Saturday, December 10, 2011

East v West: The SPL Today

It seems like ages since I tickled the malnourished belly of the SPL with a wildly inaccurate prediction post.

I think the last time I Nostradamus-ed the weekend action Rangers had won the title and Motherwell were about to take the Champion's League by storm.

What a difference an eight point swing makes.

Five east versus west clashes today. It's the SPL's very own version of China's economic boom facing off against western capitalism.

Hibs v Rangers

Hibs threatened a winning start under new manager Pat Fenlon at Motherwell last week. Then a floodlight fire became the latest opponent to beat them this season.

In the 45 minutes that were completed the team looked more organised, more aware of their roles and more prepared to fight for the cause then they have on numerous occasions in the last 18 months.

So far, and it's far too early to form even an embryonic conclusion, so good.

Tough task today though.

12 games and over five years since Hibs beat Rangers at Easter Road. That game featured a double from Chris Killen, a consolation for Rangers debutant Filip Sebo and red cards for Killen and an English youngster called Phil Bardsley.

It seems a lifetime ago.

And it seems like longer than just a few games since Rangers were apparently coasting to the title.

Suddenly Celtic managed to hit some form while Rangers became stuttery. Crucially they've also found goals - from open play at least - hard to come by.

The result has been 14 points in the seven games since they beat Hibs at Ibrox.

Far from a disastrous run of form - the 1-0 defeat at Kilmarnock remains the only loss of the season - but enough of a stumble to concede much of the advantage built up over Celtic.

Add to the mix this week's imbroglio over Sone Aluko and the somewhat hysterical reaction of Ally McCoist on Thursday and we have Fenlon's Irish eyes smiling at catching Rangers at just the right time?

Perhaps not. Fenlon's the new boy but not an ingenue.

Rangers remain top of the league. Hibs remain a point off bottom with only six points from eight home games.

That divergence in positions is not a fluke.

Rangers are a better team than Hibs. And Hibs have been desperately poor at times this season.

Even with a misfiring Rangers anything but an away win will be a shock.

Aberdeen v St Mirren

It's now an apparently essential narrative of each SPL season that we have a few months with Aberdeen in crisis.

That this happens despite changes of management and playing staff suggests that something is rank rotten off the pitch.

Which is a concern. But the more pressing issue is engineering a way to move off the bottom of the table with a misfiring team.

For the moment I'd say Craig Brown remains worthy of the chance to take charge of navigating these choppy waters. But he needs to get a reaction from his team quickly.

Danny Lennon's St Mirren continue to have their unseemly grapples with consistency but you're likely to see more smiles in Paisley than in Aberdeen at the moment.

A trip to bottom of the table Aberdeen is the sort of game St Mirren should win if their assault on the top six is to gain momentum.

A home game against St Mirren is the type of game Aberdeen should see as winnable if they are to escape their current plight.

A recipe for a draw.

Celtic v Hearts

Footballers live in a footballing bubble that allows them to block out off the field problems and boardroom intrigue by virtue of a heady mix of footballing obsession and a general lack of interest that borders on brainlessness.

Until you stop paying their wages. Then all that shit can suddenly get serious.

Which might explain why Hearts' form has dipped. One win out of six and only three goals scored in that run.

That they remain fifth in the table is proof that this has not become a team of hirpling incompetents in the space of a few weeks.

But they are being caught up in off-field complications and it's hurting them.

That backdrop would seem to make this a hell of a bad time to be meeting an invigorated Celtic in Glasgow.

Paulo Sergio will need to discover something Churchillian to inspire the spirit to withstand what we can expect to be a hooped onslaught.

I suspect he might be found wanting. Home win.

Dunfermline v Kilmarnock

Dunfermline haven't won a home game in the SPL this season. They've taken four points from eight games at East End Park, scored eleven and conceded 22.

That's a bad run. If the teams around them start picking up points then it's a run that could become fatal.

Now would be a good time to start doing something about it. That's not easy at the best of times. It's a whole lot harder with nine or ten players out injured.

Kilmarnock have beaten Rangers and Aberdeen since taking only a point from games against Hibs and Inverness.

They are perhaps the enigmas of this SPL season with a manager who is as compelling as he is at times quite bizarre. One does get the feeling that a Kenny Shiels inspired Kilmarnock are in line for an odd journey this year.

They are sixth though and will look at today's fixtures as a great chance to go fifth and pick up something on either Motherwell or St Johnstone.

Away win.

Inverness v Dundee United

Peter Houston seems to have weathered the storm that saw calls for his head just a couple of months ago.

But United still don't quite convince. That's hardly a sin in a league where quality and consistency is well rationed but it does, just maybe, point to a few rocky weeks still to come this season.

Inverness and Terry Butcher continue to dodge along, hearts proudly worn on sleeves, a sustained run of form tantalisingly out of reach.

I've a feeling these two will both finish in the bottom six and won't be separated by that many points.

That would suggest today will be a close one.


St Johnstone v Motherwell

Steve Lomas has picked up both a touchline ban and seven points from his first three SPL games as St Johnstone manager.

An impressive bag of swag to collect from the trips to Ibrox and Tynecastle that sandwiched a comprehensive home over Hibs.

They've even opened up a tiny bit of breathing space in fourth place.

It's the sort of seamless change of manager that you expect St Johnstone would have been searching for.

Onwards and upwards?

The best way to show that intent would be to beat third placed Motherwell, very much this season's success story.

I've seen Motherwell twice. At Easter Road they delivered one of the most one-sided 1-0 tonkings you're ever likely to see. But in the abbreviated match against Hibs last Friday they looked slightly toothless against an organised Hibs defence and a hardworking midfield.

Thirdagainst fourth and much to admire in both teams. It would be nice if this game could deliver something a wee bit special.

St Johnstone are looking good and that's coupled with a touch of momentum. That means, just, a home win for me.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Worst Football Kits Of All Time

I'd always thought that tartan in football strips was a mid 90s phenomenon restricted to Scotland's Euro 96 team and Morton.

Yet it seems it's a trend that is almost as old as the game itself.

The 10th Lanarkshire Volunteers combined navy jerseys and red socks with Black Watch tartan "knickerbockers" way back in 1884-85 while in 1888-89 Vale of Atholl adopted breeches fashioned from the local tartan.

More recently Dundee became known as the "tartan troops from Tayside" when they wore shirts featuring manager George Anderson's family tartan in an early 1950s tour of South Africa.

Such historical gems rub garish shoulders with modern monstrosities in Dave Moor's The Worst Football Kits Of All Time.

Recoil in horror at David Seaman's Euro 96 shirt, laugh at Arsenal's "bruised banana" of the 1990s, wince at Deportivo Wanka's decision to play the 2002-03 season with "D. Wanka" emblazoned across their chest.

The book is a nice alternative history of football, a whistle stop trundle through Gok Wan's worst nightmares.

Pleasingly, Scottish clubs are well represented. I like to think this is because Moor wanted to create a footballing record that did justice to both England and Scotland's heritage.

I'm prepared to concede that it might simply mean that we're a nation without taste.

Hibs' 1977-78 purple Bukta away kit is so horrible (white sleeves with a yellow and green trim) that one is left wondering why the club have been so keen to resurrect it in recent years.

It also, we're told, "practically invented nipple rash and exposed the wearer to serious risk of self-electrocution."

And who doesn't fondly recall the 1995 Aberdeen away strip that became known as "the vomit top."

My own favourites involve headgear. Surely that's an unexplored accessory in the modern era.

So take a bow Aldenham School whose 1870 all white strip was topped off with a black turban.

I'm loathe to call something a "stocking filler" but if Santa was to deliver this book on Christmas Day you'd at least be guaranteed a laugh between the family quarrels over the Monopoly board and the gnawing of dried out turkey.

The Worst Football Kits Of All Time by Dave Moor

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Cheats, Divers and Bad Decisions

Sone Aluko got banned for diving.

Garry O'Connor got away with diving.

Ergo the new disciplinary procedures in place at the SFA are ridiculous and hellbent on making a mockery of the Scottish game. At best.

At worst the new procedures have been all but designed to penalise one team above others.

The new compliance officer and fast track appeal system is inconsistent, wrongheaded and - this being Scottish football - its cack-handedness is but a handy cover for some form of discrimination or favouritism.

That would be the conclusion you would draw from some of the more hysterical outpourings that greeted the news that Aluko's two game ban had been upheld yesterday.

I'd disagree.

My opinion: O'Connor dived and got lucky in his dealings with the panel. Aluko dived and got treated the way he should have been treated.

That might be an unfortunate turn of events for everyone but Hibs - those that believe in karma might afford themselves a wry smile - but it doesn't give us evidence enough to judge what has been quite a revolutionary change from the SFA.

So far the compliance officer has been faced with two similar incidents. He's made exactly the same call.

The independent panel - different panels in both cases - disagreed in the first case and agreed in the second.

We need a far bigger sample before we can properly conclude if the new system is working.

The idea that Aluko should have been cleared because O'Connor was cleared is odd. Every case will have differences and two wrongs don't make a right.

If the person who is tried for shoplifting before me gets off because the jury make a bad call should I expect to get off? Any disciplinary system that is forced to duplicate its weakest decisions will be destined to fail.

Ally McCoist fumed that the SFA had labelled his player a "cheat."

Well, yes, they had. Because that's what diving is. Cheating. They thought he'd dived so they punished him. I trust McCoist will avoid making any judgements about bad decisions that go against his team this season if the opposing manager protests that the player in question isn't a cheat.

We rage against the SFA for being an organisation of dinosaurs. Then we rage against them when they try and modernise.

That will lead us to an ungovernable game.

Will the new system be perfect? Of course it won't. That such decisions still rely on people to interpret events will lead to some differences in opinion.

Football's imperfect like that. That used to be part of its charm.

> Why a two game ban when a dive penalised in a game merits only a yellow card?

A dive caught in a game doesn't affect the outcome of the match. By deceiving the referee, and it's my opinion that Aluko was guilty of that, he won Rangers a penalty that might - not definitely but perhaps - have denied Dunfermline the chance to get something from the game.

Seems fair enough - although it does Dunfermline bugger all good - that his retrospective punishment should reflect that.

> As ever the focus seems to be on the SFA and the referee.

I would ask why Steve Conroy - and I suspected from watching it that his clear view may have been obstructed by Martin Hardie - didn't take a bit more time, perhaps consult with his linesman, before making the call.

Often, one feels, it would do our referees no harm if they just calmed down a bit and bought themselves a few seconds of composure.

But it's the players that dive. The idea - put around by any number of pundits - that it's part of the game and happens everywhere is wearing thin.

It's cheating. If players don't like being called cheats they should stop cheating.

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Thursday, December 08, 2011

How We Used To Read

Browsing second hand book shops I often get pangs of nostalgia when I come across books I recognise from the dim and distant days of my childhood.

Often these books involve football.

My knowledge of today's children's literature is limited. But 20 or 25 years ago there seemed a proliferation of books that used football as a central hook to draw readers in.

It was, of course, an attempt to turn young boys into readers. Was it successful?

For some of us perhaps it was.

But football has changed massively in the last 20-odd years. And so, I suspect, has childhood.

Have our fictional footballing heroes, the ragbag collection of underdogs, unlikely romantic leads and unorthodox midfield maestros, stood the test of time?

Time to find out. And for me to be the weird guy sat on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train reading out of print books that I'm a good 20 years too old for.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley

In a bleak Essex town in the bleak 1970s, our hero, Paul Daines, faces a bleak future.

Uprooted from London he is an alien in a strange, unwelcoming place. His parents are chasing a dream, they've left him in a nightmare of dislocation and loneliness.

Football, then, will be his salvation.

A simple enough tale of soccer exploits providing a path to redemption, acceptance and contentment?

That would be the expected narrative. But Bernard Ashley throws the reader a curve ball.

Redemption and happiness lies not in football but in the love of - or at least some hand holding with - a good woman, the friendship of what we might now call the class geek and an act of airborne heroism during World War Two.

You'd be forgiven for not seeing that coming. Judging a book by its cover has always been the last word in foolhardiness.

To prosper on the football field Paul must win over Billy Richardson. But Billy is the class bully, a red tracksuited grotesque who dominates the playground thanks to his imposing size and the stupidity of his cohorts. It was ever thus.

Paul can't help but compare the new top-dog in his life with the old one. In London Paul's sun-king was Simon Tulip.

Tulip, we're given to understand, inspired his disciples by example not by fear, creating what Paul recalls as Utopia but actually seems to have been more of a benign dictatorship.

Hindsight allows to see Tulip and Richardson as the yin and yang of a prototype John Terry. One the snarling bully with his henchmen cowering in his wake, the other the man of inpirational destiny leading his troops to greatness with an odd rallying cry of "all my men."

They sound, frankly, like a pair of arseholes.

But poor Paul can't see this. He needs to be one of Tulip's men again. In the absence of the real thing that means becoming one of Richardson's men.

This, as is the nature of such things, leads Paul to give up the chance of friendship with fellow new boy Arthur Little and carry out what must be one of the most dramatic thefts of a large box of After Eights ever committed to paper.

He seems to be getting somewhere. We're even treated to the book's most sustained football action:

"The boy on the left centred the ball, his Wellingtons lifting it high, just the sort of centre a goalkeeper and a centre-forward would have to contest; and before either Billy or Paul had time to think about it the ball was dipping towards them and they were both moving forward and jumping.

"Paul had taken off fractionally before Billy in a bid to outjump him, and his head met the falling ball a split second before Billy's reaching fingertips, arching it in a high lob over Billy to bounce cleanly against the wall in the centre of the goal.

"The elation Paul felt was hard to define. It was probably the goal that made his stomach tingle with a warm pleasure, for even in a pick up game in the playground a goal is a goal; but it could have been the boy's silence after the hardness of the knock, the mutual acceptance of the tumble, the strange feeling of sharing an experience which a sporting tussle brings."

Do you still see boys playing football in their wellies in British playgrounds?

What respect does this brave goal bring Paul? None. It brings him a decomposing pigeon through his parents' letterbox.

Alone and miserable, Paul needs to be saved. There is a willing list of volunteers.

There's his classmate Lorraine who teaches him that love is more important than football. She also inspires a rhapsody about the beauty of arms that might just get away with being sweet at Paul's age but could quickly turn into something of a fetish.

There's his teacher, herself new to the school, who needs Paul to succeed so she can prove her value. There's the urbane headmaster offering quiet encouragement - and nothing ages this book like the heidie smoking in his office in front of the pupils.

There's Arthur's grandfather - if indeed it is his grandfather, we're left to guess - who shows him that bygones can be bygones and forgiveness is a true sign of strength.

And so we reach our denouement with Paul, Arthur and Lorraine, supported by her friend Rita, using a football pitch for his redemption.

Not by playing football but by re-enacting that moment of Second World War heroism - the proximity of such wartime experiences being another sign of the book's vintage.

And in chasing the bully Richardson:

"Come out you great pilk or I'm bloody coming in. Come out! Come out and fight!"

Football, Ashley suggests, is but a game. Acceptance and contentment lies in schoolwork and friendship. And in threatening your enemies with physical violence.

A lesson for the ages.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley, first published 1977.

Want to see a book you remember featured? Give me the name and I'll try to track it down.

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon, 19 November 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Scottish Football and Independence

At some point in the not too distant future the seemingly never ending round of discussions on the ifs, buts and polls are going to turn into the real thing.

The SNP government in Scotland will unleash the referendum campaign proper.

The Scottish Football Blog has its own views on Scottish independence.

And, for now, I'm going to keep those views to myself.

But I am interested to know how the referendum and the prospect of a referendum will affect the national sport.

It might, of course, have no impact whatsover.

The SNP's "pocket guide to independence" booklet appears not to carry any mention of sport. That strikes me as a notable omission.

What of the ninety minute nationalist? Has that phenomenon faded away with the muting of the Hampden roar?

Or could the 2014 World Cup still influence a referendum campaign the way, as is often persuasively argued, the ill-fated 1978 World Cup experience influenced the devolution referendum of 1979?

Could Craig Levein's qualification dossier hold the key to unlocking Scotland's political destiny? Could Mr Levein still prove himself an unlikely "Father of the Nation"?

Scottish football has problems. Solving those problems requires clear thinking and a long term commitment to change.

It also requires money. And that means funding, particularly of local, grassroots projects.

Would independence close existing sources of funding? Would it open up others?

There are far bigger reasons than fitba' for people to get engaged with the debate on independence.

There are far more pressing issues for politicians on both sides of the coming campaign to be grilled on.

But football continues to play a part in Scottish society. Perhaps not always a positive part, but the game has made a rich contribution to society and, to some extent, the modern idea of "Scottish-ness."

That means some discussion of football deserves to be framed within the context of the wider referendum debate.

To make some small contribution to that I'll offer the Scottish Football Blog as a platform to all sides of the Yes/No/(Devo Max)Maybe argument.

Whatever your affiliations, whatever your views and whatever you want to write (within the confines of good taste and legality) share your views on how the result of the independence referendum will harm/help/barely impact Scottish football.

We know that the referendum will be held in the second half of this parliament.

So hopefully this can become a regular (or at least semi-regular) theme in the run up to, and during, the referendum campaign.

Use the contact page or email to get in touch and share your views.

You can still donate to the Scottish Football Blog Blogathon