Saturday, May 07, 2011

SPL Today: Hamilton Hang On

Aberdeen v St Johnstone

Rumours that Aberdeen had buggered off on an early summer holiday proved to be exaggerated in last week's win over Inverness. A little northern light in a bleak end to the season.

And St Johnstone scored at Easter Road. Not once but twice. In a win. Winning football games is relatively simple when you score more than the opposition. If St Johnstone had managed to do it more regularly they wouldn't be slumming it in the SPL bottom six, the Scout jumble sale of Scottish football.

A return to normal service today? I think so. A low scoring - could be no scoring - draw.

Dundee Utd v Motherwell

Tasked last weekend with having their say in the title race Dundee United and Motherwell both received a gubbing.

So that probably wasn't how they planned it.

A chance to get back on track today. Motherwell have enjoyed a bit of form over United in the last few weeks.

And United need a win today to keep a bit of pressure up on Hearts in third place.

Who'll react better to last weekend's sobering thumpings?

If Motherwell don't fall into the understandable trap of treading water until the cup final then this could be a decent game.

I'll back the home win.

Hamilton v Hibernian

About to zip the body bag, an attentive attendant noticed a slight pulse. And so, for the time being, Hamilton have been spared.

Little room for error though. Three wins could save them. Two wins and a draw could save them. But it's really out of their hands.

What they really need is a home game against a side who look to have given up on this season.

So they'll extend a warm welcome to Hibs who have managed in a solitary point in their last three games. All those games at home, all against teams below them in the league.

In a rare burst of optimism I'd say Hibs were favourites here. But I suspect Hamilton's fight and spirit won't be matched by their opponents.

That could make the difference.


Inverness CT v St Mirren

An away win and St Mirren are home and dry in the SPL relegation battle. Even a point could do it.

Inverness were abject in losing to Aberdeen and euphoric in beating Celtic. How will they react today?

Home win.

SPL Today: Rangers v Hearts

A good week for Rangers. A good week indeed.

Back in the driving seat in the SPL after Celtic's defeat to Inverness in midweek.

And now a takeover.

A takeover! Finally an end to the most complicated, drawn out transaction since Ivana Trump demanded joint custody of Donald's hair in their divorce settlement.

A statement from the board committee charged with scrutinising the deal suggests concerns remain over Craig Whyte's intentions and means.

And we must also remember that Rangers, the most successful domestic side in world football, were sold for a solitary pound. A quid. Cheaper than a half time pie.

But the deal is done. Maybe now the supporters are left with known unknowns. It's probably preferable to unknown unknowns.

So David Murray is consigned to history. A trophy laden era that ended in the acrimony of a financial stramash.

The future, whatever it holds, belongs to Craig Whyte.

And the present is still very much in Walter Smith's possession.

I wrote last week that all Rangers could do was keep winning and keep hoping. Now all they have to do is keep winning and the title, in many ways an unlikely title, will be theirs.

Can they do it?

As I said on Thursday, both Rangers and Celtic are capable of further hiccups in their remaining three games.

Playing the day before Celtic, Rangers can lay down a marker. Slip up and they'll give up their advantage.

Three games then, three barriers on the obstacle course that is the title race.

And Hearts are first up.

I've felt since the final whistle blew in Inverness on Wednesday - and felt for no tangible reason, just a hunch - that if Rangers win today then they'll hold on to the title.

It won't be easy. A dip in form means Hearts have taken longer than expected to officially confirm third place.

That could make them more dangerous.

Certainly they can cause Rangers problems and they'll want to do just that. The "other" clubs take great delight in lobbing stinkbombs at Old Firm title aspirations, relish it like the Celtic nations enjoy halting England's procession to a Six Nations Grand Slam.

It's true that Hearts don't enjoy the same parity with the Old Firm in Glasgow as they often do at Tynecastle.

And Rangers were impressive in a second half dismantling of Motherwell last weekend.

A tough game today but one I can see Rangers coming through unscathed.

A home win and a step closer to that first title on Craig Whyte's watch.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Scottish Election: Labour Offer SFA

A leadership entirely out of touch with the needs of the consumer.

A belligerent refusal to listen to any sort of reason.

An arrogant belief that it doesn’t matter how badly you build it, they’ll come anyway. Because, hey, that’s what they’ve always done.

A fixation with how things are done “down south” with no apparent realisation that Scotland’s experience and England’s experience no longer bear direct comparison.

An inability to bring even basic articulacy to the simplest of messages.

An internal structure that’s not fit for purpose.

A jobs for the boys culture that rewards loyalty over ability.

A resistance to change of any sort.

An ignorant aversion to learning the lessons of the past and a delight in revelling in that ignorance.

A suffocating negativity.

May 5th 2011.

The day Scottish Labour finally morphed into the SFA.

Maybe even worse.

Somewhere in a laboratory in Haddington a crazed scientist has taken George Peat’s least attractive traits, added them to the less charismatic and inspiring strands of Neil Doncaster’s personality and created Iain Gray.

Like the SFA, like the SPL, there were then people within Scottish Labour who saw in this absurd concotion a man capable of leading, of inspiring, of getting things back on track.

And, just like the Scottish footballing authorities, we look on and say “hell mend them.”

This was a drubbing, a hammering, a blootering. A walloping.

Just a few weeks ago Labour led in the polls. Defending a lead they chose, with Iain Gray, to play Coco the Clown in goals, pausing only to bathe his big clownish hands in butter before sending him to the field.

Faced with a historically dominant force Alex Salmond’s SNP have overcome not only the weight of electoral tradition but the electoral system itself to grind Labour into the ground.

This is Dundee United winning the SPL by 40 points and connecting with the fans of every other club in the country along the way.

Not all Salmond’s own work.

He benefitted from the Liberal Democrats becoming the electoral equivalent of Auchenshoogle under-10s competing in the Champions League.

And Annabel Goldie – the Conservative’s very own Craig Brown – found her unique mix of common sense, whimsy and Women’s Institute scones fell short.

Salmond made a mockery of the prediction that he'd need to rely on the breakthrough of smaller parties to build a pro-independence majority. Just as well as support for the Greens drifted away like a Hamilton Accies crowd.

But let’s ca’ canny here.

There’s no footballing equivalent of Salmond, no comparable personality who can grab the opportunity and no democratic process that allows us to deliver to George Peat the weighty boot up the backside both he and Iain Gray so richly deserve.

An impressive achievement for Salmond and his party – come on, it’s really his show - though.

Mind you, if you think it’s strange how people with zero experience of professional football can infiltrate the higher echelons of the SFA’s byzantine structures just wait until you see the make up of this parliament.

Labour have been driven back so far they’re relying on regional list candidates, the rejects and leftovers, a motley crew indeed. The SNP’s success means they will be drawing on a hitherto unexplored talent pool.

A seismic shift but one unlikey to be accompanied by an immediate injection of quality. This could be the Holyrood version of Scotland sending a team made up of Dundee’s ballboys to the World Cup.

A new dawn, a new day. And interesting times ahead.

Salmond’s mission, should he choose to accept it (and he probably will, given the monumental boost that already sizeable ego has just been given) is simple.

Time for him to prove that Scotland only win the World Cup when the SNP are in government.

We’re waiting, Eck.

Dunfermline: Pars Party Up

Outwardly benign, really rather malevolent.

Inviting your enemies round for a house party is a nice gesture. Until they realise that most of the guests have only turned up to celebrate your achievements.

Cruel that.

Spare a thought for Falkirk’s fans. Off the pace in the First Division title race, financially suspect, offloading players here, there and everywhere and stuck with a divisive manager for another season.

The last thing they’ll want is to be part of Dunfermline’s title shindig.

But that’s exactly what they will be on Saturday. I suspect the faithful at East End Park won’t let them forget it. Not for a second of those ninety minutes.

It’s been an exciting First Division title race. A battle forged and fought in Fife but, for some, overshadowed by the ghost of Dundee’s aspirations.

That’s unfair. Dundee erred and were punished. A harsh punishment? Perhaps. But others have faced more stringent penalties.

It's said that without the punishment Dundee would have won the league. Would they? It surprises me some people can say that with such confidence. Prohibitive favourites, ahead and seemingly cruising they found a way to blow it last season. The truth is we don’t know.

People also tell me that it is the fans who suffer when such punishments are handed out. True that. And the Scottish Football League should be more consistent in dealing with such incidents. But the fans really suffer when cowboys, idiots, crooks and egotists turn up and ruin their football club, not because someone then has to hold those villains and ne’er-do-wells to account.

Dunfermline, and I’m sure they don’t anyway, need feel no guilt at Dundee’s expense.

As East End Park rocks, there will be thoughts of what might have been in Kirkcaldy.

In many ways Raith were the success of Scottish football this season. Their rise was surprising and sustained, in John McGlynn they delivered the manager of the year and they offered a new, enthralling plot to our stale footballing narrative.

Was I alone in relishing the look on the faces of some of our self styled SPL aristocrats when “little” Raith took their seat at the top table?

But it wasn’t to be.

Dunfermline saw them off and deserve their return.

Let’s hope those fans who snaffled tickets for their last derby showdown with Raith retain their enthusiasm and turn out in numbers for their SPL games. Certainly Dunfermline’s average gate over the last two seasons in the First Divsion will compare favourably with Hamilton’s in the top flight.

Manager Jim McIntyre has suggested he already has the nucleus of an SPL team. He might well look at the bottom six and think that, with a few additions, he doesn’t have too much to fear. I’ve already heard rumours linking him with a move for Hibs’ Ian Murray. There will be other competent SPL performers available should he feel he needs a touch more experience.

It’s not been a season without setbacks and stumbles. Considered among the favourites, and always one of the bigger teams in the league, Dunfermline did a fair bit of huffing and puffing along the way.

But they kept enough form throughout the season to lay the building blocks when the momentum did come. And well timed it was.

The last eleven games negotiated without defeat, including wins over Falkirk and Raith and a draw against Dundee when Barry Smith’s men looked determined to at least still have a say in the title race.

Impressive stuff. Championship winning, promotion garnering stuff.

A lot of the hard work will only start now. But, just before it does, there’s time for a bit of a party.

Try and remember to be nice to the Bairns.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players: Stephen Glass

Pittodrie. A cold (I suspect it was cold, it usually is) October afternoon in 1998. Scotland are enduring one of their periodic clashes with the Faroe Islands.

A 2-0 lead, the goals from Craig Burley and Billy Dodds, had lasted from the cusp of half time until the 79th minute.

At that stage Craig Brown chose to introduce our latest forgotten Scotland player.

Before the final whistle our hero had missed a chance to wrap the game up, the Faroes had pulled a goal back through a penalty and another Scotland team had turned a meeting with minnows into something of a struggle.

It wasn’t an auspicious start to a Scotland career. For our fourth forgotten Scotland player it was to be both the beginning of his international life and the end of his international life.

Few youngsters, as they put down jumpers for goalposts and dream dreams of future greatness, can imagine their entire international career lasting a little over ten minutes.

Or that they’ll miss a golden chance to score. Or that they’ll watch on aghast as Scotland lose their 11 minutes of international fame by a goal to nil. Against the Faroe Islands.

You never read stuff like this in Roy of the Rovers.

But it’s doubtful if any of this really registered with Stephen Glass at the time.

He was a likely lad on the up, destined for great things.

It was fitting that he took his international bow in Aberdeen. It was there he’d made his name.

He was part of the last Dons side to hoist silverware aloft with a 1995 League Cup win.

That victory served notice of his talent. Glass created both goals in a 2-0 win over Dundee. And possibly cycled home to Aberdeen upon receipt of the mountain bike that was his man of the match award.

By 1998 the much admired midfielder had won himself a move to Newcastle.

It all started brightly enough. So brightly that even Craig Brown, who had little time for new blood in his Scotland teams, took notice and gave him that international debut.

Things then began to stutter. His first season at Newcastle gave a few hints of the injury problems to come although it culminated in an appearance at Wembley in the FA Cup final.

Over the next year or so the injury troubles got worse and Glass was unable to force himself into Bobby Robson’s plans when he was fit. Seen as no more than a squad player he was soon deemed surplus to requirements.

In 2001 he became a successful part of Gianluca Vialli’s unsuccessful stint at Watford. Outlasting the Italian, he played for the Championship side in an FA Cup semi final.

Watford’s finances meant there was to be no extension when his contract ended in the summer of 2003. A free agent, he returned to Scotland and signed for Hibs.

I remember at the time someone describing this as the “Best Signing Of A Scottish Player By A Team Outside The Old Firm For Years.” It wasn’t.

It hinted at Hibs being giving a glimpse of the astuteness for which Bobby Williamson was oft admired but that he too often seemed to mislay in Leith. It wasn’t.

Injury robbed Williamson of the chance to see Glass at his best. But even when fit he seemed unable to perform consistently.

When Tony Mowbray arrived at Easter Road he looked to have found a way of rejuvenating Glass, reinventing him as the experienced man in an inexperienced midfield.

Perhaps relieved to let other steal the headlines rather than labouring under that unwieldy “Best Signing Of A Scottish Player By A Team Outside The Old Firm For Years” moniker, Glass responded positively enough.

But not positively enough for Mowbray to make him an automatic starter the following season, although he did eventually feature more regularly and win a contract extension.

Maybe injuries had taken their toll, perhaps the experience of falling in and out of favour at Newcastle then falling foul of Watford’s finances had diminished his confidence. Whatever the reason, Glass seemed to struggle to provide the stability and influence a young Hibs team needed. He certainly never looked like adding to that solitary international cap.

His Hibs career simply drifted away under both Mowbray and John Collins.

He left memories of flashes of his talent (one particular volley against Aberdeen remains a favourite), a fair dollop of frustration and death by a hundred puns (“Glass in frame,” Glass shattered” and on and on.)

From Easter Road to East End Park. Joining Dunfermline on loan Glass won a permanent move and was captain before injury ruined his 2009/10 season and led to a parting of the ways.

Unable to find a club in Scotland willing to take him on full time, Glass trained with Hibs and considered his future:

"I did think about calling it a day. When people stop answering the phone to you and don't return your calls, you start to wonder. You aren't looking for favours, but you do expect a bit of courtesy.” (Edinburgh Evening News)

He blames this lack of interest on managers labouring under the misapprehension that he was injury prone. But, in many ways, it was because managers were labouring under the quite correct apprehension that Glass has been injury prone throughout his career.

The Carolina RailHawks offered a lifeline and earlier this year he joined up with an expanding Scottish colony at the North American Soccer League side.

Now in his mid 30s you would expect that to be the final act in his career.

It’s an odd story.

Aberdeen, Newcastle, Watford, Hibs, Dunfermline.

The initial trajectory couldn’t be matched. But this was a solid enough career. Fans at all those clubs should have at least a couple of happy Glass moments locked away in the memory banks.

Yet there is a frustration that he wasn’t the player he looked like he could have been.

Odd too that he only got one cap, his profile remained high enough to give the impression of a player more richly rewarded.

He can perhaps count himself unfortunate. Other countries would have given him a cap long before Craig Brown – whose relative success with Scotland carried it with it a hostility to youth - did. These days being a squad player in the Premiership or featuring in the Championship would probably be enough to get him at least a handful of caps.

But it wasn’t to be.

At Hibs his career continued but didn’t quite flourish in the way it could have. Somehow there always seemed to be something holding him back, even when he appeared 100 percent fit.

It’s another example of a talented young player failing to quite make the leap. Glass didn’t have a career that ended in failure. But nor did he have the career you feel he could have had.

Maybe that’s just bad luck. But it’s a bad luck story that seems to happen an awful lot in Scotland.

He got his cap though. A reminder of what might have been? Maybe. But also a reminder of the player he once was and of what the future once promised.

Forgotten Scotland Players Number 4: Stephen Glass, Newcastle United, 1 cap

SPL: Title Race Goes On As Celtic Stumble

Where have I been?

What have I missed?

Here and there.

Plenty. Especially last night.

Inverness continue to revel in their role of the poopers at Celtic’s party.

I should register my annoyance that the game was even played last night.

If you’re going to have a split you should at least split with integrity.

And that means no post-split fraternising between the haves and havnaes.

But the fixture list demanded it. And it allowed Inverness the chance to pull on their best outfits and unleash a crescendo of raspberries right in the face of Celtic’s lordly title aspirations. They did more than just keep up with the Joneses.

That neither Celtic or Rangers have looked invincible this season has given the SPL table an ever more depressing look. But even in their dominance you knew there was still room for a slip up here or a trip there.

I can’t say I really expected it to come one early evening in the Highlands though.

When a result could have such a bearing on the title race it’s too easy to overlook the plucky underdogs. Inverness were at times inspired and could have won by more. Out on their feet, they held on at the end.

All the more impressive given that a number of players that had just been told they could leave in the summer. If Grant Munro really had planned last night as one last hurrah before he leaves for pastures new then you should get him signed up to organise your stag do. You’d have a hell of a time.

But Celtic’s display, its shortcomings, its ramifications, its causes, steals the headlines. Neil Lennon called it the worst of the season.

Some timing that.

Celtic will recover from this. That’s what teams at the top of the league do. But in the short term the recovery could come to late.

One of the points of the split – not best illustrated by Motherwell and Dundee United at the weekend and rendered somewhat farcical by Inverness last night – is to separate the best from the rest.

That means, in a season of evident fallibility, both Celtic and Rangers face theoretically trickier games to come. The Celtic fans writing off their championship challenge last night were infusing their brutal realism with a little too much fatalism.

With three games left anything can still happen.

Celtic’s final run in begins away to Kilmarnock on Sunday, continues with a midweek trip to Hearts and ends at home to Motherwell.

Rangers play Hearts at Ibrox on Saturday, host Dundee United in midweek and then travel to Kilmarnock on the final day of the season.

Two teams, seperated by a point, longing for the prize. Four teams with the chance to “do an Inverness” and ambush one or both of them.

Last night gave Rangers the kind of boost –the gaining of a massive advantage without kicking a ball - that managers love. That doesn’t mean it has won them the league.

Favourites. But not champions. Not yet.

Many people at this stage won’t care. For a lot of non-Old Firm fans these run ins are a turn off that underline the huge imbalance that the SPL supports and sustains.

But it’s hard to deny that these two old rivals crawling towards the finish line doesn’t bring with it some drama, even for the neutral who’d elect A N Other as champion if they possibly could.

It seems we’re in for more of that this year. If nothing else it provides a certain watchable tension.

One thing though. If it goes down to the last day of the season can I just say that “Helicopter Sunday” is a crap name for a showdown.