Saturday, December 17, 2011

SPL Advent: Hearts

Day five of our SPL Advent. Peace and goodwill to all me. It's a time for stout Hearts.

Somebody suggested that I could fill every day of this SPL Advent writing about Hearts.

And so I could.

The stories just keep coming.

On Thursday we got the news that the club had paid the players their November wages.

So protracted had that issue become that even Paul McBride QC - the Katie Price of SPL self-publicity - had weighed in to lend his support to the players.

This being Hearts we also got director Sergejus Fedotovas auditioning for a stint as a witness at The Levenson Inquiry and throwing blame around like confetti.

Of course, as the Hearts statement made clear, the wider economic situation and the peculiarly false economics of Scottish football make this a very difficult time. But if 11 other SPL clubs are managing to pay their players on time then the one club that fails to do so will be singled out.

That doesn't appear an unreasonable media narrative or a situation tinged with particularly anti-Romanov prejudice.

It seems that while November's wages have been paid, yesterday's December pay date has been missed. The players union has made an official complaint to the SPL. And on and on it goes...

Whatever the truth behind the most recent stramash it seems unlikely that we're close to the end of stories about sales, stadiums and salaries.

So it's hard to summarise the season so far at Tynecastle without addressing the question of just what in the name of Willie Bauld is going on.

But as nobody actually knows what's going on, or how those goings on will eventually impact on the season, adding to the thousands of words of conjecture seems somewhat redundant.

The football started brightly enough. Progress was made in Europe and a decent performance at Ibrox saw Hearts poop Rangers' flag party on the opening day of the season.

The first Edinburgh derby was won with a minimum of fuss and Celtic have been beaten at Tynecastle.

But, and here Hearts share a common SPL failing, it's been a season lacking much consistency.

St Johnstone and Dundee United have taken six points from two clashes, Kilmarnock have taken four.

A goalless draw with St Mirren and a 2-1 win over Inverness at Tynecastle are the only points won out of the last 18.

A win at Dunfermline has provided the solitary away victory and, although they remain fifth, Hearts are closer to Hibs and Dunfermline at the foot of the league than they are to Motherwell in third.

It's all been quite unsatisfactory, an unwanted continuation of the poor run of form at the end of last season.

That's despite the shock-but-maybe-not-that-shocking-actually jettisoning of Jim Jefferies when the season was but three games old.

Paulo Sergio has proved an enigmatically entertaining - if now largely silent - replacement but he's not really had much of an impact on results.

Hearts have scored only four goals in nine away games and share with Hibs the unwanted distinction of being the SPL's lowest scorers. Edinburgh for thrills?

This isn't a team that's turned into SPL whipping boys though. Only Rangers have conceded fewer goals - at one end of the pitch a resilience remains that would be the envy of most clubs.

Many have been the times during Vladimir Romanov's reign that our eyes have been drawn to events away from the football field. It's to the credit of Romanov, his coaches and the players themselves that Hearts have so often risen above that on the pitch.

Maybe that's not the case this year. Or perhaps this is just a holding season, the inevitable period of stagnation as books are balanced and foundations are built for the future.

What that future holds remains the biggest question of all.

And children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow

Answers to some legitimate questions and solutions to some Romanov riddles might be the best presents of all at Tynecastle this year.

Maybe things will become clearer in the new year, maybe some equilibrium will be returned.

Largely, however, that would appear to be in the gift of just one man. And it's not Santa.

So some decent results would be the next best thing. By my reckoning only Dunfermline have taken as few points as Hearts from their last six games in a concertinaed SPL.

I'm sure Hearts fans would identify Easter Road on 2nd January as a fine place to get the season going again.

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 16, 2011

SPL Advent: Dunfermline

Today's SPL Advent calendar throws up not a nugget of cheap chocolate but a Stewart's bridie - current SPL basement dwellers Dunfermline.

The road to the SPL is not paved with gold.

On their return to the top flight Dunfermline find themselves bottom of the league. They've taken only four points at home in a miserable run that has seen them fail to win at East End Park.

The injury list has grown ever longer and finances have dictated that they shut one of their stands.

They've even had to cope with referee Bobby Madden making a Michael Fish weather forecast.

This is the romance of top flight football, Fife style.

There were those of us who expected Dunfermline might struggle, that Jim McIntyre hadn't quite had the freedom to bolster his squad as he might have needed in the summer.

But they arrived full of confidence, with their own ideas on how to play the game and how to survive in the SPL.

They started brightly enough. And ten points on the road is a fair return. Away wins at Dundee United and St Johnstone in August were testimony to a team keen to make its mark.

But there they are, propping up the rest and developing a phobia about playing at home. They've won only once in 13 games. From the 4-2 defeat against Motherwell on 27th August to that win at Hibs they conceded 24 goals in eight games and won only two points.

They have been hammered by injuries. Few clubs can cope with an injury list nine or ten players long. It has a massive impact on a club like Dunfermline.

The injury list has offered no respite from a bad run of form - eight of those 14 points were won as they went four games undefeated at the very start of the season.

A team struggling for form is further diminished by injury and the whole things becomes an unfortunate cycle of bad results.

But the SPL is a modest league full of clubs with much to be modest about.

Despite their travails Dunfermline are still in touch. They've even got Hibs for company at the foot of the table.

At times they've conceded too many goals, they're enduring a bad run and they can't buy a win at home.

But they're far from dead and buried.

Watching them beat Hibs last month I saw evidence of what - unfashionable as the idea is in a world of footballing snobbery - spirit and a work ethic can achieve, especially against similarly poor teams.

Their record against the teams around them in the table is not too bad. That 4-0 Friday night humping at Aberdeen apart they've not lost to the three teams immediately above them in the table.

More wins like November's victory at Easter Road are needed but Dunfermline are proving obstinately difficult for Hibs, Inverness and Aberdeen to shake off.

Or, in this impoverished SPL, bottom-placed Dunfermline are but three wins off fourth place.

The first four games of the season offered much but that early promise has delivered little.

It's been a difficult first season back in the SPL. But it's not yet a terminal one.

It's a time for giving, a time for getting

Money to go crazy in the transfer window and the guarantee of a run of home wins.

And I want a winning lottery ticket.

Christmas gifts tend not to work like that.

So Dunfermline will hope for improved luck with injuries, a dash of good fortune to get a win at home and for the teams around them to keep taking points off each other and losing more than they win.

Keep as close to the pack as possible for as long as possible. I still suspect that Dunfermline would back themselves in a prolonged, tense, ugly relegation scrap.

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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

SPL Advent: Dundee United

Is that a tangerine in your stocking or are you just pleased to see me? Through the great SPL Advent calendar window today: Dundee United.

Consistency, as Motherwell's progress this season has shown, can work wonders in the SPL.

But it eludes three quarters of the league.

The result is a table packed tightly from fourth place to bottom place. That's not a sign of excitement but a sign of groaning mediocrity, a league of well matched journeymen doing nothing very special.

Yet this state of affairs is not without its advantages. A wee run of good results can transform a middling season into an alright season, deliver a team from the evil of the bottom six to the heavenly wonders of the top six.

Which is pretty much exactly where Dundee United find themselves midway through a season of some frustration.

Early on it looked as if Peter Houston was but a round of clear-the-air-talks from having more time to spend with Craig Levein.

He survived. But it would be a stretch to say he has thrived.

There have been some nice wins and some heartening wins. There's also been a few abject performances.

United have yet to win back-to-back SPL games. They've won five, drawn six and lost seven. Only nine goals conceded at home would ordinarily be a heartening record. But they've only managed to score seven, the lowest tally in the league.

Houston is often accused of having inherited his predecessor's timidity but only Rangers have scored more goals away from home. The downside is that only Inverness have conceded more on the road.

It's all amounted to a big sigh and a theatrical shrug of the shoulders kind of a season.

When he seemed set to lose out in an internal conflagration at Tannadice Houston was keen to point to what he's achieved since taking over.

He might also point to mitigating circumstances, of the difficulty of rebuilding a team when big players move on and finances dictate that replacements must be found on a shoestring.

United find themselves in transition, that near permanent state that haunts most SPL clubs.

Garry Kenneth has announced his desire to leave. Scott Allan seems set to head down south. The trend towards transition will continue, the impoverished Scottish game making it ever more difficult to build for the future.

Houston still has some impressive quality at his disposal.

Now he needs to show that his refashioned team can use those assets to come close delivering the results of the last two seasons.

Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall?

27 years ago this week United were narrowly losing a blockbuster of a European tie to Manchester United.

A 5-4 aggregate defeat and a crowd of over 21,000 at Tannadice.

Sturrock, Narey, McAlpine...

Aye, it's not just Aberdeen who can dream of what might have been and what once was.

But not even Santa can turn back the clock.

So the far more prosaic gift of a wee run of a wins, top six security and a bit more excitement at home is probably the order of the day.

I'm not convinced Houston is doing anything particularly wrong. An injury free winter and some consistency would delight him. Not very dramatic. But the difference between a good season, a meh season and a bad season for United.

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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SPL Advent: Celtic

Day two of our Scottish football Advent calendar. Celtic lurk behind today's window.

Was it really just a few weeks ago that all hope was lost and Neil Lennon's job prospects looked bleaker by the match?

Celtic teetered as Rangers thrived, the SPL gap was getting bigger and the Parkhead title challenge was being written off.

A defence that seemed porous and ponderous hamstrung a side apparently beset by apathy and poor form.

Modern footballing hype dictated that we pointed to a crisis, that the deficiencies were analysed until they took the form of insurmountable obstacles.

Yet some measure of Celtic's defiance remained, hints of a certain resilience were apparent.

The nadir might have been reached at 3-0 down to Kilmarnock. Punch-drunk and bloodied, Celtic could still drag themselves from the canvas to win a point.

Now, the deficit cut from 12 points to a far more scalable four, they might just have snatched the SPL momentum.

What changed?

The European win over Rennes, a game which began with an early concession and saw several storms weathered, segued into victory in what was billed as the "second place" clash with Motherwell.

Two tests safely negotiated. Enough, perhaps, to inspire the current run of six straight league wins.

Maybe the catalyst was something far simpler. How much did Kris Commons turning up at training bedecked in neck brace and bandages help lance the boil of rumour and unease that made dodgy results seem worse and hampered the chance of a recovery?

Commons the practical joker breathing spirit into a squad that needed reinvigorated? Stranger things have happened, even if outweighs much of his impact on the pitch so far this season.

Maybe all it took was good players remembering that this is a league that throws up opponents they should be able to dominate.

Weaknesses, of course, remain. Celtic had lost three games by the first week of October. By the end of that month a Hibs team that was attempting to redefine hopelessness had taken a point home from Glasgow.

The defence has been chopped and changed and has too often appeared unsettled on the pitch. Big wins have come but at times Celtic have struggled to convert dominance into goals. That combination will lead to dropped points.

It's strange though how an often false narrative can develop around a team.

We might think Celtic are diminished compared to last season. Maybe they are. But they're only a point worse off than they were at this stage last year. They've conceded only one more goal than they had last season.

Equally importantly they've timed their recovery from a "crisis" period at almost exactly the point where Rangers have endured their own wee slump.

On Saturday Celtic emerged with three points after a struggle against Hearts. Back in October you wouldn't have expected them to come through such a test intact. It's exactly the kind of win that can appear much bigger in May than it does on a cold December evening.

In a two horse race you'd rather be four points ahead than four points behind.

But the last few weeks have been kind to Celtic and the coming weeks promise the return from injury of some big names.

That should be reason enough to look forward to the festive season with optimism to spare.

Santa Claus is coming to town

Celtic - despite an oft stated commitment to good housekeeping - would appear to be the best placed of all the SPL sides to carry the disposable consumerism of our Yuletide orgy into the January transfer window.

Constructive signings who can offer long term solutions to the travails of earlier in the season would seem to be the order of the day.

Such players aren't always easy to find. Santa might feel it prudent to tell Celtic that if they can't find better than the toys they've already got they shouldn't bother.

But two gifts are likely to top the wishlist: An Old Firm win between Christmas and New Year and an SPL title in May.

On current evidence the former would be a massive stride in the direction of the latter.

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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SPL Advent: Aberdeen

In the run up to Christmas the Scottish Football Blog is taking a daily look at the season so far for the 12 SPL clubs.

And what they might hope to find in their stockings.

Alphabetically at least Aberdeen are number one.

Woe seems to hang over Pittodrie like a particularly clingy North Sea haar at the moment.

The cliche is of miserable northerners harking back to the Alex Ferguson inspired days of yore.

The reality is a group of supporters suffering agony upon agony and demanding better.

Who can blame them? Joint bottom of the league with only three wins from 17 games, Aberdeen are one of only two teams in Scotland still waiting for an away win.

The other is East Stirling. You don't need to hanker after the glory days of the 1980s to see that Aberdeen probably shouldn't be keeping company with the tenants of Ochilview.

They would be lying fifth if the SPL was judged on home league form alone. Manager Craig Brown loves a stat so he'll be clinging on to that one for dear life.

But he'll also be desperately trying to work out why his team are more apprehensive on the road than a group of flat-earthers on a cruise ship.

He wouldn't be the first manager to be left perplexed by the challenge of Pittodrie. But even hardened Brown defenders, a group for which I'll admit a certain sympathy, must concede that his record so far has been spectacularly underwhelming.

The simplest statistic suggests that with 45 percent of the season gone Aberdeen are up to their knees in relegation dung. And that's because they've stunk for large parts of the season.

Not scoring enough goals, not strong enough at the back, discipline the worst in the league.

It's easy to argue that Brown has inherited a club that is in a mess off the field. That might have been part of this particular poisoned chalice for some time.

Yet his job to rise above all that. Aberdeen are not too big go down. They're not too good to go down.

They've only managed to score more than one goal six times so far. And on three of those occasions they've only managed to win one point.

The latest example of that was Saturday. The referee didn't help their cause. But Aberdeen were two up at home against an inconsistent St Mirren side inside 20 minutes.

And still they could only emerge with a point.

Results like that keep teams in the mire. They don't soothe the worries of supporters who are now so aggrieved that they delivered a coffin to Pittodrie before Saturday's game.

The last rites are a long way off. But Aberdeen need to drag themselves from their sickbed pretty quickly.

All I want for Christmas

Cheap joke out of the way: Aberdeen are well placed to get what they want this festive season. Craig Brown is, after all, the only SPL manager who went to school with Santa. I'm here all week.

There are worse defences in the SPL. But there seems a flimsiness about Aberdeen that is costing them in tight games.

Could Russell Anderson's return add some granite?

Will Brown have the cash and the eye to identify a goalscorer to help out Scott Vernon?

What Santa really needs to bring is some away cheer.

Aberdeen have only scored at East End Park and Celtic Park this season. That is a shocking return.

Take out the seven they've scored in two games against Dunfermline and they've managed only 12 goals in 15 games home and away.

Goals, defensive steel and a few away wins.

Santa will have his work cut out delivering all that. And Brown might well be asking for some job security as well.

Mostly though Aberdeen will be asking not to be relegated. I'll say now that I don't think they will be.

But I've not got flying reindeer at my disposal. There might still be some rough days ahead.

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.