Saturday, March 03, 2012

Celtic: Winning their way

A staggered weekend fixture list gives Celtic the opportunity to go 23 points ahead at the top of the SPL tomorrow.

23 points. Maybe only for a few hours having played a couple of games more. But 23 points?

At one stage this season, with similar quirks of TV scheduling handicapping them, they found themselves 15 points behind Rangers.

Quite a turnaround. If David Cameron had pulled off a swing like that he wouldn't have to keep inviting Nick Clegg round to Downing Street for sherry and uncomfortable chit-chat.

No, it's been a remarkable couple of months for Celtic.

"But wait," cry some. "If Rangers hadn't been docked ten points things wouldn't be so simple."

True. If Rangers hadn't been docked 10 points what is currently a 35 point turnaround would only be a 25 point turnaround.

Ignore for a minute the problems at Rangers and appreciate just how Neil Lennon has transformed a season that looked - at 3-0 down to Kilmarnock on 15 October - like it was spiralling towards disaster for Celtic and a sacking for their manager.

Celtic haven't lost to domestic opposition in the 23 league and cup games since their Rugby Park comeback. Only Hibs have stopped them scoring in the SPL, only Atletico Madrid have beaten them in all competitions.

This isn't just a team doing the sensible thing and making the most of their main opponent's weakness. This is a team breaking records, focussing on a treble and smashing their way past the opposition.

It's a remarkable run that doesn't deserve any addendum about rivals reaping the bitter harvest of their own folly.

As Scott Johnston pointed out on this week, Kilmarnock have played a role in this SPL. They've beaten Rangers home and away.

They looked to have Celtic beaten. But Celtic found something, they came back, they got a draw. That was the platform they needed, proof - maybe for themselves as much as anyone else - that here was a team equipped to cope, a team to survive and a team to thrive.

What of the manager? There were those - and, yes, I might have been among them - who thought that Lennon would struggle to guide Celtic to the points total that so nearly won them the title last season.

Yet with nine games to go Celtic are just 18 points off that total. They look likely to surpass it.

Last year Lennon was forced to serve an apprenticeship with Walter Smith masterminding things at Ibrox. He was also, horribly, at the centre of the storm as the mindless and the bigoted were gripped by hysteria.

He came through. He didn't win the title but he must have proved to himself that it was within his reach and that he had the strength of character to grasp the opportunities that come with the pressures of such a strangely exposed job.

This season he has survived that period of patchy form. He's survived the problems in defence that provided those of us who don't support Celtic with such merriment.

He's coaxed improvement from players - Scott Brown returning to form, Charlie Mulgrew becoming an international, the constant demands and challenges that are helping the easily distracted Anthony Stokes keep his focus and many other examples - and he's cured a failing of the past. This Celtic team can win even when they're not at their best.

What is their best? These things are relative. By their own admission Celtic aren't in the business of competing with the very best these days. But they're better, by a distance, than any of their regular opponents.

And it's a team stuffed full of potential. The realisation on the pitch of Celtic's revised ambitions as a footballing business.

I've seen them recover from a half time deficit to win 4-1 at Easter Road. And I've seen them blow Hibs away in a 5-0 thumping in the league.

Hibs were not at their own, I'll use the word advisedly, best in that 5-0 defeat. But Celtic played with a confidence and a clinical efficiency that was much improved on their perfunctory 2-0 win at Easter Road on the opening day of the season.

A team learning and improving. And a manager learning and improving with them.

The result of that is going to be a title. Perhaps even a treble.

He might not be speak about trophies not yet won but this league title is one that Neil Lennon will relish.

And one that he and his team deserve on their own merits.

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Rangers: More questions than answers

On and on goes the saga of Rangers in administration.

We await with incredulous bemusement the latest shoulder-shrugging plea of "who? Me? Nah, it wisnae me" from the sinisterly farcical Craig Whyte.

We await, with an interest that is not entirely becoming, to find out where the administrators will wield their redundancy axe.

A piecemeal truth is emerging about what's gone on at Ibrox, about the litany of rogues that have mismanaged business above that marble staircase.

Illegality? Perhaps. Criminal proceedings might still follow.

Certainly, the verdict of the "big" tax case notwithstanding, we're building a picture of the comprehensive financial bluff that has accompanied Rangers' success in the last decade or so.

A mismanagment that set the stage for the arrival of Whyte. Selfish, greedy, a moral wasteland, the wretched small-time wideboy who saw his chance to pull off the biggest con of all.

There surely can't be a way back for Whyte, whatever the future holds for a football club that he - and others - have tainted.

What is that future?

Liquidation and a newco - and the guarantee of a Scottish football rammy the likes of which we've never seen before - must remain too close for comfort.

Prolonged administration - Motherwell's less complex, smaller financial swamp saw them mired in administration across three seasons - seems likely.

Saviours raise their heads above the parapet but the malaise is too deep for them to yet build any momentum.

Paul Murray? Dave King? Should their previous involvement with a discredited regime count against them? Should there be caution over King?

Could Rangers, whose relationship with our own tax authorities is so gloomy, afford to be "saved" by King, a man labelled a "a glib and shameless liar," "a mendacious witness" by a judge in a South African tax case?

Maybe their dance with an unkown deil has led Rangers to a place where "better the devil you know" is the only feasible way forward?

Just some of the questions that will shape an uncertain future.

Right now, other concerns present themselves.

Dunfermline have confirmed their players and staff are experiencing a delay in payment of wages.

Should that surprise us? If Scottish football produced players like it produces rumours we'd be world beaters.

But those of us party to a season long game of Chinese Whispers concerning finances at East End Park might not be wholly surprised.

That's not to say the situation was - or is - desperate. Worrying, a sad reflection on the state of the game, yes, but not necessarily disastrous.

Now though Dunfermline have fallen victim to the great crash at Ibrox.

Rangers were due the Pars £80,000. That hasn't been paid and the consequences on the cash flow in Fife have been predictably harsh.

As Rangers continue to prove that they were drowning not waving all this time, the dangers of the ripples capsizing others seems ever more real.

The Scottish Government are in talks with Dunfermline about their predicament and a House of Commons debate has heard their treatment, along with that of Hearts, Dundee United and any other footballing creditors, described as theft.

Perhaps. But it's something that must happen a lot in business, maybe ever more regularly with the current economic climate and all that.

If nothing else Rangers' woes, and their current contagion, should allow us to finally address Scottish football's great conundrum.

Football is now a business, that brings positives and it brings negatives, but the inescapable truth must be that Scottish football is, with notable exceptions, largely operating a failed business model.

Now would be a good time to prove, despite the evidence of much of our footballing history, that we can learn from mistakes and emerge stronger from periods of turbulence.

Who's man enough to stand up and lead the game - whatever fate eventually befalls Rangers - through the malaise?

The SPL have been oddly quiet as the league champions have convulsed.

It seems Neil Doncaster is a good guy when you need moderately impressive sponsorship deals spun to within an ince of their life. But not a comrade to rely on in the trenches.

Who would ever have guessed?

The SFA? Some political instinct remains in what we're told is a modernised SFA.

Rangers in crisis? Panic first, then quickly set up an independent inquiry, get a retired judge to do the job.

It shows you're aware of concerns and it offers you a wee bit time to get away with saying nothing.

Maybe an extended period of time to say nothing if the parameters of Lord Nimmo Smith's inquiry touch on evidence that might soon be used against Craig Whyte in a criminal prosecution.

Hardly a groundbreaking tactic, but if it's good enough for the chinless at Westminster it's probably good enough for the blazered at Hampden.

A wrist slapping over "fit and proper person" procedures? Probably. It's not as if anyone took the SFA's governance of that issue seriously in the first place.

But maybe there is a smoking gun that could yet see the SFA forced into regicide.

The whispers of Rangers players receiving "dual contracts" have become shouts in recent weeks. The first edition of the Scottish Sun on Sunday brought the story into the open.

No conclusive proof - although The Sun claimed documentary evidence - but another glimpse of hidden truths still to emerge.

Perhaps the verdict of the "big" tax case tribunal will shed more light on the issue.

There should be a few at the SFA getting worried.

Were the SFA negligent in registering contracts? Possibly, but it seems pretty much everyone is treated with an equal lack of care, contracts are received and registered and life goes merrily on.

But what of the new SFA President? Was Campbell Ogilive at Rangers at the time these alleged second contracts were handed out? Did he know? Did he, then, mislead the very organisation he currently presides over?

We shouldn't get carried away. Second contracts might not have been a feature of Rangers financial chicanery.

If they were Ogilivie might have known nothing about them.

Based on nothing more than our experience of recent events however, I'm prepared to think there is something in this tale.

That still wouldn't mean Ogilvie was guilty. There might not have been invisible ink on his hands.

But the SFA President is now in a position where, in a matter of weeks, he could be about to attract one hell of a stench.

That's a worry. For him and for those, myself included, who have some appreciation of what the SFA have been trying to do to drag the game forward.

Ogilvie suggested that he'd take a background role as president, a presidency designed to avoid the uncharted peaks of incompetency scaled by his predecessor George Peat.

Yet he could soon be dragged into the open and given a good kicking.

Stewart Regan, the modernising chief executive of the SFA, mentioned Hearts in the same breathe as Rangers when news of the Ibrox administration first broke.

That might have been grossly unfair on Hearts. But it jarred. Because the two clubs Ogilvie has been involved with are, funnily enough, Rangers and Hearts.

He might be no more to blame for second contracts at Rangers than he is for sundry Vladimir Romanov rants.

But, then, if he was a completely peripheral figure at both clubs what actually qualifies him, other than a longevity in glad-handing, to be president of the SFA?

A line or two in a tax case verdict and Ogilivie bashing is going to be a national sport. If - and as ever it remains an "if" - a second contract imbroglio is uncovered and linked to Ogilvie's time at Rangers - even if it's not linked directly to him - then he has to resign. The SFA can't afford to let him make any other decision.

So there we are. What is it now? Coming up for three weeks since Rangers were brought to their knees.

The future at Ibrox remains uncertain, each day answers emerge that only lead to more questions.

But already we're seeing how the actions of David Murray, Craig Whyte and other briefcase carrying muggers has cracked the veneer of financial equilibrium in an impoverished corner of Fife.

We've seen a story develop that could yet leave the president of the SFA spectacularly compromised by his past association with Rangers.

On February 14th I wrote:

"The day Rangers took a step into the unknown.

"And the day Scottish football was forced to follow them."

Rangers still don't know where they're going. For better or for worse the rest of us are still having to follow them.

Whether the road we're on leads to a brave new world or another dead end it seems certain that there will more damage done.

More damage for the guilty to explain and, depressingly, more damage for innocent bystanders to suffer.

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