Friday, March 23, 2012

SPL: Civil jaw-jaw

"It's not potential civil war. It's on."

So threatened an unnamed SPL chairman on Wednesday.

The spark of our latest top flight conflagration is a move by the SPL's non-Old Firm teams to flex their muscles.

They want changes to the leagues voting structure which, with an 11-1 mechanism kicking in on certain issues, has long been seen by many as a way of allowing the Old Firm to exert a degree of control over the rest of the clubs.

With Rangers currently stricken, the remaining clubs are also pushing for a more even distribution of revenues and the creation of an SPL2 to act as a safety mat for relegated clubs.

Apparently this hasn't gone down too well at Celtic.

Their chief executive Peter Lawell is quoted as describing the non-Glasgow cartel as "potentially divisive," saying:

"We were disappointed and we feel it disrespectful that what Celtic and Rangers bring to the game that we were excluded, having spent nearly two years and a lot of time helping to develop a strategy."

Arguably ten teams acting together and one team being unhappy while another team suffocates in a Greek-style financial crisis might be seen by some as being more democratic than divisive.

But that's not how Scottish football tends to work.And it's difficult to see how vote to abolish the 11-1 voting system would be passed, depending as it would on Celtic and Rangers being split on this. And they won't be.

When The Proclaimers ask "What do you do when minority means you?" it seems Mr Lawwell replies "go in the huff and seek succour in the company of a team I said we could live without a few weeks ago."

Intriguingly he also seems to have given us a tantalising glimpse of where Celtic might be about to head in upcoming negotiations:

"We were actually then convinced for a 14, Martin [Bain] and I, through this group because the top six would play 36 games. We would go with 14 and a top six.

"We were persuaded to go back to the ten for the greater good because the majority around the table wanted the ten. We said 10, 12 or 14, it doesn’t really matter, other than the number of games you play."

Is the hardy perennial of league reconstruction about to flower once more in the spring sunshine?

It might well be. A clever move from Lawwell if that's the case because it's sure to put the other 10 clubs on the back foot.

If they want a more even distribution of cash and power then why not go further and spread it around a 14 team league?

Largely, one suspects, the other ten clubs want the money to be shared more equally but only among themselves. All animals are created equal but some animals get to live in the SPL.

And those clubs agitating for an SPL2 would also face a dilemma. Their dream is probably two leagues of ten. A 14 team top flight would mean a minimum of 24 teams in any dual SPL structure. The share of the pie diminishes ever further.

The beauty for Celtic is that it leaves them largely unaffected in either the status quo or with two fewer games in a 14 team league. A nice bit of politicking.

All of this could very well be academic anyway, ignoring as it does the elephant in the room.

How do you solve a problem like Rangers?

The chairmen of the other 10 clubs might have found it less disrepectful than Peter Lawwell did to jettison the Ibrox administrators from a discussion on the future of the game.

But the smog of uncertainty clinging to Ibrox makes it difficult to see how long term changes can be planned while the possibility of Rangers not being in the SPL remains.

You might feel a Rangers-free SPL is a good thing, you might feel it's a bad thing. But most would probably agree that it would represent a seismic shift that would raise issues that would need to be urgently addressed.

Are the 11 clubs and Rangers' administrators set fair to address those issues at the moment?

It's unlikely that they are.

And that will probably mean that this latest SPL tit-for-tat fizzles out.

Civil war? Probably not. Just a lot of talk over a little local difficulty.


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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Enemies reunited: Jim Jefferies returns

Hibs fans aren't supposed to like Jim Jefferies.

The walking personification of Hearts, he wasn't put on this earth for us to hold him dear.

And largely we don't like him.

But there's something about Jim.

Maybe it's because, in the constantly evolving modern game, the nostalgic sight of a Wallyford curmudgeon prowling SPL technical areas will likely become ever rarer.

Maybe it's simply that, like an ageing aunt you don't particularly care for, Jim is always there for the big moments.

The most famous result in Hibs history, that Tynecastle walloping that's echoed down the decades? There was Jim playing for Hearts.

When Hibs got relegated in 1998? There was JJ delivering a Scottish Cup to Tynecastle, adding the cyanide icing to that particularly bitter sponge.

When Alex McLeish and Franck Sauzee let Hibs fans dream again? There was Jim in the Hearts dugout, looking like a basset hound chewing a mosquito.

When Hibs ran rampant against Kilmarnock at Hampden? There was a miserable Jim providing inspiration for the massed choirs.

If nothing else Jim has been a totem, a rallying point for our ridicule and our wrath. And there's always a certain comfort in such constants.

The relationship might have changed of late. At half time during Sunday's derby, after the latest insipid display in Hibernian's comatose season, I was treated to some fine invective about the trick Hibs had missed in plumping for Pat Fenlon instead of Jefferies when Colin Calderwood took his leave.

That's very far from being a majority view. But a minority, in Sunday's case a vocal minority with a vocabulary that would make Dave Allen blush, saw him as the best man to do a short term job in another moment of Leith crisis.

Hibs chose a different path. Jumping from the SPL managerial carousel they opted for Fenlon and gave him the dual task of plotting a long term future for a club that's been rocked by a series of botched quick fixes while at the same time finding an immediate formula to keep Hibs in the SPL.

The latter job seemed tricky but also oddly simple. Turn a team without heart into a team that could fight for points. That was never going to be easy.

Create a team that, at a bare minimum, remained a touch better off than Dunfermline. Not so difficult.

Hibs have been poor this season. Very poor. But Dunfermline's weaknesses have saved Hibs from the relegation spot. Hibs own weaknesses have, in turn, ensured Dunfermline have not been cut adrift.

The story of the bottom six was set, a last waltz between Hibs and Dunfermline.

There was, I think, a satisfaction among some at Easter Road that the winter transfer window represented a job well done. A skin of the teeth job, maybe, but enough to outlast Dunfermline.

And then patient Dunfermline finally reached the end of the line with Jim McIntyre.

No time for a novice? Send for the time served gaffer.

Enter Jim Jefferies at East End Park.

If Fenlon's immediate remit has been to stay ahead of Dunfermline so Jefferies will have been given a clear instruction: reel Hibs in.

Both managers might eye St Mirren (without a win in 2012) or Inverness (six points from 21) and ponder the benefits of spreading the relegation load.

But for now it's boiled down to Hibs v Dunfermline. To, yet again, Hibs v Jim Jefferies.

The narrative has got more interesting: the back story stuffed with history, ancient and modern. Jefferies in a survival battle with Fenlon's assistant Billy Brown, for so long the Shirlie to his Pepsi.

Enough to cause a collective shudder in Leith, enough to set moustaches trembling in the Easter Road boardroom?


Hearts fans have taken a glee that is quite unbecoming in pointing out to me that Hibs are now most certainly doomed.

Piffle. That might happen. But there are few guarantees.

Jefferies is far from universally lauded in Kilmarnock and, despite the surprise at his eventual dismissal, his record in his final few months at Hearts wasn't great.

He inherits a team that must be low on confidence, someone else's squad - a thin one at that - and players who haven't managed a home win this season.

Curing those ills won't be easy.

Can Jefferies do it?

Undoubtedly. He's a sound manager, knows what's needed in the SPL and he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think he could pull it off.

Maybe he'll be able to galvanise and cajole where McIntyre couldn't. A home game against St Mirren that looks winnable would give him the perfect start on Saturday.

Then he needs to negotiate Hearts and Dundee United before the league split. After that he'll relish the battle of the bottom six. And anything will be possible.

This is not mission impossible. The relegation battle wasn't over when Dunfermline elected to jettison McIntyre. The arrival of Jefferies will almost certainly ensure there are even more twists and turns ahead.

Two poor teams searching for enough inspiration to get them over the line.

Jim Jefferies and Hibs.

Hibs and Jim Jefferies.

It's game on yet again in this most enduring Scottish football duel.

> The Daily Mail reports this morning that Leigh Griffiths has left Hibs after sticking the heid on Pat Fenlon and punching Billy Brown. There, allegedly, is a twist and a turn right there. Surely not even Jim Jefferies is powerful enough to have that sort of influence. (Mail Online)

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

League Cup: Winners and losers

Celtic win the league cup. Quite a lot.

Kilmarnock don't win the leage cup. Not at all.

That, basically, is the backstory to a game that pitches the 14 times winners against a team that have lost on their five previous visits to the Scottish League Cup final.

This season Kilmarnock have blown hot and cold as their manager has blown mildly entertaining hot air.

Celtic are greedily eyeing up a treble and don't look like fluffing their lines.

Game over, then, before we've even begun?


I expect Celtic to win this and I'd be surprised if they don't.

But Kilmarnock can spring surprises and, as much as the side has weaknesses and Kenny Shiels is not immune to mistakes, they've got players who can compete, entertain and impress.

Dundee United showed in the initial skirmishes of their cup tie last week that there are occasions when Celtic can look rattled.

The trick when that happens is to take advantage and not do anything stupid. Dundee United failed on both counts last week. Kilmarnock would do well to learn from United's mistakes.

That's if Kilmarnock can spring a surprise. The resources at Neil Lennon's disposal and his willingness to ring the changes means he's perfectly capable of bowling the odd googly his own.

It's not fatalistic to gift Celtic the favourites tag. It's simply common sense.

Celtic are better than Kilmarnock. And they should prove that today.

They might not and that's one of the reasons that cup games can still grab our attention.

But they probably will.

Still, hope springs eternal. And for Kilmarnock there is hope in the very statistics that might appear to condemn them.

Yes, Kilmarnock have lost five league cup finals and yes, Celtic have won 14 league cup finals.

But Celtic have also lost 14 league cup finals.

If they lose a fifteenth today then Kenny Shiels will be able to conclusively prove that Celtic are actually three times worse in the Scottish League Cup than Kilmarnock are.

Or something.

Prediction: Celtic 3 v Kilmarnock 1

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