Saturday, March 26, 2011

First Division: Tough At The Top

Once again this blog has been guilty of ignoring the lower divisions. But an international break is always a fine time to patronise the minnows.

More seriously I've been missing out on an increasingly intriguing title race in the first division.

As it stands Raith Rovers lead fellow Kingdom-ites Dunfermline by two points. Falkirk lurk a further ten points behind in third but have three games in hand.

All of which means that today's clash between Falkirk and Raith might well have laid claim to Scotland's match of the day even without the SPL's holiday.

Raith's promotion push attracts me for a number of reasons.

The absolute dismay of the SPL high heid yins for starters.

John McGlynn has done an admirable job and deserves much credit. And it's been far too long to since we've been able to enjoy sports broadcaster wheel out their "dancing on the streets of Raith" scripted ad-libs.

But Raith are struggling to make the push that would take them clear while Dunfermline seem unable of putting together the sort of run that would punish them for their wastefulness.

All of which makes things tight and tense. And, we should probably concede, somewhat overshadowed by controversy.

Dundee continue to give the impression of being the league's most impressive side but languish in seventh, hamstrung by a 25 point deduction after one of their periodic episodes of financial tomfoolery.

This is league with drama and subplots at every turn.

Raith's lofty position can be put down to an impressive away record. Only once have they lost on the road.

That bodes well for them. A result at Falkirk would all but end the challenge of the home side and set up a Fife shoot-out for the title and the SPL's promised land.

Dunfermline host Partick Thistle today. League positions make the Pars favourites but they've only beaten them once in three attempts this season.

And in nine games since the start of February Dunfermline have won only four games. Raith have won five in ten over the same period. This could go all the way.

It seems to be set up to do just that. The top two face each other in the third last game of the season while Dunfermline host Falkirk on the final day. Nerve jangling.

I suspect that Falkirk might just be a bit too far out of the running, although a big win today could change that.

As for who eventually prevails? I wouldn't like to speculate. But it's going to be fun to watch.

At the other end

Without a win since October, time looks to be running out for Stirling Albion.

They're now nine points adrift of Cowdenbeath. A couple of weeks ago they had were three nil up against the Blue Brazil with 13 minutes left to play.

They lost 4-3.

The writing is on the wall, carved in stone. It doesn't make pleasant reading for the Binos.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Football On TV: Kicking Off For Money

We have a Scotsman to blame.

John Logie Baird.

The vicious bugger only went and invented television (more or less, at least on a practical level). How did a punter from Helensburgh pull that off?

And he did he not realise that he was kicking off the process that would see football ruined?

If he was clever enough to devise a TV system that would be used to televise the moon landings, why could he not see that one day his gift to humanity would mean St Johnstone kicking off against Rangers and Celtic at 6pm on successive Tuesday evenings?

Cheers for that, Jock.

A couple of more realistic reasons for this scheduling quirk. The weather, the split and a backlog that must be cleared.

And UEFA's rather draconian rule that broadcasting live games in direct competition with Champions League games is punishable by death. Or, worse for some people, a financial penalty that would be levied on all SPL clubs.

The SPL say there is nowt they can do.

Strange that UEFA are so insecure about the Champions League - a footballing behomoth that stampedes everything in its path - that a live game from McDiarmid Park would worry them. But a precedent can't be set.

6pm on a Tuesday it is.

Interestingly this news emerged about the same time as the SFA confirmed they'd signed up to UEFA's plan to sell the rights of international qualifiers centrally from 2014.

It's reported that the SFA will earn more from the deal than they do from their current agreement with IMG. Additionally, Scottish Cup rights and international friendlies will be sold separately, guaranteeing the SFA more readies for themselves.

At least the SPL's experience is proof that UEFA can drive a hard bargain and get what they want.

It will be interesting to see how it pans out, if the SFA really have made a money spinning decision.

We can confidently predict that somebody, somewhere will be getting rich from the deal.

That usually means somebody else will be getting shafted. And that usually means the fans.

I look forward to Scotland's Euro 2016 qualifier against Azerbaijan. Live from Hampden Park, Glasgow.

Kick off 3.37am.

Scotland v Brazil: The Anticipation Grows

A rather dramatic video to help with the whetting of appetites across the country. Scotland v Brazil, jogo bonito.

It is, of course, a meaningless friendly. But it fair beats the Nations Cup for glamour.

From the Faroes to the Pharoahs of the world game.

Bring it on.

Scotland v Brazil: Craig Mackail-Smith

"Peterborough striker Craig Mackail-Smith has become a surprise addition to Craig Levein's Scotland squad for Sunday's friendly against Brazil." (BBC)


Something of a regular on the BBC's late night Football League Show this season, that's who.

With 22 goals in 35 league games, he's often to be seen popping up between Manish and his mad autocue stare and Lizzy perched awkwardly on her desk.

But "surprise addition" would seem to sum it up.

Born in Watford, he qualifies through a Scottish grandmother. Agree, disagree. But those are the rules.

And Craig Levein, who'd be absolutely brilliant on daytime TV wallpaper Heir Hunters, vowed to use those rules to Scotland's advantage.

But is Craig Mackail-Smith the standard of player that we hoped his rooting around in ancestral records would uncover?

Too early to say. Like any Scotland player he deserves a chance.

My reservations are that, at the age of 27, he's only once strayed as high as The Championship.

His two best seasons, including this one, have come in the third tier of English football. His overall record, encompassing Conference to Championship, works out about a goal every two and a half games. Solid. But not against top quality opposition.

Good goalscorers will score goals no matter who the opposition is. Isn't that what they say?

We'll need to see. So far I'm underwhelmed. But the guy's in a Scotland squad to play Brazil so let's not knock him.

It actually seems unlikely that he'll figure much on Sunday. I'd guess Levein's using his striker shortage as an excuse to take a look at another option.

There will be extenuating circumstances if he doesn't feature.

Mackail-Smith is set to play for Peterborough against Bristol tonight before joining up with Scotland.

This really could be the stuff that dreams are made of.

From the Memorial Stadium to Brazil at the Emirates in a little under 48 hours.

It would be quite a story.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brechin City: A Question For Neil Doncaster

Tuesday night saw the end of Brechin City's cup run with a 1-0 defeat in a quarter final replay against St Johnstone.

So the chance to patronise the underdog in a semi-final is gone. It might now be St Johnstone's lot to fill that role if they face Dundee United for the chance to reach their first ever Scottish Cup final.

Cup shocks tend to be quite thin on the ground in the Scottish Cup, the pond being too small, the big fish too big.

They do happen though. Trust me, I'm a Hibs fan.

And they add to the colour of the game. That Brechin are managed by Jim Weir, Mr St Johnstone himself, provided the ideal narrative for the quarter final clash.

But watching snippets of St Johnstone's win I found myself asking questions of SPL supremo Neil Doncaster, the Marie Antoinette of Scottish football.

Brechin are currently lying in third place in the Second Division. That's 25th out of Scotland's 42 senior clubs.

That would mean no place for them in the two tier, 22 team SPL of Doncaster's dreams.

Where would that leave them and others like them?

Neil Doncaster's official response to such questions seems to be along the lines of:

"It'll be great for them we'll sort it so they mumble, mumble, bzzzz, bzzzz, do something."

The truth is we don't know. But we can guess that Doncaster's aim is to make the rich richer, the slightly less rich a bit richer and the poor can go hang.

Which means the romance of the cup would be further diluted, clubs like Brechin would be further threatened.

And that would be a shame.

It's a concern that, at the very least, deserves better answers than have so far been forthcoming.

Edit: a quick change to the second paragraph. Thanks to @markpross for pointing out that Dundee United are by no means in the semi final of the cup yet.

Graham Spiers, Rangers And Sectarianism

Right, what have I missed?

I've taken the opportunity to have a couple of days away from the blog and enjoy a round of golf or three at La Manga.

No, not really. That's the Scotland players. I've mainly been asleep in Scotland.

What have I missed?

The League Cup final for starters. An impressive enough display from Rangers, to the delight of an emotional Walter Smith, captured the first of the season's trophies.

An oddly flaccid performance from Celtic, unexpected from the team that have dominated these fixtures in 2011 and were staring at the first leg of a treble.

I'm not sure what conclusions, if any, we can draw from Hampden on Sunday as the remainder of the season looms.

A lesson, certainly, for Celtic that they must guard against complacency. And proof that Rangers are not yet the busted flush that some suspected they were. Never, as I seem to be saying every week, write Rangers off.

An interesting run-in ahead.

The final led, to borrow a phrase he once used himself, to another bad week for Graham Spiers and the whole sorry search for ecumenicalism.

On Tuesday Spiers used his column in The Times to attack "large sections of the Rangers support" over their choice of songs and chants. More than that he criticised the club, the footballing authorities and the Scottish Government for their acceptance of what he deems sectarian behaviour.

What he said was nothing new. You'll hear the same accusations from fans of other teams week in, week out. I certainly heard it during consultations for the neutered government inquiry into sectarianism in Scottish football.

There was an idea that Spiers was breaking a media omerta on the subject. That might be right.

Fitba' hackery should not be confused with investigative reporting. Jim Traynor is not John Pilger and wouldn't claim to be.

More than that we, the fans who consume the media, have displayed an inexhaustible appetite for a type of reporting that demands access to clubs, players and officials. To guarantee that access the boat must not be rocked.

Silence reigns. A glorious victory for the fourth estate? Hardly, but maybe we get the media we deserve.

Then of course there is the lunatic element. Spiers attracted his fair share of that this week.

He's big enough to defend himself.

But to a few of the points raised to attack there are simple answers.

  • "He's a Celtic fan" - if you're not for us, you're against us. Unless he's undergone a Damascene conversion this is, I suspect, bollocks.
  • "They're as bad us but he won't mention them" - he's on record, within the last few weeks, of saying in print that Celtic have issues in their own support but that he does not think it's as large a problem as Rangers have. This is the schoolboy response. The teacher's answer might be "two wrongs don't make a right."
  • "He was just using the issue to get folk to buy his paper/register on the website" - stone the crows, journalist in attempt to get people to buy his paper shocker.

Like I say, just a few examples. And mild ones at that.

But examples that shed some light on this issue. And perhaps point to one of the reasons why other people prefer to keep their counsel.

Because it seems reasoned debate leaves these shores as the ranks close around the club.

Rangers supporters are, of course, not alone in that reaction to criticism. But it does make it difficult to find a starting point to discuss the concerns Spiers raised.

Where are we?

We are where we always are. Without simple answers.

Sectarianism in Scotland does not begin and end at the entrances to Ibrox. Nor should every Rangers fan be accused. They are not all guilty and I know of many who disassociate themselves with the unreconstructed sections of their support.

A story I heard at school concerned a footballer with a lower division team who had taught his budgie to say "f*ck the pope." Possibly apocryphal. But people who knew him were prepared to believe it. This was on the east coast.

This is not just Rangers' problem, not just Glasgow's problem. And Rangers can't be held responsible for the way someone like that chooses to pass on his opinions to his children.

But it does exist within Ibrox and that problem is not being dealt as actively as it could be.

Rangers have an issue in this area, how big or how small will depend on your own opinion, and it is not enough for them to say it is purely a societal issue that the club are the unwitting victims of.

Because, by putting their own house in order, they can send a big, big message to that society. The same society that they are a major part of and draw their support and income from.

Other clubs have problems and I would never argue that they don't. But Rangers are a massive club so the spotlight hits them harder. They get a lot of benefit from that and those benefits bring a responsibility to act and be seen to act.

The "ninety minute bigot" argument exists and perhaps has some depth to it.

But it's wrong headed to use it as an excuse.

"Ninety minute homophobes."

"Ninety minute racists."

"Ninety minute chanters of songs about the disasters at Munich/Ibrox/Hillsborough or the death of Wallace Mercer."

Are any of these things made acceptable because football's involved?

I think not. And they become less so as football positions itself front and centre of our culture.

Substitute the words of certain songs in the repertoire with other words and there would be outrage if they were sung. What relevance anybody's blood, anybody's religion or anybody's ethnicity or sexuality has in modern football is beyond my ken.

Is this an argument for football undergoing cosmetic surgery and being left a sterile, passionless sport?

No. Surely your passion can be better displayed without mindless vitriol. I know others disagree and say that such displays are part and parcel of football's heritage and football's enduring appeal.

As I say, no simple answers.

Credit to Graham Spiers for doing his job as a journalist, identifying what he sees as a wrong and speaking out about it.

I'm sure he could live without the hassle and I don't think he'll get very far. But at least he's made his point.

In the meantime, Scottish football goes on. But denial, silence and tit-for-tat bickering over these issues is making an anemic sport ever more unhealthy.