Saturday, September 10, 2011

SPL: Where The Smart Money Goes

The whirligig that is international week has left me struggling for time as we approach the mundane predictability of the SPL.

So this week's SPL preview has been drawn entirely at random.

Not by me.

I've shipped in a glamorous assistant, a glamorous assistant who is the number one draw every Wednesday night at a "gentleman's club" cabaret in Newcastle.

I'm told the things he can do with a ping pong ball need to be seen to be believed.

And to make it interesting I'm even going to have a little flutter on the results of this randomness. No balls were heated in the making of this draw.

Dundee United v Rangers

A home win. +1 goals scored.

Bets inspired: 10p on Dundee United to beat Rangers and 10p on under 2.5 goals to be scored. A wee cheeky double on those was not allowed by the reputable online betting firm.

Celtic v Motherwell

Draw. +3 goals scored.

10p on the draw. 10p on over 2.5 goals.

Inverness v Hearts

Away win. +1 goals scored.

You know the score by now.

Kilmarnock v Dunfermline

Away win. +4 goals scored.


St Mirren v St Johnstone

Draw. +2 goals scored.

I'm going to be rich.


One of your whole English pounds on the win, the draw, the win, the win, the draw. 1183 to 1. That, friends, is the money shot.

Although my glamorous assistant has just told me what the "money shot" is and suddenly I'm a bit unnerved.

Tomorrow: Will I risk 5p on a Hibs win?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Gordon Smith: Prince of Wingers

There is an argument to be made that Gordon Smith is the forgotten giant of Scottish football.

Although his memory lives on with those lucky enough to have seen him play, recognition for his exploits as a player and for his unique acheivements seems to have slipped away.

Yet his was a remarkable career: five league championships with Hibs, Hearts and Dundee. European Cup appearances with those three clubs, including semi-finals with Hibs and Dundee.

He made more appearances for Hibs than any other player and, despite being converted into a winger, scored more goals for them then any other player. Five goals in one match from the wing remains a Scottish record.

When Hibs feared age and injury had robbed him of his genius he got himself fit, joined Hearts and won the League and League Cup in his first season.

When he felt the atmosphere at Tynecastle was diminishing he left, only to reinvent himself once again as the elder statesman in Dundee's championship winning side.

Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Fiorentina and Vasco de Gama were among the clubs who tried to prise him from Scotland. In the late 1940s Matt Busby was willing to sign him for £40,000, Newcastle repeatedly offered Hibs a blank cheque.

This was a career that Scottish football will never see replicated.

Yet until now there has never been a biography published charting Smith's remarkable endeavours.

His son, Tony Smith, has set out to remedy that with Gordon Smith: Prince of Wingers.

He's produced a fascinating account of a fascinating life.

One of the reasons for Smith's continued lack of widespread recogniton was his insistence, both as a player and in retirement, of leading an intensely private life.

Yet in a number of ways he was Scotland's first superstar footballer, the top draw in the days when 5000 fans would be attracted to watch Hibs play cricket on Leith Links.

And, despite his craving for privacy, his life often reads like a prototype for the modern footballer.

No bad behaviour but plenty of glamour. When footballers more easily identified with the working man Smith was driving a Porsche and holidaying in the south of France.

Before million pound wages turned footballers into front page celebrities, Smith was friends with the jazz star Sidney Bechet, the golfer Bobby Locke, the singer Frankie Vaughan and war hero Douglas Bader.

When footballers still took their holidays at Butlins, Smith was taking time out from his holiday in Cannes to work as an extra on an Alfred Hitchcock film and being invited out for a meal by Bridget Bardot.

For someone who grew up in Montrose at the time of the Great Depression and who played all but a handful of his club games for teams based on Scotland's east coast this was a life less ordinary.

And that's without the football.

After impressing in a game against a Hibs and Hearts select, the Tynecastle club - the team he and his father supported - were desperate to sign Smith.

But Hibs moved quickly. Manager Willie McCartney, a former Hearts manager, signed him on a Sunday. On the Monday evening, in borrowed boots, he scored a hat-trick in a derby. Most present had expected him to play as a trialist for Hearts .

And so began a career that seems incredible to those of us weren't there to experience it.

The skills, the plaudits, the goals, the best of Scotland rubbing shoulders with - often beating - the best in England, Europe and the world.

The development and blossoming of Hibs' Famous Five: hallowed still are the names Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond.

The way he slotted into a Hearts team, a seismic city switch that seems to have been handled with remarakable magnanimity on both sides, and promptly won another league medal.

The veteran at Dundee who was hero worshipped by his team mates and found in Alan Gilzean the perfect foil.

The sheer appetite for football at the time seems incredible now: two legged cup ties decided only after two replays with the total crowd nudging 200,000, matches played on consecutive days, thousands filling stadiums for five-a-side tournaments, Princes Street Gardens mobbed to see the Edinburgh teams play head tennis.

A lost age. But not all that long ago that links don't remain - Craig Brown played with Smith in that Dundee league winning side.

Smith wasn't without his flaws. His great Hibs team had a shocking record in the city derby - I suspect they'd argue that they saw Rangers as the bigger rivals at the time - and he rarely flourished in a Scotland jersey.

Willie Waddell of Rangers was preferred for most of Smith's sporadic international career, although he did captain the side during a tour in 1955. Perhaps not coincidentally this responsibility was coupled with his most sustained run of international form.

He wasn't without complexity off the pitch either. A worry with a biography written by a son is that it will gloss over such issues and to an extent that is the case here.

It would have been interesting to have a more thorough exploration of a couple of hints of certain unpopularity in the football world. Was that inspired by jealousy - bonus payments, private interests, a whopping testimonial purse and unspecified stocks and shares dealings with his close friend Waddell left Smith rich beyond the dreams of many contemporaries - or by a distrust of a man whose shyness was often covered by a defensive aloofness?

And given that shyness, that dislike for the public aspects of a life led in the public glare, how did Smith end up befriending Locke and Bechet, meeting Bardot and Mohammed Ali, developing such close personal bonds with Stanley Matthews, Matt Busby and countless others?

Or maybe it's best not to know, to just explain it away as some inexplicable aura of greatness that attracted those who recognised or shared his genius and scared those who would be forever in his shadow.

The book still rattles along, perhaps surprisingly so given the detailed coverage of each of his seasons in professional football. Although, as many a gentleman of a certain age would tell you, Gordon Smith always did make the game exciting.

In a moving epilogue Tony Smith chronicles his father's Alzheimer's hastened decline. This is a book written by a son who had the pain of losing his father twice.

If his writing goes some way to helping Scottish football rediscover the greatness of Gordon Smith then this book will be a fitting tribute.

Gordon Smith: Prince of Wingers by Tony Smith, Black and White Publishing

> There's a fine collection of testimonials from a variety of contributors at the beginning of this book, providing an insight into how his contemporaries, rivals, teammates and supporters saw Gordon Smith.

To Jim Baxter he was "my hero", to Lawrie Reilly "one of the greatest players of all time," to Alex Ferguson - once an opponent - "a dream footballer", to Alan Gilzean "absolutely terrific." For Bob Crampsey Smith's five titles with three clubs amounted to the "the greatest individual accomplishment in the entire history of Scottish league football."

My favourite is one from a supporter, Wattie Robb. Wattie, who I knew vaguely towards the end of his life, might well have been the greatest Hibs supporter of them all. His mantra about Gordon Smith never changed: "I would say he was a better footballer than Pele - I really believe that."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Scottish Football Blogathon

I was ruminating on Twitter last night about the Scottish Football Blog approaching twin milestones.

The blog is closing in on 1000 posts and its fifth birthday.

How to celebrate? The idea of Jimmy Boco appearing at a blog testimonial did appeal. But I'm fatter than Paul Kane and worse at football than Joe Tortolano so the opportunity for humiliation seems too great.

Then an idea appeared and developed from nowhere.

Welcome to the Scottish Football Blog "Blogathon."

The plans are in their infancy just now but here's a rough outline:

  • 24 hours
  • 24 blog posts
  • Minimum 500 words per post
  • Researched, written and posted within an hour
  • All written by me

How do I verify that?

Here's where a couple of ideas from Twitter will come in handy:

  • 12 of the posts will be based on suggestions from Twitter, from tweets received 15 minutes before the hour in question
  • 12 of the posts will be "for" or "against" arguments written in response to posts submitted by other bloggers at the hour in question

In other words:

  • The post written between 11am and noon will be based on a tweet sent in at 10:47am. It will be published at noon.
  • The post written between noon and 1pm will be based on an article received from a fellow blogger at noon. It will be published at 1pm

Obviously the other bloggers will have as long as they want to prepare their article but they will be able to verify that I had no prior knowledge of it.

Similarly, ideas submitted by tweets will be selected at random and the chosen Twitter-er will be able to verify that they hadn't given me advance warning.

In the excited first flush of its conception this idea is sounding more complicated than it should. But it will become clearer.

Basically it's this: a minimum of 12,000 (original) words on 24 football related topics written in 24 hours. Easy.

Other ideas I've received suggest that subjects inspired by Twitter could be chosen by the number of retweets an idea receives.

Or that some sort of prize might be given to the blogger whose "for" and "against" post receives the most hits on the day.

It will be for charity. The Homeless World Cup and Alzheimer Scotland will benefit. I'll explain my reasons for those choices as we move closer to the date.

That date, incidentally, is Saturday 19th November starting at 2pm and running through until 2pm on Sunday 20th November.

So that's the plan. I'm a procrastinator by my plodding nature. This has now been announced. I'm going to have to do it.

More details will follow.

In the meantime you can follow the newly minted Twitter hashtag #fitbablether for the latest.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Scotland v Lithuania: Double header deflation

Another Scotland game, more howls of anguish.

"We were robbed/cheated/denied natural footballing justice."

Scotland v Czech Republic followed that old familiar pattern and we all felt rank rotten at the end.

Football's an emotional game and Scotland can tease emotions like few other teams.

But then you calm down and realise that, actually, we were implicated in our own downfall.

Not least because, in a game between two mediocre teams, we were second best for long stretches.

And we showed that old failing of panicking when ahead, never quite sure what to do, not knowing how to close a game out.

The referee - and it seems that our new found respect for whistlers doesn't extend to foreigners given some of the opprobrium heaped on Kevin Blom since Saturday evening - made a crucial error but he wasn't the only guilty party.

A shame because as I wrote before the game there seemed to be a hint of optimism in the September air. It would, as always, have been nice to see that optimism repaid and interesting to see if, even for a brief stretch, confidence from the Tartan Army could have fed belief in the team. A self sustaining confidence cycle to see us through the lest of the campaign.

Others have been quick to absolve the referee or diving Czechs of any blame and instead focus on the manager.

Maybe a decision will have to be made at the end of qualifying on Craig Levein's future and he's presided over some less than vintage performances.

Yet where would his replacement come from? This no longer seems a coveted position. Even Walter Smith and Alex McLeish who seemed at times to prosper in the role - although falling short of qualification - were quick to jump ship when other roles presented themselves.

Was his team selection wrong? Could he have been more attack minded on Saturday?

I honestly don't know. A commitment at one end of the field might have left us more exposed at the other end.

And it was Levein who took the gamble on Darren Fletcher and saw his captain reward him with an assist and a goal. A goal that looked like it might just have been enough.

It wasn't though.

And so the recriminations were free to fly and the propsect of another major championship without Scotland looms large.

Where there's hope, there's a manager paying lip service to battling on to the end.

It all looks quite futile now.

Not entirely pointless though. The remaining games can offer co-efficient or ranking succour.

They're also a platform for Levein to show that when he speaks of the progress the team's making he's not spouting rubbish.

And that starts tonight against a Lithuanian side likely to be obdurate and organised but, again, not world beating.

Circumstances dictate that the team looks like this:

McGregor, Whittaker, Caldwell, Berra, Bardsley, Naismith, Fletcher, Cowie, Bannan, Morrison, Goodwillie.

The tried, tested and apparently trusted 4-5-1. Would David Goodwillie - a Scotland player for all of 14 minutes - have predicted a few months ago that he's be starting this game as the lone striker?

As ever it's less the formation and more the way you set out. At times on Saturday Scotland seemed worryingly unsure about that.

Let's hope they've learnt from that. Tonight might be essentially meaningless but Saturday's deflation has left us looking for some comfort.

The Testimonial Test

The testimonial.

A footballing tradition ever diminished by the lucratively shifting sands of the modern game?

The Sabbath just gone saw me at Easter Road for Ian Murray's testimonial game.

The testimonial was once a way to honour players who had ten or more years of service to a certain club.

Continuous service.

Ian Murray has served Hibs for over a decade. But he squeezed a move to Rangers and a stint at Norwich into his career.

I suspect those two episodes were more richly renumerated than either of his stays at Hibs.

Does he need a testimonial? Some - fair at this point, I think, to acknowledge that we don't know the extent of that "some" - of the money raised was going to charity.

But football's been kinder to Ian Murray than it is to a lot of players.

The testimonial as an outdated concept? Possibly. Always a strange conceit though, the way it gave power to the clubs, making a goodwill gesture a bargaining tool in contract negotiations.

Leading to odd situations: Pat Stanton at Hibs and Eddie Colquhoun - new hero of this blog - at Sheffield United enjoying testimonials after they'd left the clubs.

Or Paul Scholes, whose unarguable superstar modesty was rewarded with a box office busting testimonial against a team which doesn't actually exist.

But the faith might always be reaffirmed by someone like John Kennedy, cruelly injured and still willing to raise a barrel load of cash for charity in his recent celebration at Celtic.

The crowd at Easter Road on Sunday didn't break 3000. Not entirely a judgement on Murray or the idea of him being celebrated with a testimonial - these are strained times in Leith - but a definite hint that it wasn't a universally acclaimed tribute.

Which leads to question time:

Is the testimonial outdated in this modern world of footballing millionaires?

Which player at your club deserves a testimonial and/or which player at your club deserved a testimonial but didn't get one?

The flip side - which player at your club was indulged with a testimonial that they really didn't deserve?

Interested, as ever, to hear your thoughts.

> And finally: Sunday was the first testimonial at Easter Road since Hibs and Coventry played tribute to Gordon Hunter. He'd given Hibs his best years. Much as I enjoyed the Murray merriment I didn't feel able to join in the acclaim for Murray in the way I did for Hunter 15 years ago.

Monday, September 05, 2011

John Collins: Your Country Needs You

Beware, I suppose, expecting your heroes of yesteryear to still be giants today.

They often disappoint.

I used to think Ronnie Corbett was a comedy giant. Turns out he's a small man with an attitude problem.

Yet here I am in my thirties and I'm still in raptures about a guy I worshipped when I was eight and was thrilled by when I was 18.

Twice this summer I've seen him play. Bounce games, testimonials. But each time a vision, a skill, an ability to bring others into the game that I rarely see in Scottish football at the moment.

John Collins.

Obviously he's no use.

Crap at Hibs as manager. Upset the players by showing off his physique. Couldn't hack it when the club insisted that financial constraints couldn't be broken. Too arrogant.

Arrogance, of course, doesn't work in a manager. Brian Clough was humble. Jose Mourinho lacks that wee bit self confidence. Alex Ferguson wouldn't back himself in a two horse race.

Very Scottish, I think, to write Collins off for his arrogance.

Crap? Couldn't hack it?

Football men with the pedigree of Rob Jones and Rod Petrie seem to have formulated and disseminated that opinion.

So they must be right.

John Collins as Hibs manager was far from perfect. It's not a perfect club. But it ended far too prematurely for it to be considered the final word on his coaching career in Scotland.

Arrogant? Perhaps. Egotistical? Possibly.

Other countries try and deal with such problems in yesterday's heroes. Doesn't always work. But they try.

Not Scotland though. Jones and Chris Hogg thought Collins was a bit of a prick so we'll shut the door on him.

That makes sense, a real prioritising of considered opinion there.

Look at his talent, look at his career. Is there nobody in Scottish football who could benefit from his experience?

If the answer to that is "no" then I fear we're going about this football malarkey in entirely the wrong way.