Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two From The Saturday And Four From The Sunday Please Carol

Week one in the SPL provided a fairly pleasant introduction to the season. Some good games, some decent performances and Hibs managing to distill a whole season’s worth of inconsistency into 90 minutes.

I also discovered that finding a pub showing SPL games in Hartlepool is not that easy. Who knew, though, that a little corner of the North-East would boast such an impressive array of international satellite TV systems?

If the alcopop swilling youths and hardened alcoholics of that town aren’t at least trilingual I’d be amazed.

Actually Hartlepool reminded me of Scottish football a bit. At some time in the last 50 year an unknown force has decided to flatten the heart of the town and replace it with a bewilderingly dull series of interconnected shopping centres. The result leaves the unwitting consumer trapped in the middle, silently screaming "God help me, I want to get out." For some reason that put me in mind of chronicling the SPL.

You can get a full round up of all last weekend’s action over on A Year In Scottish Football.

Can we expect more of the same this week?

Hibs v Rangers
I’ll jump ahead and begin with this one. I won’t be there. I had already booked tickets for a writer’s workshop at the Book Festival before I was aware of the fixture switch. I’d like to think that’s probably the most woolly, Guardian-reading excuse for missing a game that you’ll read this season. But my life is a picture of middle class excess so who can say I won’t trump it?

Anyway. Hibs welcome Rangers and open the new East Stand. Delivered on budget and slightly earlier than planned. How often they will be able to fill it remains to be seen and depends largely on the team’s ability to build on last week’s winning start against Motherwell.

Rangers offered up exactly the kind of workmanlike win against Kilmarnock that can end up clinching championships.

So this will be an interesting one. We know Hibs can score goals and we know Rangers can be imposing in defence. But is the Hibs defence solid enough - Chris Hogg was coming in for major criticism from some of the fans I spoke to last week - and will Rangers introduce any of their new attacking options?

Intriguing. Even when Hibs had pretensions of splitting the Old Firm last season, Rangers swatted them away at Easter Road. More of the same? Possibly but with a new stand to christen I’ll take a score draw.

Celtic v St Mirren
A win last weekend and a win in Europe and now a home game against a new look St Mirren. Not a bad week for Neil Lennon who knows that a decent start is crucial despite the revolving door of the transfer window (a bit of an architectural mixture-maxture that sentence actually).

St Mirren were set up as whipping boys and then almost beat Dundee United so Neil’s namesake Danny will also be feeling a bit happier.

Unfortunately for the Saints I can’t see them getting anything here. A one sided home win and a Celtic clean sheet.

Dundee United v Inverness
United got away with a 1-0 defeat to AEK Athens and can now turn their attention back to the SPL. A draw with St Mirren in their first outing won’t have been the start they were looking for and they’ll be wary of an Inverness side who did well for the first 45 minutes against Celtic.

Will United be tired after their European exertions? At this stage in the season they really shouldn’t be. I think they’ll have a bit too much for Inverness and will secure the home win.

Kilmarnock v Motherwell
A lot of people suspected Kilmarnock would be woeful this season and career towards the eventual oblivion of relegation. It might still happen but I don’t think they’re quite ready to be written off.

They made Rangers work last week and that’s how I expect Mixu to have them playing week in, week out. They’re not going to roll over die.

Motherwell felt somewhat aggrieved in losing to Hibs last week but they really should have made their first half dominance count more. They might enjoy a lot of the ball at Rugby Park but I expect a sting in the Killie tail. A low scoring, but possibly not no scoring, draw.

Hamilton v Hearts
Getting beaten 4-0 by Aberdeen turned the first day of the season into something of an ordeal for Hamilton and Hearts will be hoping the hangover lingers on in this one.

It appears that Hearts are going to rely heavily on Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliot this season and as those two drag themselves into both shape and a renewed partnership a slow start to the season might be expected.

I think they’ll have enough to get something here though. Away win.

St Johnstone v Aberdeen
The table topping Dons scored as many penalties last week as they did in the whole of last season. I backed the signing of Paul Hartley as one of the best bits of transfer window dealing but I wasn’t expecting him to kick off in such a bizarre fashion with the lesser spotted spot kick hat-trick.

St Johnstone enjoyed a solid opening in the 1-1 draw at Tynecastle. And while Mark McGhee will be looking to build on the momentum, nothing would please Perth more than bringing Aberdeen crashing down to earth.

This could actually turn into a right good game. Scoring draw.

Last week’s predictions: 3 out of 6. A long punt on Inverness getting a draw failed as they disappeared after the break, Hibs pleasantly surprised me at Motherwell and St Mirren proved they’ve at least got something about them in drawing against Dundee United. Still, I’m not depressed at that start.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rangers Win Weiss Race

Looks to be a good bit of business in Walter Smith has managed to secure Vladimir Weiss on loan. He could well be a revelation in the SPL this season and inject the sort of pace and width that Rangers look to lack. Missing out on him would be another bitter pill for Neil Lennon to swallow at Celtic.

The first Old Firm of the season for Rangers?

SPL In Europe: Terrible Trio

Time once again for our clubs to roll up their sleeves and embark on yet another march towards European respectability.

Dundee United's forays into Europe have been sporadic of late. The memories of great European nights linger but a defeat to MyPa 47 in 2005 has been the solitary new entry in United's continental history in the past decade. This, remember, is a club that as late as 1987 could consider itself a contender in European competition.

Tonight United will need to rely on memories and passion rather any depth of European experience in a match against AEK Athens that looks daunting. With the home tie first United will be keen to put on show. The reality is that they have to stay close enough to AEK to keep the away leg alive.

I'll start on a downer: I can't see anyway United will progress from this tie. I hope I'm wrong but I suspect that they'll be all but out of the tournament by full time this evening.

Motherwell's third European tie of the still young season begins in Denmark. I said at the time that the draw was as good as Craig Brown could have hoped for.

Not that Odense are going to be a pushover. Far from it. But they looked to be less daunting than others in the draw and Brown will be looking for a tight performance tonight, with an away goal as a bonus, to give his side every chance in the return at Fir Park.

A simple plan, far easier to talk about or write about than to execute. They'll certainly need to cope better defensively than they did against Hibs in the second half on Sunday.

But I've got a feeling they might just manage it. A 1-1 draw would be a commendable result but it's certainly not an impossible one.

Finally Celtic's Europa League parachute has landed them in a tie against Utrecht. The Dutch side are hardly high fliers in either Europe or domestically. A seventh placed finish in the Eredivisie - European qualification came through a play off win - is not the stuff of legends.

Celtic should be looking at ties such as this with caution, treating the opponents with respect and then beating them. Unfortunately that rarely seems to happen these days and I suspect Neil Lennon's players might struggle a bit tonight.

Playing at home first is little comfort and they could be left with a mountain to climb when they travel to Holland. Everything could, of course, click. Celtic could be excellent, Utrecht could be a ramshackle mess. It seems unlikely though.

It's a difficult one to call, I think it will be one goal win and I think Celtic will concede. So I'll be extremely optimistic and say Celtic to win 2-1.

I'll probably be wrong though.

A comprehensive guide to Utrecht at GibFootballShow.

Annoying that with three teams in action we're not being treated to any television coverage. The BBC should be taking a long hard look at themselves.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seeing Is Believing

"Over the last two or three years we have seen very wealthy owners become part of football clubs and therefore go on this kamikaze effort to spend their money."

That's Sir Alex Ferguson's take on the continued summer spending of some of Manchester United's rivals. Not that he's looking at anyone in particular, of course. Near neighbours never even crossed his mind.

But is there not something "kamikaze" about signing a player that you've never even seen? For £7.5 million?

Who would do that?

Well, Sir Alex Ferguson would:

"I didn't see any videos of him, it's the first time," Ferguson said. "Normally, as in the case of Javier and Chris, I saw plenty of video footage of them. You've got to trust your staff at times and our scout in Portugal was adamant we must do something quickly. So I sent David Gill down there to do the deal.

"You'd have to ask Real how interested they were but I know they were hovering and so were Benfica. So were one or two other clubs and that's where you have to make quick decisions in life and I'm not too bad about that. I also spoke to Carlos Queiroz about him. Sometimes you have to go on an instinct, you look at material. You look at their age and whether they're bringing pace, balance, desire to play and things like that."

I hope it works out. The dream is a Ronaldo. The nightmare is an Ali Dia. Somebody's got rich from it though.

Hartlepool United v Swindon Town (League One)

Hartlepool, I’ll be the first to admit, is not the ideal place for the Scottish Football Blog to find itself stranded on the Saturday that the SPL kicks off. Still, I didn’t get where I am today by moaning – much, so keeping calm I carried on to Victoria Park for the only show in town: Hartlepool United v Swindon Town.

A functional ground, not the best aesthetics but designed to get the job done, Victoria Park was most welcoming.

Once it had got over being not welcoming at all.

I’ll admit I don’t pine for the days of terracing. I mainly pine for a good sit down and a nice cup of tea. So my plan was to head into the Cyril Knowles Stand. A plan that stumbled at the first turnstile shaped hurdle when I was told I needed to buy a ticket from the ticket office.

No problem. Head to the ticket office. And stand ignored for a couple of minutes. Finally get served. Only to be told that I’d need to register for a seat in the CK Stand. OK, can I register? Only if you have proof of identification and address.

Why do we like making it so needlessly difficult to see a game of football? After explaining that I’d arrived from Edinburgh within the last hour and hadn’t thought to bring a passport or utility bill with me on my cross border jaunt I was informed this was non negotiable. Fine, then you can negotiate your game of football right up your...!

Eventually I discovered that I could get into other areas of the ground without being subjected to a full Criminal Records Bureau check so I made my way round to the Millhouse Stand and the terracing that runs the length of the pitch.

A quick pint and then out in time for kick off.

The first thing I noticed was the quality of the pitch which looked as though it would put most SPL grounds to shame. Apparently this is all down to a superb groundsman and the club have won awards for it. From what I saw the plaudits are well deserved.

The second thing I saw, and this struck me as a bit odd, was a gentleman of a certain age sitting on his own in the Swindon end of the ground wearing a blue dress and red and white striped scarf.

I’ve seen many things at football matches over the years but this was a new one. I was brought up, not dragged up and I know it’s rude to stare. But it’s difficult not to when the supporters next to you start chanting abuse at said supporter.

As it turns out this is a local, Hartlepool-ian gentleman who has vowed revenge on the club and takes his seat – sporting a dress and the colours of the opponents – in the away end at every match. So that’s that mystery solved - unless you’re intrigued to discover what led him to commit himself so fully to the wreaking of revenge. Maybe it’s better not to know certain things.

The football itself wasn’t bad. I was lucky enough to see a very decent performance lasting 90 minutes. Unfortunately it was Hartlepool who were impressive in the first half and Swindon who were impressive in the second. An entertaining 2-2 draw would have been even better had either team being able to keep it up for more than 45 minutes.

The home side started better. I was especially impressed by Andy Monkhouse who gave former Celtic full back Paul Caddis a torrid time out wide throughout the first half and Antony Sweeney who was involved in Boyd’s opening goal and provided a cute finish for the second as United looked unstoppable in the first half.

Another former Celtic youngster, Simon Ferry, was part of a Swindon midfield that couldn’t get a hold of the game and former Hibs winger Alan O’Brien looked, as ever, like the loneliest person you will ever see playing a team game. You’d almost think he was a victim of bullying the number of times his teammates look for another pass rather than feed him. Almost. Then you realise how poor he is at taking up the positions that would let him use his pace and realise how frustrated his colleagues must be.

By half time, having survived an almost Hithcockian invasion by a large flock of large seagulls around the half hour mark, Hartlepool looked in command and I was pleasantly surprised. In fact I’d almost convinced myself I was going to be their good luck charm, invited to every game as some sort of superstitious counterweight to the befrocked Laurence.

I should have known that I’m incapable of ever displaying any confidence at a football game.

Somehow the teams contrived to swap personas as well as ends at half time. Where Swindon had been lethargic and disjointed and Hartlepool fluid and cohesive there was now an almost complete reversal. Suddenly the impressive Monkhouse was anonymous and Caddis was featuring in attack as well as looking comfortable at the back. Mind you, Alan O’Brien still looked like he had wandered on to the field after staging a daring escape from the local nursing home.

Two double substitutions sealed the fate of this one as a clich├ęd game of two halves. Goalscorer Boyd and the soulfully monikered James Brown were replaced by McSweeney and former Gretna hero Fabian Yantorno and any lingering pretence of shape left Hartlepool.

Two minutes later Swindon replaced Ferry and ex Livingston player Jon-Paul McGovern with strikers Vincent Pericard and Thomas Dossevi. It only took Dossevi ten minutes to pull one back and, inevitably, they equalised two minutes after that when Charlie Austin made the most of cock up in defence.

Swindon could, will probably feel they should, have gone on to nick it but given that each side gave us a half of decent football a draw was probably a fair result. By the end even Alan O’Brien was marauding down the wing looking very like a footballer.

Strangely before the ninety minutes were up there was another invasion of aggressive seagulls. I’m amazed I got out of Victoria Park without any dry cleaning issues.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be back but if I do ever find myself with a couple of hours to spare in Hartlepool on a Saturday afternoon I’d certainly consider it.