Sunday, January 06, 2013

SPL: Breaking bad?


The SPL's winter leave of absence seems to have taken a few people by surprise.

It is only a fortnight though and we're not supposed to have a winter break as such, so they've maybe been trying to keep it quiet.

There also seems a reasonable chance that the holiday will land plum in the middle of the most clement stretch of winter weather.

Maybe somebody could ask Neil Doncaster what the chances of that would be, of the SPL ushering in a winter break through the back door only for the bad weather to arrive in grand style just as we get back to the football?

They'd need to find him first. The Scarlet Pimpernel of Hampden is Mr Doncaster.

They seek him here, they seek him there. And then they just give up because he's never got anything useful to say anyway.

Still, the Doncaster Bank Holiday is a fine time to look back on the season so far. A chance to savour what we've seen and look ahead to the joys still to come.

So: Celtic will win the SPL. Dundee will be relegated. The ten other teams will fill the remaining ten positions, the order to be decided when their befuddling mutual pattern of inconsistency settles into a more readable pattern of inconsistency.

Simple game, punditry.

Celtic, certainly, have huffed and puffed. Heroic carrying of the standard in Europe doesn't always equal domestic bliss. As Churchill was rudely awakened by the order of the boot in 1945, so the SPL is blowing a giant raspberry at Georgios Samaras this season.

Theories abound on their SPL stutters.

I got a close up view last Saturday at Easter Road. It didn't appear to a be a Krypton Factor-esque teaser.

There are good enough players in the SPL to take advantage of bad defending and there is spirit enough in most teams to stand up to Celtic's attempts to get back on terms.

They might do that standing up physically, aggressively, energetically and in your face-dly. The answer, it seems to me, is not to get increasingly miffed and give up the ghost but to try and match the chippy upstarts.

When Celtic do that consistently - or when other teams find they have other battles sapping their energy - they will accelerate clear.

And the acceleration will be smoother if they avoid entrusting their best chance of any given game to Efe Ambrose's knee.

Dundee's board this week stepped back from the brink of sacking manager Barry Smith and promised to spend some cash in January.

I fear this might mean poor Barry gets his jotters in February after Dundee whittle away January spending no money.

Either way they look doomed. They look like a side that fell short of promotion getting an unexpected promotion with little chance to prepare for the challenges of that promotion.

Strange that. The unluckiest winners of Scottish football's daft summer.

If the job Smith did in taking Dundee to second in the First Division was good enough for his board, then the job he's doing for them in the SPL should be good enough for his board.

The rest? Stick a pin in them. Few will splash the cash in January so the transfer window is likely to be a study in survival, of holding on to assets and snapping up the odd bargain.

Relaxing at Butlins or Haggerston Castle this coming fortnight each manager will be able to reflect on good games, a few decent results and bad games, the odd poor run.

"We're building something here" say managers in the English Premier League and Scottish national coaches on the brink of being sacked.

Most SPL managers are only ever building a work in progress. The one that emerges with the most competent transitory package will grab second place in the league. High stakes when you're trying to build a house on sand.

High stakes and high pressure.

Kenny Shiels has gone the full Colonel Kurtz in Kilmarnock. Every post match interview Terry Butcher gives is a coded plea for help as his red wine dependency grows in Inverness. John McGlynn was reduced to tramping about in the Dingwall puddles wearing a shirt and tie coupled with tracksuit bottoms.

Will nobody think of the managers?

Or the accountants?

Money. Money. Money.

Neil Lennon bought Celtic the winning lottery ticket with Champions League progress.

Things have been bleaker elsewhere.

Hearts extended the begging bowl, counted the takings and still don't look as if they're completely sure how the fiscal circle can be comfortably squared.

Rod Petrie produced a set of accounts at Hibs that proved that frugalness and disastrous leadership create a black hole. 0 + 0 = -£900,000.

I've started building a scale model of Aberdeen's proposed new stadium out of matchsticks. It will be finished before Stewart Milne is able to pull the trigger and discharge the silver bullet of leaving Pittodrie.

We must concede that it's not been a season awash with cash. That, of course, has been the SPL way for a number of years.

Will any of the impecunious and infirm die on the operating table? That can't be discounted, as much as we hope it can be avoided.

The shouts of "hell mend you, it's your own fault" emanate from another place.

But no club in the SPL is a financial basket case because of events in 2012.

Those events might yet quicken a monetary decline. Eventually they might be pinpointed as the tumbling pebbles that set off an avalanche of doom at some clubs.

It's likely, however, that any club that falls victim will already have been flirting with financial insanity.

Most clubs need to think smarter. There's a leadership deficit in Scottish football and it's evident at club level and national level.

There's nothing inherently wrong with accountants and marketing men running clubs or running the game.

There is a problem if we have incompetent accountants and incompetent marketing men running clubs and running the game.

And that's been a problem since Motherwell-born billionaires were still Motherwell-born billionaires.

What solace can be sought from the football?

Some games have been absolutely honking.

The winter break by any other name was ushered in with a derby howler at Tynecastle.

Funny thing though. As Hearts racked up 500 corners in a 15 minute spell, as the Hibs defence heroically repelled the maroon advance then stood heroically about looking glaikit in the six yard box waiting for the next barrage, I was involved in that game.

Purple of face, hoarse of throat involvement.

The Sky sponsored imperialism of English football and the Scottish media's "no such thing as a meaningless Old Firm game" mantra can hide an obvious truth: without an emotional attachment to one of the teams, televised games are often pish.

People tell me - I say it myself - that nobody outside Scotland is interested in the SPL.

People - often the very same people - tell me that a lot of televised games are dire adverts for the SPL.

Surely we can take comfort from that? Crap, aye. But in the SPL nobody can see you being crap.

And we've given our TV masters a few moments of excitement, the odd flash of skill, the unearthing of a player or two who might, with a fair wind, one day be talked up during Sky's coverage of Swansea v Wigan.

The patient still has a pulse.

I once overheard a chat in my local:

"Seen Joe lately?"

"Aye, awffy limp he's got now."

"Aye, right enough. Bad limp. He's a quick limper though, he can limp at quite a rate."

Armageddon is not catching up with us yet.