Saturday, February 05, 2011

Scottish Cup 5th Round Part One

News filters through that St Johnstone's fifth round clash with Partick Thistle has been postponed.

If only we had a January shut-down all these call offs and bad weather in February could be so easily avoided.

So only five games to enjoy today.

Hamilton v Dundee United

An all SPL clash. Hamilton could have moved off the bottom of the table in midweek. Instead they found themselves cast further adrift. At such times does the cup become a unwanted drain on resources or a welcome distraction from the less than glamorous business of scrapping for survival?

Back in the day a dash of cup romance might have provided everyone with some comfort, lifted the spirits. Now, with the financial hardships of relegation so severe, it might be that the cup just gets in the way. Nobody will admit that but it could be the case.

Anyway that won't bother the fans who will be looking for a decent performance against the cup holders. United, despite a season that has really been neither one thing nor the other, will be looking at the remaining teams and fancying another decent run.

They should progress today. Away win.

Ayr v St Mirren

In the stunningly simplistic way that footer doesn't work we can take recent experience against Hibs and award Ayr a 3-0 win here.

Losing at Easter Road on Wednesday, a game they never looked like winning, was evidence of how hard a slog the rest of the season is going to be for St Mirren.

This is the sort of game Ayr will relish. With the advantage of Somerset Park I'm backing them to pull off another big result. Home win.

Buckie Thistle v Brechin City

One man's misfortune is another man's etc etc.

It had looked that Buckie's last contribution to this year's tournament would be two of their players fighting with each other as they were felled by East Stirling.

And then a reprieve. We could talk long into the night about the rights and wrongs of East Stirling being tossed out of the Scottish Cup. But they were and Buckie are back to fight another day.

Brechin will be an imposing challenge, sitting third in the Second Division. But. Player fights, a late reprieve. Buckie are going Hollywood in this Scottish Cup. So my heart says a happy ending today. Home win.

Inverness v Morton

Not been an easy run for Inverness in the league of late. Morton are mid table in the First Division but undefeated in the last six competitive games. I would still fancy Inverness to have too much today though. Home win.

Stranraer v Motherwell

Stranraer's last two games have been seven goal thrillers. They beat Stenhousemuir by the odd goal in the cup but lost out by the same score to Arbroath in the league.

I can't see Motherwell offering them quite the same largesse in front of goal so it will be up to The Blues to tighten up their own defence.

Motherwell signed Francis Jeffers this week although he won't feature it today. I mention it because it struck me more as the answer to a "where are they now" question than a transfer. It also suggests the level of Stuart McCall's frustration at his inability to strengthen in January.

What McCall wants more than anything is a run of results. He should at least get the win today. Away win.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Friday, February 04, 2011

Hampden Happiness

To Hampden last night, tuxedo-ed up and on best behaviour.

The SFA Grassroots Awards presented by McDonald's and The Sunday Mail.

Easy to be dismissive of the SFA and it's a target I'm loathe not to take a kick at when I think they deserve it.

Obviously problems with the development of young players persist. The SFA and our professional clubs are both culprits in that long term failing.

But there is good work going on. Whether that's McDonald's supporting clubs and training coaches or the SFA's regional network doing their stuff across the country.

So while we bemoan the lack of youngsters coming through, wait impatiently for a golden generation, we shouldn't forget a lot of the work being done by those organisations and volunteers across the country.

Volunteers who can give hundreds of children a love of the game. Not all of those children will be the next Kenny Dalglish but they are learning about football, about life and being given a structure that many of them might struggle to find elsewhere.

And that, in my opinion, is a good thing and deserves to be applauded.

One of the many things about the Conservatives idea of a "Big Society" that unsettles me is the unspoken suggestion that people that don't care at the moment, aren't already willing to get involved and be proactive.

I've been lucky enough to work in a couple of jobs where I've seen that participation, done quietly and without shouting, every day.

Similarly the people celebrated at Hampden last night are already making a difference and have been making a difference for years.

Not just with children and youth football. Last night also saw women's football, adult football and disability football recognised.

Take away Sky's bombast, millionaire bad boys and the SPL's self preservation lunacy and many indeed are the ways that this silly game we love can make a big, big difference.

More to follow on the winners over the course of next week. It would probably be bad form to "scoop" the media sponsor of the event before Sunday.

> Guest of honour last night - with no disrespect to Neil Doncaster - was Kenny Dalglish. Among his other high profile roles, Kenny is Macdonald's head of Scottish football.

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of chat with him before we were ushered to our seats. No major grilling from me on Fernando Torres or Andy Carroll. I find it hard to be Jeremy Paxman when I'm wearing a bow tie and drinking from a champagne flute.

So the conversation revolved around Stornoway black pudding, a mutual Hibs and Liverpool acquaintance and whether or not Sir Geoff Hurst has a photo driving licence and, if the answer is yes, should that have been enough to get a knight of the realm on a flight to Belfast.

Thus my incisive investigative reporting concludes that Kenny Dalglish is more approachable and down to earth than you might expect and more willing to interact with "ordinary people" than many a Hibs manager I've met.

And that, I feel, says a lot about the man.

> Why was I there?

Obviously when you're putting together a guest list for a night celebrating Scottish football, my name appears just after Kenny Dalglish, slightly above Craig Levein and yards and yards ahead of Stewart Regan. No?

Actually I was a guest of the sponsor with the golden arches.

Bloggers are still often pretty much ignored by the football world. Other, more forward thinking industries, have embraced the concept of blogging, of new media.

Football chooses to ignore, belittle or, in the case of fixture lists, chase and threaten.

Writing this blog is much like being a Hibs fan, a tale of frustration, occasional enjoyment and the odd laugh with very little chance of rewards or baubles coming your way. I knew that when I started and I expect and accept it now.

But as football blogging continues to grow and continues, irrefutably, to improve I do feel that football is missing out on an important way of connecting with fans.

So kudos is very much due to McDonald's and their communications officer Steven Birrell for keeping abreast of all forms of football media and extending an invitation. Steven, incidentally, is a Dunfermline fan. Which, if nothing else, suggests he can recognise a good bridie when he eats one.

More than that, he gave me the rare chance of a visit to Hampden with no risk of my team losing. The luxury.

Friday Video: Gary Neville

And so Gary Neville has finally - and not before time - called time on his career.

I can charitably describe him as a divisive figure. But one of the most consistent performers in English football for a decade. The greatest? Probably not. But, while some sneered at his dedication and fastidiousness, it was the mark of player making the most of what he had. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Anyway the videos. Bit short on goals these.

Bizarrely we start with David Beckham popping round to cook G Nev a meal:

A tribute to the man himself:

Talksport have a little fun at Gary's expense:

Not to forget Phil, maybe we'll see this book rocket up the charts

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Football takes a kicking

A remarkably annoying piece on the New Statesman blog titled 'How on earth can lefties like football?' by Helen Lewis Hasteley:

Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't believing in equality a key part of being a leftie? So how on earth does anyone square this with supporting football -- a game in which women are nothing more than baubles, gay people apparently don't exist and money is thrown about in a way that would make Gordon Gekko blush?

Football is a man's game -- women aren't really welcome, unless they're wearing a low-cut top or serving the drinks. Never mind Andy Gray and Richard "Do me a favour, love" Keys implying that even women specifically trained for the purpose can't understand the offside rule -- what about the Soccerettes prancing round in their skimpies? What about the female commentators chosen for their cup size rather than their expertise?

Aside from immediately bringing to mind the thought that the very term "leftie" should be banned forthwith the article seems to miss a few crucial points.

Much of the criticism of Keys and Gray came from within the game, particularly from fans for whom Sky's sexism in its choice of presenters has long been a source of derision.

But the arguments set out are based on top flight football and probably football since the Sky revolution of 1992 at that.

The author chooses to ignore football's long and important social history or the continued travails of clubs where money doesn't grow on oligarch's yachts.

Certainly inclusiveness is an issue the game has faced in the past and continues to face today. On homosexuality, for example, football's record and approach has been shameful.

But things are changing and most fans welcome those changes as much they are uneasy about the money being lavished on top stars at top clubs.

It's also odd that a "leftie" should be so critical of rich young footballers while making no mention of the wider societal issues that might leave these young men ill equipped to cope with the fame, money and pressure that comes their way.

And it misses the point that the beauty of watching football, having an emotional involvement however irrational that might be, is that the game at its fantastic best is an incredibly communal experience.

One that you can enjoy, endure or celebrate whether you are a leftie, a rightie or a turn-right-aboutie.

Full post and some good comments available at New Statesman

Left Back In The Changing Room has an excellent post on football's problems with homophobia

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Neil Lennon's Celtic Roar On

Time to ask for forgiveness? Apologise for being a doubter? Time to all hail, hail Neil Lennon?

Back in December I predicted that Lennon’s reign as Celtic manager was facing a January of intense scrutiny, a month that could shape the destiny of his managerial career:

“I wrote after the Old Firm game that Lennon was displaying a worrying habit of losing big games as manager. He was failing the critical tests.”

Now that we’re heading into February we must acknowledge that Neil Lennon and his Celtic players have roared into the New Year.

An unexpectedly straight forward win at Ibrox on the 2nd of January set the tone. The only blip on the pitch came in a tempestuous draw at Hamilton.

Off the pitch, the SFA hit Lennon with a six game ban. His appeal is ongoing. Inevitably we will hear more of a storm that has lulled but not yet blown itself out.

But January has been Lennon’s month. Six out of seven games won. A relatively simple win over Rangers, a demolition of an in form Hearts and a place in the final Co-operative Insurance Cup booked.

Seventeen goals scored and just two conceded. That miserly defensive record has been achieved despite a number of injuries to key players.

The already impressive goals tally looks set to improve. Kris Commons has arrived to provide more ammunition and Lennon looks to have struck on an effective pairing up front.

Georgios Samaras claimed both the goals at Ibrox. It was one of the occasional cameos that make the long periods the Greek spends aimlessly meandering on the pitch even more frustrating.

But it is the combined talents of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper who Lennon will look to power his team to the end of the season.

Stokes was not without his critics, attracting a fair deal of stick as late as the 1-1 draw at New Douglas Park in the second week of January.

But Hooper’s return from injury has allowed Stokes to blossom and prove what a fine goalscorer he can be.

Hooper offers an incisiveness and intelligence up front that Lennon sorely missed when the Englishman was injured. His return in 3-0 win at Easter Road set the tone for a partnership that not even Lennon could have imagined would blend so effectively.

If their double act was not part of his original plan then maybe we can also say that Lennon is carrying a little bit of luck, a crucial requirement for any successful manager.

There is still a lot of football to be played this season. With two games in hand Rangers are only five points behind.

But Lennon’s Celtic are in the driving seat, have forced their rivals into a tiring game of catch-up and established a hugely superior goal difference. It is Celtic who have left January with the momentum.

Faced with a series of challenges that many people, myself included, thought he would struggle to negotiate, Neil Lennon made January a month to remember.

February began with yet another simple win over Aberdeen. It will continue on Sunday with another big game, another huge test as Celtic face Rangers at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup. Walter Smith's side make the return trip in the league before the month is out.

Nobody ever said managing an Old Firm side was easy. But January suggests that Neil Lennon might just be getting the hang of it.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Football Fans In Front Line Of Egypt Protests

Difficult at the moment not to be transfixed by events in Egypt as a wave of pro-democracy protests undermine President Mubarak.

A funny place to find a football connection. Not necessarily, as Dave Zirin - always worth a read - shows in his column:

Over the decades that have marked the tenure of Egypt's "President for Life" Hosni Mubarak, there has been one consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the country's soccer clubs. Over the past week, the most organized, militant fan clubs, also known as the "ultras," have put those years of experience to ample use.

Last Thursday, the Egyptian Soccer Federation announced that they would be suspending all league games throughout the country in an effort to keep the soccer clubs from congregating. Clearly this was a case of too little, too late. Even without games, the football fan associations have been front and center organizing everything from the neighborhood committees that have been providing security for residents, to direct confrontation with the state police. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger said, "The ultras -- have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment." Alaa then joked, "Maybe we should get the ultras to rule the country."

You can see the whole article here, it's a fascinating read.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

El Hadji Diouf and Football's Bad Boys

Craig Burley reacts to Rangers' signing of El Hadji Diouf with a reasoned treatise on the power of forgiveness and moving soliloquy about avoiding the temptation to pre-judge people based on their past mistakes.

Well, no. He doesn't.

Rather Craig gets out his crampons and heads straight for the highest peak on the moral high ground. And suggests that Diouf should bally well head off to whatever bit of that foreign world abroad that he comes from.

Predictable for Burley, the unthinking man's pundit.

But is the reaction understandable?

Diouf has been a bad boy in the past. A bad boy many times over. Spitting at someone is disgusting. That Diouf has done it more than once is a pretty sad indictment of him as a person.

The allegations that he abused Jamie Mackie as the QPR player suffered a broken leg in a recent FA Cup clash are sickening and don't point to a reformed character.

Along the way there's been various motoring offences, accusations of racism and an international ban for abusing a referee.

Easy to look at that CV and think that we're dealing with a thoroughly nasty piece of work. And maybe we are.

So we can ask what Rangers are playing at having anything to do with him.

But are Rangers not simply exercising the pragmatism that the whole sport adopts when faced with a "bad 'un?"

Listening to some of the outrage that greeted his loan deal it would be easy to draw the conclusion that Diouf is the nastiest person to have ever been involved in the great Corinthian world of sport.

But football is full of bad boys, idiots and nasty pieces of work.

At least one current English Premier League star has been jailed for assault. Countless footballers past and present have been found guilty of drink driving. One of the greatest players of recent generations openly admitted to taking to the pitch with the intention of injuring an opponent.

Vinnie Jones became a celebrity on the back of "taking violence off the terracing and onto the pitch."

Andy Carroll, no stranger to controversy and with a conviction for common assault, became a £35 million striker on the same day that there were howls of anguish about Diouf coming to Rangers.

QPR manager Neil Warnock described Diouf as being lower than a sewer rat. Perhaps that's fitting when so many of our footballers seem to share the morals of those long tails with personal lives that would make Tommy Sheridan blush.

Possibly none of these offences are any more serious than Diouf's actions although I find it hard to see how many of them are less serious. Certainly I can't see how any of them are better role models for the generation of children that Diouf is accused of betraying.

And the game has not, as Craig Burley suggests it should with El Hadji Diouf, run these players from our shores.

If nothing else that suggests a double standard at play.

The idea that Diouf's behaviour is worse because it has happened on the pitch shows the staggeringly inflated sense of its own importance that is now football's curse.

But I honestly can't imagine Craig Burley being so worked up if Rangers had signed, say Patrick Kluivert, who was convicted of manslaughter for a driving offence that resulted in a death and had a litany of off-field incidents behind him. To me that's odd.

Perhaps there are fundamental sociological reasons why football throws up such incidences of bad behaviour.

But surely the truth is we are all implicit in condoning it. El Hadji Diouf has been employed by eight different clubs. Joey Barton earns £50,000 a week. We still go to the games, we still pay to watch them on TV.

Goals and decent performances give us the excuse, if not to forgive, then at least to forget indiscretions.

None of this is meant to defend Diouf. I find a lot of his behaviour reprehensible and fail to understand why Walter Smith would feel the need to take a risk on him.

But he's not the only bad boy to play the game. At times it seems the football is full of, at best, stupid boys and, at worse, a ragbag collection of bampots, cheats (in many senses of the word), thugs and convicted criminals.

If you look at Diouf and see an isolated example of football's moral breakdown, a lone wolf who fails to understand the boundaries of the norms of acceptable behaviour then you are taking an incredibly myopic view of the game. You are, might I suggest, taking a position of engineered outrage that a look at your own club's squad list might well fail to justify.

That, of course, is the football fan's prerogative. Vilification, condemnation, forgiveness and hero worship can be treated like a Woolworths' pick n mix.

El Hadji Diouf has provided people with the ammunition to cast him as the villain in a simple narrative of good versus evil.

He probably deserves that. But he's been picked from a cast of thousands for a starring role. If we're going to concentrate all our energies on screaming blue murder at Diouf's continued existence as a professional footballer then maybe we're letting a hell of a lot of others get off scot-free.

It's less hard to understand why Diouf seems to be constantly forgiven when we accept that he's not the only one. A bad apple for sure. But not the only one in this great game of ours.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

SPL Tonight: Top And Bottom

Last night’s SPL results had ramifications for the teams battling it out at both ends of the table.

St Johnstone’s 2-0 win over Hamilton means Hibs remain second bottom as they host third bottom St Mirren. Tonight’s result at Easter Road could have a big, big influence on how the relegation battle eventually pans out.

At the other end Rangers meet Hearts again with the Ibrox side now eight points behind Celtic who put three past Aberdeen in another episode of the SPL’s most one-sided and long winded sagas. With three games in hand Walter Smith might have expected nothing less. But the constant need to play catch up might become tiring in itself.

A few thoughts on tonight's games. All a bit hurried. A further look at the transfer window. And one signing in particular to come. Who could it be? Akpo Sodje?

Hibs v St Mirren

I wrote at the weekend that only when Calderwood had made significant changes to the squad could we begin to judge him properly. It might be time for that now with six players leaving Easter Road and six coming in - a recruitment drive matched only by Kilmarnock.

That the manger didn’t sign a centre half in the window will raise eyebrows with anybody who watched the Hibs defence struggle yet again at Tannadice on Sunday. More players might still arrive but for now Calderwood needs to get a goal and some kind of result from the players he’s got.

St Mirren were as restricted as manager Danny Lennon feared during the window with only Jim Goodwin arriving from Hamilton and Jure Travner’s loan deal being made permanent.

Remarkably these two clubs have managed only one league goal between them this year. This might be a night best avoided by neutrals.

A real test for Hibs this. The magnitude of the game will not be lost on St Mirren. Will Hibs be able to match whatever desire and unity the Buddies bring to Leith?

My verdict is a classic cop-out: draw.

Inverness v Dundee United

A strange game for United on Sunday. While not playing particularly well they might have found themselves cursing only scoring three goals against a Hibs defence that offered about as much resistance as a wet paper bag.

It was an emphatic enough way to call a halt to their recent run of draws and Peter Houston will have been delighted to see three different players get the goals.

Inverness have gone somewhat off the boil and are now without a win in ten SPL games, a run that Terry Butcher will be very keen to halt.

They might not manage that this evening but I’ll back them to get a point in a scoring draw.

Motherwell v Kilmarnock

Anguish and satisfaction for Stuart McCall after Sunday’s semi final defeat to Rangers. Anguish that his team lost so narrowly. Satisfaction that he could point to the best performance since he arrived as manager.

Was that simply players rising to the occasion? McCall’s next trick needs to be ensuring that a brave cup defeat can lead to a sustained run of form.

Mixu Paatelainen will be concerned over Kilmarnock’s strange habit of losing late goals. By my reckoning they’ve lost nine points in the last four games to goals scored in the last 20 minutes. Each time they’ve been in a winning position.

That’s a worry for Mixu who’s been taking his mind off things by ducking and diving in the transfer window to bring in half a dozen new faces. McCall, frustrated in all his attempts to secure players, will be looking on jealously.

Mixu will also be chuffed to have held on to have held on to Alexei Eremenko who returns from suspension this evening.

Could be another tight game this one but I’m backing the away win.

Rangers v Hearts

Rangers might still be wondering how they lost to Hearts at Tynecastle a couple of weeks ago after totally dominating for large periods.

The rest of us are now talking wistfully in pubs across the land of that halcyon three day period when Hearts were mounting a real challenge to the dominance of the Old Firm.

Hearts remain without the injured Kevin Kyle whose absence robbed them of much of their momentum as they snuck past Rangers before coming a cropper at Celtic Park.

Rangers could hand debuts to David Healy and controversial loanee El Hadj Diouf. If that’s the case then expect every movement Diouf makes to be scrutinised for signs of bad behaviour. And get used to it. We’re going to get this all season.

This could be another rumbustious affair. Strangely I’d expect Hearts to both enjoy more of the game than they did at Tynecastle but also to lose. Home win.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

SPL Tonight: Celtic v Aberdeen Part 7984

Hope everyone is recovering from the disgustingly addictive drug that is transfer deadline day.

I'm just about over the disappointment that neither Chelsea or Liverpool thought I was worth a punt. The agent is being sacked today.

Taking slightly longer to recover from the news that Hibs have signed a striker. Although looking at Akpo Sodje's goalscoring record I fear his impact might not be immediate.

Aberdeen v Celtic

Games between these two clubs seem to be repeating on Scottish football like a five course banquet consisting of raw, roasted and boiled garlic.

This might please Neil Lennon more than Craig Brown and Aberdeen's fans.

Celtic have a cumulative advantage of 14 goals to one against the Dons so far this season. That's not great from a Pittodrie perspective.

Certainly I wasn't expecting Saturday's semi final to turn out the way it did. We might have predicted Celtic would start strongly given their performance against Hearts. But for a rejuvenated Aberdeen to capitulate so badly, to lose four goals in the first 35 minutes was a disappointment.

If Craig Brown likes to suggest that he has a "good cop, bad cop" routine going with Archie Know. That has probably seen a subtle shift towards "bad cop, total bastard of a cop" in the last couple of days.

To that end I'm expecting a very different game tonight. I still predict an away win. But I'll dust off the preview I posted on Saturday and say that a tighter, better organised and well chastised Aberdeen will make life tough.

St Johnstone v Hamilton

Goals, goals, goals. An essentially simple game, football, as far as I can ascertain, still hinges on the ability to score goals.

That goes some way to explaining the horrendous thought that Liverpool and Chelsea combined to spend over £100 million on three strikers as we approached the transfer witching hour yesterday.

Such grotesque spending is beyond the wildest dreams of our plucky little Scottish clubs.

But it remains a concern that a number of SPL teams are consistently struggling to ripple the onion bag this season.

Into this category, led fearlessly by the scarily impotent Hibs, fall both St Johnstone and Hamilton.

So it is hardly going against the grain to suggest that this might not be the most high scoring game you've ever been thrilled by.

St Johnstone seemed to struggle against Hearts at the weekend while Hamilton got a late goal and a very precious point against Kilmarnock.

A game between two organised, determined sides. A game that, I'm afraid, could produce a stalemate. Draw. A 0-0 draw.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Monday, January 31, 2011

Dreamland: A Scottish World Cup Success Story

Football lends itself supremely well to the pursuit of counterfactual history.

Maybe that's particularly true of international football in Scotland with our litany of perceived hard luck stories and our decades old theme of being governed by diddies.

There is an argument that counterfactual history is little more than a distraction to the real study of history, a parlour game that shouldn't detract from more serious business. Why argue over a "what if…" when we we already know what did happen? Fair enough.

But we should all be allowed a bit of fun. And what could be more fun than applying a touch of virtual history to a book about Scotland's national football team, whose "what ifs…" are always more romantic, more glorious than the reality.

The result is every schoolboy's sporting fantasy. A parallel world where Scotland have a World Cup history that matches the brilliance of our individual talents, where Scotland really did become the "greatest football team."

That, as the title of Graham McColl's novel suggests, would be a Dreamland.

McColl covers 60 years of World Cup history. Scotland's greatest players and managers, and our most comedically grotesque administrators, mingle with the odd fictional eyewitness from the fourth estate and the terraces, to chart the World Cup history we all wish we'd had.

And it is a hell of a cast to call on. Bill Shankly, with his hyperactive and entirely democratic approach to the discussion - democratic if all you wanted to do was listen, whoever you were - of football, is a gift for a novelist.

The bringing together of the great triumvarate of Scottish managers, Shankly, Matt Busby and Jock Stein, is fine dramatic device as well as serving as a reminder of the days when it seemed that we really did rule the world.

There are a fine list of villains as well. From George Graham, think a 1950s George Peat, who refused to let Scotland attend the first post-war World Cup to South American defenders and dictators to Stein baiting journalists and bandwagon jumping fans of the "new" football of the 1990s.

Even an unnamed Jimmy Hill is allowed an appearance, a dismembered voice echoing in an Italian stadium.

Sometimes the pudding can be over egged. The World Cup drama that Ally McLeod managed to write for himself was so compelling that it is difficult to improve on. Where do you take a fictional Ally? That McColl's answer includes the overthrowing of a dictator and a turn as a water skiing politician shows the difficulty of creating a larger than life fictional persona for a man who was in life, rightly or wrongly, already seen as larger and life.

But this is a comic novel. It is not trying to do for Jim Baxter or Matt Busby what David Peace did for Brian Clough in The Damned United's dramatic re-imagining of dark, tormented souls. So Baxter can remain forever suspended as the playboy joker, as irresistible to women as he was unplayable to Alan Ball. And Busby can always be the benovelent grandfather with tactical nous and an Ayrshire miner's regard for the value of pennies and pounds.

And largely the comedy works. The chapter on 1998 didn't come off for me because it was allowed to unfold as it actually happened, the comedy provided by the hapless "yah" from Edinburgh's New Town suddenly drawn to the game as football enjoyed a renaissance as a respectable sport for respectable spectators.

We've all met his kind before. But as a comic device it didn't really happen. Maybe I was just depressed though. As McColl points out, threatening the fourth wall, by the end of our 1998 campaign most of us were in agreement that this had been too bad to make up.

But there are funny moments enough to keep the reader smiling even as thoughts turn wistfully to the World Cup squads we once had - or could have had - in those years when our international failures, given the talent available at the time, were probably almost as bad as the current squad's shortcomings.

The book ends with a young Scotland squad unexpectedly embarking on another World Cup odyssey. Fitting really. McColl shows that reimagining our footballing past can be funny and diverting. But it is the dreams of the future that will always sustain the football fan.

Buy Dreamland: A Scottish World Cup Success Story at Amazon

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Co-operative Insurance Cup: Rangers v Motherwell

And to think Kris Commons could have been making his Rangers debut today. Or not, depending on who you believe.

Whether Rangers were seriously in contention for Commons or not is neither here nor there. For now Walter Smith makes do with what he's got.

The aim will be to dispatch Motherwell with much the same insouciance as Celtic managed against Aberdeen yesterday.

An Old Firm final to provide the perfect send off for departing sponsors Co-operative Insurance? Or can Motherwell provide an upset today?

Rangers were hardly troubled as they brushed Hibs aside on Wednesday as Motherwell lost 1-0 to St Johnstone.

I don't expect this to be as one sided as yesterday's game. But I didn't expect yesterday's game to turn out the way it did.

Today though Motherwell will fight the good fight before being beaten by a couple of goals.

And Rangers will set up a sixth Old Firm clash of the season.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

SPL Today: Can't See The Calderwood For The Tears

Dundee United v Hibs

A Sunday kick off allows me to use today's match preview to sneak in what is now becoming a far too regular rant about the many deficiencies that currently haunt Hibs.

This one is slightly different though. It's the "sticking up for Colin Calderwood and finding hope for the future" post.

"Wait," my regular reader(s) scream. "Have your faculties departed, your senses taken their leave?"

No, what little sense I ever had is pretty much still intact, my essentially minimal knowledge of soccerball has not deserted me.


Firstly I have to say that I don't think Colin Calderwood is blameless in the current despondency at Easter Road. This is by far the most sustained run of bad form that I've seen because there is so little sign of the team offering anything at all.

Calderwood has failed to inspire the players at his disposal and the chopping and changing of the team hasn't had a positive affect.


Anybody who doesn't think Hibs would be in this mess if they hadn't sacked John Hughes is wrong. They would be. Hughes has a fairly major role to play as one of the villains of this whole sorry tale, he's at the very least a joint architect of Hibs' downfall.

And that's me being kind to him.

"But," you cry. "Hibs were only 8 points off third when Yogi left, now they're second bottom and 32 points off third."

True. But by third you mean Hearts and now is not really the time to measure Hibs against their city rivals. The truth is Hibs started the season poorly under Hughes, just as they finished last season poorly under Hughes.

But the fag-end of Hughes' reign coincided with every team outside the Old Firm starting the season slowly. It took time for Hearts, Kilmarnock, Inverness and others to find their feet. Various teams have improved as it was clear they would.

Just as predictably Hibs haven't improved. Wouldn't have improved under Hughes and haven't improved under Calderwood.

"So," my now somewhat annoying imaginary friend counters, "sacking Hughes hasn't made any difference because Calderwood is just as bad."

Possibly. You might be right. But you might be wrong. It's too early to judge.

I don't know how much Calderwood saw of Hibs before he took the job. But I don't think he was expecting the squad to be as bad as he found it to be.

When he admits after a couple of months in the job that he does not have what he considers a starting eleven that is not a manager dodging responsibility or excusing his constant shuffling.

That's an honest opinion from a professional, it's an opinion that must frustrate, baffle and annoy him.

"Ah, but as manager is he not responsible for making them better."

Yes, to an extent.

But could Alex Ferguson turn a genuinely bad footballer into the inspirational force Hibs need right now?

Could Jose Mourinho exhort Derek Riordan to try when he clearly has no intention of trying?

Could Pep Guardiola increase Kevin McBride's pace or cure Ian Murray's aching limbs?

I honestly feel they would struggle.

There are still more than a dozen players in the Hibs squad who are out of contract in the summer. The result is a squad that mixes inexperience with experienced players who don't care enough to try and a number who are, through little fault of their own, just not very good at football.

Is that Colin Calderwood's fault?

Sack him. Go on I dare you. But, if you could find anyone to take the job, I suspect they would struggle just as badly.

So where now?

Look at two of Calderwood's first signings. In come Matt Thornhill who he managed at Nottingham Forest. And in too comes Martin Scott who assistant manager Derek Adams managed at Ross County.

I don't think it is any coincidence at all that the first two signings are midfielders known to Calderwood and Adams.

This is Calderwood exerting control, putting two of "his men" in the dressing room, allies that he will hope he can rely on where the players he has inherited have let him down.

Look too at Richie Towell coming in from Celtic at full back. And Callum Booth's appearance on the opposite flank in the last couple of games.

Suddenly we can see Calderwood formulating a plan. Rebuilding his defence and his midfield. Players he thinks he can trust and young players who are hungry to impress replacing the old crowd.

We can see that in the increased role Danny Galbraith has played since Calderwood arrived, a player that John Hughes was quick to praise but who he then left to the bench, amid rumours of a manager who would barely talk to the player.

Young with something to prove, just like the latest signing Victor Palsson from Liverpool. And therefore with something to offer Calderwood that he doesn't see in more established "stars."

And look at the players who are going out of the door. A rumoured departure for Derek Riordan and Merouane Zemamma off to Middlesbrough to frustrate and delight. Chris Hogg and Sol Bamba already gone.

Is Calderwood clueless? Or is he actually using this transfer window to quietly bring about nothing short of a revolution within the budgetary constraints the board imposes?

Is he actually wriggling out of the straitjacket that he found himself in when he took the job?

The late addition of a goalkeeper and a striker could yet see Calderwood field a team that does not contain one player who would have considered himself a starter under John Hughes.

Hardly the work of a manager who doesn't recognise there is a problem, of a manager overawed by the size of the job.

Obviously there is a chance that Calderwood's new Hibs will be just as hopeless. In which case Rod Petrie has followed a diddy manager with a diddy manager.

But at least with his own team there can a far more measured analysis of Calderwood's ability. And, as painful as it is to watch Hibs right now, some of the abuse Calderwood has taken has been above and beyond what a manager so new to the job should have to put with.

Phew, out of the system.


So today's game. Too soon for my rantish theory above to have played out. Hibs will struggle on again.

Dundee United are the Scotland's draw specialists right now, a run that includes throwing away a two goal lead at Easter Road. At times this season it has looked almost impossible for a visiting team to throw away a lead at Easter Road, that United managed it suggests their own form is not all it could be.

But not as bad as Hibs who will go a calendar month without scoring if they draw another blank today. Without scoring Hibs won't win games and they look equally incapable at the back. Blunt and porous. It's a hell of a combination for a professional football team to suffer from.

So United must be favourites today. If Hibs can stop them scoring then there is hope for at least point. But can they?

Home win.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed