Saturday, April 17, 2010

The toys are hurled from the pram

Charlie Nicholas accused Dermot Desmond of treating Celtic like a toy. Neil Lennon hit back, sticking up for Celtic major shareholder.

Is this a story? Shock! Neil Lennon defends the man who will decide if he gets to do his dream job on a permanent basis.

Horror! Charlie Nicholas says something without really thinking it through.

You're not supposed to take what Charlie says seriously. He's there as a mild amusement or a mild irritant depending on your point of view.

Along with Jim White he forms a kind of Ant and Dec for Buckfast addicts. You might like to have a pint with him (if nothing else it would give you the opportunity to tell him to get a haircut more befitting of a man of his age.)

But you don't take him that seriously.

My advice: Charlie to keep his mouth shut. Neil to learn how and when to pick his fights if he really does want this job.

And the press to stop trying to engineer drama - have Celtic not given us all enough stories this year.

To happier times. Charles - and what a player he could be on his day - figures more than once in this goal of the season compilation:

Concern split routs

If the latest opinion polls are to believed (they're probably not) then the Tories lead the Lib Dems and Labour are back in third.

"Oh my God!" you say. "But that would mean Labour would go from government to being the smallest party. Astonishing."

And you'd be right in every way, except that you'd be wrong.

Because those figures would actually give Labour the most seats, with the Tories in second and the Lib Dems back on only 100.

So Labour would be the largest party in parliament by virtue of getting trounced.

Why I am highlighting this potential eccentric quirk in our democracy in the rambling introduction to what is ostensibly an SPL prediction article?

Partly it's to have a long hard laugh at David Cameron.*

Mainly though it's because I think that by the end of the weekend St Johnstone will be ahead of Hearts on goal difference.

Except they won't be ahead of the them. They'll be in seventh and Hearts will be in sixth.

The SPL is many things. But as long as we have the split it is not a league. At least not in the way an infant school pupil with a rudimentary understanding of what a league is would understand it.

As for British democracy. Well, let's not go there.

All of this will probably be academic. It depends on my predictions being correct and, as regular readers will be all too aware, that's rarer than genuine wit at a leaders' debate.

I have written a more comprehensive preview of the games but the site that hosts it seems to be down. I'll get a link up as soon as I can.

In the meantime:
  • Celtic v Hibernian (12.15): Is the season not over yet? v Is the season not over yet? Home win.
  • Aberdeen v Falkirk: Freefalling v Hanging on in there. Draw.
  • Hamilton v Kilmarnock: Scrambling to safety v Still stuck in the mess. Home win.
  • St Johnstone v St Mirren: Slumming it v Bedsit Buddies. Home win.
  • Rangers v Hearts (12.30, Sunday): Champions elect v Hibee hunters. Home win.
  • Motherwell v Dundee United (4.15, Sunday): Running out of steam v Full steam ahead. Away win.
Latest polls: 60 out of 147. I am the Labour Party circa 1983.

*Please note that other, less shiny faced, party leaders are also available for ridicule.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is 18 the magic number?

The size of the SPL is a constant theme in any discussions about the future of the game – and I’ve had quite a few of them in the last couple of months. Some people advocate extending, others argue that we’re fine as we are and that the cure to our many ills lies elsewhere.

The one constant is that nobody can imagine the 12 top flight teams agreeing to extension, that chairmen would think any expansion wasn’t much more than turkeys voting for Christmas.

Well, it seems that the poultry have just filled in their ballot papers and are about to return Santa as president.

The reason? If today’s Daily Record is to be believed (no sniggering at the back) the clubs are faced with a financial meltdown. They don’t see an 18 team league as a quick answer but the beginning of a process that will bring sanity to their wage bills. Basically it will let them survive.

Faced with the firing squad, the condemned me are entering into a plea bargain:
Record Sport understands a move towards the restructuring of the SPL will start as soon as this season's championship and relegation issues have been decided.

Concerned chairmen have been holding emergency talks in secret for weeks. Matters are now coming to a head in advance of financial figures being released which will show the catastrophe that's on the way unless the Top Twelve is expanded into an 18-team league.

SPL chairmen met at Hampden yesterday as calls mounted for a change of direction and even the SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster has now publicly admitted the split isn't the answer to falling crowds and declining standards.

One concerned club spokesman said: "There are balance-sheet figures about to come out which are appalling.

"Clubs will go to the wall. unless there's change across the board, and soon.

"We can't go on paying salaries that the clubs just can't afford. Income must become relative to clubs' expenditure.

"Chairmen have been talking to each other in the background but it would be inappropriate to speak out before the major issues have been settled.

"Scottish football needs restructuring because the game is the big picture.

"If you sort out the product then the financial picture gets better in time.

"It might be sore to begin with, and income might drop by as much as 30 per cent, but if we don't take steps to find our true level then there will be serious consequences."
I can’t claim to be waiting with bated breath. But I’ll be watching this with interest.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mirror image

I'm not sure if Derek Riordan's musical tastes extend to Billy Bragg. He'd make a passable tribute act though.

Derek's not looking for a new England. But might he be looking for another club?

Pitch battle

It seems if at least one of the sources of friction at Easter Road has been given a public airing.

A few weeks ago Derek Riordan said:
I said a wee while ago I felt the pitch could cost us points and I think it has. If you look at some of our chances in the St Johnstone game last Saturday, the ball was stuck under feet a couple of time because it is a bog.
Perhaps not the most diplomatic of answers for a footballer to give. But hardly an earth shattering breach of security. If you've seen a game at Easter Road recently you'll have seen for yourself that the pitch is not up to scratch.

Unsurprising too that it should be Riordan to speak out. A substandard pitch is likely to prove more detrimental to his style of play than, say, a player like Sol Bamba. It's also clear for all to see that Derek likes a moan. In most games this season he's chosen to adopt a demeanour that makes him look like a particularly peeved ned embarking on an long, half hearted search for his favourite baseball cap.

These excuses have not been enough for the bean counters. Riordan has been fined by the club and has now called in Fraser Wishart of the PFA to argue his case. If Wishart is unsuccessful then his next step might be to take the appeal to the SPL.

I fail to see what Hibs hope to achieve here. Clearly Rod Petrie shares more than just a preference for facial hair with Stalin: it now seems he's using Pravda as the model for Hibs' media policy.

Given the current plight of Hibs on the pitch - and John Hughes has been uncharacteristically terse on this issue - this seems like a cause for internal strife that could easily have been avoided.

Perhaps Riordan had been warned already to say nothing. It wouldn't surprise me if certain people at Easter Road had come to the conclusion that if nobody at Hibs mentioned the surface then nobody else would notice it.

On the other hand allowances should be made for the fact that Deeks is not the most accomplished of graduates from Hibs' school of media training. A severe bollocking would probably have done less damage than what has now become a protracted farce played out between the club and one of the few players who - even in this slump - can win matches.

But for all his undoubted acumen in guiding Hibs to solvency, Rod Petrie seems somewhat lacking in people skills. He'd not be great company on a long haul flight.

They might be from different sides of the tracks but Riordan and Petrie certainly possess unnatural levels of stubborness.

One of them will eventually have to blink. In the meantime I can't help feeling that it will be John Hughes and the Hibs fans who suffer.

Awards season

Time for footballers to pass judgement on each other once again as the nominees for the SPFA Player of the Year Awards are announced.

There’s quite a blue tint to the SPL shortlist with the players going for Ibrox trio Kris Boyd, David Weir (he can sit it next to his World’s Best Grandad mug) and Steven Davis. Dundee United’s Loan Ranger makes up the quartet.

So four players owned by the same club nominated. If you know if this has ever happened before let me know.

Dundee’s Leigh Griffith makes both the First Division list and the Young Player quartet where he’s joined by Anthony Stokes, Danny Wilson and David Goodwillie.

Webster, incidentally, would become the first player outside of the Old Firm to win since Jim Bett way back in 1989/90.

The shortlists are:

Kris Boyd (Rangers)
David Weir (Rangers)
Steven Davis (Rangers)
Andy Webster (Dundee United)

Young Player
Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)
Anthony Stokes (Hibs)
David Goodwillie (Dundee United)
Danny Wilson (Rangers)

First Division
Michael Gardyne (Ross County)
Leigh Griffiths (Dundee)
Gary Harkins (Dundee)
Adam Rooney (Inverness Caley Thistle)

Second Division
Rory McAllister (Brechin)
Paul McQuade (Cowdenbeath)
Bryan Prunty (Alloa)
Gareth Wardlaw (Cowdenbeath)

Third Division
Barry Douglas (Queen's Park)
Liam Fox (Livingston)
James Stevenson (East Stirling)
Robbie Winters (Livingston)

I was going to set up a poll but I can't be bothered. So thoughts below in the usual way. Cheers.

Hillsborough: 21 years on

It's 21 years since the horrific events at Hillsborough when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives.

Liverpool fans continue the long fight for justice. Every football supporter should back them. And spare a thought today for the people who lost their lives and those that were left behind.

Here's Neil Jones at
Forgetting is far easier than remembering, but forgetting can lead to the same mistakes being made again and again. This is why the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives at Hillsborough should never be allowed to slip from our memory.

Those of us too young to remember the day itself are the lucky ones, anyone forced to watch the tragedy unfold live on Saturday afternoon television or, worse still, those who were present at Hillsborough itself, will never forget FA Cup semi-final day, April 15, 1989.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the disaster and Liverpool will, as usual, remember those who died in the crush on the Leppings Lane terrace with a memorial service at Anfield.
Have You Ever Been To Liverpool notes that the long fight for justice for the 96 victims continues:
This blog as been going for close on four years and it’s sad that during that time I have had no major progress to write about regarding the ongoing quest for justice for the Hillsborough 96 and their families. I’ve written about what it means to me and the quest for justice but still, after twenty one years, nothing. 
There was an article in yesterday’s Guardian which gave some hope and the documents surrounding the disaster have been released however wheels turn slow. All I can say on this date, when we should always remember, is that hopefully things will change that the justice that everyone craves will be received and some form of closure can happen.
The Tomkins Times has a moving eyewitness account of how events unfolded by Liverpool fan Dr Glyn Phillips:
"As soon as we got in, we knew it was an abnormally packed crowd,” says Dr Phillips, now 55. “We were carried along on our feet by the crowd. We got split up from our mates and Ian and I found ourselves near the front, on the pitch side of a steel crowd barrier."

Dr Phillips had been in lots of packed football terraces but he soon realised the pressure of bodies in this pen was of a different magnitude.

"I’ve been on the Kop many, many times," he recalls, "and I’ve never been in a crush like that before. It was on a completely different scale to my previous experiences. I’d been going on the Kop since the age of 12, for big, big games, derby games, Leeds and Man United games, European games. We always used to go right in the middle behind the goal and I’d enjoy the movement, the surges, the swaying of the crowd. It was part of the fun. But this was abnormal, quite sinister."

Les Miserable

Amazingly I'd forgotten all about this.

Given the stick our referees have been getting this season I wonder what the reaction would be if one had managed to do a Les Mottram.

A howler. And this was 1993 - in 1994 we sent him to the World Cup.

(About half way into the video, apologies for the Jim White commentary)

Press box blues

Allmediascotland is covering an NUJ Scotland campaign to stop amateur's reporting on sports events:
Says a letter being sent to newspaper sports editors, 'Kick the Amateurs into Touch' aims "to maximise the number of real journalists reporting on sporting events, particularly football matches".
I'm probably a bit more relaxed than a former freelance journalist should be about all this. But life's depressing enough without getting riled by everything.

I would ask where you draw the line? A lot of low profile matches are only reported because "fans with laptops" are prepared to give up their Saturday afternoons and file reports.

Most newspaper businesses are currently cowering from a financial tsunami that makes shares in Lehman Brothers look attractive. They're simply not going to pay professional freelance rates for all their match reports. So ban the amateur and reduce the coverage. Keep the journalists happy but deny clubs much needed publicity and provide a lesser service to your already dwindling readership.

Whatever the pros and cons, I'm guessing that the NUJ Scotland could have done without a reaction like this:
Here's an idea. Why don't we kick all the tossers out of the press box who:- a) invent spurious transfer stories b) invent takeover bids for clubs that never happen c) refuse to share contact details and information with their news desks colleagues when a major sports story breaks d) cover up the appalling behaviour of their sporting buddies (golfing press take a bow!) What have these morons done to earn press cards? No wonder bloggers are putting print media out fo (sic) business. I would suggest that the essential qualification for a good sportswriter is not a press card but a sizeable pair of balls.
That's from Jack Irvine, editor turned PR guru.

Some people might consider that a fairly firm slap in the face for the mainstream media. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hibs turn to Jelly(stone)

Hibs fans had grown somewhat numb to the utilitarian tactics of Mixu Paatelainen. So they were ready for the attacking game and footballing philosophy that John Hughes promised when he returned “home” to Easter Road.

There were some that pointed to his relative inexperience and Falkirk’s brush with relegation under his stewardship last season.

But on the whole those doubters were appeased by a couple of headline grabbing signings – many thought the days of Hibs attracting a Liam Miller or an Anthony Stokes were long gone – and a flying start to the season. Even into late December Hibs were being talked about as capable of mounting the challenge that would split the Old Firm.

So how has it come to this? On Sunday I couldn’t find one Hibs fan who fancied their chances of getting any points after the split, most of them glumly accepting that the season is now all but finished and just hoping that Hearts don’t inflict too big a humiliation when they meet at Easter Road in a couple of weeks.

Even if you’re no smarter than the average bear you can surmise that something has gone horribly wrong with Hughes’ Leith homecoming. The fans expected a Yogi revolution only to be delivered a Boo-Boo. (I could go further here and suggest that it was Ranger Smith who began the collapse when Hibs lost their early advantage to go down 4-1 to Rangers at Easter Road at Christmas. But I won’t.)

Inevitably there are calls for the manager’s head. Two wins in 13 games is hardly the form that delivers confidence to the terraces and calling for a sacking is the predictable response of the unhappy punter.

As a club Hibs pride themselves on their financial stability. In recent season they’ve failed to match that on the pitch. Since 2001 when Alex McLeish was in charge they’ve gone through 7 managers, with Hughes following the short lived reigns of Mixu and John Collins. Sometimes a club needs stability in the dugout.

So, at the very least, Hughes needs a bit more time.

Time to bring in the players (a defender or two, a more physical midfield presence) that he should really have been looking to attract last summer. Time also to work out any problems that might currently be simmering away in the dressing room.

Tittle-tattle and rumour is the chief export of Leith so I’ll not list all the gossip (and the stories I’ve heard are long, varied and would probably result in libel action). But the players apparently relaxed demeanour as they warmed down after last week’s Hamilton humbling suggests that not everyone feels the pain of defeat as keenly as the manager and fans. A big name or two being shipped out in the summer would not surprise me.

Hughes himself also needs to find a workable Plan B. His philosophy is admirable. But when it fails he seems to have no options besides a Tony Mowbray style huff and reverting to a long ball game that is completely at odds with the strengths of his players.

There should be more room for idealists in football. But every idealist needs a healthy dose of realpolitik to succeed.

Hughes himself should also tone down his personality a little. I don’t know how it works with the players. But the rambling press conferences and post match interviews focusing on positives that have eluded everyone else are not endearing him to the fans. It’s almost as if he is constantly trying to prove that Hughes the manager has more depth than Hughes the player. The fans aren’t going to show patience with a man using press conferences as a form of therapy.

Gloom is obscuring the sunshine in Leith right now. But Hibs still sit fourth, on more points than they amassed last year. The current pessimism is made worse by the recent optimism. But earlier in the season the press, the fans and even the players and managers got caught up in an impossible dream. Hibs were set targets that they weren't good enough to meet. That's not the end of the world as long as they make more improvements next season.

It’s not yet time to cut Hughes loose. But he’s going to need to prove that he’s learned from this season’s mistakes.

Results That Killed A Season
Hamilton 4-1 Hibs (10th April)
Hibs 2-4 Dundee United (31st March)
Ross County 2-1 Hibs (23rd March)
Hearts 2-1 Hibs (20th March)
St Johnstone 5-1 Hibs (17th February)
Hibs 1-4 Rangers (27th December)

What next?

A win, as any manager will tell you, is a win. So Neil Lennon is likely to be relieved that Celtic were able to come back from Saturday’s humiliation to beat Motherwell last night.

Rangers procession to the title will at least last into the split. More importantly Celtic look certain to enjoy a five point lead over third placed Dundee United - at the very least - going into the last five games. Finishing second in a two horse race is poor. Finishing third in a two horse requires an almost forensic obsession with achieving incompetence.

Given the opprobrium heaped upon players, management and board this season, Celtic’s likely second place would suggest that the other ten teams would be better served by jacking in this football lark and taking up tiddlywinks. But in Scottish football we’re not all measured by the same yardstick.

As they looked around Celtic Park last night what would the Celtic board have been thinking? A ground less than half full (and some suspect that figure was slightly generous). Robbie Keane, the £65000 a week gamble that didn’t pay off. The ghost of Tony Mowbray haunting a weak team and still searching for his £900,000 pay off.

I'd they were asking themselves: "What the hell do we do now?"

Some among the Celtic support would no doubt argue that club’s current board has disqualified itself from making decisions about the future thanks to their gross incompetence in appointing Mowbray and then, transfixed by the horror of what was unfolding, failing to act decisively enough or early enough to put an end to this annus horribilis.

Fair comment as that might be, the simple facts remain. Whoever sits in that boardroom needs to take decisive action. They have to pinpoint a manager who excites the fans and somehow implement a transfer policy that will allow him to rebuild a squad that Mowbray left not fit for purpose.

A big name manager, immediately given the funds to make a couple of big name signings, would probably spark some life into a dormant support. Football fans are a fickle bunch, they never forget the moments of anguish but they’re well versed at moving on at the slightest glimpse of a new dawn.

That’s a simple plan but it’s beset by obstacles. Remember that last summer there wasn’t exactly an orderly queue of big name managers forming at the gates to Lennoxtown. Some of the names mentioned seemed to run screaming from the very suggestion of taking the job.

In some ways Tony Mowbray was a compromise candidate, selected when more attractive prospects fell through. It wasn’t the cheapest of compromises though with West Brom rumoured to have received a compensation package of £2 million. Add that to his pay off demands: Celtic could have spent close to £3 million in securing and then dispensing with a manager in the space of nine months.

Now Celtic are far from the days of biscuit tin penury and I’m sure they’ll be embarking on another lucrative Harlem Globetrotter style pre season. But any strategy of attracting a big name manager will cost them again.

Will the board have the stomach for that?

A cheaper option would be to stick with Neil Lennon. There can be no doubt of his Celtic credentials and he was lauded for his honesty in tackling the issues at the club after the Ross County game.

He’s also completely untried as a manager and while admiring his honesty on Saturday we must also accept it as a mea culpa. He was powerless to do anything to stop what was happening. A Celtic manager saying that he was “living in hope” at half time in a cup semi final against Ross County? I’ve heard more persuasive auditions. Even if I feel that it's about time chewing tobacco made a permanent return to Scottish football dugouts.

Somehow Celtic need to find the answers quickly. They only need to look back on the last season to see what happens if their solutions fail.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An old fashioned romance

Cinderella has removed her jacket and offered Hansel and Gretel outside.

It’s the battle of the fairytales, as the Scottish Cup goes head to head with its English counterpart. Will it be Ross County or Portsmouth who warm the cockles more come the 15th of May?

I suppose, in case the title of this blog isn’t giveaway enough, I should probably declare a slight conflict of interest in favour of Scottish football.

But, come on, it says everything you need to know about the rotten heart of English football that some papers are trying to paint Portsmouth’s run to the final as a triumph for the romance of the FA Cup.

I’m happy for their fans. But the Portsmouth story is of greed, mismanagement, dodgy dealings and disaster. An all too common football tragedy but hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. “Hey, look at us, the best league in the world driven to the brink of meltdown by an insane belief in the value of naked greed, let’s all celebrate that one of the worst offenders has actually been rewarded for one of the craziest season’s football’s ever known.”

If they ever come to film the story of Portsmouth then I’m guessing it’s more likely to be directed by Oliver Stone than it is to star Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Compare that to the tale of Ross County. Of Derek and George Adams providing a dash of family magic. Of more people than actually live in Dingwall watching them at Hampden. Of their ascent from middling Highland League club to national finalists.

Of them out-fighting, out-thinking and out-playing Celtic.

A script that the Hallmark Channel might turn down as being a bit too treacly.

It might be argued that we’ve been here before with Gretna but when we followed their story we were watching a mirage. Ross County’s feet remain on the ground. Gretna, like Portsmouth, had their heads in the clouds and were too dizzy by the prospect of success to realise that the madness that enveloped them was slowly killing them.

Romance in the cup? You can ignore the south of England. It’s all happening up north this year.

Robbie Keane
Only here for the money? Perhaps. And, as gambles go, his £65,000 a week wage must now be considered on of Dermot Desmond’s less impressive punts. One thing though, Scottish football’s richest player at least gave the impression of wanting to win on Saturday. His attitude to teammates that seemed to want to do nothing more than disappear suggest he’ll not be hanging around in the summer.

I’m sure his weekend didn’t improve when he saw Spurs crash out to Portsmouth giving Keane an unusual, perhaps unique, cup double.

Split drives clubs bananas

Martin Bain of Rangers, The Scottish Football BlogIn a turn of events that would have tested even Nostradamus’ powers of prediction it seems that some of the SPL clubs are unhappy with the post split fixtures.

That’s news that sent me tumbling into a state of a shock.

Motherwell face a third trip to Celtic, St Mirren another trip to Falkirk. And spare a thought for poor old Rangers, forced to play three away games on the bounce. If only they had a 13 point lead at the top of the table to cushion the blow.

Is it me or does this not happen every year? And that’s because the split is a fudge, a mishmash, that continues to bewilder everyone who isn’t directly involved in running the SPL.

There was a suggestion when the SPL chose to implement the split that we were taking a lead, developing a new model that would soon be adopted across the world.

Strangely that’s not happened. It’s almost as if there aren’t that many leagues in the world keen to bastardise their league format to provide TV companies with four games between their two biggest sides every year.

Motherwell are planning to take this further while Rangers’ Martin Bain has said:
"There are a number of anomalies that the post-split fixtures have thrown up this season and this highlights the unsatisfactory situation that currently exists with a 12-team league and a split after 33 games, and outside influences seem to becoming major factors in determining these. I think the time has come for a more considered debate on a better structure that removes the split completely."
All these complaints would, of course, carry more weight if the club’s themselves weren’t culpable in instigating the split in the first place.

The strange thing is that this could actually prove quite an exciting split. Second, third, and fourth are up for grabs while the bottom five are separated by just eight points. Instead we’ve got another argument to distract us all. How typically Scottish.

For those of who have never loved the split there is good news. With Rangers now taking up arms against the current league set-up the SPL will, a cynic might suggest, suddenly start to reconsider their position on this issue.