Friday, December 04, 2009

The SPL Weekend

Finally we come off the back of a European with a Scottish win under our belts. That it was ultimately futile stands is a fitting tribute to our misadventures abroad this season.

With Rangers and Celtic still trading places at the top both Hibs and Dundee United continue to move along very nicely. All they can do is keep the pressure up and hope that the Old Firm haven't yet got all their dropped points out of their systems.

Celtic v Aberdeen

Their last two victories have given Celtic their first back-to-back home wins of the season and Tony Mowbray will be keen to make it three tomorrow. He might have hoped for easier opposition than an Aberdeen side buoyed by last week's win over Rangers. If three home wins in a row is uncharted territory for Celtic this season then two Old Firm scalps in a row is the stuff of historical legend at Aberdeen. I don't think this one will be easy for the home side but I can see them coming through.

Dundee United v St Mirren

If unbeaten records are an indication of form then United and Hibs are currently the teams to beat in the SPL. St Mirren are currently bracketed with Hearts and St Johnstone as a team that knows they need a consistent run if the top six isn't to slide out of view. So much to play for here but you have to fancy United to keep their run going with a home win.

Falkirk v Rangers

After a couple of heartening results Falkirk hit a brick wall against Hibs last week. In a less than classic match they made a good fist of keeping Hibs at bay without really threatening. Rangers will be looking to bounce back from defeat at Pittodrie and regain the domestic invincibility that provided a much needed shield from their financial and European woes. Everything points to an away win. But, what the hell, I'll give Falkirk a second Old Firm point.

Hibernian v Motherwell

Hibs look to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 matches against a Motherwell team out for revenge for their home defeat earlier in the season. Motherwell keep on going and will be keen to narrow the gap between the top five. The last couple of weeks have seen Hibs playing a bit sloppily without conceding which is no bad trait for a side with pretensions of a successful campaign. I'm leaning towards a draw although no result would really surprise me.

St Johnstone v Kilmarnock

Last week's defeat against Hearts has left Kilmarnock looking over their shoulder and fearing a Falkirk resurgence. It seems almost every team is woefully short of consistency at the moment. St Johnstone at least can trade on the enthusiasm that comes with rejoining the top flight. Kilmarnock on the other hand must guard against fear entering their game: a lowly league position and an empty bank account do not make for a happy life. Home win.

Hamilton v Hearts (Sunday)

Will the real Hearts please stand up? A strong showing against Hibs that only won a point, a home capitulation against St Johnstone and then an away win against Kilmarnock. It's a strange mix. Hamilton have struggled as many predicted they would but have shown themselves to be capable of springing the odd surprise. I'm not convinced this will be a game to tell the grandchildren about. Draw.

What's the score: 30/71. As much good as a warm bucket of spit.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Preview: Celtic v Hapoel Tel-Aviv

It’s funny what managing Celtic can do to a man. Gordon Strachan was the quick witted, Match of the Day, rent-a-joke pundit before taking over. By the time he left was a snarling bundle of rage, unable to decide if the fans or the media were most deserving of a Strachan savaging.

When Tony Mowbray arrived he gave the impression of a man doing the job he was born to do. Not a press conference would go by without Tony providing a lengthy discourse on the football that Celtic are supposed to play, the football the fans deserve.

Are we really only at the start of December? What have those few short months done to Mogga? The articulate student of the game, the dugout philosopher, has become the man who starts a press conference like this:
C'mon, let's go, I'm busy.
And goes on to rubbish whatever slim chance his side have of progression:
We need Hamburg to lose two games and it's highly unlikely they will do that as they are a high-class team.
And then rounds it all up by delivering a less than convincing boost to players already short on confidence:
I think the lifeblood of any club is new talent. The club has got to evolve. Players stagnate if they stay at clubs too long.
As promotion for the big event this was the press conference to give Don King nightmares. Even those Celtic fans who have already bought tickets might now be considering staying away.

The truth is Mowbray is right.

The Europa League, in common with much else this season, has been a poor, poor campaign. It’s only useful role will have been to confirm to him those players that he can’t trust to take the club where he needs them to be.

His anguish and frustration will have been the heightened by the realization that the number of players he can’t rely on is longer than he could have imagined.

Other than to cheer up his own fans – and give Scottish football a modicum of self respect – tonight’s game really serves no purpose for Tony Mowbray. He knows what is going wrong and he knows that he needs to make changes.

There is probably not another manager in Britain looking forward to the January transfer window as much as Mowbray.

His record so far has been almost unbelievably poor for a Celtic manager. He’s made it clear that the talent at his disposal must hold their hands up and accept a healthy dollop of responsibility for that.

January is his chance to start the revolution he promised. If he still can’t change things after that then these last few months will begin to look like a honeymoon period.

And another thing...

Numpty of the Week: Take a bow Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) Deputy General Secretary Dave Moxham.

Calling on the Celtic fans to protest about Israeli invasion of Gaza at tonight’s match was one of the worst ideas by a union leader since Arthur Scargill looked in his bathroom mirror and thought he saw the man that could bring down Thatcher staring back at him.

Football games are not the place to make political protests, not the place to find answers to questions that, I’d suggest, are rather bigger than anything Mr Moxham deals with in his working day.

If they’re about anything more than a game they should be about celebrating what unites us not what divides us.

For a leading member of Scotland’s political community, with the backing of former Glasgow Lord Provost Alex Mosson, to attempt to hijack the game like this is astonishingly misguided at best, horribly irresponsible at worst.

And how would UEFA react? Perhaps it has escaped Mr Moxham’s notice that Glasgow has a bit of a reputation for football being poisoned by religious hatred and the politicising of supporters.

Any organized, premediated protest is likely to have far reaching consequences in the eyes of the footballing authorities and is hardly likely to promote the city as a welcoming football destination.

No doubt many Celtic will sympathise with the Palestinian cause. Others might have conflicting views that they might like to share with the world at large.

But they have to realise that a football match this evening does not offer them a platform to make any sort of reasoned protest. Mr Moxham, whose commitment to this issue I'm sure cannot be questioned, should be ashamed of his attention grabbing attempts to encourage them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fight Club

Anyone wondering why Richard Gough’s managerial career has stalled somewhat can sleep easy. He’s not carved a career in the noughties because he subscribes to a brand of football that became outdated in the 1970’s.
In my time at Ibrox we had a core of very strong characters. Mentally, we were very strong and I think that’s why we had so many bust-ups. There was Mark Hateley, Ally McCoist, Andy Goram, John Brown, Stuart McCall and Ian Ferguson – a lot of nasty people, in the best possible way. I think that’s what Rangers are missing right now: a few nasty pieces of work.

I read a quote after the Stuttgart game that I would have stuck up on the wall. Aleksandr Hleb was their best player and came off the park saying he didn’t have a scratch on him.

I know the game has changed in terms of referees clamping down on physical stuff but when he comes out and actually says he expected a rough, tough physical game and didn’t get one then that should stick in the defenders’ minds. That should be an alarm bell, a light going on in the head of their defenders. When I was defending, I would say that if people are going to come into our area of the pitch then they’re going to get hurt and we’ll see how brave they are. That was our job. If they wanted to come into our penalty box, they were going to find tough people. I feel that’s not happening now.
Right, well that’s cleared that up. If only Rangers had kicked Aleksandr Hleb they’d have survived in Europe. Sometimes football is such a simple game it amazes you.

Not as simple as that, Dickie. The players you mention would probably have been able to get near enough to Hleb to kick him. Some in the current Rangers team aren’t good enough to get that close.

Unlike, say, a Ferguson, they’re not even good enough to be that kind of destroyer.

Also, and I’m sorry to point this out, but the merry band of mercenaries that Gough mentions did not exactly set Europe alight, apart from that one season when they almost snatched a place in the Champion’s League final.

If there’s the old way and the new way, Rangers better hope for a third way quite soon.

All of this was by way of excusing the training ground fracas between Kenny Miller and Madjid Bougherra. Happened all the time in Gough’s day apparently. And it has happened elsewhere over the years as well.

There are differences though. It all depends on circumstances. In a winning team a training round fight can simply be an expression of a desire to retain a competitive edge, even to drive others around you on to greater things.

A training round fight in the aftermath of a European exit between a player who has just been dropped for turning up late and another who has publicly berated said player for turning up late might be a sign of slightly greater dressing room unrest.

Gough continued:
I don’t want to go on about it too much but I feel there is a dearth of quality. At the Stuttgart game last week even the crowd weren’t their usual selves. They weren’t getting on the team’s back because they maybe realised that it simply wasn’t there.

It was a strange atmosphere at Ibrox that night, like the fans were simply accepting that’s where we are.
Hmmm. "I don’t want to go on about it too much."

Richard, I think Walter Smith would concur heartily with that.

Can anybody hear us scream?

St Andrew’s Day and the Homecoming finale. Yesterday was a good day for our national cup competition, the world’s oldest national trophy, to make a splash with the entry of the big names into the third round draw.

A live broadcast during the main evening news would have caused people to sit up and take notice. With junior side Irvine Meadow still involved the draw was always likely to be rich in the romance and cliché that are the lifeblood of this kind of event.

Which all leads me to ask exactly how the SFA managed to bag the coveted 2.30pm slot on Sky Sports News?

Who did they possibly think would be watching at that time on a Monday afternoon? Are we now concerned that Scottish football is not positioning itself properly to win the always crucial “I’m-just-watching-because-I’ve-seen-that-Diagnosis-Murder-before-and-the-Ocean-Finance-advert-is-on-every-channel” market?

For those of us stuck at work the coverage provided on the SFA’s own website will forever remain a mystery. It seems that all of us stuck at work trying to find out what the hell was going on caused the site to lose consciousness for a while.

There has been a concern for years that interest in the (We’re Not An) Active Nation Scottish Cup has been dwindling. But if the organisation charged with running it can’t be arsed then why should anybody else?

Anyway, rant aside, the draw was made and Irvine Meadow got the tie of their dreams (at least those dreams that involved a side that may or may not finish in the top three, rather than their real dreams about the Old Firm) with a trip to Easter Road. It’s nice that, in their debut cup campaign, the junior mob have been paired with a team with such rich and cherished memories of the Scottish Cup.

Elsewhere, the tie of the round is Hamilton v Rangers. Or, if you’re a normal person rather than a Sky Sports scheduler, you’d probably choose Aberdeen v Hearts.

I’m sure you’ve seen it by now but the full draw is below. Ties on 9/10th January. An early tip for me would be Dundee United but I fancy the final to be an Old Firm free zone so it really is up for grabs this year.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Motherwell
Hamilton v Rangers (Sunday 10th, Lunchtime kick off, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports)
Morton or Dumbarton v Celtic
Hibernian v Irvine Meadow
St Mirren v Cowdenbeath or Alloa Athletic
Raith Rovers or Peterhead v Airdrie United
Dunfermline v Stenhousemuir or Cove Rangers
Forfar v St Johnstone
Clyde or Livingston v Dundee
Albion Rovers v Stirling Albion
Aberdeen v Hearts
Edinburgh City v Montrose
Partick Thistle v Dundee United
Ross County v Inverurie Loco Works
Ayr United v Wick Academy or Brechin
Kilmarnock v Falkirk