Saturday, October 10, 2009

Watching the future

If something amazing happens in tonight's England match will people remember where they were?
"When Rooney stabbed the referee? I remember it well. I was sat in my study, on my own. I remember Skypeing my best mate to talk about it but he wasn't online."
"Of course I remember where I was when Capello punched John Terry. I was lying on the couch in the front room watching it on my laptop with a cup of tea."
It's clear, with tonight's England game showing online only, that our shared experiences are on the verge of changing. This is a meaningless game, the dead rubber of old, but it represents a massive night in our understanding of sports broadcasting.

Scotland almost got there first. The original plan was to show this morning's Japan clash live online for free. For technical reasons the SFA failed to pull this off (No comment – Ed.) so BBC Scotland, somewhat grudgingly you feel, stepped into the breach.

Watching matches online is not new. Illegal streaming sites are increasingly popular and consistently one step ahead of the authorities trying to shut them down. Major championship games online offer office workers the chance to preserve their holidays but keep up with the action.

But these are alternatives, additional online broadcasts, used by those who can't get to the TV or who can't or won't send their hard earned cash into the deep, deep pockets of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.

Tonight there is no other way to watch England and Ukraine. Online is the only show in town.

That the technology so far only allows one million people to subscribe is unfortunate. That the quality of the picture means watching the game is likely to be a fairly solitary experience removes something crucial from our enjoyment of watching football as well as striking another blow against the embattled pub trade.

Our surprise, however, shouldn't be about the game being shown online, only that it has happened so quickly. Circumstances, Setanta going bankrupt, ITV's financial woes, scrutiny of the BBC's expenditure (and lingering resentment within the corporation over the loss of the FA contract), left this match without a traditional home.

For any enterprising organisation that vacuum left an opportunity and, as is increasingly common, it was an online company that stepped into the breach.

In doing so they have given us a glimpse of the future. The traditional media is facing untold competition from the new media. Witness the Murdoch clan's increasingly hysterical attacks on the BBC. The focus of their ire now – whether they choose to admit it or not – is the BBC's online presence and the major obstacle it puts in the way of Rupert charging people to use his inferior websites.

It's clear that many traditional media outlets don't know how to react to an online world. New media companies are ahead of the game. That gives the consumer more choice but it will also change aspects of our life that had previously seemed sacrosanct.

That includes how we consume (and yes I hate using that word but in this context it seems right) our football. The technology will get better, games will become cheaper, online firms will become more tenacious and online football will become more and more common.

The BBC iPlayer and its commercial equivalents are the beginning of the merging of our computers and our televisions. Watching football online will become as common as catching up with EastEnders or Coronation Street.

It will give fans more choice and it will increase the already seemingly endless coverage of the game. It will also change the way clubs interact with broadcasters. It will have a huge impact on the way in which rights are distributed and the sums of money involved.

Clubs should already be looking in to the ways in which they can exploit this new terrain. I'm still not convinced many, or any, clubs have quite managed to get their online presence just right yet. Live football online could be one way of taking a club's web strategy to the next level. Are we too far away from a big club negotiating opt outs in central TV contracts to show their big matches online?

I don't think we are. Today is the opening salvo in a battle for broadcast football that will dominate the next 15 years.

Some fans won't be happy and some will miss out. Some clubs will make a better fist of maximizing their earnings than others. If you're watching the game today or not in the years to come you'll remember where you were when England played in Dnipro. Today's the day that football changes.

Not leaving on a jet plane

This is a non-prediction prediction article.

Tricky to have a stab at guessing the score when you've got hardly any chance of guessing of the team. All I can say with some confidence is, whoever they are, however they play, savour the sight of this Scotland team. You will never see the starting line up in the same squad again let alone in the same eleven.

Most of us had reservations about this trip. The players clearly agreed with an already weakened squad losing a further ten players since the weekend.

We've even managed to upset our hosts who had, apparently, expected a half way competitive friendly only to be told over the phone that George Burley was in fact going to be fielding the Bash Street Kids. Although this has given us a rather unfortunate reputation as the friends nobody wants to invite over dinner it will mean Japan play a weakened side. Every cloud and that.

I'd expect us to lose with a couple of decent performances from unsung players attempting to seize their unexpected opportunity.

It will leave us no closer to knowing about George Burley's long term prospects (although I'm sure a really bad result will have the rabid tabloids going off their heids) and no closer to knowing his first team.

We should, I suppose, spare a thought for the players who haven't been called up. If you weren't asked on the flight for this one then you're probably behind Denis Law in George Burley's plans.

A pointless game that will probably result in a pointless defeat. Lesson learned? None, except for a crash course in SFA incompetence for anybody who hasn't been paying attention for the last forty years.

Will I be watching the game having so often questioned the reasons for its very existence?

No. I will be manning the second hand book stall at a church sale. And that, dear reader, is a sentence I never thought I would write.

Friday, October 09, 2009

You take the high road

And so it raises its ugly head again.

Desperate, lonely and just wanting to be held by somebody, Rangers and Celtic have once again slipped into their negligee, touched up the make up, set up the webcam and logged on to

First we had former male model Martin Bain saying Rangers would be upping sticks in ten years. Then Peter Lawwell marched Celtic down to the docks and forced them to start advertising their wares: "Hello boys, we're a massive club, want to see what's underneath?"

There are a couple of reasons for all this posturing. Both clubs want more money. Rangers because their finances are in a worse state than Gordon Brown's, Celtic because they're convinced that only the financial straitjacket that is life in Scotland holds them back from being genuine challengers in Europe.

Posturing is, of course, all it is at the moment. Of easy virtue they may be but they still need somebody to ask them to dance.

Is it any different this time? Yes, I think it is for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there is more of a will in England. Phil Gartside might not be the supremo of English football but his continued support for a restructuring at the top of the English gives Glasgow's least contented residents an ally down south. Money talks and Gartside is convinced that the Old Firm can help protect Bolton's finances.

How long will it be before he starts convincing the chairmen of similar sized clubs of the benefits? If he can show them the cash then they will fall into line.

Secondly, came the admission from Celtic that they would be willing to fight their way through the English leagues. Not for one minute are they likely to be asked to do that. The show of humility will be more than symbolic though if it paves the way for compromise with the Football League teams. Celtic have put something on the table so a deal can be thrashed out.

The FA? Likely to do the bidding of the Premier clubs when any decision is made. The SFA? Likely to be against a move but equally likely to be completely ineffectual in trying to mount any meaningful opposition.

UEFA's reaction will be interesting although the experience of the Welsh clubs in England sets a precedent. I believe the European authorities will be keeping a keen eye on this. Not because they are totally against such a move but because of the repercussions it will have elsewhere. Portugal's big clubs going to Spain? Holland and Belgium losing their big sides to France or Germany? And, ultimately, the move towards some form of a European super league. Rangers and Celtic could be the test case.

Which leaves us with the SPL clubs. Some supporters say let them go. Others say it would be the death of Scottish football. This week Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson has been plastered over the media as a vocal critic of the move. That, though, is not the extent of what he said:
"I wouldn't like to see them go. But if they are going to go, then there is a proper way to do it - let's talk and bring something constructive to the table."
Not totally anti. But wanting to make sure that mechanisms to, as they say, manage the change are in place.

I've written about this before and I'll no doubt write about it again. I think this ends with Rangers and Celtic leaving. That, of course, would only be the end of the beginning for the clubs that are left behind. The winds of change might bring the opportunity for revolutionary change. Or it could bring about a disaster.

I really don't know. That's for the future.

For now the flirting has begun in earnest. Divorce and a second marriage lie not too far up the road.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The hate that dare not speak its name

Interesting article from Graham Spiers on the Times website following the Old Firm match on Sunday. Spiersy is wrestling with a dilemma: Should he report the sectarian abuse he heard from a Rangers fan at Ibrox on Sunday?

He's in two minds:
"But journalists getting involved? It is one thing for someone in my position to report it and comment on it, but quite another to wade in and become an active participant."
And what would be achieved from making the complaint? Would the fan in question be charged? Banned from the stadium? Or would the complaint be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders from the authorities and the club?

It's a tricky one. To not complain is the default position because you can't see it serving any useful purpose. But not complaining when we hear things like that is to let the perpetrators go unchallenged, to let them think that they're idiocy is acceptable. Not complaining is to become complicit in the idea that sectarianism is just a part of Scottish life.

Spiers also notes that things have gone quiet in the battle against the bigots. The fighting talk of a couple of years ago has been replaced by a silence from Rangers and the Scottish Government appear to have dropped their initial fervour for tackling the problem.

But the grim reality remains. Whatever action they have taken in the past Rangers remain a football club with a problem. There are sections of their support who should be no more welcome in a football ground than they are in a society that looks on itself as a modern country.

Every club is supported by Neanderthals. What sets Rangers apart is their vitriolic attitude to religion. It's not all of their fans but it is enough to be noticeable.

This is a club desperate for a new owner, desperate to move into the glamour of the English Premier League. The fans have become an embarrassment yet Rangers seems to lack either the power or the will to silence them.

What can we do? I don't know. It is no longer acceptable to say simply "it's always been like this." Something does need to be done. The imbecile that Spiers heard was in his late teens or early twenties which suggests that the Rangers bigots are in no immediate danger of becoming extinct.

Perhaps we should all complain. Any time we hear the chanting on our TV's or at our home grounds we should complain. To the TV company, to the police, to the football clubs, to our local politicians.

Write to national newspapers detailing what you've heard and asking what Scotland is going to do to combat the problem. Stick videos on YouTube. Anything to get noticed.

All that might seem a bit hysterical. But remember the line that Rangers always trot out: Bigotry problem is caused by a vocal minority. Well, why don't we rise up as the vocal majority?

If ordinary, decent football supporters make a nuisance of themselves then people will start to take notice. Rangers can get away with doing nothing as long as the problem is given little coverage, the louder we shout the more desperate Rangers will become to stop their image becoming tarnished.

Politicians will fall into line because they'll be less worried about offending a few morons if they see they can take up the side of the majority.

Will any of this happen? No, probably not. Most of us are immune to the abuse now, we shrug our shoulders, maybe even laugh at these fossilised idiots. We shouldn't accept it but we do because it's always been like that. Sadly the price we pay for meek acceptance is allowing these people to continue to pollute our society.

So Graham, should journalists get involved? That's up to you but you can at least use your position to ensure that the curse of sectarianism is no longer ignored.

The story so far...

The less than welcome international break gives us an early chance to take stock. We’re seven games in now and what have learned?


Atop the pile and Tony Mowbray seems confident that they’ll be up there at the end of the season. That’s the positive. The negatives are he doesn’t yet have the players to play the kind of game he wants, he has not got any faith in the defenders Gordon Strachan bequeathed him and the natives are, as ever, getting restless. Little comfort has been provided by Europe either. I still think Celtic will win the league but it will not be the comfortable journey they’ve enjoyed in the past.


The draw with Stuttgart and the Old Firm are the high points. A three game run of 0-0’s in the league and the hammering by Sevilla are the negatives. This is a poor Rangers side and the likely loss of Bougherra in January will rob them of their best player. The club is enduring a period of turbulent finances and there’s little cheer to be found on the pitch. The win over Celtic closes the gap for now but Rangers are a country mile short of where they need to be. Teams will go to Glasgow and come away with points this season as both sides of the Old Firm are there for the taking.


A pleasant start for Yogi at Easter Road. In true Hibs style it could/should have been better with a sub par performance at Hamilton meaning they missed the chance to enter the break joint top. Third is not out of reach although questions remain about consistency. Expect Hibs to get a few results that raise eyebrows – both good and bad – as the season progresses.

Dundee United

Always likely to be there or thereabouts. Craig Levein’s team have resilience and perseverance at their core and the 2009/10 version is no different. Danny Cadamarteri and Nicky Weaver both look like good signings and the team retains a physical presence. Third is a possibility and fourth should be a minimum return from a decent group of players working under a talented manager.


Jim Gannon’s arrival coincided with one of Motherwell’s periodic episodes of crisis. In less than promising circumstances he has built a young team that have continually impressed. This year’s surprise package, their excellent start might not be maintained as the season wears on but given how things looked in July and August even a run at making the top six would be considered quite an achievement.


Hopes that Mark McGhee’s homecoming would end the Aberdeen soap opera have proved unfounded. Defeats in Europe and the League Cup suggest that a frailty in knockout tournaments remains. Their league form has been so-so with McGhee shoring up the defence but not quite making things click together going forward. The introduction of youngsters hints at a cash shortage but also offers hope for the future. A season of transition but the top six beckons.

St Mirren

Stuffy, hard to beat and capable of pulling off the odd surprise: Gus McPherson might be a one trick pony but he does it very well. After last year’s dogfight expect St Mirren to rise above the very bottom this year. The top six is not impossible but would seem to be a big ask although if they can start winning games at home they certainly stand a chance. Establishing themselves as a top flight fixture.


Money is the root of all evil apparently. The Hearts fans would say being skint is fairly unpleasant as well. A team with some talent and a decent manager but also, alas, an absent but very much in control owner. Vlad the Mad isn’t backing Csaba Lazlo and the cracks are showing on the pitch. The last two results, a 2-1 victory over Hamilton and a 2-1 loss to St Mirren, indicate the company the Jambos will be keeping come the end of the season.


One win and three draws. Still a reasonably effective unit but not enough at their disposal going forward to have a sustained run of form and the lack of cash for new faces in the summer is obvious. Might be a few uncomfortable months before they rise above the relegation zone although they should survive with something to spare.

St Johnstone

The new boys have been free scoring but have also been quite generous at the other end. It’s an exciting combination for the neutral but a worry for the manager. They look, at this moment, to be better equipped than Hamilton and Falkirk but they lack the dogfight experience of those two teams. It is that group of three that I see the casualty coming from but I reckon a wee run or two isn’t beyond them and that should see them safe.


Billy Reid could have done without rebuilding his team in the summer. At the moment the changes are showing and there is a grim comparison to their great start 12 months ago. Difficult second season syndrome? Definitely and I think it will last right through until May. I don’t want to see them go down but that is the real danger.


Losing a manager, players and a great deal of self respect made Falkirk’s European summer rather less memorable than they would have hoped. Eddie May needs to change their fortunes quickly if they are to make a fight of surviving. Three goalless draws in a row before a narrow defeat at Motherwell point to a fighting spirit that is alive and well. Unfortunately they need points and for that they need goals. It’s hard to see them getting very many of either this season.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sorry, why?

On the subject of obsessive fans I was speaking to somebody last night who was determined that he was going to make the trip to Japan to watch Scotland next weekend. I told him I thought he was mad. Most of the players, I said, don’t want to go.

No surprise then that Monday morning kicked off with Danny Fox, Robert Snodgrass, Kevin Thomson and Garry O'Connor withdrawing and a major question mark hanging over Scott Brown. Fox and Snodgrass were in line to make their debuts and their injuries mean George Burley is denied the chance to see how they fit into whatever plans he has for the Euro 2012 campaign.

The whole exercise seems quite unbelievably pointless. To take players all that way for a meaningless friendly at this stage of the season smacks of SFA arrogance and the creation of entirely avoidable tension between clubs and country.

That our eastern adventure coincides with what is the business end of 2010 World Cup qualifying for other, more competent nations simply pours salt into the wounds.

There is also the chance that Japan will beat us. That’s bad news for a dispirited team and a manager who might not be a dead man walking but still seems some time away from being full of life. That will leave Burley having to explain that the game is nothing but a meaningless friendly (despite the protestations of his employers) and the press going for his head again.

With depressing predictability, but no little flair, the SFA has somehow masterminded a completely lose-lose situation. On some level they should be congratulated. It can’t be easy to sustain this level of incompetence but they appear to manage it almost effortlessly.

In the meantime Burley will be talking about getting the chance to see players he wouldn’t normally pick (great boost for them) and try out new things. Well we could save some time by saying that Derek Riordan will never be a regular in George Burley’s Scotland squads. Lee Wallace has been called in late but the knowledge that the manager’s preference was for Fox – who has been Scottish for a matter of minutes – won’t fill him with confidence.

Whatever happens on this trip there is a depressing certainty that our first competitive game will still feature Kenny Miller up front on his own.

Still let’s just hope the blazerati enjoy their trip. If they do then we can console ourselves with the knowledge that not everything about the exercise has been a waste of time.

Update: It seems we are now set to play Wales on 14 November. That would appear to be sensible as there's so little travelling involved. It also begs the question of why, with no competitive games on the horizon and a game in Wales in the offing, this Japanese trip was ever required.

Fanning the flames of obsession

A funny little story on the BBC website the other day.

It seems 20 year old Frazer Boyle from Coltness had taken the dramatic step of changing his name to Motherwell Football Club, the better to prove his unwavering loyalty to the Steelmen’s cause.

For just 33 quid you can change your name to anything you like and, apparently, the UK Deed Poll Service think "it’s a good idea and we are always happy to help people change their names to a football club or celebrity."

"Good idea" is not what I had first thought when I read the story. "What a fecking plonker" would be more like it. Which is inevitably going to be what Mr Motherwell Football Club says himself when he wakes up one morning and realises the stupidity of what he’s done.

Strange ways of proving your support are nothing new of course. And Mr Motherwell Football Club deserves some credit for inflicting the damage on himself rather than waiting and calling his first born child something like Steven "Maxwell Nijholt Paterson McCart Boyd Griffin Angus O'Donnell Cooper Ferguson Arnott" Boyle. Maybe it’s just me but people that do kind of thing deserve their children to grow up and support another team as revenge.

Still names, tatoos and car registrations are all ways of asserting your place in the fandom firmament. Football makes us do silly things. For an illustration of that the next time you’re at a match take a look at the number of heavy set middle aged men who have crammed their gargantuan guts into overpriced sweatshop produced polyster as way of displaying their support. Take a close look at those wearing full tracksuits, they’re probably wearing shorts and socks underneath just in case there’s a player emergency and the manager decides what he really needs is a fat fifty year old to turn out for the side.

For me a scarf is enough. The money spent going to the game and the emotional attachment of a lifetime supporting the same side through thick and thin is evident to me and those that know me and I’m quite satisfied by that.

But there’s definitely an interesting type of supporter that we me might call "the competitve fan."

Never short of a boring anecdote about the lengths they will go to follow their club, the penury and deprivation that they’ve suffered to ensure they’ve not missed a reserve game since 1963. These self styled "super" fans look down on us mere mortals as simply pretenders, playing at being dedicated fans.

You’re best to either humour them or ignore them. You can’t really tell them to get a life because the team they support is their life and they would have it no other way. The most diehard among them would make the most ardent Trekkie look like a novice in the obssession stakes.

In Scotland for now, however, Mr Motherwell Football Club has put the rest to shame. He is now the "super" fan’s super fan. Numero uno.

That is until the copycats start. And I can’t wait to meet Mr Queen of the South.