Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thirteen minutes

Thirteen minutes is how long Rangers fans took at New Douglas Park this lunchtime before breaking into another one of their sectarian songs. Apparently the fact that James McCarthy plays for the Republic of Ireland is justification to be racist and bigoted. Aren't you chaps big and clever?

I'm sick of this, I really am. Scottish football has a million and one problems to begin with. But with the increasing drop in playing standards amongst the Old Firm in the last few seasons, the SPL brand is becoming increasingly associated with sectarianism and little else.

I'm trying to find some way of attributing this to both halves of the Glasgow divide. But, if you do some research, it turns out Fields Of Athenry is not a sectarian song, and no-one can remember the last time the Celtic support belted out a pro-IRA anthem. Equally, you would be hard pressed to argue that displaying the Irish Tricolor could be considered offensive (by that argument, I'm happy to say the Union Jack must be taken in the same way).

So, to be blunt, it is Rangers, Rangers and Rangers. And the rest of the footballing community moans about it, the politicians moan about it, and all decent minded people moan about it. But what is being done about it? Sweet Fanny Adams, that's what.

Rangers know perfectly well who they are selling tickets to for home and away games - it would be easier to track them down and ban them (and report them to the cops) than it would be to play West Bromwich Albion at home. But they won't do it. And the SPL and the SFA keep muttering threats of obscene fines and points deductions. But they won't do it. And so the problem keeps rumbling on.

Considering how close the title race is going to be, imagine the message that would be put across if Rangers were docked a couple of points? It's got to that point. A big problem needs a big solution. And if Rangers won't embrace it, then the rest of us have to force it on them for the greater good.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Big Mixu in a big mess

The Sun's Bill Leckie summed up the difference between Inverness and Hibs on Saturday pretty well - Caley's Dougie Imrie covered every blade of grass and kept going even when his efforts were not necessarily paying off. In contrast Derek Riordan, banished to the left touchline, demonstrated a sulky demeanour more in keeping with Harry Enfield's satirical teenager Kevin. The way he was going on, Deeks might have at any moment given a shout of "I hate you! This is so unfair!".

Riordan was the most obvious, but certainly not the only, example of the malaise that appears to affect the Easter Road club currently. Certainly all has not been well since Tony Mowbray left in October 2006, with his successor, John Collins, hardly finding favour with the locals either despite a league cup triumph. Mixu Paatelainen, who on Saturday in his thick winter coat and sporting a glum, pained expression resembled a teletubby midway through a drug rehab programme, has now been in the hotseat for 13 months. And it has been hot indeed.

On the face of it, the situation hardly seems perilous. Hibs lie seventh in the table after Saturday's defeat, only a point off the top six. However, on closer inspection, they have won only eight league games all season, and in all competitions they have won only four of the last nineteen. By all accounts, the team is in a bit of a state. Saturday's tactics were just bizarre, with Jonatan Johansson up front, Steven Fletcher playing much too deep (to the point that he rarely touched the ball in the final third all day) and Riordan stuck out wide where he could make as much impact on the match as Jade Goody might make at an astrophysics conference. Take Rob Jones off the pitch and the team is an utter disaster.

The Hibee fans spent most of the match calling for big Mixu's head to be delivered to them on a plate. Increasingly it looks like their request will be granted. Hibs hardly have the quality available that Mowbray was blessed with, in the days of Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson and Steven Whittaker, but they have to do better than this. Considering the Butcher bandwagon is building up a head of steam, and the fact that Falkirk surely have enough quality to get some more points on the board, Hibernian could yet, despite their current ten point cushion, be dragged into what could well be the mother of all dogfights at the bottom of this league.


Friday, February 20, 2009

SPL2 - and the point is...?

It was once said of FIFA president Sepp Blatter that "He has fifty new ideas a day, and fifty-one of them are bad".

The same could increasingly be said of the SPL and its head honcho, Lex Gold. Though, as maintained previously, any man whose name sounds like it's straight out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western deserves some respect, he continues to come up with solutions to the current problems of Scottish football that are about as workable as a staircase designed to M.C. Escher's exact specifications.

The latest is this idea of "SPL2", a concept of another ten clubs joining the SPL, with it then being split into two divisions, though the lines by which this would be drawn are anyone's guess. The question that I would like to ask is, "why bother?" The theory is that by bringing current first division clubs under the SPL banner, their income would improve on the grounds that, against all logic and reason, the lure of their product would increase, resulting in bigger gates and more TV money.

One the other hand, none of the current top division, all more strapped for cash than a poor church mouse, who has discovered his wife has left him and run away with all the cheese - paraphrased from Blackadder, sorry. So there is no way in a bajillion years that they would let any more of their money trickle down. So instead we will end up with an SPL2 that is, er, exactly as good as the first division is right now.

As has been claimed previously on this blog, the best solutions to getting fans and TV back into Scottish football are as follows; get shot of all the diddy teams with a fan base of three men and a dog (four clubs in Angus, three within 2 miles of Falkirk's town centre); a pyramid scheme which finally gets Junior and Highland League clubs involved and forces the likes of Elgin City to shape up or ship out; or expanding the top division so more teams get to play the Old Firm and there's less of the overfamiliarity that comes with having to play Kilmarnock four times a year.

But just like American politicians fighting over the stimulus package, the decision makers are too wrapped up in what's in it for them than to look at the greater good. The SPL2 concept simply results in more of the protectionism that is slowly dragging Scottish football down.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

The greatest Man Utd team ever?

Surely, surely, someone, sooner or later, will score a goal against Manchester United. I keep telling myself that. This ridiculous run of clean sheets - they haven't conceded a league goal since Samir Nasri's delightful strike in the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates on November 8th, now more than three months ago - has to end eventually.

However, watching United at the moment allows a suspension of reality; not only has nobody scored against Man U in yonks (that well-known unit of time), nobody has actually looked like doing so. Edwin Van Der Sar has hardly hit a rich vein of form; instead one gets the feeling that a wheelie bin placed in the centre of the goal would have the same shut out record. The backline, led by this writer's current choice for Footballer of the Year, Nemanja Vidic, appears to rival Fort Knox for impregnability (is that a word? I hope so). As the old mantra goes, if you don't concede, you can't lose.

Add the fact that Alex Ferguson has such rich attacking talent available and it actually seems unfair on everyone else. Now Wayne Rooney is back, Cristiano Ronaldo has got over the dip in form that resulted from his lack of pre-season, and Dimitar Berbatov has realised that his role in the team encompasses more than jogging about and running his fingers through his hair, they have moved up a gear from a holiday period spent grinding out one-nil wins in the finest George Graham style. No-one can score against them, and no-one can keep them out, and as soon as players get injured or lose form Fergie can turn to the bench and bring in another gem - only three players (Van Der Sar, Vidic and Berbatov) have started twenty or more league games so far, yet seventeen players have been on the pitch in at least ten league matches. Darren Gibson, Jonny Evans and the absolutely wonderful Rafael have emerged as real first team prospects. The veteran Scot must be asking himself, "Can it get any better than this?"

Whether they really are the best Man Utd team ever, as has been touted by a few journalists this week, is a debate that can go on and on. Last year's side did a heck of a job, the treble winners of 1999 had the likes of Beckham, Keane, Sheringham, Giggs and Scholes at their peak, and who can forget the ooh-la-la of the squad that contained the divine Eric Cantona? Look further into the annals of history and you will also find the Busby Babes, and after that the 1968 European Cup winners who managed to boast three utter legends, Best, Charlton and Law, up front.

It's a fun debate to have, though. And certainly this United team deserve to be involved in it, even if they might not be the victors. They are certainly the best team in England this year by a distance, and I pray that fortune does not keep them from a Champions League final with the mighty Barcelona, for that is a match that surely makes the mouth water like none other.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Guus flies into the Bridge

On the face of it, the appointment of Guus Hiddink as Chelsea boss is the sort of move that will have lifted the spirits of any supporter of the club, and one which will have led many football enthusiasts throughout the country to nod sagely with approval. For there are a handful of coaches out there who have the respect that the Dutchman's name commands. Since the turn of the millennium, Hiddink has enjoyed outstanding success; a national hero in South Korea for his part in their 2002 world cup campaign (admittedly aided by home advantage and some of the most catastrophic refereeing ever seen); three league titles in four years at PSV Eindhoven plus a Champions League semi final; leading Australia to the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup; and most recently guiding Russia to the semis of Euro 2008. The latter saw, following the return to the side of Arsenal newboy Andrei Arshavin, some scintillating play right out of the annals of the great Dutch tradition, Total Football.

So why on earth hasn't Hiddink been offered a job as prestigious as this one sooner?

The answer I think lies partly with the man himself. Hiddink's recent international jobs have all involved him starting with sides which either had low expectations (South Korea) or who were grossly underachieving (Australia and Russia). Importantly, if any of these posts had gone t***-up, it would have been unlikely to impact on that huge reputation of his - expectations in Russia were high but it was seen as a difficult job, one where any failure on his part could have easily been blamed on the federation itself. Meanwhile, the PSV post came at a time where the other traditional powerhouses of Dutch football, Ajax and Feyenoord, were hitting real downers, while the side's initial success led to an influx of cash from European qualification and inevitable improvement in the squad.

But it's easy to forget that Hiddink has been around longer than just the last decade. And he has been in top jobs before, most notably a spectacular failure at Real Madrid where he was sacked in 1999 after just seven months. Excepting his efforts in taking the Netherlands to within a penalty shoot out of the 1998 world cup final, he has at club level achieved markedly little outside his home country, despite various spells in Spain and Turkey.

Only the most hardened anti-Chelsea (or anti-Abramovich) fan, however, would wish disaster on him. Hiddink's reputation as one of the great tacticians of modern football is well founded, having achieved success with pretty much every formation one can think of. As Russia manager he did for Steve McClaren's England with three at the back, then at the Euros changed system almost from game to game, coming unstuck only against the irepressible Spain. Not only that, but the Russians were an absolute joy to watch, happy to play an open, expansive style.

Translate those achievements to the Premier League, and the future does look rosy for Chelsea. But the man needs time. He has to spend the rest of the season working with a squad that is essentially Mourinho's and Scolari's, and which, as this writer has bemoaned previously, is hopelessly deficient in certain areas. They need a miracle to win the title, especially as they no longer have the chance to take points off Manchester United and Liverpool. Give him a decent transfer budget in the summer, and the Blues could be back where they were two years ago.

However, in the meantime, can Hiddink delve into his magic box of tactical tricks and produce a system that gives this current side width, and/or gets Anelka and Drogba working as a pairing? Now that would be one heck of a result.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Weight of hype could crush John Fleck

To paraphrase Star Wars, "Help me, John Fleck, you're my only hope", seems to be the increasingly prominent feeling amongst Rangers and Scotland fans. At least Walter Smith and the Ibrox management team have tried to play down comparisons with Wayne Rooney - true, they both look like they come from a couple of rungs down the evolutionary ladder - but now it seems George Burley has jumped on the bandwagon.

The reason for all the hype, I think, is less because Fleck could be the most precocious Scottish footballing talent in a good long while, and more because he is an attacking player. Ultimately, since Kenny Dalglish, Scotland have lacked a world class striker - sorry, but while Ally McCoist was a great player, he does not rank with Kenny Dal or Denis Law - and the paucity of a goal threat has been the weak point in pretty much every Scotland team since. Frankly, most Scotland international strikers of the twenty-first century couldn't score in a brothel, where all the prostitutes were French, and where they had been badly hit by the credit crunch. And, as everyone recognises, Fleck has the potential to be that threat.

But I can't help feeling that all this attention can't be good. The young lad has made but a handful of appearances for the Huns, and nobody seems quite certain even where his best position is. And he's only seventeen - he hasn't even finished growing! We should have learned this lesson over Mark Burchill, who got similar publicity, and who now plies his trade at Rotherham United. Let's hope Fleck doesn't go down that route. He could be good enough to be a Scotland legend. But we need to keep the pressure off and wait and see, not heap the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Scolari sacked

I was going to post today on the contrast between the two headliners of yesterday, the glorious Ryan Giggs and the appalling Emmanuel Eboue, but Scolari has superceded those events somewhat.

Unfortunately for Big Phil, Chelsea's bright start had faded but it was less the defeats to Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United than dropped points against sides like Hull City that did the damage. What is certain is that Chelsea were struggling to score goals against anybody, and against good teams they were struggling to keep them out at the other end.

How much blame is attached to Scolari, though? The squad left to him by Mourinho and Grant is hopelessly lopsided in midfield, with a series of outstanding central players, but a total lack of width. Just to compound the situation, Joe Cole and Michael Essien have missed large chunks of the campaign with injuries, and Didier Drogba has, so to speak, lost his mojo. The one error Scolari made was his attempt to integrate Deco into the machine; unfortunately, the Brazilian-turned-Portuguese simply doesn't have the workrate for the Premier League; moreover, he requires too much time to weave his magic, fine in the vast expanses of midfield space in La Liga, but not in English midfields which outdo the M25 for crowdedness. Ricardo Quaresma may be the answer - I suspect not, though he cannot be worse than Florent Malouda - but he has arrived too late.

When Anelka was sulking and Lampard wasn't on all cylinders, Chelsea were simply no better than the likes of Everton. But if Abramovich reckons this squad can play the football of the Copacabana, without the investment that he put in three years ago, then he should be staying away from his countrymen's vodka...


Friday, February 6, 2009

Is the SPL winning, or just spinning?

The SPL chairman Lex Gold (brilliant name, no question) was blowing the league's trumpet very hard indeed earlier this week, boasting that attendances were up compared to 2007 and "That represents about 700 extra fans coming to our games each weekend". This implies that the league is more popular and supporters are coming in bigger numbers.

For some reason, the press seem to have been unkeen to ask any questions about this. The first one would be to ask just how big a success is an increase of 700 fans across a total of six matches? That's less than 150 per game. Then, how much does Hamilton's average attendance improve on the Gretna fiasco of last season? According to soccernet, the Accies average 3,851 at home, while last year's whipping boys brought in 2,632. So that's an increase of 1,200 per home game, and with Hamilton at home every fortnight you could say they contribute 600 of those 700 extra fans.


All right, I know that Goldie (can I call him that?) is comparing 2008 to 2007, not 08/09 to 07/08. Just as well, since the same stats I used as above actually show a marginal drop in SPL average attendances, even despite Hamilton's extra numbers.

Sorry, Lexie, you're just lucky that the media are so flaming gullible.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dull deadline day

So the transfer window is closed. Now the gladiators battling it out for the glory of league titles, and the runts of the litter scrapping to avoid the oblivion of relegation have one thing in common - they are stuck with what they have between now and May.

I'm sure that transfer deadline day used to be a day of extraordinary excitement; last minute, big money deals all over the shop; chairmen, managers and players jetting around the country, Europe or even the world in search of the players to improve their squad; the ridiculous yet inevitable rumour that, for the seventh transfer deadline day in a row, David Villa would sign for Liverpool.

This deadline day, however, was like a West End play that bombed; the heralded next big thing, Manchester City, appeared to get cold feet and pulled out at the last minute despite all the talk of grandiose moves for pretty much every footballer that has ever lived. I can't help feeling offended that I appear to be the only living being on the planet who has not been linked with a move to Eastlands. In the end, they couldn't even muster a bid for Roque Santa Cruz, the Paraguayan who inspired Blackburn last season but this year has spent so much time as a substitute that there is a perfect impression of his bottom on the Rovers bench.

Meanwhile, the big stars toyed with getting involved with the production, but Manchester United stayed away altogether, Liverpool bought no-one themselves (though they did flog Robbie Keane back to Spurs) and Chelsea, having brought in only loanee Ricardo Quaresma, Nani's closest challenger for the title of most overrated Portuguese winger, showed a complete lack of commitment. Arsenal might yet sign Arshavin, but at the time of writing it seems to be stuck in some sort of limbo.

So, in England, it's hard to see these moves having much influence on the title race, other than that Liverpool now have to freeze Fernando Torres in carbonite a la Star Wars because up front they now have less depth than a blonde woman's personality. Equally, at the bottom of the table, other than Spurs' attempt to travel back through time with their transfer dealings (just wait till they resign Gary Mabbutt, Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle, it can't be long), I don't think anyone has made serious additions to their squads.

North of the border, despite lacking the three snowflakes that brought the whole of England to a standstill yesterday, business was also slow, though Caley seem to have done their best to at least bring quantity to the squad. If we get the Motherwell Brian Kerr, who ran the midfield single handedly and was incapable of misplacing a pass, then result. On the other hand, we get the Hibs Brian Kerr who was so bad that he couldn't pass a kidney stone and their fans were on the brink of burning effigies of him, then we're screwed.

Not much in the way of business was done by anyone else, though, and Rangers completely failed to sell anyone in the end, for all the gripes of David Murray over the last few weeks. What does that mean for the huns? I occasionally have a very happy daydream that they end up going the way of Leeds United, though I can't exactly see it happening...