Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cracking the big time

Because a football league is such a protracted affair it poses problems in a society that continues to demand instant gratification.

Football is not a game that lends itself to a Twenty:20 style abbreviation and leagues remain the most lucrative format for clubs and the media.

This means that over the course of a forty week season the media feels the need to engineer a number of different narratives to keep the “consumer” involved.

At this stage of the campaign it is the form in Scotland to focus on a team that might have a chance to crack the Old Firm duopoly while the English press focus on ending the "Big Four's" dominance.

It's been cranked up this week for a few different reasons. Rangers and Celtic seem to have lost any semblance of form, Hibs are breathing down their necks and the Edinburgh club travel to Ibrox today.

John Hughes has spent much of the week dampening down expectation. It might not suit the press but Hughes is clued up enough to know that a Hibs team allegedly showing Champion's League form lost to Hamilton, couldn't beat fourth placed Dundee United at home and needed a dodgy penalty to dispatch Kilmarnock last week.

And take a look at the SPL table. If Hibs win today they could go top. If. But Celtic could then overhaul them tomorrow.

Ifs and buts. Two poor Old Firm teams and an apparently world beating Hibs side. But Hibs are still in third and they lost when Celtic came to Easter Road. In willing this “challenge” story on to any team that is within spitting distance of the Old Firm after a handful of games the media simply crank up the pressure on players who are not used to it.

Thus the demand for a challenge becomes self defeating. And yes, a cynic would say that might suit some of the journalists just fine.

Hibs might win today. And Celtic might draw or lose tomorrow to give Hibs a week at the top of the pile. After less than a quarter of the season that won't mean we're any closer to seeing a team other than one of the Ugly Sisters finishing in first or second.

In England the early season notion of breaking into the big four dominates the media. This season it's cranked up because of Manchester City's millions and Liverpool's shocking start along with strong starts from Villa and Spurs.

But Manchester United and Chelsea remain at the top of the league despite some creaky results.

Sometimes blinded by the institution's history the English press are prone to miss the signals coming from Anfield. Rafa Benitez has been given too much leeway since the 'miracle of Istanbul' and been allowed to create a squad light on quality that relies too heavily on its two dominant players.

If the big four were to be broken this year it was always likely to have more to do with Liverpool's failings than anything else. The pre season resistance to the Manchester City project coupled with a journalistic failure to take Liverpool to task over their problems in the boardroom and the boot room means only now are the press waking up the possibility of seismic shifts.

Even then, however, change is likely to be only temporary or to require only a slight expansion. Maybe next year they'll be asking if anyone can break the hegemony of the top five.

Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Enjoy the "team most likely" stories if you like. Ignore them if you'd prefer. But remember that the majority of these teams will be in their usual places by the end of May.

Home comforts

Another week bookended by European woes. Rangers abject on Tuesday, Celtic toothless on Thursday. Both rock bottom of groups that did not appear, at first glance, as the toughest in the competitions. The sound you can hear is our co-efficient crashing through the floor.

The natives are getting restless and pressure is growing on both Old Firm managers. But take a look at the league table. Rangers top, Celtic second. If they both win this weekend there will be a four point gap between Celtic in second and Hibs in third. Being crap is an entirely relative thing.

To the weekend action:

Aberdeen v Dundee United

Aberdeen have drawn their last three games and Dundee United have drawn their last two. More of the same here? I would say so. Both have injury problems with Craig Levein at risk of losing his defensive troika of Wilkie, Webster and Dodds. Former Ranger Maurice Ross might make a debut for Aberdeen. With that in mind both sides might look slightly unfamiliar at kick off. I'll still go for a New Firm draw though.

Hearts v Falkirk

Both sides are still searching for the spark that will bring this season to life. Hearts have at least managed to record a couple of wins at home while Falkirk have picked up one point out of a dozen on the road. The Bairns have only scored four goals in their eight SPL games, Heart have managed nine. The stats do not point to a classic. Falkirk need a win but I'm backing the Jam-Tarts in this one.

Kilmarnock v St Johnstone

A sore one for St Johnstone last week when they showed more than enough to have had the game won before Rangers overhauled them. Kilmarnock had the odd chance at Easter Road before losing to a dodgy penalty. If both teams set out their stall as they did last week then this will be a culture clash with Killie's doughty defensiveness crashing into St Johnstone's football playing philosophy. The purist in me backs an away win.

Rangers v Hibs

The leaders and champions clash with the new kids on the top three block. In the tumult over bank accounts and European gubbings it shouldn't be forgotten that Walter Smith can still inspire this team to grind it out at home. He'll be further hampered by injuries tomorrow though as an attack minded Hibs side set out to prove that rumours of their brittleness are much exaggerated. If Liam Miller and Kevin McBride can get a hold on the midfield Hibs will have a chance. Will pride allow the Rangers players to be as spineless as they were on Tuesday? A draw.

St Mirren v Motherwell

After losing at home to Celtic the Buddies have gone on to record that elusive first home victory and won on the road at Falkirk. Motherwell steadied the ship after losing to Hibs with a win over Falkirk and a draw with Celtic last time out. So tomorrow St Mirren face the start of the difficult second win syndrome against a team that continues to confound pre season expectation. The story of the season so far has been of 12 teams sharing a consistent mediocrity. That makes most games close. More of the same in Paisley with a scoring draw my favoured outcome.

Hamilton v Celtic (Sunday, ESPN)

Sitting down to watch many of the games ESPN has held all of the allure of watching the paint dry on a very large, very white wall. Will Sunday be any different? Celtic have scored two goals and managed two draws in their last four outings. Hamilton have scored two and managed two draws in their last four outings. Lied, damned lies and statistics. These are two free flowing teams who are but moments away from becoming the prolific outfits we know them to be. I'm not even convincing myself. I'll go for a Celtic win after another huffing, puffing display.

The scores on the board, Miss Ford? 14 out of 42. If I was a betting man I'd be living off bread and water this season rather than the stale rolls and Asda budget orange squash that normally fuels this blog. In mitigation I did actually predict another two correct scores last week only to overrule myself at the death.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A time to deliver

Celtic in the Europa League, the Scottish Football Blog.Tony Mowbray was being as philosophical as ever yesterday when he spoke about being a “performance” coach. Leave it to others to judge his team on “results.”

A jolly Corinthian approach for sure but one that doesn't quite answer his growing band of critics. Results matter and nowhere is that more keenly felt than in the east end of Glasgow.

A solitary point from league games against Rangers and Motherwell hints at a falling off of domestic form. Another single point from two Europa League games suggests that Celtic's continental dealings thus far have offered all the restorative powers of an 18-30 weekender in Ibiza.

New coaches, as much as great coaches, need luck though and whatever hardships he has so far endured Mowbray does not find himself adrift at home or abroad. An apocryphal “Crisis, what crisis?” quote might have crucified Jim Callaghan but Mowbray might glance at the league tables and offer a similar sentiment.

At this stage in both campaigns he is but one result away from topping the pile, well placed to take advantage of any slip ups from pacesetters who have no aura of invincibility themselves.

Time and patience, Mowbray would argue, are all that is required. For that though you need calm heads and everything that surrounds Celtic exists in a state of constant anxiety, emotions never far away from boiling point. To soothe the masses he needs results.

The visit of Hamburg tonight would be as good a place as any to kickstart the Mowbray revolution.

Hamburg looked like being the main force in the group before a ball was kicked but they were humbled 3-0 by a Rapid Vienna side that rarely looked much more than ordinary in drawing with Celtic the last time out.

Unlike Celtic the Germans did bounce back from an opening day defeat but the 4-2 home victory over Hapoel maybe hints at a defence that can be exploited.

To take advantage of that Mowbray will need to coax a more rumbustious performance from his charges than he has of late.

In talking often and at length about playing football the “Celtic way” the manager has been keen to convey the message that he is the perfect fit for Parkhead. He may well be. But he might not be the perfect fit for the resources he currently has at his disposal.

Against Motherwell Mowbray's starting 11 was entirely inherited from Gordon Strachan. Given that there appears to be a wide gulf between the tactical outlook of the departed ginger pragmatist and his artistic successor the players might be forgiven for paraphrasing Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and asking why they are being asked to play a game with which they are not familiar.

New coaches, as much as great coaches, need the ability to inspire, transform and adapt. Mowbray's major failing so far is his apparent inability to stamp his mark on this group of players. He needs to find a way to do that and do that soon.

Discovering the alchemy he needs against Hamburg will not be easy and might need some brave decisions. A time to gamble.

The stakes are higher than simply a valuable three points. His honeymoon might have been short lived but if Mowbray can find some magic tonight he'll take a step towards making the faithful believe that he can be the man of their dreams after all and not, as some increasingly suspect, an embarrassing drunken mistake.

There's always hope but no room for hate

Hope Not Hate, the Scottish Football Blog.How do you define a bad night? Your team, playing in Europe for the 286th time, getting beaten 4-1 at home by a team making their fifth European appearance. That's a bad night.

It's not, as some people have said today, a shameful night. Football does this sometimes. No matter how much it hurts at the time, it's in the nature of the game. Highs follow lows follow highs. That's what keeps us addicted.

Booing the team, throwing scarves onto the pitch are an understandable reaction. Fans feel short changed and vent their frustration. Always happened, always will.

How do you define a shameful night? Probably when some of your fans racially abuse one of your players at the end of the game. That would qualify as shameful and that's exactly what Rangers and Maurice Edu endured last night.

According to Maurice Edu's personal Twitter feed this morning:
Not sure what hurt more: result last nite or being racially abused by couple of r own fans as I'm getting in my to rehab
When the Daily Record sport's subs were coming up with their "Unforgivable" headlines late last night they can't have predicted how close to the truth they were getting.

There is no suggestion that this was anything other than a couple of total idiots but it shows how these aged prejudices live on.

Prejudice is of course not far from a lot of discussions about Rangers and the club is often accused of being a willing player in a conspiracy of silence when it comes to confronting issues of bigotry. Zero response wasn't an option today though and Rangers have been described as “raging” about the incident.

Let's hope they can find the culprits and make an example of them. And let's hope the sensible elements, the decent majority, of the Rangers support can find some way of showing their support for Edu at Ibrox on Saturday.

I've written before about sectarianism and narrow definitions of nationality remaining a blight in our society. Last night proves that once again.

Tomorrow night Nick Griffin will appear on Question Time in his role as leader of the racist, hateful British National Party. Some have said giving him a platform will legitimise his views and give racist, hateful people like those Rangers fans the idea that their racism is somehow justified.

I can see that argument. But I feel this an opportunity to take a stand, for those politicians who are not driven by hate to expose this horrible little man for the espouser of a ragbag collection of incoherent evil drivel that he is.

Make him the figure of ridicule he deserves to be. Rip him up and spit him out. If those racist Rangers fans are watching they'll not have a Damascene conversion. But others watching might be persuaded to shun extremism and others might realise that we can take these people on, expose them for the hate mongers that they are. This is a chance to make Nick Griffin's crowing moment his downfall.

If that can happen then the perpetrators of last night's verbal attack (a criminal attack) will be further isolated. Let us hope.

Celebrate modern Britain and expose the BNP at Hope Not Hate

And another thing

In journalistic terms it was the equivalent of an open goal. The 1500 servicemen in the stands at Ibrox after being gifted free tickets was a story too good to miss. That they wanted to ask for their money back is an obvious if only lightly amusing joke.

To claim that they would have swapped what they saw at Ibrox to be back in Iraq or Afghanistan is taking things too far. As is comparing the exodus of the fans to the evacuation of Dunkirk. At best lazy and cliched, horribly offensive and disrespectful at worst. This was a bad performance in a game of football. War is something completely different.

Visit the Royal British Legion for info on the Poppy Appeal 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

21 steps to Scotland's European failure

21 games. Each with its own background, its own unique circumstances. The cumulative effect is a European nightmare for Scottish football. Since July we've appeared about as comfortable on the continent as Norman Tebbit at a Eurovision convention.

21 games. In blogs, phone ins, forums and newspapers fans scream for change. It seems to fall on deaf ears. What else needs to happen for somebody, somewhere to step in and say “enough?”

21 games. Something is horribly wrong. Some blame it on money. And we're not rich but we've lost European games to teams from Lichtenstein, Wales, Romania, Israel and Albania. It's not powerhouses of world football that are making us look like amateurs: Rangers, our champions, lost 4-1 at home to a team that had never, ever played top flight football before 2006.

21 games. Is it the coaching, the players, the training regimes, a generation of players who just don't care? I don't know but something has got to change.

21 games.Six teams, half our top league, set off on foreign adventures this summer. Four were knocked out before August was finished and a fifth, Celtic, had been demoted to the second tier competition.

21 games. Something has to change.

21 games. I've collated all the results - and highlighted a few stats that leapt out at me. I'm sure you'll have your own facts and figures to illuminate the sheer horror of our failings but these will get you started.
  • 21 games played
  • 5 games won
  • 2 games drawn
  • 4 games have seen Scottish sides concede four or more goals (Rangers twice, Aberdeen and Hearts)
  • 8 games have seen Scottish sides concede three or more goals (Rangers, Motherwell and Aberdeen twice, Hearts and Celtic)
  • 3 ties have seen Scottish sides concede five or more goals on aggregate (Celtic, Motherwell and Aberdeen)
  • Only 3 games have been won at home (Falkirk, Motherwell and Hearts)
  • Only 2 games have been won away (Motherwell and Celtic)
  • 24 goals have been scored by Scottish clubs (Motherwell's 8 in one game inflates that figure and provides a little light relief)
  • 42 goals have been conceded (an average of two a game)
  • Only Falkirk and Hearts have managed to keep a clean sheet at home
  • Only Celtic and Motherwell have managed to keep a clean sheet away

Falkirk 1 – 0 FC Vaduz
FC Vaduz 2 – 0 Falkirk

Motherwell 0 – 1 Llanelli
Llanelli 0 – 3 Motherwell

Flamurtari 1 – 0 Motherwell
Motherwell 8 – 1 Flamurtari

Steaua Bucharest 3 – 0 Motherwell
Motherwell 1 – 3 Steaua Bucharest

Aberdeen 1 – 5 SK Sigma Olomouc
SK Sigma Olomouc 3 – 0 Aberdeen

Dinamo Zagreb 4 – 0 Hearts
Hearts 2 – 0 Dinamo Zagreb

Celtic 0 – 1 Dinamo Moscow
Dinamo Moscow 0 – 2 Celtic

Celtic 0 – 2 Arsenal
Arsenal 3 – 1 Celtic

Hapoel Tel Aviv 2 – 1 Celtic
Celtic 1 – 1 Rapid Vienna

VfB Stuttgart 1 – 1 Rangers
Rangers 1 – 4 Sevilla
Rangers 1 – 4 Unirea Urziceni

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Henrik Larsson retires

Henrik Larsson, The Scottish Football BlogAs an indication of what was to come Henrik Larsson’s first contribution in a Celtic shirt was misleading. It was his misplaced that Chic Charnley latched on to score the winning goal for Hibs in an early season game at Easter Road.

That Hibs team would end up relegated while Celtic and Larsson would collect four league titles, four domestic cups and a UEFA Cup final appearance.

The 174 goals in just over 220 appearances seem frighteningly impressive but every one was met with barbs that he wouldn’t be half the player he appeared to be in a proper league. Larsson took this in his stride and, on leaving Celtic, set out to prove them wrong.

Two titles and a European Cup – featuring a game change appearance as substitute in the final – followed with Barcelona before another title was secured with Manchester United.

In four successive years he won a league title in Scotland, two in Spain and one in England. That is an enviable record that speaks of a world class player. Domestic honours also came with Feyenoord and Helsingborg along with a never ending stream of individual awards.

For Sweden he scored 37 goals in 106 games and came out of retirement to score the goal of the tournament at Euro 2004.

Hardened Celtic watchers will have their own favourite moments and matches. For me, watching in an Irish bar in Cyprus, his monumental display in the UEFA Cup Final when he twice equalised against Porto was a standout that deserved more than a runners-up medal.

We should also remember as Celtic and Rangers face up to some harsh financial reality that this was a player who cost only £650,000. And that bought the best player I've had the privilege to see in the SPL.

Bargain basement battle

Walter Smith, The Scottish Football BlogAlthough you’d never find a UEFA marketing man who’d admit it, the Champion’s League is not always about glamour and glitz.

Sometimes it’s dull and dismal. Ibrox might well be sprinkled with some of that old magic dust tonight but at first glance the meeting of Rangers and Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni has all the allure of a wet weekend in Cowdenbeath.

Most people probably won’t even have heard of them. Allow me to explain, they are one of Scotland’s two biggest clubs who once enjoyed a mediocre European pedigree but now content themselves with being one of the bigger fish in a European footballing outpost.

No, no. I jest.

Ranger’s opponents tonight are managed by former Chelsea star Dan Petrescu and they were shock winners of their domestic title. A new rule has been applied in Romania that sees foreign referees take over officiating duties for the last few months of the season.

In a strange coincidence this has seen two smaller clubs win the top division in successive seasons while a host of top clubs have been implicated in bribery scandals on a scale that would suggest Nicolae Ceau┼čescu’s ghost lives on in Romanian football.

Urziceni, only promoted for the first time in 2006, have grasped the opportunity of a level playing field with both hands. They are now officially the club from the smallest town to ever play in the Champion’s League. Indeed every inhabitant of the town could fit in Easter Road with room to spare. This is not a team used to the bright lights of European football.

Petrescu has been playing the country hick part to perfection since his arrival in Glasgow. He’ll know himself though that Rangers are likely to offer a more agricultural test for his players than Sevilla or Hamburg. Both sides have started with a win and a draw in what already looks to be one of the weakest Champion’s League groups of the season.

While Petrescu has played down his chances, Walter Smith has been trying to do exactly the opposite. The truth, as Smith will know, is that this is a budget team that have been well managed to achieve more than the sum of their parts. That will bring nods of recognition from the Ibrox coaching staff.

They say there are no easy games in Europe anymore. As some of the Scottish representatives proved at the start of the season that is not quite true. But, whatever Petrescu’s protestations, Rangers will not be expecting an easy game tonight. Rangers, as St Johnstone proved on Saturday, remain vulnerable this season, even striving to look any more than mediocre seems a considerable effort.

Experience, size and home advantage shrieks that this will be a Rangers win. Current form counters that this is as close a game as you’ll find in Europe tonight. We’ll see. It proves that even a wet weekend in Cowdenbeath can be intriguing though.

Monday, October 19, 2009

For your consideration

I've been suffering from a spot of writer's block over the weekend. The only way to get past it is to tackle it head on. So, with that in mind, I'm dragging myself away from The West Wing (Series 3) to take a meandering Monday look at some internet stuff that has caught my eye over the last couple of days.

First up (and thanks to Inside Left for the heads up on this) is Two Hundred Percent with 'The Evil That Is The Internet Football Forum' in which a Lincoln City fan neatly sums up the problems of forums. I dip in and out of forums now and it can be hard to avoid the conclusion that they are increasingly populated by the sort of people that you'd sidle away from if they stood next to you at the bus stop.

The black and white nature of the opinions and the overbearing cliqueness that pervades many internet forums quickly become tiresome. You can't knock some of the more outlandish rumours though. Anyone tired of the internet might enjoy the Telegraph's 50 Most Annoying Things About The Web.

There is nobody with a passing interest in Scottish football and access to some kind of platform who hasn't given their thoughts on the Old Firm's search for pastures new. I'll not list them all but there seems to be two different camps. One predicts that the game will die if they leave. The other predicts that the game will die if they stay.

If we are in the middle of a long, painful death then we can always rely on Mr Romanov to cheer us up. Mad, Vlad and Dangerous to Know has broken his long silence to extend an invitation to the Old Firm. So Mr Bain and Mr Lawwell, we deserve an answer. Does the Lithuanian league appeal?

In the few moments of his day when Walter Smith stops agitating for a move he must be thanking his lucky stars that Rangers' financial crisis is being overshadowed by Celtic's struggles. As the fans depart in growing numbers Tony Mowbray urgently needs to find the Viagra that will cure his team's embarrassing impotence.

Murdo Macleod's on the case in the Record as he looks for the successors to Celtic's goal gladiators of the past. Goal gladiators? I don't know either but it seems to be further proof that Murdo's never really recovered from getting smacked in the face at the 1990 World Cup.

One team's frustration is another team's opportunity though and Hibs striker Benji thinks that the Leith side can finish second this season. A big ask but if Benji can con a few more penalties out of generous referees then anything is possible.

Henry Winter, a man who apparently lives his life on a high horse, takes a slightly different view of Sir Alex Ferguson's referee rant in the Telegraph (two Torygraph links - I must have been bored today). For those of us who despair of our lords and masters at the SFA, it's nice to see the English FA under attack as Winter witheringly assesses their priorities.