Friday, January 07, 2011

Scottish Cup Fourth Round Preview

Three days of Scottish Cup action to look forward to. Much talk of "cupsets" but probably not many actual upsets. And, I'd wager, a mention or two for Berwick Rangers, the most famous of Davids in Scottish football's gallery of Goliath-slayers.

Pitch inspections at a few of these games and snow falling as I write so things could be subject to change. Again.

Kick off times and weather updates can be found on the BBC site.

Threave Rovers v Stenhousemuir
And still we wait for this third round replay to be played. A pitch inspection will be needed before we know for sure. I'm not hopeful.

Fascinating Scottish Cup fact: Stenhousemuir manager Davie Irons was playing for Threave in the first game between these two, at the age of 49.

Berwick Rangers v Celtic
No surprise that this one came out of the draw. Not when we're constantly being told that Rangers v Celtic playing all the time is the only way the Scottish game can make money. It's a little known fact that Berwick Rangers beat Celtic's Old Firm rivals in a game here in the 1960s. Shame such a massive achievement for Berwick has been all but forgotten. A famous Glasgow double on Sunday. Don't bank on it. At least Celtic will finally find out what playing in England is like.

Hibs v Ayr United
To lose a derby is never good. But at least Hibs showed some ability to defend, to fight and to allow them to be organised into something resembling a cohesive unit against Hearts. That is hardly world beating stuff. But it might be enough to save them this season. A cup run would be much welcomed in Leith. I can't see that happening but they should have enough to get past Ayr tomorrow. Mind you, I said that when Franck Sauzee led Hibs into a League Cup semi final against the same opposition in 2002. Will I be wrong again?

Dundee v Motherwell
A defiant Dundee are a potential stumbling block for new Motherwell boss Stuart McCall. It's not been an easy few weeks for the SPL side. It's been an arduous, torturous, tormenting few months for the Dark Blues. A cup run might not cure all the ills at Dens Park but it would offer some comfort. And some cash. If I was going to point a game where I can see a shock coming this might be it. Home win.

Dundee United v Ross County
A re-run of last year's final. Fair to say that neither side have quite shown the form of last season. An opportunity for some revenge for Ross County against the ogres that smashed their fairytale dreams. Yes, it's an opportunity. Whether they can take advantage of it or not is another matter. I'll be keeping an eye on this one. I'm not expecting it to happen. But a shock wouldn’t completely shock me.

Aberdeen v East Fife
Is the Craig Brown revolution at Pittodrie for real? A win tomorrow won't be proof of that. But it will at least spare him the sort of embarrassing failure that has haunted some of his predecessors. There's nae way I can see the Dons losing this. No way at all. But I've been wrong before.

Rangers v Kilmarnock
The big Monday night game. A traditional kick off time for this oldest of tournaments. Rangers were woeful in the Old Firm game last Sunday. Against a Kilmarnock team that inspired gushing tributes in this week's Scottish football podcast they'll need to improve. Samaras did for the champions last weekend. Can Sammon do for them now? Stranger things have happened. But we've all been at this lark too long to write Rangers off. Killie might just secure a replay though.

Hearts v St Johnstone
Newly re-established as the third force in Scottish football will Hearts see this year as their chance to win the Scottish Cup. A second triumph for Jim Jefferies? There's a chance, friends, there is a chance. An all SPL clash on Sunday might not be the fixtures Jefferies would have wanted but recent form still heavily favours the home side. And who am I to question recent form. Home win.

Inverness v Elgin
No sooner do I anoint Terry Butcher as manager of the year and Inverness as team of the year than they start losing. I spread my miserable luck around. And now a Scottish Cup clash against not too distant neighbours Elgin. An intriguing clash but one the SPL side should negotiate easily enough. Home win.

East Stirling v Buckie Thistle
It’s the Highland League champions against the second worst team in the Scottish Football League on Sunday. This game could become the rallying call of the pyramid system supporting masses. Stirling haven’t played since they beat Spartans 2-1 in the last round. Which might be better preparation than Buckie have enjoyed after being smashed 7-0 by Deveronvale last Monday. An intriguing one this though, one to keep an eye or ear out for.

Montrose v Dunfermline
Dunfermline’s experience of artificial pitches might not be great but the First Division leaders should still have enough against Montrose. The Pars will have really felt the away defeat to Raith last week but maybe not as much as Montrose felt the 5-0 tanking by the Red Lichties of Arbroath on Sunday. Away win.

Morton v Airdrie
Morton haven’t played since the 14th of December while Airdrie came through a tough old tie against Beith 4-3 on Tuesday afternoon. Which is the better preparation? It’s second bottom of the First against sixth in the Second. Could be a tight one.

Falkirk v Partick Thistle
An all First Division clash. Neither team will be delighted by the way their seasons have gone so far but Falkirk are ten points better off in the league and the feedback suggests that all is not well at Thistle right now. Even-stevens between the two so far though with both teams enjoying 1-0 wins at Firhill. A close one? Could be a replay required.

Queen of the South v Brechin
An away defeat to Dunfermline in the middle of December is Queen of the South’s only game since they beat Cowdenbeath on the 13th of November. That the preparation for these cup games hasn’t been ideal for many clubs is becoming increasingly obvious. Brechin, second in the Second Division, finally got round to dispatching Annan in their third round replay on Tuesday evening. They’ve scored five in each of their last two games so any rustiness in the Queens defence might well be exposed here.

St Mirren v Peterhead
Eighth in the Second Division, Peterhead’s head last two games have ended with a 5-0 defeat to Brechin and a 5-1 win over Airdrie. You pick the form from those two results. St Mirren themselves search forlornly for the gift of consistency and are still not picking up enough points to be comfortable. Could be a testing afternoon tomorrow but I think the SPL side will get through.

Hamilton v Alloa
Less affected by the weather than many SFL clubs in the last few weeks, Alloa have been free scoring with 13 goals in their last five games. Two wins, two draws and a defeat in that sequence suggests that the defence might be struggling a bit. By contrast Hamilton have scored only one goal in their last five games, their only points coming in goalless draws. You would still expect the SPL side to be stronger. But a black and gold striped banana skin lying in wait?

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The Best Birthday Present

Indulge me, it's my birthday.

The programme pictured is from the first match played at Easter Road after I was born in 1980.

A league game against Celtic. And a goal for George Best. Dodgy video footage below of Best sending Peter Latchford into the back of the net along with the ball.

Lessons to be learned? Maybe I am a Jonah. Hibs ended the season relegated in bottom place.

In those days we had a 10 team league. But Dundee joined Hibs in heading for the First Division with a system of two up, two down in place.

Aberdeen were the champions, pipping Celtic by a point with a 5-0 demolition of, as you might have guessed, Hibs in their penultimate game.

As Aberdeen were playing at Easter Road, Celtic were toiling to a goalless draw against St Mirren. With ten minutes to go Celtic were awarded a crucial penalty. Then, after consulting with his linesman, the referee changed his mind and Celtic's chance was gone.

Alex Ferguson had his first major trophy and the Scottish championship was taken away from the Old Firm for the first time in 15 years.

A ten team league? Referee and linesmen consulting over penalties? Hibs woeful?

Aye, I've seen a lot of changes over the years.

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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Scottish Cup Week: Preamble

A cruel accident of birth dictates that I celebrate my birthday just as the big beasts of Scottish football enter the Scottish Cup.

Thus each year my birthday marks the start of another failed leg of Hibernian's apparently never ending Scottish Cup odyssey. If the jinx hadn't begun more than 70 years before I was born I'd consider myself a bit of a Jonah.

Anyway, a full preview of this weekend's cup action to come. But it's been remiss of me not to mention the two Tuesday third round replays. Two seven goal thrillers.

In the Tuesday afternoon game Airdrie raced into a four goal lead before Beith hit back with three goals in 17 minutes, forcing Airdrie to endure a nervy final ten minutes.

On Tuesday evening Brechin's over powered Annan by five goals to two. That, incidentally, was Annan's first match since the original game ended in a draw over six weeks ago.

So it's old and maybe not as glorious as it once was but the Scottish Cup can still put on a show. Let's hope for more of the same this weekend.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Inverting The Pyramid

The one blog a day in 2011 plan (a secret resolution, made most years, broken most years) has almost come a cropper only five days in.

In mitigation I got fair wrapped up in tonight’s English Premier League action. I could write about that but I don’t know which sack threatened manager or crisis hit club to focus on. And I’m sure everyone is fed up hearing about how good a night this has been for Manchester United.

I’m just too depressed to write about the ongoing pantomime of SPL reconstruction complete with Neil Doncaster and Ralph Topping as the Ugly Sisters.

So instead I’ll point you in the direction of the book I’m currently reading and very much enjoying. Jonathan Wilson's Inverting The Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics looks like it's going to keep me going no matter what Scotrail throw at me.

I'm a bit late to this one but it really is a compelling read. A full review to follow. In the meantime there's a decent look at Wilson's tome on Bookgeeks.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Summer Football: Time For A Trial?

Was having my weekly gander at the East Lothian Courier to see which of my erstwhile school mates were making an appearance in the courts pages when I came across another argument for summer football:

Davie McGlynn, manager of Superleague outfit Musselburgh Athletic, said a combination of dreadful winter weather, the economic downturn and cutbacks across Scottish football had created a "terrible situation" for clubs.

"Summer football needs to happen," said McGlynn. "If we were playing say February to November we'd avoid the worst of the winter weather. Clubs would be able to play their games and get the gate money in to keep themselves ticking over.

"We get crowds of around 200 at home games. We need the money that brings in to pay wages and keep the club going."

Earlier this month McGlynn gloomily predicted junior clubs might have to stop paying players as they faced up to growing financial pressures.

"By the time you add together players' wages, laundry bills, training facilities, transport costs and everything else you're looking at around £40,000 just to keep a club going for one season," said McGlynn.

"Our next game is supposed to be January 7 but that depends on the weather.

"We might not play again until February and then we'll be in the crazy situation of trying to cram all our games in before June."

Now, I'm still not convinced by how viable summer football is. But the debate is now happening. Why not at least trial it in the junior leagues?

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The SPL: Ten Out Of Ten

The big beasts of the SPL met at Hampden today and the prospect of a two tier SPL each with ten sides has moved ever closer to being rubber stamped.

It’s the only financially viable option apparently. And we have to trust these club chairmen and chief executives. Many of them have, after all, led their own clubs to the brink of financial ruin. There can be few better people to trust to secure the future of the game.

That more than eight out of ten fans think this plan is a load of cobblers is neither here nor there. Paying punters have no influence on the Scottish game.

That there are fears that the quality of the game will be further damaged, that familiarity breeds contempt, have no place in this brave new dawn.

And if that damages our appeal to the TV companies that we’re hitching the future of the game to, well, this is the Short-term Premier League. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Possibly a dozen SPL chairmen will jump off that bridge when we come to it.

The pill will be sweetened with talk of a winter break, of an earlier start to help our European aspirations. Fair enough. But that’s window dressing. This December’s weather would make a break unworkable. A bad Scottish team is a bad Scottish team no matter when the league season starts.

These changes have been trailed for long enough for today’s meeting to offer few surprises. That the howls of protests from us, the fans, have been totally ignored is hardly a shock.

So we can look forward to paying ever inflated prices to see the same teams week after week. Scared, fearful teams in a league where maybe 60 or 70 percent of the clubs fear relegation.

The fans sold down the river and the national game no closer to the resurrection we are so desperate to see. The dirty dozen have done us in. Happy new year, folks.

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Monday, January 03, 2011

Scottish Football Podcast

Amidst the fug of a holiday Monday I've been a-podding again.

Massive thanks to Andrew at Gib Football Show for hosting and Scott at and Grant at STV Sport for their company.

Our thoughts on all things Scottish football. Well worth a listen.

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Sunday, January 02, 2011

Rangers v Celtic Preview

Given the brickbats being flung his way it is easy to forget that Neil Lennon has taken his Celtic side to the top of the table.

If the number of call offs this wintery winter have given the SPL a slightly artificial look this New Year, Celtic can still move themselves into the driving seat with an away win today.

Another big game test for Lennon. And, at some stage, he's going to need to pass one of these tests.

To do so Celtic will need to overcome their defensive brittleness and show more ruthlessness in front of goal than they have of late. A trip to Ibrox is unlikely to throw up as many chances as Celtic have enjoyed and squandered in their recent run of home games. Wastefulness will not be tolerated.

Rangers might have concerns about player contracts and an increasing fixture backlog but games like these are enough to invigorate Walter Smith and his squad.

If we expect Rangers to be thrawn and stubborn in defence and incisive in attack then we need to search the Celtic team for the bit of creative magic they need.

Will new signing Freddie Ljungberg be the man to surprise Rangers? It's a big game to make your debut and the jury remains locked in debate about what benefits the ageing Swede is actually going to bring to Celtic. Any role he plays today will be watched with interest.

I expect Rangers to score today. And that means Celtic have to produce something. I look back to the first Old Firm game of the season and the lessons to take from that when, with a one goal lead, Celtic froze in the second half.

Do I see signs of an increasing maturity in the Celtic team, an improved ability to cope with the unique atmosphere of an Old Firm game? I'm afraid I don't.

And for that reason although I expect a tense and close affair at Ibrox today I've got to back the home side. Home win.

Elsewhere in the SPL

St Johnstone v Inverness
Two home defeats in a row for the blog's team of the year but they'll be looking to extend their admirable away record today. St Johnstone will be looking to kick start their New Year with an assault on the top six. Draw.

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The Ibrox Disaster: 40 Years On

Rangers v Celtic 2nd January 1971. 66 lives lost.

From the National Library of Scotland Digital Archive (the Herald's original coverage):

In the press box we had all been commenting on how well behaved the crowd had been and thinking that Rangers' equaliser in the closing seconds had restored the good nature of their fans, ensuring that there would be no subsequent trouble.

Then, across the field at the north-east corner - Section 13 - there were four or five policemen standing on the track looking up into the terracing. Someone said: - 'Fighting must have started there.' But this seemed inexplicable because one had been able to sense the entire good humour of the crowd after the thrilling end to the game.

Then, across the floodlight mist, the distant sounds of shouts and screams could be heard. Two of us rushed down the spiral staircase from the top of the stand. We pushed our way through the cheerful fans on the pavement, through another entrance and ran across the bone-hard frosted pitch on which only minutes before, Colin Stein had brought so much happiness by scoring that equalizing goal.

In the deserted ghostly atmosphere of the playing pitch we had thoughts of fantasy, such as 'So this is what it is like to play at Ibrox.' Thoughts of disaster had still not penetrated.
Even when we reached the track at the far corner there was still no indication of the enormity of what had happened. Two or three people were being carried or helped down the terracing. Then, as dozens of police and ambulancemen converged and ran up the terracing, we felt the first real chill of the situation.

There was a numb silence now, broken only by shouts for stretcher bearers. We started to make our way to the top of the terracing, but several times went back with injured spectators who asked, 'Can you give us a hand?' Willing hands abounded to assist injured boys and men down to the track.

Eventually, at the top of the terracing, the true horror of the situation became apparent. Half a dozen lifeless forms were lying on the ground. Rescuers were tripping over the dead and injured as they struggled back with more victims.

A wedge of emptiness had been created part of the way down the long steep flight of steps leading to the Cairnlea Drive exit. In it were the twisted remains of the heavy steel division barriers. They had been mangled out of shape and pressed to the ground by the weight of bodies.

Lying all over the steps were scores of shoes that had been ripped off in the crush. Beyond, the steps were still dense with groaning people.

We helped another of the injured back down the terracing.

Then Sir Donald Liddle, the Lord Provost, who had watched the game from the directors' box, walked across the pitch. He climbed over the wall into the terracing and moved around, trying to comfort the injured. He knelt beside one man who had had a pillow of beer cans made for his head and had coats and jackets placed over him. But he was dead. The Lord Provost was in tears when he left.

On the exit steps, Sir James Robertson, the chief constable, was directing the activity. Bodies were now lying everywhere. One man was still lying halfway down the steps, a jacket over his face.
There was almost complete shocked silence at this stage. Occasionally one could hear the noise of coins falling from the victims' pockets as they were lifted away.

Back on the field a row of bodies on stretchers was reaching from the corner flag position to the goalposts. Ambulances and police cars, their emergency lights flashing, were speeding round the track. Mr William Waddell, Rangers' manager, and Mr William Thornton, his assistant, together with Mr Jock Stein, Celtic's manager, were directing stretcher bearers to the team dressing rooms which had been set up as casualty stations.

Dozens of policemen, nurses, and ambulancemen were working desperately and mostly in vain to bring life back to the crushed victims.

When two hours later, there were only officials left on the terracing and steps of Section 13, one young nurse was being helped away, crying. She kept repeating: - 'I felt so helpless.'