Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: Europe

And so the decade ends. Or doesn't depending on who you believe and what patience you have to live through another thousand pub bore discussions that you hoped had run their course in 1999.

In the time honoured media tradition of such year/decade/century closing moments the Scottish Football Blog is looking back on the decade lumbered with the terrible nomenclature. Ladies and gentlemen, the "noughties."

Where better to start, in our most woeful of years, than with our European decade:

Celtic and Rangers in UEFA Cup finals. The record books will show that in this decade Scotland could boast of two European finalists. The same figure as the 1980s. In fact, in four of the six decades in which we've played European football Scottish clubs have only failed to make a final in the 1950s and 1990s. Moreover both Celtic and Rangers reached the knockout stages of the Champion's League, new ground for Scottish sides.

So the current gloom is only transitory? Well, probably not. Both those finals were in the UEFA Cup which was, by the turn of the millennium, but a pale shadow of the tournament that Dundee United came so close to picking off back in 1987. And Rangers and Celtic in the latter stages of the Champion's League are like the paupers being let into the Manor House once a year. They like what they see and they get a small slice of pie. But the gentry just want to get rid of them.

2009 probably offers a better insight into where we stand. One way or another six teams, half our top flight, set off on European trips this summer. Not one will still be there when the Christmas turkey is roasted. To cap it all Standard Liege's goalkeeper scored the goal that pushed the final nail in the coffin of our coefficient. It's not going to be easy in the twenty-tens.

There have been some highs along the way. Jimmy Calderwood's Aberdeen made it through Christmas in 2008 to serve a little reminder that there are more than two teams in Scotland. On the other hand, Aberdeen only played in Europe three teams this decade and failed to get out of even prequalifying in 2000.

Other teams had some brave performances, good results. But so often it was all too little, too late. Hibs beat AEK Athens at home but lost in extra time. A brave result but Hibs' European decade seemed to revolve around misjudged, ill fated Intertoto Cup adventures. The bad has outweighed the good.

Or Celtic with their UEFA Cup final, including the green hooped invasion of Seville, and their Champion's League knockout appearances. But what of the inability to win on the road, the debacle that was Artmedia Bratislava?

I'm not picking on those two teams. I'm saying for Hibs and Celtic, read Scottish clubs in Europe. One step forward, two massive punches in the face backwards. Success has proved illusory, mediocrity might now be seen as level to aspire to.

The truth is that UEFA have seen the future of European football and countries like Scotland are not an integral part of it. Unless the governing body is suddenly gripped by a desire to level the playing field and embrace the concept of inclusiveness then we are destined to live off crumbs.

We should, however, be able to produce more teams that are harder to beat, that can discover a game plan, stick to it and get the job done. Like most things, when we search for the answers to our European conundrum we might begin to look for answers closer to home.

Hello: Livingston, Gretna, Queen of the South and Falkirk made their European debuts. The Bairns shortlived adventure this season made them the 19th Scottish club to play in European competition. Falkirk, Queen of the South and Gretna fell at the first hurdle. Livingston got through a preliminary round before going down to Sturm Graz in the first round proper of the UEFA Cup. Proof that the romance of Europe is not easily converted into a rocketing coefficient.

Fifty years: In 2005 Hibs travelled to Germany take on Rot-Weiss Essen to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their pioneering role as the first Scottish club in Europe. Back in 1955/56 Hibs dispatched of Essen in the first round and went on to reach the semi final of the European Cup.

Two finals: Celtic in 2003 and Rangers in 2008 made the final of the UEFA Cup. After a long drought from Dundee United's appearance in the same final back in 1987 this might well be seen as a sign of some progress. Probably not much progress but desperate times call for desperate clutching of straws.

Fans: Fairly or unfairly Rangers' UEFA Cup final will be remembered by the violence that erupted on the streets of Manchester. Rangers had found some European pride and, sadly, much of it was ripped away. Tell me the rights, tell me the wrongs. The fact is mob violence is ugly, a throwback, and Rangers fans that night shamed the club and shamed Scotland.

Today In The SPL

A week that began with the rumble in the tunnel at Hamilton ended with the rumble in newspapers over the terrible referees that blight the Scottish game. About which more, I'm sure, later.

Anyway this week's SPL fixture list looks a little like this:

Aberdeen v Hamilton

That Hamilton actually won their game against Hearts last week has been somewhat overshadowed by the events that followed in the tunnel. Radio Scotland's Charlie Mann seemed to think witnessing the stramash transformed him into a breathless hybrid of Norman Mailer chronicling Ali and John Simpson liberating Kabul.

Leaving all that aside it was proof, as I predicted last week, that Hamilton will get a few results this season that will keep Falkirk fearful and others in the bottom six looking over their shoulders. Consistency will be the key. For Mark McGhee last week's defeat at Celtic will have confirmed the feeling that Aberdeen lack the depth required to fight for third right now. They should, however, be strong enough to clinch a home win today.

Hearts v Dundee United

Csaba Lazlo and Craig Levein are two of the leading exponents of the new referee hating craze that has swept the dugouts of the SPL. But with Lazlo scrambling to keep out of the basement and Levein attempting to plot a route to the toppermost of the poppermost they have little else in common. Hearts need the spirit and organisation that Dundee United rarely lack but Lazlo can't seem to find it. An away win. Possibly quite comfortably.

Kilmarnock v Hibernian

John Hughes joined the chorus of approval that seems to greet big Kevin Kyle's every move this week. He also said that Hibs won't be splashing the cash. So rumours that the Easter Road abacus is working over time as they plot an Ayrshire raid for the giant hitman might be wide of the mark.

Tittle tattle aside Hibs appeared to hit something like the form Hughes demands against Motherwell last week. Rugby Park has not been a happy hunting for them in the past but, like those around them in the bottom six, consistency seems to be the enemy of Kilmarnock at the moment. Away win.

Motherwell v Celtic (12.45 kick off)

Like an overweight, lagered up skinhead in an ill fitting shellsuit waging a war of attrition on a suspected local paedophile, Jim Gannon is launching metaphorical bricks through the window of any referee he can find. It's a battle he obviously feels he needs to fight but there is a danger that it distracts from the good work he's doing at Fir Park.

A few wins has lightened Tony Mowbray's mood slightly but it's clear that the Mogga Project remains very much a work in progress and tomorrow would seem to be the sort of tough game that will offer evidence of the success he's having in papering over the considerable cracks in his team. I'll back him to do it tomorrow with a tight away win.

Rangers v St Johnstone

Tom Cruise watched Rangers lose their final game of a disappointing Champion's League campaign during the week. Anyway who makes a joke about Rangers attracting crazed religious fanatics would do well to grow up.

On paper this should be the game that sees Rangers begin their campaign to reassert some level of domestic dominance. But football isn't played on paper, or so my Bumper Book of Football Cliches tells me. For that reason I'm going to take a long shot on this one. I can see the Saints taking a point back to Perth. So there.

St Mirren v Falkirk

The promised land of 11th place seems to be forever out of Falkirk's grasp at the moment. For all the points against Celtic and brave, if futile, performances against Hibs it is these games they need to start doing something in. Everyone else in the bottom six beating each other is going to do them no good unless they can start winning games themselves.

On the other hand St Mirren know that if they slip up tomorrow the bottom of the league will suddenly concertina and everyone will run the risk of getting squashed. Is it to early in the season for fear to start playing a factor? I hope so, I suspect not. Draw.

Where we're at: 32/76. Pah!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dan's the man?

It seems that the SFA supremo Gordon Smith has cancelled a meeting with Dan Petrescu's agent to discuss the vacant Scotland manager's role.

The Unirea Urziceni manager's application was a surprise. As an ambitious young manager enjoying a first season in the Champion's League, the Scotland job would appear to be a less than glittering prize.

The SFA are, however, perfectly right to seek further information from the Romanian's agent Frances de Souza before moving the candidacy forward.

That Smith has now cancelled the meeting is also understandable given the de Souza's apparent leaking of the details. Such indiscretion does not fit in with Smith's preferred timescale or the cloak of privacy that remains the SFA's favoured modus operandi.

All that aside I can't quite get my head round Petrescu's initial interest. Other than fond memories of his trip to Ibrox this season I can't see any particular connection between him and Scotland. At 41 and with more successes than failures on his CV he is too young to be wanting to join the travelling circus of international managers who traverse the globe to fill odd positions.

Maybe his candidacy is genuine and Gordon Smith is right to want to investigate it further away from the glare of publicity. But I am sure that the SFA will also be considering the possibility that they are being used in Petrescu's and de Souza's long term game.

Sending his CV to Glasgow was Petrescu saying he wanted the Scotland job. His agent leaking the news was Petrescu doing his best John Inman impression and bellowing "I'm free" to clubs and countrys across Europe.

If that is the case then it is further evidence that our national job is not quite the attractive vacancy that we would like it to be.


So the panto season descends.

And wasn't Michael Stewart happy to get straight into the slapstick comedy. His red card was harsh, his subsequent Tony Adam's style, vein popping tirade at the referee was stupid and his tumble in the tunnel is already becoming the stuff of legend.

From Stewart's tunnel tumble to the mass tunnel rumble ensured that Sunday's game against Hamilton was not just any other defeat for the beleaguered Hearts team.

It is perhaps too easy to draw a parallel between the psychology of a team enduring a run of poor form and the psychology of a club in turmoil.

Easy, but perhaps not too far from the truth. Chick Young tackles this in his BBC website column (technophobe Chico still won't call it a blog) and for once gets it just about right.

An absentee owner, a manager unsure of his position, players who aren't good enough and others that are being dragged down by them. And a list of unanswered questions longer than Tiger Woods' cocktail waitress call sheet.

Apparently Vladimir Romanov is now taking a keen interest in his Lithuanian basketball team. The sports involvement seems to massage his ego. But he remains a pragmatist: this is no sudden conversion to American sport. It's simply that running a basketball team in Vilnius is likely to be a damn sight cheaper than running a team capable of winning the SPL.

None of its his fault, of course. The rotten core of Scottish football defeated his grand plan rather than any folly on his part. His yes men at Tynecastle are powerless to turn the tide of events.

Rumours swirl around Edinburgh like the wind on the Castle Esplanade. There is nothing unusual in this, of course, gossiping about the misfortunes of others has sustained the city through centuries of winter chills.

But we all know that the financial situation at Hearts makes the Icelandic economy look like a viable business model. Wicked whispers, which remain just that, suggest to me that at least one big Hearts name is now conceding that administration might be the most satisfactory of likely outcomes in the next few months.

Against this miserable backdrop the players have to try and do their jobs each week. It can't be easy, it is made harder still by a signing policy that agrees to the recruitment of players who are just not up to the task. Such a situation must lead to frustration. It's easy for that frustration to boil over as they did on Sunday.

And all that becomes part of a vicious circle. With no money and suspended fines hanging over them Hearts can ill afford the disciplinary record that their financial situation must be partly to blame for.

Added to that is the SFA's apparent threat to investigate "non-monetary" for future misconduct. At this stage in their season a points deduction could be catastrophic.

As with much of the Vladimir Romanov reign, things could get a whole lot worse before they get better for everyone with Hearts in their heart.