Saturday, February 13, 2010

The merry-go-round continues

Another match day looms and another face dons the grease paint to join the cast of SPL managers.

Only four of this season's top flight - Rangers, St Johnstone, St Mirren and Hamilton - have the same man in charge as they did on the final day of last season. If that hasn't seemed to lift the staleness from the league then it also worth noting that, of the present incumbents, John Hughes, Mark McGhee, Jimmy Calderwood and Jim Jefferies were at other SPL clubs last May. Plus ca change...

It's also worth pointing out that Falkirk, Kilmarnock and Dundee United have given their new managers only short term contracts. Although even a short term contract would be considered a luxury at Ibrox.

It must all mean something.

As we ponder that let's look ahead to this weekend's fixtures:

Aberdeen v Celtic

Aberdeen fans relishing the prospect of a famous lunchtime win over Celtic will have been disheartened by Mark McGhee's suggestion that he'll be resting some of his star players (can't be a long list, can it? Apologies in advance Dons fans.) for the bigger fights ahead. Presumably he has his eyes on the Scottish Cup but with the league season entering its business end and a top six place to play for it seems a strange decision. Maybe it's bit of kidology. If nothing else it will have given the denizens of pubs across Aberdeen and Govan something to discuss over their white wine spritzers last night.

It's unlikely that this will have given rise to any complacency from Tony Mowbray. It's too early to tell if his new look side have turned the corner, if they're on the approach road that leads to the corner or if they've found a cul-de-sac. Closing the gap on Rangers by a couple of points made this a good week for Celtic but the eight points that remain are the better indication of the season so far and the mountain they still have to climb.

So where does all this leave the game tomorrow? In an away win no matter what side Aberdeen deign to field.

Hamilton v Motherwell

Motherwell's good form under Craig Brown continued into the midweek draw with Rangers and they were feeling rightly aggrieved to be denied the second goal that would probably have sealed the win. At the same time Hamilton were quickly bouncing off the bottom of the league with a somewhat unlikely win over Dundee United. So both sides should be feeling quite sprightly heading into this neighbourhood clash.

It's difficult to say how this one will go. I suppose there's a chance that the Motherwell players will freeze when asked to play on a foreign substance like grass. If that doesn't happen then I'll go for a scoring draw.

Hearts v Falkirk

Even one of life's eternal optimists would be hard pushed to say that Jim Jefferies' return to Tynecastle has proved a triumphant homecoming thus far. Without a win and dumped out of the League Cup, JJ is now fully aware of the magnitude of the task in hand. But things could have been worse. He could have taken over a team at the bottom of the league.

Which brings us neatly to Steven Pressley who is not so much dipping his toe in the managerial waters as diving right in with the sharks. If he has ever dreamed of returning to Tynecasle as a manager then it's probably safe to say his fantasies haven't involved a bedraggled Falkirk side who have spent much of the season doing a grand impression of being relegation fodder.

So, much for all concerned to chew over in Gorgie today. The likeliest outcome? The safest bet would probably be to put your money on it being a poor game. The odds might not work out in your favour though. I'll take a draw, low on thrills and even lower on goals.

Kilmarnock v St Johnstone

A cup run, a win over Celtic and a big, big relegation win at Falkirk on Wednesday. Life is suddenly all sunbeds and plaudits for Jimmy Calderwood. Sometimes managers and clubs fit each other. You could never say that Jimbo looked to be in his natural habitat at Pittodrie. I've got a hunch that Rugby Park might be a more comfortable home.

Recent form suggests that these two sides are evenly matched. I'd expect them to move into the SPL's no man's land in the coming weeks with the top six out of reach and relegation but a distant threat. I've felt all season that St Johnstone have been on the brink of the run of results that would more than confirm their survival. It's not quite happened yet although they should be feeling relatively safe already.

As for today's game, it's probably going to be another tight one but I think Kilmarnock's run will continue. Home win.

St Mirren v Dundee United

Is Gus McPherson feeling the pressure? An understanding board and the prospect of a cup final would suggest that he's safe for now but he'll be getting uneasy at the bad run of results that has seen St Mirren fail to win in the last five league games.

But naked statistics tell only half the story. Wednesday night's draw with St Johnstone completed a nine day sequence that included a semi final win over Hearts and an impressive draw with Rangers in the Scottish Cup.

So United won't be relishing the trip to Paisley on the back of defeat to Hamilton on Wednesday night. With Hibs travelling to Ibrox tomorrow this would be a good time a for display of bouncebackability. And I think they'll do just that. Away win.

Rangers v Hibernian

The SPL's match of the weekend has the potential to have big ramifications on the eventual outcome of the season. Lest we were in any doubt about the significance of this one, Sky have taken the unusual step of covering a game in Glasgow that doesn't involve both sides of the Old Firm.

For all the plaudits that John Hughes has won for his attacking philosophy it is as much the spirit he has created that has carried Hibs this season. This was again evident on Wednesday as they hauled back Aberdeen to get a point after being two down at half time.

Rangers remain dominant although Walter Smith will be more than aware that against both St Mirren and Motherwell they have been second best in for long stretches. There have been times this season when that wouldn't have stopped them nabbing the win but in the last two games that's seemed beyond them.

After an especially disjointed performance at Fir Park they'll be happy to be back at home tomorrow but Hibs have actually fared better against the Old Firm this season when released from the pressure of an expectant Easter Road crowd. That Hughes inspired spirit was also evident in the way they weathered the storm before stealing the win at Celtic last month.

So in theory this should be a close one. But we said that when Rangers visited Leith in December before discovering that the loss of the quickest goal in SPL history couldn't derail them from a convincing win.

Walter Smith's second coming at Ibrox has been marked his team's ability to respond to setbacks. The past week might only have been a blip but he will again search for that response tomorrow. Will he get it? It won't be easy and there will be goals. I'll give Hibs the nod to edge it by the odd goal. That should spice up the top of the table for a while longer yet.

105 games completed (the odd number is because I kind of lost track of the postponed games during the snow and I can't really be arsed working it all out with the rearranged fixtures). A famous four on Wednesday takes me up to a heady 43 results called correctly.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's now or never

Falkirk manage Pressley, The Scottish Football BlogGiven their current predicament and the recent SPL trend for the more mature manager we might have expected Falkirk to go from May to December.

Instead they've replaced the inexperienced Eddie May with the inexperienced Steven Pressley.

It's a major vote of confidence from the Falkirk board, entrusting their SPL survival to a newcomer who only gave up playing a few months ago.

Well, no, it isn't really. It's a cheap option made by a club that must already be budgeting for the cost of relegation. If Elvis keeps them up then he'll have exceeded expectations. If they go down then they are not lumbered with a big contract for an established manager.

Pressley's contract runs only until the end of the season. At that point the club will know if they need to replace him with someone who can win them promotion.

Joining him in the dugout is Alex Smith who filled the Director of Football role with Eddie May. Smith's role never seemed well defined when the new team was unveiled following John Hughes' departure for Easter Road. As assistant coach he should at least be able to use his experience in a practical role without stepping on any toes.

And what experience he has. Fittingly he was born on Christmas Day because he is as old as Santa. No, he's not really but he is older than old Father Time himself. Or Craig Brown as he's known in Motherwell.

The Falkirk fans, although aware that the club have taken the Poundland approach to managerial recruitment even in this darkest of hours, should be comforted by Smith's emergence in a more hands on role. Eddie May seemed intent on asserting his own authority where a calmer, older head might have offered sage advice.

But Elvis is the figurehead and he'll need to deal with the suspicious minds (chortle, chortle) on the terraces. He used his press conference today to predict Falkirk's survival, hardly a surprise as few managers have ever taken a job while predicting a club's relegation.

Sadly fighting talk doesn't distract anyone from the gravity of the situation. Falkirk have 15 games to avoid Heartbreak Hotel, to escape Crying In The Chapel, to avoid the relegation that would make even a Wooden Heart bleed. (That's enough.)

Nothing we've seen from them so far suggests that this Falkirk team are capable of building the momentum that will propel them to safety. Steven Pressley doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who shirks a challenge.

Just as well, because he somehow needs to bring confidence to a team with none, consistency to a side bogged down in mediocrity and persuade a group of players of varying abilities that they can somehow develop the cohesiveness and spirit that they surely need to stand even a fighting chance of condemning someone else to relegation.

I wish him well but I don't envy him the job. I think he might surprise us at times, that results might pick up a little bit. But I've got a horrible feeling that, come May, we'll be saying that "Falkirk have left the building."

May Day

ex-Falkirk manager Eddie May, the Scottish Football BlogIf eyebrows were raised when Eddie May was appointed as Falkirk manager last summer there can have few gasps of surprise that has tenure has not lasted the full course of the SPL campaign.

Indeed the only shock might be that it has taken so long for the axe to fall.

This has been a desperate campaign for May and his players. 12 league defeats and only three wins mean bottom place has become the Bairns' natural playground.

Last night's defeat to Kilmarnock sent them crashing back down to earth after a win at Aberdeen had given hope and lifted them to the heady heights of eleventh place.

His final game seemed to sum up May's whole tenure: a meek capitualtion at home to relegation rivals hints at a team that finds itself powerless to halt the slide, of a manager who is unable to turn the tide.

Despite a long association with the club May has never seemed comfortable as manager. His coaching career has been spent doing solid work in the shadows, from the moment of an embarassing European exit to a team that seemed to define the term minnows he has looked uncomfortable in the limelight.

Falkirk have lost 14 players since John Hughes departed. Finances have dictated that they have not all been replaced and the players that have come in have not all been of a similar standard. All this from a squad that only narrowly avoided relegation last year. It would be understandable if May felt he could see the writing on the wall the moment he came to write down his first teamsheet.

A confidentiality agreement will likely deny us the chance to hear his true thoughts but it seems clear that he felt he was given assurances from the board that they failed to deliver on. The feeling that his hands were tied will have increased his unease in the role.

At times these frustrations have tumbled out - as seen by a series of digs at his predecessor, out of character outbursts that helped create an entirely erroneous impression of the man.

So the Falkirk is a hard job but not an impossible one for the right man.

Sadly Eddie May was the wrong man.

The very qualifications he brought to the job were part of the problem. As he left yesterday he said:
The Celtic match at Falkirk was a particular high for me as a manager, I was proud to manage the team which included 9 academy graduates.
Academy director and manager are very different roles. May might have known his players better than anyone but he may not have known how to handle them in his new role. They, in turn, might well have felt a confusion in reacting to a man who was so recently their mentor and was now their master.

The rudderless season they have endured points to these tensions remaining unresolved throughout the campaign.

Falkirk now have 15 games to save themselves. I'm sure, despite it all, Eddie May will be willing them on every step of the way.

Pies in the sky

Nothing is sacred.

Not content with our national cup competition being labelled with a ridiculous moniker to promote a ridiculous government initiative that is doomed to failure, we now have to suffer the ultimate indignity.

Ladies and gentlemen, they're after our pies.

The pie and the Bovril. They've been keeping us warm, sustaining us through dull relegation battles, soaking up the pre match pints and staining our scarves for as long as any of us, or any of our fathers, can remember.

But they are BAD for us.

They're not a harmless tradition anymore. They are a THREAT to the nation's health that must be STOPPED.

Yes, I give you the healthy Scotch pie. It was unveiled at Hampden yesterday by Tam Cowan (no zealot like a convert) and has been developed by Quality Meat Scotland. 20% less saturated fat and 20% less salt.

But 100% dull.

I'm all for healthy eating. I should be - I've lost two and a half stone in the past year.

But a pie at the football is a guilty pleasure that is part of the communal pleasure of enjoying (or enduring) a game with your mates and thousands of other people with whom you may have nothing in common except sharing a belief in the eleven heroes (or diddies) wearing your colours on a Saturday afternoon.

In it's own way it's a footballing icon on a par with a Law or a Best.

So leave it alone.

And get this. It's not the pie that makes the nation unhealthy. A pie combined with five pints before the match, ten pints after the match and a kebab on the way home is not healthy. A pie twice a day, seven days a week is not healthy.

But the humble half time pie is but a simple pleasure that you will probably have worked off by the time you shuffle down the stairs after the match.

It's a tradition you mess with at your peril. For years I'd been traipsing to the Hampden kiosk hoping they'd have a macaroni pie available. Each time I had to settle for the simple Scotch. Then one day I got my wish. And get this, the macaroni version was dire and an unparallaled catalyst for heartburn.

Only the full fat Scotch pie will do - have you seen the anaemic pizzas and limp hot dogs they're serving up these days? (Note: East End Park bridies are the honourable exception to this rule.)

The quality of the football pie is diminishing. It's another footballing tradition beseiged by changing tastes, cost cutting, rising prices and marketing men keen to flush out anything "old fashioned."

We should be fighting a rearguard action to save the pie not undermining its intrinsic psychological value to the beleaguered football fan by turning it into something it is not.

It's time to say "enough is enough". It's time to say "our team is losing at half time to Falkirk and you are labouring beneath the misapprehension that it's 20% more salt that's going to fecking kill me."

No, no, no. We cannot and will not stand for it.

Disablity football news

It might not have escaped your notice that this blog is not often found writing paeans of praise in tribute to the SFA.

But we're happy to promote the positive work of the governing body when we see it.

So it's great to bring more news from the SFA's Disability Football section:
Want to get involved in wheelchair football? Whether you're a player or coach, why not come along to the Wheelchair Football Workshop on Sunday 21 February at Grangemouth Sports Centre to learn more?

Members of the French Wheelchair Football National Squad will be helping out and showing what can be achieved in the sport.

The workshop, organised by the Scottish FA in partnership with Scottish Disability Sport, is aimed at new and existing players, as well as coaches who would like to learn more about wheelchair football.
I have mentioned the SFA's work on disability football before but it's well worth a closer look at what they're trying to achieve:
The Scottish FA aims to ensure that those with disabilities have the opportunity to take part in football activities, and are able to progress through a player pathway to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Key Aims:

• To increase the number of footballers with disabilities participating in Scotland.

• Develop a programme of training and competition for footballers with disabilities.

• Develop a pathway to allow footballers with disabilities to compete at the highest level.

• Raise the standard of Football coaching available to players with disabilities by establishing a comprehensive education and mentoring programme for new and existing coaches.

• To raise the profile of disability football and provide appropriate structures that support the programme both centrally and locally.
Increasing inclusion through football is something close to my heart and it's always good to be reminded that the game remains a powerful force for good.

Good luck to all involved on the 21st.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The SPL Live!

Tonight in the SPL

With every SPL team in action tonight this is probably as good a time as any to get the regular predictions going again. I’m also hoping to try a live blog tonight so I’ll be able to keep track of my failings as a pundit in real time. Check back at about 7.30 to see for yourself.

In the meantime:

Celtic v Hearts

That man of many clubs – and lover of most of them – Robbie Keane makes his home debut at his temporary abode. Celtic fans relishing that prospect will also find succour in facing a Hearts team in something of a form crash. Are the new Celtic ready to mount a credible challenge? Possibly, possibly not. But they should still beat Hearts tonight.

Dundee United v Hamilton

Their last two league games suggest United are aiming for an unlikely reinvention as the SPL’s high scoring draw specialists. Sadly that needs two free scoring teams and Hamilton have managed a paltry 16 this season. The bottom club need to start turning the tide. Can’t see them doing it tonight though. Home win.

Falkirk v Kilmarnock

A cold February night brings3 the prospect of an intriguing relegation battle. Having dragged themselves from the foot of the table by beatng Aberdeen, Falkirk will be looking to continue their modest ascent against basement buddies Kilmarnock themselves still on a high after scalping Celtic last week. No result would surprise me tonight but I’m going to back the away win.

Hibernian v Aberdeen

Not much is going wrong for John Hughes right now. Last week he was calmly sweeping Alan Gow off his feet and away from Aberdeen’s clutches before watching his team calmly dispatch of Montrose as Mark McGhee watched his draw with Raith. So a tale of two managers at Easter Road tonight. Hibs at their best should win but has Hughes found the gift of consistency? Probably not but it’s also doubtful if Aberdeen will be up to much so a home win it is.

Motherwell v Rangers (ESPN)

The last time these two side met Rangers won 6-1. At that point Motherwell were in an eight game sequence without a win that included five defeats on the bounce. The youthful vigour of Craig Brown has steadied the ship since then and it’s unlikely they’ll succumb so easily tonight. Rangers simply grind on regardless weathering whatever storms they face. Brown and Archie Knox would relish getting one over Walter Smith though so I’ll back them to get a draw tonight.

St Mirren v St Johnstone

A battle of cup hangovers? St Mirren have made a final and been held to a draw by Rangers in the past few days. St Johnstone were left fuming at officialdom as they lost a close Scottish Cup game with United on Saturday. So St Mirren have momentum and St Johnstone have wounded pride. The right recipe for a scoring draw.

The story so far: Regular readers may have noticed that the weekly SPL predictions have fallen by the wayside a bit recently. I offer no excuse (well, actually, if you’d seen the state of me during what turned into a month of birthday celebration you would have accepted that as excuse enough) but hopefully we’ll get back to normal now.

In the meantime I’ve worked out my performance on the predictions I have made so far. I’ve not included rescheduled fixtures because, frankly, life is too short. Anyway the total is a paltry 39 correct predictions from 99 completed fixtures.

Let’s generously round that up to a 40% success rate. All a bit Colin Nish as the new rhyming slang of Leith would probably have it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Reign in Spain?

The longer you go without qualifying for a major tournament the harder it gets. Just ask the Welsh.

And so it proved on Sunday when Scotland found themselves facing both Spain and the Czech Republic in the draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Draws like this are the inevitable consequence of being in the third pot of seeds, a destiny sealed by our miserable failure to finish in second place in a relatively straight forward qualifying group for the World Cup in South Africa.

Craig Levein had spoken of his preference for England (not a bad shout as even in abeyance it remains an international derby where emotion and passion would probably prove a great leveller on the field) but I imagine he would probably have been thinking "anyone but Spain."

A lot of people think by the time the campaign gets underway Spain will have added a world championship to the European crown they won in 2008. Indeed Levein, perhaps slipping into Russell Grant mode, twice referred to them as world champions in a BBC interview after the draw.

If we accept that Spain are overwhelming favourites then we need to set our sights on finishing above the Czech Republic to grab second place. Simple then.

Levein is on record dismissing international friendlies as a waste of time but he's probably quite happy that he'll get the chance to weigh up the Czechs when they visit Hampden at the beginning of March.

Old foes Lithuania are likely to provide a stern but negotiable test while publicans will have been dancing on the streets of Lichtenstein at the thought of a thirsty Tartan Army descending for the first fixture between the two nations.

We Scots lucky to have Lithuania's premier cultural and sporting commentator to hand and Mr Romanov has duly delivered his daming verdict:
What kind of games are those two countries going to play if there is no proper football in either of them? If in both Lithuania and Scotland they had not turned football into a branch of showbusiness, I would have no doubts that they could be among the favourites in their group.

We won't see any good football. There is none, either in Scotland or in Lithuania.
What do you mean you didn't realise that the football on display at Tynecastle this season has been an arm of the entertainment industry?

Levein himself was resolutely upbeat noting that the smaller five team group is a positive and speaking confidently of the Spanish matches "capturing" imaginations across the country. He'll have been busy working on his grand plan for qualification and pushing his SFA masters to negotiate a schedule that allows to get off to a good start and build some momentum.

We've learned the hard way that early slips can fatally undermine qualification attempts and his first step will be to avoid falling at the first handle.

Overall the plan should be quite simple. Maximum points from Lichtenstein and Lithuania and anything we can get from Spain. After that it should come down to the double header against the Czechs for second place and a play off.

See, it's a simple game when you play it on paper!

Group 9
Czech Republic

Guessed the flag? Lichtenstein. Population: 35466. They've also got the highest per capita GDP of any country in the world. The Tartan Army might find a pint sets them back a few quid.