Saturday, January 29, 2011

SPL Today: Double Up

Just two SPL games this afternoon with four clubs involved in the league cup semi-finals and Dundee United playing Hibs tomorrow.

What, I ask, is the point of playing the League Cup semi-finals at the weekend, at the same time as SPL games?

Seems a bit strange.

Anyhows, to the action:

Hamilton v Kilmarnock

Hamilton are still rooted to the bottom of the table. It could be that there tactic is to stay exactly where they are and sit back and watch as Hibs come careering past them and into the First Division.

But they’re form has shown signs of picking up. They’ve drawn with St Mirren, Motherwell, Celtic and Inverness in recent weeks. A 4-0 defeat at Rangers aside they’re not losing a lot of goals. The key for Billy Reid would be to find a goalscorer. Will MickaĆ«l Antoine-Curier fill that role? If he can then Hamilton might just be giving Hibs even more to worry about.

Kilmarnock have developed the unpleasant habit of losing late goals. They lost to two goals in the last 20 minutes against Hearts and drew with both St Johnstone and Dundee United to goals in the last couple of minutes. It’s a pattern that Mixu Paatelainen will be hoping doesn’t become a habit.

Kilmarnock’s new signing from AC Milan might feature today. I never thought I’d write that sentence. Has Mixu uncovered another Eremenko type gem in Willy Aubameyang?

Despite Kilmarnock becoming the SPL pin-up team of the season I have a feeling that Hamilton will take advantage of Hibs not playing to get something here.

A rare home win.

Hearts v St Johnstone

Home comforts are probably just what Hearts need after their uncomfortable night at Celtic Park on Wednesday.

But St Johnstone in winning the cup game here that they’re more than capable of holding their own.

It’s for others to worry about the ramifications of Hearts’ defeat in midweek. They just need to get back to winning games.

Kevin Kyle might miss out a game which could cause Hearts problems. There is a big squad at Tynecastle but the players at the fringes don’t suit Jim Jefferies’ requirements.

Two wins and two draws in the league mean St Johnstone are unbeaten in 2011. Games in hand over Motherwell and Inverness mean the top six is looking vulnerable to a Perthshire charge.

Despite that I think Hearts will have point to prove today. And they’ll prove that point by taking three points. Home win.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Co-operative Insurance Cup: Celtic v Aberdeen

Was it really only a couple of months ago that Aberdeen and Celtic met in Glasgow and produced the SPL's most one sided result?

That 9-0 walloping seems a long time ago now.

It's hard to claim that Celtic have enjoyed a regal procession to the top of the league since then. They haven't, there has been the odd faltering step along the way.

But they are now top of the SPL. And in January's big clashes they've shown their resolve and their ability. Could even the most optimistic of Celtic fans have predicted the ease with which they brushed aside Rangers or the brutal show of attacking force that crushed Hearts at Parkhead?

Since that infamous trip to Glasgow Aberdeen have experienced both more despair and the promise of redemption.

Mark McGhee, the man who, despite everything, delivered them to this semi final, has fallen by the wayside. Few mourned the passing of another manager who stood hapless in the face of the quirky pressures that abound at Pittodrie.

In his stead they called on Craig Brown. A 70 year old Scotsman, no trophy winning pedigree, devoid of glamour. And yet it has been a long time since I've seen the odd (they're all odd!) Aberdeen fan of my acquaintance so enthused.

Brown, the veteran maestro, has achieved the twin coups of an immediate impact and a few promising signings in just a few weeks. The result is a club free from the swirling uncertainty of the very foot of the table, a club beginning to look forward with optimism again.

Two clubs with confidence, two clubs looking forward. An almost perfect semi final clash.

The lesser of our cup competitions? Yes, but still a prize to cherish. For Celtic, Neil Lennon's first managerial trophy. Most Old Firm managers of the past will tell of the importance of claiming your first silverware and Lennon will be keen to make amends for the Scottish Cup defeat to Ross County last year.

The chance of a first club trophy for Brown as well given his late, late emergence as a top flight club manager. And a trophy for Aberdeen, the first since 1995-96, a way to assuage some of the pain of the past few years.

So still a trophy to cherish for both these sides. Painful to fail at the semi-final stage as well, no matter what the competition is.

And an intriguing battle in the dug-outs. Craig Brown and Neil Lennon. A clash of styles right there.

The elder statesman Brown with his, mostly, measured public utterances, the novice Lennon with the passion to say what he thinks and hang the consequences.

But maybe not complete opposites. A steely desire to win and a genuine passion for football can hide behind many guises. And this match will mean a lot, a hell of a lot, to both of them.

What can we expect of the game itself?

Celtic remain favourites. But despite their recent form it is a measure of the progress at Pittodrie that they are not the certainties they would have appeared in November.

That Brown was publicly critical of his players after they beat Inverness in midweek suggests that, whatever his tactics, he'll be looking for an extra ounce of efforts, just a touch more determination from each and every one of them tomorrow.

I certainly don't expect Aberdeen to freeze on the big stage and, we can't forget this is Craig Brown, they'll look to keep it tight. To frustrate and deny before plundering an advantage for themselves.

For the plundering they'll be hoping to catch out Celtic's still depleted rearguard in a way that Hearts couldn't manage on Wednesday night.

Brown will also be aware that Hearts defended badly and Celtic were ruthless in taking advantage of that largesse.

So a fighting, defensive Aberdeen looking to catch Celtic on the counter. It's a hard task but other teams have pulled it off this season.

Other than guarding against complacency, asking for calm heads and patience it is difficult to see what Lennon can really ask his players to do differently.

Celtic are now in possession of the most dangerous attacking threat in the country. If they are kept supplied the goals will come. The danger is that Aberdeen actually manage to work out a way to frustrate and contain.

It's when teams manage to do that I feel Celtic look vulnerable, too quick to lose their patience and chase the game. That in turn drags the shape out of the team and exposes the defence.

Might a sustained show of stubborness suddenly have Celtic fearing the worst, the hangover from that Ross County game creeping into their minds, adding to their apprehensiveness?

It would be an impressive feat for Craig Brown to pull off.

I suspect it will prove to be just beyond him though. Aberdeen should be able to keep this one tight but I think Celtic will eventually just have too much for them and win it by the odd goal.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Friday, January 28, 2011

Have Faith In Adam

This week's Friday videos feature man of the moment Charlie Adam.

Will he go to Liverpool? Will he stay at Blackpool? Will Charlie, Rangers or Ian Holloway make more money from the deal?

First up, a young and nervous Charles scores a pre-season hat-trick:

Charlie does a "Chic Charnley" in a friendly match:

Revelling in the big match atmosphere in the play-off:

And scoring for St Mirren back in the day:

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

League Cup: Shades of Brown

Snippets from a radio interview on Wednesday night seemed to offer a glimpse of the dualism of Craig Brown's career.

First there was the promise of a new signing at the start of next week. An English Premier League player no less, set to feature in the FA Cup this weekend before moving north on loan.

This was Brown the conjuror, the ageing maestro sprinkling the SPL with his magic. A league so moribund that at times since he took over at Motherwell and then moved on to Aberdeen he's seemed to reinvigorate it with consumate ease.

And then there was talk of the upcoming League Cup semi final with Celtic. Talking about the last clash between the two sides Brown noted that Aberdeen had outperformed Celtic in various Opta tracked measurements.

This was Brown the hard to love Scotland manager. The man who could find a positive spin on an abject defeat to Morocco, who would justify his loyalty to older players with ever more tenuous claims about "statistical" victories all over the pitch.

His reinvention as the grand old man of the SPL has been fun to watch for those who like Brown and for those who have only realised with hindsight the blessings he brought as national manager. But it might not play quite as well with others, with those who look back on that horror night in Saint-Etienne when Morocco drove a fleet of buses through Jim Leighton's near post and remember only the pain and the anguish and a manager in denial.

Which explains perhaps why Brown is still not universally loved. But there is, I suspect, a growing fondness, an increasing respect.

Because since his surprise reinvention as a club manager with Motherwell, Brown has performed admirably. As he prepares to lead Aberdeen into a national cup semi final he can already reflect on a job well done since taking over at Pittodrie.

13 points gained in the league and only one defeat might not sound much. But Brown has eased relegation woes and brought solidity to a club that seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis. In his first six games Scott Vernon and Chris Maguire scored ten goals between them. Just ask Colin Calderwood how hard a trick that is to pull off.

The mysterious player from down south - was Brown ever such a media tease when he was with Scotland - is likely to be another product of a deep knowledge of the English game and an enviable contacts book, both of which he shares with Archie Knox, his astute choice of assistant in a veteran double act.

His signings so far for Aberdeen include Nick Blackman on loan from Blackburn and Robert Milsom who was released by Fulham. There's little reason to suggest they will be less successful than some of the useful players - including Blackman - he picked up at Fir Park as he showed an admirable agility to operate within the Motherwell budget.

To prove the point Blackman scored on his debut on Wednesday night.

Motherwell. Poor Motherwell. The spurned lover in the Brown-Pittodrie romance. And now having to watch Nick Blackman pull on the red shirt as well.

It wasn't a great moment for Brown, his departure from Lanarkshire. The way he handled it was poor. And out of character. As far his sport is concerned Brown has always given the impression of probity and honour, of being a man of his word. The whole episode was shoddy and meant his career with Aberdeen didn't get off to as smooth a start as he would have liked.

But a man who took Tosh McKinlay to two major championships is obviously used to having unwanted luggage to haul about when he embarks on a journey. In his defence, the managerial merry-go-round, the broken promises, the switched affections are part and parcel of football.

And with Brown you know you are getting nothing less than a football man. A man steeped in the game, a manager with a deep love of football who has retained all his enthusiasm. Which is why he remains such a refreshing addition to the SPL even as he approaches his 71st birthday.

It's early days for Brown at Aberdeen. The semi final is another test to be negotiated. But the results so far and his recruitment policy are grounds for optimism.

Brown perhaps missed the most important statistic from that defeat to Celtic. The 1-0 loss was an eight goal swing in Aberdeen's favour since the two sides met at Celtic Park in November.

Now that's progress. If he keeps up at this rate Brown might just be savouring one of the best results in his career come Saturday night.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Thursday, January 27, 2011

SPL TV: Here We Go Again

Another day, another SPL brainwave.

This time it's the idea of an SPL TV channel. The SPL have drafted in IMG Media to look into the feasibility of launching their own channel. Not a new idea but an idea apparently reborn in the last few weeks.

Let us then applaud the SPL for exploring all avenues. And also kudos for the choice of IMG. Love them or loathe them IMG have, whatever Sky might claim, probably had more of an impact on the monetisation of sport than anyone else.

Ever since Mark McCormack first supped cocktails with Arnold Palmer, IMG have made the money roll in.

But I still think this is a stupid idea. Totally and utterly stupid.

Certainly, I suspect SPL chief excutive Neil Doncaster is "at it". I repeatedly said he that couldn't back up his claim that a ten team SPL was more attractive to broadcasters.

Surely the idea of an SPL channel suggests that the clubs themselves don't have much confidence in their continued ability to lure broadcasters.

We're told that other countries are doing the same or considering doing the same.

And that is also true. France are on the road already, with the second tier league being used as a guinea pig.

The French model will see the channel available as a paid for addition to the existing channels when France switches to digital TV.

Would that be the SPL model? It's not as simple as just setting up a channel and claiming a spot on Top-Up TV, a service that already carries Sky Sports and ESPN.

The Dutch already have Eredivisie Live. Would that be the model we chose to replicate?

It might be a struggle if we did. Based on their subscriber numbers (around 475,000 in autumn 2010) and an entirely unscientific extrapolation of those figures we could estimate 140,000 subscribers for a Scottish model.

That would tie in with the SPL viewing figures that Setanta limped on with until they were put out of their misery. But those figures for Setanta were from the season when they had English Premier League football as well.

There is scant evidence to suggest that SPL TV would prove much of hit in England where Sky and ESPN have the live TV market just about sewn up.

Eredivisie Live has bolstered its output with the FA Cup, Europa League and England internationals.

All those are readily available to Scottish viewers on either free to air channels or established subscription channels. It's simply not a market in which SPL TV could hope to compete.

Perhaps more pertinently Ajax are making fairly strong signals that they don't consider the €4 million they earn from Eredivisie Live enough and that they hope to pull out of the deal.

The plan in Amsterdam is to sell TV rights for Ajax matches separately.

Just imagine SPL TV wasn't a success? What would there then be to stop Rangers and Celtic negotiating their own TV rights?

And would the ordinary Scottish fan be willing to pay yet more money to watch Scottish football?

Would the overseas revenues come rolling in? Maybe we could consider North America and Australia as our biggest potential markets. SPL TV would not exactly be the biggest fish in any of those ponds.

Because we shouldn't kid ourselves that it's a blockbuster product. Perhaps before reimagining himself as a tartan clad Charles Foster Kane, Neil Doncaster should address the dearth of quality on the pitch.

In all of this you get the impression that the SPL are running around trying to recover from the trauma of Setanta's collapse. But the best way to recover from that disaster is not to chase another pie in the sky dream.

Of course, this is all just at the exploratory stage. IMG have made millions from seeing financial opportunity where others have seen only oddly dressed young men doing funny things with balls.

We can only hope that they can also spot an enormous folly when they see one.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Listen To What The Fans Said

Does anybody care what the fans think?

An oft repeated question during the ten team SPL pantomime of recent weeks.

Well, Supporters Direct Scotland did care. And went about finding out with the help of some experts in the field.

The results explained why the SPL were so keen to shy away from market research of their with the fans unanimously turning down the ten team option.

Across on The Drum website, Steven Lawther - Raith Rovers fan and market research expert - explains his role in the survey, the results and takes a swipe at the way football ignores its customers:

The consequence was that suddenly the fans had a voice. The results were reported widely and for a few days at least it seemed that no newspaper article on league reconstruction was complete without reference to the strength of fan opposition demonstrated by our survey. Supporters Direct was now being asked directly by the media to comment on the proposed changes and invited to provide the voice of fans on TV, radio and in the opinion pieces in several national newspapers. The SPL even invited them to Hampden for face-to-face talks on the future of Scottish football. Opponents of a ten team top league often quoted the 88% opposition statistic to support their stance and the Daily Record even launched a ‘Just Say No’ campaign to oppose the change. The views of fans had entered the debate, momentum shifted and suddenly the feeling of inevitability around a ten team top league started to dissipate. (More)

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Broken Hearts?

Celtic 4 - Hearts 0

Is that it then? Did Hearts title challenge amount to little more than a scrappy win over Rangers and three days of hope before a meek capitulation against Celtic?

That's how it will play in today's papers.

Maybe we were all a bit guilty of being overly optimistic. Those of use not in thrall to either Glasgow club, maybe even some that are, desperately want a challenge.

Desperately enough to load a team with the burden of expectation on flimsy and premature evidence.

Certainly Hearts played poorly last night. But they also played poorly on Saturday when beating Rangers. They were poor going out of the cup against St Johnstone and went a goal behind at Kilmarnock.

David Templeton lit up the SPL a month or two ago. Now he needs time to develop his game. Without Kevin Kyle Hearts are lacking their indomitable focal point.

Throw in some bad defending and a kamikaze performance from Rudi Skacel and a 4-0 defeat suddenly becomes less inexplicable. Especially against a Celtic team who are clicking in attack and carrying a big, big goal threat.

Jim Jefferies' anger at the cup loss to St Johnstone maybe spoke volumes about his ambitions. He's no mug, old Jim. As aware as he can be glum, he probably realised that Hearts' hopes of a really successful season were ruined in the cup game.

So what now? One defeat in a dozen games is not a disaster. The gap is not as narrow as it might have been at the top but Hearts look to have third place sewn up. If they can somehow stitch together another run as impressive as the one they've been on since October they can still play a role in the title race.

Maybe the chance to challenge is gone, maybe the chance was never there. But Hearts can still have the Old Firm looking over their shoulders, can still make life difficult.

There will be talk of a title challenge in tatters.

That is both a compliment to their season so far and a result of the over reaction to Saturday's game.

The key for Hearts, for Jefferies and for his owner, is that there is now something to build on at Tynecastle.

There is a real opportunity to build that fabled third force in Scottish football, a third force that is closer to the Old Firm than we've seen in recent seasons.

Maybe, just maybe, next year we'll be talking about Hearts travelling to Celtic or Rangers as challengers in March or April.

That, more than a scrappy win over Rangers and some late January hysteria from all of us watching on, would be real progress.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Stramash - Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams

Ayr, Alloa, Cowdenbeath, Coatbridge, Montrose, Kirkcaldy, Greenock, Arbroath, Dingwall, Cumbernauld, Dumfries and Elgin.

Twelve towns offering a fair snapshot of Scotland’s social and industrial history in the last century.

And twelve towns that keep the ever threatened flames of lower league football in Scotland just about alight.

Losing faith in the magic of his beloved Middlesbrough and Sky’s millions, Daniel Gray set out to reconnect with football through the strange power of Scotland’s lower leagues.

The result is Stramash - Tackling Scotland’s Towns and Teams. Here is Scotland outside the history of Glasgow and Edinburgh, football outside the dominance of the SPL.

It’s a story of industrial decline and the collapse of once thriving towns in our industrial heartlands, of the shattered utopia of our new towns.

Towns, as Gray discovers, with histories rich in incident and humour. And towns that, even if the locals don’t always seem to realise it, are often mirrored by the ups and downs - mainly downs - of their football teams.

Unloved, ridiculed, ignored. Yet thrawn enough to keep buggering on regardless. There is something admirable to be found at every ground, even as the terracing crumbles and the players wilt.

I defy anyone to read Stramash and not fall in love with Scottish football’s blessed eccentricities all over again. And perhaps to wonder where we went wrong. Why did we suddenly stop producing talents who could graduate from Stark's Park or Palmerston and hold their own on football's biggest stages?

It is, of course, easy to be overly sentimental. The very survival of some of these teams is a triumph. But is that enough? Certainly as our elite clubs plan a top down overhaul of the game - a revolution led by the aristocracy - Gray provides a salutary reminder of the “pools towns” that Neil Doncaster seems to have forgotten.

Here are the human stories behind the clubs, the triumphs of their early days, their legacy to our game. If nothing else they are worth more than being the pawns in an SPL power trip.

The book is also funny. Funny enough to bring on involuntary, laugh out loud moments. It’s a good book to read if you want to disconcert your fellow Scotrail commuters.

From an obsession with Midget Gems to a directionally challenged episode in Cumbernauld that plays as an homage to Bill Forsyth’s Gregory, the town’s most famous footballing dreamer, Gray is quick to play it for laughs.

And, more often than not, he carries the humour off.

And there is hope, there is optimism. Alloa are a well run club with a forward looking owner in a town that is beginning to look to the future again.

Ross County remain a community club looking to take the great stride into the SPL.

Where people care, and the right people come on board, there is hope. And where there are football fans there is always optimism. Although, as Gray discovers, that optimism is often hidden by a fatalist humour that makes the extended fallow times easier to cope with.

Gray covers all this and more with a fine lightness of touch. The result is an admirably accessible introduction to Scottish football, our footballing heritage and our rich social history.

Stramash: Tackling Scotland's Towns and Teams by Daniel Gray (Luath Press)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

English Premier League: Bent Transfers In England

Football's versions of the January sales - inflated prices and manager's traipsing far and wide with the desperation of a father searching for a Buzz Lightyear toy on Christmas Eve.

Regular English Premier League guest blogger, Mark Briggs, is back with a look at the moves and speculation as Kenny Dalglish looks to revitalise Liverpool, Charlie Adam and Blackpool face up to a parting of the ways and a calm and collected Aston Villa are in no way panicked into a big money move for Darren Bent. And Scottish managers take control:

With December now behind us, and festive waistlines deflating quicker than English confidence in Wayne Rooney, it's time to look at the stage of the season where the games become mere fodder and filler compared to the noble art of transfer speculation.

Last month we saw Chelsea slip and recover. Aston Villa moved from saying “we’re not worried” to “we’re in a fight no doubt about it” in a week or two. It looks like we’ve got a proper title race, with Manchester City confirming they are contenders.

Arsenal look like they are going to give it all they have to win something this season. Yet despite seeming progress, they are currently 0-1 down to Ipswich in the Carling Cup, needed a last minute penalty and a replay to see off Leeds in the FA Cup and face Barcelona in the Champions League. Things may not look so rosy in a month.

But they’ve played well enough to have the chairman asking where they left the key to the trophy cabinet, despite being on the third goalkeeper of the year.

The Manchester teams are in good little battle of their own, with the blue half splashing the cash on Dzeko and having a bit of a clear out of players who didn’t quite make the grade.

Alan Pardew rode in on a white horse and with promised to play “sexy football”… No, wait. Getting my managers confused, that was Kenny Dalglish way back when, or was it that bloke now in charge in Chechnya?

I am too young to remember with any detail the last Anfield reign of King Kenny but (despite some mediocre results) he has already given Liverpool a sense of belief. They don’t have a good squad and are not challenging for trophies but a feeling has been created that this is now a temporary state of affairs, whereas a few weeks ago it seemed inevitable. They will need more players to come in this month, and they need quality, but optimism is on the rise.

An interesting little side note brought to my attention the other day: There are currently more managers working in the English Premier League from Glasgow than from the whole of England. (Ferguson, Dalglish, Moyes, McLeish, Kean and Coyle vs Redknapp, Bruce, Holloway and Pardew)

Blackpool look to be facing up to the inevitability of their success, the realisation that they aren’t big enough to hold on to your truly good players. So how much is Charlie Adam worth? And, more importantly, when to let him go? Now at an inflated price, at the end of the season after hopefully staying in the Premiership, or for free in 18 months? Pros and cons to all. Tough job being a football manager.

The big news, about six months after losing Martin O’Neil because of lack of investment, Aston Villa have been forced to shell out £24million for Darren Bent because they can't score goals and might go down. Worth the trade? Tough job being a football chairman.

It's staying interesting people!

Will blog again once the transfer sagas are done and dusted to try and make sense of the prices, winners and losers.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed