Friday, January 15, 2010

Back to normal

A combination of the holiday season and the destructive weather means the weekly prediction post has gone a bit awry of late. Hopefully we can get back to normal now. A full fixture list tomorrow:

Celtic v Falkirk

There’s a "heid" shaped hole at Celtic Park after dear Gary took his incredible talent to the stage his innate genius so surely deserves. Wigan. Another three players have also been moved on this week. So January for Celtic is one of transition although Mowbray knows he needs to keep winning as he goes about stamping his authority on the squad. It's much the same for Eddie May, for whom the challenge might be even greater, as he brings in his own men but tries to stay in touch at the bottom. More bad news for Edward tomorrow. Home win.

Dundee United v Hibernian

Not so long ago there were high hopes that this fixture could have some sort of bearing on this season’s Champions League places. After both teams decided to give Rangers the Christmas gift of goals, it’s now purely to win some advantage in the best of the rest race. United go third with a win. Hibs move five points clear with a game in hand if they win. So it’ll be a draw.

Hamilton v Rangers (12.30 ko)

A quirk of the fixture list after last week’s Scottish Cup goal rush. It won’t be another 3-3 draw. Away win.

Hearts v St Mirren

Both sides have staged mini revivals of late to advance up the table. You look at both these teams and you think “there’s no way this fixture is going to produce many goals.” Low scoring. But, I’m going for an away win.

Kilmarnock v Motherwell

Youth is given its head at Rugby Park as opposing managers Jimmy Calderwood and Craig Brown lock horns. Let’s do the time warp again. Kilmarnock are getting to the stage where another defeat or two will see them bottom of the league. Motherwell are strangers to consistency in a topsy turvy season. I’m going to predict a draw here as well.

St Johnstone v Aberdeen

A good cup win against Hearts followed by defeat at St Mirren sums up the season for Aberdeen and their goal shy strikers. St Johnstone, I feel, probably haven’t got the results that some of their play has merited. They can score goals though and that should might them an advantage tomorrow. Home win.

I’ve lost track of my appalling record so far but I’ll let you know next week once I’ve done the math!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bring it on?

Today the Mother of Parliaments took time off from discussing the lack of salt and blaming each other for the weather to discuss a return for the Scotland v England football fixtures.

The Record reported:
Independent MP Andrew Pelling (Croydon Central) has suggested that the promotion of Scottish culture throughout the UK could be encouraged by having both Celtic and Rangers play in the English leagues.

Mr Murphy said he had to declare an interest as a "part-time follower of one of those teams".

He said: "That is of course a decision for the football authorities and the football clubs themselves.

"But what I do think would enhance cross-border cultural exchange would be a return of the Scotland versus England friendly football matches.

"The Home Internationals will return shortly I think, with Ireland replacing England, but I think there's now a commitment for a return of the Scotland v England football matches.

"I've spoken to the SFA about it; there was an agreement to have it in 2008 but Scotland withdrew from that."

He added: "I think it would be a remarkable sporting event and a highlight of the football calendar so bring it on."
Quite why this needed discussed at Westminster is beyond me. Not sure about "enhancing" the "cultural" exchange either but I can see that it has its attractions for Scotland. It would be a meaningful fixture in the way that a friendly against Hungary never could be.

I don’t really see how it fits in with the English FA’s current policy of glamour friendlies for big money to try and recoup some of the cash that was poured into Wembley though. And I’m sure there are some in English football who would see this as a backward step that clashes with the shiny new face of the game down south.

I would also imagine some consultation over the cost of policing the game would also need to begin before anything was decided. I was at Hampden for the play off back in 1999 and arriving in Glasgow was like entering a police state. That’s money that would need to be found.

So a good thing for Scottish football but a strong case needs to be set out to attract the English. Sounds like a job for a Sky Sports exec with a briefcase full of cash.

A big month

Apparently Gary Caldwell’s transfer to Wigan almost fell through because of the bad weather.

Until 40,000 Celtic fans volunteered to help clear the road.

Boom, boom!

In his defence Gary brightened up the SPL. The inexplicable mistakes, the charging runs that so often came to absolutely nothing, the complete lack of self awareness in his pronouncements to the press, the embarrassment of having to explain to anyone not up to speed that the Celtic centre half was last year’s player of the year. All great fun.

He’s got his ambition of playing in the English Premier now. I wonder if he saw that happening with a team like Wigan? Anyway, good luck to him. I’m sure he’ll enjoy endless days of George Orwell related sightseeing at the pier.

Caldwell’s transfer actually forms part of Tony Mowbray’s biggest statement of intent since arriving at Celtic Park. With Willo Flood, Barry Robson and Chris Killen also moving south Celtic are clearing the decks.

Footballing orthodoxy suggests that managers are unable to effect too many changes in January. The poor start to his Celtic career has given Mowbray no choice but to make some pretty major changes now in the hope of turning the season round.

Celtic are out of two of the four tournaments they entered and still seven points behind in the SPL. That gap is not insurmountable but he needs players he can trust and players of a certain quality if he is to hunt Rangers down.

With Jos Hooiveld signed Mowbray has replaced Caldwell already but he’ll need to sign others if he hopes to sustain a challenge.

The risk, as Celtic found to their cost last year, is that to buy in January you’ve sometimes got to pay over the odds. When Peter Lawwell refused to do that last year he robbed Gordon Strachan of the chance to freshen things up.

Strachan must have realised as February loomed that Celtic’s failure to strengthen offered Rangers hope. When Walter Smith managed to turn that hope into self belief Strachan and his players had no way of responding.

This is another January of high stakes for a Celtic manager and his board.

Across the city, at the top of the table Rangers must simply endure the transfer window. The squad will not be strengthened, so Walter Smith must hope that it is not weakened. He’s already missing some key players – including Bougherra and Boyd – through international commitments, injury and suspension.

Temporary absences he’ll feel he can cope with. If too many of them are made permanent in an effort to appease the money men then it will be time for some panic in Govan.

Despite the seven point gap, this year’s SPL remains very much in the balance.

It looks like this snow covered January might yet turn out to be the pivotal month of the season.

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

Maybe the fact that the managerial merry-go-round seems to have slipped through the space time continuum has thrown them.

Or maybe it's just a sign of the now terminal decline at the ever poorer Scotsman.

Whatever the reason, further proof arrives that someone at The Scotsman doesn't know their arse from their elbow. Or their Tommy from their Jim.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Round them up (Updated)


For the second day in a row Kilmarnock take me at my word.

They've just announced Tommy McLean as interim manager probably until the end of the season.

Yes. That Tommy McLean.

The background

With the dust now settling on Jim Jefferies’ departure from Rugby Park (predicted on this site – not that it took Derren Brown to see where the dysfunctional Kilmarnock family were heading) we suddenly find ourselves with a quarter of the SPL looking for new managers.

Dundee United seem to have successfully courted Pat Fenlon only to discover at the last minute that the dowry Bohemians were after was too big a price to pay. Maybe Stephen Thompson shouldn’t have made such a big deal about compensation from the SFA after all.

Having had a rather bumpy ride under Jim Gannon, Motherwell will be wary of any hurried choices and, in all likelihood, any choices from leftfield. With that in mind I fancy experience over enthusiasm. Could we see Craig Brown retain the role until the end of the season with, perhaps, a younger coach ready to step up in the summer as Brown moves upstairs? I’d not bet against it.

Jim Jefferies sudden availability will have made Motherwell and Dundee United sit up and take notice. I’d pick him as a front runner for the Tannadice job where he’ll offer a safe pair of hands with the first team and bring in more experience to oversee the youth policy that Craig Levein had just revolutionised.

Jimmy Calderwood is also hunting around for gainful employment and might be interesting Kilmarnock. On the other hand the prodigal son, Bobby Williamson, might be looking for a way to get of his stint as Ugandan national coach. Might he be making noises about a return to Rugby Park?

So, depressingly, the usual suspects make the longlist. Jefferies, Calderwood, Brown, Williamson. It’s almost like the last decade hasn’t happened.

But SPL boardrooms are full of fear. What most chairmen crave is dull safety. Sixth place would leave most of them beaming. It’s often forgotten that despite the Thompson clan’s complete trust in Levein he couldn’t get them higher than fifth place in the league.

Our directors have become 1950’s housewives, forever choosing solid respectability over the chance of excitement.

And so the incestuous little world of the Scottish football manager continues. That these attitudes are sucking the life out of our game is ignored because being safe is all that matters.

Maybe they’ll surprise me. But I can’t see United, Motherwell or Kilmarnock appointing anyone who’s not Scottish and who isn’t over 50.

Watch this space.

Africa Cup Of Nations

I was going to do regular updates on the three SPL players at the Africa Cup of Nations. Sadly the progress of Sol Bamba, Madjihd Bougherra and Landry N’Guemo doesn’t seem that important in the shadow of the attack on the Togo team bus.

I must admit I wasn’t really able to follow the story all that closely over the weekend so the complexities of what happened and why are a bit beyond my ken I’m afraid. All I can say is that none of us expect footballers to become targets for terrorists and it sends shockwaves through the game when something like this happens.

The confusion over Togo’s eventual withdrawal added to the impression that nobody really knew what was happening. Back here the media’s unbelievable focus on the English based players involved was a less than edifying way of covering a tragedy that saw three people die.

Inevitably the tournament will be overshadowed but, crass as it may sound, the draw between Angola and Mali in the first round proved football’s enduring ability to confound the worst that can be thrown at it off the pitch when the matches kick off.

Not for the first time in his career Phil Brown took the opportunity to display his own idiocy. In a typical rant he said: “I am appalled. This throws a question mark against next summer's World Cup. You simply cannot put the safety of players, officials and fans at the slightest risk.”

Clearly when Phil hears “Africa” he pictures one country full of gun toting terrorists. South Africa may have its own, well documented, problems but terrorist rebels from a country some 1500 miles way are unlikely to be one of them.

Still I suppose it’s like when I hear the word “idiot” and I picture the perma-tanned manager of one of the English Premier League’s lesser lights.

Anyway, there’s reasoned and sensible analysis of what happened, why and what it all means on a number of blogs:

At Pitch Invasion Andrew Guest takes a deeper look at the context of football in Angola

And, for the BBC, Piers Edward tackles the aftermath of the attack and the way the Togo players found themselves at the centre of a political storm as they came to terms with the attack

These horrific events will overshadow this tournament. But they can't be allowed to completely derail what should be a defining year for football in Africa.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Killie me softly (Updated)


Kilmarnock have confirmed that Jefferies and Billy Brown are to leave the club by mutual consent:
"An agreement has been reached among Kilmarnock Football Club, team manager Jim Jefferies and assistant team manager Billy Brown which will allow Messrs Jefferies and Brown to leave the employment of the club with immediate effect. 
"The agreement was reached by mutual consent."

The background

It’s never been all that difficult to spot the difference between Jim Jefferies and a man with a vivacious love for life.

Right now, however, his grumpy git demeanour looks to be entirely justified. Kilmarnock seem to be in the midst of the kind of internal bun fight that would have Gordon Brown nodding in recognition.

Like most Scottish clubs Killie are currently enduring the painful belt tightening that is the inevitable consequence of a good few years of financial silliness. As always in these situations the manager is punished for the recklessness of the board. And then he finds the board blaming him when the results begin to suffer. Such is the manager’s lot.

Jim Jefferies is too long in the tooth not to expect that. And he is certainly bloody minded enough to see it out.

But I’m increasingly of the view that it might be the right time to jump ship for JJ.

We all knew something was seriously wrong when the Kilmarnock players threatened to strike in the summer over the clubs refusal to pay the wages needed to move Gary Locke into a permanent coaching position.

Jefferies weathered that storm like he’s weathered so many over the years. Things haven’t improved as the season has worn on. His threadbare squad has struggled, the lack of strength in depth meaning consistency was all but impossible to achieve.

And now, it seems, the Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston has tried to persuade JJ’s current head boy, Kevin Kyle, to dish the dirt on the boss.

It must be said that Johnston has denied the claims, even suggesting that it was Kyle who originally raised concerns over tactics, and threatened to discipline the gangly striker for mouthing off to press.

A storm in a teacup? A manufactured media mash to fill the vacuum caused by a disrupted fixture list and a quiet transfer window. Or even an elaborate move by Kyle to engineer a move to pastures new?

It could be all of these things. But it has served to further strain relations between a chairman hell bent on cost cutting and a manager desperate to galvanise his struggling team.

It has also given Jefferies an exit strategy. If he leaves now few would blame him. He’s seen as one of Scottish football’s more decent guys and he deserves more than to be the victim of a cack handed conspiracy of whispering idiots. Walking now lets him control his own destiny.

Staying out of loyalty to the supporters and players would be laudable and in character. But at this stage in his career does he not want more than a battle with SPL survival?

There are options out there. Dundee United and Motherwell would probably sit up and take notice if an experienced Scottish manager suddenly announced his availability.

And Kilmarnock, with their small but reasonably solid squad, would probably benefit right now from an injection of enthusiasm from a younger man. The board would be able to set out the constraints and ambitions of the club to a new manager from the start. That would remove the resentment that Jefferies and his staff obviously feel about the shifting sands that have blighted Rugby Park recently.

Sometimes a parting of the ways is the healthiest option for all concerned. Who knows, we might just see Jim Jefferies smile before January is over.

Frozen out

The Active Nation Scottish Cup at The Scottish Football BlogSo the big freeze pretty much froze out the Active Nation Scottish Cup at the weekend. And the arguments for summer football gather pace.

On the plus side the much mocked sponsorship deal worked. The moment I read Active Nation in the paper I immediately got off the couch and did 100 sit ups. Or not.

That aside the games that did go ahead were quite diverting and we’ve got the added bonus of being able to enjoy this round over a couple of weeks rather than being battered by 16 ties in one weekend.

At Easter Road the more optimistic predictions of 8, 9 or 10 goals for the home side proved wildly off the mark. League position aside Hibs are not actually playing all that well at the moment and they struggled to break down a determined Irvine Meadow.

Cue the brave minnows being sent back to Ayrshire with hollow platitudes ringing in their ears. If we want to do more than patronise junior football then a pyramid structure and regional lower leagues are the best place to start. Please take note Henry McLeish.

In the first of the all-SPL heavyweight fixtures Hearts offered proof that their recent resurgence is not yet evidence of a complete return to form. Aberdeen will have groaned when the draw was made and Mark McGhee will be more than satisfied with a 2-0 win.

Circumstances are dictating that Csaba Lazlo plays a defensive game but some of his players lack the ability to mount the fluid counter attacks that make the system a success. The end result is the lack of consistency that has plagued them this season. The solution is to make some signings. Are you listening Mr Romanov? Probably not.

I was quite vocal in criticising the choice of the televised game. But I’m big enough to admit I got that one wrong as Hamilton and Rangers served up a see sawing 3-3 draw. Walter Smith will be worried that his Bougherra-less defence let a two goal lead slip while Billy Reid will be worried that Hamilton let their big chance slip.

Reid will be looking for his side to summon the spirit of Adrian Sprott when Hamilton travel to Ibrox for the replay.

St Mirren and Dundee United were both able to overcome lower league opposition. We may have expected St Mirren to get past Alloa at home but, given their recent form, United’s trip to Firhill seemed to be a potential banana skin. Much relief then at their 2-0 win and a possible cup run to savour for whoever their new manager might be.

The most one sided game of the round saw Dunfermline destroy Stenhousmuir 7-1. A good win for the Pars but one that has been marred by the threat of expulsion from the tournament.

Dunfermline’s second half substitute, Calum Woods, should have been serving a suspension. We can’t say why the confusion arose but we can say that for some reason Dunfermline fielded an ineligible player.

That’s against the rules and should be punished. But to throw them out of the tournament? It seems harsh. And to let a team that’s just been gubbed so emphatically back into the draw would seem to make a mockery of the whole thing.

So it comes down to a choice between common sense and devaluing the world’s oldest national trophy.

We can all rest easy that it will be up to the SFA to make the decision...

The next round

Dunfermline v Morton or Celtic
Forfar or St Johnstone v Dundee United
Hibernian v Edinburgh City or Montrose
Livingston or Dundee v Ayr United or Brechin City
Raith Rovers or Airdrie United v Aberdeen
Kilmarnock or Falkirk v Inverness CT or Motherwell
St Mirren v Hamilton or Rangers
Ross County or Inverurie Loco Works v Albion Rovers or Stirling Albion