Saturday, September 26, 2009

EsssPeeeEllll predictions

After last night's abridged SPL predictions, here we are with the full card for today.

Allow me to dream for a moment: Today I would really like one of these games to be a cracker. We've been in an early season malaise. Not much happening, not much excitement.

Anyways. To business.

Falkirk v Kilmarnock
Eddie May be disappointed. Boom, boom. Not much to laugh about for Edward so far this season and chuckling Jim Jefferies will be hoping to add to the Falkirkian gloom this afternoon. But I'll go for a draw in this one despite myself.

Hearts v Hamilton
Hearts made it hard for Celtic last Sunday before making hard work of getting past Dunfermline on Wednesday. Hamilton have steadied after a bad start. It's a tricky one this. I'm going for another draw but honestly believe either side could nick what I expect to be a tight one.

Motherwell v Hibernian
Jim Gannon was interviewed for the Hibs job but lost out to John Hughes. The Hibee faithful might be pondering what might have been. On radio duty for Hibs' defeat at Hamilton, Gannon will seriously fancy his chances if the Leith greens turn up with their powder puff 4-3-3 formation. Home win.

St Johnstone v Dundee United
A Tay derby. St Johnstone felt hard done by at Easter Road last week before turning things round at the same venue on Tuesday. Craig Levein will be smarting from the loss of his unbeaten record at home to Motherwell. I'm edging towards an away win.

Ranger v Aberdeen
Am I alone in finding the always mentioned "volatile" history of this match entirely dull? Home win.

Including the early kick the scores on the board are: 9/25

Friday, September 25, 2009

This week's predictions: An appetiser

This week started badly, dipped towards the middle and then careered down hill as Friday evening approached.

The result is a lot of moaning, a dash of effing and blinding and no time to do six predictions before 12.30 tomorrow.

So here's a quick one to get the ball rolling.

St Mirren v Celtic
Having seen a much changed side roll over Falkirk in midweek Tony Mowbray will be hoping for more of the same tomorrow to try and move on from some of the less convincing performances of late. If his dreams do come through then Celtic will need to overcome a St Mirren side who have been typically stuffy, willing and spirited so far this season. Doing the predictions so far this season has taught me that you never can tell but I've got to go for the Hoops. That St Mirren home win at the new stadium will need to wait for another day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tony v Walter

One has seen it all and bought, if not the T-shirt, then at least the freshly tailored shirt. The other is just starting out in one of football’s most peculiar jobs. But they have more in common than you might think.

It’s one of the many odd quirks of being an Old Firm manager that one of the few people ever likely to understand the huge pressure you are under is the person you’re expected to beat at all costs. Tony Mowbray and Walter Smith both know that their success and failure, acceptance and acclaim, criticism and humilation is inexorably linked to how the other fares.

And, like many of those that have gone before, they both have enough common decency to rise above the tribal partisanship that takes what should be an enduring football rivalry and turns it into something more sinister.

So Smith will have felt some sympathy as Celtic disintegrated in Israel last week. And Mowbray will have understood the pressure that led Smith to crack in the first half at Rugby Park on Saturday – a similar pressure that saw Mowbray himself uncharacteristically muttering an expletive on Radio Scotland just 24 hours later.

And when they glance across at their city neighbours it will be with recognition not with envy. Celtic and Rangers both stand at a crossroads this season and for both managers coaching is as much about managing change in the pressure cooker of their fans inflated expectations.

At Rangers the changes have been coming for a few years. Financially the club has lost the ability to compete and Smith, hands tied, is being asked to replicate the success of last season with a group of players who desperately need freshened up. And he’s doing all that with a massive question mark over his own future. A new contract is needed in January but he’s announced he won’t sign. Will the last six months of this campaign be part of Ally McCoist’s seamless succession? Will they provide the golden autumn to Smith’s Ibrox career or will they be the anti-climax that he couldn’t avoid the last time he left?

And at Celtic Mowbray, with his own resources somewhat drained thanks in no small part to the money Celtic had to pay to get him, is setting about preaching his football philosophy to players more used to the somewhat more roundhead approach of Gordon Strachan. Both he and his players need to work out a way of getting the job done when his own brand of total football fails.

That’s not easy to do. And, if he doesn’t already realise it, Walter Smith will be able to tell him how much more difficult it is to do it against the backdrop of supporters who display a lack of patience that would shame a toddler on Christmas Eve.

Managing a team that expects to win every game might be an honour. But you run in to immediate difficulty when you fail to win every game. Including their honourable draw in Stuttgart Rangers have now drawn three games in a row and have failed to score in 180 minutes of SPL football. Celtic drew with Dundee United before failing miserably in Israel and needed a late, late show to see off Hearts.

Both managers will have been aware of the rumblings beginning amongst their supporters, more so Mowbray who has endured two poor performances at home and quickly seen whatever honeymoon period he was granted dissipate. That, as Walter would tell him, is the great balancing act of managing in the Old Firm.

The Celtic supporters demand football be played their way but will not stand for any failures in the period of transition. The Rangers fans might be less beholden to a “Rangers way” but they have their own demands and expectation has not plummetted to keep in line with the Ibrox current account. Cash or no cash Govan expects Rangers to win as greedily and emphatically as they ever have.

At the end of the season either Mowbray or Smith will have led his supporters to disappointment. In all likelihood Smith will walk off into the sunset whatever happens. Mowbray will be expecting a long Celtic career but how he performs in this first, transitory season will define his relationship with the fans and, ultimately, the longevity of his Celtic career.

And where does all this leave Scottish football? Well, you can look on it two ways. It’s either another boring battle between the two bloated usual suspects or it’s a classic heavyweight bout with all the mesmerising action and sudden injections of real horror that you expect in the ring. Actually it’s probably a bit of both, tiresome at times and enthralling at others.

But things might be just a bit different this year. Whisper it in Sauchiehall Street but Glasgow’s twinned giants are vulnerable this year. Other clubs will fancy their chances in the cup competitions and other managers will fancy stealing headlines and enthusing their own fans with famous wins over the big two in the league.

Will they be caught and split? Not over the course of a long season. But they might not race away as emphatically as they have in the past. It will be a two horse race but others will be around to make a nuisance of themselves.

That should cheer Scottish football watchers. But it will also mean both Smith and Mowbray face long hard battles to keep their own supporters on board in the months ahead.

For Peat's sake

So George Burley lives to fight another qualifying campaign.

Or so it seems. George Peat has suggested he could still be "released" if things don't go well in October's friendly with Japan.

So having survived a weak qualifying campaign, having come through a review of that campaign, the manager's fate may now be decided by a meaningless game some 6000 miles away. A game foisted upon him by the SFA in which he seems certain to be robbed of his best players.

It seems messy, unsatisfactory but so very, very SFA-ish. Having given Burley the backing of his organisation Peat should have said nothing more. It's damaging for the whole national team to have such a high profile figure within the SFA seemingly unable to make up his mind. Peat claims to have buried the hatchet one minute only to dig it up and plant it in his manager's back the next.

Anyone reading the papers would know Burley is not universally liked in the role. Having backed him Peat should have shut up. Instead he continues to add fuel to the vendetta that a number of journalists are continuing to run against Burley.

That's wrong and it's further evidence that George Peat should be removed from his position.

But leaving the haphazard politicking of that inconsequential little man aside, where are we now?

We have a manager who has been battered but seems unbowed. He still has his henchman Terry Butcher to hand and they seem set to be joined by Gary McAllister.

Elvis has, of course, left the building. Steven Pressley's role always seemed slightly confused. He was, perhaps, supposed to replicate the job that Ally McCoist played in the Walter Smith era. It didn't seem to happen. Maybe he was too close, playing against players on a Saturday and then acting as a bridge between them and the manager at training on a Monday.

But, whatever the reason for his failure in the role, Steven Pressley is not to blame for a Scotland shaped hole in South Africa next summer.

Gary McAllister coming on board seems a logical move but not one that will turn us into world beaters. (Note to Craig Brown: many of us in the crowd at Celtic Park "that night" were not booing Gary but booing your decision to play him when he was quite clearly unfit, you sanctimonious little twerp.)

For all that the vilification of George Burley has been unseemly there are grains of truth in much of the criticism and he has much to prove. Quite simply the next qualifying campaign can't include repeats of the Macedonia and Norway debacles.

The game in Oslo was a horror show and Burley can never again send out a team so ill equipped to compete against undistinguished opponents.

What alchemy did he discover in the second half against Macedonia and for long periods against the Dutch at Hampden? I hope he knows himself because that is the level of performance we need to sustain. If it was simply a question of the pride of the players kicking in then the SFA have made the wrong decision in backing him. Time will tell.

We need an alternative to Kenny Miller. Yes he runs his heart out and willingly does the unglamorous stuff but an international football team needs a striker who can score goals. Against Holland, in Amsterdam and at Hampden, Miller cost us crucial footholds in the game. That can't be allowed to happen again.

And no, Kris Boyd's not the answer. Burley was having to duck brickbats from the sage of Govan again last week. Boyd's moans are riddled with hypocrisy, of course, because he has much the same role at Ibrox as he did in Burley's Scotland squad but they still get maximum coverage and are often timed to do maximum damage.

Kris Boyd is not an international striker because his game is one dimensional. And yes that might sound like a contradiction when I've bemoaned Kenny Miller's strike rate but Boyd's big game record at club level speaks of a player in an SPL comfort zone without either the talent or desire to improve himself.

And every time he opens his mouth he shows a destructive trait that could wreak havoc in the national squad. If Kris Boyd expects his international career to be resurrected when George Burley leaves the job then I'd suspect he's going to be bitterly disappointed.

This Boyd's Own Story does illuminate Burley's approach to the job though. It's an approach cranked up in the aftermath of the Norway defeat and the one he'll be banking on getting us through the next campaign.

Boyd, Ferguson and McGreggor all gone. Steven Pressley and whatever ill feeling he brought into the camp gone. This is now Burley's Scotland camp and Burley's alone. The players he picks now are players who want to play for him, to play for each other. It's taken him a long time but he's now got the spirit of togetherness that he needs. That's a reason for some mild optimism if nothing else.

Those of us on the outside can say what we like. There's no detractors on the inside and that shields the manager from the worst his critics can throw at him.

It also says something of Burley's steel and survival instincts. We might not be going to South Africa but so far, somehow, George Burley has won every battle he's been forced to fight off the pitch.

That's something that George Peat might care to remember.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rubbish football gifts

What to buy for the man that has everything? Alternatively what to buy for the man you hate.

A Rangers toaster. Courtesy of a shop in Eyemouth.
Crap Football Gifts

Keeping the Heid?

"[It] merely confirms the the long held conviction that, in sport as in many other professions, the largest conceits are driven by the smallest talents."
So said Glenn Gibbons in yesterday's Scotsman. On this occasion Glenn was talking about Kris Boyd. But how appropriate his sentiment is for one of Boyd's Old Firm colleagues.

Last week Celtic fans would be forgiving for asking just who or what Gary Caldwell thinks he is.

I've written before about Gary's ongoing battle to keep his mouth shut. This week he's been at it again.

First up he announced that Celtic would win this season's Europa League. And then he let all and sundry know how very, very hurt he was at Celtic's apparently miserly offer of a new contract.

The backdrop to all this was Celtic's draw with Dundee United and timid capitulation to Hapoel Tel Aviv. As ever Gary displayed a sense of timing not seen since the Chuckle Brothers bombed in their Walsall pantomime appearance of 1987.

Because, as much as he thinks he is indispensable, Thursday night made unpleasant viewing for the few supporters Gary has left.

His selection as a defensive midfielder immediately hinted that Tony Mowbray's assessment of Gary as an indispensable centre half does not quite tally with Gary's own glowing appraisal of his talents.

Casting aside that disappointment he made his mark on the game by setting up Celtic's opening goal.

And that was it. As he often does Caldwell seemed to think that one contribution confirmed his own belief that he is a far better footballer than his ability would suggest.

That one pass led to a succession of efforts to split the defence open. Pinging the ball with the outside of his boot all over the park he displayed an almost freakish consistency in finding wide open space, the touchline or a defender.

The holding role that he was supposed to be filling was, understandably, neglected as he stormed over the pitch attempting to bring the full weight of his genius and personality to bear on a game that he clearly felt was his to control.

The result was that an atypically cagey Mowbray formation lost all shape and whatever semblance of initiative or control they enjoyed in the early stages.

Now Gary was not the only offender on the night. But he was the only one to perform poorly after predicting Celtic could win the tournament and then demanding parity with the club's highest paid players.

Hubris I think they call it. In the months since Mowbray took charge at Celtic does Gary Caldwell really think his performances put him in the upper echelons of the club's earners?

Does he not think the decision to draft Stephen McManus in for his first start spoke volumes about his manager's (lack of) faith in him?

It seems not. No matter how big the club, the game or the tournament nothing will ever match the splendid size of Gary Caldwell's ego.

And what of Mowbray in all this. He's keen to point out that matters financial are nothing to do with him. He also knows, however, that Gary Caldwell has some experience of speaking out of turn to hide the fact that he's ultimately decided to run down his contract and move elsewhere. Mowbray was Hibs' manager when Caldwell engineered his move to Celtic Park.
"There is the equation of business against football. I need to make sure that, in a couple of transfer windows,my squad is deeper, stronger and full of good players. If Gary Caldwell is part of that, so be it. If he is not a part of it, we have somebody who is."
Anyone but Gary Caldwell would realise that this falls short of a stunning endorsement from a manager. Gary will probably just be happy that people are talking about him.

Where Gary ends up is unclear. But we know today that if he is to seek pastures new there will be few tears shed in Glasgow. Don't bet against Tony Mowbray packing him off into the sunset: Old Firm life is beset by plonkers. You can do without having the biggest one of all in your team.