Friday, September 28, 2012

SPL: The Joy of Six

A Saturday Superstore tomorrow. With Neil Doncaster as Mike Read and a half time interview with Craig Brown filling in for a wacky live link with Cheggers.

A splendid SPL smorgasbord seeing out September. Alarming alliteration aside, we can sit back and enjoy six games in the top flight.

Aberdeen v Hibs

The good lord of scheduling giveth and he taketh away. Thus the joy of a Saturday game is diminished by a noon kick off.

Hibs are looking to make it seven games undefeated in the SPL, Aberdeen are looking to make it nine undefeated in all competitions.

Last week Hibs threw away a two goal lead, Aberdeen salvaged a point after being two goals behind.

They served up some fetid feasts of boredom last season but current form suggests this might be a darn good match up.

When they weren't being hauled back last week Hibs looked confident, aggressive, capable of playing a bit of football.

Far from the finished article and still lacking any real depth to the squad. But Pat Fenlon deserves praise for how his work in progress is, eh, progressing.

Fools and bairns shouldn't see unfinished jobs? A football manager doesn't have that luxury. Fenlon must work under the glare of a support still haunted by recent experiences.

He's making a decent fist of it. And that's more than his predecessor managed.

Aberdeen's start to the season - efficiently low key but lacking goals - was vintage Craig Brown but belied a summer spent assembling what looks to be a half decent squad.

A point salvaged last week and a late win against Dunfermline on Wednesday might just give them the burst of urgency they need.

This could be tight. Certainly a Hibs win at 23/10 or the draw at the same odds look better prices than an Aberdeen win at 6/5.

Regular readers will know I don't like publicly declaring Hibs predictions on the blog.

But at more than 2/1 I will be backing them.

Dundee v St Johnstone

All that time without a win, a bit of a Moaning Minnie harrumph when they lost to Hibs at Easter Road.

What a difference a month makes.

September has delivered seven SPL points from nine and a league cup win for St Johnstone.

It started equally well for Dundee but a win at Tynecastle has been followed by two defeats. Bottom of the league, four points from seven games.

Still early but it's form that makes you think of a long struggle ahead.

If they want to haul themselves out of their current fug then winning home games against St Johnstone would be the sensible way to start.

The home win is out at 23/10 though. So is the draw. St Johnstone are 6/5 to make it ten points out of 12. I suspect they'll do just that.

Hearts v Kilmarnock

Up and doon.

That's pretty much the season so far for both Hearts and Kilmarnock.

For a number of clubs actually. This could be an excitingly unpredictable season. It could also be a turgid affair with eight or nine clubs trapped together in a tedious waltz of shared mediocrity.

Depending on how full or empty your glass is.

Hearts vaulted past Dundee United last week to record their first SPL win since the opening day.

Kilmarnock eased past St Mirren to record their second SPL win of the season.

Going into this game both have played seven, won two and amassed nine points with a goal difference of plus two.

Anything John McGlynn can do, Kenny Shiels can do pretty much the same.

Which will make this a tight one today?

Hearts don't look to offer much value at 10/11, Kilmarnock might be a tad generous at 3/1.

A draw for me though. 12/5.

Inverness v Dundee United

Inverness looked in danger of being overrun as Hibs went two ahead last Saturday.

There, laid bare, were their limitations.

From adversity, strength. With Richie Foran leading the line they hauled themselves back into it with a determination and resilience which makes you think they can again be more than the sum of their parts.

If anyone stumbles across the Dundee United side that were apparently best placed to challenge for the title could they please post it back to a Mr P Houston at Tannadice.

After winning their first two game 3-0, United are now four without a win and suffered a 3-0 defeat of their own at home to Hearts last week.

Injuries haven't helped of course. But there seems to be nobody ready to take responsibility when key players are missing.

It will be a worry for Peter Houston that they've also shipped three goals in losing to Kilmarnock and Hearts.

Not scoring and not always defending very well. 'Tis a bad combination.

I'm not sure if Inverness, still without a league win, will be able to capitalise though. They're certainly thrawn but I'm unconvinced by their ability to take the initiative.

So Inverness at 2/1? Don't fancy it. Dundee United at 13/10? Not sure.

The draw at 9/4. Go on then.

Motherwell v Celtic

In the last week Motherwell have lost a two goal lead against an Aberdeen side that couldn't score and been dispatched from the league cup by a Third Division side.

That's pish, frankly.

The manner of their defeat to Rangers - not just the lack of marking at the goals, but the stumbling, pedestrian ineptitude of much of their play - should be a cause for concern.

But they're top of the league so everything is rosy? Hmmm. They are both bad results.

I'd be astonished if Celtic don't win this game.

The most interesting thing about it is the kick off time: The first Saturday 3pm kick off for a Celtic away game in the SPL since October 2005 when Livingston were on the wrong end of a 5-0 drubbing.

A drubbing inspired by "youngsters Stephen McManus and Shaun Maloney."

Gary Hooper looks in the mood. The Motherwell defence looks generous. The Celtic win is likely but it's a low value 8/13.

St Mirren v Ross County

Kenny Shiels was ebullient in his praise of St Mirren last week. But his Kilmarnock side had just won the game.

Defeat too for Ross County, that lengthy unbeaten league run finally coming to an end against a rejuvenated St Johnstone.

So something for both teams to bounce back from tomorrow.

It took St Mirren until injury time to slide past Hamilton in the league cup on Tuesday.

Ladbrokes Game On!That will please Derek Adams. County are nothing if not obstinate and he might well fancy their chances of rendering St Mirren pretty but ineffective - which is the praise Shiels faintly damned them with last week.

St Mirren go into this one as favourites at evens. The County win is 11/5.

I'd be more tempted by the draw at the same price.

Coupon crazy

OK, so where are we?

The tightness of many matches and the inconsistency of many sides is making calling SPL matches something of a challenge so far this season.


Hibs to win
St Johnstone to win
Hearts and Kilmarnock to draw
Inverness and Dundee United to draw
Celtic to win
St Mirren and Ross County to draw

An accumulator on that little lot comes in at 414.69/1. A daft bet. But this might just be a daft season.

All odds from Ladbrokes

Always remembering

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

League Cup: Rangers v Motherwell

Order returned to the Scottish Communities League Cup last night with six SPL clubs beating lower league opposition.

Not a cakewalk for them all - Inverness needed penalties to get past Stenhousemuir, St Mirren waited until stoppage time to get the winner against Hamilton - and their efforts appear to have been met with a wave of apathy.

Apparently you could fit the combined attendance for the six games into Celtic Park and still have 30,000 empty seats.

Say what you like about the league cup but it's consistent. Every year the same:

A round where a few upsets are taken to prove the theory that there is so little to choose between the leagues that the SPL should be dramatically expanded forthwith.

A round where pitifully low attendances are taken to prove the theory that the competition has run its course and should continue only after extreme surgery.

Quite comforting in its own way.

Combining the two, reworking the league cup as part of the (hopefully) impending reworking of the league structure, might be a good place to start.

But those are questions for another day, to be chewed over by the great and good of the Scottish game.

In the meantime we can enjoy another fun game of cross-division "my attendance is bigger than yours" as Rangers host Motherwell at Ibrox.

When the dust settled after the summer's soul searching it always seemed likely that Rangers would face SPL opposition at some point this season.

The league cup draw was kind enough to throw up this peculiar spectacle relatively early.

The last time Rangers and Motherwell met in this competition Rangers won a 2010/11 semi final 2-1 en route to the trophy.

Less than two years later Motherwell sit top of the SPL - a Champions League qualifying appearance behind them - and Rangers lie second in the Third Division.

At times I think we're maybe too close to recent events, too drained by the tedium of the ever decreasing circles of vitriol and conspiracy theorising that surrounds it, to properly appreciate how spectacularly the game has been turned on its head.

All of which adds another level of intrigue to tonight's game.

It's hard to imagine any other set of circumstance that would see a team that hasn't won away from home in the fourth tier enter a game against a side unbeaten in the top flight as favourites.

But there we have it. Rangers are 6/4 to win. Motherwell are 7/4 to win.

This is Scottish football and normality has been suspended for the duration.

For all that their away form has been laboured, Rangers have scored 17 goals in five home games.

But there's only one clean sheet in that run and they were shunted out of the Challenge Cup by Queen of the South.

Motherwell will be their biggest test so far. And I'm still struggling to see how this one will go.

If Ally McCoist can't motivate his players tonight then his position deserves to be questioned.

And Motherwell's record against Rangers can't be ignored. The last time they won at Ibrox Tony Blair had only been Prime Minister for four days. He wasn't even bathing in creosote back then.

A tricky one.

Rangers to start strongly, maybe nick a lead and Motherwell to eventually prevail? A half-time/full-time home/away combo at 20-1 looks generous.

In a game that would seem to promise goals you can get the same price for either side to win 3-2.

I fancy it will be close and Motherwell might just nick it. I'd not be shocked if they don't though.

Elsewhere this evening Aberdeen travel to Dunfermline as favourites - a label they've not always worn comfortably against lower league opposition.

Dunfermline manager Jim Jefferies has apparently promised to "have a right good go."

In seven games this season his side have lost only one, scored 18 and conceded just three goals. They look equipped for the job of right good going.

Aberdeen have beaten only St Johnstone in the SPL and required extra time to get past Morton in the last round.

I feel I should be more confident about Dunfermline's chances of pulling this off than I am.

Ladbrokes Game On!Perhaps I'm being persuaded by Aberdeen's resilience in saving a last gasp point in their 3-3 draw with Motherwell at the weekend.

A nice simple 2-0 win for the SPL side? 9/1.

Tempting. But would a lower league shock actually shock me? 2-1 to Dunfermline? 10/1.

I might just settle for a Motherwell - Dunfermline double at 8.80/1.

It's going to be an interesting night.

All odds from Ladbrokes

Always remembering

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Budgie

A Twitter correspondent was reminding me yesterday of the time I saved two penalties in one game.

As my personal sporting achievements go that remains right up there with winning the Longniddry Gala Primary 4 Short Tennis Open (Doubles) and clinching the runners-up spot in the Hawkhill Hibs Supporters' Club Bowls Day Oot.

I also like to think it's bestowed on me honorary life membership of the "goalkeeper's union."

Goalkeepers, they say, are crazy.

The charge sheet for the crime of craziness is probably quite long.

But you'd guess John Burridge would feature extensively. Probably appearing as his own character witness.

His eccentricities are laid bare in Budgie - The Autobiography of Goalkeeping Legend John Burridge.

The japes, the capers and misadventures are recounted with glee.

But there's a more complex side to the 'keeper who once hoisted himself onto the crossbar and perched their - Budgie-like - when his side were in the ascendancy.

The extravagant warm up routines, the tales of his wife being asked to fling pieces of fruit at him as he sat watching the TV to test his reflexes. They all served a purpose.

They kept him in the game. Playing, coaching, managing. Without that what was there left of John Burridge?

It took an intervention and a spell in The Priory before he found the answer to that question. Many are the stories of football as a cause of addiction or the setting for addiction. This is different. This is football as the addiction.

The book begins with that episode. A dramatic opening to be sure but one that does colour what comes after.

Because there is darkness to some of his behaviour that goes beyond the light-hearted eccentricities that you can tell he'd love the reader to shower with unconditional love.

The constant battles with managers - recounted here as heroic Budgie against ignorant authority - point to a man burdened by the weighty chip on his shoulder.

(They're recounted with gusto though - Budgie crawling through a window after Derby manager Arthur Cox had locked him in his office to escape and sign for Sheffield United, a ruck with Ossie Ardiles in the tunnel after a Southampton game, Murdo McLeod hitting Budgie over the head with an early 1990s mobile phone as Budgie physically attacked Alex Miller.)

By the end of the book Budgie has turned from the lovable scamp of his imagination into a bitter ex-pat (albeit one who fell victim to a mysterious and serious road accident in the Middle East), pining for an England that probably never existed and certainly one that he'd not have known growing up in a Cumbrian colliery village.

You'd be waiting for a rant about political correctness if he hadn't already covered that with a typically sepia-tinged defence of his friend Andy Gray and Sky sexism furore.

Lost worlds are a theme.

It’s difficult to envisage any player in the modern era having a career to mirror Burridge’s. 30 clubs, the English and Scottish leagues from bottom to top and back again.

And difficult to imagine any player getting away with quite so many "antics" - the practical jokes, the repeated fall outs with coaches, the studs sharpened to "do" the metatarsal of an opposing centre forward - in Sky's brave new world.

Changes for the better or the worse? Budgie's not a dispassionate enough chronicler of his own life and times to answer those questions.

Including the word "legend" in the title of an autobiography, the mood of nostalgia and the residual bitterness (the lack of international recognition clearly still rankles) suggests a man that's already made up his mind about his place in the world.

He's just waiting for the rest of us to catch up with him.

Which is all a bit of a shame. Because this was a career that was extraordinary in its own way, a career marked by an ability to connect with fans that is beyond many a footballer.

And if you like your anecdotes unseasoned by subtlety there's much to enjoy here - you won't read a more self deprecating tale of a footballer losing his virginity, you might never read again of a Hibs goalkeeper riding his moped through the streets of Edinburgh, discovering too late that someone has deposited a "present" in his crash helmet.

All of that, much like a career taking in over 700 professional games but no England cap, doesn't quite satisfy.

The Budgie that's uncovered is much harder to warm to than the lovable scamp of a goalkeeper of popular memory. That might be because he's never quite learned to warm to himself.

Buy 'Budgie' at Amazon