Friday, March 09, 2012

Scottish Cup: Dream on

That time of year when each paper has a riff on the same theme: "Hibs fans don't need reminding that it's been 110 years since their side won the Scottish Cup."

Well, no. We don't.

Yet everybody does remind us. Constantly.

The scraggy punchline of a 110 year joke. Mostly a joke that bludgeons you about the head with no attempt at subtlety. Or, largely, any attempt at humour.

But you can't point that out. Because it's been 110 years. And that, even in the hands of a bar room bore or a five year old in the playground, is indeed a joke.

1902 and all that. The journey continues.

2012 and all that. A season's journey of some discomfort. Tomorrow Ayr United and a shot at redemption in a tournament that so rarely offers Hibs any succour.

Ayr dumped Colin Calderwood's Hibs out of the cup last season. It's not that many years, but many a manager, since they dumped Franck Sauzee's sorry soldiers out of the league cup at Hampden.

Pat Fenlon will know that you don't need to beat Ayr to enjoy a fruitful reign at Easter Road. But it helps.

It won't be easy. An away tie against a lower division team that have already conquered Inverness, Hearts and St Mirren this season.

Cup assassins, stalking the Brylcreem boys of the SPL.

That's the chosen narrative.

Mind you, Ayr have only won four league games at home this season and lost to Annan Athletic, two divisions below them, at home in the Challenge Cup.

Lies, damned lies and peculiarly ambivalent statistics.

It won't be easy for Hibs. Partly because it's rarely ever easy for Hibs.

And partly because Ayr are a sound team who have been here before. They'll be lying in wait, ready to offer the hand of friendship with a traditional Somerset Park welcome.


Not on your nelly. I wouldn't want to jinx it.

Jinxing things is something I often do.

Last week I wrote a hagiographic appraisal of Celtic's season so far. The very next day they only managed a draw at Aberdeen.

That's the thing about football.

You build up your aura of invincibility, you look like you might finish the season undefeated. But there's always something lurking round the corner ready to bite you on the bum.

Often that something is shaped like a dogged Aberdeen, drilled to within an inch of their lives by a pair of unimpressed curmudgeons like Craig Brown and Archie Knox.

That's the way soccer's cookie crumbles.

But the treble chase is still on, a tricky quarter final trip to Tannadice notwithstanding.

Tricky? United are bubbling along quite the thing, Houdini Houston is fair putting the season's earlier struggles behind him. United are reaching for the European stars.

Unfortunately for United it's Celtic who have the better of these Tannadice tear-ups. And the last time somebody knocked both Rangers and Celtic out of the Scottish Cup Alex Ferguson was using Doug Rougvie as a human gargoyle.

Celtic's dominance at Tannadice has lasted slightly longer than Motherwell's over Aberdeen. It won't feel like that for Craig Brown and Archie Knox.

Since they hot-footed it to the greener pastures of Pittodrie our dynamic duo have seen their current side huff and puff against their former charges with little success.

On one occasion Brown even found time to have actual physical fisticuffs with John Boyle. Really.

Aberdeen look a different proposition now. It's taken longer than he'd have hoped but Brown has located a backbone in his team. They're much harder to beat, if still not exactly licensed purveyors of the beautiful game.

So a better Aberdeen. But Motherwell are better still.

A strange one this for Motherwell. They're now just a few games here and there away from consecutive Scottish Cup finals. And a Champion's League qualifier.

I'm sure Stuart McCall has every confidence in his own ability as a manager but I suspect even he wouldn't have thought this season had the potential to turn out quite as well as it might.

The man with the ginger mane has become the man with the golden touch.

Which just about seamlessly segues to Hearts whose ginger touch in front of goal has hamstrung them in recent weeks.

A five game run that was unrivalled in the league for the paucity of points gathered was finally halted with victory at Ibrox last week.

Whatever the circumstances, victory in Govan should replenish and revitalise like a weekend spa. Hearts need to build on it.

Wins have proved even more elusive for St Mirren. Danny Lennon has built a side that concedes very little and scores not a lot.

The result is the current sequence of low scoring draws. Those of us of a certain age will recall that Lennon's first tentative footballing steps were taken at Easter Road under the dourly defensive tutelage of Alex Miller.

Nobody's ever rocked a sequence of dull draws like mid to late eighties vintage Lexo Miller. The apprentice is paying homage to the master.

St Mirren's last visit to Tynecastle was in January. They conceded in the first minute, were 2-1 up inside 20 and eventually lost 5-2.

The current run is perhaps an antidote - maybe not the most inspiring one - to that sort of result.

Will they be doughty but blunt again tomorrow? Will Hearts be enterprisingly comfortable but toothless?

Eight teams. 90 minutes (or 180 or 200 or 200 plus penalties) away from a Hampden semi-final.

Dreams used to be made of this. It would be nice if this weekend could go some way to proving that they still are.

Heart v St Mirren: Draw
Ayr United v Hibs: No comment
Dundee United v Celtic: Away win
Motherwell v Aberdeen: Home win

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Rangers: Another week of questions

Football attracts wideboys and chancers.

Over the years most supporters will have questioned the morality or legality of this director or that chairman.

But the collection of charlatans and chancers who seem to have attached themselves to Rangers in recent years must take some beating.

Take Dave King, a man still being chased by South Africa's tax authorities over unpaid bills and associated charges that stretch to over £220 million pounds.

King has announced plans to sue David Murray. That's David Murray, the man who presided over the club as it ran up the unresolved £49 million that continues to spew a noxious smog over Ibrox.

Somebody throw the bald men a comb to scrap over.

How about Craig Whyte? The much derided new owner, the fantasy billionaire, who is still - or so events in the High Court today would suggest - determined to get his hands on some of the money that it appears he never had any intention of investing in the club.

He wants to be remembered as the man who saved Rangers even while royally screwing them, a man so discredited that the SFA have belatedly discovered he doesn't even measure up to their own overly generous fit and proper person procedures.

Gary Withey, the company secretary and lawyer with the firm which played a key role in the massively damaging Ticketus deal? Well, he's quit his law partnership and disappeared.

Some would argue that administrators David Whitehouse and Paul Clark deserve to join this gallery of guilt.

Maybe, maybe not. I'll try to keep the last vestige of faith I have in decency and say they're not guilty of crapping on Rangers' doorstep. They've just got the unpleasant task of looking constipated while wading through someone else's shit.

Where now? The lack of consensus shows the complexity of this financial funk.

The administrators are looking for a quick sale. But what is there to buy? A club that's shuffled on it's knees to the block, a £49 million guillotine ready to fall?

I'm not a businessman but that doesn't seem like the sort of investment many accountants would be chuffed about.

So liquidation? Looks like it.

And then a conflagration in Scottish football like we've never seen before.

Rangers delivered from the murderous attentions of that parcel of rogues into the hands of the cowerin', timorous beasties of the SPL.

Will that august institution be ready?

Possibly not.

Neil Doncaster, chief executive of the SPL, has taken to saying that he never predicts the future. He says it with the crazed look of a man who has just realised that his only real job now is to try and prepare for the very future he never predicts.

What happens now if Rangers, newly liquidated and newly "newco-ed" come knocking on the SPL's door?

The SPL could let them in - and if the rules dictate they can't then the wonderful thing about the SPL, its central conceit, is that it can change its own rules to suit its members - and get on with things.

Getting on with things would offer some comforts - I've already explored the pull of the TV deal - but it would also be hugely uncomfortable.

There will be clubs - majority, minority, lone voice? - who claim that the sporting integrity of the league would never recover from such a move.

This is a league where the vast majority of clubs start the season thinking that third place is the best they can do. It's not a league where sporting integrity has tended to reign supreme.

Yet with each passing day public opinion would seem to be hardening. The easy fix for a lot of clubs - ignore what's right and do what's best for them - might now prove so unpopular that it drives their own fans away.

Timing will also matter. If Rangers are forced to ask the newco question before the SPL's investigation into second contracts - an investigation stretching back to the birth of the league in 1998 - has delivered its findings can the league even entertain the question of re-admittance?

And what planning has been done for life without Rangers? I've mentioned before that some clubs might see that life as a double punishment: the injurious distorting of the playing field and then a further whack as Rangers fantasy finances come crashing down.

What contingency plans does the SPL have in place to cushion the blow?

It's easy to rant about the league never recovering from the moral blow of letting Rangers back in. It's easy to theorise about the Scottish football boom that would - and there's absolutely zero guarantee - be sparked by the disappearance of Rangers.

But there are top flight clubs used to living a hand to mouth existence, clubs that find comfort in the peculiar world of the SPL as they know it, clubs that don't see where the benefit is for them in painting this as a simple battle between "good" and "bad."

How will they be protected?

All of which, as the tide surely turns against the readmittance of Rangers, means we need some sort of plan.

What we have instead is Neil Doncaster hoping that if he shuts his eyes it will all just go away.

And I'm not sure that's enough of a plan.

Where do Rangers go without the SPL?

I've seen a lot recently from Rangers fans arguing "well, screw the SPL, let's just go to the Third Division."

Fair enough. A lack of humility isn't really what's needed right now, but if it was an available option it might prove cathartic for all involved.

Would it work?

Doncaster has tried to sell everyone a dummy this week by saying that it's the SPL or nothing for Rangers. The weakness of the diversion is best illustrated by the confirmation that the BBC's Chick Young was the only person to fall for it.

No Rangers in the SPL would mean promotion for the First Division champions but no relegation for Dunfermline, Hibs or anyone else.

That would leave a gap in the SFL.

The new Rangers could apply to fill that position. There would be no guarantees they'd get in but one would expect the SFL clubs would see them as a gift horse rather than a Trojan horse and welcome them with open arms.

Again though timing would be important. Rangers, in whatever form, would need to be in a position to apply for the free spot and be good to go for the start of next season.

It's likely that they would be but their readiness could still depend on timing of liquidation and what assets the newco has to start with.

Both these eventualities - SPL or SFL - would look to depend on somebody being able to exert some control over events. Nobody seems to be able to do that.

That's why the unlikely scenario of a total, scorched earth collapse remains just about visible on the horizon.

I'd not bet on any outcome. The liquidation of Rangers as we know them I fully expect.


I'm still not sure.

We will get a brutal period of briefing, counter-briefing and hysteria as the SPL make a decision on which the lives of some clubs - not just Rangers - could depend.

After that I think it's now more likely - but miles away from being absolutely certain - that we'll see a new Rangers starting up from scratch in the Third Division.

But I'm guessing.

Another week on and we're still just following as Rangers continue their journey into the unknown.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

SPL: Reach for the Sky

Some interesting discussions today around the SPL TV deal.

Would the rest of the clubs vote with their bank accounts and go easy on Rangers to preserve their income from Sky and ESPN?

Perhaps. Or so some of us thought.

One of the reasons we thought that was because we we were told:

"But it has never been feasible to have 16, 18 or 20 because you automatically mean going to one home game and one away. We think that will take £20m per season out of Scottish football in terms of lost gate and TV revenue.

"One of the conditions of this deal — as with all major sponsorships — is that Celtic and Rangers remain in the league. It is also a condition that they play each other four times a season. That’s been with us for the entirety of the current deal and before that with Setanta."

"There is no room to manoeuvre in terms of expanding. Fourteen teams might potentially work in terms of having a split league and retaining four Old firm games. Maybe. That would be feasible."

These quotes are from Neil Doncaster in November 2011.

That's Neil Doncaster, SPL chief executive. Someone who you might expect to know the details of such a deal.

Yesterday we were told:

"The current contract, which comes to an end this season, says Rangers and Celtic must play each other four times a season. That’s in line with most of our large contracts – our title sponsors are the same. That’s no different from any other league with its biggest clubs.

"What will be in the next contract from the summer to be seen. You do a deal originally in a short-form agreement and then the long-form agreement follows that later on.

Who told us this?

Why, it's Neil Doncaster, SPL chief executive. Someone who you might expect to know the details of such a deal.

The more hysterical among us have been happily chirping about the lies and myths propagated by the mainstream media.

There might be horses in the mainstream media. But on this occasion they were led to the water and forced to drink.

My view:

It suited Doncaster to dwell on the four game stipulation in November when he thought the biggest brickbat thrown at his deal would be the way it rode roughshod over dreams of an SPL expansion.

In March, now that he's been dragged kicking and screaming into the current crisis at Rangers, he's had to change tact.

He doesn't know where this will end up but he's got to try and protect the league as best he can while dealing with gargantuan mismanagement at best and over a decade of cheating at worst.

"You do a deal originally in a short-form agreement and then the long-form agreement follows that later on."

The long and the short of it? How binding is the "short-form agreement". What wriggle room will Sky have - and I suspect they'd want to wriggle right out of the room - in negotiating the details of the "long-form agreement."

We still don't know.

What Doncaster - and the clubs - will know is that viewing figures, when you drill down beyond the headline figures the SPL like to spout and look at audience profiles in the way TV executives and media buyers need to do, suggest that the SPL product isn't all that attractive. With or without four Old Firm games a season.

Does that mean the SPL becomes the Rangers Preservation League. Maybe, maybe not. But whatever Doncaster said yesterday it will remain a consideration for some clubs.

Here's another Doncaster quote:

"What will happen in the future? I never predict anything in football."

He displayed his true talent yesterday. He spoke and he spoke but he really said nothing at all.


Daily Telegraph
Daily Record
The Guardian

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