Friday, November 27, 2009

But seriously...

Oh, think twice,
'Cause it's another day for you and me in paradise

So warbled 1980s drummer, singer and Kinnock-bashing baldy Phil Collins. It would be nice to think that, even in these dark hours, Tony Mowbray is still so elated about landing his dream job that he finds himself serenading Mark Venus with that very chorus.

Somehow it seems unlikely. Tony clearly felt that his team had done enough to merit a win against Dundee United on Sunday but as long as his defenders can’t concentrate for 90 minutes results like that will happen.

And each time they do the ire of the fans will grow and grow. Still, as a wise man said, you can’t hurry love.

In the meantime it keeps the SPL bubbling along quite nicely:

Aberdeen v Rangers (Saturday lunchtime on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports)

They’ve never been easy lovers these two and Pittodrie will be as welcoming to the boys in blue as ever tomorrow. Rangers have struggled here recently and a fired up Aberdeen side will be looking for more of the same. Thus far Rangers have pretty much avoided European hangovers this season but their failure in that competition must be raising some doubts amongst the squad as the transfer window looms and no owner appears. They’re still top of the league though. A close one that either side could win but I’ll back a low scoring, or no scoring, draw.

Celtic v St Mirren

These two served up a dire match in Paisley which was enlivened only by Paddy McCourt’s individual goal. I remain adamant however that his effort was made to look better than it was by five or six St Mirren defenders diving out of his way as if felled by some kind of invisible touch. You can bet Gus McPherson will have warned them against any repeat. In a season of discomfort Celtic have also been short on home comforts and they’ll need a spark from somewhere to break down St Mirren tomorrow. From where? That, Mr Mowbray, is the question. I’m going for a home win though.

Hibs v Falkirk

Given Falkirk’s current plight they could probably do without John Hughes’ suggestion that there should be a statue of him outside the Falkirk Stadium. It’s enough to make Eddie May offer him outside – no jacket required. Actually the fickle mistress of form shows that Hibs have taken two points from six and Falkirk four from six. Does this mean anything or are the league positions a better guide of the likely outcome? Hibs are running a Hibs Reunited scheme tomorrow to get lost supporters back. The home side will probably be reunited with that winning feeling as well.

Kilmarnock v Hearts

What the feck is going on at Tynecastle? As ever we can’t answer that one so sitting back and admiring Csaba Lazlo’s increasingly desperate attempts to get himself sacked must suffice. Last week’s home defeat to St Johnstone will have knocked the stuffing from the Hearts players and, I’m afraid, this season might get a whole lot worse before it gets better for the Gorgie boys. Starting tomorrow? The transformed Kevin Kyle would run thru these walls for Jim Jefferies and I’m backing him to make the difference tomorrow.

Motherwell v Dundee United

Two sides with ambitions to finish in the upper echelons of the SPL meet at Fir Park. Jim Gannon has rebuilt Motherwell against all odds. Craig Levein and his players will be full of confidence after their late win against Celtic. I would fancy United to be stronger in this one but Gannon continues to plug away with a squad that seem to react his coaching. For that reason I’m going to back the scoring draw.

St Johnstone v Hamilton

Hamilton must have been left wishing it would rain down after they gave Falkirk their first win of the campaign last week while St Johnstone will have the strength of two hearts following their comeback win at Tynecastle. It’s early days still but Hamilton know that allowing Falkirk to move within touching distance might have ramifications come the business end of the season. St Johnstone will be looking to find the bit of consistency that will allow them to build some momentum. I think they might find it tomorrow with a home win.

So far, so poor: 27 out of 65. Groovy? Kind of, love.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Over and out

It seems hard to imagine now, having seen them dumped out of Europe with a match to spare, that Rangers’ Champion’s League group was actually interpreted as a cause for optimism when the draw was made. Not looking quite so easy now.

It was, in fact, a group of modest talents but one that still proved too much for Rangers to handle. Only Seville stood out as offering a top European pedigree and duly humiliated Rangers at Ibrox. Unirea, the newcomers from Romania, matched that 4-1 scoreline in Glasgow before Stuttgart completed an unfortunate treble with their 2-0 victory last night.

All very depressing for Rangers fans and for anyone who likes to keep an eye on Scottish football’s European co-efficient.

Where do Rangers go from here? The fans will point to the European travails as an excuse for more investment rather than more cost cutting. The businessmen and bankers currently trying to steady the ship are likely to take the opposite view.

January’s transfer window looms large. Allan McGregor has re-established himself and quality goalkeepers are always in demand. Madjijd Bougherra’s inability to catch a plane points to a man who knows his Glaswegian journey is coming to an end. Kris Boyd enjoys more popularity with the fans and suitors down south than he seems to with the Ibrox coaching staff.

Those would be the three most obvious departures, there may be more.

While Neil Alexander is a solid enough deputy in goals, Bougherra’s departure would leave Walter Smith dependent on a 17 year old, a 39 year old and a converted attacked to cover the two positions at the heart of defence. Boyd might lack something against the better sides but which team would not fear losing a man with an uncanny knack of scoring in the run of the mill league games that win titles?

All this will be occupying Walter Smith’s mind just now. But will he be around to oversee the transition after January? So far there is no word on his future or what sort of package Rangers would be able to put together to attract a replacement of the calibre that will be demanded.

By then, of course, a new owner might be in place, the debts eased and the club again building for the future. Or they might be continuing in this same, uneasy limbo.

Last night finally gave us the answer we had been expecting since the Romanian’s knocked in their third in Glasgow a few week weeks ago. Rangers out of Europe and deservedly so.

But most of the questions that have been asked of Rangers this season, both on and off the pitch, remain unanswered.

For now the fans, complete bystanders in most of this saga, can simply wait and hope.

Frank Beattie

It’s maybe to our shame that those of us who don’t count ourselves as Kilmarnock supporters might never have heard of Frank Beattie, whose funeral takes place tomorrow.

Beattie, or Big Frank, played for Kilmarnock from 1953 to 1972, playing over 600 games in his one club career, earning the love and respect of the fans as the “heart and soul” of the side.

His greatest achievement came in 1965 when, almost unimaginably today, he led the Ayrshire side to the championship. The team that pipped Hearts to the league were unfancied journeymen and Beattie’s unswerving loyalty and commitment to the cause galvanised them into a side capable of beating all comers.

The moment of Beattie’s greatest triumph also represented a watershed moment for Scottish football.

Between 1950 and 1965 Hibs and Hearts (twice each), Dundee and Aberdeen joined Kilmarnock in breaking the Old Firm stranglehold.

Since 1965 only Aberdeen (three times) and Dundee United have been able to stop the momentum of the Glasgow sides.

Those statistics suggest that Frank Beattie belonged to a different era. Perhaps he did. But the affection with which is still held at Kilmarnock are a reminder that the qualities that fans most admire in footballers and in men are rarely forgotten.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To replay or not to replay

See, there we all were giving George Burley a right good kicking for not even getting us a play off place. And he was doing us a favour after all. What misery he saved from, what tortured nights of the soul, the sheer injustice, the pain of being denied by a cowardly act of cheating. That's a hard one to get over. Just ask Terry Butcher.

So this blog is full of sympathy for the Irish players, management and supporters. I watched the game on Wednesday and Ireland played very well and the French pretty poorly.

And then Thierry Henry stuck out a hand and juggled the ball. It was unclear on the TV at first and you can understand how the officials failed to spot it. I have scoffed at the additional linesman in the Europa League this season but maybe, just maybe, they would have spotted it.

Henry has now admitted his craven act of illegal opportunism. He's even said a replay would be the best decision (cunningly waiting until FIFA had said no way) and spoken of the temptation to quit following the fallout of his act of madness. Such a thorough mea culpa suggests that, if nothing else, he really values that razor contract.

The whole affair stinks. The way FIFA changed the rules to ensure their favoured four received easier play off fixtures was typical of a governing body that has lost any relationship it once had with the meaning of sport. Their incompetence and crassness provided a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

But the hysterical reaction is over the top. Outrage seemed to be the default position. But which of us has never seen a game turn in our favour thanks to a player conning the referee. Which of us in Scotland don't remember with a touch of pride Joe Jordan's handball against Wales in 1977? With a little smugness Maradonna's hand of God in 1986? With a little horror the disputed England goal in 1966?

In Roy Keane's typically brutal rant he came closest to addressing the real issue when he mentioned the dodgy penalty that had turned a tricky tie in Georgia in Ireland's favour. The good decisions and the bad decisions, the acts of fair play and the acts of cheating. They do even themselves out, as hard as they might be to take at the time.

The saturation coverage of football has reached such a level that everybody must have an opinion on everything. Fair enough. But I feel more comfortable when politicians aren't demanding replays from FIFA or risking diplomatic incidents because of what's happened on the football field.

As much as the Irish are entitled to feel hurt, as much as Henry deserves to be pilloried, they are simply passing actors in a play that we've all seen a hundred times. Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn't. And rarely does one incident, one moment of madness, genius or simple cheating decide a football game.

By the time Henry used his hand (my own opinion: the first touch might not have been deliberate, the second was cynical act of a man who valued his own reputation over the spirit of the game) Ireland should have already been through. John O'Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane all wasted chances to put the game beyond the French.

I would have loved Ireland to go to South Africa. And it's a shame that they lost in such a cruel way. So give Henry the opprobrium he deserves. But don't demand a replay because it sets a bad precedent. Where does it end? And what would it mean for Ireland the next time one of their players anticipates a challenge that never actually comes but wins a penalty nonetheless?

Football is an emotional game. It can lead to temporary madness. But the massive overreaction to the events of last Wednesday night did Ireland no favours. As might have been predicted, FIFA's playoff charade worked only to lessen the standing of the game they were intended to celebrate.