Saturday, September 03, 2011

Crucial: Scotland v Czech Republic

What madness is this?

Do I detect a hint of confidence creeping around this Scotland squad?

I feel I do.

So let us pause a while and pay some small tribute to the still oft maligned Craig Levein.

The disaster of the 4-6-0 formation in the away tie against Czech Republic.

The cover-your-eyes-and-pray-to-your-deity-of-choice win from the jaws of apocalypse against Liechtenstein at Hampden.

Levein has plodded diligently through it all. And, if we are to accept he is one of football's plodders, then who is to say the glamorous cavalier always rumoured to be waiting in the wings but never quite materialising would thrive with this group of players?

If modern football dictates Scotland have to cut their cloth according to limited resources who is to say Levein is not the journeyman tailor we need?

When the call went out for this - and we're legally obliged to call it thus - "crucial double header" every player answered.

No call offs, no sudden injuries, no flimsy excuses designed to buy enough time to plot and agitate during the remainder of the transfer window.

Exiles remain but they are largely unproven princes across the water.

In their stead Levein seems to have built a squad who want to be there, who want to play for him.

Spirit and passion are suffering a bad press in football at the moment. Skill and technique are everything.

That's a sound argument. But a technically gifted, luxuriously skilled team without any spirit can be left looking limited.

A team with passion in spades can be inspired within itself to offer the hardwork, the determination, the commitment, the dedication to overcome its limitations.

To wit, look at the squad - not just the few standout players - that Craig Brown took to successive major championships.

An old fashioned view? Almost certainly.

But we have to hope it retains some currency. Because we can't argue that Levein has world class talent to spare. We have to concede this squad is lacking in key areas.

To progress to play-offs or qualification we have to find that little bit extra, a little touch of something that can make us more than the sum of our parts, that helps us scale the peaks of our limitations.

It won't be easy. It never is.

But we've got ourselves into a position where it is possible. Now we have to make it happen. That starts today.

What of our Czech opponents?

They might be bamboozled still by the formation they faced in Prague. Their surprise was understandable. That was a Scotland performance that pulled off the double whammy of both underestimating our own strengths and overestimating our opponents strengths.

Beware the dangers of hubris. But this Czech team is not what it once was.

They remain a team we have beaten only once - and never in a competitive fixture - but they're not world beaters.

A Fifa ranking of 42 - pointless, meaningless etc etc but they allow for a comparison - might not even reflect recent form. Teams they've beaten recently include Liechtenstein, Scotland and Lithuania.

Teams they've failed to beat recently include Spain, Norway, Denmark, Croatia and Japan.

Tomas Rosicky is captain and inspiration. But, again acknowledging the danger of these words returning to bite me on the arse, does his recent form suggest he's the man to slay the Scots?

Milan Baros - still around, still knocking 'em in for Galatasaray - hasn't scored an international goal since filling his boots in a 7-0 win over San Marino in 2009.

Petr Cech misses out which at the very least removes a big presence from the side.

But Scotland really need to win this. A win isn't as crucial for the visitors.

The risk is that Scotland - aware of the crucialness of the first crucial part of this crucial double header - blast out from the start only to be met with frustration alllowing a patient Czech side to bide their time before punishing us on the break.

Levein has chosen tried and trusted for his team selection. Kenny Miller can play the lone striker role in his sleep now. He can't afford the lapses in profligacy that often affect him today.

Darren Fletcher returns to the team for the first time this year and his first appearance - reserve games apart - since coming on as a substitute in the Champions League final.

Not a risk according to Levein who - despite the brickbats that still come his captain's way - prefers to send out a Scotland team with Fletcher in midfield. It's a welcome return for the player. I sincerely hope that this rehabilitation in a Scotland jersey is not a gamble for the team.

Christophe Berra and Gary Caldwell start in the centre of defence. Many would have preferred to see Danny Wilson in there from the start.

Levein's cautious pragmatism was always likely to push him towards the more experienced partnership. Wilson's time will come. And it's only fair to point out that Berra has been part of a Wolves side that has conceded just one goal so far this season.

My personal concern would tend to be more over Caldwell's occasional lapses anyway but this is a position that we seem to be struggling with now where we once had an abundance of - riches might be pushing it - characters who could "do a job."

It's not a world beating team. I suspect it won't have to be. We can't afford to miss chances, lose concentration or gift goals.

Disciplined but with an acknowledgement that some commitment to attack is required.

That'll do for me. And a win, of course.

That's crucial.

> Here's the crucial Scotland side in full: McGregor; Hutton, Caldwell, Berra, Bardsley; Adam; Brown, Fletcher, Morrison, Naismith; Miller

Friday, September 02, 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players: Eddie Colquhoun

Hot on the heels of Eddie Connachan, our Forgotten Scotland Player number 6, comes another delve into the archives for number 7.

Another who strutted his stuff against Czechoslovakia at a neutral venue.

Another called Eddie.

Even more than that - another from Prestonpans.

If you haven't sampled its delights, Prestonpans is an East Lothain seaside/rural/post-industrial idyll and home to my alma mater, the august institution what learned me to write rubbish an' that.

Those of you that have been to the 'Pans will appreciate that I'm drunk as I write this. It's a coping mechanism to survive the memories of that long, hard slog of an education.

Anyway, Prestonpans - and, seriously, check out the annual arts festival or local club Preston Athletic - gave Scottish football both Eddie Connachan and Forgotten Scotland Player number 7, Eddie Colquhoun.

Edmund Peter Skirving Colquhoun for the nomenclature completists. Not, I think, many Edmunds in Prestonpans. Not then, not now.

A young chap on the make called Edmund would always be looking for an escape to a greener, more pleasant land.

Eddie's chance came when he way just 17. In 1962 he signed for Bury, possibly blinded by the bright lights of the big city, and his professional career was underway.

His time at Bury was spent languishing in the lower reaches of the English Second Division. But the young centre back impressed.

Bury were relegated in the 1966/67 season but Colquhoun was already headed in the opposite direction, to West Bromwich Albion and the First Division.

A couple of years later came the move that would define his club career.

Sheffield United had just been relegated from the top flight. New manager Arthur Rowley - 434 goals in 619 league games - was rebuilding for a promotion push.

Eddie was the defensive rock he needed. And he was prepared to pay the best part of £28,000 to get him.

Promotion wouldn't actually come for three seasons - Rowley was succeeded by his predecessor John Harris - but Eddie's impact was instantaneous enough for him to be made captain for his home debut.

The fans took to him as well. Soon the terrace choir had a new song:

We ain't got a barrel of money, We ain't got Woodward or Currie, 
But with Eddie Colquhoun, Promotion soon, United!

A centre half of the old school it appears. Richard Savage of Def Leppard - once a United hopeful -remembers a training game:

"The ball was played up to me, I dummied, turned, beat Eddie Colquhoun as if I was Kenny Dalglish and shot at goal. Next goal kick, Eddie Colquhoun walked up behind me and gave me the biggest kick on the back of my ankles and said, ‘Do that to me again and I’ll f**king kill you.’

"This was the club captain and I really looked up to him. Being shy, I wasn’t the sort who would say ‘F**k you’ and do it again." (Four Four Two)

Promotion, if not a natural rapport with youth team players, followed in 1970/71 and it was in 1971 that Scotland came calling.

October of that year and a European Championship qualifier against Portugal at Hampden. Colquhoun makes his debut in a 2-1 win.

For the next 18 months or so he's never far from the Scotland squad, winning nine caps in total.

Those nine games included a 0-0 draw with Czechoslovakia in July 1972. The match, part of the four team Brazilian Independence Cup, was played in front of 5,000 fans in Porto Alegre.

In Eddie's first eight caps Scotland were beaten only twice: by their hosts in that 1972 tournament and by the Dutch in Amsterdam in the winter of 1971.

Then, on Valentine's Day 1973, came a massacre. England romped to a 5-0 win at Hampden. Allan Clarke (twice), Mick Channon, Martin Chivers and a Peter Lorimer own goal broke stout Scottish hearts.

It was the game that gave Bobby Moore a 100th cap. And the game that ended Eddie Colquhoun's international career.

Although sent homeward victorious England didn't qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Scotland did. But Eddie would play no part.

It was back to Yorkshire. In 1975 Sheffield United finished sixth in Division One, the highest finish Eddie enjoyed in his career. But the following season they were relegated.

By 1978 Colquhoun was ready to leave Second Division United and extend his career, as was then the way, in the brave new world of the North American Soccer League.

Good times: Eddie's Detroit Express colleagues included players like Trevor France, Alan Brazil, Jim Holton and Ted MacDougall.

By 1980 he was calling it a day. A testimonial was held at Brammall Lane. In one half of Sheffield, Eddie and his 1970/71 promotion winning team are celebrated still.

Playing at a time when richly talented Scots seemed to have the run of England, Colquhoun did more than enough to hold his own.

Nine caps in a competitive era are testament to that.

Forgotten Scotland Players number 7: Eddie Colquhoun, Sheffield United. 9 caps.

> A Twitter correspondent tells me that Eddie used to be seen stubbing out his cigarette as he made his way on to the pitch at Brammall Lane. Magnificent. (Thanks to @schillaci19)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Deadline Day Cult

And so transfer deadline day came and went.

Celtic got a left back but not the nameless big name who cropped up in countless anonymous rumours.

Rangers did nothing except turn down a big bid from a nameless big club in an anonymous rumour that may or may not have come from someone who really should have scored in a cup final all those years ago.

Inverness signed a Chippendale. Which might answer more questions about Terry Butcher than we ever cared to ask.

Hearts signed midfielder Callum Tapping from Spurs. If you can beat 'em join 'em. I'll resist a Tapping up joke.

Edwin de Graaf generated a move out of Easter Road. Craig Easton is apparently not only still alive but also now a Dunfermline player.

No matter how engineered the coverage, all of it was almost insufferably dull.

But this is Scottish football so we also have a jury making a bad decision that will now see a football match contrive to drag us into a debate about the whole Scottish judicial system.

We have Peter Lawwell becoming Jimmy Tarbuck.

And, as James Beattie hitched out of Ibrox on the back of an ice cream van, we have the taxman arriving in a hearse apparently not intent on freezing bank accounts. Yet.

At the same time we were all given the opportunity to follow the live totaliser as English transfer window spending ticked above the £400 million mark.

Used to be that the only totaliser you saw was on Blue Peter as well behaved children raised earnest money for worthy causes. Now you have eight year olds loitering outside football stadiums at 10pm hoping to catch a glimpse of Peter Crouch.

This is the revolution and it is being televised.

All of it played out to a soundtrack of increasing hysteria provided by an ex-Scotsport buffoon who has somehow turned his pantomime buffoonery into a kind of cult (sic) hero status.

Transfer deadline day: confirmation that Scottish football's screwed, confirmation that football across this sceptred isle is obscenely out of touch with reality.

And you know what?

It's all Jim White's fault. The cult.

Forgotten Scotland Players: Eddie Connachan

1961. Scotland continue to just about hold their own the world stage. But not when it counts. The Sixties have dawned on the back of two chastening World Cup experiences. The decade will go on to swing but its major championships are denied a tartan tinge.

In November 1961 Scotland travel to Belgium for a World Cup qualification match against Czechoslovakia. It’s the third meeting between the sides in a year after a 4-0 reverse in Bratislava and a 3-2 win at Hampden.

Both sides had beaten group whipping boys Republic of Ireland so, despite the far superior Czech goal difference, a clash at the neutral Heysel Stadium was required.

Three team qualification groups. No place for goal difference or a head-to-head count back: a different world.

The Beatles were still learning their trade in Hamburg, JFK had only been in the Oval Office for a matter of months. Man was nowhere near the moon. The Prague Spring would have seemed inconceivable in a Czechoslovakia still in the clench of Stalinism.

It’s unlikely that any of this preoccupied the Scottish Football Blog’s sixth Forgotten Scotland Player as he prepared for his international debut.

In the winter of 1961 Eddie Connachan must have felt something of a spring in his step. Jock Stein might have been the architect of Dunfermline’s 1961 Scottish Cup victory but it was Connachan, the goalkeeper, who was vociferously celebrated.

His heroics as custodian (when did "custodian" drop out of common parlance?) in the final and replay against Celtic had seen his euphoric teammates carry him shoulder high from the pitch and led Celtic captain Billy McNeill to say:

"I have never seen anything like it. He broke our hearts and did as much as any `keeper I have ever seen."

450 minutes of cup football and not a single goal conceded. And, as a miner from Prestonpans, Connachan had even done his shift underground on the Monday and Tuesday before the Wednesday night replay.

By the time Scotland travelled to Belgium Connachan’s Dunfermline had already made it through to the quarter finals of the Cup Winner’s Cup.

Four years after arriving at East End Park at the age of 21, signed from Dalkeith Thistle, Eddie Connachan was scaling football heights from the Kingdom of Fife.

And now a Scotland cap.

No ordinary debut either. A World Cup place at stake, the unusual surrounds of a neutral venue and a big international being played in front of only 7000 fans.

It was an unsettled time for Scottish goalkeeping. Lawrie Leslie had played in three of the World Cup qualifiers but was replaced Tottenham’s Bill Brown for the Hampden game against the Czechs. Earlier in the year, of course, the unfortunate Frank Haffey had conceded nine goals at Wembley and carved out his own place in the hall of infamy.

So it was Connachan, the mining ‘keeper, who manager Ian McColl turned to for the biggest game of all.

Given the national team’s predilection for getting so far and then going no further it was always going to be a tough test for a rookie goalkeeper. And so it proved.

Scotland, a team riddled with names like Baxter, Law, Brand and White, took a first half lead through Ian St John.

Czechoslovakia equalised in the seventieth minute but the advantage was restored moments later when St John got his second. With 15 minutes to go Czechoslovakia equalised again and this time Scotland couldn’t find a response.

Two more Czech goals in extra time rounded off a 4-2 victory.

It must have been an agonising debut. Four goals conceded and the familiar feeling of that familiar failing: Scotland getting close but not close enough.

Yet Connachan had domestic form and age on his side. And this was a Scotland team that conceded 18 goals across eight games in 1961. There was no reason to think he wouldn’t feature again.

And he only had to wait until May 1962 for his next cap. A home debut, over 67,000 fans and a visit from Uruguay.

Having played for 120 minutes in his first international, Connachan’s second - and final - cap would last only 45 minutes.

Two goals down at half time McColl chose to make his goalkeeper the victim of the still relatively rare phenomenon of the friendly international substitution. He was replaced by Billy Ritchie of Rangers who immediately conceded a goal in what would be his only international appearance.

Late goals from Jim Baxter and Ralph Brand offered up a more respectable 3-2 defeat but the match remains an oddity for bringing the curtain down on two very short lived international goalkeeping careers.

By 1963 Dunfermline were prepared to let Connachan when an offer of £5,500 was received from Middlesbrough, then languishing with only middling success in England’s Second Division.

Almost 100 league appearances followed but Ayresome Park was witnessing a decline in fortunes. By 1966 Middlesbrough found themselves relegated to the Third Division and Connachan was back in Scotland with Falkirk.

He spent only two years at Brockville making less than 30 league appearances before moving to South Africa in 1968 - by which time his old boss Stein had won the European Cup with Ronnie Simpson, five years Connachan’s senior, in goal. The fluctuating fortunes of football.

While playing in England Connachan had taken his coaching badges and when he retired from playing chose to stay in South Africa as coach of East London United.

Still resident in South Africa today, Eddie Connachan was inducted into Dunfermline’s Hall of Fame in 2007 and returned to East End Park earlier this year to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his Scottish Cup shutout.

Forgotten Scotland Players number 6: Eddie Connachan, Dunfermline Athletic. 2 caps.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Homeless World Cup: Scotland Celebrate

Scotland are world champions.

In the words of the late Donald Dewar: "I like that."

In Paris yesterday Scotland's Homeless World Cup men's team beat Mexico to life the trophy.

A tight game finished 4-3, with a goal from Sean Lawrence and a William McLean hat-trick for Scotland.

A second Homeless World Cup trophy for Scotland following the win in Copenhagen four years ago.

Someone on twitter asked if us Scots shouldn't feel queasy about celebrating such a win.

We should feel queasy about the problems with homelessness that still pockmark modern Scotland.

But we should be happy to celebrate Scotland's win.

The Homeless World Cup lasts for only one week every year.

Yet the work it inspires lasts throughout the year in the 48 countries that took part.

Thousands of people are helped each year, lives given structure, confidence rebuilt.

The annual Homeless World Cup tournament provides focus and inspiration for that work.

It's maybe time we stopped looking for ever darker linings in every cloud.

A whopping majority of the players involved in projects across the world change their lives for the better.

Why shouldn't we celebrate that?

But this group of Scots went to Paris with very little. They come home as world champions.

The boost in their own lives and the inspiration they'll provide for others like them is almost immeasurable.

Why shouldn't we celebrate that?

The fight against homelessness goes on. The Homeless World Cup will continue as long as it is needed.

And yesterday in Paris the work it does, the change it inspires, was celebrated.

Scotland played a full part in that. It might not be recognised in the mainstream media here, it might still come up against cynnicism and lazy stereotypes.

But the Scotland team did something worth celebrating.

Something that's worth more than simply raising a trophy at the end of a football game.

> In their debut Women's Homeless World Cup, Scotland beat Malawi 4-2 to claim fifth place.

The tournament was won by Kenya, Mexico were once again the runners-up.