Saturday, May 19, 2012

Champions League: The result

What snivelling wretches we have running football.

Michel Platini and his Eurocrat acolytes make our own dear Neil Doncaster look heroic.

When it's clear that the eyes of global football should be focused on El Broon Sauce Clásico at Hampden, they attempt to divert football lovers the world over with a sideshow in Munich.

The Champions League final. Pfft. A mere sapling of a game compared to the stately oak of a match taking place in Glasgow.

Who exactly are Bayern Munich and Chelsea when Hibs and Hearts are battling it out in the game of the century? They're nobody.

Anywhere here's a tip to remember as you browse your sportsbook review and decide where best to place your money.

Bayern Munich will beat Chelsea. They will beat them 2-0 and Chelsea will be absolutely raging at the result.

This game, and this will save you bother of watching so by all means just go and get steaming after the final whistle blows at Hampden, has been played out before.

For Chelsea read Leeds. For 2012 read 1975. For Champions League read the European Cup (a proper tournament that.)

Chelsea have an ageing squad. Check.

Chelsea hire a young manager who's enjoyed success elsewhere. Check.

Chelsea's ageing squad don't like young manager. Check.

Chelsea's ageing squad force young manager out. Check.

Chelsea replace young manager with manager who's enjoyed some success with an unheralded side. Check.

Chelsea progress through Europe's premier competition. Check.

Chelsea beat Barcelona in European semi final. Check.

Chelsea lose controversially to Bayern Munich in European final. Get a bet on.

The damned Chelsea? Written in the stars.

I mentioned this on The Footy Pod between the first and second legs of the semi final and I've been proved right so far.

And Jonathan Wilson put far more meat on the bones of the theory than I ever could for The Guardian.

Fill your boots.*

*Scottish Football Blog predictions often crash and burn.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Scottish Cup: Hibs for the cup?

Time, I think, to take Rudyard Kipling's advice about triumph and disaster and fling it in the Water of Leith.

Those two impostors are the only things up for grabs at Hampden tomorrow.

The ultimate triumph. The ultimate disaster.

An all Edinburgh Scottish Cup final. The first for 116 years. Games don't come bigger for these two clubs. They might never have a bigger game.

Good luck to any fan of either team who manages to greet victory or defeat just the same.

Less than 24 hours to go now.

I've spent the week talking about this blasted game, it's been impossible to escape, a date with destiny looming ever closer on the horizon.

The dull ache of Hibs' hopeless history in this dear old tournaments has been replaced, as the days and hours have been counted down, with a gut wrenching desire to seem them finally bloody win it.

Not, I think, a gut wrenching desire to avoid defeat nor a gut wrenching fear of defeat.

Just the thrilling thought that seeing the trophy come down Easter Road could be so close.

So close. But still so far. It's the waiting that is so agonising.

How do I feel?

A bit nervous, a bit caught up in the whirlwind that the game has created, a bit scared, a bit confident, sort of looking forward to it, sort of dreading it.

Emotional at times too, for the friends who won't be there tomorrow who would have relished every minute of this, who would have danced for joy just seeing Hibs on the cusp of something this special.

Their memory marches on.

Can Hibs win?


That's not to say they will.

But they can.

Hearts have better players at their disposal, they've dominated this season's derbies and Hibs have failed to land a punch on them in over three years.

Hearts have a mentality in these games that is admirable. Pat Fenlon upset some by talking about them "bullying" Hibs.

An unfortunate word to use but I understand his point. In recent clashes Hearts have taken to the field with an assured self-belief, they've approached the games thinking that they will dominate. And dominate they most surely have.

There isn't any real reason to suppose that will change tomorrow. But Hibs have slowly shown some improvement, gradually developed a cohesion. A brittle recovery for sure but a recovery nonetheless.

League positions point to the story of the season. An average year for Hearts punctuated by some fine performances. An instantly forgettable season for Hibs punctuated by some genuine relegation worries.

A divergence in the SPL for sure, but less marked than the one Kilmarnock scaled in the League Cup final. Less, even, than the gap Hearts leapt in their semi final win over Celtic.

Hibs need to produce the performance of their season, they need to hope that Hearts aren't quite on their game.

But Hampden's seen upsets this year.

Anything can happen.

Who do you fear the most?

I fear a collective. Or rather a couple of collectives.

Hearts' midfield and Hibs' midfield.

If Ian Black can control the game and Rudi Skacel finds freedom to roam lazily before pouncing with lethal intent then Hibs are surely doomed.

I suspect the Hibs midfield will be Stevenson, Claros, Osbourne and Soares.

What games they need to have. Stevenson needs confidence and belief, Claros needs to show he now "gets" the Scottish game, Osbourne needs 90 minutes of concentration, Soares needs to shrug off his lapses into laziness.

Still that might not be enough, but they've at least got to make a game of it.

It's the middle of the park or bust.

Is Pat Fenlon up to the job?

A question that's cropped up from Hibs fans and from supporters of other clubs. People seem unconvinced.

I honestly don't know. He's impressed me at times and he's disappointed me at times.

As I pointed out before the semi final against Aberdeen when he came head to head with Craig Brown, Fenlon has experience of getting the job done in the closing stages of tournaments.

Transferable skills that have made the hop across the Irish Sea?

We'll need to wait and see.

I like him and I think he'll be good for Hibs in the long term.

If he pulls off a win tomorrow I would happily marry him.

How big is this game for Hibs?

Absolutely massive, insanely huge.

More than a derby because it's a Scottish Cup final. More than a Scottish Cup final because it's a derby.

A green and white crackerjack.

If Pat Fenlon has managed to play that down among the players then good on him.

But there's no point in the fans trying to do the same.

Walk around Leith tonight, chat to the fans from Australia, America, Norway, Belgium and the rest.

Spend some time in the company of Jimmy O'Rourke, Paul Kane or Lawrie Reilly.

It won't take you long to realise what a spectacle this is, what it means to so many people.

Something no living person has ever seen before.

Monumentally big.

Has fate decided this is Hibs' year?

I suppose that depends if you believe in fate.

I'd say no. Fate hasn't decided against Hibs every other year in this decades long wait either.

They've just not been good enough. Not good enough even, agonisingly, in the seasons when you might have expected them to be more than good enough.

Conversely, of course, a team that is to all intents and purposes not good enough now have a chance to show that they are, in fact, good enough on the day.

A funny game, football. But not one decided by twists of fate or a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazonian jungle.

How will you feel?

I'll feel miserable sitting on the bus to Hampden. I always do.

I'll feel appreciative of being there for all of five minutes then I'll fret and worry and curse the smoking ban and try to make secret trades with those same gods of fate that I don't even believe in.

If Hibs lose?

I'll be beside myself, gutted, a pitiful shell of a man.

Then I'll recover.

I'll hear a million jokes cracked at my team's expense and I'll get the usual stick on Twitter. I'll have a few pints, sing a few songs, and the world will keep on turning.

It will be horribly impossible to forget but I'll move on.

If Hibs win?

Ah, if Hibs win...

It's difficult to know. The longing for this trophy has lasted so long, the pain caused by 110 years of misery being laid to rest against the auldest of enemies would bring such relief and such euphoria that I find it hard to even imagine the feeling.

There will be tears. They'll come in victory but not in defeat. Defeats happen and it's best to learn to cope with them.

But this could be a victory that I never thought I'd see: Hibs can make me cry at Hampden tomorrow but Hearts can't.

Tears of joy, disbelieving tears that would greet the final whistle and flow through Sunshine on Leith. They might actually flow all the way along the M8.

Sharing that moment, a moment that has been the collective will of all Hibs fan for so long, with good mates, perfect strangers and my brother.

It would be a special, special feeling.

Who'll win?

I steer clear of predictions before games like this. The more people that tell me they think Hibs will win, the less I want to hear it.

What will be will either painfully or gloriously be.

A hard game. Nervy, jittery, disjointed and frantic to begin with. It will be crucial to see who emerges from that opening period the stronger.

The bookies say Hearts are favourites. The bookies are right.

History to beat, form to beat, a better team to beat.

After 110 years Hibs were always going to have to do this the hard way.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Scottish Cup: Hearts and soul

The end of a 116 year wait draws ever closer. Hearts, Hibs and the Scottish Cup final. Excitement is growing, nerves are jangling.

I'm delighted to welcome Laurie Dunsire back to the blog to give a Hearts fan's view of why the stakes are so high and why this is a game that will mean so much to families across Edinburgh and beyond.

Nothing is preordained. So who will have the last laugh?

If the climactic closing weekend of the English Premier League taught us anything, it's that football can offer more twists and turns, more dramatic endings and more far fetched tales of glory than any Hollywood script could ever dream of.

As the respective league campaigns north and south of the border came to an end, the attention shifted to the Scottish Cup Final - as a Hearts supporter the biggest game of my life, and probably the biggest game in each club's history.

116 years since the two rivals met in the final of Scotland's premier cup competition, and, as we all know, 110 years since the green half of Edinburgh emerged victorious in this tournament.

As Saturday draws ever closer, both sides appear to be drawing on superstition and history to convince themselves that their team's name is already on the cup. For Hearts fans confidence is taken from our fantastic recent form against Hibs, and the fact they NEVER win the cup. Do they...?

For Hibs it would seem that all the pieces are falling into place. When they last won it, in 1902, they had an Irishman in charge. Step forward, Pat Fenlon. The clock outside the Balmoral Hotel apparently stopped in 1902, and did so again this year. Indeed, if this WAS a Hollywood script then Hibs would be the winners. Surely life would not be so cruel as to allow them to get so close to changing history, only to be denied by HEARTS. Would it...?

Life, and football, can be cruel though. But equally records are there to be broken, and no matter what has gone before, this is just 90 minutes (or 120 minutes plus penalties), and anything can happen.

I have never felt so nervous prior to a football game. I'm close to being downright terrified. This is bigger than an Old Firm final, MUCH bigger. If Rangers or Celtic lose a cup final to their greatest rivals, how long will they have to wait to avenge it? Maybe a year, possibly two at most? For Hearts and Hibs this might be the last time they'll meet in such a game. This could mean eternal bragging rights.

One thing IS clear to me. Nothing is preordained in football.

Past form goes out the window, superstition means nothing. Two teams go head to head on Saturday and until the final whistle is blown, both sides are in with a chance of glory. The stakes are high, and I'm far from confident!

There is NO name on the cup. Yet.

As a Hearts fan I often get a bit of stick for not disliking Hibs as much as I'm 'supposed to'. But, for me, the Edinburgh derby is a healthy but controlled rivalry, and although I love nothing more than spanking the other lot from down Leith way, I couldn't imagine life without them!

Maybe this respect for our greatest rivals comes from my family background, as my late grandfather, Andrew Dunsire, was a Hibs fan. In fact he regularly took my dad to see Hibs back in the 50s, during the famous five era when, many would argue, Hibs had their greatest ever team.

But, for whatever reason, my dad didn't take to Easter Road, and began sneaking off to watch Hearts instead. Eventually he came clean, and he has remained a Jambo ever since.

My dad didn't take me to see Hearts for quite a while when I was young, not until I actually became interested and asked if he would. Was it fear that I'd reject them and become a Hibs fan if he forced my interest, like he had done to his father? Probably not, but either way I followed a maroon path.

Sadly my grandfather passed away in 2003, but I do recall the last Edinburgh Derby I watched with him – on TV of course. Hibs won 2-1 at Easter Road, and my lasting memory is just his laugh as my dad and I became increasingly frustrated as Hearts pushed forward, in vain, for an equaliser.

By this point he didn't get too flustered over football, and he'd drunk a few glasses of whisky - I think he probably preferred whisky to Hibs by this stage to be honest. But maybe the cheerful chortling was just his way of enjoying a victory. Needless to say he had the last laugh on that occasion.

But he was my Grandad first and foremost, and a Hibs fan second. He would always have me round to watch the Hearts match if it was on TV, and sit and 'enjoy' it with me. Football means an awful lot to me, sometimes too much, but there are things that are more important.

That said, like any other Jambo I'll be celebrating deliriously if we win on Saturday, and I'll be contemplating ending it all there and then if we lose. This game is simply MASSIVE.

I've tried not to think about the match itself too much, as it makes me far too nervous. I can't call it at the moment. I still believe we have a stronger team than Hibs, and if we turn up on the day and perform to the best of our ability then we will prevail. But the gap isn't huge, and Hibs have shown a bit of fight recently, with McPake in particular appearing like an impressive presence at the back.

The Griffiths and O'Connor strikeforce are always going to pose a threat as well, and I certainly wouldn't bet against either of them getting on the scoresheet at some point.

But the game could be won and lost in the middle of the park, and I feel that's where we are strongest. If Ian Black can keep his head right and perform as he has done in previous derbies then he can dictate the play, and with Rudi Skacel ahead of him we can always pose a threat going forward.

There are too many ifs and buts at this stage though. It's a game that either side COULD win, but only one side WILL win.

Nothing is decided yet, the two sets of players will determine their own fate come Saturday afternoon. There will be tears, there will be laughter. Of course I hope on this occasion it is my father and I who have the last laugh, but regardless of the end result, I'll take a moment after the game to sip on a glass of whisky and remember my Grandad.

Andrew Dunsire, 1914-2003.

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Rangers: Transfer embargo stands

Another day and another twist in the ongoing Rangers saga.

Or perhaps not a twist, more a rare outbreak of consistency in an unwieldy drama.

The SFA's appellate tribunal has dismissed Rangers' appeal against the year long transfer embargo imposed by the original judicial panel.

In short, Rangers will not be allowed to sign players over the course of the next two transfer windows.


Perhaps. There was a lingering suggestion that the SFA might feel a certain pressure to reduce the punishment in the face of a backlash from inside the club and from Rangers fans.

But the likelihood of that happening seemed to diminish with the release of the original panel's report last Friday.

That was an exhaustive and ultimately damning study of a total breakdown in corporate governance. It took account of the huge role played by Craig Whyte - still, as far as we know, owner of the club and its assets - but also pointed to the failings of others.

It is companies that tend to be held accountable when there is such a complete failure of management.

The summary of today's findings suggests that the original panel were correct to decide that Rangers' failings called for a more stringent punishment than the £100,000 fine, that it was right to discuss but then decide against expulsion from the SFA and that the embargo does not represent the cataclysmic end for the club that some have predicted.

It also reiterated how seriously the SFA looks on non-payment of taxes, a hardline stance that could well be tested again depending on the eventual outcome of the "big tax case."

Rangers were represented by Richard Keen QC. We can expect he gave a strong account of the club's position, concerns and challenges regarding the original ruling.

His arguments met only with a complete rebuttal from a panel chaired by Lord Carloway, a judge who specialises in appellate hearings. A serious man with serious expertise presiding over a serious decision.

And the decision was that a competent judicial panel had decided on severe - but not the severest - punishments for instances of wrongdoing. Corporate liability meant the club would pay the price.

What next?

Rangers almost immediately issued the following statement:
An SFA independent appeals panel has this evening upheld a decision to impose a 12-month transfer embargo on the club.

Duff and Phelps, administrators of Rangers Football Club, issued the following statement tonight.

Paul Clark, joint administrator, said:

"The decision by the appellate tribunal to uphold the sanction, namely the suspension of registration of players for one year, is not competent in the view of the club and its legal advisers.

"Such a sanction was not available to the tribunal and should not have been imposed and it is the intention of the club to challenge the determination.

"The club will consider seeking review of this most disappointing decision and it is a matter of regret that the certainty and finality Rangers sought on this matter has not been achieved.

"Everyone at Rangers is bitterly disappointed and dismayed at this outcome."

Charles Green, who leads a consortium purchasing Rangers, said:

"Our group went into the purchase of the club with this sanction in place but we hoped the decision would at least be commuted.

"We fully support the club as it considers an appeal against this latest decision."

Sandy Jardine, spokesman for the Rangers Fans Fighting Fund, added:

"Rangers supporters will be shocked and bitterly disappointed by this decision and will find it hard to take that the club has been so heavily punished for the actions of individuals."
So it goes on.

Which is hardly surprising. The angst with which the club greeted the original decision suggested that the verdict of the appeal panel would be accepted only if it resulted in a complete climbdown. It's done pretty much the opposite.

The next step would seem to be to take the appeal above the SFA - a process that offers neither a speedy nor a guaranteed resolution.

Paul Clark's reading of the SFA rules is different from mine - and Lord Carloway's - if he considers that an embargo was simply not an option. By stopping short of expulsion, the maximum punishment, the panel saw fit to impose an embargo in addition to a fine. That's something that the SFA's own guidelines, ratified by all clubs last summer, allowed them to do.

Rangers search for a "certainty and finality" that suits Duff and Phelps will likely now go to either the Scottish courts or - more naturally but not definitely - FIFA or the Court for Arbitration for Sport.

Protracted, costly, uncertain. A triple whammy Rangers don't need. You'd guess that this farrago is not playing out well in the corridors of European football power. I'd also suspect that, in this case, UEFA will be frowning more on Rangers than an oddly steadfast SFA.

Certainly moving the argument into the Scottish courts will likely push all the wrong buttons at UEFA. It's for Duff and Phelps to decide how much of a gamble they want to take.

Maybe cooler heads will prevail, a decision will be made that swallowing this bitterest of pills is a quicker way of reaching the certainty needed for the club to finally begin to move forward. But don't bet on it.

Acceptance here might also leave Rangers better placed to face challenges to come, be that an unfavourable decision from the tax tribunal or further scandal from the SPL's second contracts investigation.

Again, however, I'd put no money on it. Bringing calm and order to the club has proved beyond whatever talents the administrators have. The result is a Rangers swinging wildly at every opponent, real or imagined. The danger is they'll be exhausted and yet more vulnerable as ever heavier hitters enter the ring.

From this mess, allowing still for hidden dangers lurking around dimly lit corners, Charles Green - or AN Other - must try to piece together a survival strategy.

It's not a task I envy.

He - or whoever - might end up being thankful that the appellate tribunal have at least given them a steer in the direction of the 40 or so players the club could still have at its disposal come the start of next season.

Summary of the Appellate Tribunal's verdict

The Appellate Tribunal will give its full reasons in writing in early course. However, in summary, it considers that:

1. It was competent for Disciplinary Tribunal to impose the additional sanction of prohibiting registrations of any new players of 18 years or older for a period of 12 months.

2. The Disciplinary Tribunal was correct to determine that the conduct involved - especially the deliberate non-payment of very large sums, estimated in excess of £13m of tax in the form of PAYE, NIC and VAT - was attributable to the club as a member of the Scottish FA.

3. The Disciplinary Tribunal was correct also in holding that the maximum fine available for this breach was £100,000, and on its own was inadequate as a punishment for this misconduct. It was therefore correct to select an additional sanction.

4. The sanctions available included expulsion from participation in the game and termination or suspension of membership of the Scottish FA, which would have had a similar effect. The Appellate Tribunal observes that serious consideration was given by the disciplinary tribunal to imposing one of these sanctions, which would have had obvious consequences for the survival of the club. The Disciplinary Tribunal rejected these as too severe and this Appellate Tribunal agrees with that conclusion.

5. Although the Appellate Tribunal has listened carefully to the representations from Rangers FC about the practical effects of the additional sanction, it has concluded that this sanction was proportionate to the breach, dissuasive to others and effective in the context of serious misconduct, bringing the game into disrepute. In particular, the Appellate Tribunal recognises that the Disciplinary Tribunal decision does not affect Rangers’ ability to extend the contracts of existing professional players, including those whose contracts will expire at the end of this season and including also those currently on loan to other clubs. The Appellate Tribunal observes that Rangers FC have over 40 professional players in this category.

Therefore, the Appellate Tribunal affirms the decision of the Disciplinary Tribunal.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Scottish Cup: Talking about waiting

Like children before Christmas we wait with increasing excitement for the all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final.

For those of us with an emotional attachment, of course, this Santa delivers either the greatest gift of all or a ginormous slap in the face.

High stakes.

Given I can think of little else it was a pleasure to join The SPL Podcast for a cup final preview show.

We also took a look at the SPL season that was with Celtic flying high and Dunfermline plumbing the depths.

Thanks to Robert (@RMcCracken91), Paul (@steakheed) and Simon (@SFurnivall) for the hospitable welcome.

Listen here or subscribe on iTunes.

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