Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dunfermline v Raith Rovers: Fantasy Football in Fife

A sell out crowd. A long standing local rivalry. The final derby of a long, tense season.

To the winner, perhaps, the championship.

Welcome to Scottish football’s Easter weekend. Welcome to Fife.

Dunfermline v Raith Rovers for a place in the SPL. It’s not how many people would have imagined this season’s First Division title race turning out.

But we should be glad. It’s given us an intriguing football story to focus on, given us a sunny respite from the wintery gloom of season shrouded in misery.

Too tempting, perhaps, to describe this as a championship play off.

Falkirk’s challenge looks doomed so it has come down to a shoot out between Raith and Dunfermline.

But the league table shows that a Raith win today would take them a big step closer to the title but not carry them over the line.

A Dunfermline win would make them prohibitive favourites to return to the SPL. But it still wouldn’t quite be a guarantee. Both sides have shown themselves capable of dropping points. To add another twist Dunfermline host Falkirk on the last day of the season.

The head to heads this season favour Raith with two home wins and a draw at East End Park. What perfect timing it would be if this is the game where Dunfermline secure their first local bragging rights of the season.

In a sorry season for Scottish football, in a year that has seen much written about the future of the game but very little actually achieved, today’s game takes on a heroic quality.

Here’s the Scottish Football League grabbing some time in the limelight, Dunfermline enjoying a first capacity crowd since 1996, John McGlynn’s managerial stock rising with every step Raith take towards the SPL.

It’s enough to make me giddy with excitement.

A winner? Dunfermline have home advantage, a rocking stadium, a one point lead, the confidence of a 6-1 win in their last game and three wins in a row.

Raith have less form going into this one. But they bring the spirit that’s got them this far, the knowledge that they’ve had the beating of Dunfermline this season and the motivation of the terrible consequences of losing. Emotion too, following the recent death of Ronnie Coyle.

Too close to call? My head says Dunfermline. Maybe a little bit of my heart says Raith Rovers, if for no other reason than to wring every last drop of drama out of this captivating duel.

"Football is the winner."

What a horrible, meaningless, clich├ęd, feckless phrase that is. The last refuge of the pundit who has nothing left to say.

But today, after this week of weeks, wouldn’t it be nice if it was true in Fife this evening.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Homeless World Cup: The Positive Power of Football

A shining light in the fug of our disconsolate national game. A Scottish footballing success story that is helping to change the world.

The Daily Record reported yesterday on the progress of the Homeless World Cup since the idea first germinated - like all the best ideas in a pub - ten years ago.

The project now involves 30,000 people in 75 countries. 97 percent of Homeless World Cup players say the experience has had a positive impact on their lives.

Full disclosure: I worked for the Homeless World Cup back in the day. That makes me a convert, a zealot. But also an eyewitness to the remarkable power of the tournament.

All that and you get some quite stunning games of football as well.

Mel Young, who co-founded the event, said:

"It was like a fairytale and we actually thought it couldn't be right because solving homelessness is not that simple. But, in fact, it works because it is really simple.

"We have one partner in every country and they work with homeless people on the street throughout the year, using football as a way of encouraging them to get off the street.

"From there, they get involved and get a bit of identity, possibly get selected to represent their country and then they come to this one big event, which is really a celebration of all the hard work."

It's a quite incredible story. And the heart of the operation remains in Scotland, based at Easter Road.

There is a caveat though. As Young points out:

"Funnily, people from Scotland don't seem too impressed with what the Homeless World Cup has done but in other places it is massive.

"I think it is just a Scottish thing that we don't get too impressed by things. We don't let people get above themselves, which is a good thing, but sometimes we need to celebrate things more."

Right here, under our noses, Scotland has real, measurable proof of the positive power football can have when the right people have the right vision.

And we choose to ignore it.

Maybe it's time we all took our heads out of the sand.

The Homeless World Cup

Scottish Football: A Day of Despair

An impressive Celtic performance saw them sweep emphatically past Kilmarnock last night.

It was at least a positive footballing story to end a day of unmitigated despair for our game.

This season had already been depressing, at times poisonous.

But the news that Neil Lennon had been targeted in a mail bomb campaign that could "have caused serious harm" was almost incomprehensible.

This is a new, darker place for Scottish football and Scottish society.

We don't yet know the person or persons responsible for the attempt to hurt, perhaps kill, Lennon, Paul McBride and the former MSP Trish Godman.

But we can say that whoever it is possesses a hatred so warped, a criminality so vicious, that they exist on the extreme, perhaps a hitherto unexplored extreme, of our society.

Yet even as we acknowledge the isolation of the perpetrator we must accept that our lingering complacency over sectarianism and bigotry must now end.

That is not a process that can involve only football. But football provides a rallying point for so many of these issues that to offer only hollow promises of tackling the issues while seeking to shift all blame on to society as a whole is no longer enough.

Football, every employee of every club, every administrator of every organisation, must now be seen to act. Yes, politicians, educators, the police and myriad other agencies have huge roles to play. But football must become a visible, vocal advocate for change, in deed as well as talk.

There can be no dismissive shoulder shrugging and talk of "ninety minute bigots." Recent events are an extreme, and I hope beyond hope, a one off.

But they are a disturbing illustration of where we can end up if we stand by and do nothing.

Somebody tried to murder Neil Lennon because he is manager of Celtic.

Somebody tried to murder Paul McBride because he has worked for Neil Lennon and he is a Celtic supporter with a public profile.

Somebody tried to murder Trish Godman because she is a Celtic supporter who held one of our more low profile public offices.

Read those three sentences out loud. And shudder that this can happen in Scotland in 2011. Weep that our game, this frustrating, passionate, bewitching game, can lead to this.

Was it really only a week ago that I wrote that world football didn't care enough to laugh at Scotland.

Well, they've taken notice now. From UEFA's Michel Platini to the media around the world we've become a talking point. Nobody's laughing.

And the image being projected, the black and white, headline grabbing image, is of a country where a footballing rivalry has got so out of control that a terrorist campaign is being waged.

Not one of us should be comfortable with that. It should leave us feeling ashamed, feeling diminished.

Does football reflect society? Does society reflect football? Either way it is disfigured, ugly reflection that we are faced with this week.

This is modern Scotland.

Depressed? Aye, absolutely.

Sickened? Perhaps never more so with this game that I devote far too much time to.

But not without hope for the future.

Evil has taken us to this point. Football has somehow contrived to provide the vehicle for that evil.

Yet surely we have now reached the turning point, albeit because of an almost unthinkable catalyst.

It's time now for football to provide the driving force, to help put right what's gone wrong.

If football is fed up being the whipping boy for wider problems then it now has both the power and the motivation to start the process of change that we are crying out for. Football can change itself and help change our wider society at the same time.

There has to be hope that in its darkest hour Scottish football can somehow rediscover its soul.

> If Neil Lennon ends this season without trophies he still deserves enormous credit for the way he has insulated his squad from any negative reactions to the disturbing events off the field. You need not be his greatest fan to admire that incredible show of character.

> There's been much written and said since this story broke. Alan Temple's post on the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast blog is one of the best.

> It would be nice if every league ground in Scotland could find a way to condemn recent events and support Neil Lennon this weekend. You don't need to be a fan of this guy or have any sympathy with Celtic on the pitch to utterly abhor what has happened. The sane majority need to begin the fightback by showing solidarity.

> Some of what was written has been predictably moronic. Berwick Rangers terminated the contract of a youth team player for comments on Twitter. And so depression is heaped upon depression.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

SPL Tonight: Dundee United v Rangers

Rangers fit in their first, and only, trundle to Tannadice of this much chopped and changed season just before the SPL-it.

Making hay while the sun shone on Celtic at Hampden, Rangers went top on Saturday with a 2-1 win over St Mirren. They can extend that lead to four points this evening, although Celtic will have two games in hand.

Dundee United, of course, gave this title run in added drama when David Goodwillie's last minute goal gave them a 3-2 win at Ibrox.

That win continued a rich vein of form for United but it was sandwiched between two defeats to Motherwell that provided further confirmation that the SPL's "other" clubs are strangers to sustained consistency this year.

But this is hardly a game that Rangers will relish. That Ibrox defeat has been followed by a 2-0 win at St Johnstone, a 1-0 win at Hamilton and Saturday's 2-1 home win over St Mirren.

At this stage winning is all that matters and a certain trepidation is understandable. But it's not emphatic. And that might lead to more fear tonight, so soon after Dundee United's richly talented attacking players gave Ibrox a potent display of their ability.

A win tonight though means Rangers take an SPL lead into Sunday's Old Firm clash. That could prove priceless.

United too have their motivations this evening. Not only would back to back wins over Rangers prove a notable scalp but it would further strengthen their grip on fourth place.

And fourth place could still carry a European spot. Conversely though that Europa League berth might be dependent on Rangers winning the title.

I suppose we should be grateful that we still have these subplots to mull over at this stage of the season.

I fancy Rangers to get another win here. It might be another tight win though.

And it took only the intervention of the Ibrox crossbar, Goodwillie's composure and United's season long habit of scoring late goals to show that anything can happen in a finely balanced game, in a finely poised title run in.

There might be more gnawed fingernails before tonight is out.

> It's not over 'till it's over: I make it 23 goals that United have scored in the last 15 minutes of games across all competitions this season. Impressive, game changing, point garnering stuff.

Monday, April 18, 2011

SPL: Love It When A Plan Comes Together

Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

Beware. The SPL's very own old flattop fool hoves into view once more.

Neil Doncaster has been keeping a low profile of late, consumed as we have been with summits and spats, songs and suspensions.

But today Donny roared back to centre stage.

As you'll no doubt remember he's been beavering away these past few months selling our footballing dystopia his green and pleasant land of a ten team SPL.

The fans haven't embraced this idea with the warmth Doncaster had hoped.

It is, he keeps telling us, the only way to help our top flight clubs.

This argument has been rendered somewhat impotent by the SPL clubs themselves failing to wholeheartedly back the plan.

But Neil, despite looking like a travelling salesman with a Mondeo boot full of cheap cleaning products and a glove compartment full of even cheaper porn, is made of stern stuff.

Another SPL meeting today passed without consensus being found.

Going on the offensive, Doncaster's come over all Alistair Campbell on our sorry arses and unleashed a sexed up dossier on Scottish fitba.

And he's stuffed it full of 45 minute claims.

The BBC report that the 100 page strategy document includes plans for:

  • The national team's Fifa ranking to improve from 66th to 15th within five years
  • The SPL's coefficient ranking to improve from 16th to 10th in five years
  • Investigating the creation of a British League Cup
  • Broadcasting revenues to increase by 50 percent in five years
  • The Scottish Football Association to make payments to clubs when players are on international duty

To which I channel the power of Fred Dinenage and cry "How!"

So Scotland will become a top 15 nation? A top 15 nation under the auspices of an SFA neutered and financially weakened by the a show of club power demanding compensation. The Good Lord Doncaster giveth and the Good Lord Doncaster taketh away.

The SPL to become a top ten league? We all want this. But wanting and getting are not the same. Especially when many fans are of the strong opinion that the ten team SPL dream is one destined to weaken not strengthen the majority of our top flight clubs.

Investigating a British League Cup? At which point the never ending debate over a British Olympic team would seem to flop down in the middle of the road as a rather ugly obstacle to cross border cooperation. Add to that the tepid response of English clubs to the great "Old Firm should relocate" question.

A British Cup is a rather quaint idea that will get fans going in hypothetical pub chatter. But I'd quite like to investigate the possibility of relations with Anne Hathaway. If she doesn't want to know then I'm basically just a sad stalker sitting in my underpants in a poster plastered basement.

TV revenues will increase by 50 percent? An old fave of Mr Doncaster this one. And an argument he never fails to make without falling back on meaningless bluster. It's a grand claim - it's the silver bullet - and it seems to be based on nothing more than a wing and a prayer.

It ignores the seemingly negligible impact of our current TV deal on the wider audience, it ignores the narrowing of the media field that will reduce the chance of a bidding war, it ignores the fact that televised sport itself is evolving and the future remains unclear.

And it ignores the rather startling worry that if the ten team idea is a miscalculation then Don-King-caster will be trying to raise an extra 50 percent on, and here I shudder at the thought, a diminished product.

Maybe he could pawn his brass neck.

Still, the SPL have taken 100 pages to breathe life into their fantasies, flesh out their headline grabbing revolution by bullet point into something more substantial.

Did the Bard Doncaster write them all himself? Or did he call in outside help? Jeffrey Archer? Ken Follett? The Brothers Grimm?

Look, maybe I'm wrong and Doncaster is actually our hero, riding out of the sunset to clear the town of cattle rustlers and corrupt sheriffs, strike oil in the morning and find gold in the afternoon.

Maybe. But he's failed to convince as he's hawked these ideas round. Failed to convince not just the fans but also, crucially, some of the SPL clubs themselves.

A 100 page strategy means nothing if your strategy is crap. Sex it up all you want. But it's still just 100 pages of crap.

It won't offer much of a parachute if Scottish football follows Neil Doncaster as he jumps off a cliff.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kenny Dalglish v Arsene Wenger

In a weekend of one sided cup semi finals, a dose of massive drama at the Emirates.

Two converted injury time penalties meant a 1-1 draw. Liverpool's came with the last kick of the ball.

Arsene Wenger, unsuprisingly unchuffed, seemed to remonstrate with Kenny Dalglish. Kenny, it seems, told him to piss off.

I know that we're not supposed to be in the business of condoning touchline spats. But to me this seemed to me nothing more than a spot of handbags in a moment of high drama.

Conclusive proof though that Kenny is back. And getting right into it.

Wenger will have been understandably annoyed at the loss of yet another opportunity to exert real pressure on Manchester United. He's already claimed that it wasn't a penalty and that too much time had been played.

His frustration might also stem from how comprehensively his side have been the architects of their own downfall this season.

Scottish Cup: Aberdeen v Celtic

Aberdeen v Celtic.

Four games so far this season and Celtic have racked up an aggregate score of 17-1. They probably just edge it as favourites today.

Coming into the weekend this was seen as the semi-final that would likely turn out the more one sided affair. Then marvellous Motherwell led the sorry Saints on a first half dance at Hampden yesterday.

Can Aberdeen offer us some nerve tingling excitement today?

It’s a tough ask. Aside from a brief revival when Craig Brown arrived as manager this has been another season of underwhelming struggle at Pittodrie.

Their last four league games have resulted in four defeats. In losing to Hibs and St Mirren they haven’t indicated an intent to rail against their lowly status by cutting a swathe through the bottom six.

I still feel that in Brown they have a manager who can bring some positive northern light to Aberdeen. But that’s in the future.

Right now they need to find a way of leaving their league form behind them and figuring out how to perform against a team that has destroyed them more than once this season.

Celtic, in a season of distraction and complication, have a simple enough task ahead of them. Win every game and a new team with a novice manager will have won the double.

It would a hell of an achievement. Delivering that will, of course, not be quite as easy, but dispatching Aberdeen today will be the removal of another important obstacle.

The last time these sides met at Hampden Celtic’s first half performance was outstanding. The pace of their play, their attacking verve showed them at their best. It was a game that confirmed the impression that the depth and quality of the Celtic squad is without equal in Scotland this season.

That the league is not yet sewn up, that a treble chance has eluded them is because their consistency has not always matched their abilities.

In recent weeks a ruthless first half dismantling of Hibs on the back of the league cup final defeat offered the most articulate example of their superiority.

Another 45 minutes like that today, in a game that doesn’t carry the tightness of the SPL’s nip and tuck battle with Rangers, will beat Aberdeen. Even an Aberdeen free from the fug of their league despondency will not be able to live with that kind of Celtic performance.

So Celtic are massively strong favourites with the ability to render even a markedly improved Aberdeen performance meaningless. The ability, in fact, to make just like Motherwell and have this game done and dusted before the first half is out.

But football often rages against the most obvious plots, the underdog occasionally destroys the script.

At this stage my mind drifts back to a very different version of Neil Lennon’s Celtic arriving at Hampden at the same stage of the Scottish Cup last year.

Ross County proved that anything can happen. That stinging experience is likely only to strengthen Celtic’s resolve today.

I’d expect - I’d hope in another semi final with a TV reach beyond our own limited border - that Aberdeen will make a game of it today.

But it’s Celtic all the way for me.