Saturday, July 20, 2013

Scottish football: A good news round-up

Scottish news update provided by Cole Ryan of follow me on twitter @coleryan9

If the people of Scotland still believe in Scottish football as their national sport then it is a measure of a national trait of defiance. News headlines, front page and back, might still be generated by the sport but too often recently it has been for bad news rather than for outstanding match results.

This summer, as last summer, the biggest story has been financial. While the problems at Rangers hogged the headlines in 2012, 2013 has seen Hearts enter administration amid the collapse of owner Vladimir Romanov’s business empire and the club struggling to pay wages. They’ll start next season on minus 15 points in the top flight.

Dunfermline, too, remain in administration and have now suffered consecutive relegations to find themselves in the third tier of Scottish football where they’ll find themselves battling against Rangers, as the Glasgow club look to continue their progress through the league structure.

Elsewhere a number of club are looking to rebuild squads in the summer transfer window as players move on to search for more bountiful wage packets or are sold to help balance the books in a game that is not awash with money.

But perhaps Scottish football is beginning to see the darkness partly lifted. The 2014 World Cup qualification campaign has been a struggle that has already seen off one manager, Craig Levein, and any chance of qualifying disappearing. But new manager Gordon Strachan finally made his mark before the summer break with a battling 1-0 win over Croatia with a young and inexperienced team.

And the latest news this week from BangTheBook Football has also been more positive. Scottish clubs are long used to starting their European campaigns before the domestic season has started but they’ve not always enjoyed the finest result. This week, however, they could reflect could reflect on two wins from three matches.

If Celtic’s victory of Cliftonville was expected it was a professional performance nonetheless, goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest delivering three away goals.

And St Johnstone delivered the result of the week with an unexpected 1-0 victory away to Rosenborg. Frazer Wright gave the Perth men an early lead and they weathered some serious pressure to hold on for the win and to bring a crucial away goal back to Scotland. Manager Tommy Wright was able to reflect on a “magnificent” win in his first competitive match since taking over from Steve Lomas as manager - in what was also St Johnstone's first ever away win in Europe.

If they can get through the home tie, St Johnstone's reward will be a match against Malta's Valetta or FC Minsk from Belarus as they would enter the next qualifying round as seeds.

Hibs were the only Scottish side who couldn’t record an away win this week, losing 2-0 to a superior Malmo side in Sweden. But after conceding two goals in two minutes to be 2-0 inside 15 minutes Hibs might feel they deserve some credit for keeping the score down, relying on some excellent saves from goalkeeper Ben Williams to retain faint hope for the return leg in Edinburgh.

While Scottish football has never lost its ability to make headlines, it is to be hoped there can be many more weeks like this one where the stories relate to good news on the pitch rather than bad news off it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting back in the swing

The season's first competitive game for a Scottish side last night.

And a 3-0 win for Celtic in their Champion's League qualifier against Cliftonville, a fine start to their three round route to the Champion's League proper.

Tonight Hibs and St Johnstone face away games to Malmo and Rosenborg as they look to buck the SPL's recent travails in Europa League qualifying woes.

Motherwell join the fray in the next round of Europa qualifying - and the bookies suggest that both Hibs and St Johnstone will be upsetting the odds to join them.

The return of competitive football means that a new domestic season is dawning.

A new season under the auspices of the Scottish Professional Football League, the brave new organisational structure that doesn't seem to have quite got round to deciding on names for its various leagues.

If the new governance model has yet to convince that it offers anything other than more of the same, what does top flight football have in store for us?

After years of the SPL being a two-horse race, the loss of Rangers left Celtic to race to winners' enclosure alone.

The scored more goals, had a more miserly defence and won more games than the opposition to finish 16 points clear.

So far, so predictable. But Celtic actually dropped 14 more points than they had the season before, wholly dominant but never invincible.

Motherwell, finishing second for the second year in a row, finished on just one point more than they had the previous year.

In a Rangers free season the other clubs couldn't fill the gap, Motherwell's 63 points in second place mirroring the sort of total that previously carried a team to third (Aberdeen in 2006/07 were the last side outside Celtic or Rangers to top 63 points, finishing on 65 in third place.)

In 2011/12 31 points separated Motherwell in third and Hibs in 11th. Last season just 22 points separated Motherwell in second and St Mirren in 11th.

Celtic could afford more off days because everyone else was still beating everyone else, with less and less predictability.

An accumulator win on SPL results was a rare joy last season, a more hard fought challenge than becoming lady captain at Muirfield.

What of the season ahead? More of the same. Celtic the favourites by a massive distance, beneath them Motherwell, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibs are tipped in best of the rest race to second.

Always difficult to have much confidence in predictions at this juncture, of course.

The revolving door at most clubs makes each summer a period of rebuilding rather than consolidation.

Motherwell will be reworked, Aberdeen rebuilt by Derek McInnes, United setting out on Jackie McNamara's first full SPL season as manager and the departures of Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle have seen Hibs shorn of almost two-thirds of their league goals tally.

Celtic will win the SPL, whether it's a romp or a canter is pretty much up to them.

Elsewhere we should again see a certain unpredictability, the challenge for those eleven clubs is to raise the standard of that unpredictability.