Thursday, July 25, 2013

St Johnstone and Hibs face Europa challenges

The second week of European participation for Scottish clubs and we're one for one so far.

Celtic got Cliftonville out of the way with a 2-0 win at Celtic Park on Tuesday for a 5-0 win on aggregate.

If Neil Lennon pointed to a certain rusty profligacy it was job done with a minimum of fuss.

Sweden's Elfsborg - who knocked 11 past Latvian side Daugava (who, Wikipedia tells me, have conceded 21 goals in three European ties) - are the next hurdle as Celtic look for a repeat of last season's European progress.

Elfsborg - currently fifth in the Swedish league - should present a stronger challenge than Cliftonville but it's a challenge that Celtic should be able to overcome.

Scottish clubs face Europa League qualifying games
Sterner tests too for both St Johnstone and Hibs in the Europa League qualifiers tonight.

St Johnstone face Rosenborg in Perth with a one goal lead safely delivered from the away leg. If that result was a fantastic achievement it has not persuaded betting sites to revise their opinion that the Norwegians are favourites to progress.

The first leg win was an ideal start for new manager Tommy Wright, who already appears so comfortable in the role that Rosenborg manager, Per Joar Hansen, has been moved to accuse him of playing mind games.

Wright had claimed that losing at this stage in the competition would be a disaster for the Norwegians who currently lead their domestic league. He's also spoken about springing a surprise on the visitors in his team selection. No doubt designed to keep the pressure off his own players, it gives the impression that this is a man relishing his new job.

It might be argued that taking a 1-0 lead into a home time against opponents considered favourites for the tie is a tricky proposition.

Perhaps. But it's a problem Pat Fenlon would love to have as he tries to engineer a way back from 2-0 down as Malmo - 16 games into their league season and second in the table - visit Hibs.

The loss of two early goals in Sweden looked like not only ending Hibs Europa participation but signalling the start of a heavy defeat.

While Malmo continued to threaten and dominated for large chunks, what belief Hibs take into this game will stem from the way they held out at two down and the chances of their own - limited but very real - that they created.

A Malmo goal will finish Hibs off, leaving Fenlon in the invidious position of requiring goals and also having to rely on a defence that looked shaky in losing two goals in such quick succession last week.

It's been a long time since Easter Road was enthralled by a famous European night. In a week when Famous Five legend Lawrie Reilly's shadow looms large, Hibs need to try and replicate the nights of yore this evening.

It would take something out of the ordinary for both Hibs and St Johnstone to progress but it would be big, big boost for the newly named Scottish Premiership if one or both could.

And something to note for proponents of summer football in Scotland: a worst case scenario a couple of weeks hence could see three of our teams dumped out of Europe by Scandinavian sides already reasonably deep into their domestic seasons.

Let's hope results go well enough to leave that debate - worthwhile as it might well be - for another day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

SPFL: The lion roars

Finally a vision of what the future is going to look like.

The SPFL - the Scottish Professional Football League - today unveiled its new lion logo and the names of the four senior leagues in the newly amalgamated structure.

Scottish Professional Football League, SPFL, logo

The logo - I assume intended to be an updated version of the rather more peely-wally branding of the Scottish Football League - features a lion with what appears to be the remnants of the Champions League football logo caught up in its mane. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be roaring, sticking its tongue out at SPFL critics or smoking a battered old stogie it found lying on the street.

That the English Premier League logo also employs a lion-football mash up is clearly nothing more than a coincidence.

Inspiration for the new Scottish Professional Football League logo

Unveiling the new brand, Graeme Souness said:

"The lion suggests you’re strong and dominant which hopefully we will be."

Which is a pithy load of pish.

The league nomenclature could have been predicted:

  • Scottish Premiership
  • Scottish Championship
  • Scottish League One
  • Scottish League Two

I think that means we're starting out the SPFL era with naming conventions borrowed from the 2005/2006 English season.

What, of course, is in a name? A Scottish Premiership by any other name could still be as exciting/predictable/woeful/bankrupt.

But one might have expected the SPFL would have been keen to give the impression of an organisation full of fresh ideas, ready to tackle the rehabilitation of Scottish football with vigour and verve.

The appointment of Neil Doncaster as chief executive suggested that wasn't the case, a feeling compounded by choice of names.

Now its chosen to announce itself to the world wearing ill fitting clothes stolen from a richer and more glamorous older brother.

All of which will be meaningless if the new organisation can deliver an improvement in the fortunes of Scottish football.

Marketing will play a role in that. Today's logo and naming jamboree wasn't accompanied by the unveiling of a title sponsor for any of the leagues.

And the SPFL website won't be live until next month.

The more things change, the more Scottish football's marketing stays incompetent and the more the game remains a hard sell.

All that Hampden dilly-dallying has meant time has been against the new organisation - but a functioning website should have been a basic requirement today.

As Stewart Weir commented on Twitter:

"Looking at the new #SPFL logo, the famous phrase 'lions led by donkeys' could apply yet again ..."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lawrie Reilly: Hibs and Scotland

Lawrie Reilly, Hibs and Scotland
"So, that's the last of them."

My dad probably wasn't the only Hibs fan of a certain age to say something like that when he heard the news of Lawrie Reilly's death.

"Them" are the Famous Five, for some generations of Hibs fans the quintet that will forever be the best of us.

For the rest of us, those that didn't see them play - and it's now 55 years since Reilly last played - their achievements are sustained through the record books and through the colourful tales of of those who were there when Reilly and his four mates took Hibs to the top of Scottish football.

Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Willie Ormond, Eddie Turnbull and Reilly. Different backgrounds, different styles, different personalities. Collectively admired and feared, a chunk of Scottish football history and at the very heart of Hibs.

How do the generations that have come since Lawrie Reilly’s career was ended by injury before he reached the age of 30 measure his contribution and impact?

The statistics are worth revisiting:

38 Scotland caps - the biggest haul of any of the Famous Five, more caps than any other player has won while playing for Hibs.

22 Scotland goals - beaten only by Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and Hughie Gallacher. Although on a goals to game ratio only Gallacher tops Reilly.

187 goals for Hibs in 233 leagues games and another 47 in cup competitions - only Gordon Smith, a first team regular for longer and whose career covered the years of the Second World War scored more.

But statistics don’t tell the whole story.

The league goals contributed to a period when Hibs won three league titles, when the Famous Five's battles with the Iron Curtain of Rangers defined the post-war boom in Scottish football and when the honours in that clash of collectives so often came back to Leith.

The five goals against England at Wembley, including the important late goal in 1953 that earned him the nickname "last minute Reilly."

For a heady period in the early 1950s Hibs fans must indeed have felt that they were living in 'Reilly time' - when no defence was safe from a player Hugh McIlvanney described as an "unsubduable plunderer."

And then there's the Boy's Own stuff:

The young Hibs fan who played for his childhood heroes for the length of his career.

The Edinburgh boy who inherited a love of Hibs from his father and grandfather, who went on to become one of Easter Road's most celebrated players, a forward feared throughout Britain and beyond who didn't have to leave Leith to find acclaim.

A career from a different age that has echoed down the years.

There was steel in there as well, defenders in Reilly's era didn't believe in half measures. Reilly took the knocks and still scored goals.

The stubborn streak that saw him recover from injuries - and from the pleurisy that kept him out of the 1954 World Cup - manifested itself in a financial dispute with Hibs. Although eventually resolved it was a disagreement that robbed him, at the peak of his powers, of the chance to increase that impressive goals tally.

The stories that will be recounted in the coming days about the life and times of Lawrie Reilly are too plentiful to do justice to here.

A couple:

Of a young Lawrie, awestruck but emboldened, asking Gordon Smith if he fancied coming home for tea after he’d watched the great Smith play for Hibs at Tynecastle. Smith politely declined, within a few short years the great winger would be creating goal after goal for his young fan.

A favourite, if apocryphal, tale of many a Hibs fan of a certain generation - of Reilly marking another headed goal for a select side by shaking his fist at the celebrated Stanley Matthews: "When Gordon Smith crosses the ball he makes sure the laces are facing away from my head."

Among all the changes that Scottish football has seen since the pomp of Lawrie Reilly, the greatest is perhaps the idea of Hibs producing a one club man who could be so widely celebrated across the game.

When Hibs inaugurated their Hall of Fame a few years ago, Reilly and Turnbull were the only living members of the Famous Five.

Turnbull, walking with the aid of sticks but the fire clearly still burning, was as forthright and rumbustious as ever.

It was Reilly, however, who resonated most with the crowd:

"I was born a Hibby and I’ll die a Hibby."

As ever with Lawrie Reilly, a simple statement of fact. One that has come to pass sooner than we hoped or expected.

I was lucky enough to be in his company on a few occasions. If he seemed slightly bemused that younger generations remained starstruck by his achievements, he could still delight in a shared support for Hibs.

I passed him on the stairs leaving the stand after the 6-2 win over Hearts. The beaming smile reflected how we all felt.

Not that his support wasn't healthily critical. At a Q&A session a few years ago he was asked about the current Hibs team. Gentleman to the last he apologised for the language he was about to use before describing the side - of Paatelainen or Hughes vintage - as being "crap really."

A few months ago Pat Fenlon said he hadn’t really been aware of the richness of Hibs' history in his first months as manager at Easter Road.

He could have done worse than sitting down for a chat with Lawrie Reilly - the fan, the history, the legend and the ambassador rolled into one.

The last of "them," the best of Hibs.

Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull, Ormond we won’t see again.


But their memory marches on.