Saturday, March 17, 2012

SPL: Capital gains

Moan out of the way first: I'm not sure Scottish football is playing to those strengths it still has by scheduling a cup final and an Edinburgh derby on the same day.

But that's just the way it is.

So we get on with it.

Before the blood pressure starts to rise in Auld Reekie, Saturday sees an abbreviated SPL schedule.

Rangers, still actually a football club with fixtures to fulfil rather than just a business basketcase, travel to Tannadice.

It's a fortnight now since Hearts overcame a half time deficit to beat Rangers at Ibrox.

How will the squad have reacted since then? It's difficult to say. What we do know is that this was far from a vintage Rangers side before the off the pitch implosion. The financial collapse looks to have weakened them further.

That's why Dundee United's odds have been shortened and why many people will fancy them to enjoy back-to-back wins over Rangers for the first time in a decade.

The outcome will be pored over by those looking to gauge the extent of Rangers footballing decline and by those waiting to see if the champions will be beaten to second place by Motherwell.

If United can win and Motherwell can beat Aberdeen then Stuart McCall's team will be level with Rangers on points, although trailing by a massive goal difference discrepancy.

Strange times these, on and off the pitch. Chastened but defiant in their defeat to Celtic last week, I'd not be surprised to see a bullish United performance tomorrow.

Do Rangers have the spirit left to match them?

They certainly look they might struggle at the back. Dorin Goian, Carlos Bocanegra, Steven Whittaker, Kyle Bartley, Kirk Broadfoot and Sasa Papac are all missing. Finding a defence looks like being yet another headache for Ally McCoist.

For their part Motherwell couldn't beat Aberdeen in the cup last week as Mr Brown's boys continued their thrawn 2012 unbeaten record.

Christmas Eve was the last time Aberdeen tasted defeat. Last week they showed that they have some ruthlessness as well as a commendable obstinancy. This now is very much the team that Craig Brown built.

Second place within Motherwell's grasp and the top six not completely beyond Aberdeen. This could be another interesting game at Fir Park.

Finally today, all the saints go marching on Paisley as St Mirren host St Johnstone.

Seven of St Mirren's last eight games have been drawn. That makes St Johnstone's effort in drawing three of their last six look like a fairly pathetic attempt to steal the crown of league stalemate specialists.

It also suggests that the two sides fighting out a draw wouldn't surprise many people.

And so we move on to Sunday.

It's been so long ago since Hibs beat Hearts that I can't even remember who the victorious manager was that day.

No, no. I jest. It was me old mucker Mixu Paatelainen back in May 2009.

There's been little joy for Hibs in these games since then. There's been little joy for Hibs at all since then.

Ahead of this game I hear that Hearts are the more experienced derby team, that they're determined to complete a derby clean sweep this season (there might be another game if Hearts don't qualify for the top six), that they have played better when the players haven't been paid.

So the result should be a foregone conclusion.

It might well be. I don't predict such things anymore.

Hibs are improving and they have better players. They're certainly a very different proposition now: of the team that I expect Pat Fenlon to field only four starters from the New Year defeat at Easter Road will remain.

Do the new players understand the significance of the fixture? That question seems to make a supposition: that the old players did understand the significance of the game.

Fat lot of good it did them.

But these players will know. They don't live in complete isolation and there remains Hibs fans in and around the squad. I surmise that Fenlon - no stranger to local grudge matches in his career - has also come through a crash course in the history of Hibs.

Does any of that matter? It might be a completely unquantifiable variable, although it is one that offers succour to the fans.

Hibs mini revival has coincided with fluctuations in Hearts' form. That means the two sides actually have similar recent records despite a 16 point gap quite correctly illustrating their different fortunes across the season.

Hearts still look to me to have more match winners at their disposal. But that might make a victorious team effort all the sweeter for Hibs. It could be a close one.

Someone will win and gloat and dance and be merry and crack unfunny jokes about the losers who will in turn moan and cry and drink and then start singing again.

Unless it's a draw. Then Hearts will sing and dance and gloat about ten games undefeated and Hibs will sing and dance and think "at least the buggers didn't beat us."

And so, winners or losers, the circle of capital football life will continue.

Like this? Like the Scottish Football Blog on Facebook.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rangers: The questions continue

The now traditional Thursday night Rangers post.

Have we moved on? Or are we descending further into farce?

Nodody seems to know exactly what's happening. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. But who actually owns the asylum? And will another group of lunatics be happy to take over in the next few weeks?

We've even discovered that a legal glitch means Rangers might not actually have been in administration after all.

Ticketus and the adminstrators are arguing in court over money at the same time as Ticketus are publicly backing the consortium led by Blue Knight Paul Murray.

HMRC continue to circle with a grim determination. They won't go away.

Craig Whyte is gone for now, but is surely not yet the irrelevance the administrators are trying to paint him as.

Brian Kennedy, owner of rugby's Sale Sharks, one time suitor of Hibs and Stockport County's bĂȘte noire, has said he'll reluctantly buy Rangers if nobody else will.

That's the sort of commitment you get from the vicar at a parish jumble sale when trade is slow at the cake stall.

It's not, perhaps, the kind of commitment you want from the potential saviour of a stricken company.

Send in the clowns.

Or, following an email error with the launch of a new fans fund, send the clowns your money.

Another week and it's still a mess. The prospect of a quick resolution looks ever further away.

The longer it drags on the more important questions about the future go unanswered. And the more uncertain that future looks for Rangers.

The SPL seem to think announcing an investigation has bought them the right to stay silent.

They'll need to start speaking soon.

Maybe chief executive Neil Doncaster could share his past experiences of financial uncertainty. Like the time he was on the English Football League board that allowed the Leeds United phoenix company to keep their league place.

My uncharitable impression is that Doncaster is an expert in few things. But this is one of his specialist subjects: why isn't he sharing?

Across the Hampden corridor the SFA, fresh from the less than surprising discovery that Craig Whyte had shown their fit and proper person procedures to be unfit and improper, have announced a range of charges against both Whyte and the club.

Whyte is accused of breaching two disciplinary rules while Rangers face five accusations.

Fines, suspensions and expulsion could all be on the table when a Judicial Panel meets on 29th March.

At the same time the SFA have found themselves dragged into the mess thanks to president Campbell Ogilivie's previous involvement at Ibrox.

Well, stone the crows! Who on earth would have predicted that Ogilvie's career history would soon embroil the SFA in this whole sorry mess?

As I said the other week, Ogilvie might be totally innocent of any wrongdoing - Rangers, we should remember, have not yet been found guilty in the "big tax case" - and that means any hounding he has had or is set to suffer in the future could be grossly unfair.

But perception counts for a lot. And perceptions are currently tarnishing him.

Crucially that means the SFA, who should be providing leadership in this situation, look to be suffering yet another lame duck presidency. One that allegedly forced someone in the organisation to call an award winning Channel 4 journalist "pig headed" and accuse him of "lying" this week.

I'm one of those hardy souls who'll say that the SFA have done some good work in the past few months. The Ogilvie controversy will put that at risk.

Politicians are often forced to resign and fight to clear their names outside the cabinet. Ogilvie will do more harm than good if he chooses to try and clear his while wearing an SFA blazer.

Chick Young pointed out during the week that Ogilvie gave up a well paid job at Hearts to take on this unpaid labour of love at Hampden. That, we were left to infer, is how much he cares about Scottish football.

If he really cared he wouldn't want to see the SFA compromised by his continued presence. Innocent people were always going to suffer in this affair, Ogilvie at least has it in his power to reduce some of the damage to the game.

Did someone mention Chick Young?

Ah, Chick. On Tuesday night Chick used Radio Scotland's Sportsound to defend Ogilvie. Defend him as if his life depended on it.

An SFA statement the next day quite comprehensively contradicted the gospel according to Chick.

That's not unusual.

For Chick the story of Rangers and their administration has been a tour de force in wrongness, an era defining performance in barking up the wrong tree.

Maybe it's time the BBC did some liquidating of their own.


Like this? Like the Scottish Football Blog on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fixtures and flittings

Update: By the season's end Hibs will have endured 16 different kick off times. Here's a fresher look at the situation from 4th April - Hibs: That's Fife

Confirmation that Hibs and Aberdeen will contest the Scottish Cup semi final at 12.15 on Saturday 14th April brought forth a predictable reaction.

Another chance to join the gnashing of teeth over badly chosen kick off times for semi finals. And should we really be playing this game at Hampden anyway?

Such complaints are now traditions, entwined with the venerable trophy.

Agree with them or not, it's a Scottish Cup semi final. (Some) people would go if it was played on a wet Wednesday morning at the Basingstoke Bowl.

The resurfacing of this annual argy-bargy did get me thinking though: Hibs face five different kick off times in their next five games.

At the end of that run they will, by my reckoning, have kicked off at 13 different times this season.


Unlucky for some.

Here's the dirty baker's dozen:
  • Tuesday - 7.45 pm
  • Wednesday - 7.15 pm
  • Wednesday - 7.45 pm
  • Friday - 7.45 pm
  • Saturday - 12.15 pm
  • Saturday - 12.30 pm
  • Saturday - 1.30 pm
  • Saturday - 3 pm
  • Sunday - 12 pm
  • Sunday - 12.15 pm
  • Sunday - 12.30 pm
  • Sunday - 3 pm
  • Sunday - 3.45 pm
I'm sure supporters of other SPL clubs will have similar tales of woe.

There are many reasons why crowds at Easter Road have been dwindling in recent seasons.

Build all the nice facilities your prudent housekeeping will stretch to but you still need to give people something half decent to watch when they're there.

Hibs have failed the fit and proper person test for football's crucial raison d'etre: they've been a bit rubbish at playing football.

But the scheduling can't help.

Supporting a football team can be a labour of love and it can be a financial drain.

It can also be a habit. A habit that, once broken, might never return.

So why are we making it so difficult for supporters to support their clubs?

Lives are getting busier. There's a world of competition for the leisure time of a populace that is quite unrecognisable to the one that powered Scottish football's post Second World War boom.

Yet the scheduling of home games in the SPL is all over the place. Away games have become a test of endurance for those with time and cash to spare.

That can't be right.

Football, we're told, is a business now. Businesses shouldn't treat consumers like this and expect to thrive.

TV is the major culprit. I think most of us now accept that we can't roll back the influence of the broadcasters.

But even here Scotland looks to be losing out. We don't have the consistency of coverage that we need to build our brand.

Treated like filler, thought of as filler. And given no platform to grow.

We're the Diagnosis Murder of TV football. We might never be a Sherlock or a Downton Abbey. But it would be nice to try and prove ourselves as a Countryfile or a One Show.

Instead we've got TV deals that don't really deliver the way it should but which dictates a schedule that sickens fans.

So, as the fans lose out, Scottish football proudly straddles the worst of both worlds.

That has to change.

Like this? Like the Scottish Football Blog on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

UEFA: TV or not TV

Remember this:

"Old Firm fans last night reacted furiously after the SPL scheduled 6pm midweek kick-offs away to St Johnstone for both Rangers and Celtic."

Furious they were.

Or this:

"UEFA have robbed St Johnstone and Hearts of a £165,000 windfall after refusing to allow their Scottish Cup replay to be shown live on TV next Thursday.

"They told the SFA they would not allow Sky coverage because it clashed with European ties and the game will now go ahead in its original Tuesday night slot."

Totally robbed.

The scenario: last season Rangers and Celtic had to play midweek away games at teatime to satisfy both the SPL's TV deal and UEFA's  rule that no televised game can threaten the purity of the Champions League.

This season St Johnstone and Hearts were denied a TV bonanza because it was decided that their Scottish Cup replay could have threatened to purity of the Europa League.

We need, I think, to stop chuckling at the idea of UEFA's current strumpetish tournaments having any purity and ask what games through yonder European window breaks?

Last week the Arsenal and Barcelona stages of the painfully elongated Champions League "round of 16" were subjected to stubborn competition from Chelsea and Tottenham in the English FA Cup.

Today Inter v Marseille and Bayern v Basel will run the risk of 1970s style devaluation in the face of a Merseyside derby.

It seems odd.

St Johnstone v Rangers could damage the Champions League.

St Johnstone v Hearts could cripple the Europa League.

But Birmingham v Chelsea and Liverpool v Everton wouldn't harm a UEFA fly.


A number of people were pondering this perplexing UEFA peccadillo last week. It seemed to leave even the SFA and their chief executive, Stewart Regan, bemused.

An exasperated Laurie Dunsire over on Scottish Football Forums was forced to ask: "Do UEFA care about football?"

Maybe Laurie asked the wrong question:

"Do UEFA care about Scottish football?"

"No, couldn't give a flying fig."

That's just my opinion though. Right of reply is important.

Here's the answer I got when I asked the question of UEFA:

"In general top division matches cannot be on International Match Calendar dates, but exceptions are possible.

"There is a Memorandum of Understanding signed between UEFA and the EPFL (European Professional Football Leagues) which is also a basis for all national associations on the procedures and circumstances of use of UEFA dates.

"In this Memorandum the parties agree to abstain from jointly organising any supra-national sporting competitions, tournaments or football matches, and, with regard to the domestic league competitions, to respect the International Match Calendar and to ensure that all its member leagues abstain from scheduling matches in dates which are reserved for UEFA club competition matches in accordance with the official published UEFA Match Calendar, unless exceptional circumstances so justify and it is agreed with UEFA on a case-by-case basis following discussion of potential issues in specific working meetings to be held between UEFA and EPFL.

"UEFA has as well issued three circular letters to all national associations stating the procedure for exceptions due to force majeure."

What conclusions to draw from that?

Certainly I have a raging desire to see the term "Memorandum of Understanding" forcibly ejected from the language.

And I'm inclined to think that any answer containing a 100-plus word sentence is deliberately searching for obfuscation.

More particularly:

"Top division" and "domestic league competitions" would suggest that the televised Chelsea and Spurs games last week were, as cup games, actually perfectly acceptable under the terms of the UEFA agreement.

Does that mean the SFA made an assumption - wrongly - and didn't even ask the question of UEFA when considering the St Johnstone v Hearts game?

Surely not.

That doesn't explain why Liverpool v Everton is free to go ahead tonight.

"Force majeure" covers many an ill but an unpredictable Scottish winter, the reason for last season's early kick-offs, would seem to be a stronger negotiating hand than one of the Liverpool teams reaching the Carling Cup final, the reason for tonight's clash with the Champions League.

There's a chance that the authorities in England, more powerful and cash rich than their Scottish counterparts, just thought "hang it, we'll make more cash from these games than UEFA's going to fine us."

Or maybe I'm just being cynical.

It does seem that there is, for whatever reason, a double standard at play.

Predictably enough it looks like Scotland is losing out somewhere along the line.


Like this? Like the Scottish Football Blog on Facebook.