it to hide the failure of the event.

Opinion of the BBC amongst the many thousands of Rangers supporters in Scotland has never been lower. Our national broadcaster, we are told, has strict guidelines to which they must adhere yet this is a corporation that is continually failing the Scottish public on both quality and impartiality in its reporting.

David Murray, when questioned about his lack of action defending Rangers and the support, has stated that if we don't like what's being written then we don't have to buy the 'papers. This is, of course, true when we're talking about the ever-decreasing quality of the Glasgow Herald and Radio Clyde, for example. We can refuse to buy the paper or switch off the radio and starve them of money generated by advertisements. However, with the BBC we have no option but to pay the license fee which funds the current output from Pacific Quay and the standards demonstrated at present are totally unacceptable.

An incident in Banknock in Stirlingshire in August highlighted once again the depths to which BBC Scotland will stoop in their news reporting. Thugs dressed in Celtic attire attacked an ambulance on the afternoon of Sunday 9 August, with the appeal issued by the Central Scotland Police website stating:

"Police are keen to trace four men seen in the area at the time.

"The man who crossed the road and force the ambulance to stop is described as 5’7 – 5’8, late 20s-early 30s.

"A second man was described as wearing a light blue jumper, balding with dark hair at the side, wearing a Celtic top beneath a jersey, jeans and believed to be in his early 30s.

"A third man had blond hair and was wearing a Celtic top with jeans.

"The fourth man was described as 5’8”, brown hair, a tattoo on the back of his neck, and was wearing a green coloured jumper and jeans."

BBC Scotland did report the incident but there are no prizes on offer for correctly guessing the information they left out of the report. The cut down version is still available on their website.

A local Stirling 'paper and other news outlets managed to include the descriptions of the thugs and the question must be asked: why did BBC Scotland intentionally remove vital information from a police statement for their website report?

David Kerr and his sinister leanings may have departed the BBC but lack of standards demonstrated numerous times over the last few years remain. And YOU are funding it.

Now, there's a hell of lot of information to digest in there. Woven into the usual paranoia there's elements of Dan Brown, there's a jubilant glee in reporting violence by Celtic fans (no suggestion that it was football related) and there's an attack on the whole concept of public broadcasting. Wow. No wonder it needed a character from a Greek myth to write it.

"Sinister leanings." I don't know much about Opus Dei. It seems strange to me. But people are free to choose in our society. I don't think Ruth Kelly was a poor government minister because she was a member of Opus Dei. I think she was just a bad government minister.

But then I'm not one of life's "joiners" really. I'd no sooner join Opus Dei than I would prance about with a flute to celebrate a centuries old battle or roll up my trouser leg and perfect a new handshake in the hope I might get promotion or, at the very least, get away with a speeding fine.

Nor do I mistrust the BBC. And if I was to mistrust it I think I think I could find more compelling faults than what Old Prom's knickers are getting twisted over.

But he's made the mistake of claiming he's talking about a general public mistrust rather than a simple failure to pander to the myopic prejudices of Rangers fans.

I think most people would say that a BBC that attracts bile from both sides of the Old Firm is serving the public just fine thanks.

John Knox? Heaven forfend that a largely discredited historical figure should be the subject of ridicule. David Kerr, a Catholic, is fighting a by election against a lesbian. John Knox has lost the battle for the soul of modern Scotland and we should be celebrating that.

There's a scene in the pilot episode of The West Wing when a member of the Christian Right makes a comment about a presidential aide's "New York sense of humour." Of course, she means Jewish.

By making no attempt to explain Opus Dei but rather making continual reference to "sinister leanings" it's hard to escape the impression that Promotheus means simply "Catholic."

This paranoid claptrap is essentially meaningless. In previewing the Celtic - Arsenal game, in the broader context of the Scottish game, Kevin McCarra, referred to the Old Firm as a singular entity.

As ever this sparked a hammering of keyboards across Glasgow as outraged fans sought distance their beloved clubs from their evil neighbours.

The truth is that Celtic and Rangers are inseparable, locked in an unbreakable waltz. Where one leads the other must follow. They can't breathe without each other. And, crucially, they're of no interest to anybody unless they are willing to walk hand in hand into the English or European sunset.

The money men realised that long ago. Some fans still don't get it. Like Promotheus they prefer to engage in rotten old battles, keeping alive the flames of prejudice that make Scotland look like an evil, backward little place. The sort of place, in fact, where its easy imagine children of any religion or none growing up to attack ambulances.

Thanks to the internet those opinions can now travel the world in seconds. Something, at last, for John Knox to be proud of.

Of course I might be reading too much into this. Maybe Promotheus simply wants David Kerr to lose the by election to his opponent (herself a former BBC staffer).

Promotheus, after all, was the man that the Roman Fabulist Phaedrun credited with creating homosexuality.

Arsenal break English duck

Before their insipid performance against Arsenal Celtic managed 26 years without losing to an English club at home.

Of course some European records are misleading because games don't come up that often. You could say Motherwell haven't lost to Third Lanark for 40 years. Probably true but equally meaningless.

It was Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest who last won at Parkhead. Cloughie would have been amused that it was Arsene Wenger, who he came to greatly admire, that pulled off the same trick.

In that time Blackburn, Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United (twice) have found Glasgow inhospitable - although Liverpool's draw in 1997 was enough for an away goals victory.

It's really the two most recent games against United that have been the biggest achievement given the ever growing chasm between the English elite and Scotland's finest.

Last night was, perhaps, simply the natural order belatedly asserting itself.

Wenger's warriors

I was one of the non believers who wrote off Celtic's chances of even reaching this stage.

They proved me wrong in Moscow. They won't prove me wrong in London. A 2-0 win at Celtic Park has sent Arsenal into the group stages of the Champion's League.

I thought there was a chance Celtic might do better in the first leg. But I also thought there was a chance Arsenal could run riot. In the end the nature of the goals - one off William Gallas' back and one Gary Caldwell own goal - will allow the Celtic die hard to dream of what might have been.

The truth, of course, is that in pure footballing terms Celtic are minnows compared to England's elite. Their exceptional home record against Anglo invaders is a testament to perseverance, passion and no little luck.

Arsene Wenger has been the perfect guest during his Scottish sojourn. Praising Celtic's fans making the right noises about the Old Firm's involvement in a European League and conceding Celtic had made it tricky:
It was a fierce battle. Overall we dominated the game, but Celtic were always willing and always fighting.

We scored two lucky goals. It was a big fight and we needed a strong Arsenal performance.
But in his heart he knew defeat was unthinkable. Just as Tony Mowbray must have known victory would have needed little short of a miracle.

As ever Wenger was able to turn off that incredible selective blindness to accuse the Celtic players of roughing up his superstars. If I was Celtic minded I'd be happy with that. If it means Tony Mowbray's much vaunted footballing philosophy is to be tempered by a dose of realpolitik then they should be in decent shape for the battles ahead.

Financially Celtic will be disappointed. But the woefully devalued Europa League offers a chance of redemption. The harsh reality is that Europe's second string is the stage best suited to the Old Firm at the moment.

The European playing field is no longer level. Unlucky goals or not there is not a football follower in the continent who will have been surprised by tonight's result.

Money talks. And for all their support Celtic do not have the cash to compete at the level they would like to. The last 16 of the Champion's League is an achievement not to be sniffed at. It's hard to see how either Old Firm side will go further in the near future.

For that reason tonight shouldn't cause the national wailing sparked by Aberdeen's defeat or Scotland's capitulation in Norway.

An Arsenal win was entirely predictable. There's no shame in that for Celtic. The only regret for the neutral is that the thrilling Arsenal of Saturday didn't make it north of Hadrian's Wall.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New faces? Not so much

How would ESPN fill the hole left behind by doomed broadcaster Setanta?

By producing what is essentially a carbon copy of Setanta if their first live game of the season is any guide.

They have turned away from being at the games. Instead we've got Ray Stubbs in a studio. A safe pair hands is Raymond. Under used by the BBC and given his big chance by ESPN. I always found him better when paired with Bobby George or being humiliated for Sport Relief.

Clearly ESPN felt that a bejewelled darts star and their anchor being suspended from a crane would jar with their coverage.

So instead they've turned to Colin Hendry and Jim Duffy. Not a duo of much dynamism. Hendry is adequate but needs more than serial abuser of football clubs Duffy alongside him.

Ray probed gently at half time but by the time he handed back to the live action he seemed half hearted.

Craig Levein would have some concerns about the free kicks United were giving away. We knew this because Jim and Colin told us. Repeatedly. An ad break, featuring a woeful trail for Falkirk and Hibs on Saturday, was a blessed relief.

In the gantry we had Derek Rae back after an 18 year absence. The one time golden boy of the BBC Rae left for the States to work for the 1994 World Cup - time spent apparently ingratiating himself with TV executives rather than teaching Diana Ross how to play soccer ball.

Now ESPN's chief soccer "caller" Rae was quietly impressive. He seems relaxed enough to avoid the hyperbole that is all too common. You get the impression that when he's commentating on a real stinker he'll not hesitate to let us know. That's refreshing and let's hope he sticks with that style.

Resurrected from Setanta as co "caller" was Craig Burley. Craig has spent his retirement growing into the punditry role. It's no exaggeration to say that he's now as adept at the gig as his uncle George is at managing an international football team.

New surroundings don't seem to have helped much. Craig basically takes the same script to every match and just reels out the same observations at every game.

Another 29 games in Craig's company is as appealing as the realisation that you've bought a season ticket next to a halitosis suffering fat boy with opinions so racist and homophobic that he'd make Nick Griffin blush. I'm sure Craig's none of those things but the temptation to hit the mute button will be very strong in the months ahead.

So there we are. It was it what it was. Not brilliant, not dreadful. The logos have changed but the coverage has plateaued. It's early enough to improve but tonight suggested that the cast list condemns ESPN to a season in different shades of dull.

I'm not sure as yet how they're going to deal with highlights and other programming. Setanta used James Richardson to decent effect doing this for the English Premier League and ESPN seem attached to discussion programmes in the States. It would be nice if they could replicate this in Scotland.

Note: If anybody stumbles across this post because Nick Griffin is mentioned please visit Hope Not Hate and tell the BNP: Not In My Name!

Monday, August 17, 2009


Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You work long and hard your weekly column and then some smartarse blogger comes along and takes the piss.

But with apologies to Gary Mackay his Edinburgh Evening News ('Yesterday's News Tomorrow') column tonight was unfortunate:
Two of the key players who can really make that formation work in Hearts' favour are new captain Michael Stewart and his vice-captain Marius Zaliukas.

Defenders are key to that kind of set-up because the onus is on them to push the team up the pitch and then, in the middle, Michael can not only close down the opposition but can press forward when the opportunity arises.

I think this season could really make those two players. The manager, in my opinion, has been very intelligent and this is a really clever move by him.

There have been questions about both players' temperaments and that's illustrated by the fact that Zaliukas is suspended for tonight's match. But the added responsibility that they have been given this season could be just what they need, there's maybe a bit of reverse psychology in there and I hope that they embrace the shared responsibility.
How could Tynecastle legend Gary have known that Michael Stewart would get sent off?

Hmmm, well he could have taken a look at Stewart's career which has been blighted by a shoddy attitude and stupid mistakes. It was always a long shot that the armband would change that.

As ever Craig Burley said the second yellow was borne from frustration. More likely bloody idiocy.

With injuries and suspensions Hearts needed calm heads tonight. For the captain to be so reckless is an insult to Csabo Lazlo and the supporters.

It's a tragedy of Stewart's unfulfilled potential that non of us should be surprised that he was the culprit in chief.

They're off

What a weekend. A sporting achievement that mesmerised all who saw it. The combination of power and speed, the complete triumph of athleticism over what was considered possible. Fantastic.

Sadly Usain Bolt doesn't play in the SPL. While Bolt was stopping the world for a little under 10 seconds the SPL was slowly chugging back to life looking for all the world like an obese, chain smoker trying to get out of bed.

Celtic impressed but only in as much as Aberdeen struggled. The European hangover continued at Pittodrie. The impression that the Dons face a bleak few weeks has not lifted.

Rangers cantered to victory over Falkirk ensuring the Ibrox flag party went swimmingly. Falkirk's important battles will not be in Glasgow this season and Rangers will know bigger challenges lie ahead.

Kilmarnock proved yet again how Jim Jefferies can breed resilience in a squad. For Hamilton the 3-0 defeat might be an ominous sign of troubles ahead. Killie fans would probably be quite happy if the league ended today.

John Hughes gave Benjelloun the chance to redeem himself. More winners in the closing stages will help Benji overcome the doubters at Easter Road. St Mirren's thrawnness when down to 10 men for most of the match suggest Gus McPherson will have a suitably stubborn side again this year.

Motherwell fought back to draw with St Johnstone and put a bit of a downer on Perth's SPL return. More evidence that Jim Gannon will be this year's dark horse and confirmation for the Saints that life will be hard but not impossible.

Dundee United took the lead early against Hearts and survived some patchy moments before Danny Cadamarteri took his second on the break. By then Hearts had lost new captain Michael Stewart as Hearts disciplinary hangover continued into the new season.

What did we learn? Not much we didn't know on Friday night. The SPL's not the place for surprises and whatever intrigue lies in store this year will not show itself in these preliminary skirmishes.