Saturday, August 28, 2010

The SPL Today

A quick preview today with part two to follow before tomorrow’s games. I’m writing through the fog of a European hangover. Actually, an IPA hangover. The Euro debacle is to blame for the gnawing sense of despair.

Three games to look at. Today’s predictions were made by my sister-in-law. Can probably not being any worse:

Aberdeen v Kilmarnock
A good couple of weeks for Aberdeen, flying high in the league. Bad news in midweek with the loss of Fraser Fyvie for the season but we expect their decent run to continue with a 2-1 home win.

Inverness v Hamilton
Hamilton don't look like they can buy a win, two 4-0 league defeats followed by a not particularly shocking loss to Raith in the League Cup. Inverness isn't an easy place to go to either. Which might make a 1-1 prediction a bit strange here. But it's out of my hands.

Rangers v St Johnstone
The Gers march on stubbornly. Not a great start for St Johnstone but one point seems a paltry return for a couple of solid enough performances. Can't see them improving on that today: a 3-0 home win.

So far: A poor two out of six last week leaves me on 5 out of 12 for the season so far. Still, a better start than Hamilton.

Friday, August 27, 2010

SPL In Europe: Somebody Make It Stop!

I didn’t get round to writing a preview of last night’s Europa League qualifiers. If I had it’s doubtful that even in one of my darker, not only was the glass half full but now the barman has taken it away moods, would I have predicted such a disastrous night.

Motherwell and Dundee United offered brave performances against Odense and AEK Athens to fill the traditionally Scottish roles of the gallant loser, the plucky failures.

Celtic took the catastrophic route, turning a 2-0 first leg lead into a 4-2 aggregate loss to a team, if you need reminding, that finished seventh in the Dutch league last season.

Defeats, like victories, come in a variety of guises. But co-efficient systems take no account the twists and turns that lead to a final result.

Scottish teams have now been knocked out of European competitions by clubs from Portugal, Denmark, Holland, Greece and Slovenia. We can include in the list of pain two 3-0 defeats and now a 4-0 defeat.

Our reputation is in tatters. We have become a footballing backwater. People look at Scotland and see a game on it’s knees.

No hopers in Europe, falling attendances, players without technical skill - and now too often not even the passion to compensate - managers who get tactics wrong and seem powerless to inspire performances that could even be described as coherent.

The sick man of Europe? The drinking, overeating and smoking is a consequence of watching this crap week in, week out.

In Holland, Portugal and Turkey - where Rangers will now carry the banner of Scotland’s sole European representatives - we have seen challenges to the established order, unfancied teams coming through, enjoying success and forcing others to raise their game.

In Scotland Rangers and Celtic are allowed to get away with not being good enough as the rest scramble around for a touch of silverware or the European misadventure that finishing in third place will bring.

The national team have been outcasts at major events for over a decade now and with each passing year the road back seems to get ever trickier to negotiate while the talent pool seems to dwindle.

This is August. Four teams have been dumped out of European competitions and the national team have been humiliated by Sweden. August.

Time to stop the talking. The SFA, SPL and SFL should be planning a joint press conference to announce that they are putting in place a method of streamlining the organisation of the game. One singer, one song. Everything stems from that.

Do we implement the McLeish Report in full? Or just import a system from another country? The money needs to be found to bring in the very best to run this transition. Has to be. The cost of failing to act is now too high.

League restructuring and an entirely different approach to the youth game. Get it done.

I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have the expertise. But like every fan in the country I recognise there is a problem.

We no longer deserve to be patronised. Don’t simply tell us that you’ll do something about while jealously guarding your own vested interests.

Fans might not know how best to run the game. But they do know when something stinks. And they’re currently running from the game to get away from the stench. They need more to bring them back than the chance to try and kick a football into the boot of a car at half time.

We’re not idiots. Stop treating us like we are. Everything has to change. Start appeasing fans by putting more thought into the fixture list than simply giving an office junior a blank sheet of paper, a year planner and a supply of LSD.

Small things, big things. A revolution needs to sweep every corner of the game. If the refereeing is poor at under-seven level then change it. If SPL clubs are mismanaging their youth schemes then change it. If players arriving for national duties aren’t fit enough or are lacking in technical ability then start doing something to change it.

Take the game - the national game, the people’s game - and rip it up and start again. There we go, we’ve even got a soundtrack for the revolution.

I hate writing these articles. I fully expect I’ll be writing one again next year. But here’s the thing. If I’ve seen that changes are in place, if we are actually convinced that something is done, we might accept that it can’t be a short term process.

Years of mismanagement, of men like George Peat looking smugly self satisfied as they preside over catastrophe, won’t and shouldn’t be forgiven. But some semblance of honour in that failure can be found if the guilty hold up their hands, admit what’s gone wrong and move aside to let more qualified people begin to make changes.

The players involved can’t be absolved of all blame. But their performances are symptomatic of the wider malaise, the failings that have now stretched over decades.

Things are bad. But their is enough interest, enough people getting annoyed at the situation, to prove that the passion to keep the game alive is still there.

Act on it now. If we don’t then this misery continues and there won’t be much of a game left to fight over. But maybe, just maybe, last night can be the start of the something rather than just another chapter in Scottish football’s hall of infamy.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bill Nicholson: Football's Perfectionist

It’s funny to finish reading a new biography of Bill Nicholson in the same week that Sir Alex Ferguson continued his one sided war with the BBC.

The Nicholson that emerges from Brian Scovell’s affectionate portrait would have found the cult of personality that surrounds managers like Ferguson as an alien concept. The Manchester United might remember the Nicholson era but it’s unlikely Spurs greatest manager would have recognised the football era that Ferguson has helped create.

It seems that Nicholson has somehow fallen out of our collective memories, a forgotten man in the shadow of the nostalgia industry that has grown around the legends of Stein, Busby or Shankly.

My own understanding of his career and legacy comes through association with Scots like Dave Mackay, John White and Alan Gilzean and the snapshot of a season and an era provided by Hunter Davies’ The Glory Game. Bill Nicholson: Football's Perfectionist is an ideal way to fill the gaps.

Nicholson devoted his career to Spurs and eventually guided them to nine major trophies as manager. He did it all with a modesty and a commitment to football’s more Corinthian ideals that would mark him down as an oddity today.

Thankfully he remained involved enough and aware enough until his death in 2004 to express concerns about how the game was moving away from the spirit of the sport he loved. Even if football would struggle to find room for a man like Nicholson these days it is doubtful that he would want to have much to do with it.

Scovell picks up on this as one of his central themes. And, I presume, by expressing Nicholson’s views he also gives us an insight into his own thinking on a game that he covered for more than 40 years as a newspaper journalist.

It’s a risky business for a biographer to harness the views of his subject to promote his own ideas. But it works here because it seems so in keeping with Nicholson’s own character. You don’t need to agree with everything he thought about the changing face of football to have sympathy with his concerns and to find something admirable in his modesty and his devotion to the club and the fans.

But then Nicholson was from a generation that went about its business with modest dedication and football reflects more than moulds different eras. Like many things we get the football, and the footballers, we deserve.

Bill Nicholson’s crowning achievement came early in his reign when he won the first double of the modern era in 1960/61.

He achieved much after that but he could never quite recapture the essence of that side, the coming together of a small group of players who responded brilliantly to his guidance and had the ability to bring his footballing philosophy to life.

We should be grateful to Brian Scovell, who witnessed much of that era and can draw on an extensive network of football men and Nicholson’s own family for memories of the man and his time, for giving us this account. Not only does it restore Nicholson to centre stage - a position he would never have craved in life - it also chronicles a lost age of football.

No doubt the paperback version will be in the shops for the 40th anniversary of the Double. A few errors will hopefully have been removed: Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon on the day of the 1961 FA Cup final, Spurs weren’t England’s first representatives in the European Cup and Margaret Thatcher didn’t become Prime Minister in 1974.

The Rotterdam Riot when Spurs fans rampaged at the 1974 Uefa Cup final second leg disillusioned Nicholson to such an extent that his resignation became inevitable. The era of hooliganism and bungs appalled him.

He was, then, very much a man of his time. But, as Scovell shows, his achievements and more importantly his attitude to the game he loved deserve to be celebrated still.

> Bill Nicholson: Football's Perfectionist by Brian Scovell. Available here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Monthly Moan

Scotland, Europe and the transfer window all feature in my monthly round up of all things Scottish football across at Albion Road:

One of the problems with the transfer window is that it remains open even after the first balls have been kicked in anger in the SPL.

So two games into the season we have fresh speculation - mainly surrounding the ins and outs at Rangers and Celtic - on an almost daily basis.

It's difficult to get a real handle on the early league skirmishes when we still don't know the exact make-up of a number of squads.

Even if you can live without my ramblings Albion Road is always worth a read. Thanks, as ever, to Jeremy of that parish.

Riordan Misses Out On Scotland Again

A few Hibs fans seem to be up in arms about Derek Riordan’s omission from the Scotland squad yesterday.

The usual accusations aimed at the manager, with Craig Levein labelled too cautious and anti-Hibs.

But Levein is a pragmatist - as he signposted himself with the inclusion of David Weir and Paul Hartley in his squad.

I’d love to see a Scotland team in which Riordan could excel. Unfortunately we don’t have that at the moment. Riordan is a spark of individual creativity that simply can’t be accommodated in a team that has to be functional.

He can turn a game in an instant and provide something so thrilling you wonder how he could have pulled it off.

Yet he can also disappear into himself, his anonymity only blown by his complete inability to hide a huff.

What room would there be for Derek the desolate passenger in a Scotland team? Levein would love Riordan the marvel but the stakes are too high for him to take such a gamble with inconsistency.

Does that mean less talented players than Riordan will find reward in international caps? Yes. But to play for Scotland these days is to give yourself over to the team. It’s not glamorous, it’s not pretty but it’s the only way.

Rarely has Riordan show a willingness to do that. Maybe his talents are just too individual to be compromised in such a way. Or maybe his attitude is still not quite right.

The reasons are less important than the conclusion. And, inescapably, that is the realisation that, at the moment, Derek Riordan is a luxury Craig Levein can’t afford.

I thought during the Motherwell game a couple of weeks ago that Riordan looked sharper than he has for a while. Not that he played badly last season. It was just a niggling feeling that he wasn’t quite in the shape that he could have been.

If I’m right then he might be on the verge of the kind of season that Levein would find difficult to ignore. But it needs to come with an attitude change. Working hard every week, even when your teammates are letting you down, even when you’re not quite on your game.

It’s probably the kind of season that Riordan needs and the Hibs fans deserve. But it’s up to him to deliver it. Until he does then he makes it very easy for any Scotland manager to ignore him.

Scotland: Levein Looks To The Future

Like a scientist scarred by an exploding test tube Craig Levein has abandoned the experiment that ended in tears in Sweden and gone back to the tried and tested for the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Liechtenstein.

That means David Weir returns to the squad at the age of 40 and is joined by 33 year old Paul Hartley.

Levein spoke glowingly of Weir's ability to turn in top class performances week after week. But the reality is there's not much else there. Garry Kenneth was given a chance in Sweden and failed.

The Realpolitik of the manager's situation is that a bad start in Lithuania will knock the stuffing out of the qualifying campaign. It's not a place to take risks so it may become a country for old men.

Elsewhere Blackpool goalkeeper Matt Gilks makes his first squad courtesy of his Scottish grandmother. That is international football these days. Still, a first call up is fine reward for conceding six goals last weekend.

The full squad:

Goalkeepers: Marshall (Cardiff), McGregor (Rangers), Gilks (Blackpool)

Defenders: Hutton (Tottenham), Berra (Wolves), Broadfoot (Rangers), McManus (Middlesbrough), Weir (Rangers) McCulloch (Rangers), Wallace (Hearts), Webster (Rangers), Whittaker (Rangers), McNaughton (Cardiff)

Midfielders: Adam (Blackpool), Brown (Celtic), Dorrans (West Brom), Fletcher (Man Utd), Morrison (West Brom), Robson (Middlesbrough), Hartley (Aberdeen)

Strikers: Boyd (Middlesbrough),Fletcher (Wolves), Iwelumo (Burnley), McFadden (Birmingham), Miller (Rangers) Naismith (Rangers)