Saturday, April 09, 2011

SPL Today: The Pub Forecasts

Like many a losing coupon, this week's predictions were compiled in a pub in Glasgow.

I had good reason to tread ever so gingerly off my chosen path of temperance.

Jamie and Simon of the Royal One Radio Footy podcast had asked me along to do a guest spot on their show.

A very enjoyable evening was thus spent talking rubbish about fitba' into a recording device.

Truly, this is how Chick Young must feel every week.

You can listen here for the week in review, Fernando "diddy" Torres, Rangers' UEFA travails and our predictions.

Aberdeen v Hibs

"It's all about the semi final" v "is it not over yet." Draw.

Celtic v St Mirren

"Must keep winning" v "Bloody hell, we've stayed up." Home win.

Dundee United v St Johnstone

"F*!$ing hate Motherwell" v "We really need goals." Home win.

Hearts v Motherwell

"We only need ten men" v "It's getting better all the time." Draw.

Kilmarnock v Inverness

"The king is dead, long live King Kenny" v "Top six slips away." Home win.

Rooney, Rangers and Governing Football

When football authorities talk, the world listens.

Some applaud, others get their underwear of choice twisted, many gloat. Most dissect, discuss, debate.

Two very different examples this week raised similar questions.

The English FA banned Wayne Rooney for two matches for his less than eloquent response to scoring a hat trick against West Ham.

And UEFA have threatened to come down hard on Rangers for the hellish karaoke of their travelling supporters.

Both bodies have the authority to act.

And act is something they like to do every so often to prove that they still exist and they still have that authority.

The fact that Wayne Rooney's traditional articulacy makes him unlikely to start beguiling us with snippets of Kipling as he meets with his own triumph and disaster is widely accepted.

That Rangers fans on trips abroad are unlikely to enhance the breathtaking architecture of mainland Europe with moving performances of Handel's Messiah is nothing new.

That doesn't mean the authorities should not act.

"You've let us away with it before" is no defence at all.

Moreover we know, and our experience of this in Scotland might be particularly bitter, that footballing authorities are hardly set up to be rapid response units.

They look, they hear, they ignore, they bury their head in the sands, they deflect.

And then, finally, they act.

All of this is nothing new.

What interests me about this week's response is what comes next?

Are the English FA really now going to be cracking down on every instance of bad language? Or only the incidents that are caught on camera? Or only the incidents that come shortly after the FA have launched a good behaviour initiative?

Is Rangers fine from UEFA and the banning of away fans a punishment based on previous bad behaviour? Is it now a standard fine for certain behaviour by fans? Or will it only apply when fans indulge in behaviour that has politicians and journalists in a flap in their home countries? Will it only apply to teams who have been in games that have recently been criticised by UEFA's top man?

None of this is in any way a defence of Wayne Rooney. And this blog has been consistently critical of what some Rangers fans to consider to be acceptable behaviour at a football game.

What I don't like are kneejerk reactions that aren't then followed up by more action.

The FA might have appeased those whose moral outrage was given another airing when Rooney snarled into the camera.

But how many examples of bad language will go unpunished this weekend? At how many grounds in England will language that is both foul and abusive be ignored both on and off the pitch this weekend?

And what of UEFA and Rangers? Will it be publicly stated that this is the first in a sliding scale of punishments? Or is this just a one off?

Because as it stands I don't see a £100,000 fine and a three game ban doing much to dissuade some cretins of their right to sing whatever they want. I suspect that a three game ban on away fans will be seen as a challenge, another way to earn a badge of honour.

Will UEFA be calling on the SFA to explain their role in allowing Scottish football to reach 2011 with issues of sectarianism still hanging over us like a polluted smog?

Will every club in Europe that has had reported problems with fans behaviour, with racism, sectarianism, homphobia, be given notice that this is a new, tougher UEFA?

I suppose we'll have to wait and see. For now, I'll remain pessimistic.

These are different crimes. And I offer no defence for Wayne Rooney or for Rangers.

But I think it illustrates the way in which football's governing bodies fail the game.

Will a two match ban from the English FA do anything to dissuade footballers, and in this case Rooney is a figurehead not a one-off, that they're not an over protected group of giant man-children, essentially untouchable by even the game's highest authority?

Will fining Rangers £100,000 and banning their fans from away games really be interpreted by those fans as UEFA saying that their songs and chants will never again be tolerated? Will fans of other clubs see what's happening to Rangers and decide en masse that they should leave their own brand of ignorance at the turnstiles the next time they go to a game?

I suspect not.

And partly that's because the FA and UEFA have fallen into the trap of the publicity stunt punishment rather than the positive attempt to rid the game of problems.

Like the worst sort of politician, those who run football now see the impact of a headline in the short term being more important than real change in the long term.

That is a dereliction of their duty.

But, happy that they've done something and - far more importantly - been seen to do something, the FA and UEFA can again get their heads down and say nothing more.

They can adopt their more comfortable positions of cosying up to big name players and kneeling before the demands of big clubs.

Meanwhile, matches sat out and fines paid, footballers can continue to live as cossetted, snarling bullies and the unreconstructed fan can continue to use his support of a football club as a rallying point for a war against decent behaviour.

And, counting the cash in their ivory towers, UEFA, the FA, the SFA et al might not even notcie as the silent majority of supporters simply drift away from a game that is being stolen from them.

Friday, April 08, 2011

SFL: Raith Rovers v Cowdenbeath

With three of the ten teams, we might always have expected that Fife would have a major role play in the First Division this season.

But we might not have anticipated that role providing so much suspense that, even this late in the season, we're still looking to the Kingdom for Scottish football's match of the weekend.

Second top play second bottom in a game that could have major repercussions for more than just the two teams involved.

Raith Rovers v Cowdenbeath.

A match that sounds like a Scottish footballing throwback treating us to another chapter in an engrossing season.

Raith are only two points behind leaders Dunfermline and have played a game less.

Cowdenbeath have dragged themselves free from the automatic relegation spot but remain four points behind Ross County as they look to avoid a relegation play off.

With Ross County and Dunfermline sitting this league weekend out, here's a big chance for both Raith and Cowdenbeath to make a move.

All of which would be quite interesting enough without the added spice of a local derby.

Given their recent history, SPL promotion for Raith would be an incredible achievement.

And given their own history, First Division survival, under Raith legend Jimmy Nicholl, would be a huge success for Cowdenbeath.

An exhilarating prospect. And an added dash of interest offered by the spectre of Dunfermline, watching on and forced to cheer on one of their own local rivals.

A ten team league producing 12 Fife derbies in a season is too much.

Between them though, Raith, Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath have somehow managed to keep up the excitement and interest until the very end.

League positions don't lie. But local derby results often do. So no prediction from me. Could be a close one though.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

SPL Tonight: Celtic's Turn For Catching Up

Celtic v Hibs

Rangers 2-0 win at St Johnstone has knocked Celtic off their perch at the top of the SPL.

Things could be worse. Celtic now have a game in hand and are only a point behind as their rivals count the cost of Dundee United's Ibrox win on Saturday.

Playing catch up might carry its own pressures. But it should also bring motivation.

Celtic have to be strong favourites tonight. On Sunday Hibs showed off both the progress they have made and their continued frailties in both attack and defence as Hearts' secured a point at Easter Road.

They remain undefeated in seven though and Celtic will need to guard against complacency.

Still have to expect a home win.

Motherwell v Dundee United

Stuart McCall's Motherwell are quite the teases, are they not?

After consistent inconsistency they wallop United 3-0 in the Scottish Cup and turn over Aberdeen as part of the undercard to Craig Brown and John Boyle's unlikely pugilist world title fight.

For their part United dusted themselves down after their Scottish Cup exit to give Ibrox the blues of Saturday.


A win tonight for the home side will settle the top six. But really, who knows what to expect.

Both are buoyant but I'll back United to extract a modicum of revenge.

Away win.

St Mirren v Aberdeen

Joy unconfined for St Mirren at the weekend as they put Hamilton to the sword. That 3-1 win doesn't guarantee St Mirren's SPL status but it goes a long way to removing the threat of relegation.

Aberdeen's season would now seem to be focused on their Scottish Cup semi final with Celtic, their league progress having stalled somewhat of late.

Their defeat at Motherwell will have smarted though and they'll be keen not to have second bottom St Mirren breathing down their necks.

Could be a tight one. Draw.

Hibs v Hearts: Expert Condemns Fans

Apoplexy unbound on blogs and in the Twittersphere at Craig Brown's contretemps with John Boyle on Saturday.

"One rule for one...."

"Why aren't the police/SFA/politicians getting involved?"

All bollocks.

The police were involved, were on the scene. Brown's post match comments attested to that.

The SFA have now confirmed they will act, as we must surely have expected they would.

Politicians didn't get involved because no policemen had called for Motherwell v Aberdeen to be banned in the build-up to the game.

As far as I'm aware nor did a senior officer publicly call for the government to get involved in the aftermath of the game.

I'm fed up saying that the focus on the Old Firm Scottish Cup replay and the fall out from it came about because of the scrutiny the game was always going to be under. So I'll not say it again.

Anyhow, the contrived outrage at the Brown-Boyle bust-up took the spotlight off a more serious issue raised by this weekend's SPL games.

The Scotsman reports:

Dr John Kelly, an expert in sport and sectarianism at Edinburgh University, said he could clearly hear the singing of offensive chants by both Hibs and Hearts supporters during the match at Easter Road.

He also said he was shocked to witness Hibs supporters close to where he was sitting hurling missiles - including a slice of pizza and a large cup of soft drink - from their seats towards the Easter Road pitch, and at the sight of dozens of Hearts fans leaping over barriers to goad their rivals after snatching a late equaliser.

The Scotsman can reveal 20 fans were thrown out of the stadium for "unruly behaviour" by police or stewards, with a further three arrested for alleged drunkenness and encroaching on to the pitch.

These figures compared to six arrests at the recent Old Firm cup final and 34 at the previous Celtic-Rangers encounter at Parkhead that triggered a Scottish Government investigation into bigotry and violence problems in the game.

Dr Kelly, who claims to have no affiliation with either Hibs or Hearts, said: "The latest Hibs-Hearts derby at Easter Road exposed the bigoted, intolerant and inflammatory behaviour of some Edinburgh fans that seems to have escaped scrutiny from the police and media alike.

"Tackling ethno-religious bigotry requires all guilty parties are held culpable if genuine solutions are to be found."

He told The Scotsman: "It was certainly not two or three supporters. I am talking hundreds who were all around me, who were singing 'Rudi Skacel's a f***ing refugee'. And there were thousands of Hearts supporters singing about being 'up to their knees in Fenian blood'.

"In many ways there was a great atmosphere, but there is no doubt these chants are bigoted and offensive. The conduct of a lot of supporters was completely unacceptable.

"I watched around 20 missiles being thrown from the Hibs end when a Hearts player went to take a corner, including a slice of pizza and a full cup of soft drink.

"When Hearts equalised, around 30 of their supporters, tried to encroach onto the sidelines and some got on to the pitch."

A Hibs forum is also carrying reports of missiles, including lighters and coins, being thrown in the East Stand which missed their intended targets and instead hit the fans sitting nearer the pitch.

Another forum contribution suggests a father had to stop his young son from innocently joining in with one of the more personal ditties sections of the Hibs support were aiming at a Hearts player.

Some sympathy, then, for Old Firm fans who claim that "it's not just us."

Less for any fans who claim politicians and the authorities should leave football alone or that this behaviour is somehow acceptable because it helps preserve the passion that is football's heritage, defending us from the evil forces who would insist on a sanitised version of the game.

Because calling someone a refugee or singing about fenian blood when Hibs and Hearts are producing a game that had passion enough is not about the heritage of the game. It's about idiots being given a platform to display their ignorance and football's continued impotence in the face of that.

The Scottish game is beleaguered enough. It needs to attract fans, it needs to be inclusive. Condoning by inaction behaviour that is increasingly anachronistic in a modern society, behaviour that would be unacceptable anywhere else, is not the way to attract fans or secure the game's future.

I don't know what the answer is, I suspect solutions will not be easily found or quickly implemented.

But football is now in the spotlight. It need to at least acknowledge that we need to have the discussion.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

SPL Today: Hibs v Hearts

Scottish football blog Hibs
Colin Calderwood recently had the pleasure of meeting me for the first time.

Truth be told, I’d possibly over indulged.

Drink beer and wine you'll feel fine. But when you drink wine and beer you'll feel queer.


So my attempts to congratulate him on Hibs’ recent run of form possibly sounded a little like:

“See me, Col, I’m a bit pished.”

But he’s a very approachable chap, smiled benignly and said that he had much work still to do.

And indeed he does.

His tenure at Hibs has been short but not without challenges. He took over a failing team and it continued to fail.

Faced with both a bleak league table and a squad that clearly did not impress him, he then had to use the transfer window to halt a decline that was beginning to look perilously like a manifesto for relegation.

He pulled that off. Hibs have won five of their last six games, only a draw at St Johnstone denying them 18 points from 18.

That’s impressive. More so when we consider that this has been done with a team that bears little resemblance to the one John Hughes started the season with.

It’s quite unusual in Scottish football for a manager to scrape together such a transformation in the January transfer window. It’s unheard of at Easter Road.

So Calderwood has laid aside his faltering start, begun to sweep out the mess left by his predecessor and taken some steps towards convincing the fans that here is a manager who can prosper at a club that has recently shown a remarkable intolerance to any perceived weaknesses in the dugout.

As a Hibs fan all of this heartens me.

And that should mean I’m feeling reasonably confident about today’s derby.

Well, to an extent.

Partly my trepidation comes from too much experience of Hearts-ache. Partly it’s because I am, by nature, predisposed to take a bleak view of the world and everyone and everything that’s in it.

Those are general, lasting reasons for a sense of pre-derby misgiving.

There are also more pressing concerns for this afternoon.

The fact that Hibs haven’t played a competitive game since March 5th means, at the very least, they are going into this one short of match practice or any real guide to their form. That could either be a good thing or a bad thing.

The six game undefeated run has been welcome, it’s been enjoyable and calmed talk of a club in crisis.

But Kilmarnock are the highest placed side to have been beaten. There’s been no test against the Old Firm, no measure of progress against a form team like Dundee United.

A new look side has done well to win so many games as they searched for cohesion and understanding in the squad.

Yet even taking into account the slight halt to Hearts’ progress as they find themselves bogged down in the no man’s land of third place, a derby represents a completely different challenge for Hibs.

They could well prove up to that task but it remains something of a step into the unknown.

Hearts have also won the last four of these clashes and are now undefeated in six. We have to go back to Derek Riordan’s late penalty at Tynecastle in May 2009 for the last Hibs win.

All of which serves to dampen my ardour for proceedings. And yet...

Certainly I’d be disappointed and a touch surprised if Hibs appear as devoid of intent and purpose as they have done in the previous two clashes this season.

This is, for all that they’re relatively untested, a Hibs team with more edge, more thrust and an added stomach for the fight. Hearts should find more resistance as they attempt to impose themselves on Easter Road.

In Richie Towell and Callum Booth the home side have full backs who are capable of giving Hearts’ midfielders and defence pause for thought. Akpo Sodje gives an added dimension in attack, Derek Riordan retains a certain enigmatic quality.

Victor Palsson’s injury in Iceland’s under-21 clash against England is a concern. He’s become a combative component of a midfield that Calderwood has transformed into a more formidable unit. Here’s a 19 year old who does not look like an Edinburgh derby would give him any reason to be fazed.

It’s a different Hibs, a better Hibs.

All of this leaves me searching for a prediction. Into the mix I must throw Hibs’ improvement, Hearts’ slight slips, Hibs’ inactivity, my own pessimism, Hibs’ new faces and the added pressures and dig of a derby clash.

Which, when processed, means?

I really don’t know. I expect this one to be close. I don’t expect Hearts to be able to dictate the way they did earlier in the season.

These are games that rarely throw up treats for the neutral footballing aesthete. If the sides are more evenly matched then we might find the game turning on an individual contribution, be it a flash of brilliance, an honest mistake or a moment of madness.

And that can make a game something of a lottery.

Which drags me inexorably towards predicting a draw. With the proviso that either team could sneak this one by the odd goal.

Apologies if that’s about as decisive as a tactics talk from John Hughes. But there we have it.

I’m feeling sick with nerves already.

Hibs v Hearts: The Tynecastle View

Hibs v Hearts possible line ups
The first of The Scottish Football Blog's derby day previews comes from Craig Cairns, the force behind Three at the Back and a supporter of the boys in maroon:

After two solid months of nothing but Old Firm matches, attention now turns to Easter Road for Scotland’s real showcase football match. Hearts will be looking to make it five wins in-a-row against their Edinburgh rivals but will surely face a sterner test this time around from a resurgent Hibs team.

Hearts without a number of players

Jim Jefferies is without a number of key players heading into Sunday’s match. Eggert Jonsson and Adrian Mrowiec are suspended; Kevin Kyle, Lee Wallace and Calum Elliot are all out injured, whereas Rudi Skacel, Marius Zaliukas and Suso Santana are doubts. Consequently, Hearts find themselves light in almost every area of the pitch.

Whereas Hibs now have a settled back four, the Hearts defence has chopped and changed in recent weeks. Full-back has proved to be a problem position all season. Ruben Palazuelos has deputised adequately for long-term absentee Lee Wallace at left-back but his services would have been more beneficial in the centre of midfield due to the lack of options there.

Right-back has been more of an issue and with Jonsson suspended, Craig Thomson looks set to start. Although a full-back by trade, Thomson has looked unsteady defensively this season and has shown that his best qualities lie in deliveries into the box, be it from open play or from dead ball situations. He started on the right-wing against Dundee United recently but was moved back to his natural position as a consequence of the erratic and reckless performance of Ismael Bouzid.

No matter who starts, right-back is a weak spot in the Hearts back four, which will otherwise consist of a central defensive pairing of Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas, should the Lithuanian pass fit.

Formation and the midfield battle

At half time in their most recent match, and trailing 1-0 at home to St. Mirren, Jefferies switched his side to a 4-4-2, sacrificing holding midfielder Mrowiec in favour of another striker. Hearts went on to win the match 3-2, however, it would mistaken to deduce from this that they will start with four in midfield and two up front on Sunday.

Hearts were chasing the game and required a dramatic change in approach after an inept first forty-five minutes. Lining-up with a midfield of Skacel and Black flanked by two wingers would inevitably lead to Hearts losing the midfield battle as Hibs have vastly improved in this area since the last time the sides met.

The starting position of Colin Calderwood’s side sees them line-up in a narrow 4-1-3-2 formation, which becomes a 4-2-3-1 of sorts when Martin Scott pushes on, David Wotherspoon pulls wide right and Derek Riordan drops deep and wide left. Victor Palsson is deployed as a regista and is vital to Calderwood’s system. He is also a doubt for Sunday but should he and Skacel overcome their knocks, then this will be one of the game’s key battles. As well as dictating play from deep, Palsson will be tasked of keeping Skacel quiet, a tactic that a few other sides have successfully employed against Hearts in recent months.

From a Hearts perspective, Skacel is expected to not only create and score goals, but, being in that area of the pitch, to pay close attention to Palsson when not in possession. Much like the way he nullified the threat of Liam Miller in Hearts’ 2-0 victory at Easter Road earlier in the season.

Martin Scott is another key man in the Hibs midfield. His energy is exceptional, he looks like he can score goals and is prepared to graft and do the dirty work. I fear that the central midfield of Hearts, which will likely consist of Black and Stevenson as the holding pair with Skacel in a more advanced position, will be overrun and Hibs will dominate as a consequence.

Goals a worry for Hearts

Despite three goals in their most recent outing, Hearts have struggled for to find the net of late, managing only five in the eight matches previous to the victory over St. Mirren. The prolonged absence of Kevin Kyle has left Hearts bereft of an adequate target man. When at their peak this season, the midfield runners of Hearts thrived on Kyle’s ability to hold the ball up and link play.

Hearts have struggled to fill the position since his absence. Stephen Elliott has been marginally better than the other aspirants and will likely start. He has displayed an ability to score a few goals despite not being entirely suited to a lone-striking role. What can be frustrating to watch is when Hearts ignore the obvious mismatch in height between Elliott and most central defenders, yet insist on lumping long balls towards him.

In attack for Hibs, Ricadro Vaz Te looks to be an astute acquisition for Hibs although he has struggled for match fitness. Even more so now that Hibs have just completed an entire month without a competitive match. Whether he or Akpo Sodje starts, the Hibs attack is an entirely different proposition than in recent Edinburgh derbies. Derek Riordan was isolated as a lone-striker in Hearts’ 2-0 win at Easter Road earlier in the season and Valdas Trayks was similarly anonymous in the same role at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day.


Hibs are the form side going into the match, unbeaten in the last six, even though five of these matches have been against sides in the bottom six. Nevertheless, how the break has affected Hibs will go a long way to determining the outcome of the match. It will be interesting to see whether a month without a competitive fixture will have a detrimental effect on them or not.

The home side have a settled back four now, Booth and Towell look dangerous when they push on and Stephen Elliott may struggle to get an inch from Dickoh and Hanlon. Without Mrowiec and Jonsson, and with Palazuelos required at left-back, Hearts look weak in the centre of the pitch and I expect Palsson, Scott and Miller to dominate.

Hearts have a lot of players missing and will likely get plenty of men behind the ball and attempt to hit on the break, and if players like Templeton, Skacel and Driver hit form, then Hearts always have a chance of scoring.


Follow Craig on Twitter @Threeattheback