Friday, May 13, 2011

SPL: Memories of Eddie Turnbull Dominate

The starter before the main course. The stale garlic bread with mouldy mozzarella before the Old Firm's Wagyu steak.

The bottom six chunter out of view with everything decided and nowt left to play for. Inverness are safe in seventh - and how we thank the split for making seventh place such an aspirational target - and Hamilton are doon.

Turn up, play. And get the hell out of there to whatever holiday spots an SPL wage can stretch to in these days of austerity. A weekend in Skegness? A day trip to Blackpool? An all-inclusive lad's week in Magaluf?

The mind boggles.

Hibs v Aberdeen

Interest here at least. Not in two teams that have let down their fans all season. Aberdeen lost a game 9-0. Hibs stitched together a run of form so bad that decades old records were tumbling right, left and centre.

It's been, frankly, pathetic stuff. When the history of these football clubs is written the SPL season of 2010/11 will be but a minor footnote, barely even glanced at by anyone but the diehard or the masochist.

Eddie Turnbull, however, looms large in the history of both clubs. And his contribution to both will be righly saluted at Easter Road.

A player in the Famous Five, Hibs' quintet of attacking talent that echoes through the decades.

A cup winning manager at Aberdeen, dispatched north to kick a slumbering giant into shape.

And then back to Easter Road to preside over the technicolour 1970s, to manage players with flowing locks and wide flares that he couldn't understand and to turn them into a footballing force that he understood perfectly.

The outpouring of tributes that greeted the news of his death and the turnout from the great, the good, the not so good and the ordinary fan at his funeral earlier this week hinted at a connection with people that Turnbull in his abrasive prime might have found surprising.

By the end he must have realised the respect he was held in. Even so the genuine emotion hints at something deeper than the bond between teammates, between manager and player, between fans and footballing hero.

Turnbull served on the vicious Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. The astonishingly high attrition rate meant many of his friends and comrades didn't survive.

Turnbull came home. He resurrected his football career and became a key part of the Hibs team that opened up the 1950s and early 1960s in Scottish football, an era of possibility when any team good enough could win the league, when Hibs and Dundee could excel in the European Cup and the Old Firm were often reduced to also rans.

At Aberdeen he won a Scottish Cup and proved he could go toe to toe with Jock Stein, proved that Stein was not the solitary member of that wonderful cast of football men left in Scotland.

On his return to Hibs he somehow cajoled - at times maybe bullied - a team of local talents and clever signings into playing what was, if you'll allow me to borrow the hyperbole of a tribute song, the "best brand of football the world's ever seen."

When it ended at Hibs, Turnbull walked away. His club car was the only pay off for a relationship that had lasted over 30 years, three decades when he was never richly renumerated for bringing the very best of times to Leith.

So Turnbull's passing brought to the fore a jumble of different emotions. Sorrow that his is a dying generation not always venerated enough for the hardships they bore. Celebration of a footballing career that scaled the heights.

And nostalgia that with his death we move ever further away from an era when Scottish football seemed to have the world at its feet, when the game was simpler, perhaps purer.

Celebration will be the order of the day at Easter Road. Fans of both clubs will be encouraged to show their appreciation for Turnbull. I'd guess they'll do that out of respect for both the man and for his era.

Tales of Turnbull's career will be told again.

Of the great Lawrie Reilly taking and missing a penalty and Turnbull offering a predictably forthright assessment of Reilly's chances of ever being allowed to do so again.

Of Joe Harper asking to be treated like a man and of Turnbull promptly smacking him in the face to welcome him to maturity.

Of a turn of phrase that Pat Stanton described as a habit of "never using two words when one swear word would do."

Of the late Alan Gordon, elegant and erudite as he was, being told that "the trouble with you Gordon is a' yer brains are in yer heid."

Of the directness of the advice and help he would still offer to the current bunch of Hibs players.

And also, of course, of the great player with the belting shot who held his own with the best of the best at Hibs.

Of the manager who was loved and respected by the players for his commitment to them and to playing football properly. Loved even as they cursed him for his temper and his demands.

Of a keen football thinker who brought innovation and attacking flair to Pittodrie and Easter Road.

Easter Road will be all about Eddie Turnbull.

The game will be secondary, will be in his shadow.

Given the fare he was watching at the stadium until just a couple of weeks ago he might have expected nothing less.

Hamilton v Inverness

The success of the bottom six visit the condemned men. Inverness are assured in seventh and look likely to top fifth placed Kilmarnock's points tally. What a strange league we stress over.

Strange league or not, relegation is relegation and bottom place means Hamilton are for the chop. They came close to keeping the fight alive until the final game. Given they've looked all but lifeless for most of the season that would have been quite an achievement.

But it wasn't to be. This is their farewell.

The end of the road for a number of Inverness players as well.

For what it's worth, an away win.

St Mirren v St Johnstone

Given the end of term feel to this one I wouldn't be surprised if the players arrive in casual clothes, brandishing board games and pestering the managers to let them outside for a game of rounders.

St Mirren have done enough to keep ahead of Hamilton. That is not a lofy aim. But it's enough for survival so really it's mission accomplished.

St Johnstone would be enjoying a much brighter season if they didn't carry all the attacking threat of a retreating Italian army.

On which lazy, countryist, military stereotype I will predict an away win and bid the bottom six a hearty and somewhat relieved farewell.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Only A Game?

The BBC News website this evening.

All this because people play football and a man is doing his job.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

We probably wouldn't like what we saw today.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

SPL: Attack On Neil Lennon Overshadows Celtic Win

"It could be a stoater."

That's how I signed off my preview of tonight's Hearts v Celtic game.

We got a rather one sided 3-0 win for Celtic. We got two red cards as the referee stuck rigidly to the letter of the law.

And, above it all, we got someone from a home section of Tynecastle trying to attack Neil Lennon.

Other reports suggest trouble breaking out in elsewhere in the ground in an atmosphere widely described as "poisonous."

Jim Jefferies, who has seen more than most at Tynecastle over the years, said there "was something in the air, ready to kick off from the start."

A poisonous atmosphere is one thing. Disliking an opposing manager is part of the game. Combining that into a platform to try and assault someone? Well, I suppose that's just beyond my ken.

This season of woe and despair takes another lurch towards abject misery.

A lone attacker. An eejit. A lunatic. Whatever.

It seems too many of these idiots are currently feeding off a footballing atmosphere that is becoming more hysterically putrid with every passing week.

Given all that's happened this season I suppose we should be thankful that the assailant seemed to be held up as he approached Lennon. And that he didn't have any kind of weapon except his own brainless bampottery.

Again we ask ourselves how much of this Neil Lennon can possibly take before he walks away for his own safety?

Imagine that. Scottish football in 2011. And we might be looking at a man hounded from a job he loves because his personal safety is being compromised.

What does that say about Scottish football?

You don't have to pretend to be a fan of Lennon to realise that something is going horribly wrong here.

How can we persuade people back to the game, bring families to our stadiums, when a manager no longer seems to be safe inside or outside the ground.

Hearts, the SPL, the SFA and the police will launch investigations. Hearts, I suspect, will face severe censure.

But Lennon was only a leap and a sprint away from his attacker. Difficult to see what clubs can really do to stop people who see that intimacy - which should enhance the atmosphere at the game - as an invitation to go crazy.

Celtic's win set up another title deciding helicopter Sunday this weekend. But the front and back pages of the newspapers, the news and sport bulletins, won't be talking about that.

Instead we'll be reliving another disgraceful chapter in this toxic season.

Most of us just want it to end now. It stopped being anything like fun a long time ago. And amidst talk of the severity of the incident, of investigations and concern, the authorities don't seem to have any real sense of how they can prevent it.

Somehow Scottish football has descended into a morass where a minority - and thankfully it is a tiny minority that seems to either go to these extremes or condone them - think they are entitled to act like this.

Most of us are sickened by this kind of thing. Most of us love the game despite everything that's been thrown at us over the seasons and this new level of madness that we're being subjected to at the moment.

But how much longer can Scottish football be dragged through the gutter before we decide that this really isn't worth the hassle?

And where does the game go from there?

SPL: Happy Hearts Third As Celtic Come Calling

Third place was eventually delivered to Hearts in the least stressful way.

Dundee United's defeat to Rangers last night gave Hearts the league spot - and the European qualification - that they have deserved.

Things might have fizzled out of late but Hearts gave us one the major narratives, one of the major positive narratives, of the season.

Talk of a sustained title challenge, or at least an Old Firm splitting challenge, were to prove fanciful.

But in an eleven game unbeaten run Hearts at least gave a glimpse of what a tripartite system might look like.

A 1-0 victory over Rangers showed them at their best. Doughty and stubborn in defence, a manager who could react to the ebb and flow of the game and enough attacking talent to take a chance when it came along.

Rudi Skacel made an unexpected return to Tynecastle and, at times, looked like he'd never been away. David Templeton appears to be a Scotland cap in the making.

Kevin Kyle continued his SPL rejuvenation. There's something incredibly effective about the ungainly striker and Hearts found the best way to use him. His injury robbed them of their focal point. The way the season fizzled out in his absence suggests either a more reliable Plan B or a more reliable understudy should be a priority.

Marian Kello was the inspiration behind Hearts going five games without conceding - the longest run of any SPL team this season - and might count himself unlucky not to have figured in the player of the year reckoning.

At the end, as a dip in form stretched out the confirmation of third place, Jim Jefferies was deprived of Kello and then, for one game, his captain Marius Žaliūkas on the orders of hitherto mute Vladimir Romanov.

A minor skirmish or something more serious?

It's clearly left Jefferies unhappy. But it's not yet critical.

Which is probably for the best. When a manager does well he deserves the support of his owner. Especially when that manager has so clearly motivated by the best interests of the club.

It's a spat of the sort we've come to expect. But it's very much Romanov-lite.

We shouldn't let it detract us from saluting Hearts achievement in being deservedly crowned "best of the rest."

And I'm sure, whatever else has unsettled him this week, Jim Jefferies will be quietly relishing another European adventure.

Tonight in the SPL: Hearts v Celtic

One of the things that appeared to unsettle Jefferies were Neil Lennon's comments about the quality of the challenge teams were putting up against Rangers in the final throes of this long season.

Jefferies, who struggles to hide disgruntlement, let it be known that his gruntlement was duly dissed.

Lennon countered that he'd made an evidence based observation that had been misrepresented by the media.

As so we continue to go round in our ever decreasing circles.

The evidence suggests that Hearts have a bad record away to the Old Firm. That 4-0 defeat at Ibrox joins 3-0 and 4-0 defeats at Celtic Park as proof of an allergy to the westbound carriageway of the M8.

A different story at Tynecastle though where Celtic and Rangers have both been beaten and Rangers' two wins have come courtesy of tight encounters.

That fits in with Hearts general trend over the seasons, a better than average record against the Old Firm that depends on home form for its success.

All of which is nothing new. But, whatever he meant, Lennon might have made a tactical error. Hearts' season is over. Jefferies now has a way of motivating his players. Players who will already be smarting over leaving Ibrox on the end of a hammering after spending large periods of the game seemingly comfortable enough in their parity with the league leaders.

So further spice has been added to an encounter that often provides a bucketful of drama.

Celtic, as we know, need to win. Lose and Rangers get the title with a game to spare. Win and the championship goes to the last day and anything can happen.

There are easier places than a fired up Tynecastle to keep your title charge on track.

This is a Celtic win for me. But it could be a stoater.

SPL: Hamilton's Fate Sealed

In the end Hamilton had left their late rally too late. A good couple of months too late.

A season that began with back to back 4-0 defeats ended last night in relegation with a game to spare.

St Johnstone ended up the executioners. But Hamilton had were the authors their own death warrant.

Recent form suggested Hamilton were determined to cling on, to make a real fight it. But there was too much to do.

Too much for a team that have been unfailingly ineffectual - and often just downright bad - this season.

The late display of some tenacity perhaps looked more impressive because it came in a season of such misery.

After losing eight goals in their two opening games Hamilton then won 1-0 at Inverness. Another six games passed without a win before they went to Motherwell and secured another 1-0 victory.

That game was on the 30th October. It wasn't until the 17th of April - 22 league games later - that Hamilton won again with a 2-1 victory at Easter Road.

It was that win over Hibs that sparked the mini revival, a draw against Aberdeen was then followed by a win away to St Mirren and the first home win of the season against Hibs.

None of it was ever likely to be enough. Their only real hope would have been if they could play Hibs every week.

What went wrong?

Players offering quality left and the resources were not there to replace them adequately.

The lack of a proper goalscorer will be mentioned in many a post mortem. And, self evidently, a return of 23 goals so far this season is woeful.

But St Johnstone share that dire scoring record. The Perth side have converted those 23 goals into 11 wins compared to Hamilton's 5 and 43 points to Hamilton's 26.

The lack of goals hasn't helped but it's not the only cause of Hamilton's failure. The dearth of quality runs throughout the team, the shortage of goals as much a symptom of problems elsewhere as it is a reason for their relegation.

The buck stops with the manager?

It does.

But Billy Reid has had Hamilton punching above their weight for a while now. He simply ran out of options. Does he now regret not leaving on one of the many occasions when his name was linked with other jobs?

Worryingly for a team about to drop into the First Division is Hamilton's lack of fight at times this season. Even the more creditable results during that long spell without a win seemed to be caused more by ineffective opposition than any triumph of Hamilton's collective will.

Pundits like to talk about teams on a bad run of form suddenly getting nothing but bad luck.

Maybe it consoles those in the game to resort to superstition rather than lay blame or start making accusations of incompetence.

But bad teams don't need bad luck or a witch's curse to go down. Being bad is often enough. And Hamilton have been bad this season.

All of which should serve as a wake up call to the clubs immediately above them.

There but for the grace of Hamilton's lack of ability go St Mirren, Aberdeen or Hibs.

Where next for Hamilton?

The First Division is an inhospitable place where penury rules and a long season beckons. Belts will need to be tightened. Rumours earlier this season suggested the Accies were but a couple more weeks of bad weather away from major financial collapse.

Maybe that was just whisper and supposition. But they certainly look set to let a major cost cutting excercise loose on a squad that is already struggling.

This year their average attendance has dropped below 3000. Only Gretna have suffered that ignominy in the SPL before. Even as they sought to establish themsevles as a fixture in the top flight Hamilton have been shedding fans.

Will relegation persuade them back?

A struggling squad likely to be further weakened, penny pinching the order of the day. And a real need to start somehow reconnecting with supporters.

Yesterday was a dark day for Hamilton.

Unfortunately for them I can't see anyone turning the light back on in a hurry.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

EuroChampsChallenge Festival of Football

Jump in the car at Celtic Park and arrive two weeks later at Wembley. Along the way visit 20 cities and 21 football clubs in 10 different countries.

And, inspired by a seven year old boy, try and raise £100,000 for charity.

21 football clubs? The 21 winners of the European Cup.

That's the challenge Robin Blacklock set himself. Next Sunday the quest will begin. Joined by three friends on every stage of the journey - 16 countries will be traversed in a car provided by Ford - the team hope to meet a 'Medallion Man' at each club.

That's European Cup winning players. Names like Jim Craig. Like Gerd Muller.

It's a road trip reimagined as a whistle stop tour of modern European football.

Robin's EuroChampsChallenge was inspired by his son Angus.

Angus was born two weeks early with only one ear. That condition, microtia, also affected his mouth and speech.

At the age of seven Angus has undergone over 15 operations. Undergone them with a stoic cheeriness and a love of football.

It's his bravery that will be honoured by the money raised with the Sick Kids Friends’ Foundation and Changing Faces the nominated charities.

The Sick Kids Friends' Foundation supports Edinburgh's redoubtable children's hospital. Changing Faces supports people in the UK with disfigurements to the face, hand or body.

Robin has struck on a unique way of helping two very deserving causes.

Yesterday in East Lothian a Festival of Football was held, giving Robin's home village of Aberlady the chance to give the EuroChampsChallenge team a huge send off.

Hundreds of local youngsters, representing teams from across the county, were involved. I'm pleased to say that the boys did so with a talent that I rarely displayed on the same playing fields a couple of decades ago. So did the girls.

There were also a number of local footballing deities on show. In a legends bounce game Paul Kane looked fat, Keith Wright looked knackered, John Hughes looked to have reinvented himself as a libero, John Collins looked like he could still play in the SPL.

And Colin Nish was there as well.

A great day that hopefully raised more cash towards that £100,000 target.

A fun, relaxed, family day. Don't say nothing positive can come from football.

And I even got my picture taken with the European Cup.

Robin and the team begin their quest next Sunday. Good luck.

Visit EuroChampsChallenge to lend your support.

Or just get your phone out:

Text to donate £3: text "CHAMPS" to 70003 (Text Costs £3 plus network charge. Sick Kids Friends Foundation on behalf of EuroChampsChallenge receives at least £2.67, shared equally with Changing Faces. Obtain bill payers permission. Customer care 08448479800. Charity No CR44723.)

SPL Today: Celtic Demand Bouncebackabilty

The picture of Neil Lennon booting a bottle of water during Celtic's defeat to Inverness spoke volumes.

Which of his underperforming players was he metaphorically kicking up the backside?

Was this Celtic's bottle crashing?

Football teams often play badly. They often choose the worst game to show themselves at their worst.

That's what Celtic did on Wednesday night. The water bottle bore the brunt of the manager's understandable frustration.

From a position of strength it is now Celtic who can only win and hope for a slip-up elsewhere.

It's an uncomfortable place to be. And it was self inflicted as they surrendered their game in hand. Inverness is a tricky place to visit. But Celtic made it too hard for themselves and too easy for their opponents.

Onwards then to Kilmarnock this afternoon.

A third visit to Rugby Park for Celtic. A 2-1 in September followed by a 4-0 stroll last month. Sandwiched between the two a 1-1 draw in Glasgow in December.

That draw came in a run when Celtic won only two games out of six. It was the frailties of that sequence that resurfaced against Inverness.

The challenge for Celtic is to ensure that Wednesday night was an isolated stumble. They have to recover from it.

Even a full recovery might not be enough. But right now it's difficult to see how anything less than three wins from the remaining three games will be enough to win the title.

The consensus among Scottish football's pundits was that having more away games gave Celtic the trickier run in.

To get this in perspective Celtic have won a dozen games on their travels this season. They've drawn two and lost three. It's not a shoddy record.

But they've not been as emphatic on the road as they might have been. Only 29 goals scored in those 17 games.

Again that's hardly a poor return. But it compares poorly to the 40 goals Rangers have scored away from Ibrox. Kilmarnock have scored 26 away goals and Hearts 25.

Celtic's travelling success is down to a miserly defence. The three goals scored by Inverness on Wednesday make up more than a quarter of the away goals Celtic have conceded this season.

None of which means that Celtic, who have won 38 points away from Celtic Park, are travelling chumps.

But it does hint at a reliance on a stingy defence. Inverness brought into sharp focus what can happen if that defence goes awol.

In preparation for today's game Lennon will have had to strike a balance between the bollocking his defenders deserved and working on their confidence.

Kenny Shiels will have been impressing on his players the need to guard against the trap of playing nice football without any real thrust. That's left them attractively ineffective against the Old Firm at times this season.

If Celtic's defence are at all rocked by their experience on Wednesday then Kilmarnock have to capitalise on that by, as they say, "getting in their faces."

If they can get enough of the ball. It wasn't just the defenders who underperformed against Inverness. Celtic's midfield need to reassert their authority.

How to impose yourself in midfield when the going gets tough?

The manager should be able to help them out there, a DVD of Neil Lennon's career should do the trick.

Celtic lose games and bounce right back. That's what Old Firm teams do.

Will today be any different? Probably not. But that was a big, big game to lose on Wednesday night. A glance at the league table shows the psychological impact that could have.

If that adds to the nerves then Kilmarnock could benefit.

An away win. But it could be an uncomfortable one.