Friday, November 11, 2011

Cyprus v Scotland

Ah. The nerves are a-jangling.

Scotland on the road again. At stake a place in Euro 2012, a boozed up tour of Poland and Ukraine with all the fun and futile expectation that goes with a major championship.

And then we wake up.

Scotland aren't in the play offs. They're in Cyprus looking forward to a friendly.

A meaningless friendly when we could have had so much more.

Instead we'll try to dress this up as our opening salvo in the long march to Brazil and 2014 World Cup joy. (Joy being relative in Scotland's case.)

It's all Craig Levein's fault. The big crap diddy. So some say.

Not that it concerns him. He takes the blows, he moves on. And, with no miracle working, mistake free Messiah on the horizon, we could maybe do worse than have a manager with conviction.

A welcome tonight for Ryan Stevenson, Craig Samson and Gary MacKenzie.

Not that warm a welcome really. "You're crap and you shouldn't be there" is perhaps not the greeting you want when you realise your dream of being picked for the national squad.

But if you can't experiment in a November friendly against Cyprus, when can you experiment? (Hint: you can't experiment in a competitive away game against Czech Republic.)

Jordan Rhodes is also in the squad. That rare thing, a Scottish forward scoring goals. Albeit at a lower level. And he is Scottish, in his own mind and within the guidelines of the eligibility rules.

Even rarer, a Scottish forward scoring goals and getting picked by Levein.

He seems to have something about him, young Jordan. Fingers crossed. All Rhodes lead to Rio.

There is a point that the hysteria over Levein's selections seems to miss. He's going nowhere.

We've got the manager, for better, for worse, for the next qualifying campaign.

We may as well get on with it. He will. So will the players he picks. Players, incidentally, who seem to be quite happy playing for him. That's another point that's often missed when the focus falls on those he doesn't pick or those who made their own choice to act like big huffy chidren.

If everyone I hear Levein should pick was picked we'd have a squad of about 50. But I'm not sure the eleven chosen to go out on the park would be greatly improved.

Levein, like every manager, falls short of perfection. This squad, like every Scotland squad ever picked - even when were good underachievers - falls short of perfection.

The entire playing pool, including every English, Welsh or Botswana born option, falls short of perfection.

But some fans demand perfection. Makes managing or playing for Scotland a very difficult job.

We should still beat Cyprus though.



The team is in. And it looks like this:

McGregor, Whittaker, Berra, Caldwell, Bardsley, Mackie, Cowie, Fletcher, Morrison, Robson, Miller

So it seems Cyprus in November really isn't the place for a manager to gaily experiment after all. Sticking with what you know seems to be the order of the day.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Hibs Join The Football Nation

It's been another bad week for Hibs.

So I'm happy to share some good news.

Seven years ago Hibs awarded their exclusive merchandise rights to themselves.

That meant the club shop at Easter Road was the only place fans could buy official club merchandise.

This had its benefits. It also, it seemed to me, reduced Hibs' visibility in Edinburgh and meant supporters had to travel to Easter Road to buy their replica shirts and the sundry other bits and pieces that make up a modern football retail operation.

Falling attendances have meant a reduction in the size of the captive market that this ploy banked on.

It was no real surprise that this week's AGM saw the club admit that retail revenues had fallen.

Kudos then to the board and their marketing and commercial staff for realising that action had to be taken.

And hearty applause for the news that Hibs shirts and other merchandise will now be available at the excellent Football Nation shop on Lothian Road. A far easier Saturday shopping trip detour than Easter Road for those fans who might be voting with their feet but still want to be green clad or have green clad children.

Football Nation's Steven Dow said:

"Edinburgh is a busy and vibrant city and it is essential for all brands to have an opportunity to present its retail offer to as many consumers as possible.

"Over the last five years Football Nation has established itself as one of the UK’s leading retailers of football merchandise and the addition of every new brand is great news for us.

"What is most welcome is that this is one of our local teams who can now be presented to the very valuable tourist market in Edinburgh."

Steven tells me that already tourists have been stopping by and picking up Hibs shirts.

I've had this conversation with Steven before and he's told me of tourists hoping to pick up a local replica shirt - Hearts also operate a policy of exclusivity - who end up leaving the shop with EPL shirts.

I couldn't comment on the size of this potential market but it's always struck me as odd that Hibs would actively deny people a convenient opportunity to buy their merchandise.

Russell Smith, corporate and commercial manager at Hibs, continued:

"We are really pleased to have agreed this retail partnership with Football Nation because it enables our fans to purchase our kit from an outlet in the centre of Edinburgh.

"It also enables us to engage positively with potential new customers; via the city’s huge tourist industry.

"We are an Edinburgh team and we wanted to increase our visibility within the city and also to make it easier for our supporters, who are not based near Easter Road to buy replica kit and Hibernian merchandise."

Common sense has prevailed.

And the choice of Football Nation seems ideal, offering not a faceless chain of dullard sports shops but a dedicated football store run by what John Hughes would call "football people."

Right, that's one step in the right direction.

About this new manager...

Take a look at Football Nation

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Forgotten Scotland Players

To mark Remembrance Day two more entries in the Scottish Football Blog's Forgotten Scotland Players series.

Two players who were part of the most famous Hearts team of them all.

Forgotten Scotland Players: George Sinclair

Football in Scotland didn't stop during the conflict of 1914-1918. Players, officials and supporters fought for their country. Many never returned.

But, rightly or wrongly, the game continued. It did so against a backdrop of criticism and recrimination that the sport was ignoring its patriotic duty and encouraging others to do the same.

Yet some players had answered the country's call without delay.

One of those was the Hearts winger George Sinclair. Formerly a regular soldier he'd left the army in 1905.

He signed for an under performing Hearts in 1908. When George McCartney replaced James McGhee as manager he decided that Sinclair was of only four players who would meet the standard he was demanding.

Sinclair, he recognised, was one of the finest wingers in Scotland. In a new era for Hearts he was deserving of his place.

Scotland's selectors seemed to agree. In March 1910 Sinclair made his Scotland debut against Ireland in Belfast as the Scots fell to a 1-0 defeat.

As McCartney strove to build a team that would achieve his goal of being the "perfect combination," Sinclair continued to impress.

In 1912 he was again called into the Scotland team. On 3rd March he was part of the team that beat Wales 1-0 in front of 31,000 fans at Tynecastle.

Two weeks later he got his revenge in Belfast as Scotland, sent on their way by a first half double from Blackburn's Walter Aitkenhead, beat Ireland 4-1.

Two years on and McCartney's Tynecastle dream was coming close to being realised.

In the summer of 1914 Hearts played a friendly in a Copenhagen before returning to Edinburgh to beat Hibs 6-0 in the Dunedin Cup.

People suddenly realised that McCartney might have been deadly serious when he predicted that his team would win the league.

Then, on 4th August, Britain wasn't provided with the assurances it demanded that Belgium's neutrality would be respected by an advancing German Army.

The European powder keg had exploded and Britain was about to join the conflagration.

When Sinclair had left the Field Artillery in 1905 he had made a commitment to rejoin the forces in the event of such a conflict.

On 5th August 1914, in keeping with that agreement, he rejoined his battery. Britain was at war. And so was George Sinclair.

Driver George Leckie Sinclair of the Royal Field Artillery didn't serve in the famous McRae's Battalion that became inexorably linked to Hearts.

His war took a different route. And he was one of the lucky ones.

Injured while on active service he was discharged from the army. His injuries weren't serious enough to stop him from playing football and he returned to see out his career with Hearts, playing his last game in 1920.

He was also apparently spared the after effects that scarred the lives of so many veterans.

When a free scoring Hearts side, perhaps fulfilling the destiny that was denied the team of 1914, won the championship in 1958 Sinclair was running a pub in Edinburgh's Abbeyhill.

Forgotten Scotland Players number 10: George Sinclair, Hearts. 3 caps.

Forgotten Scotland Players: Bob Mercer

When George McCartney began his rebuilding job at Tynecastle he immediately recognised that the player he could build the team's success on was already at the club.

Robert 'Bob' Mercer was a young centre half when he first met McCartney.

In the pre-war years footballs were like boulders, boots like concrete and defenders were rugged characters. Mercer was a modern centre half before the phrase was invented.

Ball playing, skillful. Classy.

He was the young talent at the centre of the manager's "perfect combination" philosophy.

He was just 22 when he made his Scotland debut, alongside team mate George Sincliar, in the 1-0 win over Wales at Tynecastle.

His second cap came in March 1913 as Scotland beat Ireland 2-1 in Dublin.

Mercer was injured during the course of Hearts' impressive start to the 1914-15 season. An October return proved too soon for his damaged ligaments and he was ruled out again.

Despite his injury, as the captain of the league leaders and as one of Scotland's bright young things he was a lightning rod for the ire of those who felt football wasn't pulling its weight in the war effort.

When Hearts answered the call from McCrae's Battlalion, Mercer's injury meant he was unable to join his team mates.

15 players did join McCrae's Own. Three of them were to die on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.

Mercer was eventually to join the Royal Garrison Artillery. In 1918 he was caught in a severe gas attack.

Unlike many of his team mates he survived. He returned to play for Hearts for another two seasons.

In 1919 he joined George Sinclair in the side that won the SFA's Victory Cup.

It was clear, however, that Mercer wasn't the same player. When a doctor diagnosed a weakened heart, Hearts insisted he retire. He reluctantly left the club but went on to play another couple of seasons with Dunfermline.

In 1926 he played a game as a guest for Hearts in Selkirk. He collapsed and died of heart failure.

The "war to end all wars" had claimed another victim.

Forgotten Scotland Player number 11: Bob Mercer, Hearts. 2 caps.

31 Hearts players saw service during the First World War. Six were killed in action. Another three died during the conflict. Three more, including Bob Mercer, died after 1918 as a consequence of injuries suffered during the war.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Scottish Football Forums Podcast

The good people at Scottish Football Forums were kind enough to have me on their podcast this week.

A chance to focus on capital football: Hibs and the search for yet another manager and Hearts, Vladimir Romanov, stadiums, the City of Edinburgh Council and trams. Interesting times in Auld Reekie.

Plus I grab the chance to rant about Scotland fans as we look forward to Friday's massive game against Cyprus.

For all the different ways to listen, subscribe and enjoy go here

Thanks to Craig and Laurie for inviting me to join the chat.

Follow: @sfootballforums and @lauriedunsire

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Hibs: Calderwood Goes But Questions Remain

It took 68 words for Hibs to dispatch of Colin Calderwood.

Even that seemed needlessly verbose, the gist was simple:

"Thanks. Goodbye. We live to find another boss."

A taciturn end to a joyless reign. Consider the contrast to July when Rod Petrie - hardly a prolific wordsmith - devoted 434 words and the logic of a one-eyed statistician to a celebratory love letter in support of the manager.

What changed?

Could it have been just five words? The chants of "Petrie, Petrie get tae fuck" that mingled with - in my experience - unprecedented boos at the final whistle on Saturday.

Perhaps it was.

Perhaps not. Clearly a storm had been brewing.

Calderwood was unloved and struggling. A board that stakes its authority on good housekeeping had posted a loss of £900,000.

The completed stadium was consistently less than half full. The quality of the training centre was translating into incompetence on the pitch.

On Saturday Hibs lost a goal inside three minutes against Dunfermline. They spent the remainder of the 90 minutes looking beaten.

Football allows you to shelter from your own failings in the shortcomings of others. When you start losing to the teams below you the game is pretty much up.

12 wins from 49 games. One home win since February. An abject performance on Saturday.

If he's honest with himself - and I suspect that it is one of his qualities - Calderwood will not be shocked at his dismissal.

But questions remain.

Hibs proclaim their financial stability. Yet they get through managers at an unseemly rate.

Mistakes. They've made a few.

Calderwood was the wrong man for the job. He was backed - within Hibs' budgetary constraints - in two transfer windows. He was lauded by the chairman in a public show of support that has never looked anything but misguided.

And that show of support was costly. There was a chance in the summer to cash in, accept compensation from Nottingham Forest or Birmingham for Calderwood and start over.

Hibs stubbornly held on to their man. Hindsight shows that as foolhardiness.

The board are guilty in this saga. And, as guilty men, they will be under fierce scrutiny at tonight's AGM. Passions will run high inside the meeting.

A rumoured protest against Petrie and his well salaried acolytes will be held outside the Famous Five stand at the same time.

Cutting Calderwood loose hasn't been met with elation. The troubled waters are not becalmed.

Instead there's a simmering resentment that it has come to this.

That resentment is manifested in a loss of faith. There's little conviction that the people with power at Easter Road now have the ability to make the changes, and the appointment, that the club needs to come even close to meeting the expectations of fans.

Blaming Calderwood. Blaming John Hughes. Blaming the players. Blaming the fans for not standing up and being counted.

That won't work tonight. Similar ploys have been used too many times.

A mea culpa. A detailed statement of of the club's footballing ambition. A transparent guarantee that Petrie's role and influence has been reduced.

All that would begin the rebuilding process. But the breakdown in trust is huge.

The fans showed on Saturday that they can only take so much.

Mired in a malaise of their own making the board need to hold their hands up this evening and beg for mercy.

Then they need to find the right manager and work tirelessly to get things right on the pitch.

Months of misery have culminated in a crisis. They can only redeem themselves with progress on the pitch.

There are lingering doubts that they can meet those challenges. They need to prove that they can. And they need to do it quickly.

> Four steps in the right direction:

1. Rod Petrie steps back. As the only board member with a stake in the company he is guaranteed a role. But a chairman can be hands off. He can busy himself with his SFA duties. If he trusts his fellow directors enough to pay them handsome salaries he has to show a willingness to trust them to run the club without their puppet-master.

2. Scott Lindsay leaves East Mains. The Executive Director is in charge of the football side of the club. He's an accountant. He doesn't need an office at the training centre. If the board want representation that close to the action they should appoint a Director of Football with a footballing background.

3. Get the next appointment right. Easier said than done for any club. But Hibs have a lot of mistakes to learn from. A manager shouldn't just impress because he understands the club's balance sheet. He also needs to understand and connect with the fans. That doesn't mean the new man should have a history with the club. We're told the directors live and breathe Hibs. That should give them an insight into the sort of manager who can provide inspiration and stability, an eye for a bargain and an ear for the support.

4. Get the fans on board. Literally. The supporter-shareholders wield no power. But representation in the boardroom would be a clear indication that the failed autocracy of recent seasons has been consigned to history in favour of a fresh start for the whole "Hibernian family."

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011

St Johnstone v Aberdeen and 126 Alex Fergusons

Monday night football.

When I was a slip of lad approaching drinking age Monday night football used to be a thing of wonder.

(Drinking age, kids, used to be more of a general guide than a rule. Don't live as I lived. It's bad for you.)

We'd gather around what we then thought were big screens and be stunned as Newcastle and Liverpool served up seven goal thrillers and Sky's hype levels left our skies and bothered Martian moons.

Now we get St Johnstone v Aberdeen.

Not to knock the Saints and the Dons. But it's a fair sign that Monday night on the TV ain't what it once was. And it's SPL fans that are suffering.

An intriguing match though. Aberdeen, without kicking a ball, find themselves joint bottom of the league.

St Johnstone welcome a new era in the shape of manager Steve Lomas and chairman Steve Brown.

Both have shadows to escape. For Lomas it is the plaudit winning reigns of first Owen Coyle and then, seamlessly, Derek McInnes. Steve Brown has to prove that he's both his own man and capable of running as steady a ship as his father.

A leap into the unknown? Perhaps.

But a reasonable legacy to inherit. Widely regarded as a well-run club, a reputation for embracing ambitious young managers. And fourth in the league.

Lucky Lomas.

And unlucky Craig Brown?

Possibly. But probably not. Dunfermline and Inverness winning at the weekend weren't part of Aberdeen's grand plan.

Wins against Dunfermline - never a bad thing to be beating the teams around you in the league - and Dundee United pointed to a revival before the cruel mistress of the fixture list threw up an Old Firm double header.

Tonight offers Aberdeen the chance to get back on track. Which I expect they will sort of manage with a draw.

How much is one Sir Alex Ferguson worth? Part Three

The 10 SPL clubs in action over the weekend threw up 105 managers in the time that Sir Alex Ferguson has reigned supreme at Old Trafford.

It's fitting that we end this experiment of adopting Alex Ferguson as an international unit of measurement with tonight's game.

Aberdeen are the club he left in 1986. Did he leave them bereft? It's been a long, twisting and often tortuous road since he took his leave.

Now they seek succour in the only SPL manager older than Ferguson.

And St Johnstone welcome the newest member of the SPL managerial pack.

The new reality dictates that if Steve Lomas is a tenth as successful as Ferguson he won't stay at St Johnstone for more than a season or two.

25 years on and we inhabit a different world.

St Johnstone

Then: Ian Gibson
Now: Steve Lomas

In between: Alex Totten, John McClelland, Paul Sturrock, Sandy Clark, Billy Stark, John Connolly, Owen Coyle, Derek McInnes

Total: 10


Then: situation vacant
Now: Craig Brown

In between: Ian Porterfield, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Willie Miller, Roy Aitken, Alex Miller, Ebbe Skovdahl, Steve Paterson, Jimmy Calderwood, Mark McGhee

Total: 11

Despite a determined effort by Hibs to screw up my calculations I can now reveal that:

One Sir Alex Ferguson equals 126 Scottish club managers.

Abacus breaking stuff.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

1964: Jock Stein Speaks

Jock Stein speaks to GOAL! magazine in November 1964.


Master Tactician

By Alun Cameron


That is the sum Hibs are reputed to be asking for their "return" friendly against Real Madrid. Hibs earned the right to command this fee on that night a few weeks ago when they not only defeated but thoroughly outclasses the team which is generally considered to be one of the world's greatest.

But the eleven heroes who thrilled the crowd that night gave all their praise to one man - manager Jock Stein.

After a long and illustrious career as a player with Celtic, including a league cap against England, he could say there was still a lot to learn: he proved his point by going to Milan to study the methods of the great Helenio Herrera. He took notes, asked questions and came home determined to put the lessons he had learned into practice. Managing Dunfermline at the time, he soon transformed them into a team to be respected - in Europe as well as at home. Moving to Hibs last season at time when their fortunes were at a dangerously low ebb, he soon transformed them, too, into a team to be feared.


"There's no magic in it, though," said Jock Stein, as we discussed the change in Hibs' fortunes in an Easter Road boardroom dominated by the symbol of their first success in a long time - the Summer Cup. "It's only hard work and practice. It takes time to build a good team, and unfortunately the football fan demands immediate results - overnight miracles. It can't be done."


Some officials are still living in the immediate post-war period, a boom time for football. Now there's competition from such things as television.

"Football realises the danger, but the sad thing is that it's done absolutely nothing to combat it," said Stein. "The only answer is the Super League. They must come some time, so why not now? Even a 'part time' basis would be a step in the right direction. The top dozen or so British clubs could meet in one or two games each month, in addition to their usual or perhaps slightly reduced League commitments."

Big names + Big games = Big gates. Fair enough, but could Scotland justifiably claim a half-representation in a British League? Are there enough Scottish clubs which could compete at that standard? Jock Stein thinks so. "At least the top half dozen Scottish clubs could hold their own against their southern counterparts - given regular games at this level of competitiveness."


But how would the amateur fare in this "brave new world?" Would he survive?

"There will always be amateurs," says Stein. "I believe that the difference between senior and minor football will become more pronounced, with many of the in-between grades disappearing entirely. On the Continent they have a system where a club like Real Madrid may have something like a dozen teams ranging down to the equivalent of our schoolboy teams. The benefits of this are obvious. The senior team has a constant supply of good youngsters, while they in turn have the benefit of professional coaching and training while still young."


"Training would be enjoyable and not a chore, as it is to many of the boys in this country. If youngsters were attached to a senior club, they would realise that football, glamorous though it may be, is their job and they to work at it hard.

Good advice from a man who really knows. Let's hope that more players take it. And let's hope that Jock Stein's predictions for a bright and shiny football future come true.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

SPL: Motherwell v Celtic

Agog today for the SPL's biggest game since the last big game.

Motherwell v Celtic.

If you'd said in July that third placed Celtic would need a November win to move ahead of second placed Motherwell on goal difference we probably wouldn't have believed you.

But such seismic events often only need the collision of one or two factors. In this case Motherwell have been consistently impressive and Celtic have been consistently incompetent.

By my reckoning Motherwell have used 17 players in the SPL this season. Six of them have played every minute of every game.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Celtic have used 25. Only one player has played every game.

Injuries, loss of form, tinkering, suspensions. Difficult to build momentum amid such upheaval. A dose of bad luck and a measure of bad judgement. Neil Lennon sees the problems but struggles to find solutions. That inevitably leads to questions about him and his coaching team.

Celtic could lose today and still - under Lennon or an as yet unidentified saviour - finish second. At a push - helped perhaps by shenanigans of a financial bent - they could lose today and win the title.

Life would be far easier for all at Celtic Park if those theories weren't put to the test.

Can they overcome McCall's miracle and assert their normal authority?

Maybe. Maybe not.

They were impressive in blitzing Hibs in the second half of their league cup clash at Easter Road.

But they were woeful in that first half in Edinburgh and hardly better over 90 minutes against Hibs in Glasgow.

They again overcame an early setback to dispatch Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday.

But these slow starts are unbecoming in a team of Celtic's ambition. They point to a side at odds with itself, uncomfortable in recognising what is expected of them.

And now I've fallen into the miserable trap of focusing on the Old Firm team and ignoring the achievement of Motherwell.

Motherwell aren't supposed to have played a third of their season and be in second place.

It's not how it works. So offensive is it to the normal way of things that we disregard their efforts and look instead at the failures of others.

That's the SPL way.

Consistency of selection, tight unit, good football and the confidence that comes from winning.

Spirit enough to snatch a win from 2-1 down inside the last 15 minutes to win away at Inverness last week.

Spirit enough to take 13 points from 15 since a 4-0 defeat to Celtic, a 3-0 loss to St Johnstone and league cup exit to Hibs suggested the wheels had come off.

They got their revenge against Hibs in one of the most one-sided 1-0 victories you will ever see. A performance of such dominance it suggested that, if nothing else, McCall has built a side well capable of rising above the flotsam and jetsam of the SPL.

And now a win today would open a six point gap between second and third that even Celtic's game in hand won't be able to bridge.

Champion's League chat at Fir Park is wildly premature. But it's fun. And they'll want the fun to continue for as long as possible.

Today gives Motherwell a chance to sustain the dream.

It says much about the fluctuating fortunes of these two sides that I'm finding this one impossible to call today.

How much is one Sir Alex Ferguson worth? Part Two

The eight SPL teams in action yesterday have got through 81 managers between them since Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United.

How many will Motherwell and Celtic add to the total?


Now: Stuart McCall
Then: Tommy McLean

In between: Alex McLeish, Harri Kampman, Billy Davies, Eric Black, Terry Butcher, Maurice Malpas, Mark McGhee, Jim Gannon, Craig Brown

Total: 11


Now: Neil Lennon
Then: David Hay

In between: Billy McNeil, Liam Brady, Lou Macari, Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen, Josef Venglos, John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish, Martin O'Neill, Gordon Strachan, Tony Mowbray

Total: 13

So, from the five SPL games played across Saturday and Sunday, the mathematical evidence tells us that:

One Sir Alex Ferguson equals 105 Scottish club managers.

Donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011