Saturday, September 11, 2010

The SPL's Saturday Superstore

A warm welcome back to the SPL, a league to cheer the hearts of a nation wearied by the failings of their national team.

Not sure which nation but there must be one somewhere.

On a more serious note I think the international breaks that have topped and tailed the first three league games of the season have been badly timed. I know the calendar is crowded but the last three rounds of fixtures in the SPL have felt a bit phoney war-ish to me.

Hopefully now we can get down to some proper business.

And, jings, crivvens, it’s a Saturday sixsome for us this week. Unusual but reassuring in a traditional kind of way.

Hamilton v Rangers
We’ll start here. It seems the chronologically sound thing to do. I’ve heard a rumour that ESPN is offering viewers free access this weekend. So what better way to kick it off than sitting back, looking up your favourite pizza delivery service and enjoying the game.

Obviously it might not be a classic game. But it won’t be like suffering a Scotland game. And right now that’s a positive.

We’re still waiting for an Old Firm slip up in the SPL this season. Unfortunately for Hamilton I can’s see it happening here. Away win.

Celtic v Hearts
“Ooh la la” sang The Faces, possibly inspired by this fixture, which has always seemed to throw up the odd cracker and a few moments of controversy over the past few years.

How equipped are Hearts for what looks to be a wide open race for third? Can Celtic stand up to a real domestic challenge in these home games?

It’s likely to a clash of styles, a new look Celtic fielding attacking players out to prove their reputation at home and Jim Jefferies looking for Hearts to defend doughtily and quick and incisive on the break. Intriguing.

I’d not be massively surprised if Hearts nicked a point here but I think Celtic will edge it. Home win.

Dundee United v Aberdeen
The New Firm. Is it really that long ago that these two sides weren’t only jousting with the Old Firm for pre-eminence but actually looked set to build a dominance of their own?

Yes, it was that long ago.

Are United and Aberdeen passing each other on very different trajectories this season? Maybe not very different, but United are likely to struggle to replicate last year’s success while Aberdeen should enjoy a more pleasant few months than they did last time out.

It would certainly be a statement of intent if Aberdeen were to take something here. And I suspect they might. Away win.

Hibs v Inverness
With six home defeats on the bounce the last team Hibs will want to face is an Inverness side that has had often had the better of these clashes.

If this leads to a nervousness at Easter Road then Terry Butcher will be looking for his players to feed off and take advantage.

John Hughes will be looking for his players to bounce back from the bad, bad performance against St Mirren a fortnight ago.

I’ve a feeling this won’t be a classic. A draw might just leave both sides feeling a touch unsatisfied.

Kilmarnock v St Mirren
Both dressing rooms will be ringing to cries of “more of the same” after both pulled off big wins last time out.

Neither of these teams were, and I mean no disrespect, particularly fancied in the pre-season build up. So perhaps against Aberdeen and St Mirren they were able to bring an element of surprise to the game.

I suppose more of the same might mean that they cancel each out. But I’m not so sure. Winning home games is a must for both. And I fancy Killie for the home win in this one.

St Johnstone v Motherwell
I’d like to think this one will fly under the radar a bit and turn into one of the games of the weekend.

Two closely matched teams and plenty to admire in both. Not, perhaps, earth shattering starts to the season but a two week lay off might have done both, particularly, Motherwell a bit of time to regroup and focus on the challenge ahead.

So I’m looking for a close contest, a good few goals and, at the end of it all, a draw.

So far: 6 out of 18. It’s already looking like a long hard road to respectability.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Jock Stein

10th September 1985.

Scotland clinch a draw with Wales to get to the play offs for the 1986 World Cup final. A typically Scottish story. Needing a point we go behind, lose a goalkeeper when he loses a contact lense and need a late penalty to get the job done.

And then the world seemed to collapse.

I was only five. In Primary Two.

I watched the game and went to bed.

It was the next morning that I found out that Jock Stein had died.

I remember it clearly although I was too young to understand it.

But the memory of Stein lingers still. Maybe at times like this, times of early European exits, of a last gasp win over Liechtenstein, the memory of his achievements haunts our current travails.

A Scottish Cup win and a European quarter final with Dunfermline - building a foundation at that club would see another cup win and a Cup Winners Cup semi final before the 1960’s were out.

A short spell at Hibs saw him guide them into contention for a double, tellingly that challenge fell away as soon as Stein left to join Celtic. At Hibs he also managed the wayward, fleeting genius of Willie Hamilton. Stein saw the potential of the footballer and backed himself to control the temperament that came with it.

And then to Parkhead. We all know the rest. A club that remained huge but was apparently unable to turn their size and history into success on the pitch. A club he reinvented as the dominant force in Scottish football.

With each passing year the 1967 European Cup triumph seems more remarkable, more detached from our current reality.

Like stories of the British Empire stretching to cover the globe, it seems unreal that the Scottish champions, a team drawn from the environs of Glasgow, could somehow reach the summit of European football.

It was, and remains, a remarkable achievement and Jock Stein’s role in it deserves to be celebrated still.

As a Protestant manager of Celtic he was a trailblazer. As a football man he saw only a club that had the potential to be a European giant. He never hid his disdain for some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Old Firm rivalry - although nor could he hide his pleasure at beating Rangers.

Like Bill Shankly he was also a trailblazer in promoting the cult of the manager. If the Rangers manager was due to address the Ibrox crowd on the issue of sectarianism then Stein would choose that day to jump in amongst his own crowd and berate them on their own behaviour.

An important point made and the front page coverage guaranteed. The aura continued to grow. Brian Clough wasn’t the first to cultivate an image. Jose Mourinho isn’t reinventing the wheel with his behaviour.

And the essential decency of the man who knew that football was a game to be celebrated and enjoyed but was not everything. His work to unite the Glasgow fans in mourning for the Ibrox Disaster in 1971 was a measure of both the man and how he hoped the rivalry should be conducted.

He held on to his roots as well. Alex Ferguson recalls a ticking off for not donating to a collection for the miners during the strikes of the mid-1980s: “I’m surprised at you of all people forgetting these lads.”

Maybe in Ferguson we see the last of the breed that gave football Shankly and Stein. Certainly in the Old Trafford manager we see the last of the managers that learnt their business through watching Stein. Big Jock, it turns out, wasn’t that bad a teacher either.

Finally Scotland. The 1982 World Cup and the disappointment of another first round exit. And the push to Mexico in 1986. The final push that proved too much for even this larger than life man.

Bill Shankly, perhaps alone amongst leading English managers in recognising what Stein was on the brink of pulling off, travelled to support his friend in Lisbon for the European Cup final.

“John, you’re immortal” he said after the game.

He wasn’t. But his unique achievements and his memory will live with us as long as the game is played.

* Extensive coverage in today's Record. I had a chuckle at Alan Rough's quote:
"As I walked out of the dressing room Big Jock was standing near the door. His last words to me were, 'Good luck, ya fat b*****d'."

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Hibs Remain In The Black

"Six In A Row" screams the Edinburgh Evening News back page.

A headline that doesn't refer to Hibs' current losing run at home.

Rather the club have announced better news. A sixth consecutive year of profit.

Given the troubles facing Scottish football this is a fine record. And it's hard to argue with chairman Rod Petrie when he called it "a truly outstanding achievement within football, let alone football within Scotland."

Obviously the backdrop is that the club has to sell players to retain the self sufficiency that has allowed them to redevelop the stadium and build a training complex in East Lothian.

The profit this year, down to £100,000, is due to the sale of Rob Jones and the add-ons negotiated in the sale of Steven Fletcher to Burnley and his subsequent move to Wolves.

So we can imagine that Anthony Stokes' transfer to Celtic will already be making the current financial year look quite rosy for the board.

Hibs fans will be delighted with the financial news - and a few might even use it to goad the Hearts fans.

But there is a flipside: the financial course the club is plotting means there is not the money to bring in the players that supporters would want to see playing for the club. And that means that sustained success on the pitch is always likely to be out of reach.

Petrie noted that playing costs had increased:

"At a time when many football clubs were reducing playing budgets, the board sought to support our new manager and sanctioned a further increase in staff costs from £4.7m to £4.8m in the year."

At the same time he promised that the current wages ratio of 68% is unacceptable and the target has to be 60%.

It's all very sensible and laudable. It might not be exciting but nor is it a kamikaze ride in a game that offers far more opportunities for financial madness than it does for a prudent approach.

The fans just have to accept that.

For their part, the board have to ensure the time, resources and money are constantly available for youth development. If the business plan depends on selling players then you have to have the players to sell.

And it's through a blend of those youngster and the experienced players that the manager must wheel and deal to bring in that Hibs have their best chance at some success on the pitch, however transitory the financial realities dictate that success must be.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

George Peat "Embarrassed And Extremely Disappointed"

Unfortunately, it wasn't the Scotland performance that Mr Peat was referring to:

"I was embarrassed and extremely disappointed by the disgraceful behaviour of some of our supporters during the Liechtenstein national anthem at Hampden Park.

"The Scotland fans have worked hard to earn their reputation throughout the world as fun-loving and respectful followers of football.

"Those who chose to boo our opponents' anthem only served to tarnish that reputation.

"I apologise unreservedly to our visitors for the crass reaction to their anthem, just as I did in private to the Liechtenstein delegation.

"It must not be forgotten that all nations must abide by Fifa's Fair Play policy and the behaviour does nothing to help Scotland's image."

Yes, George Peat is apparently pretty annoyed that the Scotland fans, or sections of them, were booing the Liechtenstein national anthem at Hampden last.

The pain of agreeing with For Peat’s Sake. But booing an anthem because it’s got the same tune as God Save The Queen? That seems pretty mindless.

Still, I was “embarrassed and extremely disappointed by the disgraceful” performance of the national team last night.

For some time I have been “embarrassed and extremely disappointed by the disgraceful” mess George Peat has made of his tenure at the SFA. I could almost accept his ineptitude if he covered for it in some way with honest endeavour. He doesn’t.

He’s a sham who continues to damage the game by remaining in his post and through his own “crass reaction” to any criticism.

This attack on the fans might be justified but it's being used to distract from the myriad of issue that last night's performance raised.

Here’s Moira Gordon’s take on it during today’s Scotsman live chat:

“George Peat is not a man I will ever be singing the praises of as he has been one of those who have sat on their backsides doing very little but having anarchic self-preservation committee and sub-committee meetings while Scottish football fell into ruin around them. But I do agree with the idea that we should be grown up and respectful enough to not to boo our way through the opposition's national anthem. I just wish he had reacted this quickly to things that are wrong with our game as he has to this.”

Quite. George and his cronies aren’t blameless in what we saw last night. The fans were maybe just joining the SFA in doing “nothing to help Scotland’s image.”

* Incidentally, these are the fairly innocuous words to the Liechtenstein anthem:

High above the young Rhine

Lies Liechtenstein, resting

On Alpine heights.

This beloved homeland,

This dear fatherland

Was chosen for us by

God's wise hand.

Long live Liechtenstein,

Blossoming on the young Rhine,

Happy and faithful!

Long live the Prince of the Land,

Long live our fatherland,

United by brotherly bonds and free!

Scotland v Liechtenstein: Party Time

Phew, what relief.

Glory from the jaws of national humiliation.

When the news came through that Lithuania were beating the Czechs there was a beam of optimism cast on Scotland's qualifying campaign.

And then we huffed and puffed through the first half against Liechtenstein. Bad, of course, but not miserably bad.

Certainly not as bad as it was about to get.

One minute it took of the second half. Mario Frick put Liechtenstein ahead. We're talking about qualifying for Euro 2012. But we're losing to a team ranked 141st in the world. A team that have managed only five wins and eight draws in 81 qualifying matches.

A country with about 11000 fewer inhabitants than Ayr. A country with fewer residents than there were fans in Hampden tonight.

Kenny Miller and Stephen McManus, seven minutes into injury time, made everything OK.

Radio Scotland's resident pundits are using words like “delighted” and “ecstatic.”

Craig Levein will accept no “negativity.” Callers are telling Jim Traynor that “a win is a win” and “performance is secondary.”

Everything's fine, nothing to see here. Scotland sit atop the qualifying group, we've stolen a march on the Czechs. Bring on Spain.

I detect a lot of bollocks in that reading of events.

Just as we need to learn that football games can't be won on passion alone we need to realise, quickly, that tonight's events can't be judged on the emotion of that last minute winner.

Maybe, on the night, we answered the most immediate question by escaping from the biggest humiliation of them all. But we left a list of unanswered questions that need to be addressed.

And, if league tables don't lie, I fear there is a whiff of dishonesty about the current look of Group I.

What evidence is there to suggest that we can push on from here? Our last three perfomances - tonight, on Friday against Lithuania and against Sweden - have veered between mediocre and abysmal.

We can dominate possession but struggle to score – where will the goals come from in what is likely to be a defensive approach against the Czechs?

What fear are Lithuania going to have coming to Hampden? Are they not going to look at Liechtenstein's performance and back themselves to pull something off?

And how are our clubs producing players that seem incapable of mastering simple skills? How can a national team with any pretensions contain so many players who too often seem incapable of weighting a pass correctly? Or defenders who struggle to contain the attacking threat of a team like Liechtenstein, a team that may well have been surprised to discover they even had an attacking threat.

It strikes me that there is a reading of that table that suggests we're as firmly in the race to finish fourth as much as we are involved in the fight for second.

There is the idea, already swilling around and about to be spread by the manager and players, that the late winner tonight will somehow provide a spark for some momentum, convince us of our destiny.

And people will argue that we're unlikely to be as bad again.

Our footballing history should shatter that illusion. We can be as bad again and we probably will be as bad again.

It can never be stressed enough just how bad this performance was, how close we came to what I described earlier as an “unthinkable” result.

I'm at a loss to know where we go from here. No point sacking the manager.

The problems go much deeper than the job that Craig Levein is being asked to do. He might be the figurehead as national manager. But on accepting the job he inherited the structural problems that have been undermining Scottish football for decades.

Our clubs and our triumvirate of ineffectual governing bodies must take their share of the blame. So to, maybe, must us fans who have put up with game being ruined in this country for too long.

And now it has come to this. We're backslapping and cheering a performance defined by our ability to “never give up” against a team that are pretty much the definition of minnows.

Something needs to change. That will take time.

The immediate future is a qualifying campaign that, remarkably, does still offer a flicker of hope. Only a flicker though.

We avoided a humiliation tonight. But we didn't spare our embarrassment, people will be looking at this result around Europe and wondering how much further Scotland can fall.

Stephen McManus brought relief after 97 abject minutes. And relief is fine. But it shouldn't let this Scotland team, or any of the organisations that have sat back and let this happen, off the hook.

And it certainly shouldn't usher in a new age of optimism.


Dismal, dismal, dismal stuff. (Left Back In The Changing Room)

Liechtenstein looked sharp in attack, and in spells as likely to notch a second goal as their – apparently – more illustrious opponents were. That changed with McManus's goal, but Scotland were still embarrassed. (The Guardian)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Scotland v Liechtenstein

I have a friend who struggles a bit with some of the things in modern life that the rest of us take for granted.

Tonight I will be showing him, for maybe the tenth time, how to upload pictures to a popular social networking site.

The prospect doesn’t fill me with joy.

Yet I feel it’s preferable to going to the pub to watch the Scotland v Liechtenstein this evening. When somebody else’s holiday snaps win out over the national team there’s summat not right.

Craig Levein has come out fighting over accusations of negativity after Friday’s bore drawn with Lithuania. And he’s right. The shape of that team was classic Levein, he’s approaching the job as he was always going to approach it. There’s not much he can do now if our expectations don’t match his views on how best to coax the best from limited resources.

I can accept all that but I do feel that he should changed things earlier on Friday. The changes when they came coincided with an increasing desperation in the Scottish ranks. An earlier change to personnel or formation might have been more effective. But, hindsight and all that. What’s done is done.

Different look to the side tonight though:

Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, David Weir, Stephen McManus, Lee Wallace, Scott Brown, Darren Fletcher, Lee McCulloch, James McFadden, Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd.

A 4-4-2. The noticeable names are, of course, McFadden and Boyd. There to offer the spark of creativity and goals that we somehow couldn’t summon up in Lithuania.

Anything but a win tonight is unthinkable. It will mean Euro 2012 is over for us. It will also mean we can’t beat Liechtenstein at home. Like I say, unthinkable.

It’s difficult to judge games like this. A scrappy 1-0 is, essentially, job done. But punters and pundits expect more and there’s a danger of viewing anything short of a 4 or 5 goal triumph as a failure.

But a look at the team suggests we should be OK. Hutton and Wallace are likely to be underemployed defensively so will be free to bomb up and down the flanks. McFadden should be more creative than Barry Robson and Steven Naismith were on Friday. If we make chances Boyd will be looking to convert them. It would also be nice to see a more effective attacking contribution from the midfield hub of Scott Brown and Darran Fletcher.

I’m not going to join the anti-Fletcher ranks. Nor will I jump on the “Scotty Brown? He’s A Bit Crap” bandwagon. But we might be entitled to see them offer a bit more against lowly opposition at home.

Respect the opponents, of course. They’ll be doughty customers with a game plan that they know inside out. But whatever pretensions we have left as a footballing nation probably wouldn’t survive the shame of failure tonight

A home win. And I think we might get 3 or 4. (Apologies if I've just jinxed us!)