Saturday, May 01, 2010

Life and death

What do you give to the football who has everything? Well, if they're dead why not give them a football funeral?

Here's what the Midland's Co-op offers:

Birmingham City Football Club funeral service

Midlands Co-operative Funeral Services is the official provider of special funeral service options for Birmingham City Football Club. We offer a range of services enabling you to create a funeral for a lost Blues fan one that reflects their lifelong passion.

Derby County Football Club funeral service

Midlands Co-operative Funeral Services is proud to be the official provider of special funeral service packages for Derby County Football Club. Our services include a specially designed “DCFC” coffin for the ultimate tribute to a lost fan.

When a football club has "an official provider of special funeral service packages" you know that the commercialisation of the game has reached the point of no return.

I discovered this through Hunter Davies' article in this week's New Statesman. (unfortunately it's not online yet - will be soon though I think).

Hunter reports that:
Your ashes don't get scattered on the pitch - clubs are not keen on that. Instead, they dig a plug of turf around the side, shove in the ashes, then replace the plug. Being caring and thoughtful, the Co-op tries to dig as near as possible to where the deceased had his season ticket.
I wrote about football themed wreaths back in 2007. This would seem to take that a step further.

Football ruins my life often enough. I don't want to spend my own afterlife haunted by the memories.

Hughes is safe - for now

A few statistics to ponder in the wake of today's Edinburgh derby.

Hibs have now lost six games on the bounce. That's their worst run since 1997 when Jim Duffy was acting as the ringmaster and building up his clown circus. John Hughes might remember that, he was a Hibs player at the time.

By my reckoning that's also 11 games without a clean sheet. This is a problem Hughes has sought to solve by signing goalkeepers, three in under a year in charge. That's not worked. But fans might well wonder how a former centre half could ignore the defence in both the summer and winter transfer windows.

Here's the crucial one though. Hughes is Hibs' seventh manager since Jim Duffy was jettisoned in 1998's relegation season.

In all their financial dealings the Hibs board crave stability. My guess is they want that stability in the dugout as well.

They will be aware of how the fans feel, worried at the drop in attendances (here again the building work provides a useful smokescreen) and despair at European cash disappearing into the horizon.

For now I think that desire for stability is enough to save Hughes the chop, if not the wrath of the faithful.

It might be that he looks at the players, studies their latest capitulation and decides that he's run out of ideas.

Right now the decision is in hands. But it won't be if there's no change next season.

Edinburgh Derby Day

The Big(gish) Preview: Hibs v Hearts

A dull Edinburgh May Day, a dull Edinburgh derby?

The law of averages comes into play here. And these games are often tetchy, grindy affairs devoid of much entertainment.

True Hearts impressed at Tynecastle with their 2-1 going on 6-0 win in the last meeting but the two draws earlier in the season might be more of a clue to the outcome.

Although the law of averages suggest that Hibs are surely going to get a win sometime. Can John Hughes outwit his old mentor Jim Jefferies?

The pain of being taught a derby day lesson at Tynecastle will still rankle with Hughes but he, like his team, has looked devoid of ideas lately.

My money - which is worth about as much Greece's money - would be on a draw.

Elsewhere in the top six

Celtic v Motherwell: Everything points to a home win. I didn't get where I am today by following pointers. Draw

Dundee United v Rangers: With league positions now sorted for these two, Rangers can enjoy their austerity celebrations while United look forward to a cup final. Away win.

The Bottom Six

Aberdeen v Hamilton: Both are now playing for position. Hamilton will look back on this season with rather more fondness than Aberdeen but I think Aberdeen might have a bit more desire to finish strongly. Home win.

Falkirk v St Mirren: The post-split fixtures threw Falkirk a juicy bone with this one. Can they take advantage? They remain very much in the hole, as St Mirren claw their way to safety. Falkirk need to haul them back. I can see another twist here. Home win.

Kilmarnock v St Johnstone: Like Cristiano Ronaldo the Kilmarnock fans will make sure they keep a tranny close at hand for this one. (Note to lawyers: allegedly.) Jimmy Calderwood actually came to mind yesterday when I noted with interest that he has inspired Tony Blair's new skin tone. Jimmy will certainly be hoping he's not left red faced this evening! (Boom, boom.)

I fear he might be though. I can't see Kilmarnock getting more than a draw but suspect this is an away win.

The relegation battle will go on.

Tale of the tape: A morale dwindling one out of six last week suggests you can take my talk of the law of averages with a tablespoon of salt. 65 from 159 and when the rubber duck is this season going to end.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Having a Benny

There's a lot of things that come to mind when you hear the news that Wayne Rooney is to earn £500,000 for one night's work.

That's his fee for battling it our with Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Didier Drogba in a live spectacular at the O2 Arena to discover the world's most skillful footballer.

Clearly the World Cup final, to be held just six days before, is no longer showbiz enough.

The organisers are describing it as a "Gladiators-style contest" although I'm not sure if that means its going to be hosted by John Fashanu or if some of the competitors are going to die. And I'd only watch one of those two scenarios.

Anyway this got me thinking.

Mainly it got me thinking that this is a mad and really quite horrible world that we live in.

But also it got me thinking that we should have a seperate quest, a contest to find Scotland's least skillful footballer.

Obviously this can't include players that only played for five minutes because they'd somehow persuaded the manager that they were Pele's son.

Players who didn't depend on the more refined footballing skills but did an effective job should also be disqualified. A rugged centre half's lack of finesse might be amusing but is hardly detrimental to his game.

No, I'm talking the crappest of the crap.

The players who seemed to hang around for years and years without ever convincing. The names that when you see them on the teamsheet you think "oh, for fu..."

I'll start with a Hibs contender. Joe Tortolano ran through my mind but I'll defend him by arguing that he wasn't a bad footballer. He was actually a so-so winger who was basically destroyed by Alex Miller's insistence on playing him out of position. So Joseph escapes.

That leaves the way clear for Ally "Benny" Brazil.

There's been worse at Hibs in the more recent past but none with the staying power, the sheer dedication to achieving such consistent mediocrity.

Benny enjoyed a 10 year career at Easter Road and people still scratch their heads and wonder how that was possible.

He also played with George Best at Hibs and some claim Best's "he can control it further than I can kick it" line made its debut as he watched Benny in training.

George Best is now remembered as an all time great. Benny is now a bus driver in Edinburgh.

Truly, it's a funny old game.

So who's your most memorable crap player? The least skillful carthorse to grace your club? And who takes the title for Scotland?

Those were the days

A quick Friday dip into YouTube or "the TubeYou" as I fear Gordon Brown almost certainly calls it.

It strikes me that I'm going to be writing a lot about the World Cup over the next few weeks. I know, this is the Scottish Football Blog and Scotland aren't even there.

That's true.

But I'll be watching the World Cup so I'll be blogging about it. Simple as that.

Anyway I'll no doubt be getting teary eyed and emotional about our great World Cup adventures of the past. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the passing of time makes the memories ever more rose tinted.

And that's fine.

But before we get started I thought I'd redress the balance. Sometimes we were just crap.

When Ally McCoist was left of this game Alan McInally described him as being "lower than Captain Nemo."

A few hours later the nation knew how he felt.


More rumours about changes to the SPL set up. Jim Spence on the BBC reports that:
The Scottish Premier League could be set to increase to 14 clubs from season 2011-12, with relegation play-offs also featuring in the new set-up. A senior Scottish football figure has told BBC Scotland that the current 12-club set-up could be replaced.

The new format would see all clubs play each other twice and split after 26 games into a top six and bottom eight. The SPL insists that a 14-team league is being considered but is not the only option open to them at present.
Many of you will have spotted that this retains the split. I'd actually go a bit further and say that this takes the split and makes it worse, a feat that only yesterday might have seemed all but impossible.

Time for me and everyone else to face facts: the SPL split is here to stay. All the discussions are going to be based around the principle that extension means adapting the current league, split and all. This is not a march to revolution but a few baby steps to compromise. 

But at least the discussion seems to be taking place and the idea of relegation play off is to be applauded. Don't hold your breath though.

This is only one of a number of proposals that the SPL clubs are set to discuss at a "strategy review" at the end of the season. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting of minds, it will be nothing less than a modern day Yalta Conference.

They'll also discuss extending the league to 16 or 18 teams and the old issue of the SPL2 is being whispered about again.

The problem of course is that any changes need that 11 to 1 voting majority. If any proposal is going to be strong enough to emerge as a consensus building strategy remains to be seen.

Ah, Yalta right enough. We've not got a Churchill, we search in vain for an FDR. But we've got a version of democracy that would have Uncle Joe beaming with pride.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


So the final Leaders' Debate tonight. Aided and abetted by a radio mic and Mrs Gillian Duffy, David Cameron should be able to finish Gordon Brown off once and for all.

But strangely Cameron's seemed incredibly poor in this format, a format he demanded

In fact every time he's been presented with an open goal by his bungling opponents, he's done, well, he's done this:

'Cause I'm the taxman

"Lovely day."

"Aye, but we'll pay for this later."
It's never hard to find a Scotsman looking for the darkest of clouds in the clearest of skies. But I wonder how many Rangers fans looked at their celebratory drinks on Sunday night and saw a glass half full?

I'm sure they wouldn't have expected that they'd be given so little time to luxuriate in the comfort of title number 53. Or that they'd be brought crashing back to earth not by a resurgent Celtic but by the worrying knock of the taxman at the front door.

Added to the woes of financial mismanagement Rangers now have to deal with accusations of financial chicanery. To the tune, according to some reports, of £24 million pounds.

The club are prepared to launch a robust defence, a defence I'd imagine they would mount as if their lives depend on it, but I'm not wholly convinced by some of the noises apparently coming out of Ibrox.

Chairman Alastair Johnson has jetted in to deal with the latest crisis but he's also distanced himself from it, laying the blame at David Murray's door. Does that hint at acceptance of at least some questionable practices?

There also seems to be a default fall back on the "but everybody does it" defence. As bankers and politicians have found to their cost in recent months the public is not convinced by this kind of reasoning when the transgression would seem to involve a multi-million pound fraud. Portsmouth and Arsenal - the London club have apparently already paid out £11 million in back taxes - have found to their cost it's not really an excuse readily accepted by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs either.

Remember Mark Twain:

"The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin." 

I'm not a tax expert. Discussions of offshore accounts and hidden payments bore me. People trying to avoid paying annoys me. That it always seems to be the richest individuals, the biggest companies, at the centre of scandal merely reaffirms much of what I hold to be true of society.

But, as I say, I'm not an expert. And Rangers have been found guilty of absolutely nothing yet. They might have done nothing wrong, they might have done less wrong than a headline grabbing figure of £24 million would suggest, they might have done something wrong and get away with it. I don't know. And I'd guess that the journalists, bloggers, Rangers fans, Celtic fans and tax experts giving their opinions don't know either.

Of more interest right now is the short term impact. How long is a court case likely to take? What would be the timescale for HMRC completing and dropping an investigation or completing the investigation and getting the matter to court?

Because what Rangers don't have, from a footballing perspective, is much time. I suspect all this makes it less likely that Walter Smith will still be in charge by the end of the summer. And it would now seem impossible that the players looking for new contracts are going to get the offers they expect.

Any attempt by HMRC to get money back would also put the future of players with any real saleable value in serious doubt.

As for potential buyers? Right now Rangers are like a big, detached house with lovely gardens and a sea view. You wonder why such a property could be so cheap. Then you find out about the asbestos in the roof and are told that former owners include Harold Shipman, Fred West and Peter Sutcliffe. You run a mile. The house sits empty, it's fading grandeur unsellable at any price.

So, and even if nothing else comes of this long term, HMRC have condemned Rangers to limp along like they have been for the past 20 months. For now they limp along as champions and that's a fairly sizeable crumb of comfort.

But championships are transitory. It seems that the financial woe that engulfs Ibrox is here to stay. It might just haunt the club long after the latest batch of silverware has faded and Walter Smith's last band of brothers have disappeared into the night.

Question: Can anyone tell me if any of the Scottish newspapers/media outlets have dedicated sports business journalists? I'm thinking of someone like The Guardian's David Conn. The problems at Rangers, the ongoing crisis throughout Scottish football, the continuing struggles of professional rugby, a Ryder Cup and a Commonwealth Games in 2014. Seems there's a lot to report, somebody could be missing a trick.

You win again

When I guested on the twofootedtackle podcast last week (what I've done there is use the blog to plug a podcast that I plugged the blog on - nice) I mentioned that I didn't think the Old Firm dominance of the game was a massive problem in Scottish football.

Obviously Rangers or Celtic winning the league every year Is Not A Good Thing. But my point was that it has ever been thus so there's no real reason why even this extended period of dominance should have produced the current default feelings of doom and gloom.

Thinking about it a bit more I decided to do a quick check of the Old Firm dominance through the decades.

In terms of non-Old Firm dominance, the 9 year period of the 16 team format between 1946-47 and 1954-55 was the best:
  • Four non-Old Firm winners in nine seasons
  • No season where the Old Firm finished 1st and 2nd together
  • Celtic had 5th, 6th, 7th (twice), 8th, 9th and even a 12th finish during this period
But what has each decade produced in terms of sustained challenges to the duopoly? Time to go back to the beginning, starting with the first championship in 1890/91 when Dumbarton and Rangers shared the spoils:

1890/91 to 1899/1900: Celtic (4), Rangers (3 - including 1 shared), Hearts (2), Dumbarton (2 - including 1 shared). Rangers or Celtic finish second 6 times.

1900/91 to 1909/10: Celtic (6), Rangers (2), Hibs (1), Third Lanark (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 3 times.

1910/11 to 1919/20: Rangers (5), Celtic (5). Rangers or Celtic finish second 7 times.

1920/21 to 1929/30: Rangers (8), Celtic (2). Rangers or Celtic finish second 4 times.

1930/31 to 1938/39: Rangers (6), Celtic (2), Motherwell (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 5 times.

1946/47 to 1949/50: Rangers (3), Hibs (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 1 time.

1950/51 to 1959/60: Rangers (4), Hibs (2), Hearts (2), Aberdeen (1), Celtic (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 4 times.

1960/61 to 1969/70: Celtic (5), Rangers (3), Dundee (1), Motherwell (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 6 times.

1970/71 to 1979/80: Celtic (6), Rangers (3), Aberdeen (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 5 times.

1980/81 to 1989/90: Celtic (4), Rangers (3), Aberdeen (2), Dundee United (1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 4 times.

1990/91 to 1999/2000: Rangers (9), Celtic 1). Rangers or Celtic finish second 5 times.

2000/01 to 2009/2010: Celtic (6), Rangers (4). Rangers or Celtic finish second 9 times.

In no ten year period (discounting the Second World War years) have the Old Firm won fewer than half the titles, their lowest combined total coming in the fifties when they only snaffled five.

What is more marked now is their domination of the top two places with only six sides breaking into the top two in the last 20 years and only one in the last ten.

Does all this prove anything? Probably not much except to satisfy my own curiosity. And to show that, whatever else is wrong with the game, the problem of other teams not getting much of a look in when it comes to the championship is as old as the league itself.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gordon Smith signs for Hibs

Not that Gordon Smith. Or that Gordon Smith.

Actually it was on this day in 1941 that the original Gordon Smith signed for Hibs, the first of the quintet that would become the Famous Five. Smith went on to represent three Scottish clubs in the European Cup. Without ever lining up for either side of the Old Firm.

Here's a quick guide to his career courtesy of Association of Football Statisticians:
Known as the Gay Gordon or the Peter Pan of Scottish football he was a fine outside-right and remained in top-flight soccer until he was 40. His first honour was to play against England in a wartime international in 1945 and he also played in two "Victory" internationals in 1946. With the War over he was able to gain full honours and was capped 18 times between 1947 and 1957 and played nine times for the Scottish League in representative matches. He won three Championship medals with Hibs (1948, 1951, 1952) and a Cup losers medal when they were beaten by Aberdeen in 1947. In the same year he became the first Scottish player to score five goals from the wing in a First Division match. He played for Hibernian in the inaugural European Cup (1955-56) and later appeared in the same competition with Hearts (1960-61) and Dundee (1962-63). He thus became the first player to appear in the European Cup with three different sides.

Hibernian gave him a free transfer in the summer of 1959 after 310 peacetime League games with them (125 goals) and he joined Hearts. They were Champions at the end of his first season with them and won the Scottish League Cup in the same year. In 1961 he was again freed and joined Dundee and, remarkably, they too were League Champions by the end of his first season. He finally retired in 1964 after 423 Scottish League matches and 146 goals as well as almost 20 in the Scottish Cup and over 30 in the League Cup.
During his career both Brazilian side Vasco de Gama and French club Cannes tried to buy and Sir Matt Busby brought Manchester United north for his testimonial with Hibs - the Edinburgh side winning 7-3 in a game that "could have gone either way."

In Simon Pia's book Sunshine On Leith, Lawrie Reilly says of Smith:
Gordon was a thoroughbred. Even when we knew he wasn't having a good game he looked wonderful, like an artist, and the fans loved him no matter what he did.
Fittingly, the chapter on Smith is called The Prince of Wingers.

And just to prove Scottish football retains a bit of continuity a certain Craig Brown was also a member of Dundee's championship winning squad.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Just champion

Finally, it’s my "well done" Rangers post.

At the start of the season I didn’t expect things to pan out this way. But they have and you can only admire (however ruefully) the stubbornness and resilience that Walter Smith has instilled in a team that looked like it might be on the verge of staleness.

Obviously they’ve not faced as keen a Celtic challenge as we’ve seen in the past. Even so there has been plenty to applaud about they way they have gone about their business. Most notably we can look back on December and a spurt of form that really ended the title race.

In one calendar month they won 3-1, 3-0, 3-0, 6-1, 4-1 and 7-1. That included big wins over Dundee United (twice), Motherwell and Hibs. If the rest of the top six were supposed to be clawing Rangers back somebody had forgotten to deliver the script to Ibrox.

Walter Smith, despite the frustration he’s clearly experiencing over Rangers’ finances, has proved himself again to be a redoubtable domestic manager.

How long he remains in charge, how long some of his players hang around, remains to be seen. But there can be no arguments that the right team won the title this season.

What the Celtic board would do to have a calm, reassuring figure like Smith waiting in the wings.

Walter At Ibrox: A Trophy Tale

  • Scottish Premier League (9): 1990–91, 1991–92, 1992–93, 1993–94, 1994–95, 1995–96, 1996–97, 2008–09, 2009–10
  • Scottish Cup (5): 1991–92, 1992–93, 1995–96, 2007–08, 2008–09
  • Scottish League Cup (5): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1996–97, 2007–08, 2009–10
Right, that's quite enough of being nice to Rangers. We'll get back to questions of tax evasion and slagging off Kyle Lafferty as soon as possible.

Monday, April 26, 2010


One of those weekends when football had to take a backseat unfortunately. But I couldn't avoid hearing that Neil Lennon had "rubbished" the McLeish Report.

Found that a bit strange as I couldn't understand how Lennon would have had time to read and digest the report before his Friday press conference.

As ever the devil is in the detail. Here's what he actually said:
On the day that Henry McLeish revealed his dossier to improve Scottish football at grassroots level, Neil Lennon admitted to concern regarding the over-coaching of players from a young age.

Lennon, the Celtic interim manager, remains to be convinced that academy systems at clubs prompt a better development of youngsters than would take place without them. The Northern Irishman also believes the claim that inadequate facilities are at the root of Scotland’s football troubles is an overly simplistic one.

"Would Wayne Rooney or Aiden McGeady have come through without an academy?” Lennon asked. “Of course they would have. I’m not saying we don’t need them but I think coaching kids at seven or eight years old is wrong. Just throw them a ball and let them play, don’t take away their natural instincts."

Celtic’s own youth system, indeed, was not beyond reproach from Lennon. “I understand the competitive nature of academies as all the big clubs hoover up all the best kids at a young age and throw money at them,” he said. “We’re trying to compete with that but I don’t like it. It’s a necessity in the modern game but I still think it’s wrong.

"Kids get brought in to clubs at eight or nine years old then sometimes get released after just six weeks. How’s that kid going to feel? I’ve seen the [coaching] forms for eight year olds: can they do this or that? How is their co-ordination? You think, ‘for god’s sake.’

"We’re probably happy with our system but since McGeady, who have we really produced of his class? Not many that can walk into the first team, although I must say we have got a few good ones coming through.

"Maybe these things go in cycles, a barren few years and then three or four coming through. The cream will always come to the top. Rangers, have they produced any of late apart from Danny Wilson who’s been a bonus for them this season?

"So you talk about facilities and kids getting the best of everything but I keep going back to them having that hunger. Kids have agents at 14, some have boot deals. I think it’s obscene."
I don't think that's "rubbishing" the report. It sounds more like something constructive being added to the debate. If the McLeish Report is anything it should be a springboard for change rather than a step by step guide to change.

But Neil Lennon "broadly in agreement with McLeish report, thinks youth set up needs overhaul" wouldn't be such a snappy headline.