Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seeing the future quicksmart

Sometimes I get predictions right. Like this week I predicted I'd not have much time to write my predictions. And I got that right.

But, of course, a shed load happens that I don't have time to write about.

Rangers swat aside Dundee United. Celtic concede three in 19 minutes and then come back to draw. Good night Vienna?

Gordon Smith dons his John Forsyth style blue rinse and, like Blake Carrington wooing Alexis Colby, he goes after his nemesis armed only with a bunch of roses and a bedside charm.

Will it work on Craig Levein? Time will tell.

In the meantime I present my predictions in one sentence per game only:

Aberdeen v Hibernian
Should be an away win all the way, and will be.

Hamilton v Dundee United
Hamilton have confidence, Dundee United think their manager is off, a draw.

Kilmarnock v Falkirk

Rangers v Motherwell
Rangers will probably walk it but I'm showing faith in Motherwell to get a draw.

St Johnstone v St Mirren
A hunch and nothing else - draw.

Hearts v Celtic
Away win.

34/84. Dearie me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: League Cup

Scottish League Cup final 2001The Mickey Mouse Cup. The Diddy Cup.

Funnily enough it's always the fans of teams who have just been knocked out that are quick to dismiss the League Cup with any number of witty nicknames.

Sour grapes, perhaps, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Cooperative Insurance Cup is the poor relation in Scotland’s triumvirate of top trophies. Not even always the bridesmaid, more always the wedding guest that we only invited at the last minute because a lot of people couldn’t make it.

Given such a downtrodden place in our footballing psyche you might half expect the League Cup to be the spiritual home of the lesser lights of the Scottish game. By which I mean every team that is not called Rangers or Celtic.

Alas, in the “noughties,” this was not to be. Like Japanese Knotweed the Old Firm combined to smother the life out of everyone and everything else, determined to snatch even the lesser of Hampden’s two days in the sun each year.

Of the ten finals played since 2000 only two have not featured one side of the Glasgow divide. Given their individual success it is perhaps a blessing that we’ve only seen two Old Firm finals: Rangers winning 2-1 back in 2002/2003 and Celtic taking the 2008/2009 game 2-0 in extra time.

We should also be thankful that the stranglehold was at least broken twice. And both winners had a tale to tell.

Hibs were clear favourites in the 2003/2004 with Bobby Williamson’s young side overcoming the inhibitions their manager placed on them to beat Celtic and Ranger en route to what most expected to be a walkover against plucky little Livingston.

So it was that a stunned Hibs support sat in silence as manager Davie Hay and Stuart Lovell, Livingston captain and a much maligned former Hibee, marshalled the West Lothian side to a 2-0 win.

Having lost a semi final to Ayr United in 2001/2002 Hibs again proved that there are few like them in Scotland when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That made Ayr the only side from outside the top flight to make the League Cup final so far this century.

As a personal footnote to that final I witnessed Williamson in conversation with a revered former Hibs player in the days before the game.

Within earshot of his young charges Williamson said: “I cannae agree. The last thing they’ll be doing at Hampden is enjoying it.”

We'll never know how damaging to the nerves of the team Williamson’s attitude was but it hardened my opinion that, whatever people say, there are sections of the “Largs mafia” who have been a cancerous growth on our game. Uganda is not far enough away for Bobby Williamson.

As for Livingston, a first national trophy seemed evidence that their 3rd place SPL finish the previous season was no fluke. Sadly they flew too close to the sun and have suffered myriad disasters both on and off the field since then. That day, however, brought memories that will sustain those trying their hardest to restore their club to the top flight.

Hibs fans eventually got their own day of joy when John Collins guided them to a 5-1 win over Kilmarnock in 2006/2007. A late spring snow shower did little to halt Hibs as they ran riot in the second half and the massed choirs of Leith cleared their throats in memorable style. Some would be forgiven for thinking that the future was once again bright. First John Collins and then Mixu Paataleinen would soon given them reason to reconsider their optimism.

Livingston and Hibs made but brief cameos in a League Cup decade that was again dominated by the Old Firm. As well as beating each other, between them they chalked up victories over Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, Ayr United, Motherwell and Dundee United.

Before Dundee United took Rangers to penalties in 2007/2008 only Motherwell had managed a goal against the Old Firm in a League Cup final in the 2000s. And that was in a 5-1 defeat against Rangers.

The result has been a series of anti-climatic finals that have served little more purpose than to be extended celebrations for one half of Glasgow. The sponsors, of course, dream of the final being between the Glasgow giants. Well, last year their dream came true and it was probably as woeful a match as the previous nine combined.

The League Cup still soldiers along and those clubs that make it to Hampden will always enjoy it.

It is possible, however, that the next decade will see further moves towards some form of European league or even tentative moves towards some form of British knockout trophy. If that happens then the League Cup is likely to fall off the schedule.

Would there be mourners? Probably, but even they would be hard pushed to deny that the last decade has hardly been a persuasive argument for the unique selling points of our least cherished trophy.

1999–00 Celtic 2 – 0 Aberdeen
2000–01 Celtic 3 – 0 Kilmarnock
2001–02 Rangers 4 – 0 Ayr United
2002–03 Rangers 2 – 1 Celtic
2003–04 Livingston 2 – 0 Hibernian
2004-05 Rangers 5 – 1 Motherwell
2005–06 Celtic 3 – 0 Dunfermline Athletic 2006–07 Hibernian 5 – 1 Kilmarnock
2007–08 Rangers 2 – 2 Dundee United
2008–09 Celtic 2 – 0 Rangers

Just the ticket

The world of Scottish football is endlessly fascinating. Where else in our national life would a bout of handbags between the heir to a grocery empire and a former male model provide headlines like "It's War?"

But tonight's clash between Dundee United and Rangers has provoked such a skirmish. It's hardly been an Ali-Foreman type bout but both Stephen Thompson and Martin Bain have been almost fierce in their prolonged game of "he said, she said."

For the record, and without delving too deep into the incident, I believe that most people would expect free entry to a game if they had already paid to watch an abandoned game. United's decision to charge half price for tonight is probably technically correct. After all it's one and a half game's for the price of one and half games.

But I'm guessing that this is not the kind of bargain that built a convenience store empire in Dundee.

In a brave attempt to distract attention from United's money grabbing, Thompson claimed Bain misrepresented the ticketing arrangements in a brave attempt to distract Rangers' shareholders from the Ibrox financial catastrophe.

Which would have been like Gordon Brown distracting attention from the banking bail-out by accusing David Cameron of leaving the toilet seat up after going for a piss.

An easily avoidable contretemps. Gentlemen, grow up.

Anyhow, to the business of the fitba.

Before we were so rudely interrupted I had this to say about the original fixture:
Enough has been written about Rangers this week. Suffice to say they can get reasonable domestic results in the bleakest of circumstances. But I'm going to back a home win here. United will be keen to make amends for their cup loss on Tuesday and I can seem them doing a number on Rangers.
So I predicted a home win. Normally when I do that the away team walks it.

Has anything changed in the meantime? Well, both clubs have continued to impress domestically with much talk in excitable quarters of United maintaining a title challenge.

They slipped up in that aim with a draw at Tynecastle on Saturday while Rangers continued with their almost freakish ability to follow European woe with domestic wins against St Johnstone.

United will take heart from the not inconsiderable scalp of Celtic that provided much hope for a Fortress Tannadice type creation.

I am tempted to back them again. But I won't. Draw.

My record: 34/83. More Chesney Hawkes than The Beatles.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Blowing the whistle

Referee Tiny Wharton, the Scottish Football BlogApparently, during his time managing in England, Jim Gannon refused to talk to Sky Sports for a number of months. Not in an Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp type bust up. No, Jim wouldn't talk because he got a bad picture from his satellite dish at home.

An amusing anecdote but also a sign that Mr Gannon is not above taking an unconventional approach or taking on the big boys.

So perhaps it's no surprise that it's the Motherwell manager who is the unofficial shop steward as certain managers go loco over the issue of poor referees in the SPL.

Some managers have refused to get involved. Others have backed Gannon. Craig Levein, and can anyone remember a time when he wasn't at war with the authorities, has jumped on board. So has Csaba Lazlo, although you suspect that much like Fergie calling the ref a fat knacker this is a good way to distract attention from the Tynecastle malaise.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment came from Gus McPherson. Gus is, of course, an increasingly likeable arch pragmatist and his response was as to the point as you might expect. Referees, he surmised, are no worse than last year.

And it's Gus that's probably hit the nail on the head. As Jim McLean pointed out in Friday's Daily Record, the role of the referee is now analysed like never before. Tiny Wharton was safe in the knowledge that his every decision would immediately be scrutinized by such footballing behemoths as Craig Burley.

Burley's black and white opinions of every foul, offside and booking are aided by instant replays from every angle. Even then Craig is wrong as often as he is right. Which might suggest that we are all guilty of imperfection and error and we can expect our referee's to display human frailties on occasion.

Football is also now a business. Big money is involved and the pressures are great. In an age when relegation brings with it the threat of bankruptcy each decision has major ramifications.

There, if I may widen the scope of my pontification, a societal change at play as well. Everybody now expects everything to be perfect and we are too willing to slip into the role of hard done by, helpless victim when things don't go our way. Ireland's mammoth session of greeting over Thierry Henry's gifted left hand was proof positive of that.

For all these changes though not much has changed. Supporter's of teams outside the Old Firm have always claimed a ref would develop acute myopia whenever a blue or hooped shirt transgressed. Rangers and Celtic supporter's have always claimed that certain referees are of certain religions. And every fan in the land has been united by the apparently certain knowledge that all referees are of questionable parentage.

What seems to be different this time is the extent to which Gannon and others are prepared to unleash their scorn. Unprecedented. So vitriolic that the referee's are even threatening to strike.

They're are good referee's and there are some who are not so good. And the very best referee's will still sometimes get it wrong. In much the same as there are good players, bad players and good managers, bad managers.

I don't agree with Gannon and his cohorts. Things aren't as bad as they are making out. And, utlimately, I think they're doing the game a disservice.

I would like changes. I'd like the appeals procedure to be quicker, clearer and more transparent. I'd like the referee's to face the press after a game and provide the rationale for certain decisions. And I would like more responsibility handed back to to the men in the middle. We have to trust them to apply common sense to the unique circumstances of every game.

All of these changes rely on a wind of change blowing through the corridors of power at the SFA. This I think gets to the heart of the matter. This public row is because managers are frustrated at the SFA, the refusal to change, the refusal to even discuss. Many of our problems can be traced back to the fact that it is the SFA, not referees, who are not up to the job.

In the short term, of course, we risk referees being scared to do their jobs as they see fit. In that sense each Gannon rant is self defeating. In the longer term it's going to be harder to persuade people that being a ref is a viable option. The talent pool will get ever shallower.

Whatever Jim Gannon is trying to achieve, he's doing the game no favours going about it this way.