Wednesday, December 28, 2011

STV and Rangers: Love hurts

A rather anaemic press release on Rangers' website seems to have set the Twitter world all a-flutter.

The club will join with STV to explore "commercial" opportunities.

Two businesses, each negotiating their own challenges in a changing world, form a vague union that they hope will end profitably for both.

The very thought!

Given some of the stronger comments heading STV's way the commercial benefits from the deal might be offset by the negative perception it's creating in a divided city.

Scottish football largely fails to exploit online opportunities so a deal of this sort makes sense for the club. And while people rage about a biased national broadcaster - are the good folk of BBC Scotland enjoying a wry smile - we don't know if other clubs have been approached or if other announcements of partnerships are imminent.

Indeed STV might be cursing - does their own reticence to engage with the story speak volumes - that Rangers pushed this particular announcement out unilaterally.

My memory might be hazy but I'm not sure if can remember such gnashing off teeth when Sky TV became a shareholder in Leeds United.

Or when STV's parent company SMG got involved in a not wholly satisfactory dalliance with Hearts back in 1999. Make no mistake, if conflict of interest is your concern, then that deal at Tynecastle offered a far more troubling precedent than this latest venture.

But this is Glasgow and this is football so uproar, even while the full facts are still to be established, must surely follow.

And that's something that STV's commercial high heid yins should have predicted. That's what happens when you sup - however constructively, however fiscally sensibly - with someone else's devil.

What's troubled me more is the way that people have been so quick to throw into question the integrity of STV journalists.

STV's online coverage has been one of the success stories of Scottish football's hard transition to a digital age.

To see people - including some pontificating fellow journalists - immediately jump on STV's editorial staff and accuse them of now following an agenda or of following an agenda at some unspecified time in the future is a worry.

Obviously the accusers are chasing their own agenda - and largely I think the followers of forty Scottish league sides won't care - but it's another sign of how difficult the game is to cover in an age of over sensitive whining from all sides.

I don't know the details of the deal, I don't know the circumstances in which STV's editorial team found out that a deal had been struck with another arm of the organisation.

I've no doubt though that the guys that work there would be as concerned as anyone if this was going to impinge on their freedom to do their jobs.

This deal - if it's a one-off, if it's a wide ranging collaboration - may yet be a bad commercial move for STV.

But until we know exactly what's planned it seems unfair - it even seems unreasonably biased - to catch innocent reporters in the crossfire of a never ending game of Old Firm tit-for-tat.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Justice takes a break

So Lee McCulloch is free to play for Rangers tonight.

How can that be? Wasn't he red carded against St Mirren on Saturday?

That he was. For flinging an elbow. I've seen more heinous crimes on a football pitch. But I'd also say that the red card was justified.

Opinions, of course, are like certain anatomical features. We all have them.

Ally McCoist has his: McCulloch should not have been sent off so Rangers have appealed the decision.

That's fair enough.

Complications arise though.

It's Christmas. So the SFA's much heralded fast tracked disciplinary procedure has developed a breakdown. The main players are on holiday.

McCoist is adamant that he's not playing the system, he's simply standing by his man, seeking justice for the wronged party.

Who's to doubt to his sincerity?

But it's a handy loophole and one that a touch of foresight should have closed in advance.

This isn't really about McCoist or McCulloch.

It's about the SFA realising that their processes must be active as long as games are being played. Otherwise, in an Old Firm week, they're opening themselves up to a whole lot of nonsense.

Justice, and Stewart Regan's SFA revolution, is weakened if it needs a Christmas holiday.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

SPL: Wednesday Wonders

The SPL works off the turkey and mince pies with a full Wednesday evening fixture. The eyes of the world upon us once more. Or at least the eyes of those Sky viewers not tempted by the tungsten superheroes at the Ally Pally.

Celtic v Rangers

Apparently recent form has left some Celtic supporters confident about this one.

Yet Ally McCoist was quick yesterday to talk about his confidence in victory.

I don't understand anybody displaying confidence before a big game. Fear, misery and a sense of doom are my defaults. And who is to say I've not got it right?

If you're expecting defeat it hurts less when you lose and you enjoy it more when you win.

Avoid hubris and project pitiful pessimism at all times. It's the path to a happier life.

Still, I'll never known what it's like to support one side or t'other in the greatest sporting rivalry on earth. And, for that matter, I'll never know what it's like to support one side or t'other in an Old Firm game either.

Instead I peer into the cauldron of Glasgow and a see a game that will end another chapter in a twisting title race.

Victory for either side will not close the book on this SPL championship. Last season provided enough of a lesson that the points and goals that win or lose titles can lie elsewhere.

It's still a game chock-full of meaning though.

For Celtic and particularly for Neil Lennon victory would offer the final act of redemption in the climb back from the dark days of autumn when they looked hopeless, Rangers looked rampant and Lennon looked vulnerable.

For Rangers and Ally McCoist a win, or even avoiding defeat, would offer evidence that a suddenly feeble looking Rangers are more than capable of holding off a resurgent Celtic.

Tonight's winners, if we're to have a winner, will lead the SPL into 2012. There's no glory in that. But it's an achievement that could offer mighty psychological succour to both sides in a season of mixed fortunes.

Who's it going to be?

Celtic have the momentum. 24 points from the last eight games. The sort of autumn-into-winter run that can define a title winning season.

Rangers have stumbled, fumbled, dropped the ball. Just 16 points from the last eight games, losing ground as Celtic have gobbled up the space between them.

An Old Firm game though. Windae, form book, oot the. We've seen it all before.

One point separates the two. Rangers have won 15, lost two, drawn three. Celtic have won 15, lost three, drawn two. Rangers have scored 37 goals, conceded 11. Celtic have scored 40, conceded 15.

Different seasons, different crises, different periods of sustained victory gathering.

Fag paper thin though, the differences between these behemoths.

A draw? Maybe I'm leaning towards that outcome. Maybe I'll cover myself by betting on a Celtic win.

And, while I'm in the bookies, it would be stupid not to put a couple of quid on Rangers as well.

If you're pushing me I'd say the build-up, current form and home advantage all point towards Celtic.

Mind you I've never been confident placing a bet in my life.

Aberdeen v Hearts

Let's hear it for the Hearts players. Supposedly facing the biggest off field challenges of their careers, the club facing a crossroads signposted gloom and doom.

And they've scored six in their last two outing, kept two clean sheets and enjoyed dominance over a Motherwell side who have been all but untouchable on the road.

Crisis? What crisis?

Aberdeen were enjoying a revival before they lost to Inverness on Christmas Eve. They can see daylight between themselves and relegation dunderheids Hibs and Dunfermline though.

And Hearts' struggle on the road which makes a midweek, wintry trip to Pittodrie as welcome as a letter from HMRC.


Hibs v Inverness

A new manager but not a new dawn for Hibs. Pat Fenlon criticised the players' fitness after their second half capitulation against Dundee United.

If that is the case then the cluttered festive fixture list could offer dismal tidings for Hibs.

Fenlon seems to have identified the failings but this first period of his reign doesn't appear to offer much chance to right those wrongs.

Apparently some players are upset at the way they're now being spoken to on the training ground. Which just goes to show that even mentally weak, wage thieving wasters have feelings.

Inverness have been striving to impress in recent weeks and came through against Aberdeen with a makeshift side.

There's spirit among Butcher's boys. There's not much in evidence at Easter Road.

Defeat tonight and those last few believers will surely accept that Hibs are in their fight of their lives.

Who would bet against Inverness?

Motherwell v Dunfermline

Motherwell will be slightly chastened after their Christmas Eve defeat at Tynecastle.

They've also been in the strange situation of struggling more at home than they have on the road. Goals have been hard to come by.

Dunfermline, caught in a torrid run of form and looking all at sea, should offer some succour tonight.

Home win.

St Johnstone v Kilmarnock

Joyous wins, stern-faced draws, feeble defeats. St Johnstone and Kilmarnock have had seasons of fluctuating fortunes.

Who's to say they won't bond in their inconsistency with a draw tonight?

St Mirren v Dundee United

What do St Mirren do after a famous, much celebrated win against Rangers?

What do Dundee United do after coming back to beat Hibs?

The evidence of the season suggests that both will struggle to build on the winning of three points.

Which sets us up nicely for another draw.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

SPL Advent: St Mirren

We're so close now you can almost smell the reindeer dung. We reach the final window in the SPL Advent calendar. Fling open the curtains and have a nosy at St Mirren.

One thing you can say about St Mirren is that Danny Lennon will do what's best for St Mirren Football Club and what's best for Danny Lennon. Because what's best for Danny Lennon is also what's best for St Mirren Football Club. That's how Danny Lennon operates.

Ah, Danny. I'm happy to adopt a Bruce Forsyth style theatrically conspiring whisper and admit: "Danny, you are my favourite."

The severe sincerity of his post-match utterances amuse me. But I also admire the way he got on with the job when many felt St Mirren had erred with his appointment.

And I want him to thrive because the idea of managers and players making a progression through the leagues is one that would seem essential to the game's survival in Scotland.

So good on you Danny.

This season he's added experience in the dugout with the arrival of the much travelled Tommy Craig. And he worked to reshape the squad in the summer.

Last year Lennon did what was required, performed the basic function of his job, by keeping St Mirren up.

But his approach in the summer seemed an acknowledgement that not everything he tried, not everything he transferred from Cowdenbeath, had worked.

One does wonder if that idea of a manager being given time to make the odd mistake and the opportunity to put it right will ever catch on.

Has it worked?

19 games in, half the season gone, and 22 points won. Five victories, seven draws and seven defeats.

That's already two thirds of the way to last season's points total but it'a another warm welcome to inconsistency, the theme that's run through this SPL Advent like cloves through mulled wine.

Draw at Ibrox one week, lose to Hibs in Paisley the next. Beat Kilmarnock at home one week, lose in Inverness the next. Hard to build a head of steam with those kinds of results.

Taking only eleven points from 24 against teams below them in the league points both to the tightness of the league and the struggle St Mirren face to establish themselves in the top six this season.

26 goals conceded is a fair SPL record but only nine goals scored at home and nine on the road are not enough. Nobody above St Mirren in the league has scored less.

That helps explain why they find themselves in the bottom half of the table and why Lennon will scour the January sales in search of a striker.

The team looks more experienced than last year with more solidity and a greater ability to win games.

That should be enough for safety. Danny Lennon's hope will be that it's enough for slightly more than that.

King forever, ceasing never. Over us all to reign

Danny Lennon wants everyone, players and Danny Lennon himself, to keep learning.

He probably also wants Santa to bring him a goalscorer and more points from "winnable" games.

If he gets that St Mirren could still be bothering the top six come the SPL split.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Friday, December 23, 2011

SPL Advent: St Johnstone

Day eleven. Guided by a star of wonder, the SPL Advent takes a trip to Perth.

Perhaps we should all read a Christmas lesson from the good book of McDiarmid Park.

St Johnstone have lost both a talented young manager and a steady, long-serving chairman this season.

And, so far, it's been more evolution for revolution.

The boardroom succession was from father to son as Geoff Brown decided to retire.

His final task was to find a replacement for Derek McInnes.

When McInnes left for Bristol City there was sadness but also an acceptance that such departures are the norm for clubs like St Johnstone.

He went with best wishes and was invited to suggest a potential successor.

Steve Lomas was one of the names that McInnes, although maybe not many other people, put forward.

And so it was that Lomas joined the rogue's gallery of SPL managers.

A surprising appointment? Perhaps, given his low profile in Scotland and his lack of experience.

But they know what they like and like what they know in Perth.

McInnes was charged with evolving the blueprint put in place by another ambitious young manager. Lomas will be given the opportunity to do the same.

A solid stability about these Saints. And it seems to work.

No chasing of impossible dreams, no hissy fits, no financial panics, no existential crises.

Just steady progression. Onwards and upwards but not at the sort of pace that will bring on dizziness.

The Lomas succession appeared miraculously seamless. There was a goalless draw at Ibrox - the manager proving his passion with a quickfire ban for "gesturing" - and then back-to-back wins over Hibs and Hearts.

Three straight defeats since then have proved that life in the SPL is perhaps as not as easy to adjust to as Lomas was making it look.

Yet St Johnstone remain in fourth place. The chasing pack are tight behind them and Motherwell look to have inched too far ahead in third. In a league where most clubs are capable of beating each other there's little to suggest that another wee run won't have the Saints securing not only a top siz place but a top four place.

Some clouds remain on the Perthshire horizon. Those last three defeats all came at home in the space of just eight days.

Played ten, won three, drawn one, lost six. It's not a great home record. 15 of the 20 goals they've conceded have been scored at McDiarmid Park.

Compare and contrast with an away record that's seen them win four and lose only once. That includes wins at Celtic and Motherwell and, arguably, an unpunished dive at Easter Road is the only thing that's robbed them of an unbeaten run on the road.

As with Motherwell we can only wonder how much tighter the top of the league might look if away form could be replicated at home. That's all ifs and buts, the thwarted dreams of living in a duopoly.

What we can say is that St Johnstone really do need to stop this current run if they're to keep ahead of the teams below them and have any hope of engendering some anxiety in Lanarkshire.

And Lomas is going to be tested. Maybe these three straight defeats are about more than injuries to Cillian Sheridan and his strike partner Francisco Sandaza.

They are missed though. Sandaza, top scorer so far, has been one of the success stories of the season and it's asking a lot of Marcus Haber to replace them.

What wriggle room will the January transfer window give Lomas? And will he use it wisely?

There's more to this management lark than wearing a scarf and suggestion a match official is a wan...

Still, this mini-slump apart, I'm reasonably impressed so far. There are teams in the SPL with more to fear going into 2012.

From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

More wins, particularly home wins, and deliverance from injury worries.

Those were Steve Lomas' whispered wishes when he sat on Santa's knee at St John's Shopping Centre.


And if he's going to be scouting round for talent in January, the signings need to be both affordable and effective.

Let the progress continue...

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SPL Advent: Rangers

Day ten of the SPL Advent. Rangers. Dreaming of a Whyte Christmas.

Rangers offer another chance for one of these half season reviews to become more a work of financial reporting. I'll try to resist.

We know the taxman cometh, we know Craig Whyte himself rarely seems short of a battle to fight and we know that other companies and individuals have raised concerns over Rangers' financial position.

We still don't know where this particular footballing fable about the perils of avarice will end.

Partly that's because the ins-and-outs of the previous board's relationship with the taxman will not be fully aired until January.

It's also because of Mr Whyte's apparent - to this outsider at least - refusal to properly communicate.

He seems quicker to engage lawyers than engage with fans. There's been the odd platudinous interview. But - again as a detached observer - the lack of an AGM for shareholders and the apparent brittleness of his relationship with the media really only serve to shroud a complex business situation in more mystery.

Is that me being guilty of wandering off the football pitch and into the boardroom and the tax office?

Yes and no.

I'd say that Craig Whyte and his new team have presided over a succession of PR blunders that have undermined them even as they've raised the business as usual signs.

That, of course, is entirely up to him. He obviously has a disdain for the media and doesn't consider himself, his business interests or his strategy for Rangers as public property.

But it's created a vacuum that's been filled by constant speculation, supposition, rumour and the odd fact. And Rangers have often looked paralysed in the face of it.

It has helped create a constant "club in crisis" narrative. And that's unfortunate because it's a narrative that hasn't been borne out on the pitch.

There were doubts about Ally McCoist's ability and suitability. There was a strong body of opinion that this was not a season where Rangers could afford to have a novice - all be it a fairly long in the tooth novice - at the tiller.

Two European exits before the summer was frozen from memory, an early league cup defeat to Falkirk. Even the opening draw at home to Hearts.

It all added grist to the mill. McCoist the entertainer was going to turn into McCoist the managerial clown.

Right now it seems like a thousand questions about the future remain unanswered. And it's far too early to make any predictions about McCoist's likely longevity or overall success as a manager.

Yet Rangers have a four point cushion at the top of the league.

They've lost only once, conceded only nine goals, won 15 games and have the league's best goal difference.

Those statistics don't suggest a club suffering a crisis on the pitch. There have been some tight wins, some iffy performances.

Yet they remain four points clear.

That gap has narrowed. At one stage it was a twelve point cushion. But Celtic had a game in hand and were always as likely to go on a run of victories as Rangers were to drop a few points.

I have to admit that I thought Rangers were hopeless - but not lucky - in beating Hibs a couple of weeks ago. I've not seen the game but I've heard tell of a couple of big strokes of fortune helping them past Inverness at the weekend.

Performances like that contribute to the idea of a side struggling to hold itself together as their main rival become ever more buoyant. It's a funny kind of perfection we demand in an imperfect game if 19 points from the last 24 is a sign of impending doom.

Crucially, of course, in the championship waltz played out in Glasgow, Rangers have - right now - the upper hand in the head to heads.

How McCoist must have enjoyed that 4-2 win at Ibrox in September. How he'd like to repeat it next week away to a Celtic side that look more inspired than they did a couple of months ago.

So McCoist is where he is. Top of the league, a four point gap and his team still monotously winning games, even those games they don't look like winning.

Which, as far as the league is concerned, is pretty much exactly what is expected of a Rangers manager.

And yet unease seems to remain. Will players - most crucially top scorer Nikica Jelavić - be sold to help balance the books?

What will happen with the tax case? And how serious will the consequences of that case be?

Amid all this games still need to be played. Three matches between Christmas Eve and the New Year holiday. Including that trip across Glasgow.

Big questions, big stakes, big games.

All McCoist and his players can do is keep winning.

Don't look back or turn away, life can be your's if you'll only stay

Keeping hold of their best players. A resolution to the tax case that is not punitive enough to demand further penury - or worse.

Rangers might be asking for some quite big gifts this year.

More important gifts than football?

Perhaps. But a win at Celtic Park, putting a halt to the momentum Celtic seems to have been building and extending Rangers' lead at the top of the SPL.

Well, that might just feel priceless.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

SPL Advent: Motherwell

Day nine of the SPL Advent. Motherwell, the success story of the season so far.

What were we to expect from Motherwell this SPL season?

Stuart McCall's arrival to replace Craig Brown raised more of a shrug of the shoulders than a cheer last season.

But he impressed in taking the team to the Scottish Cup final, an achievement that raised intriguing possibilities about how he'd fare with a close season behind him.

Crucially he also survived the summer with a relatively unscathed squad.

Top scorer John Sutton left for Hearts but that departure aside, McCall didn't lose any players to rivals and didn't find himself forced into selling key players.

That provided a solid platform for the manager to build on. Unlike so many SPL managers, McCall had the luxury of using his acquisitions to strengthen what was already in place.

The key themes of this SPL Advent review have been transition and inconsistency.

Escaping the tyranny of transition, Motherwell have been the one team from the chasing pack that have delivered consistency.

They've done it with an old school approach to stability.

Six players have featured in every league game, another three have managed 17 out of the 18 games played so far.

If it ain't broke don't fix and all that. And Motherwell are far from being broken.

Michael Higdon, who I'll confess doesn't always convince me, was signed to replace Sutton. And, whatever doubts might remain about a certain profligacy, he has filled the role of top scorer.

With less than half the season gone Jamie Murphy has already equalled his goals tally of the previous two seasons.

Nicky Law was one the Scottish Football Blog's dozen to watch before the season began and he's rarely disappointed. An ever-present, he's the fulcrum of a team playing with confidence and consistency.

With both Higdon and Law, McCall has shown he's got an eye for a sensible signing, for bringing in players that will compliment what he's already got.

Judged on his tenure so far McCall is an impressive fellow, keeping both his side winning and the lustrous ginger hair of a much younger man.

More power to him.

And where has winning got them? The media enjoyed a flirtation with the idea of Motherwell splitting the Old Firm at one stage.

A defeat to Celtic soon put an end to those careless whispers. But Motherwell are looking nicely secure as the best of the rest.

They remain ten points behind Celtic but they're eight clear of fourth placed St Johnstone and twenty points clear of bottom.

With only 12 points separating fourth to twelfth in the SPL, Motherwell are out on their own.

10 games won and four draws. It's been impressive. Heartening too is the way they seem to be able to dust themselves down after the odd defeat, move on and start winning again.

That's not always a quality one associates with teams outside the Old Firm.

Maybe a measure of how good the season has been so far is that some disappointment lingers.

There's the strange discrepancy between home form and away form. Only Rangers have scored more and won more on the road.

But at home Motherwell seem oddly stifled, they've only won three of nine and are the joint lowest scorers at home.

And although they gave some people flutters by positioning themselves between the big two for a while, they're still to take points off Rangers or Celtic.

Minor quibbles. But the difference between a good season and a great season.

And a sign that this could be - with a fair wind and dose of luck - a team that can continue to improve.

I can see a better time, where all our dreams come true

Arguably Motherwell have done quite well out of their last two managers deciding to bugger off.

Old Motherwell manager's don't die. They just go to Aberdeen.

That's allowed progression to the current state of best-of-the-restness.

Staying up there, and further progress, means keeping the nucleus of the team and the manager in place.

The best Christmas present - along with an order for more of the same - would be to keep covetous eyes away from Motherwell's solid riches.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

SPL Advent: Kilmarnock

We tend to be quick to condemn the managerial merry-go-round as propelled by the Largs mafia.

But we're also too often suspicious of incomers who come into the SPL with their odd ways and their funny accents.

We should embrace them. Especially if they're such a delightful puzzle as Kenny Shiels.

There are times when I don't really know what he's talking about. But he speaks with such intensity and enthusiasm that I can't help but warm to him.

Whether it's a "support your local team" war-cry or a "my players were tired because they hadn't played" oxymoron, King Kenny of Killie can usually be relied on to say something that most other managers wouldn't.

Why not? Even if some of it is bollocks it all adds to the gaiety of a game that spends to long wallowing in the doldrums. And until he announces that "fitba' men understand" his methods I'm happy to listen to him over yet another stereotypical Scottish mediocrity.

Last week Shiels was addressing the issue of his transfer window plans. He hinted at activity ahead because the wholesale changes in the summer had resulted in a few players arriving that turned out to be not quite fit for purpose.

So it's a warm welcome for those recurring SPL Advent themes: consistency and transition.

Shiels had to recruit en-masse to reshape a squad that had taken a few heavy blows since Mixu Paatelainen's side had shone some much needed light on the SPL last season.

Kilmarnock required the obligatory period of transition and that's delivered an accompanying period of inconsistency.

Thus Killie have become the team that can ship six goals to Inverness at home, draw away at Hibs a week later and then enjoy a first home win over Rangers in 17 years. Don't call us unpredictable, call us football coupon busters.

It can't do much good for an excitable manager's equilibrium.

Won five, lost five, drawn eight. There's a symmetry to that sequence that points to a season more steady than it's been spectacular.

Comedy nine-goal thriller defeats to Inverness aside, home form has been a cause for cheer.

16 points from 24 and 18 goals scored. Only Celtic have scored more at home. Mind you, only Dunfermline have conceded more on their own patch.

Only one win away from home though. And just six goals scored in eight games, a claim-to-shame bettered only by Hearts.

Ups. And downs.

An odd season. I've been assured since the season kicked off that Shiels felt he'd built a top six side.

I wouldn't be willing to be against him.

Santa Claus won't make me happy with a toy on Christmas Day

There was opprobrium piled on Kenny Shiels after that defeat to Inverness.

Fair enough. It would be a hard one to take as a Kilmarnock fan despite the smiles it brought to the faces of neutrals.

Eight points since twelve since then though.

It's a reaction that shouldn't be sniffed at.

More of the same would be the ideal gift. It could get them through a derby semi-final at Hampden and pretty much wrap a top six place by the middle of February.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

SPL Advent: Inverness

Day seven of the SPL advent. A trip to the frozen north to see how Inverness are coping this SPL season.

I find Terry Butcher something of an engima. In the past I've - not altogether seriously but not completely in jest - derided him as a bit of an incompetent.

The sort of chap that the Scottish managerial merry-go-round should really jettison for the greater good of the game.

But there he is, ensconced in the Highlands. He brought Inverness back to the SPL and he kept them there.

He likes to foster something of a bunker mentality: "Everybody hates us, cause we're so far away."

Fair enough. It's Scotland not China, but anyone who rails against Scottish football's central belt smugness probably deserves at least a nod of encouragement.

It also seems to foster a certain esprit de corps. They keep plodding along, occasionally producing a performance that make people sit up and take notice.

Only this weekend they were being praised to the rafters, or at the very least profusely patronised, for their bravery in losing at Ibrox.

And there's the rub. Bravery's not to be sniffed at but it doesn't help Inverness move up the table.

At the moment they're just a point off Hibs and Dunfermline at the bottom with Aberdeen's tally of seven points from three games beginning to cast the terrible trio adrift.

This is, of course, Inverness' second season in the SPL. It's a cliche that such seasons are always difficult. Maybe it's true.

Certainly it wasn't much of a prediction to say that they might find life a bit harder this time around.

Not only has the stunning away record that sustained both their promotion and excellent start to last season fizzled out but they had also lost some key players.

A season spent embracing the SPL's key themes - transition and inconsistency - always looked likely.

So it's proved.

Only four games won. More worrying still, 12 games lost. That's more than any other team and a couple more than both Hibs and Dunfermline.

As if to underline the contrast to last season they've lost seven games away from home, conceding 23 goals in the process.

At the moment they seem incapable of building any momentum. Only once have they managed to avoid defeat in the game immediately following a win.

They've taken six points from both St Mirren and Kilmarnock but have yet to beat either of the teams below them.

The goals of Adam Rooney are much missed and - as was predicted - a ready made replacement has not been found.

Although they finished in the bottom six last season must be considered a success. To beat that points total this year Inverness will need to win 13 games in the second half of the season.

It seems unlikely that they're going to manage that. So already we can say that this season has been one of regression?


But there comes a stage when escaping relegation by a point is just as satisfying as finishing 27 points from last place.

Here's to the hope in the future he brings

Yer man, Gregory Tade?

Let's be charitable and say that his signing as a replacement for Adam Rooney intrigued us.

A wee stat though: Tade's scored six goals this season. And Inverness haven't lost when he's scored.

If they keep that up and he finds his touch more often they'll be heading for Europe next season.

Credit also to Andrew Shinnie for his seven goals so far. Keeping those two in the goals would be the sort of gift that goes a long way to keeping Inverness in the SPL.

Terry Butcher wants nothing more than a penalty or two at Ibrox right now.

But a couple of back-to-back wins - Aberdeen style - would probably bring more satisfaction in the long term.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

SPL Advent: Hibs

Hitting the halfway stage of the SPL Advent calendar. Another annus horribilis for Hibs.

Even those well versed in the grimness of the SPL might have been taken aback by the sheer scale of the despair Hibs have engendered amongst the faithful this season.

If appointing Colin Calderwood was a mistake it was an exponential error, compounded by every signing he was allowed to make and every show of support the board made.

While Calderwood played footsy with Nottingham Forest and blew kisses at Birmingham, Hibs were sinking further into the abyss.

But a petrified (Petrie-fied?) board stuck with him, even rhapsodised about his well hidden attributes, and let the destruction continue.

The result of that folly can be seen in a squad that's not fit for purpose, a support that has ebbed away and a league position that tells no lies.

It has been, for those of us whose sympathies lie in Leith, a horrendous nightmare.

The second half collapse in the League Cup against Celtic, an astonishingly one-sided one-nil defeat against Motherwell, abject surrenders against a limited Dunfermline side in both an away draw and a home loss. Take your pick.

Two of the three games Hibs have won have been 3-2 victories. This was a team so bereft of spine that scoring three goals was just about the only way they could be - reasonably - confident of winning.

It all left Calderwood - and by extension chairman Rod Petrie and his band of taciturn directors - about as welcome in the pubs and hearts of Leith as Jeremy Clarkson at a Fabian Society conference.

I'm not one for leaving games early but it became clear quite early in the home defeat to Dunfermline that the only sensible reason for staying was to vent your frustrations at the end of the game.

Calderwood - the man Rod Petrie had trumpeted as a masterful manager in July - had succeeded in turning the club against itself.

There is a body of opinion that the unease - often the outright negativity - of the fans has hampered Hibs, contributed to their woeful home record.

I'd only really buy that if their away form was spectacularly better. It hasn't been: six points won at home, eight points won away.

The league's joint lowest goalscorers, Hibs have scored eight goals at Easter Road and eight on the road. Half the 28 goals they've conceded have come at home and half away from home.

A team has been built capable of attaining the same levels of crapness wherever they go.

Something had to give. And give it did, in the immediate aftermath of the Dunfermline defeat that had given final confirmation that a Hibs side led by Calderwood would be condemned to fight a relegation battle that they lacked the character to survive.

So Calderwood was gone. The names of the usual suspects were tossed around like empty crisp packets on the cold Edinburgh wind.

But the board - not Petrie, who apparently excused himself from the selection process - alighted on a saviour from across the water.

Welcome Pat Fenlon.

Fenlon arrived with a strong track-record in Irish football, a pocket full of bang-on-the-money, supporter pleasing platitudes and a Herculean task ahead of him.

The neglect, the incompetence, the inadequacies of the last year or so all now lie on his desk.

He immediately brought Michael Hart back into the team at full-back. That wasn't universally welcomed by fans, particularly after what many seemed to consider a horror show against Rangers last week.

But it's hard not to feel sympathy for the manager. Why did he play Hart? Because he's the sort of revolutionary gaffer who likes players to play in their own position. And Michael Hart is, remarkably, the one player in the Hibs squad who would describe himself as a full back.

That's where the mismanagement of the club has led. To a squad that needs strengthening in the next transfer window in exactly the same areas as it needed strengthening in the last transfer window. And the transfer window before that.

Budgets, wage caps, worldwide economic instability. We all know its hard. But Hibs have spent money, paid wages, identified and signed players and not even managed to stand still.

Fenlon's immediate priority is to stop the club going backwards.

And, when you find yourself joint bottom of the league, the margin of error is negligible.

Then the stranger spoke, he said: "do not fear"

The success of Pat Fenlon would be the best, and the most important, gift of all.

It's too early to make a judgement on that. I've warmed to him since he's arrived and there looks to be a change in attitude and application on the pitch.

No real conclusions can be drawn from an abandoned game at Motherwell and a spirited defeat to a misfiring Rangers. Yesterday Hibs had chances against Aberdeen. A dodgy penalty later and their shape and coherence was lost. Same old, same old.

The only hope is that Fenlon has answers enough to solve the ugly conundrum of Hibs' season.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

SPL Advent: Hearts

Day five of our SPL Advent. Peace and goodwill to all me. It's a time for stout Hearts.

Somebody suggested that I could fill every day of this SPL Advent writing about Hearts.

And so I could.

The stories just keep coming.

On Thursday we got the news that the club had paid the players their November wages.

So protracted had that issue become that even Paul McBride QC - the Katie Price of SPL self-publicity - had weighed in to lend his support to the players.

This being Hearts we also got director Sergejus Fedotovas auditioning for a stint as a witness at The Levenson Inquiry and throwing blame around like confetti.

Of course, as the Hearts statement made clear, the wider economic situation and the peculiarly false economics of Scottish football make this a very difficult time. But if 11 other SPL clubs are managing to pay their players on time then the one club that fails to do so will be singled out.

That doesn't appear an unreasonable media narrative or a situation tinged with particularly anti-Romanov prejudice.

It seems that while November's wages have been paid, yesterday's December pay date has been missed. The players union has made an official complaint to the SPL. And on and on it goes...

Whatever the truth behind the most recent stramash it seems unlikely that we're close to the end of stories about sales, stadiums and salaries.

So it's hard to summarise the season so far at Tynecastle without addressing the question of just what in the name of Willie Bauld is going on.

But as nobody actually knows what's going on, or how those goings on will eventually impact on the season, adding to the thousands of words of conjecture seems somewhat redundant.

The football started brightly enough. Progress was made in Europe and a decent performance at Ibrox saw Hearts poop Rangers' flag party on the opening day of the season.

The first Edinburgh derby was won with a minimum of fuss and Celtic have been beaten at Tynecastle.

But, and here Hearts share a common SPL failing, it's been a season lacking much consistency.

St Johnstone and Dundee United have taken six points from two clashes, Kilmarnock have taken four.

A goalless draw with St Mirren and a 2-1 win over Inverness at Tynecastle are the only points won out of the last 18.

A win at Dunfermline has provided the solitary away victory and, although they remain fifth, Hearts are closer to Hibs and Dunfermline at the foot of the league than they are to Motherwell in third.

It's all been quite unsatisfactory, an unwanted continuation of the poor run of form at the end of last season.

That's despite the shock-but-maybe-not-that-shocking-actually jettisoning of Jim Jefferies when the season was but three games old.

Paulo Sergio has proved an enigmatically entertaining - if now largely silent - replacement but he's not really had much of an impact on results.

Hearts have scored only four goals in nine away games and share with Hibs the unwanted distinction of being the SPL's lowest scorers. Edinburgh for thrills?

This isn't a team that's turned into SPL whipping boys though. Only Rangers have conceded fewer goals - at one end of the pitch a resilience remains that would be the envy of most clubs.

Many have been the times during Vladimir Romanov's reign that our eyes have been drawn to events away from the football field. It's to the credit of Romanov, his coaches and the players themselves that Hearts have so often risen above that on the pitch.

Maybe that's not the case this year. Or perhaps this is just a holding season, the inevitable period of stagnation as books are balanced and foundations are built for the future.

What that future holds remains the biggest question of all.

And children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow

Answers to some legitimate questions and solutions to some Romanov riddles might be the best presents of all at Tynecastle this year.

Maybe things will become clearer in the new year, maybe some equilibrium will be returned.

Largely, however, that would appear to be in the gift of just one man. And it's not Santa.

So some decent results would be the next best thing. By my reckoning only Dunfermline have taken as few points as Hearts from their last six games in a concertinaed SPL.

I'm sure Hearts fans would identify Easter Road on 2nd January as a fine place to get the season going again.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Friday, December 16, 2011

SPL Advent: Dunfermline

Today's SPL Advent calendar throws up not a nugget of cheap chocolate but a Stewart's bridie - current SPL basement dwellers Dunfermline.

The road to the SPL is not paved with gold.

On their return to the top flight Dunfermline find themselves bottom of the league. They've taken only four points at home in a miserable run that has seen them fail to win at East End Park.

The injury list has grown ever longer and finances have dictated that they shut one of their stands.

They've even had to cope with referee Bobby Madden making a Michael Fish weather forecast.

This is the romance of top flight football, Fife style.

There were those of us who expected Dunfermline might struggle, that Jim McIntyre hadn't quite had the freedom to bolster his squad as he might have needed in the summer.

But they arrived full of confidence, with their own ideas on how to play the game and how to survive in the SPL.

They started brightly enough. And ten points on the road is a fair return. Away wins at Dundee United and St Johnstone in August were testimony to a team keen to make its mark.

But there they are, propping up the rest and developing a phobia about playing at home. They've won only once in 13 games. From the 4-2 defeat against Motherwell on 27th August to that win at Hibs they conceded 24 goals in eight games and won only two points.

They have been hammered by injuries. Few clubs can cope with an injury list nine or ten players long. It has a massive impact on a club like Dunfermline.

The injury list has offered no respite from a bad run of form - eight of those 14 points were won as they went four games undefeated at the very start of the season.

A team struggling for form is further diminished by injury and the whole things becomes an unfortunate cycle of bad results.

But the SPL is a modest league full of clubs with much to be modest about.

Despite their travails Dunfermline are still in touch. They've even got Hibs for company at the foot of the table.

At times they've conceded too many goals, they're enduring a bad run and they can't buy a win at home.

But they're far from dead and buried.

Watching them beat Hibs last month I saw evidence of what - unfashionable as the idea is in a world of footballing snobbery - spirit and a work ethic can achieve, especially against similarly poor teams.

Their record against the teams around them in the table is not too bad. That 4-0 Friday night humping at Aberdeen apart they've not lost to the three teams immediately above them in the table.

More wins like November's victory at Easter Road are needed but Dunfermline are proving obstinately difficult for Hibs, Inverness and Aberdeen to shake off.

Or, in this impoverished SPL, bottom-placed Dunfermline are but three wins off fourth place.

The first four games of the season offered much but that early promise has delivered little.

It's been a difficult first season back in the SPL. But it's not yet a terminal one.

It's a time for giving, a time for getting

Money to go crazy in the transfer window and the guarantee of a run of home wins.

And I want a winning lottery ticket.

Christmas gifts tend not to work like that.

So Dunfermline will hope for improved luck with injuries, a dash of good fortune to get a win at home and for the teams around them to keep taking points off each other and losing more than they win.

Keep as close to the pack as possible for as long as possible. I still suspect that Dunfermline would back themselves in a prolonged, tense, ugly relegation scrap.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

SPL Advent: Dundee United

Is that a tangerine in your stocking or are you just pleased to see me? Through the great SPL Advent calendar window today: Dundee United.

Consistency, as Motherwell's progress this season has shown, can work wonders in the SPL.

But it eludes three quarters of the league.

The result is a table packed tightly from fourth place to bottom place. That's not a sign of excitement but a sign of groaning mediocrity, a league of well matched journeymen doing nothing very special.

Yet this state of affairs is not without its advantages. A wee run of good results can transform a middling season into an alright season, deliver a team from the evil of the bottom six to the heavenly wonders of the top six.

Which is pretty much exactly where Dundee United find themselves midway through a season of some frustration.

Early on it looked as if Peter Houston was but a round of clear-the-air-talks from having more time to spend with Craig Levein.

He survived. But it would be a stretch to say he has thrived.

There have been some nice wins and some heartening wins. There's also been a few abject performances.

United have yet to win back-to-back SPL games. They've won five, drawn six and lost seven. Only nine goals conceded at home would ordinarily be a heartening record. But they've only managed to score seven, the lowest tally in the league.

Houston is often accused of having inherited his predecessor's timidity but only Rangers have scored more goals away from home. The downside is that only Inverness have conceded more on the road.

It's all amounted to a big sigh and a theatrical shrug of the shoulders kind of a season.

When he seemed set to lose out in an internal conflagration at Tannadice Houston was keen to point to what he's achieved since taking over.

He might also point to mitigating circumstances, of the difficulty of rebuilding a team when big players move on and finances dictate that replacements must be found on a shoestring.

United find themselves in transition, that near permanent state that haunts most SPL clubs.

Garry Kenneth has announced his desire to leave. Scott Allan seems set to head down south. The trend towards transition will continue, the impoverished Scottish game making it ever more difficult to build for the future.

Houston still has some impressive quality at his disposal.

Now he needs to show that his refashioned team can use those assets to come close delivering the results of the last two seasons.

Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall?

27 years ago this week United were narrowly losing a blockbuster of a European tie to Manchester United.

A 5-4 aggregate defeat and a crowd of over 21,000 at Tannadice.

Sturrock, Narey, McAlpine...

Aye, it's not just Aberdeen who can dream of what might have been and what once was.

But not even Santa can turn back the clock.

So the far more prosaic gift of a wee run of a wins, top six security and a bit more excitement at home is probably the order of the day.

I'm not convinced Houston is doing anything particularly wrong. An injury free winter and some consistency would delight him. Not very dramatic. But the difference between a good season, a meh season and a bad season for United.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SPL Advent: Celtic

Day two of our Scottish football Advent calendar. Celtic lurk behind today's window.

Was it really just a few weeks ago that all hope was lost and Neil Lennon's job prospects looked bleaker by the match?

Celtic teetered as Rangers thrived, the SPL gap was getting bigger and the Parkhead title challenge was being written off.

A defence that seemed porous and ponderous hamstrung a side apparently beset by apathy and poor form.

Modern footballing hype dictated that we pointed to a crisis, that the deficiencies were analysed until they took the form of insurmountable obstacles.

Yet some measure of Celtic's defiance remained, hints of a certain resilience were apparent.

The nadir might have been reached at 3-0 down to Kilmarnock. Punch-drunk and bloodied, Celtic could still drag themselves from the canvas to win a point.

Now, the deficit cut from 12 points to a far more scalable four, they might just have snatched the SPL momentum.

What changed?

The European win over Rennes, a game which began with an early concession and saw several storms weathered, segued into victory in what was billed as the "second place" clash with Motherwell.

Two tests safely negotiated. Enough, perhaps, to inspire the current run of six straight league wins.

Maybe the catalyst was something far simpler. How much did Kris Commons turning up at training bedecked in neck brace and bandages help lance the boil of rumour and unease that made dodgy results seem worse and hampered the chance of a recovery?

Commons the practical joker breathing spirit into a squad that needed reinvigorated? Stranger things have happened, even if outweighs much of his impact on the pitch so far this season.

Maybe all it took was good players remembering that this is a league that throws up opponents they should be able to dominate.

Weaknesses, of course, remain. Celtic had lost three games by the first week of October. By the end of that month a Hibs team that was attempting to redefine hopelessness had taken a point home from Glasgow.

The defence has been chopped and changed and has too often appeared unsettled on the pitch. Big wins have come but at times Celtic have struggled to convert dominance into goals. That combination will lead to dropped points.

It's strange though how an often false narrative can develop around a team.

We might think Celtic are diminished compared to last season. Maybe they are. But they're only a point worse off than they were at this stage last year. They've conceded only one more goal than they had last season.

Equally importantly they've timed their recovery from a "crisis" period at almost exactly the point where Rangers have endured their own wee slump.

On Saturday Celtic emerged with three points after a struggle against Hearts. Back in October you wouldn't have expected them to come through such a test intact. It's exactly the kind of win that can appear much bigger in May than it does on a cold December evening.

In a two horse race you'd rather be four points ahead than four points behind.

But the last few weeks have been kind to Celtic and the coming weeks promise the return from injury of some big names.

That should be reason enough to look forward to the festive season with optimism to spare.

Santa Claus is coming to town

Celtic - despite an oft stated commitment to good housekeeping - would appear to be the best placed of all the SPL sides to carry the disposable consumerism of our Yuletide orgy into the January transfer window.

Constructive signings who can offer long term solutions to the travails of earlier in the season would seem to be the order of the day.

Such players aren't always easy to find. Santa might feel it prudent to tell Celtic that if they can't find better than the toys they've already got they shouldn't bother.

But two gifts are likely to top the wishlist: An Old Firm win between Christmas and New Year and an SPL title in May.

On current evidence the former would be a massive stride in the direction of the latter.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SPL Advent: Aberdeen

In the run up to Christmas the Scottish Football Blog is taking a daily look at the season so far for the 12 SPL clubs.

And what they might hope to find in their stockings.

Alphabetically at least Aberdeen are number one.

Woe seems to hang over Pittodrie like a particularly clingy North Sea haar at the moment.

The cliche is of miserable northerners harking back to the Alex Ferguson inspired days of yore.

The reality is a group of supporters suffering agony upon agony and demanding better.

Who can blame them? Joint bottom of the league with only three wins from 17 games, Aberdeen are one of only two teams in Scotland still waiting for an away win.

The other is East Stirling. You don't need to hanker after the glory days of the 1980s to see that Aberdeen probably shouldn't be keeping company with the tenants of Ochilview.

They would be lying fifth if the SPL was judged on home league form alone. Manager Craig Brown loves a stat so he'll be clinging on to that one for dear life.

But he'll also be desperately trying to work out why his team are more apprehensive on the road than a group of flat-earthers on a cruise ship.

He wouldn't be the first manager to be left perplexed by the challenge of Pittodrie. But even hardened Brown defenders, a group for which I'll admit a certain sympathy, must concede that his record so far has been spectacularly underwhelming.

The simplest statistic suggests that with 45 percent of the season gone Aberdeen are up to their knees in relegation dung. And that's because they've stunk for large parts of the season.

Not scoring enough goals, not strong enough at the back, discipline the worst in the league.

It's easy to argue that Brown has inherited a club that is in a mess off the field. That might have been part of this particular poisoned chalice for some time.

Yet his job to rise above all that. Aberdeen are not too big go down. They're not too good to go down.

They've only managed to score more than one goal six times so far. And on three of those occasions they've only managed to win one point.

The latest example of that was Saturday. The referee didn't help their cause. But Aberdeen were two up at home against an inconsistent St Mirren side inside 20 minutes.

And still they could only emerge with a point.

Results like that keep teams in the mire. They don't soothe the worries of supporters who are now so aggrieved that they delivered a coffin to Pittodrie before Saturday's game.

The last rites are a long way off. But Aberdeen need to drag themselves from their sickbed pretty quickly.

All I want for Christmas

Cheap joke out of the way: Aberdeen are well placed to get what they want this festive season. Craig Brown is, after all, the only SPL manager who went to school with Santa. I'm here all week.

There are worse defences in the SPL. But there seems a flimsiness about Aberdeen that is costing them in tight games.

Could Russell Anderson's return add some granite?

Will Brown have the cash and the eye to identify a goalscorer to help out Scott Vernon?

What Santa really needs to bring is some away cheer.

Aberdeen have only scored at East End Park and Celtic Park this season. That is a shocking return.

Take out the seven they've scored in two games against Dunfermline and they've managed only 12 goals in 15 games home and away.

Goals, defensive steel and a few away wins.

Santa will have his work cut out delivering all that. And Brown might well be asking for some job security as well.

Mostly though Aberdeen will be asking not to be relegated. I'll say now that I don't think they will be.

But I've not got flying reindeer at my disposal. There might still be some rough days ahead.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

East v West: The SPL Today

It seems like ages since I tickled the malnourished belly of the SPL with a wildly inaccurate prediction post.

I think the last time I Nostradamus-ed the weekend action Rangers had won the title and Motherwell were about to take the Champion's League by storm.

What a difference an eight point swing makes.

Five east versus west clashes today. It's the SPL's very own version of China's economic boom facing off against western capitalism.

Hibs v Rangers

Hibs threatened a winning start under new manager Pat Fenlon at Motherwell last week. Then a floodlight fire became the latest opponent to beat them this season.

In the 45 minutes that were completed the team looked more organised, more aware of their roles and more prepared to fight for the cause then they have on numerous occasions in the last 18 months.

So far, and it's far too early to form even an embryonic conclusion, so good.

Tough task today though.

12 games and over five years since Hibs beat Rangers at Easter Road. That game featured a double from Chris Killen, a consolation for Rangers debutant Filip Sebo and red cards for Killen and an English youngster called Phil Bardsley.

It seems a lifetime ago.

And it seems like longer than just a few games since Rangers were apparently coasting to the title.

Suddenly Celtic managed to hit some form while Rangers became stuttery. Crucially they've also found goals - from open play at least - hard to come by.

The result has been 14 points in the seven games since they beat Hibs at Ibrox.

Far from a disastrous run of form - the 1-0 defeat at Kilmarnock remains the only loss of the season - but enough of a stumble to concede much of the advantage built up over Celtic.

Add to the mix this week's imbroglio over Sone Aluko and the somewhat hysterical reaction of Ally McCoist on Thursday and we have Fenlon's Irish eyes smiling at catching Rangers at just the right time?

Perhaps not. Fenlon's the new boy but not an ingenue.

Rangers remain top of the league. Hibs remain a point off bottom with only six points from eight home games.

That divergence in positions is not a fluke.

Rangers are a better team than Hibs. And Hibs have been desperately poor at times this season.

Even with a misfiring Rangers anything but an away win will be a shock.

Aberdeen v St Mirren

It's now an apparently essential narrative of each SPL season that we have a few months with Aberdeen in crisis.

That this happens despite changes of management and playing staff suggests that something is rank rotten off the pitch.

Which is a concern. But the more pressing issue is engineering a way to move off the bottom of the table with a misfiring team.

For the moment I'd say Craig Brown remains worthy of the chance to take charge of navigating these choppy waters. But he needs to get a reaction from his team quickly.

Danny Lennon's St Mirren continue to have their unseemly grapples with consistency but you're likely to see more smiles in Paisley than in Aberdeen at the moment.

A trip to bottom of the table Aberdeen is the sort of game St Mirren should win if their assault on the top six is to gain momentum.

A home game against St Mirren is the type of game Aberdeen should see as winnable if they are to escape their current plight.

A recipe for a draw.

Celtic v Hearts

Footballers live in a footballing bubble that allows them to block out off the field problems and boardroom intrigue by virtue of a heady mix of footballing obsession and a general lack of interest that borders on brainlessness.

Until you stop paying their wages. Then all that shit can suddenly get serious.

Which might explain why Hearts' form has dipped. One win out of six and only three goals scored in that run.

That they remain fifth in the table is proof that this has not become a team of hirpling incompetents in the space of a few weeks.

But they are being caught up in off-field complications and it's hurting them.

That backdrop would seem to make this a hell of a bad time to be meeting an invigorated Celtic in Glasgow.

Paulo Sergio will need to discover something Churchillian to inspire the spirit to withstand what we can expect to be a hooped onslaught.

I suspect he might be found wanting. Home win.

Dunfermline v Kilmarnock

Dunfermline haven't won a home game in the SPL this season. They've taken four points from eight games at East End Park, scored eleven and conceded 22.

That's a bad run. If the teams around them start picking up points then it's a run that could become fatal.

Now would be a good time to start doing something about it. That's not easy at the best of times. It's a whole lot harder with nine or ten players out injured.

Kilmarnock have beaten Rangers and Aberdeen since taking only a point from games against Hibs and Inverness.

They are perhaps the enigmas of this SPL season with a manager who is as compelling as he is at times quite bizarre. One does get the feeling that a Kenny Shiels inspired Kilmarnock are in line for an odd journey this year.

They are sixth though and will look at today's fixtures as a great chance to go fifth and pick up something on either Motherwell or St Johnstone.

Away win.

Inverness v Dundee United

Peter Houston seems to have weathered the storm that saw calls for his head just a couple of months ago.

But United still don't quite convince. That's hardly a sin in a league where quality and consistency is well rationed but it does, just maybe, point to a few rocky weeks still to come this season.

Inverness and Terry Butcher continue to dodge along, hearts proudly worn on sleeves, a sustained run of form tantalisingly out of reach.

I've a feeling these two will both finish in the bottom six and won't be separated by that many points.

That would suggest today will be a close one.


St Johnstone v Motherwell

Steve Lomas has picked up both a touchline ban and seven points from his first three SPL games as St Johnstone manager.

An impressive bag of swag to collect from the trips to Ibrox and Tynecastle that sandwiched a comprehensive home over Hibs.

They've even opened up a tiny bit of breathing space in fourth place.

It's the sort of seamless change of manager that you expect St Johnstone would have been searching for.

Onwards and upwards?

The best way to show that intent would be to beat third placed Motherwell, very much this season's success story.

I've seen Motherwell twice. At Easter Road they delivered one of the most one-sided 1-0 tonkings you're ever likely to see. But in the abbreviated match against Hibs last Friday they looked slightly toothless against an organised Hibs defence and a hardworking midfield.

Thirdagainst fourth and much to admire in both teams. It would be nice if this game could deliver something a wee bit special.

St Johnstone are looking good and that's coupled with a touch of momentum. That means, just, a home win for me.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Worst Football Kits Of All Time

I'd always thought that tartan in football strips was a mid 90s phenomenon restricted to Scotland's Euro 96 team and Morton.

Yet it seems it's a trend that is almost as old as the game itself.

The 10th Lanarkshire Volunteers combined navy jerseys and red socks with Black Watch tartan "knickerbockers" way back in 1884-85 while in 1888-89 Vale of Atholl adopted breeches fashioned from the local tartan.

More recently Dundee became known as the "tartan troops from Tayside" when they wore shirts featuring manager George Anderson's family tartan in an early 1950s tour of South Africa.

Such historical gems rub garish shoulders with modern monstrosities in Dave Moor's The Worst Football Kits Of All Time.

Recoil in horror at David Seaman's Euro 96 shirt, laugh at Arsenal's "bruised banana" of the 1990s, wince at Deportivo Wanka's decision to play the 2002-03 season with "D. Wanka" emblazoned across their chest.

The book is a nice alternative history of football, a whistle stop trundle through Gok Wan's worst nightmares.

Pleasingly, Scottish clubs are well represented. I like to think this is because Moor wanted to create a footballing record that did justice to both England and Scotland's heritage.

I'm prepared to concede that it might simply mean that we're a nation without taste.

Hibs' 1977-78 purple Bukta away kit is so horrible (white sleeves with a yellow and green trim) that one is left wondering why the club have been so keen to resurrect it in recent years.

It also, we're told, "practically invented nipple rash and exposed the wearer to serious risk of self-electrocution."

And who doesn't fondly recall the 1995 Aberdeen away strip that became known as "the vomit top."

My own favourites involve headgear. Surely that's an unexplored accessory in the modern era.

So take a bow Aldenham School whose 1870 all white strip was topped off with a black turban.

I'm loathe to call something a "stocking filler" but if Santa was to deliver this book on Christmas Day you'd at least be guaranteed a laugh between the family quarrels over the Monopoly board and the gnawing of dried out turkey.

The Worst Football Kits Of All Time by Dave Moor

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Cheats, Divers and Bad Decisions

Sone Aluko got banned for diving.

Garry O'Connor got away with diving.

Ergo the new disciplinary procedures in place at the SFA are ridiculous and hellbent on making a mockery of the Scottish game. At best.

At worst the new procedures have been all but designed to penalise one team above others.

The new compliance officer and fast track appeal system is inconsistent, wrongheaded and - this being Scottish football - its cack-handedness is but a handy cover for some form of discrimination or favouritism.

That would be the conclusion you would draw from some of the more hysterical outpourings that greeted the news that Aluko's two game ban had been upheld yesterday.

I'd disagree.

My opinion: O'Connor dived and got lucky in his dealings with the panel. Aluko dived and got treated the way he should have been treated.

That might be an unfortunate turn of events for everyone but Hibs - those that believe in karma might afford themselves a wry smile - but it doesn't give us evidence enough to judge what has been quite a revolutionary change from the SFA.

So far the compliance officer has been faced with two similar incidents. He's made exactly the same call.

The independent panel - different panels in both cases - disagreed in the first case and agreed in the second.

We need a far bigger sample before we can properly conclude if the new system is working.

The idea that Aluko should have been cleared because O'Connor was cleared is odd. Every case will have differences and two wrongs don't make a right.

If the person who is tried for shoplifting before me gets off because the jury make a bad call should I expect to get off? Any disciplinary system that is forced to duplicate its weakest decisions will be destined to fail.

Ally McCoist fumed that the SFA had labelled his player a "cheat."

Well, yes, they had. Because that's what diving is. Cheating. They thought he'd dived so they punished him. I trust McCoist will avoid making any judgements about bad decisions that go against his team this season if the opposing manager protests that the player in question isn't a cheat.

We rage against the SFA for being an organisation of dinosaurs. Then we rage against them when they try and modernise.

That will lead us to an ungovernable game.

Will the new system be perfect? Of course it won't. That such decisions still rely on people to interpret events will lead to some differences in opinion.

Football's imperfect like that. That used to be part of its charm.

> Why a two game ban when a dive penalised in a game merits only a yellow card?

A dive caught in a game doesn't affect the outcome of the match. By deceiving the referee, and it's my opinion that Aluko was guilty of that, he won Rangers a penalty that might - not definitely but perhaps - have denied Dunfermline the chance to get something from the game.

Seems fair enough - although it does Dunfermline bugger all good - that his retrospective punishment should reflect that.

> As ever the focus seems to be on the SFA and the referee.

I would ask why Steve Conroy - and I suspected from watching it that his clear view may have been obstructed by Martin Hardie - didn't take a bit more time, perhaps consult with his linesman, before making the call.

Often, one feels, it would do our referees no harm if they just calmed down a bit and bought themselves a few seconds of composure.

But it's the players that dive. The idea - put around by any number of pundits - that it's part of the game and happens everywhere is wearing thin.

It's cheating. If players don't like being called cheats they should stop cheating.

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

How We Used To Read

Browsing second hand book shops I often get pangs of nostalgia when I come across books I recognise from the dim and distant days of my childhood.

Often these books involve football.

My knowledge of today's children's literature is limited. But 20 or 25 years ago there seemed a proliferation of books that used football as a central hook to draw readers in.

It was, of course, an attempt to turn young boys into readers. Was it successful?

For some of us perhaps it was.

But football has changed massively in the last 20-odd years. And so, I suspect, has childhood.

Have our fictional footballing heroes, the ragbag collection of underdogs, unlikely romantic leads and unorthodox midfield maestros, stood the test of time?

Time to find out. And for me to be the weird guy sat on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train reading out of print books that I'm a good 20 years too old for.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley

In a bleak Essex town in the bleak 1970s, our hero, Paul Daines, faces a bleak future.

Uprooted from London he is an alien in a strange, unwelcoming place. His parents are chasing a dream, they've left him in a nightmare of dislocation and loneliness.

Football, then, will be his salvation.

A simple enough tale of soccer exploits providing a path to redemption, acceptance and contentment?

That would be the expected narrative. But Bernard Ashley throws the reader a curve ball.

Redemption and happiness lies not in football but in the love of - or at least some hand holding with - a good woman, the friendship of what we might now call the class geek and an act of airborne heroism during World War Two.

You'd be forgiven for not seeing that coming. Judging a book by its cover has always been the last word in foolhardiness.

To prosper on the football field Paul must win over Billy Richardson. But Billy is the class bully, a red tracksuited grotesque who dominates the playground thanks to his imposing size and the stupidity of his cohorts. It was ever thus.

Paul can't help but compare the new top-dog in his life with the old one. In London Paul's sun-king was Simon Tulip.

Tulip, we're given to understand, inspired his disciples by example not by fear, creating what Paul recalls as Utopia but actually seems to have been more of a benign dictatorship.

Hindsight allows to see Tulip and Richardson as the yin and yang of a prototype John Terry. One the snarling bully with his henchmen cowering in his wake, the other the man of inpirational destiny leading his troops to greatness with an odd rallying cry of "all my men."

They sound, frankly, like a pair of arseholes.

But poor Paul can't see this. He needs to be one of Tulip's men again. In the absence of the real thing that means becoming one of Richardson's men.

This, as is the nature of such things, leads Paul to give up the chance of friendship with fellow new boy Arthur Little and carry out what must be one of the most dramatic thefts of a large box of After Eights ever committed to paper.

He seems to be getting somewhere. We're even treated to the book's most sustained football action:

"The boy on the left centred the ball, his Wellingtons lifting it high, just the sort of centre a goalkeeper and a centre-forward would have to contest; and before either Billy or Paul had time to think about it the ball was dipping towards them and they were both moving forward and jumping.

"Paul had taken off fractionally before Billy in a bid to outjump him, and his head met the falling ball a split second before Billy's reaching fingertips, arching it in a high lob over Billy to bounce cleanly against the wall in the centre of the goal.

"The elation Paul felt was hard to define. It was probably the goal that made his stomach tingle with a warm pleasure, for even in a pick up game in the playground a goal is a goal; but it could have been the boy's silence after the hardness of the knock, the mutual acceptance of the tumble, the strange feeling of sharing an experience which a sporting tussle brings."

Do you still see boys playing football in their wellies in British playgrounds?

What respect does this brave goal bring Paul? None. It brings him a decomposing pigeon through his parents' letterbox.

Alone and miserable, Paul needs to be saved. There is a willing list of volunteers.

There's his classmate Lorraine who teaches him that love is more important than football. She also inspires a rhapsody about the beauty of arms that might just get away with being sweet at Paul's age but could quickly turn into something of a fetish.

There's his teacher, herself new to the school, who needs Paul to succeed so she can prove her value. There's the urbane headmaster offering quiet encouragement - and nothing ages this book like the heidie smoking in his office in front of the pupils.

There's Arthur's grandfather - if indeed it is his grandfather, we're left to guess - who shows him that bygones can be bygones and forgiveness is a true sign of strength.

And so we reach our denouement with Paul, Arthur and Lorraine, supported by her friend Rita, using a football pitch for his redemption.

Not by playing football but by re-enacting that moment of Second World War heroism - the proximity of such wartime experiences being another sign of the book's vintage.

And in chasing the bully Richardson:

"Come out you great pilk or I'm bloody coming in. Come out! Come out and fight!"

Football, Ashley suggests, is but a game. Acceptance and contentment lies in schoolwork and friendship. And in threatening your enemies with physical violence.

A lesson for the ages.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley, first published 1977.

Want to see a book you remember featured? Give me the name and I'll try to track it down.

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Scottish Football and Independence

At some point in the not too distant future the seemingly never ending round of discussions on the ifs, buts and polls are going to turn into the real thing.

The SNP government in Scotland will unleash the referendum campaign proper.

The Scottish Football Blog has its own views on Scottish independence.

And, for now, I'm going to keep those views to myself.

But I am interested to know how the referendum and the prospect of a referendum will affect the national sport.

It might, of course, have no impact whatsover.

The SNP's "pocket guide to independence" booklet appears not to carry any mention of sport. That strikes me as a notable omission.

What of the ninety minute nationalist? Has that phenomenon faded away with the muting of the Hampden roar?

Or could the 2014 World Cup still influence a referendum campaign the way, as is often persuasively argued, the ill-fated 1978 World Cup experience influenced the devolution referendum of 1979?

Could Craig Levein's qualification dossier hold the key to unlocking Scotland's political destiny? Could Mr Levein still prove himself an unlikely "Father of the Nation"?

Scottish football has problems. Solving those problems requires clear thinking and a long term commitment to change.

It also requires money. And that means funding, particularly of local, grassroots projects.

Would independence close existing sources of funding? Would it open up others?

There are far bigger reasons than fitba' for people to get engaged with the debate on independence.

There are far more pressing issues for politicians on both sides of the coming campaign to be grilled on.

But football continues to play a part in Scottish society. Perhaps not always a positive part, but the game has made a rich contribution to society and, to some extent, the modern idea of "Scottish-ness."

That means some discussion of football deserves to be framed within the context of the wider referendum debate.

To make some small contribution to that I'll offer the Scottish Football Blog as a platform to all sides of the Yes/No/(Devo Max)Maybe argument.

Whatever your affiliations, whatever your views and whatever you want to write (within the confines of good taste and legality) share your views on how the result of the independence referendum will harm/help/barely impact Scottish football.

We know that the referendum will be held in the second half of this parliament.

So hopefully this can become a regular (or at least semi-regular) theme in the run up to, and during, the referendum campaign.

Use the contact page or email to get in touch and share your views.

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Friday Night Football: Short and Sweet?

To Motherwell and part two of the great SPL Friday night football experiment.

Pity poor Motherwell. If you want to try something (sort of) new and attract the punters with cheap tickets it's probably essential that you get ninety minutes played.

Unfortunately this Friday night project was abbreviated.

The right call: there were obviously concerns - and the whiff of burning - developing during the first half.

An extended half time hadn't allayed those fears so the authorities made the decision to call a halt.

Safety is paramount. We're now in an era where we can largely travel to football stadiums with little fear.

As Stuart McCall said last night that hasn't always been the case. Sometimes health and safety decisions are made in our best interests.

One major flaw. The lack of a properly functioning tannoy system in the away end left the Hibs fans to draw their own conclusions about what was happening.

The sight of the ball boys disappearing down the tunnel and Motherwell fans heading to the exits told us what we needed to know.

In a real emergency that might pose a problem. A needless problem that could be easily solved.

We were left in the hands of the matchday stewards.

A doughty and oft maligned breed, the football steward. But a breed apart nonetheless.

For the steward a stern countenance and high visibility apparel takes the place of polite conversation.

All of which added to the breakdown in communication that possibly amplified what I gather were some unsavoury scenes as people tried to get their hands on tickets for the rescheduled match.

There was much to admire about the way Motherwell approached last night's game but the handling of the abandonment left scope for improvement.

The game itself?

This was a squally, miserable night in Lanarkshire.

Hibs, led for the first time by new manager Pat Fenlon, looked more determined, kept their shape better and set out to cope in defence and use Ivan Sproule, Leigh Griffiths and Isaiah Osbourne to support Garry O'Connor.

It worked. With more positivity evident in the support there was more desire and simple hard work on the pitch. They kept Motherwell pretty much contained and O'Connor was on hand to convert their chance when it came.

So far so good. Even the warm up looked more impressive than it has in recent weeks.

A glimpse of a new beginning? I'll not get carried away. Yet.

Motherwell seemed more hampered by the wind than Hibs and struggled to break through the defence and seemed unsettled by the constant harrying of the scampering Lewis Stevenson and David Wotherspoon.

Both teams though will have been disappointed to be denied a second half.

And what of this Friday night frenzy?

The ten and five pound admission prices and various other schemes Motherwell had in place apparently did the job.

Over 7000 braved the cold to take in the game.

That compares nicely with the 5172 and 4202 who turned up for Hibs' two visits to Fir Park last season.

As far as I can tell it's the first time this fixture has attracted over 7000 supporters since October 2007.

An unqualified, rip-roaring success?

Well. Aye and naw.

The prices clearly offered a motivation to attend but Motherwell will need to decide if they brought in big enough numbers to make it an experiment that should be repeated.

The travelling support of 1500 proved that Edinburgh to Motherwell is not too far to travel on a Friday evening. But that number was surely inflated by the Fenlon factor.

Anecdotally a lot of people seemed to suggest that they much preferred making the trip on a Friday evening than, say, for a 12.15 kick off on a Sunday afternoon.

But Friday night football was never going to slay the television scheduling monster.

We can say that Aberdeen v Dunfermline and Motherwell v Hibs have drawn over 15,000 fans for the two Friday night games.

If the clubs consider that to be a success then they have to announce a longer term experiment.

I don't think ad-hoc games, particularly with the massive variable of Motherwell's pricing ploy, can give us a decent guide as to the longer term sustainability of Friday night football.

Persuading Sky or ESPN to schedule some Friday night TV games - whispers suggest this might be in the offing - would also give a better idea of how Friday night compares to Saturday or Sunday lunchtime.

There might be a germ of a good idea here. And there's probably enough evidence to suggest that it is worth exploring more.

But two games do not a nation of Friday night converts make.

Investigate it properly. And while you're at take a look at this equation:

Lower prices = bigger crowds.

That might just be more important than when you kick off.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Hibs: Friday Night Frights

Pat Fenlon finds himself in the Hibernian trenches for the first time this evening.

Another SPL Friday night experiment as Hibs take a trip to Motherwell.

Perhaps I'm guilty of misreading his intent but my impression was that Henry McLeish had suggested Friday night football as a way of reinvigorating the lower leagues.

But the SPL seem to have claimed it as their own. And Motherwelll, ticket prices dropped and curry offers abounding, are clearly keen that tonight is a success.

We shall see.

First though, a look at a couple of Hibs' more recent Friday night games.

7th April 1995
Hibernian 0 v Celtic 0

Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi final at Ibrox. On a Friday night.

That would not happen today. I don't know if that's a reflection of regression across society or increased sophistication in policing methods.

Either way it seems this is one Friday night experiment that we will not see again.

40,950 trooped to Govan to see this stalemate.

Celtic had a chance to win it when Pat McGinlay fouled Paul McStay outside the penalty box. A foul that led referee John Robwbotham to award a penalty kick.

Andy Walker took the kick, Jim Leighton made the save and justice was done.

In truth Celtic had dominated but a doughty Hibs defence kept the fixture alive. I've got a feeling that Graham Mitchell ended this game with his head swathed in hastily applied bandages.

It was that sort of night: bravery and commitment above flair and attacking football for Hibs.

The following day Airdrie beat Hearts in the other semi final. The next Tuesday Hibs and Celtic were at Ibrox again.

Celtic won that one 3-1 and went on to beat Airdrie in the final.

The teams:

Hibernian: Leighton, Miller, Mitchell, McGinlay, Tweed, Millen, Harper, Farrell, Wright, Jackson, O'Neill

Celtic: Bonner, Boyd, McKinlay, Vata, O'Neil, Grant, McLaughlin, McStay, Van Hooijdonk (Falconer, 42min), Walker, Collins.

1st November 1996
Kilmarnock 4 v 2 Hibs
Attendance: 10,872

In 1996 the Scottish Premier Division still enjoyed occasional occupancy of Sky's much coveted Friday evening slot.

So it was that almost 11,000 fans filled into Rugby Park to see new signing John Hughes make his debut for Hibs.

Hughes was signed by Jocky Scott, then navigating his way through an underwhelming stint as caretaker manager following the departure of Alex Miller.

Hibs had suffered a 4-0 tonking against Celtic before this one and were no doubt looking to Hughes to fill some gaping defensive holes.

He didn't quite manage it.

An up and coming young midfield maestro was also in the Hibs team. A chap called Ray Wilkins.

John Henry, Jim McIntyre and former Hibs player Paul Wright did the damage for Kilmarnock.

Andy Dow and Kevin Harper got the goals for Hibs.

This tranche of Friday night game actually began for Hibs back in January 1995.

Oddly enough on Friday the 13th.

Fir Park was again the destination.

It finished 0-0 in front of 6724 supporters.

So there we have it, the SPL's brand new Friday night experiment is not that new.

And so far, for Hibs at least, not that successful.

I travel, as ever, in hope...

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