Saturday, October 15, 2011

SPL: Saturday Superstore

Six SPL games on a Saturday afternoon? A fixture list that makes me feel dizzy. The past is an unfamiliar place and all that.

A full house. A lunchtime kick off in Ayrshire is the only nod to modernity, the joker in the pack reminding us that we're so totally not, like, living in the last century or something.

How we've missed the SPL, longed for it's tender embrace to soothe the pain of another aborted Scottish mission.

Spain attempted to smother us to death with their passing on Tuesday night. They kept the ball without a Scottish foot, knee, head, hand or bahookie intervening for the first two minutes of the match.

Then Christophe Berra booted it into the stand. It was at once comfortingly familiar, reassuringly defiant, inspiringly Scottish and a depressing articulation of our limitations.

All of which, for reasons that Dr Steven Pinker might be able to explain, put me in mind of the SPL.

We start today in Kilmarnock, where the men are men. Except when they're swinging their handbags at Kirk Broadfoot.

The visitors are Celtic. They might, or might not, be on the verge of signing James McFadden. I'm very far from being an expert but I don't look at Celtic's major weaknesses this season and see McFadden as a provider of bespoke solutions.

Celtic, of course, are ten points behind Rangers and but a lowly third in the league. I don't think its outrageous to suggest that being third in a two horse race is far removed from being considered a position of strength. Long way to go though.

Kenny Shiels reckons he'd rather play entertaining football than finish a few places higher in the league. A romanticism that many of us can sympathise with. Of course it sounds like a bloody stupid thing to say if you end up bottom of the league.

Not that Kilmarnock are bottom of the league. But they've lost their last three games and are only two points ahead of current SPL dunces Inverness. Romanticism is fine. Bismarck would quote Shakespeare, could appreciate Byron. But he could also dish out some realpolitik when the occasion demanded. Will Kenny Shiels be able to do the same?

I wouldn't be surprised if Kilmarnock beat Celtic today. It's the sort of thing that tortured aesthetes enduring a bad run pull off. Just like the French rugby team.

I wouldn't be surprised. But I'll not back it. Away win.

It's approaching 25 years since Alex Ferguson left the fortress he'd built in Scotland's north east to create a dynasty in England's north west.

It's 24 years since Jim McLean took Dundee United to the UEFA Cup final.

Whither the New Firm?

Answering that question might require a book. More practically they're at Pittodrie today.

Aberdeen have been something of an SPL crisis club this season. Actually they so often push themselves to the front of the "crisis club" queue that one suspects a perverse pleasure titillates Pittodrie when soul searching, hand wringing and abusing the manager are called for.

They've actually only lost one out of their last four. While it looked at one stage that Paul McCartney would get married more often than Aberdeen scored this season, they spanked Dunfermline in a scintillating (probably) four goal display of attacking intent (possibly) last time out.

And they're only a point behind Dundee United. All of which might leave Craig Brown channelling Jim Callaghan (another chap of mature vintage who took over when a younger man had been turned into a trembling wreck by the pressures of the job) and asking: "Crisis, what crisis?"

(Actually Sunny Jim didn't say that. He said: "I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos." And, in all honesty, Aberdeen didn't look capable of causing chaos or even mild panic earlier in the season.)

In common with much of the league Dundee United have been hamstrung by inconsistency so far. Four draws, three home defeats. The upshot is ten points from ten games.

Thankfully Peter Houston saw a blueprint for revival in Alicante on Tuesday. The tangerine tiki-taka revolution starts now.

Actually it probably doesn't. United remain a capable team who aren't quite clicking often enough.

I'd still have backed them to win this one a couple of weeks ago. Not now. Home win.

Paulo Sergio, cardiganed guardian of Tynecastle, was spluttering something about referees and lie detector tests this week.

I'd never argue that Scottish football doesn't have a need for a Gorgie-based cross between Val Doonican and Andy Sipowicz. But right now it might prove a distraction as he tries to put right Hearts' unfortunate away record.

Strange that the manager has had such a convincing run at Tynecastle but seemed powerless to right whatever it is that's gone wrong on the road.

Today's trip to a plummeting Dunfermline might be the best place to start. On the other hand, of course, a plummeting Dunfermline might see Hearts, encumbered as they are with wretched travel sickness, as the perfect way to stop plummeting.

That's the thing about football. One man's succour is, well, it's also another man's succour. Maybe.

Dunfermline beat Dundee United 1-0 on 20th August. Since then they've lost five games and drawn one. They've conceded 19 goals in six games. They've been beaten by East Fife. And they've shipped four goals without reply to Aberdeen.

That's an unfortunate run that could quickly become a disatrous run. Finally a day trip Hearts can look forward to. Away win.

Although Rangers brought Hibs recent low key revival to an end at Ibrox, Colin Calderwood could at least take heart - medical experts assure me he must have one - from a performance that had both a certain cohesion and carried something of an attacking threat.

The manager has endured worse times at Easter Road. The SFA let off both Graeme Stack for an alleged elbow on Kyle Lafferty and Garry O'Connor for an alleged dive against St Johstone.

This has been taken in some quarters to be proof of the incompetence of the SFA's new disciplinary procedures and/or a symptom of the ongoing anti-Rangers agenda at Hampden. Seriously.

I didn't think the Stack footage was damningly conclusive enough. I felt O'Connor was balletic under contact that he seemed to engineer himself. Even video evidence is all about opinion.

But one man's allegation of not being up to the disciplinary job is another man's barely credible conspiracy theory and still another man's good news. So you won't find Colin Calderwood complaining. If Stack has been inspired by his repreive to remember how to get his body shape right and hold on to the ball then that will be ever sweller.

Hibs face Motherwell today, currently the gooseberries at the top end of the SPL. Quietly impressive this Stuart McCall led Motherwell team.

And second in the league with almost a quarter of the season gone. Who would have bet on that?

I've actually got high hopes that this might be a good game. A scoring draw. I await crushing disappointment.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They all laughed at Ally McCoist when he said the job was sound.

Where are our modern day George Gershwins to turn the story of McCoist the manager into song?

Nine points clear at the top, ten points ahead of Celtic, an Old Firm game won. Two European exits and a league cup defeat aside, Ally can be rather happy at the moment.

He made signings in the summer - if not the megabucks deals that were rumoured by some at Ibrox - that have let an ageing team evolve. And they look at home in the league, at times impressive, at times just grinding it out and getting there.

Mind you, McCoist has always been a lucky one. He even got to Patsy Kensit before she got that trout pout.

Not everything in the garden is rosy. Financial clouds continue to gather. But McCoist is doing what was asked of him. He can do no more. Not that it's over yet, not by a long way.

Danny Lennon is another manager who might like to thumb his nose at the doubters. He believed in his project, believed in it as he looked in his players eyes and asked them to be men. Believed in it as he took stock of the mistakes of his first season and reshaped his squad.

Could it be that a young manager given time and backing has found the confidence to flourish. That would be refreshingly unlike the SPL.

Of course it's all relative. St Mirren are in sixth place and as close to fifth place as they are to bottom. Such are the glories of the SPL middle order.

But Lennon can point to progress. And probably does. Using a wallchart on the dressing room wall.

I'll still back the home win today though.

One of the teams that St Mirren are chasing are St Johnstone. A lesson in how to run a football club on a budget. In letting the manager get on with things. In placing a premium on sensible progression rather than projectile vomiting money in an ultimately futile attempt to buy the limited success that Scotland offers.

It also seems that Derek McInnes won't be trading in Perth for Bristol City. That's good news. I'm not kept awake at night by the managerial machinations of either St Johnstone or Bristol City.

But I like McInnes and I want good Scottish managers to stay in Scotland for as long as possible.

And Bristol City? Championship strugglers? The money might be better. But really? There would be something not quite right about it. Maybe not up there with Morecambe and Wise leaving BBC1 for ITV. But at least the same as The Only Way Is Essex moving from ITV2 to Channel 5.

I've written before about Terry Butcher being a manager who found the platform he needed at Inverness. And it turns out he's as capable of being as crap up north as he is anywhere else.

Unfair, unfair. Lost a lot of players, reshaped, refashioned, needs time. But they do seem to be struggling a bit.

It's obviously considered a temporary blip: he's signed a contract to stay on until 2014. There has to be a degree of faith involved in putting that offer on the table.

They also won last time out against St Mirren, proving that there's always points on offer as the SPL's lower reaches (six points seperate fourth and twelfth right now) scrap it out.

But it could be another tricky one for Terry's men today. A contentious win for Hibs - with a cameo by Margot Fonteyn O'Connor - is St Johntone's only league defeat since 13 August.

That makes this a home win for me.

That's it then. A Saturday superstore, a soccer smorgasbord, a scintillating SPL shindig.


Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Blogathon: The Homeless World Cup

On 19 November I'm going to be a doing a 24 hour blogathon. A (minimum 500 words) post every hour for 24 hours.

One of the organisations I'll be fundraising for is the Homeless World Cup.

Here's why:

There are one billion homeless people in the world today.

That figure is so big as to be almost incomprehensible.

Football, through the Homeless World Cup, is playing its part in solving that problem.

The Homeless World Cup is an annual international football tournament.

It gives homeless people the chance to rebuild their lives by providing them with a focus, a motivation and a stability that they have lacked.

Over 70 percent of the players go on to change their lives. They might come off drugs or alcohol, find jobs, find homes, get an education, reunite with their families.

Some even find careers in professional or semi-professional football.

But the Homeless World Cup is about more than just the annual tournament. It is a unique, pioneering social enterprise which exists to end homelessness. It uses football to energise homeless people to change their own lives.

There is now a network of grass roots projects in over 70 countries around the world.

Those projects support over 50,000 people. Giving hope, changing lives.

Football is universally recognised, simple to organise, inclusive of different ages, men and women, all abilities.

Sometimes it doesn't know how to use that power. It can be bloated and greedy.

But it can also be a force for good, it can help bring about social change.

The Homeless World Cup is doing that every day, across the world.

By supporting the blogathon - by donating, by getting involved on Twitter or simply by spreading the word - you can help do a tiny little bit to support this fantastic organisation.

Football can't help end homelessness?

We might think that.

But a group of homeless guys from across Scotland probably didn't believe that they'd become world champions.

When we put our minds to it football really can change the world.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review - There's Only One Sauzee: When Le God Graced Easter Road

It’s almost ten years since Franck Sauzée left Easter Road, a turbulent 69 days of management bringing a passionate Leith love affair to an end.

Yet he’s still revered by the green and white hordes (not all, but a hefty number). Gone but ever more cherished.


Over the course of Ted Brack’s account of the Sauzée era many observers – teammates, his former manager, Hibs legends and ordinary fans – try to get the bottom of what it was in the relationship between the veteran and the faithful that convinced so many supporters that there was indeed only “one Sauzée.”

A quote from Jonathan Swift, born in Hibernia if not a Hibee, is tucked away on page 53. It seems apt:

“Whoever excels in what we prize appears a hero in our eyes.”

I consider myself a pragmatic realist as a supporter. But even I can never quite shrug off a certain romanticism.

Sauzée embodied what Hibs would like to be and what they once might have been. For supporters of my age, raised in the utilitarian Alex Miller era, he was unlike anyone we’d seen before, playing the game the way we were told Hibs were supposed to play the game.

For older generations he was a throwback, the skillful maestro they thought they’d never see again.

So the fans embraced him and he embraced the fans and that, of course, only made the fans love him even more.

That Sauzée would come to Hibs in the First Division shocked many. I’m not sure it should have. He was winding down and was out of favour at Montpelier. Edinburgh, if you have a certain affluence, is a nice place to live and Hibs were then in a position to pay a more than comfortable wage.

Even a celebrated European Cup winner might have been easily persuaded that there are worse ways to prepare for retirement.

The bigger coup was capturing Russell Latapy at around the same time. Latapy was then aged 29, in theory approaching his peak, and was coveted in England.

“The boy Latapy? Aye, a good little player,” was Bobby Robson’s response to McLeish’s inquiry about the midfielder's calibre. That signing, eventually based on a trial match at Brechin, was remarkable, a genuine moment of McLeish audacity.

Yet as much as Latapy was appreciated and often thrilled the supporters, it was Sauzée the fans were drawn to.

It was Sauzée, more often than not strolling through games, who seemed to embody Hibs as they stormed back to the SPL, consolidated their position in the top flight, finished third in the league, reached a Scottish Cup final and came close to knocking AEK Athens out of the UEFA Cup in one of Easter Road’s great European nights.

It was Sauzée who ran the length of the pitch towards the away fans after scoring at Tynecastle, who lost his teeth scoring in an Easter Road derby, who danced a jig of delight when Hibs touched the heights in hammering Hearts 6-2. It was Sauzée who Hearts couldn’t beat.

If you were explaining to a footballer how to become a legend at Easter Road you’d give them a copy of Brack’s book - which fairly jogs along in recounting the highs and even highers of Sauzée's playing career - and tell them to follow the Sauzée masterplan.

His importance and influence was huge. Alex McLeish built a good team at Hibs. But his reliance on Sauzée was almost total.

Jonathan Swift might provide a theme: Sauzée was Gulliver in Lilliput, his teammates often looked more than the sum of their parts when this giant walked among them and were left diminished when he wasn’t there.

He was even adept at putting out fires when the Lilliputians around him made the occasional mistake or when the manager made the odd tactical error.

McLeish hovers over this book. He was the visionary who, we’re told, had an encyclopeadic knowledge of the European game and a subscription to World Soccer magazine. The man with the contacts and gumption to gift Scottish football Sauzée and Latapy.

The author accepts that at face value - McLeish provides a foreword paying tribute to both Sauzée and Hibs - but I’m not so sure.

Bryan Gunn, Justin Skinner, Grant Brebner, Paul Holsgrove, Klaus Dietrich, Peter Guggi, Barry Prenderville, Derek Anderson, Derek Collin, Tom Smith, Alex Marinkov, Nick Colgan, Ian Westwater, Dirk Lehman, Matthias Jack, Paul Lovering, Stuart Lovell, Martin McIntosh, Earl Jean, John O’Neil, Paul Fenwick. Gary Smith, Didier Agathe, Ulrik Laursen, David Zitelli, Lyndon Andrews, Freddy Arpinon, Marc Libbra, Tony Caig, Derek Townsley, Alen Orman, Allan Smart, Ulises de la Cruz, Eduardo Hurtado, Mixu Paatelainen, Craig Brewster, Paco Luna.

Those are just some of the players that McLeish welcomed to Easter Road. You’ll recognise a few of the names, you might have forgotten many of the others. This was a manager enjoying a Bosman rule orgy.

Even the capture of Sauzée seems might have been borne more from a desire to land a marquee name than an immediate recognition of what this ageing midfielder could offer a team that had already enjoyed 11 straight wins in the First Division.

Philippe Albert and Emil Kostadinov were also apparently pursued in the hunt to sign the big reputation that would put the seal on what was, by the time Sauzée arrived, already looking like a comfortable return to the top flight. By that reckoning we could argue that McLeish got lucky that it was Sauzée he ended up with.

Why does that matter? Is all this not just the bitter ramblings of a Hibs fan still smarting at Mcleish’s departure for Rangers?

Not entirely. It’s important because reading this book is an inexorable journey to those horrible 69 days, to the misery of a league cup semi final against Ayr United and the pain of seeing Sauzée sacked.

Reading Brack's account of the McLeish years it’s easy to see how Hibs peaked around the time of that 6-2 win over Hearts, how Sauzée’s absences became more frequent and more detrimental as age caught up with him.

And how Alex McLeish struggled to cope. A club record on de la Cruz? The Ecuadorian companion piece that was Hurtado? Derek Townsley?

McLeish had mislaid his mojo before he travelled along the M8.

That left Sauzée to take over a diminished team that had lost, in Sauzée himself, its most important asset. The team that had shone, for a few almost perfect months, as brightly as any Hibs side of recent vintage had been dismantled and McLeish couldn’t recapture the magic.

That was the legacy Sauzée had to wrestle with in those 69 days. The board could have insisted he recruit a more experienced assistant than Donald Park. They didn’t. They could have insisted he retained the option of playing himself. They didn’t.

There were financial constraints that Alex McLeish wouldn’t have recognised.

When McLeish confided to the board that he doubted he had the players to win the First Division they countenanced him turning that season into a Cecil B DeMille production, complete with a cast of thousands.

Sauzée's role was as the tortured foreigner in a kitchen sink drama. A club newly worried about the housekeeping budget wasn’t going to give this novice the chance to buy himself out of a disaster.

Not that he wasn’t well rewarded for his three years as player and manager. His sole demand was apparently that no player at the club be paid more than him. He had an awareness of his own value that hints at a thoroughly modern footballer lurking below the gentlemanly, elder statesman surface. The board, which has evolved somewhat since then, acquiesced.

Brack argues that the eventual sacking of Sauzée, this modern day Easter Road hero, could even be seen as a brave move.

I didn’t think that at the time and I don’t think it now. St Johnstone were relegated that season with 21 points. It’s unlikely they would have been able to catch a Sauzée led Hibs even given the trauma of his first two months in charge.

That he was replaced by Bobby Williamson was an act of cowardice, the final victory of the earnestly dull Roundheads. It's true that Williamson gave a talented group of Hibs youngster their chance, sowing the seeds for Tony Mowbray's success.

But the board denied the chance to prove that he could do the same, do it with more inspiration and flair than Williamson was capable of.

From Sauzée to Williamson. It wasn’t the most subtle way to end an era.

Given much of what’s followed for Hibs, the days when Sauzée was in his pomp have taken on an almost dreamlike quality.

And at times he was so good, so nonchalant, so intelligent (“gymnastics of the mind” he told Simon Pia), so unusually Continental and yet so obviously at home that it could be breathtaking. There were moments when he almost seemed to be turning Chick Young’s radio reports into the awestruck ramblings of a smitten Hibs fan.

Those memories make it seem masochistic to linger on how it ended rather than how it once was.

Sadly the book’s missing ingredient makes the parting of the ways impossible to ignore. There is no Franck Sauzée in these pages, he dominates the book by his absence.

His exile from the People’s Republic of Leith now seems complete and permanent. He didn’t object to the publication of this book but nor did he did he give it his blessing. He simply ignored it, as he has done with many requests from the Hibs community in recent years.

Hibs imported an ageing, handsomely rewarded star and bucked the trend of such signings. They got a player who lived, breathed and bled for the cause.

Then they lost him. Apparently forever.

That causes the book to list, if not aimlessly, then a bit uncomfortably. The adulation from the fans inspired Sauzée and, at a time of his career when he was good enough and old enough to coast, gave him the impetus to become a star all over again. He reciprocated with what seemed, unless we can add damn fine acting skills to his list of accomplishments, like a genuine love for the fans and an appreciation of what he found at Easter Road.

It was a brief but perfect circle that gave Hibs the vigour to bounce out of a tumultous decade and grasp a new millennium with both hands.

There's a fine tale to tell here, but it becomes slightly anaemic without both sides of the story, an enjoyable scrapbook but not the book that a passionate love affair or even an aristocratic French marvel deserves.

A reminder, perhaps, that you should always be careful how you treat your heroes.

There's Only One Sauzee: When Le God Graced Easter Road by Ted Brack, Black and White Publishing.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Can Liverpool Lead Celtic and Rangers To TV Riches?

Football's television money will forever turn heads.

The Guardian reports that:

"The deal that shares television's billions equally between Premier League clubs is facing its biggest threat to date after Liverpool announced they would lead a challenge for overseas TV rights to be sold on a club-by-club basis." (

A debate, Liverpool's men in suits say, that needs to happen.

For any doubters this is proof that the game's elite hardly saw the recent court ruling on the cross border availability of satellite TV coverage as a Robin Hood-esque win for the downtrodden poor over the nasty rich.

It's no surprise that top English clubs, whose gods are all financial, want to maximise their profits while raising the drawbridge on competition.

Does it mean anything for Scotland?

It could.

I'd be amazed if this issue wasn't being closely tracked in the boardrooms of Ibrox and Celtic Park.

I've written before about Ajax's desire to break free from their league's collective Eredivisie Live TV channel and market their own rights separately.

They argue that the television riches of the modern game's biggest leagues have robbed them of their elite status and only by jettisoning any sense of duty to the rest of the Dutch league can they hope to clamber back to the top table.

Celtic and Rangers will gauge, correctly, that they are the only real overseas draw the SPL have.

They would also fancy being freed from a collective deal at home. They'll know exactly how many viewers they draw to the SPL coverage on Sky and ESPN. Without seeing the figures I'd guess that the average audience of around 160,000 across 60 live games would be much smaller if the Old Firm were removed from the equation.

If the concept of these existing collective deals begins to shatter across Europe Celtic and Rangers will have the precedent they need to agitate for their own breakaway.

The onus on the SPL to get their next television deal right would seem to have become ever more important.

A refreshing wind of opportunity might just have blown through Glasgow.

There's likely to be a storm of foreboding gathering over every other SPL club.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Craig Levein: Here To Stay

That was that then.

A blessing, perhaps, that our agony wasn't prolonged. As Spain attempted to pass Scotland to death in Alicante, Czech Republic had already gone ahead in Lithuania.

When David Silva scored Spain's opener inside six minutes the game was up.

Not the agony of past failures when Scotland have teased us into believing before tripping over their own inadequacies at the final hurdle.

Our Euro 2012 hopes suffered a slow puncture and deflated over the course of the campaign.

Immediately, predictably, there were calls for the end of the Levein era. There have been similar calls since about the tenth minute of our opening draw in Lithuania.

The grass is always greener. Even if you don't have any idea who'd be prepared to mow the lawn for you.

The prosecution claims a damning charge sheet. It includes the lack of ambition so fully realised in inglorious technicolor during the horrors of the 4-6-0 formation in Prague and compounded by the stubborn refusal to shift from his 4-1-4-1 formation.

And where were our knights in shining armour in Spain? When he turned to his bench did Levein not regret the absence of Steven Fletcher, Ross McCormack and Garry O'Connor? For a variety of reasons they weren't there - although their international credentials as game changers against the world's best remain unproven.

Hindsight shows that our opening 0-0 draw in Lithuania set the tone for Scotland's failure. We had the best of that game and couldn't capitalise.

Does the blame for that lie with Levein? Or did he see a team uncomfortable in itself, struggling for confidence? If it's the latter then his ultra-conservatism away to the Czechs - as misguided as it was - is easier to understand.

Liechtenstein at Hampden was an agonising embarrassment. But one we survived.

Against Spain at Hampden Scotland came back from 2-0 to draw level. And they did that using Levein's favoured formation. There was the proof that it can offer an attacking threat. We should have seen more of that against Lithuania and, crucially, against the Czechs at home.

Was that the manager's fault? Or was it - as it seemed to this observer at the time - players still not entirely confident disappearing into their collective shell when the chance was there to seize the game?

Your answers will depend on your view of Levein. There are plenty who will continue to be vociferous in their dislike of him.

And if he's guilty of a defensiveness on the pitch he's equally guilty of a prickly defensiveness off it.

The beard, that cap in the dugout in Liechtenstein, even the extra padding around the midriff, seem to be the physical manifestation of the barrier he has raised to guard against malign influences.

It can come across as an unfortunate mix of the dull and the chippy. But we can't kid ourselves that there are not members of the fourth estate who would glory in his demise. They tend to provide fewer answers than they do brickbats.

And the public image is at odds with the loyalty he seems to have inspired in most of the players at his disposal.

This is all probably a verbose waste of time. Levein is going nowhere. He's expressed a desire to stay on and he won't be sacked.

One of the positives of his tenure has been the shifting of attitudes at the SFA. George Peat is gone and little lamented. Levein has been building relationships with chief executive Stewart Regan and new performance director Mark Wotte.

That triumvirate is likely to place a premium on stability. Starting over with a new national coach won't appeal to the SFA. You can like that or you can lump it.

I'm teetering towards liking it.

This has been a strange campaign, made all the uglier by poor performances and mistakes from the manager.

But it's not been without moments of optimism. Scotland remain limited. They will appear limited for a long time. There's been both a lack of stability and lack of a strategy at the SFA. Spain's mesmerising superiority last night is just one result of negligence on the part of the guardian's of our game.

It will take time to put that right and Levein, if he really has learned from this campaign, can play his part.

The idea that he is scared of his own shadow is not borne out by a willingness to introduce new players.

Craig Mackail-Smith, Phil Bardsley and Barry Bannan from last night's starting XI have arrived. Charlie Adam has been reintroduced, David Goodwillie displayed a precocious confidence in scoring Scotland's penalty against Spain. There are others and there will be more.

That's a more ambitious selection policy than many of his predecessors have attempted and Levein seems to have pulled it off while keeping - largely - the morale and interest of the players intact. It's also given him good reason to claim this as a campaign spent in transition.

The team will continue to evolve but he seems now to have created his own nucleus. I suspect Steven Fletcher will soon return, others will take the step up and more still will fall by the wayside.

The majesty of Spain aside this was a poor group. That makes our failure to reach the play-offs - in itself no guarantee of progression - more galling.

It hasn't killed us though. And, with some green shoots appearing, it could yet have made us - and our manager - stronger.

The pain, of course, comes from the confirmation that another major championship will carry on without Scotland.

I was 18 when we opened the 1998 World Cup. That was the sixth time in my lifetime that Scotland had appeared at a majors final.

Those appearances brought their own excitement and their own exquisite agonies.

Too many people have yet to properly experience what that feels like. If this latest exit didn't carry the same trauma as others, the longing and wistful thoughts of what might have been will return next summer.

If nothing else Craig Levein knows exactly what we want from his next qualifying campaign.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Euro 2012: Spain v Scotland

David said moreover, the Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the Lord be with thee.

And, by jove, the Lord was with David.

Unfortunately Goliaths have got a bit more sophisticated in the 400 years since King James authorised his version of the bible.

It's doubtful if a stone and a sling could counter tiki-taka. And Scotland won't be allowed swords in Alicante this evening.

So we're screwed as we meet our Judgement Day?

No, we're not. In a weak group we've been foolish in letting it come down to this, a meeting with the invincibles of Spain.

But we don't have to beat them. We just need to hope Lithuania can do us a favour against Czech Republic.

Nothing illustrates the polarisation of this qualification group, the chasm between Spain and the also rans, more than the possibility of a team as limited as Lithuania beating a team as average as the Czechs to allow a team as uninspired as Scotland the luxury of getting cuffed in Spain and still progressing.

International football in all its glory. And the severity of the judgement delivered on your Judgement Day is somewhat neutered by the knowledge that you could lose 6-0 and reach the promised land of a play-off lottery courtesy of a last minute Saulius Mikoliunas dive in Kaunas.

We could, of course, still get some sort of result against Spain. Nothing is certain in football, even if the total Spanish domination of the group suggests otherwise.

In fact Scottish football's popular romanticism, that well worn narrative of the glorious near miss largely invented to lessen the pain of our failures, would have an inspired Scotland enjoying an underdog's moral triumph.

Did we not rock the haughty Spanish as we roared back from the dead at Hampden?

We did. For a bit. And Spain have qualified at a canter so can afford to relax to the point of distraction by the Mediterranean this evening.

What state of relaxation do Spain need to be in before they become a bad team?

Unless we have pre-match confirmation that they intend to turn up drunk, we can consider our hosts prohibitive favourites.

We can expect our 4-1-4-1(ish) to be called into a rearguard action. If our "1" up front is Kenny Miller, Craig Mackail-Smith or David Goodwillie we can expect him to be isolated and tireless, his own frustrations forgotten for the greater good of the collective.

Talk of Levein's tactical options, chat of the meaning of this injury or that passed fitness test, strikes me as being a lot of tosh today.

We want our best players to be available. But what tactical shocks can Levein spring? Which armchair pundit is going to suggest a formation or a game plan that will nullify this Spain team?

Better teams than Scotland have tried and failed. Worse teams than Scotland have tried and failed. Teams that are pretty much the same as Scotland have tried and failed.

Spain are World and European champions for a reason. Scotland have gone a generation without playing at a major championship for a reason. Bridging that gulf is akin to breaking the Rubik's Cube world time record while wearing a blindfold.

Tonight we're likely to be playing the gooseberry as Spain murmur sweet nothings and make rude with the ball. And football's a hard game without the ball.

Keeping your shape, keeping your dignity, when a team is enjoying over 70 percent possession (as Spain have so far in this qualifying campaign) is not easy.

Maybe that sets the stage for Levein's finest hour. The night when his admirable dedication to his own footballing beliefs or - depending on your view of him - his obdurate obsession with organisation above all else, is given the chance to shine.

90 minutes that validate his mantra that the squad have bought into his methods and that he's created a group that can make Scotland proud.

Organisation, concentration, hard work and luck. That's how you get a result against Spain.

And hope. Hope that Lithuania can deliver us to a play-off. And hope that this Goliath leaves David's dignity intact.

> Kenny Miller, Barry Bannan and Craig Mackail-Smith remain injury doubts. Darren Fletcher looks set to play. It looks grim for Miller - whose absence could yet prove that you don't miss the water until the well runs dry - while Bannan could have difficulty putting his boot on without opening up a cut on his foot.

Bannan's emergence has gladdened the heart these past couple of games. But it is the likely absence of Miller's selfless experience that will be most keenly felt.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon: in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup, 19 November 2011

Scotland: Strip the Willow

"Ya beauty, a new Scotland strip."

That's me trying to channel my eight year old self because I'm not really sure why anyone who isn't going to wear it competitively or anyone over school age should get excited about such a thing.

But they do.

And here it is. In all it's glory. Or all it's "embarrassment to the nation-ness" depending on your point of view. A quick glance at a new bit of adidas kit and suddenly we're all Gok Wan.

The new Scotland shirt.

In keeping with the last effort we have some sort of embossed inlaid feature on the chest:

"This unique Saltire embossing incorporates [a] range of sources from around Scotland that champion the Scottish FA’s rich footballing history – including the old and new Hampden Park, the Lion Rampant, the Thistle, the 1928 ball used in the 5-1 demolition of England at Wembley Stadium, the Fleur De Lis and the date 1873 – the year of the Scottish FA’s foundation."

It's doubtful if the artists working on the Sistine Chapel drew on so many strands of divine inspiration.

A big white collar too. Just like the 1970s. And the 1990 World Cup. Plus a snap button. Which does bring to mind the description of Hibs' 1994-95 strip featured in The Worst Football Kits of All Time:

"The popper-button neck vainly attempts to appropriate some retro-classic collar style but it's as futile and incongrous as grafting an imitation Rolls-Royce grille onto an Austin Princess."

The badge is reassuringly round, inspired by the 1974 "oh so close" World Cup experience. Although it's actually an imitation of the circular badge used from, I think, the early 1960s until the Umbro shirts of the late 80s/early 90s.

Unlike the old badge this one just says "Scotland, Est: 1873" risking the erroneous impression that the country began in 1873. And that would make Mel Gibson's grasp of history even worse.

The socks feature the word "Alba," possibly to reassure that same demographic which feels a bit panicked on arriving at Linlithgow by train and not seeing a Gaelic translation of where they are on the platform signage. The Gaelic heritage of football's traditional Scottish heartlands seems a bit hazy to this observer.

Basically it's a football strip. It's not salmon pink nor a horrendously ill-conceived tartan effort.

Love it, like it, buy it, hate it.

It will make bugger all difference to how the team play.

On a personal note I think it would have been a nice touch, for both players and fans, if it had been given a debut at last night's Under-21 international. A wee boost for the young squad that would have been.

But I'm no Adi Dassler.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Blogathon: Calling In A Blogging Favour

Bloggers, the Scottish Football Blog needs you!

On 19-20 November I’m doing a 24 hour blogathon to raise money for the Homeless World Cup and Alzheimer Scotland.

I’ll be writing (and researching) a 500 word (or more) blog post every hour for 24 hours.

And I need your help.

To try and get as many people as involved (and donating) as possible I’m looking to Twitter and fellow bloggers for inspiration.

Some of the subjects I write about will be suggested on Twitter and others will come from fellow members of the football blogging world.

And now I’m hoping to recruit those bloggers.

Here’s how it will work:

You’ll choose a topic. Then you’ll write about it, taking a certain side in the argument. It can be as long or as short as you want and you’ve got between now and the weekend of 19-20 November to write it.

On the day I’ll see your post for the very first time and have an hour to come up with a counter-argument.

If you have argued that Hibs are the best football team in the world, I’ll have one hour to write at least 500 words on why Hibs are the worst football team in the world.

If you have argued that Garry Kenneth is the worst football player in the SPL, I’ll have one hour to write at least 500 words on why Garry Kenneth is the best football player in the SPL.

And it's not restricted to Scottish football. For those with a sadistic streak the further you drag me from the comfort of Scotland, the harder the hour will be. I hear tales of distant lands where more than two teams can win the league but I refuse to believe that can be true.

Obviously your site will get full credit, links, Twitter mentions and all the rest. It’s all for charity. And I’ll owe you a massive favour.

If you think you can help out please get in touch by email (corriganreid(at)hotmail(dot)com), through the contact page, comment below or send a tweet on Twitter.

But please don’t tell me what you’d like to write about – I can’t find that out until the day of the blogathon.

Once I’ve got an idea of names and interest I’ll be passing you over to Scott Johnston of who will be organising the blogger side of things on the day. (Or will be when I tell him he is).

“But wait, I don’t have a blog.” No problem, if you’re interested in being involved please still get in touch and we’ll try and work something out.

Thanks in advance and I really do appreciate any help that any of you can offer. (And donations, I will really appreciate donations. A lot.)

I’ll be writing about the blogathon regularly in the build up to the 19th and will also be using #fitbablether as a hashtag on Twitter.


Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players: Henry Renny-Tailyour

Meandering through The Sunday Post (the scrapes that Oor Wullie finds himself in!) I spotted something in Brian Fowlie's TV review of Scotland's spectacular win in Liechtenstein:

"Craig Mackail-Smith's goal calmed things for a while, I'll swear the commentators paused to take a breath.

"I did wonder if the Brighton striker was the first player with a hyphenated name to score for Scotland. That information wasn't forthcoming."

I'd wondered the same thing myself. And now I can reveal all.

He's not. Double-barrelled Scotland caps are almost as old as the international game itself and they have always carried a goal threat.

They're not common. My trawl of the archives suggest Mackail-Smith is only the second Scotland player to greedily snaffle two surnames all to himself.

But his predecessor had a storied career.

March 1873. Scotland, representing the burgeoning Scottish Football Association for the first time, travelled to London to take part in football's second international football match.

After a 0-0 draw in Glasgow in 1872, England claimed the first cross border bragging rights with a 4-2 victory in London. The visitors could only afford to send eight players down south. The team was supplemented by three exiles.

One of those exiles scored Scotland's first ever international goal in the 25th minute of the match.

Henry Renny-Tailyour. Not an ordinary name for a Scotland player. Not an ordinary life for a Scotland player either. Before the days of tanner ba' players learning their craft playing football on the streets there were internationals like Henry.

Scottish footballers should be born in Scotland? Henry wasn't. He was born in India in those far off days when the sun never set on the British Empire.

He grew up in Montrose. Or near Montrose. I have to assume that the Renny-Tailyour's family estate amounted to slightly more than a typical Montrosian dwelling of the time.

From Montrose to Cheltenham College and then, as was the way for gentleman of the age, the British Army.

It was as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers that Renny-Tailyour cut a dash through the early days of organised sport.

He had played for Scotland against England in 1871 but the match was scratched from official records because the Scottish team was drawn entirely from the London area.

In 1872, the year of his sole Scotland cap, he played for the Royal Engineers in the first ever FA Cup Final. They lost that game to The Wanderers and were foiled again in 1874 by Oxford University.

In 1875 the Royal Engineers finally got their hands on the trophy. Lieutenant Renny-Taylour scored in a 1-1 draw and then again in 3-0 replay win. That it was the Old Etonians that were beaten in the final will have made the experience that bit sweeter for the goalscoring Old Cheltonian.

Given his football commitments it's difficult to see how much time Henry had for engineering - royal, military or otherwise - but he progressed to the rank of colonel in the Sappers.

Amazingly though he didn't confine himself to just football and the army.

Scotland and England had met in the very first rugby international in Edinburgh in 1871. In 1872 England hosted a return match. Lining up for Scotland that day was Henry Renny-Taylour.

It's a unique achievement.

He played in the second official football international and he played in the second official rugby international. He remains the only person to have represented Scotland in both sports. Both games were played, incidentally, at The Oval. Both were lost. But for a gentleman amateur like Henry that might not have been the point.

The venue was fitting: between his football, rugby and military careers he also found time to play 28 first class cricket matches as a middle order batsman and right arm bowler.

On retiring from the army, and sport, Henry topped off what sounds like a rather enjoyable career as managing director of Guinness. I suppose there just weren't the same punditry opportunities in those days.

He died in 1920 at the age of 70, back at home in Scotland.

It seems that, unhindered by a double barrelled surname, he gave life both barrels.

Forgotten Scotland Players Number 9: Henry Renny-Tailyour, Royal Engineers. 1 (official) cap.