Saturday, November 27, 2010

SPL Preview: League of Nations

So as things stand we’ve got a full SPL fixture list this weekend.

Foreign referees. Who will be great and prove that we can live without our Scottish numpties. Or be human, make mistakes, and have a whole heap of shit poured over their heads. We’ll see.

Alain Hamer draws the shortest of straws as he takes charge of both Old Firm games. Unlikely to come under much scrutiny.

Celtic v Inverness
Inverness set out to preserve their fine away record at Celtic Park. Not an easy task. The draw with Rangers at Ibrox is proof that the Highlanders are made of stern stuff though. And Celtic’s last gasp win over St Mirren has been sandwiched between a defeat at Hearts and a draw with Dundee United at home. All to play for Caley.


Dundee United v Rangers
United can be proud of their point at Celtic last time out and will be looking to get something from a Rangers team coming off Wednesday’s match with Manchester United. Rangers have injury concerns and were made to work against Kilmarnock last Saturday. I’ve got a feeling the league leaders will manage to see this one out though.

Away win.

- The Record reports that Alain Hamer is available because Luxembourg’s officials are involved in their own strike, refusing to referee games involving FC Wiltz and FC Canach. This is a neverending story.

Christian Lautier dodges the glamour tie that was Beith v Airdrie thanks to the snow. Instead he’s heading to a cold, cold Leith. Scotland's Morag Pirie is fourth official. She's a lady. Expect every comedian in the crowd to have something to say about that. Yawn.

Hibs v St Johnstone
After the optimism of two wins, Hibs crashed back to earth with their now traditional defeat at Inverness last week. Not that Colin Calderwood will have needed any convincing that his side are very much a work in progress. St Johnstone’s own trip up north was happier with a welcome win over Aberdeen. Tight one at Easter Road I think.


Meir Levy gets to sample the delights of both Hamilton and Motherwell in a weekend double header that is probably not advertised on the VisitScotland website. Eli Hacmon completes the SPL card at Kilmarnock.

Hamilton v St Mirren
These are the games that Hamilton need to win if they are to drag themselves from the bottom of the league. They are also the games St Mirren need to win if they are to prove the doubters wrong and stay free from trouble. So a big match for both sides. I fancy St Mirren to pile on the misery for the Accies though.

Away win

Kilmarnock v Aberdeen
Mark McGhee admits he’s not looking for an open game here. Good of him to sell the game to the fans so enthusiastically. Understandable though given his predicament and the form of the home side. Can Aberdeen stop Killie from scoring? Probably not. More pain for McGhee.

Home win

Motherwell v Hearts
Third play fifth with only three points separating them. Should be a good game. I’ve got a feeling Hearts are on a bit of a roll now though. A win here and they can start to make third place their own. It’s up to Motherwell to stop them but that won’t be easy. Motherwell v Hearts, Brown v Jefferies. Intriguing prospect.

Away win

Three Become One

Soapbox time. Everybody else seems to be using the referee's strike to air their grievances and campaign for the changes they want. So I'll join them.

It's an old argument of mine. One that I share with Chick Young. Painful as it is to admit that.

The referees inform the SFA they're striking. The SFA then have to inform the SPL and the Scottish Football League that the referees aren't working at the weekend but they'll try and talk them out of it and will get the games covered somehow. Repeat throughout the week.

Throw in the farce of the SFL drawing lots to decide which of their games will go ahead.

Much about this week has been unsatisfactory. But surely this three way governance of the game, this triumvirate of inefficiency, is no longer a suitable administrative system for Scottish football.

How much quicker to react would a streamlined organisation, staffed by the right people with a wholly professional outlook, prove to be?

It will put a lot of noses out of joint, the blazerati will shout and scream. But a merger of the big three footballing bodies would be a massive step towards the revolution that the game needs. And it would also offer the fresh start we all need.

I can't see it happening soon. But, in a week of nightmares, it's at least nice to have a dream.

Referee Crisis: A Very Scottish Soap Opera

So Hugh Dallas has left the SFA. He clung on for a while. Perhaps he would have been able to ride out the storm over Dougie McDonald. Maybe he could have survived the eventual fall out from this weekend’s referee’s strike.

He might even have lived to fight another day in the wake of his less than judicious use of his work email around the time of the Pope’s visit.

But the three things together were insurmountable. Especially after, if certain rumours are to be believed, he had lost the confidence of SFA chief executive Stewart Regan.

As I wrote the other day I felt Dallas should have gone in the wake of his role in the McDonald farrago.

I’m also of the opinion that he stood in the way of modernising the way our refereeing system operates. Like many who have departed the SFA he doesn’t leave behind a legacy of achievement.

Sending the email was stupid and Dallas should have known better. But some of the outrage it has belatedly provoked seems manufactured. There’s not much about the whole affair that doesn’t seem distasteful and I include in that the Catholic church in Scotland getting publicly involved in an internal investigation by Dallas’ employers.

That, of course, is the price people pay for living in the public eye. And, rightly or wrongly, that was the position that Dallas found himself in.

As an atheist with agnostic sympathies I’m maybe not the right person to judge all of this. I can accept that. But I also find myself thinking of the times I’ve laughed at what might be called off-colour jokes on all manner of subjects. I’ve even cracked a few.

So I suppose when I hear some of the more hysterical condemnations of Dallas’ behaviour I find myself thinking “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or “there but for the grace of whichever god go most of us.”

In the tragicomedy that Scottish football has become in the past week the email has become a distraction to sorting out a game in meltdown. Not a cause of the game’s problems but an obstacle in the search for a solution. With Dallas gone - professionally discredited, in my eyes, before he hit the send button back in September - we should be able to concentrate on getting the football back on track.

The challenge for Regan now is to replace Dallas, and the system he presided over, with something better. I wish him the best of luck. I fear he’ll need it.

Sadly Hugh Dallas is the not the first casualty of the recent controversies. That honour goes, once again, to Scottish football’s dignity.

At first it seemed like we’d be unable to find any countries willing to send us officials. Ireland, Wales, Iceland. One by one they said no.

Understandable, I suppose. It’s not a phone call you want from your boss:

“Fancy a busman’s holiday to Scotland? The forecast says snow which will add an hour minimum onto any journey you take, you’ll probably be called a scab. And if you make a mistake you’ll have your integrity questioned and your family might get abused.”

“Aye, nae bother. Sign me up. Beats a weekend in Reykjavik.”

Eventually Malta, Luxembourg, Poland and Portugal came up trumps. Sadly our Polish and Portuguese men in the middle came, saw and promptly buggered off.

The Poles it seems thought they were on an exchange programme rather than a picket breaking trip. Like much else that’s happened this week, you really couldn’t make it up.

The SFA insist that all six SPL games will go ahead. I think they’re probably saying that while desperately studying the weather forecasts, hoping for a weekend whiteout that will put paid to at least some of the games.

At the end of another horrendous week for the SFA we still don’t know for sure that any games will go ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Maybe a complete shutdown wouldn’t be a bad thing. If it takes a week without games to remind everyone that the game remains the most important thing then we might have salvaged something from this very Scottish soap opera.

> A Twitter rumour suggests Willie Young might be in line to take over from Hugh Dallas. Not the forward step we need. Very dapper fellow though. The only referee I’ve ever seen blow his nose with a black handkerchief. Complete colour co-ordination.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rangers v Manchester United

A break from the surreal squabbling over referee’s strikes and pointing the finger(s) of blame.

Tonight Scottish football is touched by the glamour of the Champion’s League and the might of Manchester United.

Glasgow could do with a bit of glamour actually. Lovely place, nice people. But even in a recession I’d have thought they could do better than hiring The Krankies to flick the switch on their Christmas lights.

The verdict of an English colleague who was there with a Spanish friend: Ian and Jeannette Tough have a unique brand of humour that loses much of the, well, humour in the translation. Seems it gains a lot of creepiness though.

Anyway the lights are turned on and the council budget is hardly touched. Which means Sir Alex Ferguson can expect red carpet treatment as he returns to Govan.

The last time he was about these parts Ferguson’s 2003 United side enjoyed a 1-0 victory in a fairly tight match that was swung by a fifth minute goal from Phil Neville.

Lot of water under the bridge since then and the gap between the two sides has grown ever more pronounced. Even Manchester United’s debt makes Rangers’ fiscal shenanigans look amateurish.

But shocks do happen. It was said that Rangers lacked ambition during this season’s 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Except the ambition was to snaffle a point. That job was done. Walter Smith is happy to let others worry about his tactics.

United will qualify for the last 16 with another draw tonight but they’re unlikely to arrive at Ibrox happy to settle for a point.

Everyone in football seems to agree that they aren’t anywhere near their best at the moment. But they’re joint top of the English Premier League, top of their Champion’s League group and yet to concede a goal in Europe. It’s a successful enough kind of shoddiness.

Robbed of Bougherra, Webster and Edu through injury and with Sasa Papac doubtful Rangers are going to be forced to tinker. The emphasis will still be on defence but the available personnel will mean there will have to be some shift to attack.

Will that expose them to an onslaught? Wayne Rooney is likely to return to United’s starting line-up. But which Wayne Rooney? The highly rewarded passenger that he’s been of late or the player who would eat Kirk Broadfoot for breakfast in his pomp?

We’ll have to wait for the answer to that one. The ideal scenario for Rangers is that Rooney not only remains off form but also creates a sense of unease among his teammates. Such an outcome would send Ferguson apoplectic.

He’d never admit it about his old mate but the more annoyed Ferguson gets the happier Walter Smith is likely to be.

A tough ask for Rangers. They need another night of unlikely heroics, for United to show the hesitancy that’s marked their play this season. But United’s campaign has been dominated by a stubborness that suggests that, even if they are far from being Ferguson’s best vintage, they might be the squad most closely built in his image.

Off-form but determined, I’d expect United to get the win.

We’ll also get the first chance of the week to see a foreign referee strutting his stuff on a Scottish pitch. Massimo Busacca apparently once gave fans a “two finger salute.”

Unfortunately I think Mr Busacca might be a touch expensive for the SFA to parachute in for a weekend SPL game.

Still, if we’re going to be doing this on a budget it seems that The Krankies are both cheap and available.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Return To Action

The blog has been experiencing a period of neglect. Events, dear boy, events.

Getting used to the commute to the wild west every morning. Jings, but that train journey is a bind. Intriguingly I have discovered that it only takes the journey from Edinburgh Waverley to Haymarket to digest The Metro. And that's me reading slowly, still half asleep.

I've missed so much football. Hibs win, win again and then lose again. Hearts get a run going that suggests Jim Jefferies might be leading them to third spot.

In only my second week working in Glasgow (true what they used to say, by the way, it is indeed "miles wetter") I was able to head into work with the smug superiority of a man who enjoyed both Edinburgh sides beating the Old Firm. The last time that happened was 1972. As I'm working a five month contract I guess my experience will have been a unique one.

The Old Firm are, of course, still atop the SPL. But the aura of invincibility has gone, although not to the extent that anybody is likely to sneak up on them and mount even a brief challenge.

Celtic, of course, thumped nine past Aberdeen. Mark McGhee has survived after much soul searching at Pittodrie. One suspects, however, that he needs his project to start delivering sooner rather than later.

Scotland destroyed the might of the Faroe Islands and the world could smile again. A game that some (including me) decried as a waste of time, actually allowed a few newcomers to stake a place in Levein's plans. And he's shown himself to be such a gung-ho national manager I'm sure he'll give them a chance.

Barry Bannan was one of the players who impressed? Barry who? A Football Man has the background (and footage of a not bad strike).

I've also missed the odd discussion over referees. See my ramble below. In summary: Celtic misguided, SFA impotent, referees lacking quality but essentially honest, strike a bloody stupid idea.

And, in breaking news, Iceland have refused to provide referees for Saturday's SPL games. The SFA are going to nip down to Farmfoods and give that a go tomorrow.

Referee Crisis: A Sorry Saga

If you were still wondering if Scottish football had lurched into crisis confirmation came during an SFA press conference yesterday.

Our old friend George Peat, president of that august institution, denied that game was in crisis. Case closed, we’re obviously in the middle of a catastrophe when George adopts his head in the sand posture.

The referees strike - although, legally, it might be more of a refusal to work - is the culmination of a turbulent few weeks.

Along the way we’ve had some drama, some moments of farce and much sorrowful shaking of heads from people who, and here I include myself, actually, crazy as it might sound, quite like Scottish football.

This is a multi-layered saga. An emotive one as well.

And nobody comes out of it particularly well.

Let us deal with Celtic first. Dougie McDonald lying to Neil Lennon didn’t start this collision course between Celtic and officialdom.

There is no conspiracy against Celtic. They might, like every other team to have played a game of football, have been victims of incompetence. But there is no smoking gun, Hugh Dallas is not scurrying away from the grassy knoll.

If Celtic want improvements in Scottish refereeing, they have gone about it in completely the wrong way.

Back in June, Neil Lennon had this to say about how his players should make themselves, and their opinions, known to referees:

"I did it myself as a player, not to influence the ref but to let him know we weren't happy, “ the Hoops gaffer said.

"Any challenges that were a wee bit heavy, there were two or three of us around the player who did it.”

This was part of Lennon’s drive to put the fire back into the Celtic players. It also signalled something unsavoury about the Celtic management’s attitude to referees. We probably should have predicted the storms ahead.

This is not to condone refereeing mistakes against Celtic. But it goes a long way to explaining what I consider to be a widely held view that Neil Lennon is neither the victim of a wide ranging “anti-Celtic” conspiracy nor an innocent bystander in the controversies that have engulfed him in recent weeks.

For reasons that I don’t fully understand Celtic seem to have ramped up their complaints this season, tacitly endorsing the view that the Scottish football establishment is waging war against the club.

Last week Celtic chairman John Reid told shareholders that the club:

"weren't looking for special treatment for Celtic, and never claimed to be better than anyone else, we won't be treated as less than anyone else. Those days are gone,"

“Those days are gone?” Interesting choice of words for a man who made a career out of delivering his government’s message. Calculated, you might say.

Reid may have been simply pandering to his audience. But he knew that his comments would be widely reported, that they would have a greater impact than simply a chairman addressing his shareholders.

Given the swirling discontent surrounding the issue of refereeing, and the refereeing of Celtic games in particular, I’d argue that Reid was fanning the flames of a controversy that was already threatening to run out of control. I think that was irresponsible and unbecoming of the role he holds.

Reid also suggested that Dougie McDonald should resign for lying and trying to get others to lie on his behalf. He might well be right. But I’d suggest that a man who held no fewer than six cabinet positions during Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war is probably not as qualified as others to make that argument.

To paraphrase Tom Lehrer “it was at that moment that satire in Scottish football died.”

During this prolonged period of uproar, Celtic’s conduct has been misguided, tinged with paranoia and, in recent weeks, both manager and chairman have been guilty of making misguided, even inflammatory, comments.

And that has done them no favours. It’s robbed them of any sympathy they might have had for the poor decisions that they’ve been on the receiving end of. More importantly, it has muddied the waters of a debate that Scottish football needs to have.

I’ve been arguing for long enough that the SFA is not fit for purpose. That’s been crystal clear in the last few weeks.

In the Dundee United v Celtic game Dougie McDonald made a mistake. He then rectified that mistake. And he then compounded the whole saga by telling lies. In a job that demands honesty and integrity that is unforgivable.

It’s an open and shut case that nobody appears to be denying.

Yet McDonald remains as a Category One referee? How is that possible? I don’t know. The SFA new Chief Executive Stewart Regan - who is surely longing for the more sedate environs of Yorkshire cricket - launched an investigation.

But he then had to hand any decision over to the referees committee made up of McDonald’s colleagues in the refereeing world.

It seems senior SFA figures are surprised that McDonald remains in place yet are unable or unwilling to remove him. Surely now they’ve found the excuse they need to revolutionise their processes and systems.

If weekend reports that our top officials are incapable of reaching the acceptable pass mark in a standard test on the rules of the game are true then something is seriously awry in the way we train and assess match officials.

It’s here that Celtic’s ranting and raving - and Celtic’s is the more immediate example and the more media friendly one, although Hearts and Dundee United’s Peter Houston have also been guilty - is nothing more than a distraction.

By either suggesting or condoning a conspiracy Celtic detract from the more real problems of a widespread incompetence.

And, for that, the buck has to stop with the man who apparently must always be called “ref’s supremo,” Hugh Dallas.

Dallas played his own murky role in the McDonald affair. More damaging, however, is the inescapable conclusion that the SFA seem to allow him to exercise a Stalinist level of control over all issues to do with refereeing in the Scottish game.

If Dallas was the right man for the job he’d be across the airwaves right now either backing or condemning the threatened strike.

If he was the right man for the job he’d be putting mechanisms in place to make referees more accountable, the decision making process more transparent.

If he was the right man for the job we’d have fewer bad decisions to discuss and some method of demotion or suspension to deal with the worst offending officials.

But we have none of these things. So Hugh Dallas has to go and he has to take Dougie McDonald with him.

If there is a reluctance within the SFA to insist on that then it can be probably be explained as a refusal to pander to Celtic. Which leads to a cul-de-sac. If the SFA refuse to act because of the way Celtic have behaved then we’re in a rather sorry mess. A plague on both their houses.

And then we come to the latest twist. The referee’s planned strike at the weekend. The final descent into farce.

Not all our referees are irredeemably bad at their job. Many are guilty of mistakes but they are honest mistakes. Even at their worst they retain their integrity - McDonald’s moment of madness after the game at Tannadice aside.

The idea that they turn up for 90 minutes every Saturday, pocket their cash and go home is laughable.

It takes dedication to be a referee. And it takes a thick skin to put up with the abuse they receive from the moment they start out refereeing age group games. In fact it’s hard to think of another job, except perhaps politics, where realising your ambitions will bring such an increase in the amount of abuse you need to put up with. And they do all this in their spare time.

There’s something to admire in their dedication, even if you suspect that many of them probably always volunteered to be milk monitors at school.

But there is nothing admirable in the decision to strike. Their actions have generated bad press for Scottish football at a time when we are hardly the most respected of footballing nations.

They’ve also jeopardised important revenue streams for our clubs at a time when we’re not awash with cash.

And, by refusing to give interviews to fully explain their reasons, they have created a media vacuum that has been filled with speculation and gossip.

At the moment I don’t understand what the strike will achieve. It seems a strike that has little purpose, certainly no definable measure of it’s success. That’s not so much an industrial action as it is a holiday.

When it comes to the strike game they’ve shown themselves to be more Arthur Scargill than Jimmy Reid.

If referees have been subjected to sustained abuse outwith what is normal in the heat of a game, if their families feel threatened, if they have been receiving abuse at their full time workplaces, then that is wrong.

If they feel that any clubs, managers, players or officials are guilty of encouraging that atmosphere with their behaviour or comments then they need to state that and demand that the SFA takes action.

Certainly wiping out the weekend’s fixture list is not going to halt the actions of society’s nutters. And there must better ways of getting the SFA’s attention than enforcing a weekend shutdown.

Where will be when all this is over? Dougie McDonald will still be a referee. Hugh Dallas will still be presiding over his own personal fiefdom. Celtic will still be peddling their complaints. The SFA will appear even more impotent than before.

Weeks of nonsense, weeks of faults and stupidity on every side of the various arguments, will have ended in a farce that has achieved nothing.

And it’s me. And it’s you. The punters who just want to see a game, have a couple of pints while discussing how the players played and the ref reffed who will have lost out. And the rudderless ship that is modern Scottish football will have lurched ever closer to the rocks.

> What? No mention of the Hugh Dallas email? No. Not relevant. Perhaps it calls into question his judgement. It might even call into question his sense of humour. It definitely calls into question his IT skills. But it’s a human resources question for his employers rather than anything else. Others might disagree.