Saturday, February 06, 2010

Back in blue

If The West Wing is to believed - and the few strands of sanity I cling to would fall from my grasp if it is not - then Friday is "take out the trash day." The day when you bury any controversial stories in a blizzard of releases on the premise that nobody bothers with the news on a Saturday.

I'm sure that it was only coincidence then that Craig Levein chose yesterday to confirm the return of at least three prodigals to the international fold. Not that yesterday would have been an ill timed day to bury bad news what with MP's facing prosecution, England's Brave John Terry getting a curt arrivederci and rugby vying for a spot on the back pages.

Levein, a man of steely eyed focus, has always made it clear that he feels a responsibility to have all his best players at his disposal. Finally sealing the deal with that serial international tease Andrew Driver is proof of that determination.

But it is the potential return of Kris Boyd, Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson that will raise eyebrows.

There will be those that feel that Boyd shouldn't be given the indulgence of picking the international managers he wants to play for. And will another walkout prove to be as undermining to the Burley regime as it was to George Burley's? If, as Levein has hinted, Lee McCulloch is preparing to make himself available the same questions will be asked.

McGregor is likely to return only as a squad member and even his reprieve might not be enough to ignite an international career that has never really got going in light of Craig Gordon's consistency in Scotland colours.

The return of Captain Barry is the most intriguing prospect. In a week when disgraced international captains have been big news it is interesting to note that player power in football has now evolved to such a stage that simply shafting your manager and a nation's fans is but a blip on the path to forgiveness.

Except that, for all Levein's wooing, Barry is not set for an immediate return. He's got commitment to his clubs you see, so he can't make himself readily available. I think that sound you hear is an olive branch being snapped by an ungrateful wretch.

If he was serious about redemption - although you must question if he accepts any fault - then Ferguson should have said that he's available immediately. If he wants to concentrate on his club career then he should have politely declined the invite from Levein and announced his international retirement.

To stall suggests that Ferguson has lost none of the arrogance that surrounded him and his Ibrox cabal. It was that arrogance that led to his international hiatus in the first place. In that light the reintroduction of his mates Boyd, McGreggor and McCulloch must also be seen as a high risk strategy for a novice international manager.

Craig Levein, as Alan Patullo's excellent Scotsman article showed yesterday, knows his own mind. He has a fixed vision of how he will run Scotland and he won't waver from it. At the moment ensuring the availability of everybody in what is a small talent pool is his paramount concern. Once they're available he doesn't need to name them in the squad or hand them starting places. It might be that only when he discovers how they react to a rebuttal like that will he feel that he can gauge the true measure of them.

In the meantime the slightest potential of a recall will anger entire regiments of the Tartan Army.

My own view is not quite black and white. All the players concerned have shown a disregard for the team and that shouldn't be taken lightly. On the other hand I see no reason to dump a whole heap of criticism on a manager who is fighting only a phoney war until September. Time will tell if these are players he grows to rely on or even pick. If he does find himself relying on them it will be down to their success on the pitch and, I guess, that would bring its own redemption for them.

Yet it still niggles that the country has needed these players before and they failed us. For now we have to put faith in the manager. I only hope he's getting it right.

Andrew Driver

What emotive words of allegiance will Andrew Driver have on the eve of his international debut? Time will tell but can we find some clues in the following?
I have been the only English player in the Scottish league who this story applies to so all the attention has been on me but, at the end of the day, I am English, with no Scottish blood in me. I'm delighted to be here, representing England. The aim was always for me to be here. (June 2009)
Or how about?
No, my mind is made up, I want to play for Scotland (February 2010)
The confusion of youth?

Our cup overfloweth

And so the Active Nation Scottish Cup returns this weekend with the promise of a sporting festival that will knock the Superbowl and Winter Olympics combined into a cocked hat.

Sadly prior engagements mean I'll only be able to keep one eye and half an ear on proceedings and the dictates of time rob me of the chance to write a complete preview.

So allow me to borrow some insight from Seb at Inside Left who, displaying the dedication that I lack, has cast his eye over the fixture card in an article that includes the following killer summary of life as an Aberdeen fan:
I realise I am being rather hard on my beloved AFC of late (ref: our previous posting), but fuck it, I feel like a right spanner walking around IKEA on a Saturday morning in my replica top being pointed and laughed at by small children; the parents are generally not much better either. Things have got to change, starting tomorrow. So, back the meat wagon up against the doorway at Stark’s Park and herd those Raith Rovers players into the whirling knives of our killer attack.
Seb sees no "cupsets" in the offing. I kind of disagree and can see Inverness at least doing enough to get Kilmarnock back to their place for slightly more than coffee. Of the all SPL clashes I'm backing St Johnstone to bounce back from the Hampden defeat in midweek. And, just to be contrary, I might well stick a wee fiver on St Mirren to deny Rangers the chance of a sixth successive domestic cup final.

Dunfermline entertain Celtic on Sunday. Defeat for Celtic is unthinkable. Surely.

Dundee v Ayr
Hibernian v Montrose
Kilmarnock v Inverness
Raith v Aberdeen
Ross County v Stirling
St Johnstone v Dundee United
St Mirren v Rangers

Caledonian is calling me

Scotland's first online newspaper, the Caledonian Mercury, has launched offering a different national perspective to that of The Scotsman or The Herald.

There's an excellent review by Craig McGill on Contently Managed that pretty much covers everything that needs to be said.

The Sport section is covered by former Sunday Times Scotland scribe Richard Wilson and, although still finding it's feet, it is well worth a look especially for the insightful profiles of Walter Smith, Craig Levein and Jim Jefferies.

What it's not doing is give up to the minute reports but for those of us subjected to The Scotsman website over the years the arrival of a nice looking site carrying decent analysis is more than welcome.

The Caledonian Mercury, students of newspaper history and nerds like me will recognise that the name has been resurrected from one of the first Scottish newspapers, is the brainchild of former Scotsman web supremo Stewart Kirkpatrick.

And, as Rupert Murdoch would tell you, if you own your own newspaper you can take a few liberties. Kirkpatrick has taken this lesson to heart with a tongue firmly in cheek account of Jim Jefferies' return to Tynecastle.

Writing as a diehard Hibs fans Kirkpatrick notes:
Strewth, am I glad to see the back of Csaba László. Intelligent, insightful, strong minded and capable of independent thought, he was precisely the kind of manager you do not want your city rivals to have. I haven’t felt this relieved since George Burley got his jotters from Vladimir Romanov.

However, I am very comfortable with Jim Jefferies and not just because he was picked up out of the bargain bucket after being rejected by Killie.

Jim Jefferies is every Hibee’s favourite Jambo for three very good reasons.

He was, lest we forget, captain of the Hearts team that strode out onto their home pitch on 1 January, 1973, innocently unaware they were about to make history. I wonder what went through his mind as the seventh Hibs goal went in? (Interestingly, the Hearts mascot that day was one Darren Jackson.)
Unsurprisingly this raised a few hackles and the comments board has been going back and forth between the gloating greens and the maddened maroons (note to internet comment contributors: an article offering an argument that you disagree with is not by definition badly written) and, refreshingly, the editor has given former Planet Hearts boss Shaun Milne the right of reply. Together their pieces offer a nice snapshot of fandom in the capital.

So early days for the Caledonian Mercury but a warm welcome all the same. More of Wilson's insight with a touch more of the biased opinion pieces should make it quite a refreshing addition to the Scottish football media.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Honey, we failed the kids

The kids are alright?

Well, no actually. A couple of items from the local press caught my eye yesterday.

Firstly in the East Lothian Courier (the courts page acts as a kind of offline social network for my alma mater) an experienced youth coach can be found "slamming" the current youth set up in Scotland. Scott Robertson, former chairman of Musselburgh Windsor, compares the Scottish system with the Netherlands. His conclusion is simple and predictable: "We have gone mad here."

He's now taken his battle to Holyrood with a petition backed by Iain Gray. Mr Robertson is calling for a review of the whole youth set up. Let us hope Mr Gray starts by calling his predecessor Henry McLeish and asking Hank what his review of the national game aims to achieve in this area.

Then in the Edinburgh Evening News (still proudly delivering yesterday's news tomorrow) Hutchison Vale coach Tam Smith is protesting at the threatened withdrawal of all council funding from his club. Hutchison Vale (the club that unearthed John Collins amongst others) is a seventy year old Edinburgh institution that now supports 32 age group teams and a women's section. The barrel load of cash that the Lib Dem/SNP council coalition are trying to save council tax payers? £288 pounds. I suppose it might buy a firework for Hogmanay.

Small, isolated examples for sure. But they highlight a greater truth. For all the hardwork of dedicated, devoted men like Robertson and Smith the youth structure is continuing to fail. And the football authorities stand watching all this apparently lacking the will or ideas to do much about it.

Little stories like this suggest that Craig Levein has quite a task to revolutionise the game at age group level. As the very future of the game depends on it we can only wish him well.

Craigie Frown no more

This time of year is commonly known as the "awards season." It seems each February and March it's almost impossible to avoid getting some kind of tacky gong.

Football, of course, is happy to fire out cheap plastic baubles throughout the season. But, as Oscar season approaches, it's fitting that our very own elder statesman, the Morgan Freeman of the fitba', should pick up the SPL's Manager of the Month Award.

Ask yourself how you'd have reacted if somebody told you in December that Craig Brown would be voted the SPL's best performing manager for January. I'm guessing you'd have come over all Victor Meldrew-esque in your protestations of disbelief.

Yet here we are and here he is. Back and award winning.

Moreover he's been given an even more tangible reward than a bit of Clydesdale Bank emblazoned perspex. Such has been his impact at Fir Park so far that Brown's contract has been extended to take in the whole of next season.

It still seems an unlikely turn of events, given an even more surreal air when Broonie did the whole Gwyneth Paltrow act and gushed his thanks to all and sundry on accepting his award. I hope the Fir Park tea lady doesn't feel left out.

Is the resurrection of Brown proof that there's no substitute for experience? Or is it proof of the lack of inspiration in SPL boardrooms? I've already come down on the side of the latter.

Despite that you've got to tip your hat to Craig Brown. Clearly he's lost none of his desire or enthusiasm and even at his somewhat advanced age he seems to be on the verge of delivering the stability that Motherwell crave.

Brown never really became loved as manager of Scotland and few would argue that he clung to the role for too long. He gave us some memorable moments (including but not ending with his unlikely outing as a successful lothario) and he gave us some dire moments.

The scrapbook of my own memory still glows with the thought of the crucial 1995 win over Sweden at Ibrox. I'm still haunted by a dire win over Estonia at Tynecastle in 1998 and that World Cup match against Morocco.

Looking back though Brown, in his quiet, methodical way, delivered something of a golden period. We may qualify for major tournaments again but will we ever manage it with the regularity that Brown achieved as manager and coach?

So if Brown gets the chance to enjoy one last, successful hurrah at club level then good luck to him. And, like many a respected sportsman enjoying an Indian summer, he might even find himself achieving an affection that eluded him when he was giving the country a level of success that now seems a million miles away.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hopes and fears

The revolution, when it came, was televised.

Throughout the day yesterday Sky Sports News was awash with rumours of comings and goings at clubs across Britain. But it was in Glasgow’s east end that they found the most productive negotiations.

If Tony Mowbray had arrived at Celtic in July with a grand, but long term, plan he has redrafted it before our eyes since the turn of the year. Gone is the gradual reshaping of the team, replaced by an impressive cull of established players and the recruitment of eight players in a few short weeks.

Some of these players are relatively untried. But, stung by his experience of life back in Scotland, Mowbray has chosen to live or die by men of his own choosing and will see it as a vindication of his philosophy if the new players adapt quickly to the brand of football he demands.

That so many of the players he has jettisoned were keen to join up with their former manager at Middlesbrough would suggest that Mowbray has failed to win their hearts in the way that Gordon Strachan did. That will not bother him in the slightest if he can prove that he is stronger without them.

We can see this transfer window as the biggest gamble of Mowbray’s management career. He has sought redemption in change, recasting the rest of the season and the title race as a permanent revolution at Celtic Park. At the moment, of course, the success of all this is open to question.

Mowbray’s new arrivals were, in the main, the kind of young, inexperienced players with potential that he relishes working with, the sort of players that he can mould into his vision of the modern footballer. Commendable but not exactly the guarantee of immediate success that fans are clamouring for.

But Celtic had one more trick ready. In the last bit of business of the day, they unveiled a marquee signing. Scottish football was supposed to be finished with big money signings, the Old Firm were supposed to have quit competing with even smaller English clubs.

But here, remarkably, was Robbie Keane holding the number seven shirt and being unveiled as the highest paid player ever to ply his trade in Scotland. An enduring fixture of the English Premier League, suddenly Keane was walking amongst us, promising to sprinkle his stardust across the SPL.

Even as a short term loan deal this must be seen as one of the biggest coups in Celtic’s history. The biscuit tin would seem to have been dynamited out of the boardroom.

But Keane has not been signed as a luxury. Of all the new arrivals it is the Irishman who is going to have perform the most important roles as the season reaches its crucial period.

He passed his first test with flying colours. A team that finds itself ten points behind in a two horse race needs a fairly spectacular stunt to try and wrestle the momentum from their rivals. Signing Keane is a fairly spectacular stunt.

Supporters will suddenly find themselves galvanised at the thought of seeing, however briefly, a fitting heir to Henrik Larsson. Optimism will be rediscovered, empty seats filled again. If the flipside of this enthusiasm at Celtic is an outbreak of jitters among the faithful at Ibrox then just by holding his shirt aloft Keane has done a grand job.

Secondly he needs to hit the ground running. None of the other signing have as much experience as the 29 year old Keane. If they are to be afforded the luxury of having time to settle, then he has to take the pressure off them by making an immediate impact. He might even be asked to take the captain’s armband and lead from the front.

And finally he needs to act as the catalyst for a massive team effort. They somehow need to reel in the ten point gap they have conceded to Rangers. Keane’s presence – and his goals – will be expected to kick start the comeback and then ensure that it lasts the distance.

If he can achieve all this then Robbie Keane, with the assistance of Dermot Desmond’s largesse, will ensure the survival of the Mowbray regime. If he flops then Mowbray’s gamble will have failed and both he and Celtic, chastened and poorer, will be back to square one.

Hampden bound?

A quick preview of the two League Cup semi finals that take place tonight and tomorrow:

Hearts v St Mirren

Television scheduling and the arrival of an Irishman in Glasgow have probably combined to overshadow tonight’s first semi final of the Co-operative Insurance Cup.

But both Hearts and St Mirren will fancy their chances of progressing to the final and giving their fans a day in the Hampden sun. Which would provide some recompense for spending this evening at a freezing Fir Park.

Csabo Lazlo had apparently already discharged most of his media duties in the build up before he got the boot from Tynecastle, giving some indication of the haste with which Jim Jefferies was brought back into the fold.

Not that the boost of Jim’s return was enough to give his team any momentum on Saturday as they went down to St Johnstone. Much has been written about Hearts’ lack of consistency and thrust this season and it’s probably safe to surmise that a quiet transfer window will do little to alleviate those problems, new old manager or not.

St Mirren come into the semi final on the back of a four match losing run which includes a 1-0 loss at Tynecastle in January. That said they matched third placed Hibs for most of the match on Saturday only to lose out to that cruellest of blows – the injury time own goal.

This one looks too close to call. Neither team have much form to call on and they both struggle to score goals (St Mirren 21 league goals from 22 games, Hearts 20 from 23). In their first meeting of the season St Mirren won 2-1 at home, in the return Hearts won 1-0.

Certainly the closeness of previous encounters suggests that the eight point gap between the teams in the league does not point to a massive gulf in class. The nine booking in those clashes would also suggest that we can expect a certain robustness in the play this evening.

This might not be a vintage night for the neutral. I fancy St Mirren to nick it by a goal in 90 minutes. If they don’t, penalties loom and then I’d have to back Hearts.

Rangers v St Johnstone

Rangers will have been relieved to come through the transfer window relatively unscathed. Not for the first time rumours of an impending Ibrox Armageddon have proved unfounded.

And, unsurprisingly, they are overwhelming favourites to win the second semi and stay on course for what would be one of the most unlikely trebles.

Despite that St Johnstone have proved themselves to be a bit of a cup team the last few seasons and they’ll be keen to build on that reputation as they continue to establish themselves back in the SPL.

Although the season’s two head to heads have seen Rangers take the spoils (2-1 in Perth and 3-0 at Ibrox) the feeling remains that SPL teams are capable of getting a result against the league leaders. If Rangers have an off night, if St Johnstone can stick to their plan and carry a touch of luck then anything is possible.

Remember as well that it was only a couple of years ago that Rangers were taken the distance before sneaking past a First Division St Johnstone at this stage in the Scottish Cup.

So, on paper, this might be a foregone conclusion. But I wouldn’t be massively surprised if the Saints manage to pull off a shock.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A thoroughly modern footballer

Apparently John Terry kissed the Chelsea badge when he scored against Burnley yesterday. Shame the badge belonged to one of his teammates.

Ha ha etc etc.

How much do I care about John Terry's off field pursuits? About as much as I care about his on field pursuits. Which is to say very little.

Will he be stripped of the England captaincy? Fabio Capello will make his mind up on that based on what he believes is best for the team. If the team have lost confidence in him then Capello will sacrifice him. It's all about the team for Italian. Again, I'm not that bothered.

But Terry's is a tale of our times and a warning shot for all footballers. Coupled with the very public - and, for the media, profitable - unravelling of Tiger Woods' life, the lifting of the Terry injunction means all bets are off. The vultures are circling and that rarified breed of fully grown children that staff professional football clubs are in their sights. Other footballers, and their staff, should look at Terry and think "there but for the grace of God."

Terry's career is a litany of misdemeanours
. The latest indiscretion proves that he's not grown up at all. Worse he's now living in such a bubble of money and drooling underlings that he's prepared to try and use the law to buy silence.

No doubt debates about privacy and freedom of the press will continue to rage. But the fact remains that as his people sent out releases highlighting his marketabilty as England's brave John Terry, as his list of honours extended to Dad of the Year and as the money kept rolling in he was knocking off his mate's bird.

One need not moralise on infidelity to say that carries more than a hint of hypocrisy.

Firing off an early contender for the Obsequious Column Of The Year Award, the Mirror's Oliver Holt argued passionately that Terry must not be stripped of the captaincy. Alongside listing Terry's qualities in a manner that would make the most dedicated PR blush, Holt also hinted that Terry's behaviour is in part due to a difficult upbringing.

From what we read we may surmise that life Chez Terry was probably not The Waltons. But many players from what we used to call the wrong side of the tracks have been model professionals. Many players with idyllic childhoods have turned into complete pricks. That happens.

John Terry is man who earns more in a week than the entire squads of some of the teams he plays against. As captain of club and country he is surrounded by advisors, PR men, media trainers and wise counsel. At his age he makes his own choices. The nature/nurture debate doesn't really wash with a man who earns as much in half a week as the Prime Minister does in a year.

Sadly John Terry is a thoroughly modern footballer. Overpaid, too much time on their hands, too many yes men, too many people prepared to cover up for them. John Terry is as much a product of the madness of his sport as he is of his upbringing.

And the result is a man who thinks right and wrong extends only to what he wants to do. The manager might have the final say at training and on match day, although even that has been open to doubt in the past, but the rest of the time he is living by his own rules. That's unhealthy for anyone.

He's not alone. Each day, somewhere there is a footballer risking a tabloid expose for some aspect of their private life, another risking his career by sticking something other than a Vicks inhaler up his nose.

The poster boy for England's World Cup campaign is also the poster boy for the excesses of a game descending into madness.

Changing the behaviour of the fans helped make English footballers richer than Croesus. How ironic it would be if it was the behaviour of the footballers themselves that began to drive the new breed of fans - and the money men - away from the game.

In the meantime the clubs need to bring in more control. Academies need to offer much more than just an education in football and saying very little in post match interviews. Somebody, somewhere needs to try and introduce some sanity into the way players are paid and treated. It's not too harsh to say that a lot of footballers are not the brightest and are given to stupidity. Clubs have to stop letting that stupidity reign.

At the moment football is eating itself and it's really not that pretty.

Lost for words

It takes an organisation of quite incredible incompetence to make one thankful for the expertise and tact of the SFA.

So take a bow the Confederation of African Football.

On the eve of their showpiece final, at the start of the biggest year in the history of African football, CAF have announced that Togo will be fined $50,000 and banned from the next two tournaments.

Their crime? Withdrawing after the team buses were ambushed by terrorists. An ambush that saw two of their party die.

CAF have offered government interference as the rationale for their decision:
The players publicly expressed their willingness to return to the Nations Cup to compete. But the Togo government decided to call back their national team. The decision by political authorities contravenes Caf and African Nations Cup regulations.
These regulations are actually appended by a clause suggesting that they can be relaxed in the event of extreme circumstances. Clearly terrorist attacks ending in murder are not extreme enough.

There is also a suggestion in some quarters that when Togo's players requested to play in the tournament their request was blocked not by their government but by the organisers. Something about this stinks.

Togo have responded with a threat of legal action:
This is a surprise decision and it means that people (Caf) have no consideration for the lives of other human beings. This is insulting to the family of those who lost their lives and those traumatised because of the attack.

We had two people dead and others suffered so if those people at Caf had any consideration for others I don't think at this time this is a reasonable decision. We are awaiting the official notification and we are going to take legal action to resolve the matter.
We can only hope that Togo get the result they hope for in court.

And what of FIFA? So far they've declined to comment. The world game perhaps, but rotten to the core the world over.

Silver Surfers

Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

Walter Smith in charge at Ibrox. Jim Jefferies in charge at Hearts. Craig Brown back in the dugout. Kilmarnock turning to Jimmy Calderwood.

If the BBC was once called hideously white must we now call SPL managerial cabal as hideously old? (And hideously white as well, of course, but that's a whole different kettle of fish).

For a country that prides itself on exporting bright young managers across Hadrian's Wall we seem loathe to give them jobs ourselves.

Are we in danger of thwarting the development of young managers? Is the reliance on Scottish managers schooled at Largs robbing our players of exposure to different methods and approaches that have, undoubtedly, helped English players?

We find ourselves stuck in a situation where serious students of the game describe Ally McCoist as a bright young prospect who might one day, with a favourable wind, stand on his own two feet. Really? At the age McCoist is now most of us have cut the apron strings. Does he not sometimes feel frustrated about being thought of as a glorified Timothy Lumsden?

All the above examples can easily be explained away as clubs in varying amounts of turmoil calling on experienced hands to the steady ship. Stability and solid foundations before a new man comes along and adds vigour as the final piece of the jigsaw.

Fair enough. But the real reason is the fear that pervades every boardroom in the land. Clubs at the bottom of the league fear relegation. Clubs at the top of the league fear slipping to the bottom.

So they stick with what they know. The ignore the examples of Gus McPherson, Billy Reid or Derek McInnes bringing teams into the SPL and staying there. Of Tony Mowbray taking Hibs to third. Of John Hughes getting Falkirk up, keeping them there and taking them to two cup finals.

All this suits a press corps desperate to see their friends in jobs. It makes them feel closer to the story, even part of the story. So they recommend the same old faces for every job and treat anyone who is not a part of their gilded circle of old pals with suspicion. Often intolerable suspicion.

We sneer at English clubs looking to Scotland or Europe for their managers. We ignore the fact that our incestuous reliance on the same old faces is likely to result in the same dwindling of new alternatives that has happened in England.

Fair play to old these elder statesmen who are able to carve out a living in the game after all these years. But they will start to exit the stage sooner or later. The fear in those boardrooms might turn to shock when they realise that a new generation is not waiting to step into their shoes.

Unimaginative and dull. If those are the guiding principles of recruitment at our clubs is it any real wonder that those are the most distinctive features of the fare served up by those clubs week in, week out?