Thursday, May 10, 2012

Scottish Cup: Hibs head for the (Irish) hills

Some consternation among the fourth estate as Hibs announce that their media open day ahead of the Scottish Cup final will be held in Ireland.

An away media open day.

With budgets being squeezed across the land, sports editors might be loathe to send journalists off on a Ryanair adventure.

It is us, dear reader, who will suffer, denied the insight and access that make the build-up to the cup final so unique every year.

A void needs filled.

Fear not.

Here's exclusive filler for that very void: The Scottish Football Blog's Copy and Paste Hibs Media Guide.

Speaking at his side's training camp in Ireland, captain James McPake said:

"All the boys know the history, it will be a huge occasion but a hard game, we'd all love to win it for the fans."

From his team's luxury training base outside Dublin, on-loan striker and boyhood Hibs fan Leigh Griffiths said:

"We'd all love to win it for the fans, all the boys know the history, it will be a huge occasion but a hard game."

At the side's training camp across the Irish Sea, Lewis Stevenson, one of the true Hibs fans in Pat Fenlon's squad, said:

"It will be a huge occasion but a hard game, we'd all love to win it for the fans, all the boys know the history."

Masterminding Hibs' final challenge from a luxury base in Ireland, manager Pat Fenlon said:

"The fans all know the history, all the boys know it will be a huge but hard occasion, we'd love to win it."

Billy Brown, Fenlon's assistant who started the season with cup final opponents Hearts, speaking at the side's Irish training camp, said:

"The fans and the boys all know the history, obviously for me there's even more recent history as well. But that's football and there's a job to do here.

"The occasion will be both huge and hard but I'd love to see us win it for both the boys and the fans."

Me? I'd quite happily hibernate until 3pm on Saturday 19th May.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Rangers: Miller's tale leaves SPL adrift

"It's Miller time."

If I had a pound for every time I've heard that since Tennessean truck tycoon Bill Miller was confirmed as the preferred bidder for Rangers I'd...

Well, I'd have a sizeable amount of money and I wouldn't even consider piling it all into a wager that Rangers will now avoid liquidation.

It turns out that Miller time is no time at all. Just days separated the announcement that his bid had found favour and the announcement that he was, after all, not going to bother.

Reasons? That he cited the treatment he received from Rangers fans might have brought a wry smile to the faces of those who have felt that, in recent weeks, certain supporters have taken an unjustly scatter-gun approach to spreading the blame for this financial farce.

My exposure to the tow truck industry in the United States is limited. I imagine, however, it breeds a deal of earthy characters. The sort of chaps that might not take too kindly to Miller's profits through austerity business model.

I'm unconvinced that even advancing years will have turned him into the shrinking violet that his statement hinted at. In which case one must conclude either a degree of insincerity at play or such a level of abuse from fans that some supporters are themselves are an obstacle to finding a saviour. Prudence should dictate that the more bombastic supporters are now encouraged to shut up.

Perhaps more telling was the suggestion that he'd swallowed the false optimism of administrators Duff & Phelps only to discover that reality was somewhat harsher.

The legacy of years of mismanagement combined with a ban on European participation, as yet unknown domestic sanctions and the possibility that his hybrid newco and liquidation by any other name scheme wouldn't stop the demands from creditors.

It all added up to more than - an admittedly naive - Miller either had or was willing to risk.

So he was gone. Turns out his unconditional bid had a secret condition attached after all: if the mess was bigger than he thought he could bugger off with indecent haste.

And Rangers, it appears, are no closer to a resolution than they were when the administrators were appointed back in February.

Not that Paul Clark and David Whitehouse of Duff & Phelps are likely to admit that.

Like a happily drunken Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee the pair of them have somehow conjured up three new bidders over the bank holiday weekend, a weekend when they were apparently working on Miller's bid.

Who these mysterious people are we don't yet know. It's expected that Paul Murray and Brian Kennedy's Blue Knights will climb once more onto their trusty steeds.

Will they have found the money now that they didn't have last week?

Certainly they don't seem to have the ability to pull off a CVA in the traditional way, a route that the administrators announced as closed last week.

Are we to accept that the three bidders have heard Miller's reasons for turning his back on the deal and not questioned just what it is they will find when they begin their own due diligence?

And what comfort should fans take from the suggestion that one of these bids comes close to matching Miller's bid just hours after Miller has let it be known that his own offer wasn't enough to carry out the necessary salvage work.

Duff & Phelps-land seems like a jolly pleasant place to be but there is an increasing wariness about its apparent disconnect from reality.

There's a risk, given the exposure we've all had to this sorry saga over the past few months, that laymen start pontificating like experts.

I'm a layman. My non-expert opinion is that Rangers are now doomed.

Liquidation seems a racing certainty. The whens, ifs and buts of that will be dictated by the timing of contract deadlines and by how jumpy the creditors are getting at the unerring ability of Duff and Phelps to bring further disharmony where there is already plentiful discord.

There might yet be further grenades ready to explode. The big tax case, the second contract stramash, the next move of Craig Whyte, a police investigation.

I'm not sure how a route to survival can be navigated through that lot. I'm not sure that pleading mitigation because football is a strange industry and Rangers are a special case can really work much longer.

I'm not sure where any good fortune is going to come from.

Certainly the clock seems to be ticking. If Miller's claims of earning limitations and legacy expenses are true then each day makes things worse.

And since Valentine's Day - maybe even over the course of the last decade - nobody has arrived on the scene with clout, the determination or the wit to save the situation.

The window for last gasp heroics is getting ever smaller.

Throughout it all the fans remain helpless, agog like the rest of us as the club awaits its fate.

The other SPL clubs and the SFA are also left to watch from the sidelines.

It seems that representatives of the SPL did get drawn into hypothetical discussions with Bill Miller over the future.

Hypothetical discussions with a hypothetical owner.

That was a misjudgement that shouldn't be repeated with any other potential buyers.

SPL football needs to kick off next season with or without Rangers. Contingency plans for every eventuality need to be put in place.

Neither the administrators nor any future owner are in a position to dictate the terms of those plans, the crisis has now stretched on too long for that, the club is too stricken and too many unanswered questions remain.

Shutting their eyes and hoping it all blows over is no longer an option for the league.

Someone has to take responsibility for planning the future. Rangers will just need to fit into those plans when and if they're ready to do so.

How can the SPL grab the initiative?

Given the cack-handedness of the last few weeks it won't be easy.

Here's an idea though: if we've been taught anything by this imbroglio it is that the SPL experiment has been completely flawed.

It's delivered our clubs not into riches but into a state of beholden servitude, prostrate at the feet of their TV or Glasgow masters.

So kill the league.

Vote it out of existence. Tighten belts, swallow pride and return to the SFL fold.

Give every Scottish senior club a chance to shape the future. And, a convenient benefit this, let every club shoulder the collective responsibility of deciding just what to do with a problem like Rangers.

A single structure would also increase the options for negotiating the entry of what is increasingly looking like a Rangers newco into the league structure.

It would be an odd irony if the SPL's Neil Doncaster was the first redundancy of Rangers' collapse. It might console him that he would likely not be the last.

For an organisation so adept at snatching humiliation from the jaws of defeat this would be a dramatic move but an audacious suicide pact might just allow them to salvage enough respect to give the game some sort of positive future.

It's unlikely to happen.

But five years ago many people would have thought it unlikely that Rangers would today stand on the brink, the possibility of the gates being locked at Ibrox looming ever larger.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Hibs: Another second chance

It's a strange one: sticking around at a stadium to greet like heroes a squad that has just escaped from the struggle of their lives.

Pat Fenlon called last night's acclaim for his Hibs team "embarrassing," stressing that this was more an opportunity to thank the fans rather than an occasion of unadulterated joy.

Football inspires daftness though. And a season long struggle with inadequacy, an inability to plot safe passage through the bog of relegation, can drive a supporter mad.

Last night, then, was a howl of relief as much as anything. Supporters thankful for the escape, thankful to finally have a reason to celebrate.

It took Hibs until their last home game to record a second home league victory, to attract their highest crowd of the season, to deliver a performance that the fans could really respond to and finally finish off the lingering threat of Dunfermline.

Until the last home game of the season, in fact, to offer up any sort of evidence that fans weren’t completely demented to put their faith in the team.

Not just blind faith either. Season tickets might have broken down to as much as £31 per home point and £23.82 per home goal. With kick off times ever more unpredictable, that’s a hefty price to pay for doom and gloom with only sporadic outbursts of football.

Fenlon has had his struggles since inheriting Colin Calderwood’s listing ship. His search for a first home league win went to the wire.

He’ll have been heartened that those three points were won thanks to an impressive team display. Six of the his starting eleven and two of his substitutes have arrived at Easter Road since his first game in December. At the last, his team finally came together.

It’s not been the most rapid of quick fixes but the club was in disarray when he took over. And he has, as he said he would, got the job done.

For that achievement to be truly worthwhile the cycle of loan deals and January window signing sprees has to be broken.

Last season a good February was enough to save Hibs from a prolonged relegation battle.

This season they have not even enjoyed that sort of purple patch. One good month in two seasons is a poor return.

Last summer was defined not by the root and branch rebuilding job that was required but by an obstinate board standing by a disconnected manager.

With the guardian of football matters and the guardians of the purse strings both distracted Hibs drifted aimlessly into the new season.

It took until last night to free them from the obvious consequences of that mismanagement.

They can't afford a repeat.

This summer needs sensible, competitive investment in the team. A reinvigorated scouting policy. The fabled but faded conveyor belt of young talent chugging back into life.

The sort of sound management of footballing matters that has somehow eluded Hibs of late.

A permanent deal for on-loan captain James McPake would be a fine starting point. A show of ambition, a symbol of determination, a sound building block for both the immediate future and a signing to develop a team around in the long term.

It would also be a far more meaningful "thank you" to the fans than a lap of honour in the immediate aftermath of a win over the SPL's bottom club.

Fenlon has a part to play. Some fans still need to be convinced that he's the right man for the job. More perhaps are happy to give him the benefit of the doubt, impressed with his commitment and his desire to put right the wrongs of the past.

He can't do that alone. There are others at the club who have survived managerial changes and presided over the general decline into this malaise.

They've made plenty of mistakes. This summer must surely be their last chance to show that lessons have been learned.

Last night showed that the fans will respond to meaningful games and will react to fine performances.

They shouldn't have to wait until the last home game of the season with SPL survival on the line to prove it.

Of course the landscape might change yet again. Somehow this patchwork team, so often frustrating in the league, find themselves on the brink of the club's biggest ever game.

The Scottish Cup final against Hearts draws ever closer.

A victory there would create legends, make history.

But it wouldn't hugely change the summer's priorities.

A Hampden win would be a hell of a success, one I can hardly begin to comprehend.

Another summer of failures, however, would render it a solitary one.

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