Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day fixtures

Scottish football at ChristmasThrough the fog of turkey, wine and discarded wrapping paper the Scottish Football Blog brings you our SPL predictions for the Boxing Day fixture card.

Celtic v Hamilton

The Celtic revival took an almighty bump at Tynecastle last Sunday. Once again they were the authors of their own downfall. If they can take their chances they should get back on track with a home win today.

Dundee United v Kilmarnock

We can't beat about the bush. Losing Craig Levein is a massive blow for United. How much it will impact on their season remains to be seen. Kilmarnock have their own troubles down at the wrong end of the table. Draw.

Falkirk v Hearts

Which Hearts team will turn up? The one that draws with teams like Falkirk.

Motherwell v St Johnstone

Motherwell need to do some ship steadying following a bad run and the tanking of the season last week. I fancy St Johnstone to nick this one though. Away win.

St Mirren v Aberdeen

Neither team are in a rich vein of form and that mean's we won't see a classic here. Low scoring draw.

Hibs v Rangers (Sunday)

The game of the weekend. Time for Hibs to show if they're really up for the challenge. Both sides are on form so it would be nice to think this game can be a cracker. Could be close but I've got a feeling Hibs might just do it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas cheers

As football reaches saturation point there are few days when a game is not within easy reach of the armchair fan. For those of who might, after reasoned argument, still consider ourselves to be young Christmas Day is football free zone.

But that’s not always been the case. League fixtures in Scotland were common on Christmas Day until relatively recently. I don’t know if this phenomenon had its roots in the tradition of celebrating New Year with rather more vigour than Christmas. It wasn’t until the mid fifties that Christmas Day became a national holiday in Scotland.

I’m sure there must be a link between that and the tradition of fulfilling fixtures on Christmas Day long after England had given up on the idea.

Anyway this mildly diverting bit of trivia was brought to my attention by The Guardian’s Knowledge page and it is from their site that I’ve gleaned the following:
As David Ross's website scottishleague points out, in Scotland, the last scheduled round of league fixtures was for Saturday December 25, 1976. However, a combination of reluctance to play and poor weather reduced the card. No Scottish top division matches were played, and these were shifted to Friday 24, Sunday 26 and Monday 27.

Of the two games that were played on Christmas Day itself, Clydebank and St Mirren drew 2-2 in a top-of-the-table first division clash and Alloa beat Cowdenbeath 2-1 at home in the second division. In addition, Dundee's official history lists them as winning 1-0 away to Montrose on Christmas Day - but another source suggests that this match was in fact played on Monday 27th.

The last time a full set of Christmas Day fixtures was played in Scotland was in 1971. Celtic beat Hearts 3-2 at home, Dundee United beat Dunfermline by the same score at Tannadice, and Kilmarnock overcame Morton 4-2 at Rugby Park. Other results that day were: Airdrie 1-1 Clyde, East Fife 1-1 Motherwell, Falkirk 0-3 Aberdeen, Hibs 0-1 Rangers, Partick 0-1 Ayr, and St Johnstone 0-0 Dundee.

Meanwhile, the last games played on Christmas Day in England were in 1959, when Blackburn beat Blackpool 1-0 at home in the old first division and Coventry beat Wrexham 5-3 in the third.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Scottish Football Decade: SPL Champions

It would be nice to be writing a different article. One where I could wax lyrical about the SPL being one of the most open and competitive leagues in Europe. But I can’t. I can’t because Celtic and Rangers dominated the league in the past decade to a far greater extent than they have ever done in the past.

The truth is the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, as it is currently called, is a league within a league. The rest are playing for third. It’s depressing and it makes all our teams weak. Unfortunately it's not about to change.

The SPL in its current guise was only a year old as the old century turned into the new millennium. In 1999/2000 Rangers overcame the non-challenge that John Barnes presided over at Celtic Park to win the title. It was a harbinger of the seasons of doom to come that Celtic, despite Barnes’ Colonel Blimp impression, finished second.

John Barnes comedy failure did, in it’s own way, transform the landscape of the Scottish game. Surveying the wreckage of the Barnes experiment Celtic were forced to find a saviour. They duly appointed Martin O’Neill.

Just three months after O’Neill arrived in Glasgow Rangers spent £12 million on Tore Andre Flo. The pendulum of power had swung to Parkhead.

O’Neill won the title in 2000/2001 and successfully defended it a year later. By this time his foe in the Rangers dugout had transformed from Dick Advocaat into Alex Mcleish, poached from Hibs in December 2001.

And it was McLeish who was to earn the bragging rights in 2002/2003 when Celtic lost out on the final day – just days after their defeat in the UEFA Cup Final. O’Neill got the upperhand again the following year before McLeish nipped in again in 2004/2005 to deny O’Neill a final championship as he departed to move out of football temporarily to care for his wife.

That was to prove McLeish’s last title. Debates have raged over who was the better manager. In the end both won seven trophies, although O’Neill won one more league title and one more Scottish Cup. O’Neill reached a UEFA Cup Final, McLeish took Rangers into the last 16 of the Champion’s League. These comparisons are essentially pointless but, if I were asked to make the argument for either one, I’d have to go for Martin O’Neill.

In the end McLeish’s departure was messy and he took Rangers to third place in the league. That was their worst position in almost twenty years and, given the dominance the two clubs now enjoy, it's unthinkable for a manager not to guide them to first or second. It shouldn’t mask the good work that McLeish did but it remains a bad, bad addition to his CV.

With O’Neill gone it was the turn of Gordon Strachan to take the Celtic hotseat. It was the start of a relationship that had all the traits of a classic love-hate affair. Without the love. Whatever his battles with the Celtic fans, however hard he found dealing with the Scottish press and however embittered he eventually became Strachan delivered on his remit.

It was Strachan who became the only manager to win three straight SPL championships, the first Celtic manager to do so since Jock Stein. But for a late collapse in 2008/2009 he would have made it four before taking his leave.

Strachan also provided a stability that seemed lacking at Rangers. Alex McLeish was replaced by Paul Le Guen and Rangers had suddenly found their own John Barnes.

The story of Le Guen’s time at Rangers covers nobody in much glory. The players that undermined him, the board powerless to stop it happening and a manager who had failed to grasp the culture of the club. A shoddy mess.

In their desperation Rangers sent for Uncle Walter. The former manager had survived a bruising stay at Everton before rejuvenating his career by reviving the fortunes of the Scottish national team. Rangers had found their man and the Tartan Army were left to cry into their lager.

Walter Smith brought stability back to Rangers. And then he brought the league title back to them. For that he’s been awarded with the loss of his contract, conclusive proof that Rangers mismanagement of their affairs extended beyond Paul Le Guen.

Any survey of a decade of champions must make mention of Rangers winning their 50th league title: even Scotland’s uneven playing field can’t detract too much from that remarkable achievement. They’ve now got 52, Celtic have 42. And all the rest have 19 between them. It’s a gap that is only going to get bigger and bigger.

And what of Alex McLeish’s third place fiasco? It was Hearts who broke the stranglehold. Early in the season they looked like they might even win the whole shebang before Vladimir Romanov threw the first of a great many wobblies.

Some have begun to think that no team will ever repeat Hearts feat of splitting the big two. They might well be right. But as the decade ends and Rangers travel to Edinburgh to face third placed Hibs there might just be a glimmer of hope. A win for Hibs would throw them right into the title race. How heartening it would be if one of the last acts of this decade was to open up the possibility of a different name in the top two as the next decade begins.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Warning: Omerta Code broken.

It had to happen eventually. And it fell to Merouane Zemmama to do the talking. Following Hibs win against Aberdeen on Saturday, the jinky Moroccan trickster, faced the question that every one in green has been avoiding. Hibs, he claimed, are setting out to win the title:
All of our players are motivated and I think we will win this game. The gap between us and the Old Firm is closer than it has been. Normally Rangers and Celtic are maybe ten or 15 points ahead but now we are only five back. When you are trying to win the title you have to win every game and that's what we will try to do.

Rangers had a very good result against Motherwell and their confidence is sure to be pretty high, but our confidence is also very good at the moment. We need to keep going now to catch the Old Firm. We need to win our next game against Rangers and then keep on winning. We are looking to go as far as we can, so why not go for the title?
This confidence might come back to haunt him when Rangers come calling on Sunday. It’s also the last thing John Hughes will want to hear. And it has been greeted with disbelief in certain quarters. Andrew Smith turned his report into a lecture about how misguided Zemmama is.

The shock of it. The cheek of the man. A player in a football league actually wanting his team to win something.

There was far less outcry when Kevin Thompson, a man who is to diplomacy what Jeremy Clarkson is to global warming, suggested that the Old Firm would be 25 points clear by the end of the season. Only the Old Firm can win trophies, only Old Firm players can shoot off at the mouth.

All of this is press talk of course. It has no bearing on anything.

But the most remarkable thing I encountered over the weekend was the way a lot of Hibs fans reacted to Hearts beating Celtic. Almost to a man they were long faced about it. They’d rather see Hearts fighting relegation (an unlikely eventuality that would weaken Hibs financially) than keep themselves within touching distance of the top two.

They all think they’re fighting for third place. Nothing more.

As the season pans out there is every likelihood that things will turn out like that. But right now Hibs are point behind Celtic and five behind Rangers. If they can beat Rangers on Sunday there is a chance they could be in second place by the end of the festive fixture list. Why are the fans not savouring that prospect?

Of course Hibs might, probably will, drop away but surely everyone involved with the club should be hoping to stay in the mix for as long as possible. Is it not better to be looking a top of the table clashes in January or February than accepting third or fourth place in December?

So good luck to Zemmama. If the press don’t believe him and the fans don’t believe then maybe his confidence will be infectious enough to get through to his teammates. If that happens then, heaven forfend, we might suddenly find ourselves with a league that at least makes a slight nod in the direction of competiveness.

Will he, won't he?

When George Burley was finally relieved of his duties as Scotland boss I put together a list of the men I considered to be the runners and riders. I had this to say about Craig Levein:
Few would argue with this and we could expect to see Scotland adopting a revolutionary new approach based around organisation and cohesive tactics. But Levein is only 45 and master of all he surveys at Dundee United where the bare trophy cabinet points to what he considers to be unfinished business. Will the call of his nation appeal? I'd predict he'll quietly rule himself out in the weeks ahead.
In the intervening weeks Levein has surprised me by refusing to rule himself out. Indeed some might say he has actively courted the SFA. And now, apparently, the SFA are set to offer him the job.

He has made it clear that he wants an expanded remit. I would have thought that would scare the SFA but by going public with their approach they must have a certain confidence in the package they’ve put together. If there is any lingering animosity between him and head honcho Gordon Smith then Smith should be applauded for casting that aside and pursuing the man he believes to be the best candidate.

But Levein’s battles with the SFA have always been bigger than personalities. At times he seems to view with little more than contempt an archaic organisation that he clearly believes to be out of touch and clueless. So why sign up with them?

Maybe he thinks he can change them from the inside. If he can then all of Scottish football would applaud. But, you know, I’m sure Mrs Tiger Woods was comfortable that she’d be the one to change her man. Life doesn’t always work like that.

So there is an element of surprise in Levein taking things this far. But is he the outstanding candidate?

I was going to say no, if only because an attack on him would let me talk about his comedy whack on Hearts teammate Graham Hogg in a friendly against Raith Rovers. Overall, however, I would be happy with a Levein appointment. And if you can get a 12 match ban for attacking your own player in a friendly then you’ve clearly got a passion for football.

You would think from some of the press he’s received in the past few months that Levein was practicing alchemy at Tannadice. He’s not. He’s created a team that performs better than average in a weak league. It ain’t rocket science.

But he’s organised, can explain a game plan and have confidence that it will be carried out by players who respect him. They’re all traits that have been sadly lacking in the Burley era.

We don’t know what the recruitment process has entailed. Some might see this as slightly too quick, not leaving time for an assessment of all the contenders. On the other hand maybe Smith and his fellow Chuckle Brother, George Peat, are finally showing the decisiveness we’ve been crying out for.

So this has the potential to be a happy week for the national team. Except he’s still got to take the job and I don’t think that’s a forgone conclusion.

Scottish Football Decade: The Scottish Cup

There is comforting stability about the Scottish Cup, the world’s oldest national trophy. It’s always been there, it always will be there.

There’s still something special about the trip to Hampden on a sunny May day, about smaller clubs going all out for an upset in the earlier rounds, about the joy of it all.

Unfortunately, this being Scotland, we must temper that giddy idyll by pointing out that in the first decade of the 21st century Rangers and Celtic continued their dominance of the trophy.

And after we bade farewell to Tennent’s the SFA struggled to find a sponsor. If nothing else this confirmed the suspicion that the allure of cup competitions has dwindled in recent seasons.

Then we were landed with two of football’s strangers sponsoring arrangements. In 2008/2009 we had the Homecoming Scottish Cup to celebrate the Scottish Government’s year long (was it really only a year?) celebration of tartan frippery.

As the decade peters out we have the oxymoronic Active Nation Scottish Cup.

Naming rights aside the decade started off as it would continue with Rangers thumping Aberdeen 4-0. The bald fact of the scoreline masks the drama of the game. Aberdeen lost veteran goalie early on with a fractured jaw after what might reasonably be called a horrific, accidental, clash with Rod Wallace’s boot. With no ‘keeper on the bench Dons manager Ebbe Skovdahl was left with no option but to play most of the match with Robbie Winters in goal.

The following year it was the turn of Celtic to take home the trophy. A comprehensive 3-0 win over the cup’s perennial underachievers Hibs was achieved with a minimum of fuss. Hibs finished third in the league that year but in truth had run out of steam at the turn of the year. The loss of Russell Latapy to general partying in the lead up to the final overshadowed their preparations and their long wait was destined to last at least another decade.

Given the nine wins they amassed between them it’s been a quirk of the noughties that the Old Firm have only once met in the final. In 2001/2002 Rangers edged a cracker of a game by what Dougie Donnelly might call “the odd goal in five.” Barry Ferguson was the star man, a glimpse of the potential that he has never really fulfilled.

And so it went on. Rangers beating Dundee one year, Celtic marching past Dunfermline the next and Dundee United after that. A certain dull inevitability and a sobering blow for us non Old Firmites after the heady days of the 1990’s when Motherwell, Aberdeen, United, Hearts and Kilmarnock all took home the the honours.

It was Hearts who struck the solitary blow against the depressing duopoly with a tense penalty win over the minnows Gretna (a semi-final hammering of Hibs made things sweeter still for the Tynecastle faithful.) This was the season that the Romanov revolution blew like a strange wind through Scottish football. Sadly it was also the season we became aware of Romanov’s idiosyncratic tinkering. A season of success at Tynecastle but also a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Stat fans might also like to know that this was the largest final crowd of the decade.

It was back to normal business the next season as Celtic once again put Dunfermline to the sword although the Fifers take credit for being the only team outside the big two for making two of the decades finals.

In 2007/2008 Rangers got the fright of their lives before beating Queen of the South, after Gretna, the second of the decade’s finalists to be drawn from outside the top flight. And Rangers duly won their fifth cup of the decade in 2008/2009 when they beat Falkrik 1-0.

That win was Rangers 33rd moving them just one behind Celtic in the all time standings. Depressingly Queens Park lie third on that list. Their last win came in 1893. Hearts win over Gretna moved them joint fourth with Aberdeen on seven wins.

So there we have it. The tournament itself has perhaps lost some its lustre but it retains a special place in the nation’s sporting life. Yes, we had to endure a depressing Glasgow dominance but nine other teams made it to the final.

Eight of them did not get the denouement of their dreams but you can bet they all got on to their supporters buses full of enthusiasm and optimism. The cup can still inspire and will remain to do so. We need look no further ahead than January for that when Irvine Meadow’s improbable journey takes them to Easter Road. There is no better way for the Scottish Cup to usher in another decade.

And we'll always have Clyde's 2006 win over Celtic to chuckle about. And Inverness' in 2000. And again in 2003.

1999–00 Rangers 4 – 0 Aberdeen
2000-01 Celtic 3 – 0 Hibernian
2001–02 Rangers 3 – 2 Celtic
2002–03 Rangers 1 – 0 Dundee
2003–04 Celtic 3 – 1 Dunfermline Athletic
2004–05 Celtic 1 – 0 Dundee United
2005–06 Heart of Midlothian 1 – 1 Gretna
2006-07 Celtic 1 – 0 Dunfermline Athletic
2007–08 Rangers 3 – 2 Queen of the South
2008–09 Rangers 1 – 0 Falkirk