Saturday, August 06, 2011

SPL: Houston Channels Hannibal

Chelsea and Sunderland march proudly over the border to ensure that Rangers and Hibs are otherwise occupied as this stuttering SPL start continues.

Rangers are out of the Champions League, a result that also marked Madjid Bougherra's last game for the club.

Hearts lost Jim Jefferies, gained Paulo Sergio, gambolled through their European tie and landed a Europa League play-off with the Hotspurs of Tottenham. Quite a week at Tynecastle.

Europe and the SPL's early start opt out bonus means we're reduced to only two games today and two games tomorrow. Unsatisfactory.

Dundee United v St Mirren

And so Blackburn finally ended the protracted saga of David Goodwillie's transfer from United. The result - bafflingly enraged Rangers supporters aside - is a lessening of the Tannadice debt mountain but a team robbed of their greatest talent.

Some of what's left isn't too shoddy though as they proved with a Goodwillie-less win at Tynecastle last week.

In an ideal world Peter Houston would still have Goodwillie at his disposal. In a slightly less ideal world he would be allowed to splash the cash.

But this isn't an ideal world. It's not even close to an ideal world. It's the world of Scottish football.

Managers must adapt, make do and mend. An SPL boss is a one man footballing A-Team, locked in a fruit store in a one horse town and using only watermelons to build a weapon capable of stopping the US military police. You just need to hope your plan comes together.

While Houston will wheel and deal in the remainder of the transfer window, promotion from within has proved it's worth a couple of million times over this week.

So optimism abounds at Tannadice that another gem has been unvovered in Scott Allan who made his debut against Hearts last week.

As the door closes on one United career so the door opens on another? We'll see. It might be dictated by financial reality but it's hard to knock United's commitment to youth.

They still need to win games though and the most immediate challenge comes in the shape of Danny Lennon's St Mirren.

If Peter Houston is about to become the transfer window's John 'Hannibal' Smith, there were those last season who thought Lennon was the SPL's 'Howlin' Mad' Murdock. He seems determined to prove them wrong.

After missing a number of chances in their goalless curtain raiser with Dunfermline, St Mirren stayed true to team selection and brand of football to beat Aberdeen last weekend.

The season is but a babe in arms as yet but four points from two games will offer succour to those who felt that Lennon emerged from the summer as well as any SPL manager.

One of his new signings Nigel Hasselbank - one of the Scottish Football Blog's '12 to Watch' - scored the goal that dispatched Aberdeen in a win that had Lennon talking of a top six finish this season.

Tannadice is the perfect place to put such talk to the test, a sterner test than that offered by a disappointing Aberdeen last week.

St Mirren are unlikely to find United as bereft of ideas as Aberdeen were and while four points from two games is a fine start Danny Lennon might be concerned that they've scored only one goal despite dominating for long periods of those two games.

Maybe they're just waiting to score a barrel load one of these days. But I suspect not today. Home win.

Dunfermline v Inverness

As unsatisfactory as the SPL opt-out policies have been, last week at least offered Dunfermline the chance to see off Annan in the Ever Changing Moniker League Cup.

Annika Sorenstam during her days of glory on the women's golf tour used to spend hours and hours practicing putts of within just a couple of feet. The reason? To get used to the sound of the ball hitting hole. Dunfermline will hope that winning football matches is similarly habit forming.

How Inverness will have wished they had last weekend off. A home defeat is always unfortunate, it's made worse when it comes at the start of a season when people are wondering if your squad really does convince.

It's made even worse if it comes against a team who never prospered in the Highlands. It might have been a sclaffed late goal and dodgy goalkeeping that gave Hibs a last gasp victory but it's exactly the sort of game that Inverness would not have expected to lose last season.

Even this early in the season that will be a worry for Terry Butcher. Losing can become a habit as well. Chris Hogg has returned after being released last season to bolster a defence that has shipped four goals in two games. No goals scored means the pressure grows on players like Gregory Tade to fill the Adam Rooney shaped hole up front.

Dunfermline huffed and puffed their way to a scoreless draw against St Mirren, a lesson perhaps that there can be re-entry issues for teams returning to the SPL.

Two teams looking for a first win ending the afternoon with a stalemate? Possibly. But with Inverness struggling this is a big chance for Dunfermline to offer us a statement of intent. Home win.

Friday, August 05, 2011

SPL: The Cost Of Fitba'

The BBC published a survey this week on the cost of watching football in Britain. An interesting exercise, the challenge was to find the cheapest day out at football grounds across the country.

(Note: Twohundredpercent has a cautionary tale about the BBC's methodology and, of course, the survey ignored the Scottish Football League.)

The headline findings included the news that the cheapest day out at Easter Road is more expensive than any other stadium in the country. That price is arrived at after you've bought your ticket, washed an excuse for a pie down with a cup of bad tea and leafed through the adverts in your extravagantly priced programme.

A cheap day of SPL football will now cost over £20. On the other hand, St Mirren offer free beans with every pie.

It's a difficult trick to find a pricing strategy that both attracts the supporter and allows clubs to balance - or come close to balancing - the books. But we really do need a solution.

There is an increasing feeling that those in power at clubs are pricing the ordinary punter out of the game while every summer sees the delivery of apparently randomly drawn fixture lists that many fans are no longer willing to structure their lives around.

As prices rise we don't seem to be seeing the profile of fans changing, not for Scotland the "traditional" punter being replaced by the more cosmetically acceptable and affluent supporter. Instead we're just seeing fans disappear.

A perfect summer's day in July should be a showcase for Scottish football. Instead, just a week or so ago, Hibs and Celtic played in front of stands that had around 10,000 empty seats. That's unhealthy.

The normal rebuttal to this is that when quality returns on the pitch the fans will flock once more to our soccer citadels.

That's a dangerously complacent attitude. People are annoyed. They're annoyed at what they see on the pitch, annoyed at ever increasing costs, annoyed that TV and incompetence rob them of games at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, annoyed that the comforting repetition of home-away-home-away fixtures seems lost forever.

There's a real risk, not just for Hibs, that when these fans disappear they won't come back. A bond is being broken that won't be easily repaired, a rift that will do long term damage just as much as it gives accountants headaches in the short term.

I started reading Dave Zirin's Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love this week. His focus is America but Scottish football fans might feel a certain empathy:

"The headache come from the idea that we are loving something that simply doesn't love us in return. If sports was once like a playful puppy you would wrestle on the floor, it's now like a house cat demanding to be stroked and giving nothing back. It's the way it gets harder to sit through a full game, or the way you go through a full year without making it to the ball park and fail to even notice. It's the extra commercials tacked on to a broadcast, as companies use the games to 'brand' our sub-conscious. It's when you decide to finally take the trip to the park, look up the ticket prices, and decide immediately to do anything else with your time. It's the way you don't feel the same urgency to watch every second of every game for for fear you might something magical. As economic times get tougher, the question of what to trim out of the budget doesn't become a question at all."

On the same day that Hibs were named the most expensive club in the SPL they launched a consultation exercise to hear the views of the fans.

Strangely walk up ticket prices and match scheduling weren't mentioned. But fans were asked for their feelings on the possibility of selling naming rights to the stadium.

A fairly hollow thing, modern football.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Rangers: McCoist Still Deserves His Shot At Glory

Rangers crash out of the Champion's League and the chants of "Super Ally" begin to stick in the throats of the faithful.

Ridiculous in the extreme that a new manager should be judged on the basis of four games of competitive football - only one of which ended in defeat.

But life in the Old Firm is a life full of extremes and a life that's often ridiculous. Thus it seems that to question Ally McCoist's suitability as Rangers boss is fair enough and to answer that question with "he's no up to it" is perfectly acceptable.

It's a harsh verdict. But dropped points at home and a Champions League exit so early in the season are cause for concern at Ibrox.

McCoist finds himself under pressure. It's not how he would have imagined it working out, this shot at his dream job after a very modern footballing career trajectory.

The storied playing days, the television stardom and the tabloid tittle tattle. And the apprenticeship served with Walter Smith. All leading, perhaps not always obviously, to the Ibrox hot seat. A first managerial appointment at the age of 48.

Following Smith, emerging from Wattie's shadow, was never going to be easy especially when the wily old fox signed off with what seemed at times an improbable title triumph.

It's been made harder by the financial uncertainty at Ibrox and the enigmatic presence of the new owner, Craig Whyte.

A succession of apparently failed transfer bids increases the sense of uneasiness. The public pursuit of players seems to confirm McCoist's unhappiness with his squad, the failure to capture as many targets as he would have liked leads to the idea that he's struggling with what he's got.

Gordon Smith's director of football role should act as a buffer between McCoist and these transfer dramas. So far that's not happening. I seem to remember someone calling Smith two faced when he was with the SFA. It seems the masks he's chosen for his role at Rangers are anonymity and ineffectualness.

As the pressure builds it's McCoist who becomes the lightning rod for the "we're doomed" brigade among the support and the media.

Time, as we're always told, is the one thing Old Firm managers do not have.

But, along with an injection of new players, it's what McCoist and Rangers need.

My own view would be that he's - quite rightly - safe for now.

He's still searching for his managerial mojo. But Gordon Smith still appears to be searching for a definition of his new role. And Craig Whyte still seems to be searching for a strategy that will guide his stewardship of the club.

McCoist's Rangers have dropped two points in the SPL and narrowly - only narrowly despite the numerical disparity caused by Steven Whittaker's stupidity - gone out of the Champions League.

They've not "lost" the league and the Europa League remains in place as a European safety net.

It's not world beating. But nor should it be seen as a manifesto for continued failure in the role.

He might also be entitled to expect more support from within the club. The saga that was the failed attempt to sign David Goodwillie stank of incompetence. Seven failed bids and then a cackhanded attempt to brief against the Dundee United board didn't cover Rangers in glory or inspire confidence.

Blackburn signed Goodwillie and Rangers were left with only a very public distraction in the build up to the Malmo game, a squad no stronger than when they started and questions continuing to swirl about their commitment to pulling off big transfers.

It's difficult to pin too much of the blame on McCoist for any of that. He could consider it the mother of injustices if the club were to panic over his position when others in crucial roles are also experiencing issues in adjusting to their new surroundings.

For Craig Whyte a sudden managerial vacancy would also present a further dilemma, a further need to prove his recruitment credentials. Why would he relish that at this stage of his ownership?

A pressured existence, impatient demands from all sides and unforgiving judges desperate for their chance to don the black cap and deliver their appocalyptic sentences. That's McCoist's life now and he'll accept that.

But he at least deserves more time to prove he can handle them.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Hearts: Romanov Strikes Again

It seems we're running out of ways to describe Vladimir Romanov's unpredictability.

Apparently from nowhere came the news that Jim Jefferies was to be relieved of his position as manager. Shock, gnashing of teeth and frank changes of opinion followed.

Jefferies' assistant Billy Brown was sacked. Jefferies himself was offered a position as director of football and is said to be considering his next move.

"Nasty foreign owner treats club legend and all round Scottish fitba' gentleman with a continental disdain."

Or, "struggling manager pays the price of a poverty of ideas in a poor sequence of results."

As in life, so in football - these things are rarely rendered in such contrasting black and white.

One win in 14 games through the end of last season and the opening fixtures of this campaign aren't the kind of statistics likely to appeal to Romanov.

Given that I'd had a good five or six discussions about that very record between the end of Sunday's loss to Dundee United and Twitter breaking the news of yesterday's departures it should have been less of a shock.

And the textbook nature of the change - the quick, cool act of regicide and the new king across the water, in the shape of Paulo Sergio, ready to take over - suggests this had been brewing.

Clearly Mr Romanov hadn't flown in for Sunday's game just to see how Dundee United would cope in the post-Goodwillie era.

Has he made the right decision?

Jim Jefferies, club legend and the bulwark of stability that Romanov's Hearts seem to have lacked, had taken his team to third place. In February there was talk of a sustained challenge to the Old Firm.

That challenge fell away and results tailed off as an apparent over reliance on the creaking joints of Kevin Kyle was exposed.

But with that third place came the promise of European football. Jefferies appeared to have weathered the storm of some interference from his owner in team selection at the end of last season.

An uneasy alliance it might have been, an almost stereotypical product of Scottish football steeped in its traditions and eccentricities and the self-made outsider who sees subterfuge and enemies in every corner, but Jim Jefferies looked like he could prosper.

He was given the freedom to strike early in the transfer window and the players brought in seemed more likely to be targets identified by the manager than Romanov's own, at times idiosyncratic, scouting system.

Pre-season went well. The Craig Thomson furore was mishandled in Lithuania but soundly enough negotiated by the manager. Pundits fell over themselves (this blog included) to declare Hearts the only real contenders as the best of the rest.

A draw at Ibrox in the SPL's curtain raiser and a sound 1-1 away draw against Paksi in Europe seemed a confident enough start. But somewhere along the line Romanov's frustration and concerns had bubbled over.

Experience tells us that when that happens a very public parting of the ways is inevitable.

Jefferies, the stoic, grumpy survivor hewn from Scottish footballing granite, will offer the prevalent narrative its victim. Romanov, whose Eastern European villainy seems to predate the end of the Cold War, its James Bond baddie. Mad, Vlad and dangerous to work for.

How Jefferies and Brown would have fared this season will forever be open to conjecture.

My own view is that stability would have helped Hearts more than another step into the unknown. But perhaps this time Romanov's timing has some justification.

The new manager will have the benefit of Jefferies' pre-season preparation and his recruitment of a group of players who look well equipped for the rigours of an SPL season. And, if Romanov gets his way, Jefferies will remain involved.

The new manager inherits that legacy and a European platform to build on.

In Paulo Sergio, a peripatetic coach in Portugal over the last decade or so, Romanov has an employee who might more gladly embrace the Tynecastle way of doing things.

Short tenures at a series of Portuguese clubs will have given him experience in the necessity of making an immediate impact, of adapting to different club environments and adopting a malleability that would have stuck in Jefferies' craw.

He last worked for Sporting, a club whose turnover of coaches in the last decade almost rivals that of Hearts (managerial carousels seem an Edinburgh failing at the moment).

Suggestions of a link with Romanov through a trusted agent also point to a coach who will know what to expect and be prepared to hit the ground running.

Romanov's unpredictability enthrals us and decisions like this seem to play up to the caricature he has created since arriving in Scotland.

That yesterday's events also throw up a wronged and respected Scottish manager being replaced by a foreign hired hand allows us to indulge our distrust of change and perhaps even our continued - misplaced - footballing xenophobia.

But what if, for once, we take Romanov at face value? What if Jefferies' usefulness in the front-line has been expended and in Sergio he has found the "new direction" the club needs?

That reading of events would allow us to agree that Jefferies has been treated shabbily - behaviour that is hardly unique in Scottish football - but that he's also the victim of a decision made in the best interests of the club.

It remains a gamble - and one suspects Romanov's known both the joy and the despair of a roll of the dice - and only time and results will offer conclusive proof of the wisdom of the change. But sometimes strange, oddly timed decisions can work.

Even for this observer, planted on the other side of the Edinburgh tracks, it will be compelling to watch. Whatever else we think about Romanov and his modus operandi it's hard to argue that he adds drama and an unpredictable gaiety to this little footballing nation.