Friday, October 02, 2009

Five big ones and a small one, please Carol

Back again. Another week of European misery. Rangers humbled – penalty or no penalty they got a "doing" – and Celtic drawing at home in a game that they would have expected to do better in. Still, at least they’ve both got a quiet weekend to look forward to.


Hamilton v St Johnstone

It would be churlish not to start with the weekend fixture that most catches the eye.

St Johnstone seem to bring goals wherever they go but don’t half concede them as well. Will these two be locked in a relegation battle come the end of the season? I certainly don’t think there’s much between them right now so I will go for a draw, a scoring draw.

Hibernian v Dundee United

The long, often bitter, history between these clubs will ensure the whole of Europe is glued to the radio as the old foes meet up in Scotland's game of the season so far.

Hibs are riding high after winning at Motherwell and winning the manager and player of the month awards in the past week. That is the perfect recipe for a disappointing result and Craig Levein will be out to expose the Hibs defence. Could go either way but I’ve got to back United to get the points.

Kilmarnock v Aberdeen

In a weekend crowded with big matches this one looks like being the pick of the bunch.

Aberdeen haven’t conceded a goal since Jimmy Calderwood was white or something and, despite Jim Jefferies increasingly lonely "Kevin Kyle for Fifa Player of the Year" campaign, Kilmarnock are not free scoring. Thrills there will be few. Another draw. Possibly with no goals.

Motherwell v Falkirk

Few could deny that when the Bairns roll into town the Steelmen know that they’re going to be involved in the game of the weekend. Tomorrow looks no different.

Falkirk are in the middle of a resurgence or at least a run of draws (don’t knock it - they’ve had the same results as Ranger in the last three games) and Motherwell will be looking to bounce back from defeat to Hibs last week. Motherwell will win.

St Mirren v Hearts

In such a crowded fixture list it is a testimony to the enduring allure of this game that it remains the standout fixture whenever it is played.

Hearts won last week but still didn’t convince while St Mirren’s thrawness against Celtic contributed to everyone who watched losing 90 precious minutes of their lives. There will be huff and puff on display here but I’d fancy another bore draw.

Rangers v Celtic

Two small clubs, with small club mentalities, meet up on Sunday. Like pub teams.

The smashing sound you can here is the form book being thrown out of the window. Does that cliché apply when neither side has any form? Could be a draw or one of them could win. I don’t know. I’ll have a stab at Celtic to win it by a goal.

The story so far: 11 from 30 (p*sh)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Friends reunited

Another European game rolls around and, refreshingly, we’re simply concentrating on what is likely to prove a mildly diverting match up of two teams keen to impress in Europe’s second tier competition to prove that they deserve to feast at the Champion’s League banquet.

Or not. One of these days Celtic or Rangers are going to enjoy a serene build up to a match. But not tonight for Celtic. Not when we can relive a glorious episode from 25 years ago involving a stunning fightback, fans misbehaving, Austrian play acting, UEFA dithering, fans losing the plot, players being attacked and Celtic getting dumped out in the Lancashire night.

Yes Celtic and Rapid Vienna. Do the names not just roll of your tongue, so redolent of the glamour of European football? Only if your idea of glamour is being sick round the back of Stagg’s nightclub after a dozen lagers and a dodgy kebab.

It’s getting rarer and rarer that I can say this but I’m too young to remember it all. Like Arthur Scargill, tight shorts and 5 Star I have only really experienced the madness of what went on second hand.

I summarise: Vienna beat Celtic 3-1 at home and turn up in Glasgow expecting to seal the deal with ease. On a raucous night Celtic lead the Austrians in a Vienese waltz and win 3-0. Relations between the players during the match are less than comradely, a legacy of alleged stamps by Peter Grant and Alan McInally in the first leg. Perhaps feeding off the players, or perhaps it’s the other way around, The Jungle is at its intimidating best.

Or worst. Because it now seems clear that objects were thrown on to the pitch that night. Bottles? Who knows? It’s almost certain that no Rapid players were hit by anything bigger than a coin but one of them claimed to have been hit by a bottle.

Sad, pathetic, unfortunate but forgotten. No, not quite. Rapid complain and UEFA do their normal twists and turns before deciding the match must be played again. A neutral venue, Old Trafford, is chosen.

Celtic have chances but Rapid take the game 1-0. That was the football. A hard one to take for sure but just another game really. Well, not quite. Celtic’s supporters behaved so badly that night – at least two Rapid players attacked, the team bus belted with bottles – that Celtic’s next European game was held behind closed doors.

Squalid, shameful etc, etc. But long gone now.

Aha. Not quite it would appear.

Rapid released a special red away shirt to pay tribute to the strip they wore that night so keen are they to celebrate a win on a night when 22 men were sent out to play football in a bearpit of violence – an atmosphere that was not intense or intimidating but actually threatening and ugly.

Former Celtic players, including current coach Peter Grant, hit back, talking of their hurt and anger at being "cheated" out of the game. Frank McGarvey actually seems to be in need of counselling such is the extent to which he still seems haunted by the manner of the defeat.

Such has been the ferocity of dormant anger being stirred up that Celtic have actually stepped back from their original stance – marketing the game as 25 Years On – to appeal for calm lest any over zealous supporters lose the plot.

It’s been a strange build up to be sure. The press have, of course, loved it. It’s all left Tony Mowbray keen to concentrate on the game but few people that keen to let him. Stephen McManus has spoken of being embarrassed at the build up – an admission that Peter Grant should probably have a long hard think about.

Anyway a game there most certainly is. And one Celtic could really do with winning after the Hapoel Tel-Aviv second half horror show.

After knocking out Aston Villa in qualifying and the putting three past Hamburg in their first group game Vienna would look to be favourites. Mowbray needs a reaction from his players to the roasting he gave them after their below par win over St Mirren. He’ll hope that and home advantage is enough.

But everything we’ve seen from Scottish teams in Europe this season points to it being a long night for Celtic. Our technical deficiences, and Celtic have played enough poor football this season to be lumped into the same SPL grouping, have been glaringly obvious. It’s those failings that lead Mowbray into the displays of frustration he showed last Saturday.

So a Rapid Vienna win? Possibly. Celtic are dangerous because they have the potential to confound us all, to come together and play some excellent football. Maybe they’ll do that tonight, maybe not.

They’ll miss McGeady and if he is proved unfit then they’ll need to refocus some of their attack because I doubt Mowbray will want to play Pat McCourt at this level just now. Big players like Scott Brown will need to raise their games and shake off the lethargy that had them huffing and puffing in Paisley.

This isn’t mission impossible for Celtic. It’s just that right now they don’t seem to be able to sustain enough form to make it mission very likely either.

Still it’s only a game. And let’s hope everyone remembers that and uses tonight to bury the lingering resentment of 25 years ago. Even in football life is simply too short.

*The game is on Five tonight. So if you're on Freeview and you've not retuned yet it might be best to leave it until after the final whistle.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A very Scottish scandal

Hawick Royal Albert 0 – 7 Huntly

Not a result to raise too many eyebrows. Not, in fact, a scoreline I would ever have imagine myself writing.

Yet this Active Nation Scottish Cup first round tie is suddenly in the middle of a match fixing storm after it emerged a number of bookmakers had expressed concerns to the police about some of the betting patterns on the game.

Bets, allegedly including some made by Hawick players, had not only picked the exact score but also correctly predicted that a penalty would be conceded by the home side.

What do we know? Huntly went into the game overwhelming favourites and duly scored seven without reply (the goals coming in the 23rd, 44th, 53rd, 67th, 75th, 82nd and 88th minutes). The penalty arrived in the 23rd minute when a Hawick player handled the ball on the goal line and received a red card.

At the moment that’s about it. The club has launched an internal investigation and the SFA will act only after the police inquiry has run its course and they are presented with the irrefutable evidence that something naughty was afoot.

My own view is that this is a storm in a teacup. I don’t understand the vagaries of an international betting industry that has, allegedly, made match fixing much more common than we might think (you can read Lawrence Donegan writing about this in the Guardian here). My own golf betting experience stretches to a decade of putting each ways bets on Colin Montgomerie at the majors.

A small Scottish Cup tie might be the kind of game that appealed to the dodgy syndicates that are apparently behind such scams. But there seems to be no suggestion of anything as large scale as that.

So if there is anything behind this it’s down entirely to the players. Maybe some of them will turn out to be guilty. But it seems a bit risky to me. What if Huntly had eased off? If Huntly had scored an own goal? The penalty had been missed? One or more of their own players refused to join the scam?

Perhaps they did bet on themselves losing. If that’s the case they’ll need to face the appropriate sanctions and that would be fully deserved. If you take such little pride in the game then why not just give it up.

But the idea of the players of Hawick Royal Albert coming up with an idiot proof way of losing a match 7-0 whilst only conceding one penalty seems a bit of stretch. This is the same group of players that have lost six of their previous seven games this season. From everything I’ve read about them I don’t see how they can be good enough to ensure they lost 7-0.

A player of Matt Le Tissier's ability couldn't guarantee a corner in the first minute of a game. Yet we're to believe this lot were able to bend the whole course of the match to their evil will?

As the shadowy, sinister world of betting and match fixing goes this seems particularly haphazard, particularly shambolic. Particularly, I suppose, Scottish.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scotland hosts European Championships

With Rangers in action on the field tonight, in ongoing crisis off it and with what I feel is going to be a storm in a teacup over betting irregularities this is likely to be overshadowed.

So I'm glad to draw attention to some good news: Scotland is to host the 2010 Cerebral Palsy European Football Championships featuring ten teams from across the continent.

Matches will be played at Toryglen's Regional Football Centre under the banner of the Cerebral Palsy International and Recreation Association (CPISRA).

It might not get much coverage but it's a welcome reminder of the power of football to inspire and enrich lives whatever your circumstances.

Scotland, incidentally, hosted the first tournament back in 1978. Can't think what else was happening that year.

There's more on the SFA website:

Glasgow’s reputation as a major football event venue was further enhanced today with the announcement that the city will host the 2010 Cerebral Palsy (CP) European Football Championships. (Read more)
For regular Twitter updates on the The Scottish FA - Disability Football Section please follow @ScottishFA_dis

Rangers v Sevilla: Preview

Having seen the less than glorious impact that washing the dirty strips in public had on Celtic's European campaign you might have thought that Rangers would have had more sense than to do the same.

Not a bit of it. New chairman Alistair Johnston faced the press for the first time yesterday and seemed to leave a number of questions lingering unanswered as the debate rages as to the extent of the Rangers crisis.

Against this backdrop Walter Smith appeared to issue an ultimatum about his future. The suggestion had been that Smith would refuse to sign an extension in January. He now seems to be saying that is not the case (going as far as to blame the rumour on his wife) but demanding answers to financial questions before he commits.

The good news is that Alistair Johnston promised Rangers won't do a Leeds United. The bad news is that Rangers fans will now be wondering how close that prospect actually is.

How bad are things? Worse, I think, than many might realise. For someone as long in the tooth as Walter Smith to cause a fuss like this in the week of a European game points to a club rife with problems.

Strange times for sure, but there's a game on tonight.

You would think there's about as much chance of Rangers getting the better of Sevilla as there was of Hawick Royal Albert beating Huntly at the weekend.

But you would probably have written Rangers off at half time in Stuttgart and they came home with a point.

Since then they have been dire. Really bad. There best player is a centre half. No shame in that. Except that Bougherra also appears to be their most potent attacking force.

Form is temporary of course. This might just be a blip that has been blown out of proportion by the ongoing financial storm blowing off the field. It all adds up to Rangers being massive underdogs tonight.

They will play the tried and trusted European formula. The big surprise is the inclusion of Stephen Naismith as the lone forward - a move that signals Kris Boyd's demotion to third choice on European nights. It will be back to the walls stuff.

Can I see any hope for Rangers tonight. No. Sevilla will be the best team they play this year. Walter Smith has shocked us at Ibrox before. Tonight, his team out of sorts and his club in turmoil, will be a surprise too far.

A long night, then, for the less than capacity crowd. They can, perhaps, amuse themselves by scanning the stands for any benevolent billionaires who might just have wandered in to Govan for the night.

Wearing your Hearts on your sleeve

So you're a Hearts fan in Eyemouth. Your neighbour has just bought himself a Rangers themed toaster. You need something to prove that you're more of a fan than him.

But what have you got? Well, a fishing boat apparently. And one called after Jack and Victor's favourite drinking hole no less.

Jambo Fishing Boat

Looking down

I am increasingly aware that I don't give anywhere near enough attention to the lower reaches of Scottish football.

So after giving it some thought I've decided I'm going pick a team and track them throughout the season.

I have my reservations about this. I'm still haunted by the way Match of the Day patronised Barnsley during their brief flirtation with the top flight and I'd not want to replicate that.

It's a risk worth taking though. My theory is that I'll be able to give a general picture of the state of the lower leagues by focusing on one team's season. I might, of course, fail or lose interest. If I don't then I think it will be quite interesting.

Which leaves the question of what team? Should I be looking at the First, Second or Third Division. Or lower still into the world of junior football.

Geography might play a part (unless I can persuade the league sponsors to lend me that car) and I'd like somewhere that's pleasant to visit (although I'm prepared not to be put off by Jonathan Meades' documentary on Scottish "football pools towns.")

I'm open to suggestions and persuasion. Bribery in the form of a pie and a pint might also colour my thinking.

Post your ideas in the usual fashion or contact me through the about page.

How ethical is football?

I've been meaning to start writing more about ethical football. Not in the sense of dodgy owners and spiralling ticket prices - although that is all connected in the broader picture.

Rather how football is harnessing it's awesome power to bring about positive social change at home and in developing countries across the world.

My hunch, after only minimal research, is that it's failing miserably. For footballing authorities and clubs the developing world is another target market, for players another business opportunity.

There are some exceptions of course. But in England, Spain and Italy young men are being made rich beyond their wildest dreams by clubs draining every penny they can from the ordinary supporter.

Football has become the ultimate survivor of Thatcherism.

And that doesn't lend itself to taking a moral, ethical stance. But other global industries do at least pay lip service to supporting change. Football, its global reach already established, is almost uniquely well placed to become a powerful tool for change.

Will it? Is it already happening?

I'm going to return this over the coming weeks and months. I'll be scouring the internet for examples, good and bad, of what football is doing to help change the world.

In the meantime I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. Is football now so monstrously bloated that any efforts can only ever be hypocritical and pseudo imperial? Or, with ethical issues now much more mainstream, is this the time for football to make a stand and claw back at least some of the respect it has lost in the last decade?

And, with thanks to 10 Shirt, here's a nice little story to start us off:
To many in the third world, simply acquiring a soccer ball is a tough task, forcing children to make balls of various materials from trash to leaves. (Read more)

Monday, September 28, 2009

For your consideration

Some stuff that's caught my over the last couple of days as I've perused the world wide web.

First up Inside Left draws attention to a panel discussion on the state of Scottish football. It takes place tonight at Stirling University. I can't make it myself but hopefully somebody out there will be blogging the results. Added interest is the inclusion of Henry McLeish on the panel. Not because he once played for East Fife but because he's about to lead a review of the game for the SFA.

Let's hope tonight gives him an insight about how strongly the normal punters feel about certain choices those in the charge have made.

As this is a European week attention naturally turns to the big games. Graham Spiers uses his Times column (which seems to be increasingly about Rangers these days) to urge Walter Smith to cut loose against Stuttgart and give Kris Boyd a chance (neatly sidestepping Boyd's own culpability in the Gers' recent drought).

Over at Scotzine they love a poll almost as much as they love a bad run of results for Rangers. So they've combined the two. What do you think? Are Rangers a club in crisis?

The Times also features part two of their serialisation of Michael Henderson's new book 50 People Who Fouled Up Football. Today Ashley Cole, Bill Shankly, Richard Keys and fat Geordies with no shirts come in for the treatment. The full list can be found in part one where Henderson starts off by naming one time Melchester Rovers boss Sir Alf Ramsey as one of the guilty men.

In the Herald Mark McGhee writes intelligently on the ways in which money has changed football as he's progressed from player to manager. Crucially he really seems to get the frustration fans feel when well paid young men act like idiots. Hopefully Aberdeen's latest crop of youngsters are in good hands.

An Eddie May interview features in the same paper. A quiet man but one with big ideas and a steely determination. Enough in the end for him to succeed at Falkirk? We'll need to wait and see.

Two documentaries from Radio Scotland. Be warned, I've not yet heard them but I've heard good things. The first focuses on Eddie Turnbull, a complex figure of hero worship, fear and dislike as a manager and one hell of a player in his time. The second looks at how players cope when their time in the game finishes and they face their own Final Whistle.

And finally Hibs produced the result of the weekend in no small part thanks to the influence of Liam Miller. In yesterday's Scotland on Sunday he spoke, or rather attempted to speak as little as possible, about reigniting his career at Easter Road.