Friday, August 06, 2010

Kick Off Part One

The SPL Brylcreem boys don't get going for another week but senior league football returns to these shores tomorrow with the IRN-BRU First, Second and Third Divisions getting underway.

I've done a quick headcount and it appears that all the teams that finished last season are still alive and - to varying degrees - kicking, so that's something.

And, with Brechin's charity shirt logo and Stirling Albion's fan ownership, two SFL clubs are doing a far more passable impression of Barcelona than any SPL sides can manage.

Somebody at the Scottish Football League actually seems quite switched on at the moment and they've got a shiny new website that you really should check out. BBC Alba will continue to provide some TV publicity and SFL TV will carry online highlights on the website.

Scotland struggles to sustain even a top flight of 12 teams. So the SFL is always, always going to face problems. But maybe this year they are ready to come out fighting rather than lying in a darkened room whimpering about how nobody loves them.

In an ideal world all the clubs would be supported and sponsored well enough to break even, each league would be competitive from top to bottom and there would be a constant supply of fresh young talent moving through the leagues.

But this is Scotland, not some strange footballing utopia. Some of those aims should be achievable but in the meantime we need to make do and mend with what we've got.

Part of that should involve paying more attention to the lower leagues. And I'll endeavour to do that as this season progresses.*

For now let's just welcome back league football and hope that things get going with a bang tomorrow afternoon.

*If you'd like to cover any of the SFL divisions or write club specific posts then get in touch. No payment I'm afraid but you'll get to see your name up in lights italics.

SPL in Europe: Draws

UEFA get on my goat. They really do.

Celtic, not SPL champion's, get knocked out of the Champion's League. Their reward for losing is to be seeded in the Europa League play-off round.

Motherwell get through two rounds, not the hardest of ties but tricky and requiring some negotiation, and don't get seeded.

Yes, fair enough, Celtic are stronger and had actually got themselves into the Champion's League qualifiers.

But until UEFA stop pimping the integrity of their competitions to best suit the bank accounts of the biggest clubs they should give up any pretence of these being great sporting events.

The governing body are continually diluting both the worth and quality of both their tournaments. And they should be ashamed of themselves. Yes, Platini, I'm aiming this accusing stare at you.

Anyway, the millionaires orgy, the rewarding of mediocrity, the administrative trick of turning defeat into something positive goes on.

Which means that big fat losers Celtic, Euro cavaliers Motherwell and not played yet Dundee United found out their play off opposition at lunchtime today.

Motherwell will play Odense, a trip to Denmark continuing their Scandic odyssey. Probably as good draw as they could have hoped for. Craig Brown certainly seems to think so:

"It's accessible for the fans and it's not too far to travel. I would hope it's an even game," said Brown.

"Some of the other teams like Manchester City were much more formidable than Odense.

"I have no complaints, the draw has been reasonably kind to us."

But has the draw been kind? Aye an' naw. It's an easier tie than they could have had. But it's hardly a debt busting glamour clash.

It's a good draw if they progress. If they lose, not so much. Nae pressure then boys.

Dundee United face AEK Athens. Not easy that. Home game first, away leg second. Tough.

And Celtic's prize for losing to the Portugese runners-up is a clash with Utrecht, the seventh best side in Holland last season.

Utrechtian (made that word up, by the way) defender Alje Schut was effusive as he greeted the draw:

“It is a fantastic draw,” Schut told Voetbal International. “Beforehand, we hoped to get a big opponent like Liverpool, Celtic or Borussia Dortmund."

Which might be a problem for Celtic. Schut has warned Neil Lennon's men not to underestimate the Dutch side. But if Utrecht over-estimate Celtic's strength then what should be a winnable tie could become a touch uncomfortable.

So all three miss out on the sort of "big" team fixtures that UEFA use to distract us from their dastardly plan to strip football of everything that makes it great.

But from those three ties we can say that one team in the Europa League group stages is achievable. Two teams is not impossible. That would be that rarest of treasures: a positive development in Scottish football.

Of course, if we end up with none then it will be time for the wailing and hollering that we're all much more used to.

*Ties to be played on August 19th and 26th.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

SPL in Europe: Mirabor's Magical Mystery Tour

That time of year when the Fringe dominates Edinburgh. So Hibs v Mirabor is unlikely to be the biggest show in town tonight.

I'm actually going to see Kevin Bridges. Sorry Yogi, but one comedian is enough on a Thursday evening.

Mirabor have added a bit of spice with complaints about Scottish hospitality:

"The driver took one hour and 15 minutes to get to the stadium."

[Media Officer, Zelijko] Latin was also aggrieved that a fire alarm had gone off at the team hotel while the visiting players were catching up on sleep.

There were traffic diversions in the west of Edinburgh due to a gas explosion and a resulting criminal investigation, with congestion on the A71 Gorgie Road.

However, Maribor, who lead 3-0 from the first leg, were critical of the driver entrusted to get them from their West Lothian hotel to Hibernian's home on the east side of the city.

"He (the driver) circled the ground for more than 30 minutes," added Latin. "He told us he does not know where to go. It's weird the driver cannot find his way. We also had a fire alarm at the hotel as the players were resting this afternoon.

"After all we have done for our football friends from Hibernian we expect more respect. Such things are a big surprise to us. This will make us more motivated for the game."

I think they probably fell foul of the tragic events in Slateford and the crazy levels of traffic that seem to have been thronging round the Easter Road area over the past week.

Certainly I'd be surprised if there are many people at Hibs who would consider such underhand tactics. And those that would consider it probably lack the nous to pull it off.

So a storm in teacup. And it will probably take more than a spat like that to ignite a game that I fear will be damp squib.

Celtic won the battle but lost the war last night. I suspect Hibs will fail to get even the bonus of a home win tonight.

* The Motherwell game looks far more intriguing. A fine result in Norway was so close to being a great result but for Aalesunds' last gasp penalty.

So far, so good for Craig Brown in Europe. I hope that continues tonight and I've got a feeling that it will.

Good news too that the game is live on BBC TV and radio after all of last week's games were ignored by broadcasters.

* I've been drafting and re-drafting a post about Celtic's defeat last night. I've given up. It's too early to judge either Neil Lennon or yet another new look Celtic team. Financial ramifications aside, Celtic's Champion's League exit tells us very little about their domestic prospects.

And, of course, they remain in Europe with the chance to qualify for the Europa League group stages.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book Review: The Scottish Sports Quiz Book

Finally get round to sorting out the piles of books littering the flat and promise not to add more until the turn of the year.

And the very next day a book arrives through the post.

Ah, well. And review copies don't really count because I'm not paying for them and they have a "proper" purpose*.

The latest is The Scottish Sports Quiz Book by Martin Greig. Really, when you're choosing a title for a book you're best just to come out and say exactly what it is.

A welcome title as well as I very occasionally moonlight as quiz master for a fairly irregular football/sports quiz.

The last one was held before the World Cup final and won by a man wearing a Spain strip. So in the football trivia field I'm kind of a cross between Bamber Gascoigne and Paul the psychic octopus. Obviously with less hair and fewer arms.

And I'm also a giant nerd who reads these things for fun so the promise of 3000 questions is almost as exciting as Christmas Eve.

Martin Greig is a former senior sports writer with The Herald so you'd expect him to know his stuff. Notice it is "Sports" not "Football" in that title. In fact the split is about 50:50 with the fitba' questions opening things up before mini-sections covering rugby, golf, boxing, swimming etc round everything off.

That's probably a more equitable split than you'll find from any of our broadcasters or newspapers so, for once, "sports" might just be a justified description.

The football categories are: Celtic, Rangers, Scottish National Team, Scottish Clubs in Europe, General Football Knowledge, Hearts and Hibs, North of the Tay and Junior Football. A smorgasbord of soccer to make any statto smile.

It might seem hard to muck something as simple a quiz book up. But somehow people manage it. Thankfully not Martin Greig.

Like anything of this nature there's nothing new here if you know the answers. But, unless you're in Bob Crampsey's league, you probably won't know all the answers and will enjoy spending an hour or two picking up some of the more interesting nuggets of trivia.

And don't worry, learning some interesting facts from The Scottish Sports Quiz Book won't turn you into the kind of pub bore that people move away from when they see them coming.

Of course I'm saying that from the corner of the pub that always seems to empty when I approach.

I actually spent large periods of my brief flirtation with the civil service doing football quizzes with a couple of like-minded co-skivers. It's high praise indeed to say that I'm confident our already poor productivity would have plummeted further had we The Scottish Sports Quiz Book to call on.

The Scottish Sports Quiz Book by Martin Greig. Published by Waverley Books. Available 5th August 2010.

*Which is to say if you're publishing a book on Scottish football please get in touch and I'll happily review it.

SPL In Europe: Hibs Look To History

Where there's a group of football fans, there's hope. Last week Hibs left me thankful that I've not got a gas oven.

Although I wish I'd remembered that before spending an hour with my head in the electric fan oven. This week's lack of blogging can be put down to my recovery period for severely singed hair.

But there's been time to ruminate on the piddling trifle of an obstacle that a three goal deficit represent for a classy footballing outfit. Obviously it's a slightly larger obstacle for John Hughes' Hibs.

But still, all is not lost. Yet.

And, as John Hislop recounts below, it's not like Hibs don't have form in the chasing a European lost cause stakes. Can't believe there's a not song Leith about Dino Zoff:

There’s much doom and gloom down Easter Road way following the first leg defeat in Slovenia on Thursday night, but that’s to be expected. Hibs fans fall into either the ‘glass half full’ or ‘glass half empty categories.’ At the moment, the majority appear to be in the latter.

OK, perhaps Yogi should have played Riordan and Stokes from the start, but that’s water under the bridge now. While I won’t be selling my car and putting the money on Hibs to progress to the next round, I agree with the manager, the tie is far from over.

One of the reasons for my optimism is that I can vividly remember overturning a similar deficit against a team much superior to Maribor.

It doesn’t seem like 43 years ago when the Hibs returned from Naples having been comprehensively beaten 4-1. By all accounts the game had been much closer than the scoreline suggested but it took a last minute Colin Stein consolation goal to give the manager Bob Shankly some degree of hope.

In fact the older Shankly brother told anyone who would care to listen that the tie was still very much alive, but most took his predictions with a pinch of salt.

The Naples manager certainly didn’t appear too concerned as he sipped a whisky in the director's box whilst watching his team train on the night before the game. Legend has it that he had decided to rest his star player, Jose Altafini, for the weekend derby, a mistake he would live to regret.

The return game was played on 29 November 1967 before a disappointing crowd of 21,000. This was my first European match, and I headed for my usual spot in the upper section of the old East terracing.

After 5 minutes, I witnessed the greatest goal I have ever seen at Easter Road, and the place erupted. Not only did right back Bobby Duncan hammer the ball past rookie Italian keeper Dino Zoff (whatever happened to him?) but he did it with his left foot to score his first ever goal.

Various subsequent accounts measure the distance from anywhere between 25 yards and 45 yards, and I appreciate that sometimes your memory can play tricks, but I seem to recall that he hit the ball from just outside the Albion Bar.

In any case Zoff was left helpless and, just before half time, Pat Quinn added a second to the delight of most people in the ground. With Easter Road buzzing, there were still a few moaning faced auld gits predicting we’d throw it away in the second half. I suspect their grandchildren now bombard the comments page in the Evening News demanding Rod Petrie resigns.

In any case, the rest of us couldn’t wait to get the Italians ‘down the slope’ and, sure enough, headers from Peter Cormack and Pat Stanton put us in a great position. Even then some were sure that it was just a matter of time before Naples scored to take the game into extra time and it was only after Colin Stein wrapped things up near the end to make the final score 5-0 that they accepted that we were through.

Being a youngster at the time, I assumed that these games happened every year, and when we returned from Leeds following a 1-0 defeat, I was confident that we would progress.

An early goal from Colin Stein was followed by an onslaught on the Leeds goal, but their defence held out. With extra time looming, Clive ‘The Book’ Thomas decided that he hadn’t received enough attention.

This was the man who blew for full time when the ball was in the air following a corner kick from Brazil during a World Cup match, so awarding the world’s first free kick for breaking the new 4 steps rule was just another notch on his whistle. He had conveniently ignored his fellow countryman Gary Sprake in the Leeds goal taking nine steps on one occasion as later proved by TV evidence.

The rest is history. Johnny Giles floated the ball to the back post and Jack Charlton headed an undeserved equaliser on the night to end another European run.

OK, I accept that we had better players in those days, but I genuinely believe that the current team could give them a run for their money. Especially since most of that team are now in their seventies.

Anyway, an early goal on Thursday night and who knows?