Sunday, December 30, 2007

The year that will be

Here are my predictions for 2008

The SPL title race will go down to the wire. It's too close to call between the Old Firm, at least till after the game on Wednesday

Aberdeen and Motherwell will get the UEFA Cup spots

Gretna will mount a recovery of sorts, but it'll be too little, too late and they'll go down. They will struggle at the start of the new div 1 season a la Dunfermline

Inverness will yet again miss out on top six by the slightest margin - for the fourth year in a row

By the end of the year, the following managers will no longer be at their clubs:
Gordon Strachan - will quit Celtic due to his frustrations with the fans and media, even if they win the league
Mark McGhee - if he doesn't get the Scotland job, he'll get a better job in England - or the Celtic one
John Hughes - will have moved on to better things, possibly starting with Hibs
Jim Jefferies - unable to reverse Killie's sudden decline this season
Stephen Frail - duh! I also think Romanov will sell Hearts in 2008

Walter Smith ends up under pressure as Rangers manager, even if they win the league

Whoever becomes Scotland coach will be slaughtered on this blog for either having no top level experience, for being too young, or for being Graeme Souness, then will go on to prove me dramatically wrong (except if it's Graeme Souness)

Man Utd will hold off Arsenal to win the title

Derby County will be relegated (and in other news, the sky is blue and grass is green)

So will Fulham and Birmingham City

Newcastle will make a recovery which saves Big Sam his job

Liverpool will finish fourth - again

By the end of the year, the following managers will no longer be at their clubs:
Rafa Benitez - fails to sort out his disagreement with the owners, while Liverpool fail to get near to the title or the Champions League
Avram Grant - honeymoon period runs out, then Lampard and Drogba demand a transfer, and Chelsea turn to a more experienced coach
Alex McLeish - does a "Lawrie Sanchez" and fills St. Andrews with a bunch of players he knows from international duty - and Birmingham crash and burn.
Gareth Southgate - as Middlesbrough battle relegation again

Euro 2008 will start well, but the knockout stages will be cagey. Germany beat Italy in the final. Croatia make the semis. France go out in the first round.

Real Madrid win La Liga and maybe win the Champions League as well

Kaka' leaves Milan for Spain

Ronaldinho leaves Barcelona for Italy

Cristiano Ronaldo finally gets World Player of the Year

Maybe I'm right, probably I'm wrong; only time will tell.


Phil O'Donnell 1972-2007

Jings, what can you say? From my own experience, any death is a tragedy, but that of a young athlete, as he was, is an absolute catastrophe. Let's not even think of looking at it from a football perspective. More important is the fact that Phil O'Donnell was a husband, and a father of four. That's what is most terrible.

For what it's worth, I think there will have been very few football fans in Scotland who gave a damn about their team's result last night, having instead been reminded just how utterly pointless the game is in reality. And I hope that, on Wednesday, there will be opportunities for "a minute's applause" so we can at least pay tribute in the best way we can to him.


Friday, December 28, 2007

The year that was

So 2007 comes to an end, lasting about as long as the average Hearts coach does, I guess. This year in football has seen...

Walter Smith rebuild Rangers after the shambles left by le saviour, Paul Le Guen

Celtic dodge their way to their second successive SPL title, mostly thanks to a combination of Rangers' ineptness and an incredible habit of nicking one goal wins

Celtic give Milan a run for their money in the Champs League last 16, then beat them at home on the way to the knockout stages for the second successive year

Rangers (disappointingly, in the end) and Aberdeen (miraculously) making the next stage of the UEFA Cup - the first time Scotland has had three sides in Europe after xmas since 1970

Dunfermline's reliance on loan signings, other people's cast offs and Jim Leishman in order to stay up finally let them down - they're relegated from the SPL and the chances of them coming back up are about the same as that of Sven becoming England manager again

Hearts find that a coaching triumvirate of a Russian, a Bulgarian and an Englishman is not the best way forward, especially when their owner forces them to play a Lithuanian goalkeeper who not so much has butterfingers as vaseline hands

Gretna discover the top division a bit of a step up for their Dad's Army-esque players, though somehow Brooks Mileson's heart is still going at it despite the stress that watching their defence causes

The national team get arguably the best result in their history by beating the French in Paris, then beat Ukraine as well - but still fail to make it to Euro 2008, and then manage to end the year without a coach

Chelsea chuck Mourinho, and replace with an unknown Israeli, who doesn't do too badly, to be fair

Manchester United win the title with beautiful, beautiful football - and so Arsenal respond by trying to win the title with even more beautiful, beautiful football, and do it without Thierry Henry

Liverpool fork out squillions for a decent striker - but Rafa Benitez still insists on rotating him

Newcastle have another manager...again...and he's soon under pressure due to his failure to win the Premiership in a Kevin Keegan-like manner...again

Spurs spend squillions on a crap striker (Darren Bent) and finally sack Martin Jol after it was clear for months they were drawing his P45 up

Sunderland win promotion, then Roy Keane's bubble bursts when he wastes millions on Kieran Richardson and Michael Chopra and they concede seven at Everton

Sven is pilloried on his return to England with Man City - until they win nine home games in a row and it turns out Elano and Petrov are f****** amazing

Leeds United get relegated to League One and start with a fifteen point deduction to boot. Obviously the rest of the football world is sympathetic towards their plight...

The national team somehow fail to make Euro 2008, and Steve McClaren is forever remembered as "the wally with a brolly" after a nightmare defeat at home to Croatia

Real Madrid win La Liga by being the least bad team, then look to win it again by actually being good

Ronaldinho develops a body habitus more suited to the sport of Darts

Lionel Messi becomes amazing

Kaka' becomes even more amazing, though

Milan win the Champions' League and the World Club Championship, but are guff when they actually play an Italian opponent

Argentina play scintillating Copa America football...and then get twatted by a more defensive minded Brazil in the final

Just about all the big European teams qualify for Euro 2008...except Scotland, of course. Oh, and some other team that has escaped my mind...

As for what will happen in 2008 - if I can fit in another blog entry before the bells then maybe we can discuss that.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Awaiting el clasico

I've been looking forward to 6pm this Sunday for weeks. For it is the kickoff time of, for me, the biggest football match of the season. Not Arsenal - Chelsea (I missed Wooden Spoon Super Sunday because of work, and it sounds like I missed b***** all), not the Old Firm, not even the increasingly rare encounters between my beloved ICT and Ross County, the best thing Dingwall has to offer (which is not hard when the only other competitors for that crown are a roundabout and a post office).

No, it's time for the twice a year showdown that is el clasico, Barcelona v Real Madrid. Catalonia versus royal Spain. A clash, which almost inevitably involves two of the very best teams in the world in action. It means so much more to Real than playing neighbours Atletico, and more to Barca than taking on the second team in their city, Espanyol. And in my experience, at least one of the two games each year is an absolute gem. Last year at Camp Nou, Barca came from behind three times in a 3-3 draw, with Leo Messi's hat-trick including a last minute equalizer, after the home side played the whole second half a man down. The year before saw the Ronaldinho show at the Bernabeu; the Brazilian has never since looked like reaching the standards he set with two of the greatest solo goals you'll ever see, within 20 minutes of each other, in a 3-0 which saw the home support applauding the buck-toothed schemer (an honour only given previously to a certain Argentinian you may have heard of called Maradona, who also had a similar waistline). Go back another year and you have a 4-2 Real victory, with a performance from David Beckham so sweet that you could have got diabetes from watching it.

Even the less impressive games have their moments; who remembers the pig's head that got thrown from the crowd at Figo when he took a corner?!

What makes this one particularly juicy is that this is not a Real side crippled by the egos of aging Galacticos, or stifled by the stuffy tactics of Capello; no, this Real Madrid side, coached by Bernd Schuster (who played for both sides and was a Barcelona legend), are four points clear at the top of the league and are firing on all cylinders. Real finally spent cash on the defence in the summer, though Pepe of Porto is maybe not worth €20 million, and Cannavaro has finally got to grips with La Liga after a dodgy first season. The strings in midfield are pulled by Robinho, finally fulfilling his potential, and by Dutch acquisition Wesley Sneijder. And not only is Ruud Van Nistelrooy continuing to feed his goalscoring addiction, but to the shock of all, Raul has rediscovered his mojo and is playing his best stuff for about 5 years. Real are top dogs, and have been utterly sumptuous to watch.

Barca? They have finally clicked into gear in the last few weeks, after being largely carried on the shoulders of Messi in the early months of the season. That's just as well, as the little Argentine is out injured, but Thierry Henry may be back off the treatment table just in time. But Barca still have a solid back line, a midfield improved by Patrick Vieira-clone Yaya Toure, and oodles of quality.

They also still have the enigma that Ronaldinho has become. He really does look a bit podgy these days, and appears to have lost that burst of acceleration that beats players. He was left on the bench last week, though Frank Rijkaard insists that this is because of long standing injury niggles; it may well be that he's been saved so he can unleash his best on Sunday night,

If only.

Anyway, it usually thrills, it rarely disappoints. On Sunday night, for me, El Clasico and El Mundo are one and the same. You would be a bit of a twit to miss it.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The elephant's graveyard

Gretna, despite a point on Saturday away to a Kilmarnock side with the largest casualty list since World War One, continue to look just as condemned to relegation as they did when I slagged them off - sorry, I meant "impartially discussed their plight" - a few weeks back.

If I was a Gretna fan, I would not be the happiest of campers. Because if you go down a tier from the SPL, you find an awful lot of examples of what happens to a club after relegation. For the first division still contains the last five sides to be relegated from the SPL - St. Johnstone, Partick Thistle, Dundee, Livingston and, most recently, Dunfermline Athletic. That's right; no side relegated has got back to the pinnacle of Scottish football since St. Mirren, and even their fans had to endure some pretty horrific stuff (and some pretty horrific management - anyone remember John Coughlin?) While Dundee are now firm contenders in an increasingly two-horse race for promotion, the other side are none other than Hamilton Academical, last in the top division in 1989. Of the others, St. Johnstone and Partick are now on a reasonably firm footing; after dropping down in 2002, it was only last year that the Saints put up a reasonable challenge to promotion, while Partick had to endure a year in division two (and Dick Campbell's bunnet) before getting back to where they are now - a decent mid-table side still someway off being title challengers.

Meanwhile, Livingston are perhaps the ghost of Christmas Past for Gretna - the perfect example of a club that overspent its resources and went too far, too quickly. Having stayed full-time despite attendances being about as high as they would be for a Margaret Thatcher striptease, they finished a glorious seventh last year. Their Chief Executive then said in August that they would have to go part-time if they don't go up this year; they now lie a thrilling fifth, seventeen points off the lead. Not a very good omen for the future, you feel. There is currently only one part-time in the division, and Stirling Albion are rock bottom.

And, finally, inevitably, we come to Dunfermline. Cup finalists last year, and indeed in 2004, when I believe they also finished 4th in the SPL. How times have changed; out went Jimmy Calderwood to Aberdeen at the end of that campaign, and even the savings made on tanning salon appointments couldn't pay the overinflated wage bill he left behind him. The last three seasons were a perennial struggle against the drop, a fight which they lost in May. Despite this, experienced, seasoned Premier League players like Scott Wilson, Greg Shields, Darren Young, Stephen Glass, Steve Crawford, Tam McManus, Jim Hamilton and Mark Burchill remained, presumably still drawing decent wage packets. And where are they in the table?


So how many of these guys are likely to stay on next season. And how likely are the Pars, not the most financially solvent club in existence, to be able to attract and pay the players required to get them back up?

So the message for Gretna is this. If you somehow still have your books in order on relegation, chuck the playing staff you have now (no problem there - a good few of them are heading for the footie equivalent of the pension queue), and prepare to wait a few years, a la Dundee, until you have a bunch of good, hungry, young players ready to challenge. Don't keep your biggest names, and don't spend on bringing in more, otherwise it'll be wet Tuesday night trips to Albion Rovers in the blink of an eye.

Well, maybe not, but you get my drift.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

The ginger whinger

Following Celtic's defeat by Caley today, Gordon Strachan's response was: "we had all the possession, we had all the chances and all the decisions went against us". This as his side went down 3-2 against opposition who did get a penalty, but who also had a player sent off.

I think I speak for everyone, except maybe the occasional Hoops fan, when I say "boo-frickety-hoo!"

Perhaps Gordon was pissed off because...
a) The entire weekly wage bill of Caley's starting lineup amounts to a couple of days of pay for Scott Brown
b) His defence conceded goals away from home again
c) His all-stars couldn't break Caley down in the last 20 minutes despite being a man up
d) There's an unwritten agreement that referees don't give penalties against the Old Firm (also broken at Hearts' victory over Rangers this season)
d) Because it's his natural reaction to any defeat

A bit of credit to a side who battled back from two goals down and gave their heart and soul for 90 minutes might have been nice? And perhaps a teensy bit justified?

I'm sorry, Gordon, I know it sucks to be you with your own personal wealth, your place in the Champions' League last sixteen, your ability to waste a few million pounds every so often on a bald Danish midfielder a few years past his best. But maybe when the little guys catches you on an off day, as is bound to happen at least once a season, perhaps try a compliment or two, instead of talking complete and utter horse droppings.

And no, before you complain, I am NOT slagging you off just because you have ginger hair, though it makes for a good title.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

By this time last year, Rangers had crashed to league defeats against Celtic, Hibernian, Falkirk, Dundee United, and, of course, the mighty ICT. Paul Le Guen was in the last weeks of a reign that was the biggest disappointment since the first Star Wars prequel. Rangers, in short, were in an itsy bitty of a crisis.

As the end of 2007 approaches, Walter Smith's rebuilt side lie just behind Celtic in the league (and will overtake them by winning games in hand), and have come just one disappointing performance - correction, abysmal, appalling, shocking, abject performance - short of the last 16 in the Champions League.

Yet it would take a brave man to bet on them coming up with the goods and taking the title. Or at least, a braver man, than me. Why is that?

Wednesday night, I think, was the blatant exposure of the limitations that Rangers have. At the back, where David Weir's thirty-seven year old legs were left trailing in the dust of Karim Benzema, where Sasa Papac showed that he is a decent centre-half playing out of position, where Allan McGregor was outed once more as a goalkeeper about good enough for the top six of the SPL, but playing for a team who aspire rather higher than that. At the front, where Daniel Cousin showed he had the mobility of a wheelchair athlete without the wheelchair, where Jean-Claude Darcheville showed that having said mobility is worth nothing if you can't deflect the ball under the crossbar with your shin from three yards, nor if you're dumb enough to get a pointless red card with the game lost, where Steven Whittaker and Lee McCulloch gave Rangers about as much width as Victoria Beckham.

I could go on about the failure to introduce Kris Boyd for more than seven minutes, but you haven't got all day.

Admittedly, some of these problems will be solved once the Ibrox injury list finally begins to ease - Steven Smith and Andy Webster at the back, perhaps DaMarcus Beasley wide (though I still debate his usefulness). But I think Walter would rather have liked one of the five centre-halfs with European experience that Celtic have available, a wide man with the flair and tricks of McGeady, strikers who can actually score goals regularly.

Goodness knows Celtic were really rather fortunate to succeed where Rangers failed. But everyone needs a bit of luck - the trick is to get into the position where a bit of luck is all you need. Therefore, Celtic, for all their limitations, still managed to get to a point where a bit of luck - well, a lot of luck - nicked late winners against Milan and Shakhtar - they kept going, and going, and going, kept the ball at the right end of the pitch, and had the guys who could make something special happen. Rangers, though, never looked like they would get a result off Lyon (it would have been the biggest injustice since the Florida chads), and they simply did not have the options to turn to when it all went up the swanny.

That is why, unless David Murray opens up his bank account again, Rangers simply do not have what it takes to see off Celtic in the title race. Especially once a mister Nakamura-san is back...


Monday, December 10, 2007

Half Term Report Card

We're now sixteen games into the SPL season, just about halfway to the split. So, here's marks out of five for every team so far, taking into account how they've done and comparing it against pre-season expectations...

Slow start but have pulled themselves into the top six with back-to-back wins. The fact they have a chance of making the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup is a magnificent achievement. The rest of the season? Could yet haul themselves into the race for third place.

Has a team ever scraped so many narrow wins as Gordon Strachan's? Getting out of their Champions' League group is fantastic but you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times they have won matches this season by a comfortable margin. On the other hand, some might say that you make your own luck. The rest of the season? If Celtic find their form at last, I still can't see past them for the title.

What a difference to the Arab teams of previous seasons. Craig Levein has restored his reputation this season, helped by some astute business in the transfer market. However, recent results have shown the lack of depth in his squad. The rest of the season? Should be good enough for top six, and a few more buys in January could enable an aspiration towards greater heights.

Finally playing like last season with wins in their last two matches, but lost a lot of players in the summer who have not been adequately replaced, especially at the back, while Latapy is finally running out of legs. That said, Michael Higdon has been a great buy up front. The rest of the season? A top six challenge is going to need John Hughes' best efforts in coaxing Premiership youngsters up North on loan.

So much for the dream - one win and five points so far. Even Yantorno, after a bright start, has faded dramatically and not a single player looks good enough for this level right now. Mileson's cheque book remains closed when his side need it the most. The rest of the season? Even if they fork out the massive amounts required for survival they still don't have an SPL stadium. To call the future bleak would be an understatement. Relegation, surely.

About as consistent as a Lotto number. Romanov's rotation appears to have messed up team spirit, and the constant substitutions of players who are putting in good performances beggars belief. Yet there's no talk of whichever puppet is currently in charge losing his job. And 500 grand for Christian Nade?! Graham Rix couldn't be worse than this. The rest of the season? Already losing ground on the teams above them, and bar a change in the management of the team that doesn't look likely to change, even with the next motley crew of Lithuanians that come in.

A nightmare end to 2007 has taken the shine of a fantastic start that had John Collins' side briefly leading the league after beating both Celtic and Rangers. However they have a defence that looks desperate when Rob Jones is out and there's still a huge Scott Brown-shaped hole in midfield. Give it another year, though, and Steven Fletcher could be the best of all the youngsters they've nurtured recently. The rest of the season? A return to form could yet see them as the best candidates for third, but they need to find some backbone.

A horrific start to the season with six defeats in a row but now back in their usual lower-mid table spot with three straight wins, thanks mainly to some long-needed solidity at the back. The rest of the season? Still lack some quality and Craig Brewster would need to get the best from his players to aspire to a top six place. Relegation, though, doesn't look an issue.

Crippled by an casualty list more suited to a World War I regiment, aided by the loss of Steven Naismith, all the good work done by Jim Jefferies has gone out the window as they slide down the table, with only one win in ten. The rest of the season? Surely when players come back, form will return with them, but it may be too late to repeat last year's sixth place.

Team of the season so far, without a doubt; they've come a long way since Muppet Malpas left. Who foresaw that they would lie third? Perhaps the sign of what a good manager can do for a club, methinks. The rest of the season? Depends partly on injuries affecting key players and whether they can hold onto Mark McGhee, but why shouldn't they stay third?

Much closer to Celtic this season, but still prone to silly defeats, having lost to Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United. Also still lacking consistency, especially away from home, and are still a player or two short of having the depth available to their rivals. Have also had a smashing European campaign. The rest of the season? They look more than equal to Celtic just know, but can they play better than this if they have to? Only time will tell.

Spent a fair bit on luring in players over the summer, but have keenly felt the loss of Kirk Broadfoot. The fact that they've scored only ten league goals so far tells you everything about why they are second from bottom. The rest of the season? If Gretna have a Lazarus moment, St. Mirren look the most likely to have brown trousers, but eleventh place will not appease the increasing numbers who expect better at Love Street.

And the team of the season right now -

Szamotulski (Dundee Utd)

Hutton (Rangers)
Cuellar (Rangers)
McManus (Celtic)
Murphy (Hibernian)

Brown (Celtic)
Kingston (Hearts)
Ferguson (Rangers)
McCulloch (Rangers)

McDonald (Celtic)
Fletcher (Hibernian)

Why do I feel that this may provoke an argument or two?


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Newcastle are out of Toon with reality

Yes, yes, I know, Newcastle United crashed to another defeat yesterday, 3-1 at Blackburn Rovers, despite leading and despite having as many chances to nick the three points. So United have only 1 point out of the last 15, and are now in real danger, lying in...eleventh place in the table.

Isn't this Newcastle's best start to a season since Bobby Robson managed them?

This time last season I watched on telly as Newcastle were humiliated by a 1-0 defeat at home to Watford and lay 19th. They were certainly more hopeless back then, yet Glenn Roeder was given to almost the end of last season. His predecessor, Graeme Souness, was given even more time to display his complete ineptitude and incompetence (can you tell I don't want him as Scotland coach?). And in both cases, while the fans turned on both eventually, they gave the benefit of the doubt for longer than most sets of supporters would.

So what's changed? Why is there a lynch mob baying for the blood of Sam Allardyce? Newcastle are going through a sticky patch, sure, and are struggling to hang onto the coat tails of the likes of Portsmouth and Everton, but there's still a cushion between them and the relegation fodder below. Is it simply because of this almost mythical belief that Big Sam's teams play long ball, dull footie, and the equally mythical belief that Newcastle fans deserve better?

Sorry, chaps, Bolton were never that boring, and just because Kevin Keegan played 4-2-4 and bought Tino Asprilla doesn't mean the rest have to follow his example. Do you think booing the players even before they touch the ball will improve their performance? Newcastle should be a top 6 team, I know, but the guy's only been there six months!

According to some papers, Mike Ashley, the new owner of Newcastle, may look to appease his disgruntled customers by chucking Allardyce his P45 this week. Note this though - only 2 of the teams ahead of them have changed manager in the last 12 months, and one of them is a Chelsea team that would be above Newcastle if I managed them. Stability is the watch word, for Pete's sake...