Saturday, March 05, 2011

SPL Today: Top v Bottom

Somewhat pushed for time today having devoted the morning to one of my semi regular battles with Scottish Power, a company whose estimated meter readings bear as much resemblance to reality as my SPL predictions.

Either that or Hibs have tapped my power supply to run the Easter Road floodlights.

Four games today and four traditional kick off times. It’ll never catch on. Here, quickly, are some thoughts:

Celtic v Hamilton

Top host bottom. Home win.

Hearts v Kilmarnock

Third host fourth. Home win.

Inverness v Motherwell

Top six hopefuls clash. Draw.

St Johnstone v Hibs

Steady as she goes host can’t stop winning. Draw.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Friday Video: New York Cosmos

The new New York Cosmos project remains slightly mysterious. Eric Cantona and Pele are both involved but as yet there is no team.

There is a strip though. The Cosmos' new Umbro gear was unveiled at Football Nation in Edinburgh last night.

Cosmos do, of course, have a history, a glamorous history as well, from that brief period when Pele was King of New York:

Thanks to Steven at Football Nation. Visit online or their Lothian Road shop for all your football needs.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

English Premier League: Newcastle 1 v Bolton 1

Oh me lads, you should've seen us gannin
Passing the folks along the road
And all of them were starin'
All the lads and lasses there
They all had smilin' faces
Gannin along the Scotswood Road
To see the Blaydon Races

A jaunty tune, Blaydon Races. Bit surprised at the sheer duration of the version Newcastle play before kick off. But tradition, I'm all for it.

A rather flying visit to St James' Park as Bolton visited in the English Premier League.

Time only for a quick trip to the statue of 'Wor Jackie' and a plastic pint in the Gallowgate End before taking our seats and enjoying that fine Geordie folk tune and a blast of Mark Knopfler.

Over the years I've visited Newcastle on and off quite regularly. I've noticed - and it's very much an outsider's view - that the city has become less black and white, that shirts of red and blue, of clubs further south are now easier to spot on the city streets.

Any such dilution of passion wasn't particularly discernible inside the ground. This wasn't a sell out, it wasn't a game of massive importance but clearly there is still hope and belief aplenty from the 48,000 believers in the stadium.

A salutary lesson here for critics of referees. The game had been trundling along rather merrily, was finely poised at 1-1 and both sides were showing enough willingness to attack to produce an entertaining afternoon.

Then Ryan Taylor miscontrolled and lunged after the ball. In his desperation he appeared to foul Johan Elmander. It looked, from my seat, like a strong challenge that maybe merited the game's first yellow card.

I was at one with the Geordie Nation as they howled their disapproval when Chris Foy produced a red card.

My anger increased when Taylor's dismissal robbed a decent game of its shape. I was further convinced this was a third rate whistler who'd struggle to get an SPL gig in the middle of a strike when he was clearly influenced by the crowd in a delayed decision to book Bolton's David Wheater.

But I was wrong about the dismissal. Repeated viewing on Match of the Day on Saturday evening and over the weekend confirm that Taylor's was a two-footed, over the ball lunge. Elmander's speed of thought in taking evasive action probably saved him an injury. The red card was deserved, the fans' derision misplaced and my own judgement flawed.

Actually my judgement was wrong elsewhere as well. Bolton's loan signing Daniel Sturridge was well hyped going into this one. He spent much of the first half going out of his way to disappoint. His runs into blind alleys might have been more acceptable if he'd shown any willingness at all for a physical battle. Instead he seemed all too keen to submit to Newcastle's defenders.

And then he rather smartly hit Bolton's equaliser for his fourth goal in as many games. As I wiped the egg from my face I was forced to concede that, whatever he lacked here, he looks to be a confident and fairly lethal goalscorer.

Newcastle enjoyed more of the game in the first half but Bolton's willingness to launch speedy counterattacks probably meant Sturridge's equaliser was deserved.

The early red card in the second half robbed Newcastle of their shape with their first half goalscorer, Kevin Nolan, becoming a particularly peripheral figure but Bolton struggled to capitalise on their advantage.

It was Newcastle who finished the stronger. Jose Enrique spent most of the afternoon driving home the idea that if he could find consistent final balls to match his magnificent twinkle toes he would be one of the greats. In the dying moments he finally did produce a cross to match the destruction he'd left trailing in his wake on the wing.

Unfortunately for Newcastle, Nile Ranger was rightly judged to be offside after providing the finish the cross demanded.

So a stalemate from two teams who seem destined - if I'm not being too premature in dismissing their European hopes - to remain in mid table, enjoying the comfort of safety while evolving as teams and squads.

Bolton, as we might expect under Owen Coyle, have a commitment to play football a certain way. They remain a work in progress but offer enough to deserve applaud for their efforts.

Newcastle have, as ever, endured a season of ups and downs, of comings and goings. But in Nolan they have a galvanising captain and Leon Best impressed for spells. Cheik Tioté, celebrating a lengthy new contract, provided the assist for Nolan's goal and looks to have an impressive depth to his game.

I have, it must be said, been to many less enjoyable low scoring draws over the years.

Have I now risked all by flying to close to the sun? What damage will exposure to the greatest league in the world do?

Well, none.

It is possible to concede the superiority of the English version without ignoring Scotland's unique charm.

Compared to my usual diet of football the players display a speed of thought, an awareness of space and position and a nonchalance in control that allows games to flow better.

That is hardly to Scotland's shame given the grotesque disparity in funds available in the two leagues.

If I pay two carpenters to build two cabinets I will expect the carpenter who bills me £50,000 for his week's labour to have produced furniture of a higher standard than the carpenter who bills me £500.

That would seem self evident, but if I can't afford £50,000 a week I have to try and make the best of what I can afford. Simple as that.

The SPL and the English Premier League are now so far apart as to render comparisons redundant. Clubs, fans and league executives who look longingly over the border are doing our game no favours.

To constantly make comparisons can only lead to depression and self loathing, it would be like me sticking a picture of George Clooney to my bathroom mirror. Why remind yourself of your flaws?

Not only are the differences now so pronounced as to make it hard to import the same practices here, too many seem awestruck by money and blind to the very obvious flaws in the English game.

The football might be better but the grass it's played on is not always greener.

So I enjoyed my jaunt to the dangerous side of Hadrian's Wall.

I'll be back.

But it's Scotland - Old Firm ugliness and all - for me.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Celtic v Rangers: Drama, But Little Football

Over 90 minutes of football at Celtic Park last night the home side deservedly won a poor Old Firm game.

They dominated possession, scored the only goal and were comfortable enough to restrict Rangers to just one attempt on target.

It was not by any measure a quality game. In fact it was a dire game.

But Celtic continue their treble hunt and have now lost only one of this season's five Old Firm games.

Rangers improved on their last showing at Celtic but were still horribly short of ideas and inspiration.

On other days our story might end right there. The game decided by Mark Wilson's goal with little in the way of incident.

But tonight we saw a bad football game stuck in the middle of a crazy Glasgow night.

Rangers' ten yellow cards produced three red cards. Steven Whittaker might consider himself unfortunate for his first booking but once that card had been meted out he should have the sense not to make a challenge as rash as the one that led to his second yellow.

Madjid Bougherra might well be annoyed by his second yellow card but his first appeared to come after a snidey, sneaky scrape of his studs down Gary Hooper's achilles so his complaints could well bring little sympathy.

At least they were both booked while taking a full part in the game. El Hadji Diouf was an isolated, peripheral figure all night. Except when he was getting involved with Neil Lennon in the first half for his first booking and continuing to show dissent after the final whistle for his second.

Even then the bold Diouf wasn't finished, stripping off his shirt and vest to throw into the Rangers crowd. Why any of them would want souvenirs of his less than heroic performance remains a mystery.

Certainly it's a snarling, ineffectual kind of heroism that does little for me.

Ally McCoist and Lennon, the men who will lead these teams into next season, had a bust up as they shook hands.

Celtic coach Alan Thompson suggested that McCoist said something that caused Lennon to react. If that is the case they should both know better but Lennon in particular should be able to take the slings and arrows of football without it engendering a violent reaction. There is no room for that in the job he is in.

Like Diouf, Lennon should by now have had enough bad experiences to know not to react.

These seemed to me to be the major talking points, fans of both teams and fans of neither will no doubt have picked out their own villains and flashpoints.

Sadly tonight's game followed on from Les Gray, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, having this to say:

“How do you prevent this violence after the Old Firm? The only effective way to prevent it is to ban matches. They are just not worth the murder and mayhem that accompanies them. Every time we think we’ve got to grips with this issue, it just flares up again – as it did on Sunday.

“If the players are on the park squaring up to each other and being aggressive, I cringe. I know this violence will be replicated later on Scotland’s streets, but then it will be done with bottles and knives. Realistically it will probably never happen but something has got to give.” (Herald)

As he acknowledges, Mr Gray knows there will be no end to this fixture. He was simply illustrating a point.

And tonight's game will have done nothing to allay his fears.

You and I can watch a game of football without going mental afterwards. But we all know there are people who can't.

What should have been 90 minutes of football has this evening fuelled the arguments of those who feel that this is a clash that encourages the very worst in Scottish society.

That, in the coming days, is a question that both clubs and the SFA will be expected to address. For Rangers, already cash strapped, the likelihood of a fine for their ten yellow cards is unlikely to be welcomed.

So what? Who cares? This sometimes happens in football, it's an emotional game, get over it.

To an extent that is true. But these are our two biggest clubs. Their dominance brings privileges and also the burdens of scrutiny and responsibility.

Certain actors in tonight's drama should reflect in the morning that under that scrutiny their behaviour was irresponsible.

For a while at least that will mean the clubs are attacked from outside and find themselves under pressure from both the media and the authorities. Nobody in Scottish football needs that.

Old Firm games will always carry baggage. An intense local rivalry need not be a bad thing. But at times tonight it threatened to descend into mayhem. The main protagonists need to be able to rise above that or pleas for calm to their wider communities will inevitably fall on ever deafer ears.

As a neutral, as a football fan, tonight was a let down.

I even found myself feeling some sympathy for Neil Doncaster. As he tries to sell Scottish football these games are his crown jewels.

Jim White's smug laughter as he reported the half time controversies said everything about why, already saturated with football good, bad and indifferent, Sky want these games.

Their interest is the wider spectacle, the freakshow that sits alongside the game, the blessed moments of controversy they can drool over.

Because they know, we all know, that there are people who tune into Old Firm games to see the very behaviour they were treated to tonight.

But these are modern football clubs who should be aiming for something different, something better.

They failed tonight. Rangers were the more guilty but Celtic were not without blame. The way Rangers set up demands discipline. The best of Celtic demands tempo that constant distractions disrupt. At the most basic tactical level the idiocy that surrounded the game denied both teams of their best.

And, as compelling as all this drama might be, it's not about football and it's not good for Scotland.

Scottish Cup: Celtic v Rangers - The Replay

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Yet again the game is afoot.

Old Firm clash number five this evening. The Scottish Cup replay after that thrilling 2-2 draw at Ibrox last month.

After the teams met at Celtic Park ten days ago Rangers were left looking bereft, the momentum seemingly inescapably with Neil Lennon's team.

Since then Rangers have progressed in the Europa League and brushed aside St Johnstone while Celtic have stumbled to a 2-0 defeat at Motherwell.

It is indeed, as a football bard once said, a funny old game.

Who are the favourites tonight? Is it Celtic who looked, emphatically looked, to be the better side in the last SPL clash?

Or is it Rangers who somehow found a reaction to that chastening experience and possessing the games in hand that continue to offer them the chance to reel in their rivals at the top of the league table.

An intriguing night in store, and perhaps even the tanatalising prospect of a first Scottish Cup game between these two to go to penalties.

Will this be the evening for unlikely heroes? Lukasz Zaluska will make a rare start in goal for the home side after Fraser Forster was sent off in the original tie.

David Weir, who managed to look even older than his 40 years against Celtic's pacy attack in the last league game here, returns to marshall a Rangers defence that might adopt the five man European blueprint.

Both Walter Smith and Neil Lennon will be looking for their players to react.

For Smith there has to be an improvement on the hapless performance the last time they came to call on their neighbours.

Lennon will be determined to see his players lift themselves from the Motherwell defeat and prove to themselves and to any doubters that the 3-0 Old Firm win wasn't a team hitting their season's peak.

It is Lennon who carries a 2-1 advantage from the season's first four clashes. Both managers will be keen to stress that these games are not about the men in dugout.

But Lennon will take a degree of personal satisfaction from his advantage, an emphatic two fingered salute to those who called him a mere Bhoy in a man's world.

Smith, too, in moments of vanity might wonder if trailing in this individual duel is quite the tone he wanted to set in his valedictory season.

Ah, the intrigue, the stories, the drama.

Love them or loathe them, these games have a habit of demanding your attention.

They are also notoriously difficult to predict. With home advantage, Lennon's "blood and thunder" filling the Glasgow night, I make Celtic slight favourites.

So I'll back the home win. But I don't see this being a 3-0 rout like the last Old Firm clash.

And, in predicting a Celtic win, I reserve the right to say that it would hardly surprise me to see Rangers advance.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

SPL Tonight: St Johnstone v Aberdeen

I got the impression from watching Sportscene on Sunday night that Craig Brown was feeling quite happy about how things are progressing for him at Aberdeen.

There is, he will stress, much work still be done. But Craig has always found it hard not to look quite pleased with himself when things are going well.

And Saturday's 0-0 draw with Hearts was evidence that his Pittodrie revolution is bringing about just the sort of steady improvement he hoped for.

By contrast St Johnstone's season continues to drift along. Good results follow bad results follow so-so results. They're still involved in the top six battle, although they now find themselves in tenth place in the SPL, but there is a danger of this campaign fizzling out, neither one thing or the other.

All of which makes this an important game for both sides. If they are to make the final push towards the top half of the post-split table, these are the games that have to be won.

Certainly Aberdeen's weekend stalemate offers more of a platform for this game than St Johnstone's capitulation at Ibrox.

I suspect that Aberdeen are enjoying an upward curve at the moment while St Johnstone have plateaued.

So, aware as I am of St Johnstone's recent midweek record being impressive, I'll back Aberdeen to give Craig Brown more reasons to smile. Away win.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

SPL Tonight: On The March

The SPL's March roars in like a lion with two games this evening.

Hamilton v Hibs

It wasn't all that long ago that this game loomed large in the minds of Hibs supporters as a crucial fixture in what was shaping up to be a protracted relegation battle.

And then Colin Calderwood's re-jigged side found their form and coasted through February undefeated, four wins and three clean sheets to the good.

Hamilton, meanwhile, remain rooted to the foot of the table. Saturday's draw with Dundee United offers some hope but they remain winless in 2011.

So although only St Mirren separate them in the table, this is a clash of two teams whose seasons have diverged in the last few weeks. Hamilton's game in hand looks fairly powerless in the face of Hibs' 13 point, 14 goal advantage.

All of which points, as I survey my half empty glass, to a classic night of disappointment for Hibs.

Despite that I've got to back the away win. Hibs suddenly look organised and spirited, the very qualities they have spent much of the season lacking.

Hamilton don't want for spirit or organisation but right now those battling characteristics don't look to be enough to overcome the frailties and limitations of a squad that appears destined for relegation.

So I back Hibs. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if Billy Reid's socks that prediction in the face.

Inverness v Dundee United

Given that both the teams remain very much in the rough and tumble of the top six battle they will both be smarting from the weekend's tribulations.

Current form suggests that an Inverness defeat at Easter Road is hardly a shock but United will be cursing their draw at Hamilton, a point won courtesy of a late equaliser, two points dropped courtesy of a sub par performance.

This is United's fourth away game on the bounce, a run that includes that draw with Hamilton, a goalless draw with St Johnstone and a defeat at Tynecastle.

Two points from nine does not indicate a team comfortable on their travels.

With only one in 2011 Inverness are a long way from replicating the form that saw them breeze through their re-introduction to top flight football at the start of the season.

So a studious examination of the form book tells me not to expect a classic in the Highlands tonight.

A low scoring draw.

Hamilton: Who's The Dope?

Proof yesterday that a drugs scandal in sport does not necessarily need to be subjected to full bellowing of red-top outrage.

Quietly and with little fuss Hamilton's Simon Mensing has served a month long drugs ban after failing a test in December.

It seems that Mensing had taken the banned substance - methylhexaneamine - unwittingly, not realising that it was an ingredient in a dietary supplement he was taking.

Mensing claims he told the testers that he was using the supplement and the anti-doping authorities seem to have accepted this, deciding that the month long suspension he has already served will be the end of the matter.

Hamilton, for their part, are annoyed that Mensing had to serve a ban before being allowed to his plead his case.

That, of course, is the way these cases seem to work, the onus very much on the accused to prove their innocence.

It appears to the outsider to be a flawed system set up with the best of intentions. But I think most of us would agree that this is a case that requires hardline measures, unfortunate as the consequences can be for the innocent.

And Mensing did take a banned substance and ultimately he must take responsibility for that.

What interested was that Mensing had actually checked with Hamilton Accies staff if the supplement he was using, Xedra-Cut, was going to fall foul of the rules. Apparently he was told that it was fine.

Football, I suspect, has not quite come to terms with drugs in the way other sports have.

Mensing is entitled to feel let down by the club staff who gave him the go ahead.

How can we trust clubs to educate their players when they make mistakes like this?

It is easy to say sportsman shouldn't take anything if there is any doubt. But Mensing does seem to have attempted to allay his own fears only to be given duff information.

I'm not qualified to even estimate the size of any problem football might have in this area. My suspicion is that it is another one of the many areas that football makes a common decision to ignore in the hope that it won't cause them too much trouble: the default head in the sand policy.

But the unfortunate Mensing's case does suggest that there is more football clubs could be doing to guard against incidents, even ultimately innocent cases like this one.

SPL: Doncaster's Diary Diplomacy

Mark the date in your diary, start crossing off the days.

The 2011/12 SPL season will begin on the weekend of Saturday 23rd July 2011.

The SPL were keen to stress that this is the earliest start ever.

Which it is. Although not by much, the SPL in its current incarnation having opened in the final week of July no fewer than five times.

And this change comes alone, no winter break and the season will end at the same time.

There is also a twist. To allow certain clubs - go on, guess - to compete in lucrative pre season friendlies each club will be given the chance to request a postponement of an early season fixture.

Thus, rather niftily, have the SPL got their earlier start and allowed - to use the ready made example - Celtic to play in the Dublin tournament they are signed up for on the 30th and 31st of July.

Benefits are said to include better preparation for our Euro hopefuls, fewer midweek fixtures in the winter and the chance for fans to enjoy more sun bathed matches.

Personally I don't think this rather wishy-washy change will make much difference to our European prospects, it will take rather more than this to turn that particular sow's ear into a silk purse.

I presume any "glamour friendly" postponements will be rescheduled with the appropriate promptness so that we don't actually end up carrying a backlog into the winter months.

The weather argument will find no complaint from me but I have to point out that the worst rain I think I have ever battled through on the way to Easter Road came before a European tie played at the start of July. There are no guarantees.

I'm uneasy at the optional postponement idea, the league season has either started or it hasn't. And when it has started it has to preserve its integrity by taking priority above all other considerations.

But mainly I just can't see the point in such half hearted change. I didn't think the promise of an early start would involve kicking off just a week earlier than we were five years ago.

On his SPL blog, chief executive Neil Doncaster said:

"Woddle oo teep a dop? Gloob a woddle a hop!"

No, he didn't. You can read his comments here. Basically "you can't please all the people all the time, but we can please ourselves most of the time."

He mentions, as always, appeal to broadcasters although it's difficult to see what exactly that is based on. How much negotiating power is a start date just two weeks before the Community Shield going to buy us, especially when we might be able to offer only one appearance from each Old Firm side in that short time?

He also talks about re-jigging the League Cup to offer more flexibility in the future. This is fair enough but again demands a merger agreement being reached with the SFL - an idea that continues to exist more in Doncaster's theoretical discourse than in actuality.

When Doncaster stresses this is a one off we are invited to believe that an earlier discussion of an early start will set a date in stone in the future. But he doesn't mention that Euro 2012 is likely to scupper this plan in the season after next.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin explores the ways in which Abraham Lincoln used compromise to build consensus. It shows how pragmatic leadership can be touched with genius.

Compromise, consensus, pragmatism. It's a shame that in adopting these principles Doncaster has shown himself to be more Nick Clegg than Honest Abe.

My main worry is not really about scheduling issues. This move has to be seen as the first step in a series of changes that Doncaster is promising will be nothing short of a Scottish football revolution.

But rather than a major boost for the greater good, the SPL Revolution Part One has proved itself to be a classic fudge.

That, I fear, does not bode well.

The Scottish Football Blog News Feed

Sunday, February 27, 2011

SPL Today: Two From The Top And Two From The Middle

Back to our local squabbles over the destination of the SPL title today. And, in Motherwell and St Johnstone, a couple of teams who are still very much involved in the race for the top six.

Neil Lennon might just have greeted Rangers’ European progress with a smile. For all Walter Smith’s protestations the extra European ties are going to further drain his resources at an important time of the season.

Motherwell v Celtic

Stuart McCall’s reign at Motherwell has brought a real mixture-maxture of results with the odd win tossed in with losing at home to St Mirren and getting a six walloping at Ibrox.

All which will rightly make McCall somewhat nervous about the visit of a Celtic team who contine to greedily snaffle points as they eye up Neil Lennon’s first managerial championship.

I expect Motherwell to fight the good fight today, to offer more resistance than they did in that disaster against Rangers.

But I can’t see past another three points for Celtic in a comfortable away win.

Rangers v St Johnstone

After the drama of their last gasp European success Rangers return to the day-to-day business of playing catch up in the SPL. They will be further heartened by Hearts’ failure to win yesterday, allowing Rangers to retain the psychological advantage of second place.

St Johnstone, still very much involved in the pre-split machinations, could welcome new signing Danny Invincibile into a squad that has been hampered by toothlessness for much of the season.

Two teams fighting different battles but both searching for the consistency that will help them realise their aims for the season.

In the normal course of events this would be a banker home win. But this hasn’t been the most normal of seasons. I can’t see St Johnstone winning this game but I can see them frustrating Rangers to a draw.

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