Friday, December 07, 2012

Trusty Shiels of truth

Quite the week.

A home draw with Arbroath and Champions League progression.

An Edinburgh derby delivering delight - for some - even in its prodigious incompetence as a game of football.

A Highland derby delivering the game of a Scottish Cup weekend.

Boycotts and bickering.

A young talent announcing his intention to fly the nest all too soon.

Scottish football. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Lighter moments too. Many of them provided by Kenny Shiels.

Kenny was mouthing off on all sorts this week. Much like any other week.

Artificial pitches: "the ball bounces funny." Poverty: "putting bread on the table is the most important thing."

Player wages, staff wages, First Division wages, SPL wages. Wage structures. Ticket prices.

All covered in the 'Kenny Shiels does league reconstruction' rant. I still don’t really know what his vision for the SPL actually is, but he always sounds convinced by what he's saying.

Or Kenny speaking truth unto refereeing power: "truth and controversy are from the same family."

That might not be an etymological exactitude. But if "truth" and "controversy" are cousins then "bollocks" is surely their rambling uncle.

Later in the week Shiels announced he would put Manuel Pascali in the Kilmarnock squad this weekend despite the player's two game suspension. Having been sent off early in the game against St Johnstone he actually missed 90 minutes of that game, plus the game that followed.

Two match suspension duly served, reckoned the bold Kenny.

But he didn't really think that. He was only joking.

That's the kind of guy he is. A joker, a japing jester.

One of Scottish football's favourite things, a "character."

In a game where skins are thin, where offence lies in wait ready to unleash an ambush on any dissenting opinion, Shiels carries on regardless.

The media lap it up, even his "jokes" get column inches. The fans might be calling him a bawbag but at least they are talking about him.

If the SFA try to muzzle him he just uses it as an excuse to moan some more.

A lot of what he says is twaddle. Some of it has a certain value. Much of it is nonsensical.

It's all reported. It wins him TV and radio appearances and gives him something to write about in his newspaper column.

So who's daft?

Kilmarnock it is not one of Scottish football's highest profile jobs. Largely unknown and arriving late to our game, Shiels has enjoyed some success and used an unlikely platform to build a media profile that keeps delivering more exposure.

Does he care that he's often talking rubbish? Probably not.

After after all, "putting bread on the table is the most important thing."

Friday, November 30, 2012

Scotland v England: 140 years

"Business in the city being then as usual on Saturday afternoons, was almost entirely suspended in legal offices and commercial houses. There was great demand for locomotion to Partick, and the home of the West of Scotland Cricket Club."
30 November 1872. St Andrew's Day. Glasgow.

The birth of international football.

Scotland v England, 1872, the first international (Wikicommons)A 140 year journey that would bring us Pelé, Maradona, Puskás and Kirk Broadfoot.

The West of Scotland Cricket Club was hired for ten pounds. Over 3000 supporters turned out.

Scotland v England.

Challenge matches had been held before but all took place in England with the Scottish side drawn almost exclusively from Scots living in London, with both teams selected by the hosts.

The match in Glasgow was to be different.

With no SFA (such heady, heady days) the task of selecting the Scottish side fell to Bob Gardner, goalkeeper and captain of Queen's Park, the pre-eminent and all conquering team of the time.

Denied the services of a pair of highly rated Anglos, Arthur Kinnaird of The Wanderers and Henry Renny-Tailyour of Royal Engineers, Gardner stuck to what he knew.

The Scotland team was made up exclusively of players from Queen's Park:
"The Scotland team was Mr Gardner at the goal, Mr Ker and Mr Taylor at the back, and Mr Thomson and Mr Smith at half. Forward, Mr Leckie, Mr Rhind, Mr Weir, the other Mr Smith, Mr McKinnon and Mr Wotherspoon."
England, with players representing nine different clubs, didn't have the comfort of familiarity:
"Individual skill was generally on England's side, but the Southrons did not play to each as well as their opponents who seemed to be adept at passing the ball."
Jonathan Wilson writes:
"The spread of passing itself - that 'united action' - can be traced back to one game, football's first international, played between Scotland and England..."
From the Glasgow Herald:
"The Englishmen had all the advantage in respect of weight, their average being about two stones heavier than the Scotchmen, and they also had the advantage in pace. The strong point with the home club was that they played excellently well together."
Other contemporary accounts praise the dribbling exploits of players on both sides. It's likely that Scotland's 2-2-6 formation offered a better blend than England's 1-2-8.

It was Scotland's style that English teams would later attempt to emulate. The Scots, in the blue shirts of Queen's Park and red hoods, played a game that seemed innovative and pioneering.

Where did it all go wrong?

Whatever the tactics, England arrived as favourites but were held to a goalless draw with Scotland coming closest to scoring. A Robert Leckie shot hit the tape (there were no crossbars) in the second half, while a first half attempt was adjudged to have gone over the tape by the umpires.

Having hoped to cover their costs, the large crowd allowed Queen's Park to return a handsome profit.

The idea of international football seemed immediately amenable. It was also a catalyst for greater organisation of the game in Scotland.

In 1873 Queen's Park took the lead in forming an association of Scottish Clubs.

Billy McKinnon, a forward against England, scored the first goal as Queen's Park won the first Challenge Cup final in 1874. The first Scottish Cup final.

Within 18 months of the goalless draw at Hamilton Crescent the game had a structure that is recognisable today.

Clashes between Scotland and England remained on the calendar for over 100 years. It took until 1970 for the two teams to play out another 0-0 draw.

The fixture returns next year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the English Football Association.

That, largely, is the only status this game can hope to attain in modern football. A historical curiosity, wheeled out on special occasions or when coincidence shines on an international draw.

A nice reminder of when were kings. We might never be again. But amid all the arguments, the bickering and the negativity, it's surely a heritage worth fighting for.


Brought to book

Book Week Scotland seems as good an excuse as any to have a rummage through the bookshelves.

To mark this celebration of all things book related, I shut my eyes and picked out four football tomes at random.

And a varied assortment it proved to be.

From Faultless referees in the Wankdorf, through sockless wonders of the 1980s and lawnmower related disasters, to a man who really, really disliked us Scots.

That's the thing about books. All human life lies within.

Refereeing Round the World by Arthur Ellis

We'll start with an Englishman. Or a Yorkshireman, which might not be quite the same thing.

Referee's memoirs are not a modern phenomenon. Before Pierluigi Collina and Graham Poll, there was Arthur Edward Ellis with Refereeing Round the World, published in 1954.

Arthur Ellis of Halifax seems to have been a have whistle, will travel kind of chap.

His career took in three World Cups, the Olympic Games and every round of the first ever European Cup.

He was also the referee for the Battle of Berne in 1954 when a football game struggled to breakout amidst a complete breakdown of Hungarian-Brazilian relations.

But his first taste of international football was a little closer to home:
"This was my first International as a referee - Wednesday, November 12th, 1947 - and what a ground to make your debut...Hampden Park, Glasgow! True, the attendance was no more than 100,000 people (the ground holds nearly 150,000 people), but all the same it was a terrifying experience.

"I had, of course, heard a lot about the Hampden Roar, but I had never sampled it, and Mr Faultless, that wonderfully named Scottish refereee, did not make my nerves any better by suggesting I use his whistle, which was of a higher tone than the usual whistle, and therefore better fitted to combat The Roar. I accepted his offer.

"If you think it strange that in an International do not take the field side by side, you should go to Hampden. They will have no such sentimental nonsense, as they call it. They believe in frightening the opposition with the pre-match ceremonies.

"And then there is the Hampden Roar. To me it seems to start as moan behind one goal and then, within seconds, to engulf the whole stadium. It is terrifying, indescribable. It is like taking a punch between the eyes."
Lost days and lost glories? Not quite:
"My experience of it lasted only 20 minutes. Then it fade, probably because Scotland were so bad that not even the Hampden Roar could help them."
Wales beat Scotland 2-1.

And Mr Faultless definitely did exist.

Giffnock's Charlie Faultless was, like Ellis, called into action for a memorable 1954 World Cup game.

His quarter final match at the Wankdorf Stadium (there's always a snigger) in Berne saw Austria beat Switzerland 7-5 and remains the highest scoring World Cup match in history.

Having trailed 3-0 inside 20 minutes, Austria led 5-4 at half time despite missing the penalty that Mr Faultless saw fit to award.

Charlie Nicholas: The Adventures of Champagne Charlie by David Stubbs

Younger readers might most readily associate Charlie Nicholas with Jeff Stelling and that rogues gallery of former players getting excited while the nation watches them watch telly every Saturday.

But back in the day it was Charlie who excited us with his goalscoring feats, his extravagant talent and his tabloid friendly extra-curricular pursuits.

His not always satisfying experience at Arsenal in the 1980s provides the focus for The Adventures of Champagne Charlie by David Stubbs.

It's commendably non-judgemental, choosing instead to salute Charlie's cheeky chappy joie de vivre.

Some choice quotes, however, suggest this was a lifestyle that many a modern manager would balk at.

Charlie on drinking:
"See, four, five, six pints. That to me isn't a real drink."
On Charlie's fashion sense:
"What seemed most to disconcert the authorities was Charlie's flagrant disregard for sockwear, the wearing of. One might have thought that with all the myriad problems besetting Scottish football at the beginning of the eighties that sock inspections would be low on most managers' list of priorities. But no. Charlie himself preferred to wear no socks - by necessity, he claimed, rather than affectation. 'I spend most of my money on clothes,' he explained. 'And that means going without socks in some casual outfits.'

"Socklessness being considered a breach of some arcane details of professional footballing etiquette, however, Charlie complained that he was forced to walk around with a spare pair of socks in case his assistant manager caught him at the club baring his ankles for shame - whereupon, if reprimanded, he would have to nip into the gents for a quick socks change."
Charlie and women:
"The more spurious the story, the more prominent was the accompanying photograph of Ms Bazar, all lipstick and bustiers. In 1988, the News of the World ran a series of her exposes on her nights out - and in - with her numerous and notable gentleman friends. She ranked them in order of impressiveness. And while the likes of Duran Duran's John Taylor and Herr Flick for TV's 'Allo, 'Allo merely received honourable mentions for the merits of their unmentionables, top of the Tree of Tumescence sat a proud Charlie."
It was George Graham who called time on Nicholas at Arsenal.

They won the League Cup together but the writing was surely on the wall from the moment Graham arrived as manager:
"Standards in British society are falling. I'm going to make sure, however, that they don't fall at Arsenal."
Patrician pomposity was always going to trump an often misfiring playboy prince.

It's for Graham to judge how successful he was in holding all his players to account off the field.

In the Firing Line by Jim Leighton and Ken Robertson

One wouldn't expect Jim Leighton to find himself linked to a Ms Bazaar in the tabloid press.

Bespectacled off the pitch and less than athletic looking on it he nonetheless enjoyed a career of longevity and consistency that included a battle back from the brink of obscurity.

In the Firing Line covers that career, from humble beginnings ("humble" actually appears in the second sentence) to European glory, the bitter Manchester United experience, the footballing resurrection and World Cups with Scotland.

There's also a touch of the Mr Bean about our hero.

Before the 1984 Scottish Cup final against Celtic:
"I can tell you now I came within a whisker of missing that final.

"In fact the accident that I was involved in on the Monday prior to that game could have ended my career. I was at home, cutting the grass and looking after our two children, when my electric lawnmower became choked with grass. I was trying to free the blades with my hand when my daughter Claire, who was then only three, moved the switch on the handle. Oddly enough, I'd been looking at a warning about disconnecting the lawnmower before cleaning it only seconds earlier. I'd ignored it and paid the price. When Claire accidentally put the power back on, a flying blade sliced open the pinkie of my right hand and there was blood everywhere. It could have been worse. I might have lost fingers and ended my days as a goalkeeper in that careless moment. But my injury was serious enough - especially with the final looming - and I was in a panic.

"[Alex Ferguson] called me all the silly buggers under the sun. I was told I should not have been cutting the grass or playing with my children in a cup-final week. When Ferguson's tirade subsided he told me to go home and stay away from Pittodrie during the build-up to Hampden.

"He was entitled to feel apprehensive, for Aberdeen is like a village in terms of gossip. I had ample proof of that over the next few days when my team-mates phoned to tell me about the wild stories which were circulating about my mishap. Rumours had it that I had lost a finger, cut off my hand or electrocuted myself. But the best best tale of all emanated from one of Gordon Strachan's neighbours. According to his information, I was dead."
Alive, and with a full complement of extremities, Jim played in Aberdeen's 2-1 win.

In 1986 Aberdeen were back in the final:
"I had another Scottish Cup final injury scare that season. This time it was because of my attempts to keep fit while recovering from a broken finger, which had ruled me out of Scotland's game against Romania at Hampden. I thought it would be a good idea to play tennis, as sport in which my damaged left hand would not be involved. That turned out to be a big mistake. I tripped over a stone and tore my ankle ligaments. With the final just four weeks away, I feared the worst. To compound the matter, I could not tell my manager that I had hurt myself playing tennis of all things. A white lie seemed the best bet, so I informed him that the injury had occurred while I was playing with my kids."
A reserve match at Ibrox confirmed that Jim would be fit to play in the final:
"Ferguson phoned my home on the night after my comeback in the reserves. Linda took the call and asked if he wanted to speak to me. 'No,' said the manager, 'just tell him that if he goes near that bloody grass this week, I'm going to kill him.' This was a reference to my previous mishap with the lawnmower. Ferguson has a very retentive memory."
Indeed. It's a hallmark of all the great managers that they remember the time their goalkeeper almost chopped his fingers off the week before a major cup final.

Sir Alf by Leo McKinstry

We'll finish with another Englishman. A World Cup winning Englishman.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Well, we know how Sir Alf Ramsey saw us. And it wasn't entirely uncritical:
"Not since the Duke of Cumberland has any Englishman had a more visceral dislike of the Scots. So strong was this emotion that it broke through his wall of reserve and he became more demonstrative, more voluble.

"The great Derby defender Roy McFarland told me that Alf's passion had not waned by the seventies:

'For me it was the only time I heard him swear. Just before we went out on the field, as we were going out the door he'd say "Come on boys, let's beat these Scots fuckers." It was a shock to me.'

"John Connelly, the Burnley winger, has the memory of Alf's anger at any concession to Scotland:

'Once, when the ball ran out when we were playing at Hampden, I went and fetched it and threw it at a Scot. They took a quick throw, went down the line and damn near scored. Watching the film of this afterwards, Alf said to the rest of the lads, 'Just watch this pillock. What do you think of that, running after the fackin' ball for a fackin' Scotsman.'
When Ramsey took over at Birmingham City, a young Jimmy Calderwood was one of a number of Scots in the squad:
"Sir Alf said: 'Now I know you lot fucking hate me. Well, I have news for you. I fucking hate you lot even more.' But, you know, I never missed a game for him. He really was a fantastic manager."
Quite a complex fellow, was Sir Alf. What injury, real or perceived, we as race had inflicted on him is unknown. But this was a man who refused to wear Paisley pattern pyjamas.

He could admire our individual qualities though:
"Ken Jones tells this story of a banquet at Hampden after a game: 'I was there talking to Billy Bremner when Alf came past. He looked straight at Billy and said: "You're a dirty little bastard, aren't you. But by Christ you can play."' In return, Bremner was impressed by Alf as a manager when he served under him in a match between Wales and the rest of Britain."
Book Week Scotland runs until Sunday

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reconstruction: Home and away

European football is once again to be buffeted by the winds of change.

UEFA are considering dropping the Europa League and doubling the Champions League to accommodate 64 teams.

Nothing is final yet but a decision is likely to be made by 2014.

Having been treated by like a second rate tournament by its organisers - and some of its participants - the Europa League hasn't been as fiscally rewarding as the Champions League. Strange that.

And if you don't pay your way, modern football would prefer you to die quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

So the cash cow of the Champions League will become ever more lucratively bloated.

Don't hold your breath for a democratisation of access or wealth. European football will remain tilted towards the big clubs from the big leagues.

The idea of a European league, driven by an orchestrated breakaway led by the European Club Association, will again be shelved.

Even with UEFA's meddlesome involvement, the big clubs can get what they want out of the Champions League and periodic tantrums can be always used to force UEFA's hand on pressing issues.

The European League, a persuasive idea for many in Scotland, remains a concept more powerful in the abstract than reality: a fine stick to threaten UEFA with and a fine carrot to keep the "smaller big" clubs doing exactly what the "big big" clubs want.

But probably not something that the cabal of super clubs have any intention of pursuing in the immediate future.

What does all this mean for Scotland?

Scottish clubs would be competing for space in a 64 team tournament. This season five of our teams competed for places in two tournaments featuring 80 teams. Only one survived qualifying.

Our current strike rate suggests that few of our clubs would be bothering the business end of an expanded Champions League any time soon.

You never know though, losing in the qualifying rounds might become a more lucrative hobby.

In the meantime we have our own restructuring debate to monitor.

How's that going?

The SFL have a draft set of proposals that sees the top flight expanded and the SPL disbanded.

The SPL have a counter set of proposals that sees the SPL gain 12 more teams in an extra division and an extraordinarily daft sounding three way split into three leagues of eight after 22 games.

So the SFL want the SPL to bugger off and the SPL want to not only stick around but expand into two leagues for a bit of the season and three leagues for another bit of the season.

These approaches to reconstruction do not immediately suggest that the SPL and the SFA are singing from the same hymn sheet. Or that they're even in the same church.

That means it's time for the SFA to play a role: cajoling, brokering, soothing, arse kicking.

To this end the governing body's Professional Game Board released a statement yesterday:

"The Scottish FA’s Professional Game Board met at Hampden Park today to hear and discuss proposals on league reconstruction made by the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League.

"The PGB is encouraged by the common ground established on many issues in what is an emotive subject.

"The respective league bodies will now hold further discussions with their member clubs, in the hope that this common ground can be expanded upon within each proposal.

"The next meeting of the PGB is scheduled for January 30, 2013. However, it has offered to reconvene earlier to expedite the process once the bodies have held further talks with their members."

Which, from this vantage point, looks like another fine example of the SFA's mealy-mouthed dithering.

Given their headline differences on the big issues it's unclear what common ground the SPL and SFL might have found.

To drag the restructuring debate on until no sane person could reasonably be expected to care? Possibly.

Mutual loathing? Maybe.

A shared desire to make the SFA look as weak as possible. Perhaps.

We're left with two organisations at odds with each other and a governing body with the inspirational leadership qualities of a burst balloon.

If you were looking for a structure that would produce the most directionless governance for your sport, you could do far worse than mimic Hampden's tripartite travesty.

And so the debate drags on, each side trying to promote their vested interests, each saying they'll do the best for the fans while trying to avoid giving the fans any voice in the debate.

In that respect Scottish football's reconstruction shenanigans are pretty much like a low budget version of UEFA's blockbuster.

The difference is likely to be the pace of change.

By the time four or five Scottish clubs are getting emptied from the qualifiers of a 64 team Champions League, the bitter status quo will probably still reign supreme in Scotland.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rangers: A hollow win

Whatever else it’s done, Rangers new life in Division Three hasn’t dented their ability to command column inches.

This week it was the results of the First Tier Tribunal that dominated the media, old and new.

The findings have been pored over. Lines have been read between to prove what the reader believes to be true.

Only one thing really matters though. The majority opinion found in the oldco Rangers company's favour.

Vindication for Sir David Murray and those involved with the controversial EBT scheme. A victory for the fans to celebrate over those who will now forever be framed as "enemies" of the club.

Those enemies include a vindictive tax authority - although the findings of the the FTT at no point accuse HMRC of indulging in frippery in their pursuit of Murray’s Rangers - and all those in the mainstream media and online who pre-judged the club as guilty and demanded the death penalty.

Confession time. I was named on a Rangers forum this week as one who should be issuing an apology. Strange company for me to keep, being included (admittedly at the bottom) in a list that included Neil Lennon, Alex Thomson and, somewhat oddly, Andreas Hinkel.

Another confession. I’m not going to apologise.

What I take to be the offensive passage from Valentine's Day 2012:

"Yet Rangers are where they are - and yesterday's developments do little more than nudge us closer to knowing where that might be - through financial mismanagement. 
"It might also be, and we're approaching a legal decision about this, that they are where they are on account of a gargantuan theft against the state. 
"These are things that should be punished. 
"A theft against football as well. Our football. Championships have been won that Rangers couldn't afford. Talents have been taken from other teams - although we must concede that those other teams have enjoyed the financial benefits - that Rangers couldn't afford. 
"That's cheating. Doping the game. Financial doping. Doping is cheating. We've all suffered. 
"But as Rangers falsely speculated, others in the league often accumulated. Football can send us down a cul-de-sac where moral absolutes are hard to find. 
"Let's finger David Murray and his cohorts as guilty. We can, at the very least, sentence them on the charge of gross mismanagement."

You'll note, I hope, that I didn't prejudge the outcome of the FTT - although my language might have been overly dramatic.

I think, and I've embarked on a somewhat egotistical trawl of my own archives, I was always careful not to make a premature decision on behalf of the three tribunal judges.

Yet I wrote the line: "That's cheating. Doping the game. Financial doping. Doping is cheating. We've all suffered."

How could I have written that when, according to the narrative adopted by many this week, Sir David Murray is once more above reproach and the FTT decision clears the Rangers he presided over of any wrongdoing?

Maybe that comes back to football's lack of moral absolutes.

Financial doping, noun,


1) the situation in which a sports franchise borrows heavily in order to contract and pay high-performing players, jeopardizing their long-term financial future

2) the situation in which the owner of a sports franchise invests his or her own personal wealth into securing high-performing players, rather than relying on the revenue the franchise is able to generate for itself
Was Sir David Murray - along with other owners and directors in Scottish football - guilty of any of that during his tenure at Ibrox?

I'd suspect so.

Was he guilty of the kind of financial management described by Alan Keen MP in 2009?

"Lack of proper governance and financial instability are the two fundamental vulnerabilities to the success that English football has enjoyed in recent times. 
"Our report includes tough measures to improve the way the game is run and to combat 'financial doping' whereby short-term success can be bought at the expense of long-term financial stability."

I'd say he was.

Did Murray's business style at Ibrox fit Michel Platini's description of certain types of football governance representing a "serious challenge to the idea of fair play and the concept of financial balance in our competitions."

I'd say so.

None of this is against the rules, of course, and I fear that any rules that Platini's UEFA introduce on financial fair play will have the all effectiveness of a chocolate fireguard. Nor was Sir David Murray the only club owner in Scotland to indulge in such practices.

For a romantic old lefty like me though, it's an approach that doesn't fit with the spirit of the game. An approach that cheats the game of the fundamental requirements of fairness,

Others disagree. It was Murray's money to spend as he liked, Murray's club to fund as he saw fit and, as former Ibrox chairman Alistair Johnson said in September this year,:

"What is clear is that 'financial doping' is not and could never be construed as describing a situation where a club extends its credit facilities with a recognised financial institution."

Let the free market rule in football as everywhere else. Which is fair enough, although it also means that clubs and their supporters will sound hollow if they demand special treatment when they become the subject of investigations by the taxman.

In the case of the Murray era Rangers I think this week's decision has been used to fuel revisionism.

While it's true that he'd worked to lower the debt the club had amassed he failed to reach a stage where he was free from the attentions of the bank or able to find a legitimate buyer for the club.

Some bad luck played a part: Murray's Rangers helped create a new architecture for the European game that eventually left smaller leagues like Scotland in its wake. The game didn't offer the potential for earnings to reward a high risk business plan.

He also fell foul of the financial collapse that left the bank twitchy and, because this high risk strategy extended to other colonies in his personal empire, left him diminished as owner-protector of Ibrox in the eyes of those same banks whose own disasters cost him millions.

In speculating to accumulate at Ibrox, Murray sowed some very destructive seeds.

Enter HMRC - with their legitimate but ultimately failed investigation - and the stage was set for Craig Whyte, that evil caricature of a saviour.

The victims of all this were the Rangers fans. It's disrespectful to them for Sir David Murray's supporters to paint him as the wronged party in a nightmare that he co-authored.

There is a wider point here about the governance of football in Scotland.

I've written many times about how we gauge the successes and failures of our game with too much reference to the English game.

Our game is a very different beast. And our clubs must be managed differently.

We need to look at different models of ownership, different ways of delivering sustainability.

The Murray-model - and you can add in the Romanov-model and the Brooks Mileson-model - took no cognisance of that.

That's fine when the trophies roll in and the good times swing. But it's destructive when things turn sour.

It's a business model that disenfranchises the fans as stakeholders and turns them into anonymous consumers of big business.

The bigger the risks taken by the owners, the bigger the implosion will be if and when it comes.

And the more powerless the fans will be to step in and clear up the mess.

Where did a business model he no longer wanted to support and a tax investigation he wanted to fight but couldn't be sure of winning leave Sir David Murray?

It left him taking a quid and a fantasy from Craig Whyte. That meant the FTT win would forever be condemned to a Pyrrhic victory an nothing more.

There has to be a different way.

In the case of Rangers there has to be way of returning them to the top of the game that doesn't wrack up huge debts or lead to an end point where fans are celebrating the legality of a method of making overpaid players richer and a Labour MP is criticising HMRC for pursuing a case against a company working a system of aggressive tax avoidance.

The people's game indeed.

Last week I wrote about Hearts:

"Hearts aren't finished.

"We can only hope that the era of men like Vladimir Romanov soon will be."

For Hearts read Rangers, for Vladimir Romanov read Sir David Murray.

The prospect of an HMRC appeal remains. The findings of the SPL's inquiry into Rangers will be delivered in the New Year. There are growing calls to punish those who leaked information regarding the tax investigation to media outlets and the now disappeared Rangers Tax Case blog.

This story has not yet run its course. And Sir David Murray will remain in the public eye, unlikely to surrender his opinion of his own innocence.

But at every club we should be writing a new chapter, no longer in thrall to the dreams of unlikely profits propagated by false prophets.

Demanding a new start for a sustainable future.

If we don't, we'll be cheating ourselves out of the game we love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Going Dutch

A crucial Champions League match this evening as Ajax try to plot their way through to the last 16 against Borussia Dortmund.

Qualification - which looked unlikely after two opening defeats - would see Ajax in the second stage of the competition for the first time since 2006 and for only the second time since 2000.

A fallow period for a once imperious European side. The Champions League and the explosion of TV money has made many clubs richer but the gap between the super wealthy and the middle class has grown.

Ajax, from a modest domestic league, have fallen foul of the UEFA revolution.

They impressed in large parts of their double header against Manchester City though, taking four points and rekindling the dream.

That turnaround in European form seemed to carry a domestic tariff as they slipped behind in the Eredivisie.

Certainly on Saturday night against second bottom VVV Venlo they looked to have their mind on other things.

The 2-0 win was comfortable enough - VVV came to defend and didn't offer much else - but it was a perfunctory performance.

Christian Eriksen was particularly out of sorts while Christian Poulsen's man of the match award was based on little more than making fewer mistakes than his colleagues.

A fine free kick from Derk Boerrigter looked to be enough to settle the game before league debutant Danny Hoesen removed any doubt.

VVV might have regretted their lack of ambition with Robert Cullen too lightweight and too isolated up front to give their rare attacks any real threat.

While the home fans housed in the south of the Amsterdam Arena can still make the stadium tremble when their in the mood, for a long stretch of the evening the biggest cheers greeted the sight of Jari Litmanen on the big screens.

Litmanen, like current Ajax manager Frank de Boer, is a reminder of more fruitful adventures in Europe.

On Saturday it was hard to escape the conclusion that the present side are focused more on recapturing some of that European glory than on mundane domestic chores. They run the risk of being unable to raise their game.

The Amsterdam Arena, apparently still not wholly embraced by the faithful, was somewhere short of full but remains imposing enough.

And you can get a beer. Civilisation still exists outside of Scotland.

I even got a free programme although it will take me six months and an Dutch-English dictionary to read it.

The name is misleading though. The stadium is too far out of the city to feel like Amsterdam.

We parked in a multi-storey attached a shopping centre, making our way down escalators and passed bland coffee bars and chain stores to get to the stadium.

The romance of modern football. As The Beautiful South so nearly sang: "This could be Amsterdam or anywhere..."

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hearts still beating

I'm currently in the Netherlands.

In a town called Dordrecht.

The town where Craig Levein sourced Mark de Vries, that one time hammer of Hibs, for Hearts.

It's just over a decade since de Vries arrived at Tynecastle.

Hearts have crammed a lot of living into those ten years.

At stages over the past fortnight it has looked like the club might have been no more when I returned from my Dutch perambulations.

That immediate threat has now passed, the taxman has agreed terms over outstanding payments.

But Hearts remain at a crossroads.

In the short term funding has to be found to see them through the season, to meet wage bills, pay future taxes and cover overheads.

And in the longer term answers need to be found about the future direction of the club.

They've found themselves in a similar position before. They were in a similar spot in the aftermath of the de Vries era, when things were grim and Vladimir Romanov stepped in with funding, the promise of salvation and a barrel load of dreams.

He's taken them on quite a trip - I need no reminder of the most recent good times - but the eventual destination remains unclear.

There has been little to suggest over the crisis of the past couple of weeks that Romanov is set to start funding Hearts again.

Yet it is his banking group that controls the club's debt. Hearts remain his club, their assets his assets.

He is part of the all powerful new footballing aristocracy. Men of various means who revel in the 'cult of the owner' and have a dictatorial grip over their estates.

Not paid your basketball team? Make a joke about sending them food parcels. Let them eat cake indeed.

Preening and egotistical, these modern day Marie Antoinettes lap up the adulation but they never forget that they have their clubs in a vice-like grip.

Football seems paralysed in the face of such interlocutors. We've seen over the past couple of weeks, as we saw in the summer and we've seen elsewhere before, how governments and footballing authorities are quick to react when things go wrong.

Yet it is always reactive. There seems no way - or no will - to make proactive changes in the way clubs are run.

Either clubs are businesses - and thus at the mercy of fly-by-nights, asset strippers and rich men who get bored - or they really are special institutions with a unique place in our communities.

In which case a way of protecting that status should be found.

Because, as events at Tynecastle have shown, it is a universal truth of such situations that it is the fans who will be shafted.

It will be the fans who most keenly feel the emotional threat of oblivion, the fans who are asked to dig ever deeper to find the cash needed for survival.

And the Hearts fans have responded, social media has been harnessed to launch fundraising initiatives, spread the key messages about what is needed and why and incubate a spirit of fraternalism in getting the job done.

They will need to keep that effort going in the face of an uncertain future.

Already this week we've seen attempts made to buy the club from Romanov, attempts build a sustainable Hearts with fan involvement at its heart.

So far those moves have been rebuffed. Romanov holds the cards and isn't for dealing yet. Salvation remains within his gift. But so to do the most immediate routes into administration or liquidation.

Thus Hearts might stand on the brink of an uncertain but sustainable future or more of the threats and panic of the last couple of weeks.

That the state of Romanov's pride or the fluctuations of the Lithuanian banking system might decide that future should be a warning about how football clubs are governed.

I've been asked a lot how I feel about this situation over the last few days.

I have no sympathy for Romanov or any others who have steered the club to this stage. If - and this remains to be seen - the Hearts situation does indeed begin to mirror that of Rangers then Hearts must be dealt with in the same way.

I have a lot of sympathy for clubs who have made swingeing cuts, worked hard to keep up with their tax obligations and make payments on time while the quality they provide on the pitch and the service they offer off the pitch has suffered. Now they find yet another club in their midst has become an extreme financial basket case.

And I have sympathy for the fans. It's not pleasant to think your club might disappear from the footballing map.

Not all Hibs fans share that view. Some have been revelling in the prospect of Heart' demise.

Football means different things to different people. I think rivalry enhances the game. You need a rival to have a rivalry.

I've never thought of Edinburgh as a city divided by football nor football as a reason to hate this club or that club, this fan or that fan. Dislike passionately over the course of 90 minutes maybe. But never hate.

Maybe I'm a man out of time, longing for days when footballing rivalries didn't mean disengaging your brain and leaving your manners outside by the coal bunker.

But there we are. As much as dark times and never ending gloating can upset one's equilibrium, I'm not sure the demise of any club is a cause for celebration.

What the fans have shown over the last few days is that Hearts won't die. If even darker times lie ahead we can be confident that some form of the club will remain in Scottish football.

Hearts aren't finished.

We can only hope that the era of men like Vladimir Romanov soon will be.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Scottish football: Reconstruction rivals

"The battle lines were drawn months ago and the main players have been digging the trenches.

"But listen closely and you will hear the first volleys being fired as Scottish football edges closer, yet again, to civil war."

So spake the BBC's Chris McLaughlin as the latest contributions emerged in the eternal "reconstruction of Scottish football" debate.

Scottish Football Blog Hampden
The Scottish Football League will announce its plans first: a top league of 16, a 12 team second division and 18 teams in the bottom tier. Celtic and Rangers will be invited to enter "colt" teams. And the SPL will be disbanded, the "big" clubs returning to the SFL fold.

"Haud yer wheesht" say the SPL. They've their own plans and they don't include being disbanded. Rather: a top flight of 16, an SPL2 of 12 teams and a third flight of 12 teams.

Forget our romantic notions of a pyramid structure, of a constructive dialogue involving all stakeholders - including fans.

Where are we after our strange summer, the McLeish Report before that and the hints that the SFA were building up to bang heads together to get things moving forward?

We're nowhere. It seems hot air doesn't fuel the engines of change.

On one side the SPL, as defensive of its territory as ever, on the other a newly emboldened SFL.

And never the twain shall meet.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is a brilliant study of how Lincoln weaved different points of view into his presidency, to shape the America he wanted to emerge from its most tumultuous period.

From Barack Obama down many have adopted the book as a leadership guide, towering narrative history as self help manual.

Lincoln strengthened his grip on the White House and the country by drawing opponents of different hues into his inner circle.

Now I've no idea of reading habits inside Hampden and it is a churlish habit of football - this blog included - to hurl military descriptions at events on and off the field.

But for the same to happen at Hampden we must rely on the leadership of Campbell Ogilvie and Stewart Regan.

We must rely on those with different views to air them openly, without agendas, and be prepared to sacrifice their own ambition to build a better future for Scottish football.

What we're likely to get is the SFA abdicating responsibility for as long as possible as an increasingly bitter argument between the SPL and the SFA results in either the status quo or a bad fudge, our promised utopia replaced by the worst of both worlds.

A leadership vacuum filled by selfish bickering, the fans ignored, the hope of lasting, positive change ever more forlorn.

It wouldn't take Lincoln and his team of rivals to sort out Scottish football.

Unfortunately Screaming Lord Sutch would be an improvement on the current mob masquerading as "guardians of the game."

Scottish football is not doomed. Too many people care too much.

But nor does constructive change look likely any time soon. And the longer the spectacle remains bald men fighting over a comb, the harder the recovery will be.

Save the Leith One?

A strange Tuesday for Hibs. With their city rivals toiling under the threat of financial calamity, it was Hibs who ended the day with a dismissed employee and something of a PR storm.

At half time in Sunday's game against Dundee United the tannoy at Easter Road blasted out a few lines of George Harrison's Taxman.

A dig at Hearts, a gentle, chuckle inducing diversion during the tedium of half time.

A short blast of a short Beatles track that was picked up in a few reports on Monday morning, was described by one Hearts supporter's representative as "crass" - which it was - and the world continued to turn.

End of story?

Not quite.

It later emerged that the man responsible for playing the track, Hibs' tannoy announcer Willie Docherty, had been relieved of his duties at the club.

And so something of a social media storm developed. A 'Bring Back Willie Docherty' Facebook page has over 1100 likes at the time of writing, a #JusticeForWillieDocherty hashtag has sprung up on Twitter and forums - on both sides of the city divide - have seen fans post their support for the "Leith One."

Eventually Hibs released a statement:
The Club stressed that speculation that the action had been taken as a song played may have offended supporters of another club is not correct. 
Rather the action has been taken because the individual chose to wilfully disregard specific instructions given in the pre-match briefing which itself was consistent with guidance given during the week in the run-up to the match at Easter Road Stadium on Sunday, which was broadcast live on television.

The stadium announcer is not an employee of the Club, but is contracted to provide the service. In doing so, he operates as part of the Club's official channels of communications - which also includes the Club website and match day programme. 
Under SPL and SFA rules, the Club is directly responsible for what the Stadium Announcer does, says and plays. For that reason, the Club has specific guidelines in place and before each match detailed briefings take place. 
These reflect the values and behaviours the Club and its Supporters believe Hibernian FC should stand for. The conduct of other clubs is a matter for them. 
Before our recent home match against Dundee United discussions took place and specific instructions were given. The individual concerned has admitted that he deliberately breached the terms of the instructions the Club had given. The Club was left with no option but to take the course of action it did.
So there we are.

There are rules in place and they were broken. Specific instructions were given for this game - I'm unsure why the game being broadcast on TV is relevant - and they were ignored.

Why are rules in place if not to govern the fun?

Maybe playing the song - or a snippet of the song - was a needless dig at Hearts, at a situation Hibs have no interest in getting involved in.

But surely it was an inoffensive enough aberration. Certainly not one that necessitated the club setting itself so apart from what seems to be the prevailing public opinion, to make such a magnificent job of turning a molehill into a mountain.

In their statement Hibs said: "This is not an issue about having or not having a sense of humour."

If you have to point that out then you're probably doing a poor job of showing people that you've actually got a sense of humour.

Hibs went top of the league on Sunday and their star striker was called into the Scotland squad. It's taken them a gargantuan mishandling of a daft situation to get people talking about a song and a DJ instead.

Willie Docherty might have shot himself in the foot on Sunday. He's far from the only person guilty of that at Easter Road.


A lot of the arguments around Wille Docherty's treatment have centred on Hibs becoming the latest organisation to launch an attack on football "banter."

I'm not quite sure what that means.

Does embracing "banter" mean Tim Lovejoy and Paul Merson should front Sportscene?

And "banter" can be used to cover a lot of ills.

If Hibs wanted to make a stand about something that happened on Sunday then they might have chosen to speak out about the "refugee" chants continually and tiresomely aimed at Rudi Skacel.

Harmless "banter" in the eyes of some.

But harmless "banter" that was aimed at Skacel even when Shefki Kuqi was on the pitch for Hibs.

Kuqi was a Kosovar Albanian immigrant to Finland, as his family escaped the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. They were refugees.

Go figure.

I find Skacel as hard to warm to as any Hibs fan. But he's not a refugee. Which makes the song both nonsensical and potentially more offensive to a Hibs player than its target.

A "banter" double whammy.

If Hibs really wanted to launch a war on "banter" on the back of Sunday afternoon they missed the target.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

League Cup: History men?

Is the Scottish Communities League Cup moving inexorably towards a Celtic v Rangers clash.

Celtic progressed to the semi final with a minimum of fuss last night, thumping St Johnstone 5-0 at home.

Rangers need to make history to join them, becoming the first Third Division side to reach the league cup semi finals.

We seem to be cocking a snook at history this week.

No sooner had Kilmarnock managed a twice in a lifetime win at Celtic than St Mirren gazumped them with a once in a lifetime cup win in Aberdeen.

A first since before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Archdukes are best advised to avoid the Sarajevo area.

So Celtic and St Mirren are through, Hampden awaits.

Who will join them? Rangers or Inverness, Dundee United or Hearts.

The honest answer: I haven't got a scooby.

Hearts won comfortably on their last trip to Tannadice and they are a point ahead in the league having played two more games.

Both have enjoyed sound wins this season without finding any consistency. And although Hearts managed three goals in their league win over United, neither side has been prolific.

Hearts have scored twelve goals in eleven games, United eleven in nine.

The league form doesn't suggest a cup classic. You might have said the same about Reading and Arsenal.

6-7 remains unlikely tonight. United are 13/10, Hearts 2/1 and the draw 12/5.

I think it could be tight. Both teams are 9/1 to win on penalties, United 10/1 to win after extra time and Hearts 12/1. If it's a lottery at that stage then it could be a generous one.

I'll back half time/full time draw/draw at 4/1. It could be a long night.

And for those who believe in fate: Rudi Skacel is 11/2 first goalscorer and 7/4 to score any time.

What of Rangers and Inverness?

A win over Motherwell in the last round will have proved to Rangers that SPL clubs should hold no fear for them at home.

The trick for Inverness will be to avoid looking as scared of their own shadows as Motherwell did that night.

A few weeks ago I'd have felt that Rangers were big favourites for this one.

Ladbrokes Game On! Now I'm not so sure. Inverness have shown a certain character in building an unbeaten run and have weighed in with a fair whack of goals.

SPL form meets a Third Division club with both a point to prove and a number of players who would get in most SPL teams.

A Rangers win is 21/20, the draw 12/5 and Inverness 5/2.

Those odds are justified but not overwhelmingly so. Pay your money, take your pick.

I'll take Inverness to win 2-1 at 10/1. I might even be daft and expand that to 60/1 with Billy McKay scoring first.

But I'm not convinced of my good sense in doing so.

As Motherwell found to their cost playing the occasion is probably more of a risk for Inverness than Rangers.

Rangers, of course, are playing history as well.

But history's not having a good week in Scottish football.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Friday, October 26, 2012

SPL: Motherwell v Hibs

An acquaintance, for whom the glass is forever half empty, insisted to me last Sunday evening that Hibs would be in the bottom three of the SPL after the next three games.

That is mathematically possible. And this particular lover of life had, unlike me, endured the trip to Dingwall to see goalkeeper Ben Williams do a Highland fling in losing three goals and three points to Ross County.

He also told me that he "fears" for Hibs at Fir Park tonight. He didn't quantify the extent of that fearfulness but his solemnity of tone suggested Motherwell winning 3-0 or 4-0 - at 16/1 and 28/1 - wouldn't be outlandish.

Clearly I've got some really quite depressing friends. But his pessimism is indicative of where this SPL season is going.

Last week Hibs again displayed a certain fragility that earlier results might have masked.

That's enough to convince many that talk of (bottle) green shoots of recovery is overstated.

But if you're convinced that Pat Fenlon is turning things round at Easter Road you can point to some encouraging wins and some sound performances.

The optimist will argue that a win against Motherwell tonight would push Hibs into second place in the SPL table. That's progress.

The truth, as is so often case, probably lurks somewhere in between for Hibs and most other clubs.

A few weeks ago Motherwell were looking to go clear at the top of the table. They've since dropped back into the pack but a win tonight will take them from sixth to third.

16 points separate leaders Celtic from Dundee at the bottom. But only eight points split second placed Inverness and Dundee United in eleventh.

While Celtic haven't yet made the dash for glory that many predicted there does seem to have been a levelling among ten of the twelve clubs.

That might make the league thrillingly competitive or an orgy of mediocrity. Maybe it can be both at the same time.

It will also make it harder for anyone else to track Celtic if they do make a break. And it makes predicting the outcome of a majority of games something of a lottery.

It looks that way this evening.

Another Friday night experiment - although this perhaps owes more to ESPN filling a schedule hole than a commitment to improving the fan experience.

Tonight is actually a good chance to track the progress of Friday night football. This is third Friday game between these two since 1995 and the second in two seasons.

The TV free and abandoned match last year - Pat Fenlon's first game in charge of Hibs - drew an attendance of around 6700. That was a slightly larger crowd than turned up for Sky's live goalless draw in 1995.

If you're going to have an experiment it is useful to be able to draw comparisons. Tonight offers those comparisons.

Will the Friday night pioneers who turn up be entertained this evening?

Ladbrokes Game On!Goalless draws (10/1) are rare indeed in this fixture these days. This season Hibs have have looked less comfortable away from home, conceding 11 goals in 5 matches and taking just four points.

Motherwell - whose early season fluency seems to have deserted them - have taken five points from four home games, scoring six goals and conceding five.

And both come into this on the back of away defeats to teams below them in the league.

Tonight's odds - Motherwell are 21/20, Hibs 5/2 and the draw 12/5 - actually push me towards the draw.

A scoring draw.

1-1 is 6/1 while 2-2 is 14/1.

I always need to back Hibs though - although I suspect that this might contribute to whatever jinx it is they are toiling under at any given time - so I'll take a 2-1 away win at 11/1.

Combining that with Eoin Doyle as first goalscorer - for no other reason than an increasing appreciation for the cut of his jib - swells the odds to 50/1.

And because one day he must surely treat the SPL to his flying geriatric goal celebration I'll take my normal flutter on Shefki Kuqi as last goalscorer at 8/1.

One day.

Am I confident? No.

But a predictable unpredictability might be the SPL's calling card this season.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Barcelona v Celtic: An underdog's life

Having finally cleared one long standing Champions League hurdle with their away win in Moscow, Celtic must topple giants this evening.

Barcelona away is a fixture that makes most teams tremble. It looks a hopeless journey for our plucky Scottish champions, a side who have only just registered a maiden away win in this competition.

If Celtic will be prohibitive favourites in all their domestic matches this year they must accept the role of underdogs tonight.

As Gary Linton recalled in his post last night, it's not that long ago since Celtic were knocking Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup or taking a rare Champions League away point at the Nou Camp.

Not that long ago, but it feels like a footballing lifetime. In the intervening years Barcelona have come as close to any team of our generation to reinventing how football should be played.

Celtic, in common with most sides, have been stranded in their wake, stuck playing the football of mere mortals.

Abandon hope all ye who enter Catalonia?


But, as Jose Mourinho was rather narkily explaining recently, Barcelona are not currently Spanish or European champions.

There has also been a vulnerability at times, a reliance on a mismatched defence made up of converted midfielders.

Unfortunately for Celtic they retain the ability to simply score more than the opposition no matter how many they concede.

Every silver lining has a cloud.

All this could be good news for the myopic Celtic fan or the neutral with an inkling for a shock.

Because a winning bet on Celtic this evening would be a lucrative affair.

A Barcelona win is priced at 1/12. A Celtic win is a whopping 20/1. The draw is 10/1.

If a football match is a two horse race then the bookies see this one as a sprint between Frankel and Robert Louis Stevenson's Modestine.

Ladbrokes Game On!Gary's prediction of a 2-1 Barcelona win is 12/1. By contrast a 1-0 win for Celtic is out at 40/1, remarkably the same price as a 7-0 win for Barcelona.

Celtic's ambitions in this competition are likely to be realised away from their two clashes with Barcelona.

Anything tonight would be a huge result and a massive bonus. It looks highly unlikely.

Celtic will need to thrive without much sight of the ball, they'll also need to figure out a way of stopping the superlative stealing Lionel Messi without giving Barcelona's other stars room to thrive. It could be like trying to herd cats.

Better sides than this Celtic team have failed to do any of that successfully.

I've got to - and I suspect I'll not be a lone voice here - plump for a comfortable Barcelona win.

3-0 at 11/2 or 4-1 at 12/1.

David deserves more glory in this competition. But tonight should belong to Goliath.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Monday, October 22, 2012

Barcelona v Celtic: The magic men

Tomorrow night Celtic face the sternest test of the Champions League campaign with a trip to face Barcelona. Spanish football enthusiast Gary Linton, the Messi of Twitter @AlbaEspana, takes a look at a Barcelona side where attacking brilliance and a winning mentality continue to overcome a makeshift defence.

The best team to ever play the game, they play the most beautiful football in the world. They’re not human beings, they’re all robots.

All these things and many, many other things have been said about this Barcelona side. To be honest, it’s all true, well maybe not the robots part, but frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!

They have Messi, they have Xavi and they have Iniesta. That’s not all, they have Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, David Villa the list could go on and on.

What Celtic must realise and what Celtic manager Neil Lennon already knows, is this side will hurt you from all angles, and they’ll hurt you bad.

It’s not a one man, two man or even a three man team, it’s an eleven man team, coaching staff, substitutes, tea ladies, kit men, pitch man and of course the most important part of this fantastic and special club, the fans.

Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, was in the Celtic side that beat Barcelona in the 2003/04 UEFA Cup fourth round. Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández played in Celtic's 1-0 first-leg victory, and they all featured again in the goalless second leg. That is a result that will stay with Celtic fans that were there for those two legs, it will stay with Lennon and all other players who managed to triumph over this fantastic side.

Because since then it’s not looked so good for Celtic, it’s not looked so good for many clubs (we’ll get back to that a little later). Barcelona in recent years found a new man to manage them, they found Mr Pep Guardiola.

A man who won it all with Barcelona, a man who toppled all that came his and his team’s way, he may or may not have ‘built’ this team, but he certainly put his stamp on it, made them play his way and made them win his way. The way that’s got them mentioned by almost every single football fan as the greatest ever side to play the game.

He’s now left, he’s no longer at Barcelona but all the players still are. Their new boss is Pep’s second hand man, Tito Vilanova. With Tito in charge they’re still the same old winning Barcelona. Tito has been in charge of Barcelona for 13 matches, in those 13 matches he’s won 11, drawn one and been defeated once.

Yes, back to the part where I mentioned it’s not looked so good for Celtic against Barcelona since that 2003/04 UEFA Cup win.

In 2004/2005 Henrik Larsson struck against his old club with Deco and Ludovic Giuly also scoring when Barcelona won 3-1 at Celtic in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Lennon appeared along with Valdés, Puyol and Xavi and all four were present in the Camp Nou return, together with Andrés Iniesta, a 60th-minute substitute. It finished 1-1 after John Hartson cancelled out Samuel Eto'o's strike.

A couple of seasons went by and Barcelona and Celtic met again, this time in the 2007/08 round of 16. It was going well for the Scottish side; they went 1-0 up through Vennegoor of Hesselink in the 16th minute, and then found themselves level moments later when Messi scored, they then went back in front with a goal from Barry Robson. It wasn’t enough and eventually goals from Henry and a second from Messi saw Barcelona win the first leg, the second leg was all to play for, but Barcelona did what Barcelona do, they won. They won the return leg 1-0 courtesy of a Xavi goal for a 4-4 aggregate victory.

Now let’s get back to Tito Vilanova and today’s Barcelona. As I said  they are "winners" with just a single defeat so far for Tito at the hands of Real Madrid in the super cup second leg. However, since that defeat they’re unbeaten in their last eight games, with seven wins and a single draw, again against Real Madrid, this time in the league.

Messi’s on form, 27 goals for club and country in his last 16 appearances, Xavi’s back, Iniesta’s back and so is David Villa. The likelihood, looking at past meetings and recent results, is a Barcelona victory.

But wait: there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Barcelona do have "some" problems. Pique doesn’t look likely to feature in the game, Puyol is out injured, Abidal is still sidelined as he’s been for the whole season and of course Dani Alves is still out injured.

So they have to go with a 'make shift' back line. Young Montoya has recently filled in at right back; they've got to go with the centre back pairing of one former midfielder turned defender in Javier Mascherano and a midfielder playing as defender who still likes to act at times as a midfielder in Alex Song. That’s unless Tito goes with Adriano (a left back or left midfielder) at centre back but even then you’d still have a very 'unreliable' and not 'up to scratch' defence.

They are also missing a pivotal part of the 'defence' in defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets who is suspended following his red card on match day two.

Now I know, I know what you’re thinking, Barcelona are Barcelona and whoever plays will fill in just fine. You may be right.

But I know one thing for sure; I’d rather go up against a back line like that instead of a back line featuring Pique, Puyol and Alves.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Sevilla who put two past them a couple of weeks back, or even Spartak Moscow who did the same. If you don’t believe either of them just ask Deportivo La Coruna who, just this weekend, put four past them, that’s right four.

They did in the end lose the game 5-4 but, come on, I said 'some light' at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-1

Possible starting XI: Valdes – Alba, Mascherano, Song, Montoya – Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas – Tello, Messi, Pedro.

Match facts: Celtic

  • The 3-2 win at FC Spartak Moscow was Celtic's first in 21 attempts away from home in the UEFA Champions League. They had lost 19 of the previous 20.
  • Fraser Forster and Scott Brown have played all 540 minutes of Celtic's campaign, qualifying included.
  • Ten of the side that started on match day one were making their group stage debuts, with Brown the sole exception.
  • Victor Wanyama's next yellow card will incur a ban.

Match facts: Barcelona 

  • Barcelona have won 99 games in the UEFA Champions League, group stage to final, and scored 346 goals.
  • Lionel Messi has been UEFA Champions League top scorer for an unprecedented four successive campaigns.
  • Xavi Hernández has completed 236 of his 266 passes so far, both the highest in the competition. Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano are second and third respectively.
  • Barcelona have completed 1,400 of their 1,627 passes; both competition highs.
Read Gary's blog at Alba España

Friday, October 19, 2012

SPL: Dundee United v Aberdeen

According to the encyclopedic @SPLstats Saturday will be the 87th time Dundee United have hosted Aberdeen in a league game at Tannadice.

In the previous 86 matches there have been 29 home wins, 28 away win and 29 draws.

The insperable New Firm.

They've been plotting different routes through the SPL this season though.

United started with 3-0 wins over Hibs and Dundee. Then they flatlined.

0-0 draws with Ross County and St Johnstone have been joined by a 3-1 defeat at Kilmarnock, a 3-0 defeat at home to Hearts and a 4-0 defeat at Inverness.

Not scoring and conceding too many. A nasty combination.

It's hardly critical. After losing out to the double whammy of Celtic's American jaunt and Motherwell's creaky power supply they have two - tough - games in hand and are only seven points off second place.

But few would have tipped them to be second bottom of the league in a season where many expected them to lead the chasing pack in their pursuit of Celtic.

Injuries haven't helped. It's been United's misfortune to have held on to key players in the summer only to lose some of them in the early part of the season.

Few SPL clubs can sustain their form with big names missing from their starting XI.

The real surprise is how poor a job United have made of papering over the cracks.

With their game before the international break postponed they should have had time to regroup and recover from the run of bad results.

Unfortunately they'll have had to do that without Peter Houston, absent on Scotland duty. Not much of a break from bleak results that, although he might soon have more time to spend with his club.

If Houston's United have weakened over the opening weeks of the season, Craig Brown's Aberdeen have only got stronger.

Early on it looked as though Brown had assembled a sound squad but not quite worked out how to make them click.

But they are undefeated since their opening day loss to Celtic, and while four home draws looks worryingly similar to seasons past wins against Hibs at home and Kilmarnock away have lifted them to third in the table.

Brown, whose past achievements as Scotland manager take on greater significance with every flunked qualifying campaign, has bought wisely and looks to be blending experience and youth quite well.

There might be occassions when Aberdeen don't set the pulse racing - Craig's too old to cope with 3-3 draws with Motherwell each week - but they might just prove to be one of the more consistently effective sides this SPL season.

So tomorrow looks like being a historically tight result with recent form favouring the visitors and the bookies favouring the home side.

Ladbrokes Game On! The draw is 12/5, an Aberdeen win is 12/5 while a United victory is 11/10.

Strikes me this is one of those games that could either be an absolute belter or the dampest of 0-0 squibs (7/1).

Aberdeen have won the last two head-to-heads though and carried the better form into international week.

Given United's scoring issues I'm tempted by a 2-0 Aberdeen win at 14/1 but there's a tendency for both sides to score in these games so 2-1 Aberdeen at 10/1 it is.

13/2 for a half time draw/full time Aberdeen combo might also have a certain allure.

Did we think back in 1998 that more than a decade on Craig Brown would still be the last Scottish manager to take the national team to a major championship?

Did we heck as like.

So I'll back the master to pile on more misery for the apprentice's apprentice.

I might take the half time draw/full time draw at 4/1 just in case though.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Your game needs you

What do Scottish football fans want?

Ask 100 people. Get 99 different answers.

We're not short of opinions. Events this summer showed that there are times when clubs are forced to listen.

Too often though clubs feel able to ignore the paying punter.

Partly that's the arrogance of a game that wants to run itself as a business while ignoring its "customers."

And partly it's because the channels for constructive communication between fans and clubs have simply not existed.

It's too easy for chairmen and chief executives to write off forums and social media sites as a playground for the overly opinionated or the crazily disaffected.

They latch on to the most extreme views, claim the tail is wagging the dog and give themselves an excuse to ignore anything that might be considered constructive. And there is a lot of constructive opinion out there.

And those fans with something constructive to say might be about to find a collective voice with the launch of new initiative from Supporters Direct Scotland.

A 'Fans Parliament' is to be launched across Scotland giving fans of every club a vehicle to air their views - and have those views collected and reported to Scottish football's overly complicated governing bodies and the Scottish Government.

Launched at the Scottish Parliament yesterday the initiative builds on the recommendations made in the McLeish Report that fans were recognised as key stakeholders in the game with a role to play in shaping the future of Scottish football.

The author of that report, Henry McLeish, said:

"It has been a unique year for football fans in Scotland, on a local as well as national basis, with ordinary fans’ voices being heard loud and clear in a way they’ve never been heard, or listened to, before. Now there is a drive and determination to ensure that the momentum that was gained isn’t lost.

"The new 'Fans Parliament' initiative will provide a platform for fans to continue the debate in the knowledge that it will be reported back to the Scottish Government and to the organisations running football in Scotland."

Fans will be encouraged to get involved through a series of roadshows, at matches, using social media and at

Paul Goodwin, head of Supporters Direct in Scotland, said:

"Fans voices are being listened to more than ever before and we know that in recent months there has been an unprecedented debate about the game in Scotland.

"Through Supporters Direct Scotland fans have a direct route into government and policy makers and we want the new ‘Fans Parliament’ initiative to be the conduit for the debate and discussion between fans across the country and, in effect, be the voice of Scottish football fans.

"As an organisation funded by the Scottish Government we have the ability to present supporters views directly to them as well as to the SPL, SFL and the SFA. Talks have already started at Hampden Park looking at how we formalise this relationship with the governing bodies."

An interesting scheme this. Football fans are not a homogeneous bunch. I've probably got no more in common with the chap who sits next to me at Easter Road than a shared love of Hibs and some subconscious masochism.

Our views on the future of our club probably diverge. Our views on the future of Scottish football almost certainly do.

Football fans don't necessarily do consensus.

So surveying fans, pulling together those opinions and turning those findings into something positive and focused enough to influence the SFA, SPL and SFL is likely to be a mammoth undertaking.

Not an impossible undertaking though. And a very worthwhile one.

I've met with some of the people involved and I can vouch for their enthusiasm in seeing this through.

And given that most of us should agree that a sustainable future for Scottish football is an absolute must, there is common ground to build on.

There's also a simple message for the men stalking the corridors of power at Hampden and ruling clubs like their own private dominions.

140 years of autocracy has got us where we are today.

There has to be a better way.

The first roadshow will be held in Edinburgh on 28th October with Pat Stanton and Gary Mackay in attendance.

Register by email: with your name and date of birth.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scotland: Strachan SOS?

An unusual consensus has settled over Scottish football.

The disastrous start to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign has made minds up: Craig Levein can't continue as Scotland manager.

A few dissenting voices remain.

Billy Dodds was one of them on Tuesday night. Using his BBC co-commentary gig to broadcast to the nation, Billy repeatedly told us that Levein was the "right man for the job, he's just not had the results."

That's not the strongest defence: "Aye, the doctor's a good bloke but his patients keep dying."

In moments of introspection even Levein might reflect that the game really is a bogey when Silly Bodds is the main witness for the defence.

Some others argue that changing the manager will change nothing. A limp reason that, conceding our crapness, accepting that we really should be bottom of a qualifying group.

I also believe that this squad is stronger than results suggest. Not world beaters. But better than two points from four games or three wins in 12 competitive matches. When that happens the buck stops in the dugout.

The SFA board will meet in the next few days to discuss what happens next.

Can we expect decisive action? Or a classic Hampden fudge.

I'd still lean towards the latter but it's difficult to see who Levein can call on for support, especially if there is any truth in rumours that the clubs might choose to use Scotland's plight to put pressure on SFA chief executive Stewart Regan.

Our next game is a friendly against Luxembourg in November, with Ladbrokes offering 13/8 that Levein will not be manager for that match.

It's 11/8 for him to not be manager by the first game of 2013, a February friendly with Estonia.

I would still expect him to just about survive through this weekend, limp past Luxembourg before being deposed early in the New Year.

That would give the new manager the Estonian game to prepare for the next round of - now sadly redundant - qualifiers.

And who will the next manager be?

Two former managers are frequently mentioned. Both Walter Smith and Alex McLeish are available, know the job and enjoyed some success.

I'm not sure going back is a good idea in football although Smith has shown a willingness to do just that in the past.

McLeish (12/1) has already hinted at a willingness to consider a return. I'm always mindful of certain commitment issues he seems to have.

He will undoubtedly see a situation that he'd be confident of improving but would he be concerned more by rehabilitating Scotland or his own career?

Smith fits almost exactly the age and experience profile that Sir Alex Ferguson argues are the perfect fit for an international manager.

But the Tartan Army is unforgiving about the last time Smith jumped ship and I'm not sure he'd relish the challenge of being the figurehead of not just the national team but of the many changes that the SFA is currently attempting to put in place.

Owen Coyle (10/1) is available after a bruising time at Bolton. But Coyle must surely retain ambitions at club level and I can't see much that would push him to the Scotland job at this stage.

At 14/1 Joe Jordan would be an emotionally powerful choice but I don't think his record as a manager stands up to much scrutiny even if his involvement as a coach would surely make sense.

Ally McCoist is also priced at 14/1 for anyone who likes to chuck money down the toilet. Motherwell's Stuart McCall might be a bit miffed to be outside McCoist at 16/1.

Dougie Freedman would be an interesting choice at 12/1 but at the moment I'd think there is about as much chance of Scotland winning Euro 2016.

Which brings us to the current favourite.

At 3/1 Gordon Strachan leads the field.

There's no such thing as a unanimous choice in football but there seems to be a surge of popular opinion in favour of Strachan.

He's spoken before about how he sees the role as all encompassing, going beyond simply managing the international team. A decision would need to be made within the SFA about how to accommodate those demands, how Strachan's vision fits with the attempts at modernisation that are already in place.

Strachan will also have a personal decision to make. Is the life of the travelling pundit worth foregoing for the pressures of being Scotland manager?

There will be an emotional pull, the draw of a fresh challenge. But there are negatives to this job, stresses involved in carrying the weight of often unrealistic expectation.

It looks to me like he is the man for the job.

But will he decide that this is the job for Gordon Strachan?

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Belgium v Scotland: Levein leaving?

Scotland's road to Rio. A dismal football journey.

We got about as far as the five year old who runs away from home and sits down under the whirligig on the back green to wait for the bus.

The five year old might have shown more sophistication.

It's hardly a surprise that we looked so adrift against an impressive Belgium. In the goalless first half an amazing combination of Allan McGregor's excellence, Belgian profligacy and Scottish luck combined to protect our goal.

Somehow we could almost have nicked the lead.

We wouldn't have deserved it.

The second half wore on. Still we hung on at 0-0.

Could we dare to dream the impossible dream?

No. A rather prosaic opener followed by a moment to savour from a defender.


That flattered us. We'd kept the deadlock despite chasing shadows. We were unlikely to hold out.

As I wrote yesterday Craig Levein is a manager destined to fail even when all he wants to do is avoid defeat.

They were just better than us. Painfully so.

We might ask how Belgium have developed such rich talent while Scotland have excelled in nothing more than pedestrianism.

A fair question. A conundrum that the SFA have asked Mark Wotte to solve.

That will take time. Already he's lost a couple of coaches who fans, as innocently concerned bystanders, might have thought would be his key lieutenants.

But we shouldn't prejudge. The Wotte revolution has yet to play out and we can only trust that the people he surrounds himself with, the new and the old, are guided by a great feeling of love for our game.

That's for a new generation, the footballing future we all dream of.

A vision Craig Levein has bought into. He sees a footballing recovery quickened by the input of the national manager.

That's admirable and I've no reason to doubt the strength of his desire to shape our future.

But somewhere between our glorious yesterdays (never hugely glorious) and our golden tomorrows (perhaps not hugely golden) we need a footballing present.

And Craig Levein can no longer play a part in the here and now of the national team.

He's failed.

We're bottom of the group.

He's failed miserably.

12 qualifying games. Three wins.

International football is tough. We accept that. We accept that losing in Belgium is a predictable enough fate for Scotland these days.

We shouldn't castigate Levein for losing home and away to Spain.

But consider this; Lithuania away; Czech Republic away; Czech Republic home; Serbia home; Macedonia home; Wales away.

If Scotland were making progress we'd be winning some of these games.

Certainly winning more than Liechtenstein (twice) and Lithuania at home.

The players we have at our disposal should be getting better results.

The manager must take the blame.

Not everyone agrees.

"Change manager but suffer the same miserable fate, for there's more wrong with our game than Craig Levein," they say.

They're right. There is more than Craig Levein wrong with Scottish football.

But when a man isn't tired of the mediocrity of Craig Levein's national side, he is tired of Scotland as a football team of any worth.

I'm not tired of Scotland.

I remember our last five major championship appearances.

Craig Levein was tasked with getting us closer to those halcyon days.

He's failed.

A decent guy who cares about Scotland, wants us to thrive, wants to contribute to our footballing future.

That's Craig Levein.

But he's also a failure.

And failure can only be rewarded with dismissal.

Will the SFA sack Craig Levein?

Scotland's next qualifier is in March. Levein still has a lucrative amount of time left on his contract, the apparent support of his players and a determination to go absolutely nowhere.

But Scotland are out of the World Cup and the SFA have to sell tickets for a series of pointless competitive games.

All of which makes me think that Levein will stumble on until January before a "mutual consent" press release is sent out from Hampden.

Craig Levein's successor?

A brave man indeed.

We all have opinions.

"Knowledge was divided among the Scots, like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful."

Harsh that. But we'll come up with a lot of names and none of us will have the definitive answer.

Consensus is unlikely.

Levein's great lesson might be that having the guts to take the job doesn't necessarily mean being brave enough to do the job justice.