Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Mourinho was to arrive at Stamford Bridge a year after Abramovich; instead the zillionaire chose to give Claudio Ranieri, the incumbent coach, the chance to prove himself. To be fair on the Tinkerman, as he was known for his fondness for squad rotation, he did take Chelsea to second in the league (behind Arsenal), an improvement on fourth the previous campaign, and, having knocked the Gunners out of the Champions League, they really should have been in the final against Mourinho's Porto, only to completely bugger up the semi against Monaco; at 1-1 in the first leg away from home, Monaco had a player sent off, and Ranieri uncharacteristically gambled by throwing on another forward, only to watch in horror as the French side nicked two late goals. In the second leg, Chelsea led 2-0 (and so on away goals) only to end up drawing 2-2.
Monaco went on to be humped in the final, and Ranieri was done for, having failed to deliver either of the big prizes despite enough funding to bring in Glen Johnson, Geremi, Wayne Bridge, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu, Alexey Smertin, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele and Scott Parker - a cool 122.3 million pounds. No, really. Though I suppose that it would only buy two Kakas, or one and a half Cristiano Ronaldos. And Mr. Special One, fresh from winning the Champions League (a season after beating Celtic in the UEFA Cup final), was the man to replace him. Of course, he was given a blank cheque book as well, though he spent "only" 91 million, which included such Chelsea luminaries as Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho, along with useful players such as Paulo Ferreira and Arjen Robben, and, er, less useful players such as Tiago and Mateja Kezman. But, with both Arsenal and Man Utd going through a transitional period, they were the favourites for the title and duly delivered.
Much has been made of the season that Arsenal's "invincibles" won the title without losing a match; yet 2004-05, the following season, saw Chelsea lose only one match, in October at Manchester City, as they won the title by a country mile, scoring three more points than Arsene Wenger's side had done before. Mourinho's side were certainly solid at the back, with Cech, Carvalho, Makelele and John Terry, but a front three of Duff, Robben and Drogba effectively established the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation as a tactic which went on to be frequently copied by most other teams in the country. The only let down was another European failure; after a sensational win over Barcelona, they were knocked out by Luis Garcia's so-called "ghost goal" for Liverpool, who went on to the final at Istanbul. More of that later...
Chelsea lost a whole five matches in the league the following year...not that it stopped them winning the title again. But this time Barca got revenge and knocked them out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. The cracks were beginning to appear in the manager-owner relationship, and in 2006-07, Mourinho's side were pipped by a revitalized Manchester United in the league, though they did win the FA Cup and the League Cup. But The Special One just wasn't special enough to win the biggest trophy of them all - Liverpool won another European semi, this time on penalties. There was a strange inevitability about Mourinho's departure in September 2007.
A fat lot of good it's done Abramovich. Avram Grant couldn't win the league or the Champions League, whilst Luis Felipe Scolari was a disaster. But Chelsea remain a major force in English and European football even as the Russian has reined in his spending. Even though the rest have caught up with Chelsea, they changed the football landscape beyond recognition.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
In several alternate universes, Albert Kidd would have been remembered by no-one but a few die-hard, geeky Dundee fans. But in this universe, Kidd is the man who, with two goals in the final ten minutes of the last game of the season, denied Hearts the 1985-86 title, handing it to Celtic on goal difference. Those were the only two goals the striker scored all season.
Therefore, it seems quite apt that when, in May 2003, the SPL was once more decided by subtracting goals conceded from goals scored, it was ultimately Dundee and Hearts, in combination, who denied Celtic the title.
2002-03 was the pinnacle of the Old Firms’ dominance of the Scottish football, although signs of belt-tightening were beginning to emerge. Neither team made much in the way of big name summer signings beforehand; Celtic, after two seasons of big-money buys such as Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Neil Lennon and Alan Thompson, were well equipped anyway. Rangers, financially drained by the excesses of Dick Advocaat (£1m for Marcus Gayle, anyone?) completed the signing of Spaniard Mikel Arteta, brought in on loan six months previously and balanced the books by deceiving Peter Reid into giving £7m of Sunderland’s cash to them in exchange for Tore Andre Flo. But both teams had strength in depth that seems almost unbelievable six years on. Celtic still had the likes of Henrik Larsson and Stiliyan Petrov at their peak, whilst Rangers could boast Amoruso, Moore and Ricksen at the back, Barry Ferguson (who has never surpassed the level his performances reached that season) and Arteta and midfield, and Ronald De Boer providing the spark. The gap between second and third at the end of the season was a whopping 34 points. Between them, the Old Firm scored 199 league goals.
Champions in 2001-02, Celtic appeared stronger initially, especially after Rangers suffered one of the traditional Scottish-team-in-Europe catastrophies that inevitably occurs every season or two, crashing to obscure Czechs Viktoria Zizkov in their first UEFA Cup tie. But, like Rangers six seasons later, Celtic (who had also been dumped out of the Champions League early, by Basle of Switzerland), found themselves on an epic UEFA Cup run, forcing themselves past some rather illustrious opponents - Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista - to earn their place against Porto in the final in Seville, where, despite a truly heroic performance from Larsson, Celtic succumbed 3-2 to the might of Jose Mourinho.
The European campaign, comprising a total of 15 matches, took its toll, not least in the cups. Three days after battling to a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park in the first leg of the quarter-final with Liverpool, a tie best remembered for the incredible joint-rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by the two sets of fans, Celtic faced their deadly rivals in the League Cup final. Rangers had lost an Old Firm game only a week before, but prevailed 2-1 at Hampden, with John Hartson missing a late penalty that would have taken the match to extra time. To cap it all, Chris Sutton broke his wrist, but even in his absence Martin O’Neill’s side produced a sensational upset at Anfield, winning 2-0 as Hartson made amends for his cup final miss with a stunning solo goal. But with several players exhausted, a second-string team was sent to Inverness for the Scottish Cup quarter-final at the weekend, only to meet the same fate as John Barnes’ misfits three years earlier (though of course, considering the strides made over that period, the result was hardly going to wound O’Neill). Rangers would go on to win that competition too.
But by the Spring, there was no guarantee that the title race would go to the wire, as on April 19th at Tynecastle, it appeared to take a decisive twist. Larsson struck to give Celtic the lead, but Phil Stamp equalized before, with the seconds running out, full-back Austin McCann smashed in a screamer to give Hearts all three points. Rangers were now eight points clear, although they had played a game extra, and had only five matches to play. A draw or better at Ibrox the next weekend, in the last Old Firm meeting of the season, would surely clinch the title. But the Hoops, galvanised by the late winner from their talismanic Swede in Portugal against Boavista three days earlier which had clinched their UEFA Cup final place, produced a effort so superhuman that my father, laid low with the flu, had been miraculously cured by half-time simply through sheer adrenaline. And he wasn’t even a Celtic fan. The last of Rangers’ points advantage went down the tubes when they blew a two goanl lead at Dens Park and were held to a draw by Dundee.
But Dundee were just as up for trying to cripple Celtic’s challenge, when the sides met at Celtic Park on a Wednesday evening televised by the BBC. With goal difference becoming increasingly relevant, Rangers had thwacked Kilmarnock 4-0 a few days earlier. Celtic were not to be outdone – after Dundee had equalized an early goal, Shaun Maloney and Alan Thompson turned on the style as Celtic ran up six goals. But in injury time, with the home side throwing caution to the wind in the search of a seventh, defender Lee Mair foraged forward as part of a counter-attack and struck a late consolation goal. It would prove critical. Four days after losing in Seville, Celtic faced a travel to Kilmarnock on the final day. Rangers were up against Dunfermline at home. Goal difference was level, but Rangers had scored one more goal, giving them a tiny advantage.
Initially the cheers came for the green side of Glasgow, when Dunfermline equalized an early Rangers opener, but by half-time Rangers were 3-1 up while Celtic were ahead 2-0. An Alan Thompson penalty for Celtic extended their lead and temporarily put them in the driving seat, but Ronald De Boer and Stephen Thompson scored in quick succession; at the exact moment as the latter player struck, his Celtic namesake hit the post with his second spotkick. Right to the end, nails were being bitten away, as Celtic led 4-0 and Rangers 5-1, but a last gasp penalty from Arteta made sure the title was wrapped in blue ribbons.
Celtic won nothing. Rangers collected the treble. 17 years after Albert Kidd, a Hearts full-back produced a goal which severely dented Celtic’s hopes, and a late consolation goal from another defender, this time in the same dark blue as worn by Kidd back in 1986, ended up, retrospectively, to be the critical nail in the coffin. With the Old Firm drastically weakened since, along with the rest of Scottish football, it remains to be seen whether we will witness this sort of excitement again.
Friday, December 11, 2009
In the summer of 2001, the Galactico era at Real Madrid entered a new phase. Twelve months earlier, Real had pulled off an incredible coup by purchasing Luis Figo from hated rivals Barcelona, to join great players (and great egos) such as Roberto Carlos and Raul. But nothing compared to the capture of Zinedine Zidane, the Frenchman who had been undeniably the top footballer in the world since he led his country to 1998 World Cup glory. Zidane cost 46 million squids, a world record fee by a distance, but he fitted the bill; he was the best there was, so Real Madrid had to have him.
When he signed for Real, Zidane was 29 years old, and at the peak of his powers. In truth, he had already achieved about as much as he could with Juventus - two Serie A championships, plus a run of close-but-no-cigar moments in the Champions League, including two final defeats. Italian football was beginning to fall behind England and Spain at club level (a trend that continues even now) and if Zidane was to win the one trophy eluding him - he was, of course, a World Cup and European Championship winner at international level - he would have to leave Turin. In a team with the current World Player of the Year, Luis Figo, a lethal striker in Raul, and one of the best young keepers around, Iker Casillas, Zizou would not get a better chance.
Not all went to plan for Real and their ambitious (to say the least) chairman Florentino Perez. They had been La Liga champions in 2000-01, but even with Zidane in harness, they slipped back to third in the table the following campaign - its incredible to think that Valencia, under Rafa Benitez, pipped Deportivo La Coruna to the title, whilst Barcelona came in a miserable fourth. But Real Madrid's mandate was the Champions League. Historically, its previous incarnation, the European Cup, had been won so often by the legendary side of the 1950s, with Di Stefano and Puskas leading the charge, that there seemed little point in moving the trophy out of Spain. After a thirty year barren period, the Madridistas won it once more in 1998 (defeating a Juve side containing Zidane) and again in 2000. If the galacticos were to go galactic, they needed to win it again.
And in May 2002, they were back in the final, to be played at Hampden Park. Hampden was a location special to the hearts of Real; it was the place of their greatest triumph, the almost mythical 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the final of 1960. Puskas scored four, Di Stefano a mere hat-trick, in front of 135,000 fans. And forty-two years on, Real Madrid once more faced German opposition, in the fairly unheralded Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen were a solid side, but their stars, German international midfielder Michael Ballack and Brazilian defender Lucio, were nothing on what their opponents had. But they had been good enough to knock Manchester United out in the semi-finals, and they were good enough to level things up through a Lucio goal after Raul had pounced to give Real an early lead.
But in the dying seconds of the first half, the Spanish side launched one more attack before the half-time whistle. Roberto Carlos, always more interested in attacking than defending from his left back role, sped down the left wing to try and reach a long ball. He arrived just before the full back, but succeeded only in launching the ball high into the night sky. Raul and his strike partner, Fernando Morientes, had moved into the penalty area anticipating a cross, taking the defence with them. The ball instead began to return to earth towards the "D". Zidane had arrived there, with no defenders tracking him.
The ball took such an age to drop that it almost appeared like slow motion. Zidane watched the ball all the way down, and wrenched his left leg to the height of his shoulder, where his instep met the ball, turning the play from slow motion to fast forward as his shot rocketed past the goalkeeper into the top corner. What a technique. What a goal. What an occasion to score on.
And it was his weaker foot.
Any team would have been stunned by that strike. Leverkusen showed considerable spirit in fighting back in the second half, only to be denied by desperate defending and a string of saves. The immaculate volley proved to be the winning goal. Zidane had his Champions' League medal. It would prove his pinnacle, and that of Real's - while the signing of Ronaldo the next summer brought another league title, neither he nor later arrival David Beckham could take them back to another final. Zidane, meanwhile, had that summer's World Cup wrecked by injury, and never quite looked the same player again, at least apart from his indian summer at Germany 2006. More of that later...
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Barthez, Thuram, Desailly, Blanc, Lizarazu, Vieira, Deschamps, Djorkaeff, Zidane, Dugarry, Henry.
Might this be the greatest international XI ever? Older generations talk about the 1970 Brazilians, or the Total Football Dutch who followed them. But each of these eleven players were part of the French side that won the 1998 World Cup on home soil. Considered outsiders initially, Aime Jacquet's side made great use of home advantage and the emerging talents of Zinedine Zidane, along with a fortunate draw (only Italy stand out amongst their pre-final adversaries, with South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Paraguay and Croatia hardly behemoths of the tournament) and the bizarre pre-final seizure suffered by Ronaldo that utterly destroyed the preparations of Brazil.
So Jacquet's successor, Roger Lemerre, took France to the 2000 European Championships, just across the border in Belgium and Holland, with his side as one of the obvious favourites, but also question marks over just how appropriate the moniker of World Champions was. But Lemerre's side were two years older, and two years better. The likes of captain Didier Deschamps, defensive rock Laurent Blanc and attacker Youri Djorkaeff were in their thirties, but had lost none of their pace or skills, whilst the younger stars of the World Cup win, players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet, had improved from promising youngsters into world-class players. Add in the likes of Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram and, of course, the talismanic Zidane, who were all at the peak of their powers, and this was a team that oozed quality and had remarkable depth. And they had something to prove.
Euro 2000 was, frankly, damn good. Every group had incident. Kevin Keegan's England were at the centre of affairs - first blowing a two goal lead in a 3-2 defeat to a thrilling but volatile (as would become apparent later on), Portuguese side, but looked set to qualify after seeing off an uncharacteristically weak Germany with a single Alan Shearer goal. Though England appeared strong on paper, with Shearer and Michael Owen up front and David Beckham and Paul Scholes in midfield, Keegan's tactics ("he thinks they're a sort of mint", claimed David Mellor) were naive at best and they were hardly as good as the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, they appeared destined for the knockout stages after taking a 2-1 halftime lead against Romania in their final group match, with a draw sufficient for progression. However, a blunder by backup goalkeeper Nigel Martyn, in for the injured David Seaman, gifted an equalizer, and then as time ticked away Phil Neville guaranteed himself a free lager on any subsequent trip North of the border by giving away a daft penalty that condemned England to a 3-2 defeat and elimination. Portugal, meanwhile, stormed the group with maximum points, finishing off by stuffing Germany with their reserves. Ouch.
Considering France's easy group two years earlier, it seemed fitting that they be dumped into the group of death (there's always one) with the Dutch co-hosts, plus the up-and-coming Czechs and Denmark; the latter proved unable to cope in their first tournament after the retirement of the great Laudrup brothers, and managed to lose all three matches without scoring a goal. France and Holland both won their first two games, clinching qualification before playing each other. Lemerre rested several players whilst the hosts did not; regardless, it was a close, thrilling match which saw the Dutch come from behind to win 3-2 and take top spot.
The other host nation, Belgium, did not do nearly as well, despite beating Sweden in their first game, as a nightmare performance in their final match by goalkeeper Filip De Wilde, against Turkey, resulted in defeat and an early exit at the expense of the victors. In between, the Belgians lost to Italy, who romped the group despite pre-tournament doubters. Dino Zoff, the coach, had lost his goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and star striker Christian Vieri to injury, whilst Alessandro Del Piero was half fit and Roberto Baggio retired. So Zoff dared to build his side around the Roman Francesco Totti, a player who flattered to deceive at several international tournaments to come but who repaid his coaches faith with a series of staggering performances as the second striker. Add a typically solid defence containing living legends such as Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and the evergreen Paolo Maldini, and the Nerazzuri stormed through a fairly weak section.
They would then see off Romania in the quarter finals, and then knocked out the Dutch in a penalty shoot out in the semis, in a match where the Netherlands missed two penalties in normal time and three more in the shootout, against opponents who played much of the game with only ten man, setting up a final against France, who had knocked out Spain and Portugal to get to Rotterdam.
Spain, of course, had qualified in circumstances now renowned; having lost to the robust, long-ball Norwegians in their opening game before beating Slovenia, they had to defeat Yugoslavia to go through in what is now recognized as one of the most incredible matches ever. Twice the Serbs went in front, but twice Spain equalized. Hopes were raised when Yugoslavia had a man sent off, but they nicked a goal from a set play, and led 3-2 entering injury time. In the 91st minute, Spain pulled level with a penalty, but it was not enough; in the fifth minute of injury time, the ball was launched forward one last time, and bounced to the feet of Alfonso, who simply closed his eyes and put his foot through it. Cue raucous celebration, cue Motty nearly having a coronary in the commentary box. Spain were through, but so to were Yugoslavia, as Norway paid for their safety first policy by going out after a 0-0 draw in their last game. The Spanish lost a thrilling quarter-final 2-1 to the French; Yugoslavia lost a not-so-thrilling game 6-1 to the Dutch.
If the games so far were incident-packed enough, that was nothing on the France-Portugal semi. Zidane's golden goal penalty, three minutes away from a penalty shoot out, won it, after Abel Xavier was sent off for handball on the line; He, and two other Portugal players, were banned for several months for shoving and abusing the ref. Somehow, Zidane kept his nerve in all the chaos and put France through to a showdown to Italy. The final itself would need a golden goal to win it, but it hardly went to the script; Zoff's previously pragmatic, safety first side took the initiative and led through Marco Delvecchio, and spurned several chances to increase their lead - Del Piero was especially guilty. France toiled for long periods and lacked their usual creative juices, but in the 94th minute substitute Sylvain Wiltord stole in to equalize and take it to extra time, then another sub, Trezeguet, wellied in a golden goal. France won the title their team (if not their performance in the final) deserved.
It would be their peak Blanc and Deschamps retired, and preparations for the 2002 World Cup were ruined by injury to Zidane. They crashed out of that tournament without scoring a goal, and then fell to Greece at Euro 2004's quarter final stage. The side that reached the final of the World Cup in Germany were, in truth, a far inferior team. But then, so was every other international side of the decade. The 2000 Bleus were truly a class above.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I'm on annual leave for the next fortnight, so I intend to use the time in between studying to look back at the events that had the most impact on the (not so) beautiful game during the noughties. I like the idea of coming up with ten, though only time will tell if I can. Some will be focused on Scotland, while some will be in English or European club football, and some will be international.
None, you'll be reassured to hear, will be focused on my own endeavours on Inverness' all weather pitch on a Monday night...though if anyone would like to hear more about my magnificent hat-trick yesterday evening, feel free to ask.
The first of the great moments of the decade is, shall we say, rather close to my heart. Not least because, when I was in New Zealand in 2006 and I mentioned I was from Inverness, all the kiwis (none of whom had any interest at all in football) immediately brought up one thing.
Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious.
Yes, I'm an Inverness fan, so obviously I am massively biased over this. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that this match, and it's aftermath, shaped the future of Scottish football for years to come. On February 8th 2000, Inverness, spending their first season in the first division, travelled to play Celtic at Celtic Park on a Wednesday night in the third round of the Scottish Cup. The match was originally to be played ten days earlier, but was postponed after a piece of guttering on the roof of one of the stands came loose, becoming a potential hazard.
Caley Thistle had only existed for six years. Initially a squad made up mostly of former Inverness Caledonian players, the club had been dragged forward by Steve Paterson, an Elgin-born social worker and former Manchester United prodigy who had been appointed as manager in 1995. Paterson is now often remembered less for his achievements at Inverness and, prior to that, in the Highland League, and more for his subsequent failures at Aberdeen and well documented drink and gambling problems. But under the direction of "Pele" (his nickname tells you just how well regarded he was as a player before injuries befell him), Inverness won two promotions in three years, with a squad containing the best of the Highland League and a few other players lured up from the central belt. Barely any of the playing staff from the club's formation remained.
One of the survivors was the goalkeeper Jim Calder, a bricklayer by trade who had past experience of a cup-tie with Celtic, for Calder was the only Inverness Thistle player to join the merged club in 1994. Thistle had played the Bhoys in the cup in 1987, and Calder had sat on the bench...as an outfield player. Only later on he had been converted into a keeper, after damaging a knee ligament. He was loved in the Highlands mostly for his willingness to swing on the crossbar and dribble round opposing forwards, rather than for his ability. In February 2000, Calder was five months shy of his fortieth birthday.
Another player from the pre-Caley Thistle days was Charlie Christie, and he had even stronger links with Celtic, having played for them in his younger days. As a striker, Christie had spent two years scoring goals for Celtic reserves, but had chosen to return to his native Inverness in 1989 after failing to break into the first team, instead choosing to combine part-time football with a role in Inverness Caledonian's commercial department (he went on to take a similar role with ICT). Christie was a month short of 33, and over the years had converted from a forward into an intelligent holding midfielder critical to Paterson's attack-minded, short passing strategy. Both Calder and Christie would start this match, part of a side which, after a slow start to the season, were now comfortably in mid-table with little fear of relegation.
It could not have been a greater contrast to Celtic. Looking back, it's astonishing to think of the hype surrounding the club in the summer of 1999. Just 12 months before, they had broken Rangers' ten-in-a-row dreams by nicking the title, only to immediately dismiss their eccentric Dutch manager, Wim Jansen. His replacement, the cerebral Czech Jozef Venglos, was likeable
but inadequate, and Celtic once more finished a distant second in the table, with all the progress made under Jansen flushed down the toilet. So, that summer, Celtic brought back their prodigal son, Kenny Dalglish, to become Director of Football, and on his recommendation they appointed John Barnes, Liverpool and England legend, as Head Coach.
In hindsight, Barnes might actually be the worst football manager ever. Certainly, his spell at Celtic destroyed his reputation to the point where he returned to club management only in the summer of 2009, when appointed by Tranmere Rovers. He lasted only a few months before being dismissed again. But in 1999, Barnes was sold to the fans and the media as the Bright Young Thing, a man with revolutionary tactical ideas who would lead Celtic back to the glory days of the 1960s. Sadly, Barnes' ideas were revolutionary simply because they were so daft that no other manager had ever thought of them. Effectively a 2-2-2-2-2 formation, with two wing-backs instead of full backs and four players pretty much with no defensive responsibility, Celtic were easily exposed when they didn't have the ball, and were so vulnerable defensively that, following defeat at Motherwell, he eventually agreed to use a more orthodox 3-5-2 after being criticized by his team.
Nor did he help himself with his signing policy. After years of prudence (not least because they nearly went bust in 1994), Celtic finally freed up some transfer money - which Barnes spent on Eyal Berkovic, the talented but mercurial, and ultimately lazy, Israeli, and on an obscure Brazilian defender who was part-wonderfully, part-unfortunately, called Rafael Felipe Scheidt. Rafael (as the club called him) cost 5 million pounds. He went on to play only three games for Celtic. To cap it all, Barnes had simply no luck; two months into the season, Henrik Larsson suffered an awful leg break that ended his season and left the club without their most talented (and least egotistical) star.
By February, pressure was beginning to grow. A god run of form pre-xmas ended with an Old Firm draw at Celtic Park, and defeat the previous Saturday at Celtic Park to Hearts left Rangers ten points clear at the top of the table. Celtic badly needed the confidence boost of a comfortable, high-scoring win against Inverness. The next 90 minutes were to be defining moments in the history of both clubs.
Caley showed none of the nervousness expected of underdogs. They came out fighting and flying, clearly taking Celtic aback. The opening goal should have been considered a shock, but Caley had been so bright in the first 15 minutes it felt like they deserved it; Barry Wilson stole in front of his marker to glance a header past Jonathan Gould in the Celtic goal. Wilson was a winger by trade, playing as a forward because of injuries. Certainly he was not in the slightest bit renowned for his heading ability.
Order appeared to be quickly restored, however, as the scores were level within 90 seconds. It was the one quality move Celtic would produce all night, a flowing attack which ended with Mark Burchill lashing a left foot shot past Calder. It's hard to believe now, but back then, of course, Burchill was supposed to be "Scotland's Michael Owen". In the decade since he has wandered round England's lower leagues, had a spell with Dunfermline and is now a backup at Kilmarnock.
Celtic had their chances to go in front, with Mark Viduka, the burly Ozzie forward who went on to greater things at Leeds and Middlesbrough, denied by a goal-line clearance. But so did Caley, with Gould producing an outstanding stop to block a header from Mike Teasdale, another Highland League journeyman. And the wee team from the Highlands were back in front after 25 minutes,albeit in fortuitous circumstances. Big centre-back Bobby Mann got his bonce to a corner kick, and Lubomir Moravcik stuck out a boot and deflected the ball past his own keeper. And, frankly, it was a deserved lead which the visitors held on to with fair ease till halftime.
It was, by all accounts, the events in the Celtic dressing room at halftime which did for Barnes, when he got into a shouting match with Viduka which led to the striker's substitution for the veteran (translation for old and past-it) England forward Ian Wright. Instead of coming out all guns blazing, the home side still looked a mess at the start of the second half, and ICT took quick advantage. A glorious passing move ended with Wilson racing into the box, and he was shoved over by Regi Blinker for a stonewall penalty. Up stepped midfielder Paul Sheerin, who did his best to replicate the frosty temperature of a certain vegetable, stroking the ball into the net and promptly running to the away support like a rabid maniac.
And that, as they say, was that, as Celtic simply gave in. The aforementioned Charlie Christie was man of the match, commanding the centre of the pitch against four international midfielders in green-and-white. Radio Scotland, who had instead chosen Aberdeen-St. Mirren as their main game, finally realized with 20 minutes to go that history was on the cards, and some random journalist was pressganged into providing commentary on the last quarter of the match. But there was never any doubt about the result, further immortalized by THAT headline in The Sun.
Ironically, the result might have been the best thing that ever happened to Celtic. Barnes was sacked within 24 hours. Dalglish took over coaching duties to the end of the season, when he was replaced by Martin O'Neill. O'Neill ultimately turned out to be the man to take Celtic back to success, making them, at least for a period, the superior half of the Old Firm. If Barnes hadn't lost that match, then who knows how long he might have lasted, and whether Celtic might have ended up with a less impressive replacement. Hard to say. But Celtic 1 Inverness 3 was a scoreline which occurred only six weeks into the noughties, yet it shaped Scottish football for a decade to come.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
And that's before we get into the difficulties constructing the stadiums, the dodgy pitches, the appalling infrastructure, the lack of hotel accomodation for fans, and the general threat of violence and carjacking throughout the country. Oh, and the damn vuvuzuela horns that made last summer's confederations cup watchable only with the sound off.
Ladies and gentleman, I welcome you to the start of the buildup to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It already stinks of farce, and it doesn't even start till June.
FIFA badly need this to go well, as the 2014 tournament has been given to Brazil, a country with a set of problems remarkably similar to South Africa. In hindsight, the last two World Cups were disappointments on the pitch - 2002 was wrecked by injuries to top players, a difficult climate and refereeing which was either corrupt or crap (and curiously in favour of South Korea throughout). whilst 2006 started like a rocket, peaked with Argentina's masterful 6-0 destruction of Serbia & Montenegro, and then died a horrible death with a succession of dull, cagey knockout games. But what both tournaments had in common was a set of majestic, full stadiums, efficient transport and unrivalled experiences for the fans. And since Euro two-thousand-and-great proved that attacking football is back with a bang, there seemed reason to be optimistic that the coming World Cup would be a footballing carnival once more.
Some hope. And FIFA only have themselves to blame.
I could go on all day about the ridiculousness of giving South Africa, a country with, shall we say, rather a lot of problems, an event of this size and prestige - but you really, really don't want me to, because before long you would be attempting to commit hara-kiri with a dinner fork. So lets instead delve deeper into the more recent past. I've already posted after the Henry scandal, but for crying out loud, what the hell is an "official inquiry" into it going to achieve? It doesn't take a committee to work out what happened. The pretext seems to be "an official inquiry resulting in a suspension for a game or two" but I'd love to see that stand up in court. If Arsenal successfully managed to challenge a ban for Eduardo's diving, surely France can overturn an attempt to ban Henry for what, if spotted at the time, was a bookable offence.
Sadly, there is no sign that lessons will be learnt from Thierry Henry's antics. They proved, once and for all that, however capable the officials are, they can't see everything and need help. Therefore, the important thing is to make sure it never happens again. And the best way to do that is by introducing video technology or goalline officials. Yet Sepp Blatter continues to reject help-by-TV for what appear to be similar reasons to which the Plymouth Brethren use to reject it - we didn't need it in the good old days. And refusing to bring in the extra eyes of goalline assistants just sounds like making a rod for your own back. If Blatter tries one more time to use the argument of "if it can't be used in all matches, it can't be used in any", I might actually spontaneously combust - for goodness sake, think jumpers-for-goalposts, or all those amateur games which cope without linesmen. Think of it this way; is there any other sport in which wrong decisions by referees make such a huge impact on the outcome?
It's got to the point where I almost want the World Cup Final to be decided by, say, a goal that was clearly offside (or conversely a wrongly disallowed goal), or a penalty given erroneously for a clear dive, or another Henry-esque moment, so at last Blatter can be run out of town and football can join the twenty-first century.
Hmm, that rant went on for longer than I expected. Therefore I shall leave moaning about everything else for another time. Except for the vuvuzuela, as I have to mention them again. They truly, truly, suck.
Friday, November 27, 2009
But I'm starting night shifts in a few hours so if I don't write it now, it will disappear into the multiverse of might-have-beens forever. (That last statement sounded like a load of pretentious crap. Therefore, it pleases me mightily)
Anyway - notes from the last seven days
1. I love football
Last Saturday was another pilgrimage to the English Premier League - Sunderland v Arsenal. It constantly annoys me how it is quicker to get out of Wigan, or Sunderland, or Newcastle than it is to get out of Inverness, or Perth (more of that later) and Dunfermline, for example, at the end of matches. Is there some sort of Scottish Parliament by-law that prevents training of football stewards to do anything other than be annoying little t****rs in glow-in-the-dark jackets?
Sunderland - Arsenal continued a running theme of my journeys south - a defeat for a member of the big four (last year I saw the Gunners lose at Man City, and in September I witnessed Wigan triumph over Chelsea) and ridiculously good defensive midfielders. Mark my words, Lorik Cana of Sunderland will be at a top team in the near future. I'm amazed that a man born in Albania in the early eighties had the available nutrition to grow to 6ft 1in, but he looks like a total colossus. He played like one too. On the other side was Alex Song, the Cameroonian (is that right? Calling him a Cameroon sounds too much like comparing him to a type of biscuit) who looks so stylish on the ball that it would make Gok Wan cry with joy. They were both freaking amazing.
As was the game. Arsenal were a joy on the eye, right up till they got in the penalty box, while Sunderland deserve kudos for throwing on a second striker in the second half and going for the win. One-nil doesn't sound that phenomenal, but trust me, it was magic.
2. I hate football
The main motivation for heading south last weekend was because I would be heading to Caley's Challenge Cup Final on Sunday in Perth anyway...where we blew a 2-0 halftime advantage and lost 3-2. How stupid do I feel, considering I was hugging all the people around me when we went two up? Honestly, though, the first half was more one sided than a fight between a box of tissues and a man armed with a flamethrower. How we lost that beggars belief. Now our next two games are away to Partick and Queen of the South, and will probably have a major bearing on our season
3. El Clasico approaches
I've said this before in my blog, but there is no club match more exciting than Barcelona - Real Madrid. The first encounter of this season takes place on Sunday, thankfully at 6pm UK time so I can watch it before work. I waxed lyrical on several occasions about Barca last year, and since Ibrahimovic seems to have fitted in nicely they should still be highly potent. Real, meanwhile, need to find a way to fit Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Raul and Higuain all into the same team. Considering the attacking riches on show, anything other than a 6-6 draw will be a disappointment.
4. The Old Firm still look vulnerable
A third into the SPL season (or thereabouts), and Hibs and Dundee United are both within 3 points of the Gruesome Twosome. My loud claims that Craig Levein is heavily overrated were somewhat undermined by the Arabs' come-from-behind win over Celtic. Hibs continue to trundle along nicely too, though if they lose the likes of Derek Riordan and Liam Miller to injury then they will probably run out of steam.
Celtic, meanwhile, have failed to improve since I roundly slagged them off a few weeks ago. Marc-Antoine Fortune looks like a man totally bereft of confidence - and, for that matter, of talent as well. Defensively they remain a shambles, despite a back four who all look like they moonlight as bouncers on a Friday night. Tony Mowbray talks of bringing in better players in January, but I doubt Dermot Desmond's pockets are deep enough for the investment required to find a better centre-back and centre-forward. And with Mowbray having already identified Fortune, Zheng Zhi and Landry N'Guemo as good enough for the Hoops (shades of Paul Le Guen's thoughts about Libor Sionko, Karl Svensson and the infamous Filip Sebo), it would be like trusting Fred Goodwin with your investment portfolio.
And, last but not least - Rangers. utterly rank again in Europe in midweek. It used to be normal for Scottish clubs to be out of European competition by xmas, but that was before the competitions were massively expanded, and it appears now that it is actually harder to go out at this stage than it is to stay in. It says a lot about the state of affairs at Ibrox that my co-author was encouraged by beating Kilmarnock 3-0 at home last week; a few years ago that would have been considered a matter of routine.
Yet, if this crummy Rangers side top the SPL, what does that say about the opposition?
Thursday, November 19, 2009
El Salvador didn't even get out of the group stage at the World Cup.
I was reminded of this in light of Hand of God II/Hand of Henry/Le Hand of God/whatever cheap play on words you prefer which refers to a combination of France, Thierry Henry, and the parallels with a certain Argentinian genius-turned-cheating scumbag, since, 24 hours later, it seems to be turning into a teensy bit of an international incident. I began fantasizing about an ultimatum from the Taoseach to the Elysees Palace, with the Irish demanding a replay of the match along with the immediate extradition of Monsieur Henry for execution (presumably by drowning him in Guinness). A refusal to comply could lead to an immediate air strike of Clover Bombs, an assault by an elite leprechaun commando unit, and chemical attacks on the French population through the poisoning of the snail and frog populace, and the destruction of their annual garlic crop.
But then I realized that, apart from the above daydream being hugely stereotypical, and also a bit racist, countries really have gone to war after football matches, and it is not really very funny after all.
But I digress, for the objective of this blogpost is to provide my tuppence worth on the Henry saga. And let's get an important thing out of the way first. If that had been a Scotsman who hand handballed, and the resultant goal had put us in the finals, we would have grinned awkwardly, looked a bit sheepish, and then demanded our place at the World Cup. Wouldn't we?
That doesn't mean that a storm shouldn't be rattled up over this, though. Henry himself hasn't done himself, France or the men in charge any favours by effectively admitting to deliberate handball. Instead of saying "It was accidental, honest", which would be awfully difficult to disprove, he has basically told the world "cheating is okay until it gets caught". That's a terrible thought at the best of times, but in a situation with such a profound outcome - financially as well as in terms of glory, it's downright scandalous. The world knows that Thierry Henry cheated, and that France have fraudulently earned a place in the World Cup at the expense of Ireland.
What will the fallout be? It's unlikely to be nuclear, simply because FIFA don't have the guts at the best of times and we all know, through their outrageous decision to seed the playoffs, that they were willing to do everything in their power to get France to South Africa. But it's nice, like with the recent diving episodes, that a storm is being cooked up, and that even French politicians are embarassed by it. But there's more chance of me getting a Scotland cap than there is of the Irish getting a second chance at qualification.
Anyway, I will now, like an awful lot of other fans, be adopting a support-anyone-against-France plan in June, and hoping that gallic luck deserts them next time. I wonder whether, today, Monsieur Henry woke up and thought "wish I'd let it go out for a goal kick and taken my chances in a shootout".
Monday, November 16, 2009
Considering the SFA made the mother of all decisions - well, not the mother, but maybe the auntie or second cousin of all decisions- to give Georgie Boy a second chance after the Dutch game, what's happened in two months to lead to this? We've lost two "friendly games" away to Japan and to Wales.
Well, to Wales' third eleven. When we were three nil down in 35 minutes. And when we posed as much attacking danger as a newborn kitten which has been injected with a paralysing toxin and placed on an abandoned island several miles away from anything else, which in turn is surrounded by a sea heavily infested by a curious breed of shark which has a predilection for feline meat.
Oh, and we were as good at defending as the aforementioned newborn kitten.
Have to say, though, that I missed the Cardiff Catastrophe, as I was at ICT's home game with Airdrie United (those titans of the sport) and used my SKY Plus to tape the Scotland and England rugby games. Sounds to me like I avoided a traumatic experience akin to watching yourself being disembowelled in a mirror.
But still, I can't help feeling there must be more to it. No-one cared that much when we were losing friendly games previously in Burley's reign, and I don't think that they are a suitable barometer by which to judge progress. Is it possible there has been a player revolt? Certainly there have been signs, such as the Kris Boyd affair, Lee McCulloch's quiet international retirement and the way David Weir has been thrown in and out of the team willy-nilly, to suggest that Burley's man-management skills are about as good as Paul Gascoigne's alcohol-management skills (though he can hardly be blamed for Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor). However, Darren Fletcher told the press that the players had let the manager down, so Burley and his team might well see eye-to-eye. It's tough to say.
Whatever the reason, though, George Burley is no longer the national team's manager. And, according to wikipedia, his win percentage is the lowest of any Scotland coach who has taken charge of more than six matches. Even worse than Berti Vogts, the yardstick by which all hopeless Scotland managers can now be judged. Ouch.
So now the SFA must find a replacement, a task made even harder now that, in the short period since the World Cup dream skidded off the road, the obvious candidate, Gordon Strachan, is now all tied up. I can't think of any obvious Scottish candidates off the top of my head - certainly none who are unemployed (anyone says Graeme Souness and I will gouge their eyes out), while at SPL level I'm not convinced that Craig Levein, Mark McGhee or any others have what it takes. And those Scots who are managing in the English Premier League would be taking a step - nay, a leap - down by taking the post. So we may need to consider the foreign route once again. Anyone got Fabio Capello's number?
Actually, there is one Scottish candidate worth mentioning? A certain Rangers boss is out of contract in January. Could Walter Smith be tempted back again? We shall see.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
It's November 2010. Liverpool have had a pretty guff start to the season again, not helped by the chronic injury niggles of their talismanic skipper, Steven Gerrard, whose groin muscles are now the consistency of cling film, or by the chronic injury niggles/summer sale of super-striker Fernando Torres. Rafa Benitez (still in the job as the kudos of Istanbul 2005 won't wear off to expose his tactical rigidity and lack of transfer nous for, say, at least another decade) watches glumly at Anfield as the Reds huff and puff against one of the newly promoted sides. With twenty minutes to go, Liverpool are dominating but lacking any sort of cutting edge when their reserve striker (playing because of whichever reason that you believe Torres won't be) skips along the bye-line, and an opposing player, perhaps a hard-working veteran defensive midfielder who is more bald than an alopecia sufferer who has just had his entire body waxed, slides in. Liverpool's centre-forward collapses to the deck.
The referee is twenty yards away. He has a good view, but not perfect. His instinct is "penalty". Is he influenced by 40,000 screaming, desperate scousers? Who wouldn't be? He glances fleetingly at his assistant, but he is on the far side of the pitch, and is of no help. The man in black is about to point to the spot when a hereto forgotten voice enters his earpiece; "Mate, I got a fantastic view of that. The defending player made no contact with the attacker, and the attacker is guilty of simulation. It's not a spot-kick, but if I were you I would book that cheating b*****d." The referee appears to nod to himself, and to the derision of the home fans, he books the forward and Liverpool are left trying to find an equalizer by legit means. As he runs towards the halfway line, he remembers to give a wave of thanks to the official behind the goalline. Thank god that Europa League experiment worked, he thought, otherwise I'd have been slaughtered on ESPN...
Okay, I admit that it is distinctly unlikely that N'Gog-gate from Monday night will repeat itself so blatantly, or that an official would dare refer to a player as a "cheating b*****d", but you get my point. Sooner or later, we are going to have a repeat case, and (unless of course it is a British player doing it, in which they won't get slagged at all - see Michael Owen against Argentina) unless there is an intervention made things will never change.
Diving didn't stay out of the headlines long, did it? It's worth noting that no-one is actually slagging off the ref for giving that awful penalty; instead the consensus is that Peter Walton is a great ref who got conned. It can't go on, it just can't. And if we can't (or won't) use TV evidence for these sorts of things, then perhaps the answer is the introduction of a goalline official at each end, as UEFA are trying out in the Europa League.
I have to admit that I don't have a lot of data to back up this hope; I do have just about enough of a social life that I can find something better to do than watch Everton v Benfica (or maybe I'm just kidding myself, but hey). But the little bits I have seen so far have produced some interesting observations. While I haven't seen any particular occasions when an extra pair of eyes has been involved in a penalty decision, there have been numerous corners/goal kicks given by the better placed official, and they have tended to be correct. So I wonder whether it might be deemed enough of a success that Michel Platini tries to thrust it on domestic football. And who knows, maybe at last the extra pairs of eyes will be a weapon that can shoot divers down; it would make a change from watching them go down like they've been shot.
Mind you, with Sir Alex Ferguson on the prowl, where on earth will they get the extra people to help the referees? I suppose it could be one way of reducing unemployment during the recession...
Monday, November 9, 2009
Hur, hur, hur. From the sublime to the ridiculous this week. Ever heard of Chris Brass? If you have, then it's probably not because you followed his career in England's lower leagues throughout the last decade, but because of this absolute mother of own goals.
Or because you once signed him in Football Manager.
It could have been worse, Chris. The ball could have broken your nose as well. Can't help feeling that, if I haven't scored one like this during my Monday night kickarounds, it's only a matter of time.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
In the same game, Petr Cech got sent off when he gave away a penalty, when my first instinct, albeit a long distance off, was that Hugo Rodallega had dived. On that occasion, Phil Dowd was proven to be extremely right, whilst I was proven to be more wrong than a 6,000-year-old-universe-believing creationist. So, in conclusion, it is bloody hard to be a referee.
We've seen some witch-hunts of Scottish officials in the past, most notably that of Mike McCurry by Dundee United boss Craig Levein - though in my opinion, his performance in that particular game at Ibrox was nothing short of scandalous. But for every appalling performance that gets slaughtered in the press, there are several examples of managers slagging referees off in post-match interviews, partly (it seems) as a way of avoiding questions about, and/or avoiding taking blame, for their own team's gash performance. Just think of Alex Ferguson's ridiculous accusations about Alan Wiley not being fit enough, even though he ran further in that particular match than most of the Man U players - that was like claiming Paula Radcliffe wasn't fit to run marathons after coming fourth in New York at the weekend.
That said, Fergie did have a case against CSKA on Tuesday night. Somebody appears to have put a Champions League curse on Darren Fletcher; after missing last year's final, the Scot got taken out in the box for a certain penalty against the Russians...and then watched the ref point at him and show him a yellow card for simulation. It couldn't have been a more obvious foul if the centre-back had then kicked him while he was on the ground, before proceeding to urinate on his prone body. And it turns out that, despite it being a pretty bad decision ("the worst decision I have ever seen in my life", according to Ferguson, who of course does not have the slightest reputation for hyperbole), Fletch is stuck with that booking because UEFA won't rescind yellow cards.
Let's get this straight: the ref made a massive blunder. Everyone knows it. Even said ref must have seen it on TV, and I bet he feels like a bit of a tit. And UEFA, despite their usual fingers-in-ears, eyes-shut, "la-la-la-I'm not listening" act, know it. But they won't change it. They say it's impossible to investigate every single booking to see if it was justified. That's probably true. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't investigate the obvious mistakes. If Man Utd get to the final, and a yellow card in the second leg of the semi costs Fletcher another chance to play in it, then it would be more unfair than coming home to discover your wife in bed with a rhinoceros, who is compounding your misery by wearing your pyjamas and smoking your cigars. And people will now remember the injustice when"that ridiculous bloke gave Fletcher a booking for being kicked in the shins", whereas, with United having got off the hook with two late goals, the booking could have been expunged from the records and might have been forgotten about, or at least treated as a bit of a slapstick error.
Anyway, back to our fair - or not so fair - country. Because Aberdeen's manager, players, general manager and club website all ripped rookie ref Steven Nicholls to shreds after he sent off two Dons at Easter Road on Saturday. Now, I've only seen the highlights on the BBC site, all five minutes worth, so I'm aware that I'm not fit to comment on allegations that he was looking from the start to send someone off. But having seen Mo Ross' two yellows, the first one is definitely right, and I can see why he shown a second one. Does he run into the guy's leg by accident? Hard to tell intent on TV, but considering Ross had a bit of a reputation at Rangers for dodgy tackles, and my cynical instinct that footballers don't do these things "by accident", I reckon Nicholls can justify pulling out the red.
As for Chris Maguire, his first booking was a pretty dangerous tackle; someone needs to tell these moronic footballers that, even if your attempt to kick your opponent fails to make contact, it is still a foul (though I can forgive him, as we've all wanted to flatten Derek Riordan at some point). He in fact ended up with a straight red rather than a second yellow, after he studded someone's ankle right in Nicholls' eyeline. It's in vogue to send off players for those sort of tackles now - they break ankles - but, frankly, it was definitely deserving of a yellow card at least, so he was heading for an early bath (or he would be, if Aberdonians washed) regardless. And while Aberdeen boss Mark McGhee claimed the worst tackle of the match was the one that injured his young midfield tyke Fraser Fyvie, I thought it was a super challenge by Ian Murray which won the ball cleanly, with Fyvie's twisted ankle just a bit of ill fortune.
Now, I've not suddenly become an apologist for refs; they often don't do themselves any favours. But you sometimes get the feeling they are on a hiding to nothing. Aberdeen should be, and I suspect will be, heavily censured for their unjustified moaning. Just as well too, or the SFA aren't going to find many new folk willing to wear the Specsavers fluorescent yellow in a hurry.
Monday, November 2, 2009
I think I've probably gone on at length before about how, in 2005, I wanted to have the buck-toothed Brazilian's babies. That El Clasico where Real Madrid fans felt the need to applaud him is the greatest individual performance I have ever seen by a football player.
This goal here came earlier that year, as part of the Barca side knocked out of the CHampions' League by Chelsea. This is impossible, I swear. A ferocious, swerving shot with the outside of your foot, with virtually no back lift, and with several Chelsea defenders surrounding you. It is impossible. Except for him.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Thankfully, Terry Butcher also appears to have seen the light at last, as he sent out a starting XI last weekend with four forwards in it – which promptly scored four goals in the first 25 minutes on the way to a rather stonking 5-1 win. More of the same this weekend at home to Morton please, not least as we come to the end of October without having won a home game in the league yet.
I digress. The reason why I have highlighted “the false nine” article is because, tonight Matthew, I am going to write about Celtic. Now, as I have alluded to previously, I have watched only a morsel of Scottish football this season – but that has included Celtic’s defeat to Rangers, plus their more recent win at Hamilton last Saturday and, more relevantly (is relevantly a word? If not, it should be), the league cup defeat to Hearts. Tony Mowbray and Celtic might go on to regain the league title, you know. I certainly wouldn’t risk betting against them at this stage. But it’s pretty clear that they won’t be winning anything in a hurry if they keep playing like they are at the moment.
For those of you who can’t be bothered scouting the link above, the whole “false nine” thing, basically, is a tactical approach where a team effectively plays with no orthodox centre forward. First introduced by Luciano Spelletti at Roma a few years back, when injuries forced him to deploy a front line which included Francesco Totti (at his non-primadonna best) and a bunch of wingers and attacking midfielders, this set up was adopted by Man Utd’s Champions’ League winning side in 2008, with Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo all taking turns to drop deep and swap positions, and ultimately it probably peaked last year with Barcelona – as an aside, I disagree with Mr. Wilson’s claim that Barca have stopped playing like that since acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as when I’ve seen the Blaugrana this season the gangly Swede keeps popping up on the touchline.
One of Mr. Wilson’s other claims is that only the best teams can play it. I have issues with this as well, since Everton played a significant chunk of last season with a striker-less formation and it did them more good than harm. But he is right to say that you have to have the right sort of players. Alex Ferguson has ditched it, because Dimitar-less mobile than a dustbin and with an inferior first touch-Berbatov isn’t the right sort of player, and because he doesn’t have Cristiano Ronaldo to streak inside off the wing and cause mayhem anymore. But when I have seen Celtic this season, it seems to me that Mowbray is determined that a variation of the striker-less system is the way to go. Last night against Hearts, he lined up Chris Killen (like most male New Zealanders, a guy whose physique is more suited to rugby) up front, and the Kiwi kept dropping deep to try and get involved in build-up. Meanwhile, McGeady and Maloney could be found running infield more often than they hugged the touchline, while Zheng Zhi played as a good ol’ fashioned no.10, looking to run into the gaps Killen was supposed to have left.
Frankly, it worked about as well as my attempt to send a rocket to the moon by putting cardboard tail fins on a coca-cola bottle and trying to throw it into orbit. It says everything about where Celtic are going wrong when their best chance in the hour or so they persisted with this battleplan came when Killen flicked on a long punt from the back and Zheng raised clean through but scuffed his shot. Only when the Bhoys went to two up top did chances come by the barrowload; sadly, they came for Georgios Samaras (he who is a dead ringer for the goth in The I.T. Crowd) who managed to bugger up them all. My personal favourite came when he lobbed the keeper and was starting to celebrate when the ball hit the post.
Tony Mowbray got the Celtic job mainly on the back of his reputation for making Hibernian and West Brom good to watch, with free-flowing passing football. But never previously has he been up against teams who mostly keep ten men behind the ball against his side. Celtic don’t have the quality to play through the crowded space on the edge of the opposition box, as the delighted Hearts defence discovered last night, and which several other SPL back lines have already learned. But Maloney and McGeady seemed under instruction not to lob in crosses from wide; when these orders were eventually rescinded, it was no surprise that it coincided with the sustained spell of pressure late in the match.
There is a belief going round that, in order to be entertaining, teams have to play on-the-deck passing football. It is widely held, even amongst fans in the Scottish first division. It is also wrong. Think of the way Stoke City are maligned for their, shall we say, “direct” style of play. I’ve seen plenty of their games over the last year and a bit and they got the ball into the box as much as anyone else, and as a consequence created as many chances as anyone else. Their total of 38 league goals last season was fewer than most teams, but it was more than on-the-deck teams such as Sunderland, Middlesbrough and, you’ve guessed it, Tony Mowbray’s West Brom side.
My point is not that long ball is the way to go; it’s that Celtic’s tippy-tappy attempts to become the club equivalent of the Spanish Euro 2008 team are just going to end in failure. While their squad simply doesn’t compare with, for example, Martin O’Neill’s side of six or seven years ago, they still have good enough players to win this league if they play a system that suits them. And that has to involve two up front (like when they beat Hamilton last weekend) and the option to go quickly from back to front if necessary. But with Rangers in crisis, and Celtic looking pretty darn close to it, I still remain a tad hopeful that someone (Hibs?) might bounce out of the pack and mount a third party challenge to the Old Firm duopoly.
Anyone at Celtic Park miss Gordon Strachan yet?
Monday, October 26, 2009
I'm quite liking the idea of a video every Monday.
Was delighted to find this on YouTube - Spain's winner when they beat Yugoslavia 4-3 at Euro 2000. It's worth it just for Motty going bananas - "It's ALFONSSSSSOOOOOOO!!!"
You know what myself and my co-author were doing that evening? We were sixteen at the time and we missed it because we were ushering in a school play. I knew it was 3-2 to Yugoslavia with only a few minutes to go, and refused for some time to believe that the Spanish had scored twice in injury time. That said, I then watched the highlights three times in a row that night...
In this day and age of conservative tactics, it's worth remembering that, despite that defeat, Yugoslavia went through as well because boring, boring Norway drew 0-0 with Slovenia...
Thursday, October 22, 2009
But considering that, in the last fortnight, Walter Smith has warned that "Scottish football is dying" (or something to that effect), the Old Firm have once more agitated for the opportunity to leave the old fashioned, no longer attractive SPL for the bloated whore that is the English Premier League, Rangers' grand humping at the hands of Unirea Urziceni could not have come at a worst time.
Despite all my moaning and groaning on this blog, even I didn't think it was as bad as this. But, despite my well-known hatred of all things blue and white, this writer was left with his head in his hands for most of the second half on Tuesday night, muttering various phrases which would have shocked and appalled his mother. The goals were a bit unfortunate, but the result was a fair reflection; Rangers were deservedly stuffed by a team with a name that sounds like a sexually transmitted disease, whose home gates are comparable with that of Caley Thistle. I had lambasted Smith before kickoff for playing with only one up front against what appeared to be a diddy side, but who knows - maybe this defensive mentality saved Rangers from a bigger thrashing!
All this in a season that has seen Falkirk knocked out by a team from Liechtenstein, Aberdeen concede five at home to a mid-table Czech side, and Celtic struggle in the Europa League. Not to mention the travails of the national team. I'm not sure whether it is a justifiable metaphor to claim a sport has "died", but let's face it; the patient is not exactly running marathons here - in fact it is wheezing for breath at the effort of putting on its dressing gown.
Everyone associated with Scottish football is at least in agreement for a change - it is a mess, and needs changing. The trouble is that no-one will take a modicum of responsibility for changing it. At domestic level, the repetitiveness of it all is turning off the fans, big style - Rangers and Celtic have swaths of empty seats for most home league games, while I note the attendance for Aberdeen-Hearts last Saturday was 6,000 less than when I went to a game between the two of them at Pitodrie in 2004. As I've said a million times before, when you're playing the same teams four times a season, and most sides are too worried about relegation to risk playing even vaguely entertaining football (I'm not looking for Matrix-type entertainment, I'll happily settle for Terminator Salvation or even Saw VI-type entertainment). But no-one except Rangers and Celtic would agree to expanding the top division, as they'd lose a home gate against one of the big boys. It hasn't occurred to the likes of Aberdeen that their fans tend to come out in huge numbers when they're on a good run, so they might actually get 15,000 in Pittodrie if there is a prospect of them stuffing Queen of the South 5-0.
So they keep twiddling their thumbs, while the Old Firm, in the unique position of being able to exert some power and authority, with the chance to put pressure on the others to make compromises for the good of the game, instead keep going on like a stuck record about abandoning it all for the cash cow across the border. But that ship has long sailed now; the English Premier League is unlikely to be any more marketable with two more big teams, especially when the standard of Rangers and Celtic has fallen to the point where it is comparable with the likes of Hull City, at best. All the Old Firm could bring to English football is sectarianism and a set of demolished city centres (just ask Mancunians). And an Atlantic League? I'll save a rant about that daft idea for another time.
So, in conclusion, the idea of Scottish football "dying" is a ridiculous concept, but it's difficult to remember it being at a nadir such as this. And it's difficult to see how it can bounce back unless somebody involved grows a pair.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I was introduced to a genuinely new experience at the weekend. Sadly, it wasn't the result. Defeat at home (this week to the titans that are Queen of the South) and conceding three goals are becoming awfully familiar. But never has it got to the point where the manager can be seen shouting back at the fans!
Now, up North we are not exactly used to Terry Butcher-type characters in our dugout. In the past we have tended towards quiet coaches, whether because of dignity (Charlie Christie), a mixture of dignity and hangover (Steve Paterson) or just plain incompetence (Craig Brewster). Butcher is another thing entirely. Shortly into his reign it was noticed by many that he is proactive during games, in terms of making changes and shouting instructions. But, with results, and confidence, decaying faster than Michael Jackson’s corpse (too soon?), we got to see another side to TB on Saturday. First, he berated fans for leaving en masse after QOS struck to lead 2-1 with seven minutes left, then he responded to one particularly abusive supporter – who, I understand, deserved what he got – with a curt “f*** off”.
I guess the most surprising thing about TB’s outburst is that these responses happen so rarely. The abuse from the stands at football matches is often horrific, and I can’t imagine being able to take it in my stride, particularly when it is quite clear that football fans actually know jack about the game (if I remember, I will come back to this point later). Some of the slurs that are hurled at coaches and players would be construed as criminal offences if they occurred in the street. It’s easy for us to say “they’re being paid megabucks, they can handle it”, but of course, at Scottish First Division level, footballers are not actually paid these huge salaries, particularly considering that their careers generally last for not much longer than a decade. In addition, I wonder whether that, at larger grounds such as Ibrox or
On the other hand, one of my favourite hobbies is playing Devil’s Advocate, so let’s look at the flipside. In the 21st century, watching football in the flesh is a pretty expensive thing to do. The fans want to be entertained, and they also want their team to win. However, crap the game is, I have never witnessed a team being booed off after winning (though I bet it does happen on occasions), and equally I have never seen a team booed off after losing 4-3. On the other hand, Caley once more set out in a
And, since I’ve remembered, let’s go back to the “football fans know jack” point of view. While most of the criticisms from the stands border on the ridiculous at the best of times, it is quite clear from my spot a few rows behind the dugout that there is a huge degree of tactical ineptness. Butcher wants ICT to pass the ball from the back, but picks defenders who have the ball control and skills of a paraplegic and midfielders with the creativity of a blind hedgehog who lives in a paper bag. His plan B is the long punt forward – to a striker (Richie Foran) who often does a smashing job of holding the ball up but never has any support. And every home game this season has been exactly the same. The management team are there to optimize the team’s chances of winning, and the players are being paid to go and play as hard as they can (I’m not going to claim that a bad performance is worthy of a slagging, but I firmly believe a lazy one is).
Of course, it would be just typical if we beat Raith tonight in Kirkcaldy, then embark on a ten match winning run. Not that I would be complaining, mind…
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
We won, at least. And home wins for us recently have been as rare as OK! magazine running a story which is actually interesting to someone with more than six brain cells. But it was a hopeless game of football. Literally. This was a football game that was completely without Hope. Only 2,400 turned up, despite it being a derby (the last league encounter between the two attracted 6,000). And, to a man, the 2,400 will all have thought, at least for a moment, "Imagine what else I could have done with my Sunday afternoon". I, for example, could have had more fun looking for a new car, and in particular oggling a beautiful 2006 Jaguar X-Type that I would buy if it wasn't for the fact that any 25 year old who owns a Jaguar deserves to be slapped by everyone he meets. I could also have had more fun doing my taxes. Or going to the dentist. Or being cast into the pits of hell for eternity (as I surely will for announcing proudly to numerous folk how much I love the new Richard Dawkins book).
Sadly, the emotions and feelings mentioned above are becoming rather par for the course this season. Caley, sadly, are the latest team to start playing 4-5-1. It is as if, when they attend coaching seminars, all football managers are hypnotised by Derren Brown (why can't he spell Darren right?) and told "Play one up front, it's the only way that works". Now, in the right hands, 4-5-1 is a deadly weapon. The Portuguese used to utilize it beautifully, with two wingers, Rui Costa (and then Deco) in the hole, and a poacher striker who did bugger all until the ball entered the box. The France team that won a World Cup and a European Championship had a similar system, and they were pretty good to watch. You have to go back a decade to find a Real Madrid side that didn't play 4-5-1 (admittedly with Raul just off the front man) and they are entertainment personified.
But in the hands of lower division clubs, where skill is at a premium but height and strength are more common than a pregnant teenager in Greenock, a 4-5-1 system is boring, boring, boring. The team just packs the midfield, closing down space for the opponents. But, in turn, they will struggle to commit players to attack, and often at this level there is not the pace or quality to play effectively on the break. So imagine how we felt in Inverness on Sunday, when both teams played 4-5-1. Let's just say that if you had a 10 yard restraining order from a midfield player on the other side, you would have been arrested. Sometimes commentators say "you could have driven a bus through that gap", but in this game, you could not have driven a Vespa scooter without hitting someone. And with no time on the ball for anyone, we just saw punts up and down the park. My neck still hurts a bit.
If only the mindless tedium was confined to the Far North. But the SPL, I would argue, is just as dull. Is it too simplistic to say "entertaining football = goals"? It probably is, yet I cannot for the life of me remember a "classic" nil-nil draw. In Scotland's top division this season, 42 matches have produced 7 nil-nil draws. The average number of goals per game is 2.38. Now, I would assume that would be because of the way that, well, everyone else in the league tries to pack their defence when they play the Old Firm in hope of sneaking a 1-0 win or a 0-0 draw, for no-one is good enough (or, at least, has the guts) to play two or three forwards against the big guns, but both Rangers and Celtic are now weak enough that they have severe difficulty breaking down, say, St. Mirren when they put ten behind the ball for the whole game.
Sadly, it turns out that the goal rate is actually lower in the matches the Old Firm are not involved in. Only six SPL games in which Rangers or Celtic have not played have produced four or more goals - interestingly, half of those matches involved St. Johnstone! As far as I can tell, it's the poorest average since the SPL expanded to twelve teams. Yet, down South, the goals are flying in like there's no tomorrow (in Portsmouth's case, that may be because there is no tomorrow). It's not just the big four, either; Man City and Spurs have been whacking them in, and so have Sunderland, while everyone else seems quite happy to risk conceding a few for the sake of scoring a few. Note that Chelsea lost three goals to a Wigan side with two strikers, while Man U nearly lost to a Sunderland team who played two strikers, and did lose to a Burnley team that deployed three. The English Premier League's opening 75 games produced only 2 nil-nils. And it has been glorious to watch. It really has.
So why are there more goals in England? It's simple, of course. It's like the Poll Tax and the oil. In short, we Scots are being screwed, and the evil English are stealing our rightful goals from us! As much as I enjoy utilizing the chip on my shoulder, I suspect it's rather more down other stuff. Maybe it's down to the fact that, in any league, a match between, for example, two of the bottom five teams, is going to be a bit cagey. In Scotland, the bottom five comprises half the first division and nearly half the SPL. In England, it makes up only a quarter. So, maybe, it's because a larger proportion of the Scottish teams have relegation fears to worry about. But, as much as I would like to expand the division, I doubt it. I don't know if it's because English coaches are better at using attacking formations, or because English clubs remember that football is entertainment and that attacking football brings in the punters and the cash, or because Scottish coaches are just a boring bunch of codgers.
All I know is that, when we talk of classic Inverness Caley Thistle teams, we never talk about the ones that played for four years in the SPL. We talk about Steve Paterson's side, with three at the back and two wingers (not wing backs!) in a five man midfield, and two strikers. A team that once beat Ayr United 7-3 in one match, and twice in the same season came from three down to win 4-3 against the same Ayr. A team which would either win 5-0 at home or lose 3-2 and went 144 matches without a nil-nil. And they didn't win a thing. Not a sausage. I reckon that says a heck of a lot, and that it teaches a lesson that Scottish football needs to learn. Because I'm watching more English games than Scottish games, and the chip on my shoulder be damned.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Considering I saw a stunning Wigan-Chelsea game with an underdog victory, a red card, a penalty, and a close up of an Ashley Cole hissy-fit, while "missing out" on Inverness losing three goals in the first half against the so-called Real Jags, would you perhaps agree that I made the right choice?
Of course, I feel guilty about my betrayal, but it won't happen again (not until November's Sunderland-Arsenal game, at the earliest), and, frankly, I'm not convinced that my long-term footballing partner is being supportive and loving enough to me to deserve my fidelity at the moment.
Caley seem to be stuck in a bizarre loop of good game-bad game-good game-bad game. Having given Motherwell a right scare in the league cup in midweek, everyone was prepared for the worst this weekend, and they were proven correct. I'm sure "consistent inconsistency" is an oxymoron, but it sums up things nicely. The only relief is that it remains such a close league that we are only five points off top spot, But we need to find some semblance of form asap or any hopes of a promotion challenge go out the window, particularly if Dundee find that semblance before we do.
So, instead of another turgid, dull Saturday afternoon in (I'm going to milk this analogy to death, dammit), I went to Wigan-Chelsea, and struck it lucky. Not as lucky as the proper Wigan fans, who saw their side beat one of the Big Four for the first time in 35 Premier League attempts and promptly celebrated like it was Christmas. Good for them, though the young woman behind me who screamed at 150 decibels when Wigan grabbed their third goal, scarring my eardrums in the process, really should be sent a bill for the damage done to windows in a three mile radius.
Chelsea were the football equivalent of Gordon Brown's government; they knew things were going all wrong, they knew that defeat was probably coming, yet they seemed pretty much helpless to turn things around. Even their tight midfield diamond was overrun, thanks to the power of the Austrian Paul Scharner, who won every high ball at the half-way line because Chelsea's centre-backs wouldn't risk advancing that far to challenge him, and due to their combination of defensive midfielders, Mohamed Diame and Hendry Thomas, who stopped Essien and Lampard from playing.
Hendry who? Exactly. Remember Wilson Palacios, the Honduran midfielder plucked from nowhere who ran Wigan's midfield for 18 months before being sold to Spurs for a cool 12 million? Well, they've replaced him with...another Honduran midfielder plucked from nowhere who now runs Wigan's midfield. He definitely has all the attributes needed; his tackling is timed as well as a Blackadder insult, his positioning is immaculate, and he has such an engine that you half expect him to be dressed in a pink rabbit suit and banging a drum whilst he makes the aforementioned tackles.
This surely is conclusive proof that Wigan have created a secret laboratory deep in the Central American jungle, where they are conducting experiments on Hondurans and turning them into top defensive midfielders. Obviously, a flaw in these tests early on resulted instead in the creation of Maynor Figueroa, who instead plays at left-back, but if Wigan are going to get 12 million for each of these guys, then it seems like good business. In fact, why not expand the operation and create an entire team?
So if Wigan Athletic win the league in a decade's time with a side made up entirely of unknown Honduran supermen, you heard it here first. And if I mysteriously disappear between now and then, you know it's a conspiracy!
Friday, September 18, 2009
First Eduardo becomes a massive public hate figure for, erm, falling over. Then Emmanuel Adebayor manages the seemingly impossible and actually manages to supercede him with his antics for Man City last Saturday.
What is slightly disappointing is that rather more is being made, at least in the press, of his supposed behaviour to incite a riot than his outrageous stamp on Robin Van Persie; that said, Van Persie had put in a shocker of a tackle prior to that and does not exactly have the reputation of an angel. But still, the Ivorian striker's studs could quite easily have damaged RVP's eye, and for that he deserves to have the book thrown at him.
But people seem a bit more focussed on the decision of Adebayor, having scored against his former club, to run the entire length of the pitch to slide on his knees in front of the Arsenal fans. Now, in my opinion, if you are an Arsenal fan who feels that is justifiable to try to invade a football pitch, throw objects at somebody and put the wellbeing of other fans, police and stewards at significant risk (that looked like a heck of a crush at the front of the stand), all because Adebayor left Arsenal for a bit more cash and because he's responding to you giving him dog's abuse for the whole game, frankly, you are an Arsenal fan who needs to get some sort of life. And, judging by the physique of said fans, you should also stop drinking and try to lose a bit of weight.
Admittedly, we've all been there. There are few football fans out there who can resist getting caught up in the atmosphere around them - even my esteemed co-writer was once witnessed shouting "Agathe - you suck!" at the eponymous Celtic player in a match at Pittodrie once, while I recall one particular tirade towards Saulius Mikoliunas which I am not overly proud of (that said, he was a diving cheat, and he had just poleaxed our left back right in front of us). I often wonder whether the police feel that it's better that people get all the rage off their chest at a football match rather than later that night in the town centre.
But come on folks. Emmanuel Adebayor did not just invade Poland, nor did he just introduce the poll tax, nor did he just sleep with your girlfriend whilst wearing your dressing gown and smoking your cigars (though looking at those Arsenal fans, I should probably substitute "dressing gown" with "boxer shorts" and "cigars" with "Lambert & Butlers". In fact, the whole metaphor probably falls down as soon as I use the word "girlfriend"...). He just acted like a plonker, that's all, and dared to do what a lot of footballers probably dream of - he got his own back.
So get a grip, for crying out loud.