Friday, February 26, 2010

SPL Weekend Preview

Goalkeepers on the front pages.

Celtic coming over all Watergate with anonymous sources and dossiers of incompetence.

It can only be an Old Firm weekend.

Quick Predictions

  • Aberdeen v Hearts (ESPN): Away win, with no goodbye to the Pittodrie rancour.
  • Dundee United v Falkirk: Home win, with a quick goodbye to Falkirk's revival
  • Hibs v St Johnstone: Home win, with a rowdy goodbye to the East Stand
  • Motherwell v Kilmarnock: Draw, with a pitch sized goodbye to decent football
  • St Mirren v Hamilton: Draw, with little chance of a goodbye to the danger zone.
  • Rangers v Celtic (Sunday, Sky): Draw, with a goodbye to the title race.
So far, so bad: I'm blaming the St Johnstone call off for a remarkable return of zero last week. You'd think the law of averages would dictate at least one out of five. 46 out of 116.

Pitch in

Maybe we should be welcoming landscape gardener supreme Jim Farry back to head a taskforce. As a man who seemed much more suited to the role of local park keeper than modern day football administrator, he'd be perfect to head up the SFA's PISH (Pitch Is Shocking, Help) committee.

With the lower divisions facing what is invariably known as a fixture headache, St Johnstone's head groundsman suspended pending the outcome of an inquiry into last week's late call off and Motherwell only being allowed to play Kilmarnock on Saturday by the skin of their teeth, Scottish football is sending out the clearest of messages to this harsh winter: "We cannae cope wi' you."

Is summer football the answer? I'm not convinced. We're already struggling to cope with modern football, moving out of synch with the major European leagues might not help. With English football getting blanket coverage across the UK, I think there is a risk that it would be difficult for a completely rejigged football calendar in Scotland to win the PR battle for hearts and minds.

A winter break seems manageable elsewhere but, again, carries risks. Scottish football has little enough momentum as it is without taking an extended break in the middle of the season. There's also a question of how you would time a break. A Scottish winter is an unpredictable beast.

But there is a problem and we do need to address it. Undersoil heating has a role to play but the last few weeks have proved that it is unreliable and, when required for an extended period, it really harms the pitches. It's also an expensive solution that our clubs can ill afford.

I do question why we needed full midweek fixture cards in both late December and early February. The scheduling of the Cooperative Insurance Cup so that semi finals are played early in the New Year is also of questionable worth.

An old hobby horse of mine, the return to the days when a home game was followed by an away game, would also give pitches more time to recover and allow groundsmen to properly schedule the work they need to do rather than simply trying quick fixes to allow two or three matches in a row to take place over the space of 10 days.

I suppose in essence I'd like to see a more common sense approach to the fixture list adopted before we take the giant leap to summer football.

We can all rest assured though. If the powers that be decide to act then you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever action they take will only make our problems worse.

Interested to hear other views on this. Is summer football the answer? Is there a danger of overreacting to a freak winter? How can the fixture list be scheduled to ease the problems? Let me know.


When does a conspiracy theory eat itself?

Consider this: An unnamed source at Celtic accuses SPL referees of incompetence (at best) in their handling of the club's matches this season. Some Celtic supporters are already convinced they are conspired against by the authorities and see this as legitimising those claims.

When the BBC report both the complaint and the SFA's denials, some Celtic supporters claim that they are victims of a BBC-SFA conspiracy to undermine the club before Sunday's Old Firm clash.

Thus, I think, does a conspiracy theory become the victim of a conspiracy theory. Seriously, all this is making Richard Nixon look like one of the least paranoid, sane men ever to hold public office.

The distant rumbling that they can hear at Celtic Park is the sound of every non-Old Firm supporter in the land chuckling at Celtic's apparent distress.

Celtic's timing has been bad, possibly fuelled by antagonism between reffing supremo Hugh Dallas and whoever Celtic dispatched to raise their concerns. By allowing someone to go off the record the week before such a big game they've made themselves look petty and desperate.

If the BBC had got hold of the story then Celtic could have said: "We are always keen to discuss issues with the SFA but would prefer to keep those discussions private."

Doesn't kill the story but it would have kept Celtic above the fray, at least in the febrile atmosphere of the build-up to an Old Firm match. Even after the story broke they could have distanced themselves from it, has John Reid never rubbished the claims of an unnamed source before?

It's all a bit grubby, tagging the Robbie Keane offside complaints on at the end of the litany of moans certainly convinced this observer that this was a cack handed attempt to pressurise the officials on Sunday.

Like everyone else I've seen some shocking displays by referees this season (an opinion apparently shared by Dallas himself) and some decent ones. But Celtic have just added pressure on referees, pressure that is likely to diminish quality rather than enhance it, likely to harm any hopes of real accountability.

But then I've also seen some shocking displays from Celtic this season and I'm far more inclined to blame that for their league standing than refereeing standards.

That unnamed Celtic source has managed to shift the focus from an underperforming side as they face a must win game. But even Deepthroat himself will only consider that a job well done if the players actually get a result on Sunday.

If not it looks like sour grapes. Mr Mowbray, it's over to you...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Denis

And so it’s a very happy birthday to the legendary Denis Law today as he checks in as Scottish football’s newest septugenerian.

I am, sadly, too young to know Denis through anything other than archive footage and the memories of others. That he stars in so many of both is perhaps a tribute to just how good he was.

You may or may not recall that before the 1998 World Cup, Sir Alex Ferguson did a show with Gerry McNee in which he previewed Scotland’s opponents and picked his all time Scottish XI. (It was during the making of this show that Gerry’s overworked heart temporarily stopped working and Alex had to host a couple of episodes alone, deprived of the services of the “Voice of a Football).

On discussing the Lawman, Fergie noted that this was the one Scot who would have made it into a Brazilian team.

High praise indeed from a judge who would probably be considered qualified to offer a sound opinion.

So even for those of us who didn’t see him play Denis Law remains emblazoned through the collective memory of the Scottish football fan.

The goalscorer with the colossal heart, the Scot who took his rightful place in Old Trafford’s Holy Trinity, the Anglo with the odd accent who would run through walls just to have a kick at an English player, the arch competitor who wanted to destroy England on that day in 1967 rather than just take the piss out of them.

Ah, it’s all enough to get the patriotic heart beating just a little bit faster.

Denis, with right arms raised and cuffs gripped, we salute you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Chumpions

There is, in Bruges, a museum devoted to the humble chip. You might think that a nation that devoted to deep fried complex carbohydrates might have a degree of sympathy for Scotland. Sadly it seems that any lingering attraction between two nations enslaved by their love of the fryer does not extend to the football field.

Thus we Scots find ourselves outstripped by the Belgians in the race for co-efficient points. Last week's Europa League results, once they had been analysed and decoded by the ghost of Alan Turing, meant that Scotland slipped from the top 15.

Given that our most recent European adventures were the footballing equivalent of a stag do in Benidorm where the best man dies, the groom picks up an STD and an usher is blinded by a ping pong ball, it might reflect better on us if we accept some culpability for our own downfall.

It would not be a surprise, however, if the Belgians found themselves the object of some opprobrium in the boardrooms at Ibrox and Parkhead last week.

For much of the season you have hardly been able to lift a newspaper without reading about how crucial Europe is to the ambitions of the Old Firm. With two Champion's League spots up for grabs the loser in the two horse title race at least had a safety net to cling to. No longer.

From the end of next season to the victors will go the spoils and to the loser will go the far less lucrative prospect of the Europa League.

We need only look at Rangers' debt and Celtic's less than buoyant accounts to realise that this is a horrifying development for the big two. Where do they go from here?

That Rangers will be reduced to fighting it out for a solitary place in a qualifying round for the richest show on earth will hardly make the Ibrox side more attractive to potential buyers. As those potential buyers seem to be already looking on them as being as attractive as an asbestos riddled hovel with an outdoor toilet, this is not the best news to reach Govan.

Celtic too will be looking at a cutting of cloth. Whatever their feelings about Tony Mowbray the denizens of the East End might do well to just sit back and enjoy the richly rewarded talents of Robbie Keane. It may be some time before they see his likes again.

How do the Old Firm react? There might be a temptation to gamble, to build a team capable of dominating domestically and navigating those tricky qualifiers. But that is route fraught with danger, the downside of which can be summed up in a single phrase: "doing a Leeds."

The other option is to excercise prudence and sign up for an age of austerity. That also carries risks. Celtic have already seen how medicority can reduce attendances and the budget routes opens up the chance of sliding backwards towards the rest of the league. As welcome as that sounds to those of us on the outside it is surely unthinkable for the big two.

So the money men are going to have quite a little balancing act to contend with. The search for an owner who can ease the financial woes has suddenly become a lot more desperate for Rangers. The need to have a manager that can deliver what's needed will have Celtic's directors looking ever more quizzically at Tony Mowbray.

The whole issue, incidentally, is proof of how UEFA are now not so much a governing body as a tinpot dictatorship in place only to do the bidding of the continent's richest club.

That doesn't change the reality of the situation or the size of the crisis it presents for the Old Firm. It seems that we might be facing one of those moments when the whole landscape of Scottish football is in for a violent shake-up. Who'd have thought it would be the Belgians who provided the catalyst?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Levein Czechs in

What does a first squad tell us about the cut of a new national manager's jib?

In the case of Craig Levein we have probably been given a few pointers as to the main themes of his reign.

First the notable absences. No Barry Ferguson who we must assume has ruled himself out. For now. No David Weir either, Levein obviously deciding that a man entering his fifth decade is not a long term solution to any lingering defensive woes.

And, of course, no Allan McGregor, unavailable after the latest of his travails. Innocent victim of unprovoked violence or not, McGregor seems to find himself in unsavoury situations with more regularity than most. He needs to find a way of changing before "outside a Glasgow nightclub" become the epitaph of his career. Getting out of Glasgow this summer might be the best place to start.

In today's papers McGregor's father pleads with Walter Smith to ban the player from going out on the grounds that "he doesn't have the common sense to stop going himself." Obviously this raises the intriguing prospect of father and son playing out their relationship in the tabloids a la Mitch and Amy Winehouse. It also tells us everything we need to know about the issues McGregor needs to address.

There is room in the squad for Ibrox duo Kris Boyd and Lee McCulloch. Each of us with an interest in the national team will have our own thoughts on their inclusion but Craig Levein is nothing if not sure of his own mind. It's now up to the players to repay his faith.

Rangers actually provide six of the squad (not including the on loan Andy Webster), a nod to both their domestic dominance and the nucleus of Scottish players that their austerity has forced on them.

Perhaps the biggest clue to Levein's approach is the inclusion of Gary Kenneth, Webster and Paul Dixon, three defenders from his Dundee United squad. Eyebrows have been raised at this but Levein's Scotland was always likely to be built from the back. The easiest and quickest way to affect those changes is to bring in people who know what is expected from them in training and on the pitch.

We must also acknowledge that Levein has less experience of this level than some of the players he now needs to manage. Again this will be made much easier by having players around the place who he knows will respond to him. The recalled Paul Hartley also falls into this category, an old head and experienced Levein leiutenant in the squad.

Celtic's Scott Brown and Hearts' Lee Wallace are the only other two SPL based players to make the squad. There was hope in some quarters that Levein would give opportunites to Scottish based players throughout the top flight. Clearly, at this stage, he is keener to proceed softly, softly on the road to revolution.

Christophe Berra, Craig Gordon, Darran Fletcher, Jamie McFadden, Gary Caldwell and Alan Hutton make up the contingent from the English Premier League with the remainder of the squad drawn from outside England's top flight.

It's a formula that's been tried and tested. Does that matter? Part of the attraction of Levein was the feeling that given the same group of players as George Burley he would have got better performances. For the main part his first squad is going to put that theory to the test.

Neil Alexander (Rangers)
Craig Gordon (Sunderland)
David Marshall (Cardiff City)

Alan Hutton (Sunderland - loan)
Christophe Berra (Wolverhampton W.)
Gary Caldwell (Wigan Athletic)
Paul Dixon (Dundee United)
Garry Kenneth (Dundee United)
Lee Wallace (Heart of Midlothian)
Andy Webster (Dundee United - loan)
Steven Whittaker (Rangers)

Charlie Adam (Blackpool)
Scott Brown (Celtic)
Graham Dorrans (West Bromwich Albion)
Darren Fletcher (Manchester United)
Paul Hartley (Bristol City)
Lee McCulloch (Rangers)
James McFadden (Birmingham City)
Barry Robson (Middlesbrough)
Kevin Thomson (Rangers)

Kris Boyd (Rangers)
Steven Fletcher (Burnley)
Chris Iwelumo (Bristol City - loan)
Kenny Miller (Rangers)

(To play Czech Republic on 3rd March)