Friday, February 29, 2008

Respect for refs? How about they earn it?

So Gordon Smith caused a bit of a broo-ha-ha this week by claiming that referees are being unfairly treated. His defence of the men in black (if they wore black suits and sunglasses and shot aliens then I suspect they would just defend themselves!) came on the back of Craig Thomson's decision on Saturday to play on while Motherwell's David Clarkson was down with a head knock, leading to a Hearts goal. Clarkson later got subbed because of the injury. This is the latest in a succession of moans about referees, from St. Mirren's long running feud with Alan Freeland, to Gordon Strachan's touchline ban, to Craig Levein's general moaning about every ref in sight (but especially Dougie MacDonald). Of course, don't forget that there is barely an SPL game that doesn't finish with the referee being booed off the park, nor one in which the number of players mouthing off constantly at decisions is below double figures.

The trouble, I'm afraid, is that in Scotland right now the standard of refereeing is shocking.

There are a handful of them whose names, when read out on the tannoy at Caley Stadium, do not fill me with a sense of dread akin to that produced by the phrase "President George Bush". These include Kenny Clark, Stuart Dougal, and in fact, Thomson. But the others are so bad that you can actually tell how they will referee the game in advance. Calum Murray, for example, won't take out a card for anything in the first 20 minutes, and so you end up with Martin Taylor-esque tackles flying all over the place and a total loss of control. Eddie Smith, meanwhile, is whistle-happy (hence the soft free kick that Celtic got for the winner at Love Street last Saturday), will level up the penalties if he gives a soft one, and will bottle any major penalty or red card decision late in the game. Alan Freeland is the exception to the rule. Goodness knows what match he's watching, but it's never the one he's refereeing. It's like he's on a different universe, or that his brain is actually displaying pictures picked up from that Polish satellite broadcasting EPL games on Saturdays that can't legally be shown here.

Honestly, I'm not claiming they're crooked (not like the guy who sits beside me at Caley, who yells "Central belt bias" at every game, even after our slightly fortunate win over Celtic in December). Over the course of the season, I do believe that mistakes tend to mostly even out. But even if that is the case, it's not good enough; it's like saying "We accidentally charged you too much tax last month and too little this month, but you've ended up with the same anyway". But on the pitch, one dodgy penalty can turn 1pt into 3, while on another day it can turn 0pts into 1, and vice versa.

Am I being too harsh? Probably. I suppose the dozens of TV cameras at football matches (well, two - this is Setanta, after all) glaringly highlight all refereeing mistakes. But there are two things that are quite reasonably demanded by footballers, managers and fans - consistency and control. And how often do we get them? It's about as common as seeing Halley's Comet, or so it feels.

The answer? Well, they're only human, and all that. But there are refs out there like Pierluigi Collina, and now, in England, Howard Webb, who do make mistakes (and occasionally high-profile ones), yet escape almost any criticism. Why? Because they were always consistent with decisions, and they always had control of the games they were in charge of. So boys, how about giving all two footed challenges either a straight red or just a ticking off, rather than mixing and matching? And for the love of goodness, if a player appeals for a penalty and you think he hasn't been fouled, and the defender hasn't touched the ball, then it's b***** simulation and book him, for the love of criminy...


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gret back to where you once belonged

"Davie was a man who thought he was a goner,
A job he knew that couldn't last,
Davie left all the unpaid players down in Gretna
For some Greenock Morton grass"

I apologize for probably the worst attempt at a Beatles parody ever.

But the continued existence of Gretna, let alone their attempts to remain a side in the upper echelons of scottish football, now lives or dies with Brooks Mileson, apparently seriously ill in a hospital in Newcastle.

It's difficult to decide how to feel about the prospect of Gretna's demise. For a start, though, let's separate Brooks from this. His philanthropic attitude to lower league football has been a joy in recent years, and he's brought a lot of good to Scottish football with what he's done. For example, he funded countless supporters' trusts, and, even with ICT, he once provided, through his company, "Charlie's Angels" t-shirts for Caley's female fans after Charlie Christie became boss. If this turns out to be his last illness, he will be a great loss to the game.

That last statement does not, however, apply to Gretna.

They appear on the brink of being the fourth club in the SPL to go to administration, following Motherwell, Dundee and Livingston. All three of those were lucky in that they managed to stay up for at least another year, rather than instead ending up slumping down the divisions. In the case of the latter two, they were able to put their houses in order (in Livi's case only slightly) by the time of the inevitable drop to the SFL. 'Well, meanwhile, got away with sacking a ton of players and staff - unfortunately lessons from this have not been learnt.

Let's face it, there is absolutely no football supporter in the country who was ever remotely deluded enough to believe that the Gretna "dream" was sustainable. My fear was that they might have enough lolly to fund staying up for two years, thus potentially relegating Caley. But even if they managed that, a team with such a tiny fan base was never going to make it in the long term.

The speed of the demise (if this is what it is), though, does come as a surprise. There is something distinctly amateurish about the whole thing if it entirely rests on one man putting a cheque in the bank every week. But once more the SPL has failed to see this disaster coming, despite it's complete failure to learn from the debacles of the past. For crying out loud, this is a team that still doesn't even have a slightly worthy stadium for top league football (in fact Raydale Park is on the brink of losing it's safety certificate - think Brockville without the atmosphere). Davie Irons has already legged it, but what about the players - are they now stuck at the club because of the transfer window? - and all the other staff who suddenly aren't getting paid? This was utterly preventable, yet potentially dozens of families in the South of Scotland this week are without some of their income. It's not funny.

I'm sorry, Gretna fans. I slag your club off only in the way I would slag Albion Rovers fans if someone bankrolled them to the top division. As Inverness, Falkirk and St. Mirren are now showing, the only way to get up and stay there is to do it slowly and carefully. If you depend on one wallet, then what do you do when it's empty?


Monday, February 18, 2008

See you, Jimmy!

This might be the only time ever that I compare Aberdeen boss Jimmy Calderwood with his counterpart at Liverpool, Rafa Benitez. Here goes, though: both these guys depend on European competition for their current employment.

It's quite blatant, as I pointed out even before the debacle against Barnsley, where Liverpool showed as much backbone as a starfish (have I used that simile before? I can't be bothered reading previous posts to check) , Rafa Benitez is a dead man walking. He has pretty decent players at his disposal, you have to say, but their season now effectively rests on the Champions League. Again. 46 million spent in the summer, and the entire campaign now rests on a match against Inter Milan on February. Liverpool are the footballing equivalent of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (except Romney maybe didn't spend quite as much money, and at least he came second).

Meanwhile, whisper it in the North-East, at least until after the return game in Munich, but take away the UEFA Cup campaign and Aberdeen have been underachieving considerably. Third in the table last year, they currently lie eighth in the SPL after defeat at Easter Road on Sunday. To be fair, the fans have noticed; while they will cheer all night long in matches against Copenhagen and Bayern, I was at the recent defeat to Hearts, where the Dons showed the attacking instincts of a panda and offer about as much entertainment value as having your knee replaced. The home fans were irate, and rightly so; more ominously, the anger was directed towards none other than the Tango Man himself. If you recall the next home game, an absolute gubbing by Celtic (note to the press, one great game at Pittodrie does not automatically put Aiden McGeady on a par with the world's best) then the Bayern result seems more and more like the luckiest result since OJ Simpson got off.

Yes, we're all aware that Aberdeen are still apparently 12mil in debt (how do you manage to still be only breaking even when you haven't paid a transfer fee in 2 years and you sold your best player for secven figures in July?) and that might explain why they have lost two seasoned players on the cheap in the transfer window. But how can teenage loan signings from down South be a long term solution? They are hardly going to stay next year, so what do you do, bring in more loan signings? And what if they aren't as good as the last ones?

And sorry, Jimmy, but when you were Dunfermline manager you used to play ridiculously offensive teams, and you were lauded for it. What's happening now? He at least showed intiative by using 2 strikers on Thursday, but no longer do you see full-backs over the halfway line, nor do you see more than two of the midfielders ever advancing beyond the centre circle. It's dull and boring, and add the lack of quality to that and you might well have a cure for insomnia. Yet, if your defence was this poor (Diamond and Considine are erratic and clumsy, McNamara is miles past it and they don't call Mair "Night" for nothing), surely you might as well play on the attack? They've shifted 14 goals in 4 games, for the love of goodness. In reality, if Lee Miller leaves at the end of the season (he probably will) where are Aberdeen going to get goals from? Only he and Jamie Smith show any sort of cutting edge.

So, in conclusion, Aberdeen have under-performing players, poor tactics and apparently empty wallets. And the heroes are two 18 year olds who will leave in May. They're red, they're dead, and they're not bouncing on anybody's heads any time soon. That's even if they avoid the drubbing at the Allianz Arena.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Six appeal

Go on, predict the teams that will join the Old Firm in the top half of the table when the league splits in April. Dare you.

With eight matches to go, 3 points separate 5th and 9th. Dundee United and Motherwell have a teensy wee cushion, but still look potentially vulnerable. And even despite the New Year renaissance from both Edinburgh's clubs, there is still a chance that both Falkirk and Inverness could squeeze in and get that money-spinning extra home game against one of the Old Firm. Basically, the composition of the top six is currently about as easy to predict as the christian name of a child of Coldplay's Chris Martin.

And that is why, at this time of the season, the idea of the splitting the league is a good one. Once we get to 33 games, unless by chance there is a European place still up for grabs, the games will become about as pointless as a Spice Girls reunion (but, like the aforementioned reunion, they will still have to be endured). But would it be any different if the league didn't split, and two mid-table teams with nothing to play for met in early May?

Anyway, with Hibs v Aberdeen and Caley v Dundee Utd this weekend, there is a fair bit to play for. And let us hope that a little blow is inflicted on the Arabs this weekend, eh?


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Munchen on scraps tonight

I would kill for a ticket for tonights Aberdeen-Bayern game. All right, that's a downright exaggeration and lie. I wouldn't even give a limb (though I would if you could get me to Old Trafford on Saturday night). But I would give quite a few of your British pounds in order to savour the experience.

There are two reasons for this. One is the fact that it's a sell out. The dullest match can be made a gazillion times better just by the presence of a loud, boisterous, on edge crowd. If they're Aberdeen fans (who, quite frankly, are only happy when their teams playing crap and losing to a team just as crap, and the referees having a shocker), then all the better. Back when I was a student, games against the Old Firm would sell out, and, particularly when it was Rangers (I was at the match where the riot police turned up - it was a shocker of a game, actually, apart from Amoruso's magnificent long range strike), Pittodrie was a glorious bubbling pot of emotions. Tonight will be like that. At least until Bayern score their fourth goal.

And that leads us on nicely to my second reason. In this neck of the woods, you just don't get to see players of this quality. Not since the days of Laudrup and Larsson (if I needed to choose one, I'd have Henrik, but only just; they're practically deities as far as I'm concerned) has Scottish football really had world class players on show. I know we still have the likes of Ferguson, Nakamura and, um, Mikoliunas (just testing that you're still concentrating), but it's not the same. This is why I did that 600 mile round trip just to watch Gerrard and Torres at Middlesbrough on a cold Saturday in January, and why it was completely and utterly worth it.

So tonight Bayern turn up with names like Kahn, Toni, Klose, Podolski, Schweinsteiger - which really does mean pig-herder or something - Lucio, Ze Roberto, names that we'll still remember 10 or 15 years down the line as players who, at their peak, lit up their part of the footballing world. And 22,000 Dons fans will be able to say they saw them play. If only Ribery was there too...

As an aside, I appear to have been asked to write the match report for for Caley's home game with Dundee United on Saturday. I shall do my best to throw all my smart wit at it (so that won't take long, then), though if we lose it will probably read more like a suicide note. Anyway, my pseudonym is "Hislopsoffsideagain" - anyone who isn't a Caley fan and recognises the reference should win a prize (but won't because I'm a tight sod)

Keep the comments coming, chaps, there's nothing I like better than to read the rants of people just as deluded as I am, although in the case of the Montrose fan I really do think some professional help might be needed - there are clearly a few underlying issues there...


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Academical thinking still evades SPL

To the massive relief of pretty much everybody involved in the SPL, Gretna are going to be relegated as a result of their performance on the pitch, rather than as a consequence of red tape. The minnows have, by all accounts, been about as successful as the Sinclair C5, and at times have been about as much of a joke as well. The club's actions through the January transfer window - releasing almost all their senior players to sign for Division One teams, and replace them with teenage loan signings from English Championship sides - suggests, to me, that they are resigned to dropping down a tier. When your manager is linked with taking over the team second from bottom of the division below (yes, Davie Irons, despite having as much experience of victory as an Andorran international footballer and also looking like he is constantly sucking a lemon, has been linked with Morton this week), you can tell that things are not going swimmingly.

So Gretna will disappear, as will the potential issue of where the heck they would play next year. Not just because they have completely failed to build a new stadium, nor because they haven't made the slightest effort to renovate Raydale Park (an area that looks more like a landfill site than a football ground), but also due to the massive disaster that ground-sharing at Fir Park has caused, with the pitch now vaguely resembling a swamp and attendances barely scraping four figures. I'm sorry, but even Caley managed to take two thousand to Pittodrie when they were stuck there, and that was double the distance and the A96 does not have anything remotely in common with the motorway Gretna fans need to zip up to reach home games. The whole thing has been a little bit of an embarassment for everyone, but in May we should be able to put it behind us and move on.

Except we might not be able to, as their potential replacements are Hamilton Academical.

On the face of it, Hamilton and Gretna are like two peas in the pod. Hamilton's last, brief visit to the top league was in 1988/89, and they were actually in Div 3 back in 2000, but managed to haul themselves back up to Div 1 over the next 4 years by sound management and sensible investment. Their squad consists of good young players, one or two guys picked up from England, and a few lower league journeyman. The coach, Billy Reid, made his name at Clyde and has continued his work at the Accies. Their current support is not phenomenal (2,000 at the game with St. Johnstone on Saturday) but ICT did not exactly pack in the fans before promotion either. And if they do win the division, it results in (at least) three pretty fun derbies with Motherwell.

The point I'm trying to make is, while they might find the step up to be pretty darn difficult, Hamilton appear on the surface to be a sound addition to the SPL for next year, bringing no worries of financial trouble or controversy with them. The trouble is that the controversy is there. Unfortunately, if you go by the "logic" that harassed the promotions of Inverness and Gretna, and by the experience that Dunfermline had as well, Hamilton's promotion bid will be dogged by two major issues; firstly, their stadium is not (yet) big enough, and secondly, they have an artificial pitch.

If Accies have any sense, they will be able to make the stadium size thingummy a non-event. Whoever chose to build New Douglas Park just 700 seats short of the 6,000 limit (all right, it was designed long before that rule, but it's beside the point) deserves a slap. But the SPL has been happy with small temporary stands before, so get some Cowboys to knock up a 1,000 seats overnight and Bob's your uncle. But you just know, deep in the pit of your soul, that the league will pick a fight over the turf. Common sense might suggest that, in light of all the trouble caused by weather this winter (the whole insistence on undersoil heating looks pretty freaking stupid now), promoting artificial pitches is the way to go; Hamilton use the same one as Montrose, and I have had the privilege to walk on the Links Park pitch - it's soft, grippy and, because there are no bobbles or divots, it's conducive to good passing football, even in Division 3. Anyone who claims it causes more injuries is either a twit, or a wuss, or both. I've kept goal on crappier astro than that, without coming away with anything worse than skinned knees (and you get those on grass, by the way).

But common sense is as anathema to the SPL as spending money is to Stewart Milne. So, with an air of inevitability, Hamilton's promotion, if it happens, will lead inexorably to another struggle and another reason why the SPL is a bit of a laughing stock. They know that, and that's why they are praying that Hamilton blow it and Dundee can be welcomed back with open arms instead. But the way forward is to let Hamilton in as they are, to bring a wee bit of fresh air, and give them the chance to compete on a level playing field - by that I don't just mean in terms of the pitch.


Monday, February 4, 2008

A pyramid has a point, and not just literally

David Longmuir, chief executive of the SFL, told the Sunday Herald yesterday that the league was finally willing to consider a pyramid system. While the professional game in Scotland has admitted 5 new clubs in my lifetime - Inverness, Ross County, Gretna, Peterhead and Elgin - only two teams in forty years have left it; Third Lanark and Airdrieonians, both not because of poor performances, but because of bankruptcy. Airdrie, of course were resurrected when Clydebank were bought and became Airdrie United. When was the last time a club was chucked for actually being hopeless? I can't be bothered checking, because it would take ages and involve going back about 50 years. At least.

But it's a good idea, I think. If you want to find most of the good reasons, look at the Scottish Third Division. It includes a few teams who are well run (well, one - East Fife) and a few who are finding new ways of making themselves financially viable (Montrose and Stenhousemuir with their plastic pitches). But mostly it includes teams who have been stuck down there as long as I can remember (Albion Rovers, East Stirlingshire and, since they joined, Elgin City) and others who simply don't have the fans or income to sustain any sort of success in the current climate (Dumbarton, Arbroath, Forfar). In the case of the latter two, it's because Angus, while situated within driving distance of Aberdeen, Dundee United and Dundee, still tries to sustain no fewer than four teams, of which only Brechin are not in the bottom tier. Too many SFL teams are too close together - think East Stirling and Stenhousemuir (both are also next door to Falkirk). Meanwhile, there still isn't a team in the Borders.

A promotion/relegation system might be cruel, because it would potentially lead to a cull of the teams at the bottom of Div 3; however, to an unbiased observer, that would provide more competition and, by economic law at least, improve quality. Geographical imbalance could be addressed, with potential entrance from the South Of Scotland League, East Of Scotland League and the Highland League. Most importantly, though, Junior teams need to come into it; Pollok and Linlithgow Rose showed that in this year's Cup.

Basically we need a pyramid which goes just like it does in every major footballing country in Europe - as soon as you get beyond the third or fourth tier it should be regional, go any lower and it should be practically at amateur level, and most importantly, it should go all the way to rock bottom. Quite a number of current SFL teams might not be sustainable, but if that leads to mergers to keep clubs alive, resulting in teams with a bigger fanbase and more geographical pulling power, is that so bad in the long run? An "Angus United" team could potentially get close to Dundee and St. Johnstone in terms of attendances.

My mate who supports Montrose will crucify me for saying that. Mostly because he knows I'm right.

On the other hand, Mr. Longmuir, Old Firm reserves in the league? You've got to be joking. For one thing, they'd probably be too good for everyone else...


Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Burke is back, but Hibees still lack sting

From what I saw of today's cup match, Hibs-Rangers looked like possibly the most entertaining 0-0 draw ever. (How come only Rugby Park got to see goals in the cup? Bizarre) The scoreline wasn't for want of trying; it has to be said that both goalkeepers - yes, even Ma-Kalambay, who, in terms of reliability, is the footballing equivalent of a Lada - had blinders. At least up until the dying seconds.

Obviously, as he pushed the ball past Allan McGregor, Dean Shiels must have had some sort of visual hallucination caused by the stifling Edinburgh heat, for he clearly forgot he was at Easter Road and instead believed for a few seconds that he was running towards a swimming pool in the Maldives. Hence, with completely, absolutely no contact whatsoever from the Rangers no.1 (and not even a half-assed attempt to trip him), Shiels threw himself flat on his face. I certainly can't think of any other possible explanation. Anyway, Craig Thomson also clearly suffers from hallucinations, as he decided McGregor had tripped him, and sent him off. In short, Thomson got it completely wrong and Shiels is a cheating little scumbag. I hope Gordon Smith takes note, since he insisted months ago that he was going to try to get players banned for diving.

Thankfully, from the point of view of that great beautiful goddess Justice, Shiels clearly only has as many brain cells as he has eyes. For if he had kept going and stuck the ball in the net, rather than punt it towards the stand and keel over, Hibs would have surely held on for a few more secs and nicked a place in the next round. Instead, it was only a free kick that got skied, the game finished 0-0 and Hibs face a replay at Ibrox. And Rangers can put another Scottish international in goal now, in Neil Alexander. Well done, Dean. Pat on the back, eh? Prat. Complete and utter prat. I hope you get what's coming to you.

It didn't really happen for Rangers today, but they still had the better of it and should have finished things today. However, it's good to see 8 Scots in the starting 11, and even better to see Chris Burke once more gliding past defenders like, well, a glider, I suppose, his ginger hair flowing behind him. Mind you, I could have sworn he was wearing a hairband today, unless I'm the next person seeing things. I wouldn't wear that out on the town in Govan, Chris. Burkey had a smashing game, and was at the centre - well, to the right if you want to be literal - of every good thing Rangers did. Let's hope he can stay off the treatment table for a bit.

Meanwhile, Hibs continue to underwhelm despite big Mixu, the only SPL manager as wide as he is tall. Take Steven Fletcher out of that team and they have the cutting edge of a spoon. Maybe that's because John Collins didn't adequately replace the talent he and Tony Mowbray lost because the club couldn't afford to keep them (here's the list: Garry O'Connor, Derek Riordan, Gary Caldwell, Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown, Chris Killen, Ivan Sproule, Steven Whittaker, David Murphy and the now returned Ian Murray) - basically that's an entire 11 apart from a goalie; I'm not old enough to remember when Hibs last had a goalie worth selling. But whether it's because of the lack of resources available to them or because of poor transfer dealings (and a lot of Collins' summer signings were worse than being gored by a rabid rhinoceros), Hibs are a shadow of what they were about 2 years ago under Mowbray. Instead of looking like a strong challenger for third, they are now clearly stuck back with the Invernesses and Falkirks of this world, at least for this season. In order to get the cash he needs to rebuild properly, Mixu may yet need to resort to Fight Club-esque tactics, and sell the products of his liposuction as prime Finnish soap.

Still, here's one little fact for Paatelainen to cling to - at least Hibs are still look in better trim than Kilmarnock...