Thursday, August 27, 2009

Eduardo's marks - 5.9, 5.7, 5.8

It may be just me (let’s face it, it often is) but one of the odd things about football is that, while we moan until we’re blue in the face about dodgy offside decisions and bad tackles, the things that really, really get our proverbial goat are spitting and diving. Maybe it’s because all of us, deep down, are aware that linesmen are only human, that in truth we would have probably arsed up that big decision too, had we been wearing their shoes (which, in Scottish football, appear to be trainers so cheap and nasty that they are on the brink of being plimsolls). And maybe it’s because when we play football ourselves, there’s occasionally a moment, when you’ve been nutmegged for the third time in half an hour, or one of your mates has been taken from behind (in a totally non-sexual way, obviously), when there is just a tremendous urge to absolutely pole-axe your opponent with a proper two-footed, studs-up, five seconds after the ball is gone-type challenge. We never do it – a few very twisted individuals excepted– but that animal rage has been there. So, while tackles like Kevin Thomson’s last weekend cause us anger, and random waving of flags by assistant referees cause us to put our heads in her hands time after time (how could the standside linesman at Caley on Tuesday night tell? He wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the play), we tend to get over it. But not spitting. And not diving.

Let’s focus on spitting only briefly, not only because it’s fun to think of Frank Rijkaard’s bodily fluids getting tangled in Rudi Voller’s perm at the 1990 World Cup. I remember, while El Hadji Diouf was going through a period of gobbing on someone twice a season, Alan Hansen explained why it was so reprehensible; not only is it disgusting, but while you can defend yourself against a punch or a head-butt, or even try to leap away from a dangerous tackle, you cannot protect against sputter from close range. He called it cowardly, which is a fair judgement. But it’s not only fans who loath it; anyone caught gets one heck of a ban.

But diving doesn’t. Not consistently anyway. But like spitting, you can’t protect yourself against it, not unless you just back off and let your opponent beat you without a challenge. And like spitting, it’s something that is seldom done outside the professional arena. How many Sunday League matches see players dive to win penalties? Not many, I bet. But every week on Match of the Day there is a spot-kick given when for all the world the attacking player has fallen over an invisible third leg belonging to the defender. Think Tony Hibbert on Sunday for Everton; Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, and, north of the border, Shunsuke Nakamura on more than a few occasions.

There is a large part of me that thinks Eduardo is being made a scapegoat here, and I can’t help feeling that if a British player had done it there would be less of a big deal about it – go back a few years to Ryan Giggs diving to win a penalty at Old Trafford against Artur Boruc, the very same goalkeeper wronged last night. But there’s something very unfair and unreasonable about it all. For let’s face it, Celtic had as much of a chance of overcoming a two-goal deficit at the Emirates as I have of a threesome with Scarlett Johansson and a sixties-era Audrey Hepburn. It wasn’t as if this “simulation” was the difference between Arsenal reaching the glory and riches of the Champions’ League and the mindless tedium and second-string lineups of the Europa League. Not only did he cheat, but he cheated in a situation where it seemed utterly unnecessary. He didn’t need to do it to help his team. And that is why it seems so awful.

The SFA, and Gordon Smith in particular (who continues to do a smashing job, whatever the idiot press say) at least can claim to be making an effort to deal with it. Kyle Lafferty is an example. So too is the stramash they cooked up to get Saulius Mikoliunas banned for his dive against Scotland for Lithuania – though for justice to be truly done, the ref should have been hanged, drawn and quartered for crimes against humanity. And they have campaigned for, at least as a minimum, retrospective bans for players where video evidence shows the dive. And UEFA, in the Mikoliunas incident, at least have had the guts to ban players before.

But that was a Lithuanian, not a superstar Arsenal striker. Michel Platini (Sepp Blatter without the charisma but with the same hopelessness) has said he will look at the decision but is using it to champion his plan of having more officials around the box, instead of technology. Apparently TV pictures would take too long. But wouldn’t refereeing by committee take a heck of a time too?

Maybe fallible referees are something we will have to live with. Maybe we can’t spot, and caution, everyone who dives on the pitch. But we can do it afterwards. There is no point giving a paltry fine, or a censure, to one of these guys post-game. I know some might say a two game ban is not a sufficient deterrent, and that’s fine, but all I want is a chance to be proved wrong!


Monday, August 24, 2009

A silver lining? In a few years, maybe

Walter Smith and Gus McPherson, amongst others, have been vociferous critics of the rule that requires SPL sides to have three outfield players under 21 in their squad. And they're right to question the need for that rule. Because so many SPL teams are using the young players by necessity.

Take Aberdeen midfielder Fraser Fyvie. I think that in every man's life there is a terrible moment when you discover there are professional footballers ten years younger than you, and you know, deep down, that you might after all be destined for a future that does not involve lifting the Champions' League and winning multiple international caps. Fyvie was born in March 1993, so thankfully I've not had this awful experience yet, but in the past teams like Aberdeen used to replace decent players by looking over the border, or further afield. Now they are promoting young players so fast that sooner or later they'll need to replace the substitutes bench with a creche.

The trend is catching on elsewhere; only six of Falkirk's matchday eighteen against Hibs were over 21, while Motherwell had six under-21 players on from the start as they gubbed Kilmarnock and one of them, Ross Forbes, has scored in both their league games and is the early star of the season. Not bad for a bloke who spent last season on loan at third division Dumbarton.

Weird to think that, in the mid-nineties, if you were Scottish and your name wasn't Andy Goram or Richard Gough you had no chance of ever playing for Rangers (except for Alec Cleland - how on earth was he Rangers' best right back for years???). Yet this weekend saw Wattie Smith field no fewer than eight Scots, with two more coming off the bench. And with the Rangers purse strings tied tighter than Borat's man-kini (a beautiful mental image for you there), it seems that this is the future for Rangers.

That said, are they coming too quickly? Rangers have shown remarkable discipline in their gentle introduction of the precocious John Fleck to the team, but can the other, weaker sides avoid throwing the youngsters in the deep end quickly? Craig Levein could apparently be heard on Friday saying that the credit crunch was so bad that, for example, Aberdeen might have to introduce Fyvie in the next few months. Lo and behold, he's on the teamsheet the next day. But an early start didn't do James McCarthy, erstwhile of Hamilton, any harm. Nor does it appear to have held back Scott Arfield, who is set to leave Falkirk for pastures new before the transfer window closes.

So, here's the dream; lots of youngsters who, in previous generations, would never have had the chance to play at this level, can come through the ranks and give the national team a massive boost, as well as giving their clubs crucial saleable assets in this economic minefield. Of course, there is a potential flipside to all of this, but I'm in a good mood, so please let's not talk about that...


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ever feel like the whole universe is against you?

I hope to goodness that the press go easily on George Burley after tonight. God knows how many times he has smashed mirrors and walked under ladders; even before tonight he'd had to deal with THAT Iwelumo miss, the ref against Holland who disallowed our goal for nothing after giving the Dutch one after a blatant foul, and now the muppet in Norway who sent off Gary Caldwell when John Carew was clearly tugging his shirt at the same time (when Carew was on the brink of a second yellow of his own). Considering that his predecessors Walter Smith and Alex McLeish appeared, at times, to be hiding leprechauns down their trousers, given their penchants for remarkable luck, it must be hard to stomach.

I'm not Burley's biggest fan, but up until the sending off in Norway, I had been pretty damn impressed by Scotland's ability to keep the ball on the deck, to knock it around. God forbid, they were actually enjoyable to watch. And then another referee ruins it.

And yet, I have a sneaky feeling that when I wake up tomorrow the newspapers will be calling for Burley's head (and Gordon Smith's as well), led by the usual Daily Ranger hacks who believe Barry Ferguson is the reincarnation of Christ. That's just a feeling; what I know for certain is that Scotland's World Cup campaign is effectively over.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Opening days and me go way back

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a football team, must be in want of a last minute winner away from home against the run of play.

Ladies and gentleman, bow down and worship me, for that has got to be by a distance the best (or worst) paraphrasing of a Jane Austen quote ever - the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, for those philistines amongst you. It is true, however, that the deepest joys known to a football supporter come from very late winning goals, particularly against much better sides. Lee Cox's deflected winner yesterday in Dunfermline hardly counts against the ultimate Caley moment, John Rankin's outrageous winner against Rangers in December 2006, but those of us in the away end yesterday celebrated like we had won the league.

To cap it all, it was the most entertaining game we have been involved in for yonks - attacking football, open and adventurous play, and yet an attempt by both sides to keep it on the deck. Considering the catenaccio feeling to most of last season's games, this was a real shot in the arm as far as I was concerned. Although whether I would be so overwhelmingly positive had the Pars nicked the winner instead of us is open to debate...

The first day of the league season always seems to attract supporters (except Dunfermline ones, by the look of their empty stands, though the ICT support was remarkable indeed) and I certainly have made a lot of away journeys to these games over the years. This is partly because we barely ever get to start at home, though it hasn't done us any good when we have - in 2006 a newly promoted St. Mirren came from behind to beat us 2-1, and the next year we got roundly humped 3-0 by a Rangers side resurgent after six months of rebuilding under Wattie Smith. The away days have had mixed results - last season saw us finally break our Aberdeen hoodoo (what a false dawn that turned out to be), while in 2004, our first SPL game, Livingston (remember when they had a team?) whipped us 3-0.

What all the away trips have in common is nightmare travel, as August appears to be the month for the authorities to dig up Scottish roads. Last year we nearly missed the kickoff at Pittodrie due to tailbacks at Fochabers (a gateway to Hell if ever there was one) while in 04 the front of my mum's car was smashed up by a deer on the A9, which to be fair came off even worse. For us to still manage to get to the game, only to watch a total thrashing, well, you can imagine that was not the best of days. Even yesterday, we missed the first few minutes thanks to the infamous Bankfoot roadworks.

The last time I visited the slums of Dunfermline (sorry, but it is one minging town) was in fact on an opening day, all the way back in 1999. Looking back yesterday, it certainly felt as if we were in a different millennia; on that occasion, we had just been promoted to division 1 for the first time, while Dunfermline had just been relegated from the premier league. Steve Paterson, our adventurous (and often hungover) manager, learnt quickly that we weren't quite ready for adventurous football as we were annihilated 4-0. Six months later, of course, came the whole Super-Caley-Go-Ballistic thing, which tells you that we learnt well from that.

And so the roles were somewhat reversed yesterday; Dunfermline began their third consecutive season in the SFL, while we were the new arrivals ejected from the top flight. And just like a decade ago, the big team won, although it was a close run thing. If all the games are as enjoyable as that, you may even find one or two more positive posts on here (though probably not). More importantly, lets hope Lee Cox scores more goals this season, so I can hear more fans (notoriously homophobic at the best of times) break out into chants of "We love Cox!". If only I could be sure there was a trace of irony in there somewhere.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

SFL 1 - The (far from) definitive preview

Isn't it weird how I'm taking such an interest in the Scottish first division this season? Obviously, it's all just coincidental!

Plenty of talking points from the second tier already, pretty much all of them about cash; some (Dundee) appear to rolling in the stuff, whilst others (Livingston) appear to be in more debt than some third world countries. As stated before by myself, with only the champions earning promotion back to paradise (though if the SPL is paradise it's a sad look out for Christians everywhere!), this is a very hard division to get out least, unless you want to get relegated.

Last year the league was tighter than Vanessa Feltz's G-String, but while that tells you the teams were evenly matched, it also suggests, considering the lack of quality at league winners St. Johnstone, that there is as big a step up between SPL and SFL as there has ever been. That's why I feel quietly confident that my beloved Inverness Caledonian Thistle will be there or thereabouts, as they look like the strongest side to be relegated from the top division this millennium. We've lost the likes of Ian Black and Filipe Morais, two players who were far too good to ever stay for this season, but to a collective surprise and delight up here Richie Foran signed a new deal, and the midfielder cum forward is probably the highest regarded player in the league. ICT also boast a big, strong defence, with plenty of players who won promotion to the SPL as long ago as 2004, and the presence of Dougie Imrie and arrival of Robert Eagle offer plenty of flair. Caley's big problem is undoubtedly up front, where Foran looks set to be used as a target man. Is there a 20-goal-a-season man there? If there is, we will win the league. If there isn't, we probably won't.

Dundee, with their new Uncle Pennybags behind them, are the bookie's favourites, which is not surprising when you consider that their purchases of Leigh Griffiths and Gary Harkins make them bigger spenders this summer than Rangers. The Dark Blues are almost the antithesis of Inverness, with goals guaranteed from Griffiths, Mickael Antoine-Curier and Colin McMenamin, all proven at this level. Questions are more likely to be asked about the back line, which, veteran keeper Rab Douglas aside, looks a bit fragile and lacking in depth, especially if big Jim Lauchlan gets injured. But Dundee have so much fire power that they will fancy their chances of sweeping to the title, and nothing else will keep Jocky Scott in a job.

Partick Thistle were best of the rest last season, but will badly miss Harkins and another departee, defender Marc Twaddle. Jim Hamilton and his big back side will be expected to give them steel up front alongside Liam Buchanan, and if Bryan Hodge, arrived from Blackburn, can replace Harkins, they might challenge again. Certainly a back line including the experience of Ian Maxwell, John Robertson, Martyn Corrigan and Alan Archibald will be difficult to break down, and keeper Jonny Tuffey might be the best in the division. If the midfield can create enough chances, and they can rely on other players than Buchanan to score goals, they will challenge.

Dunfermline Athletic have the pedigree, but have never got close to the top of the table since they were relegated to the first division two seasons ago. Last year they were distracted by a long cup run, but there are no excuses left for manager Jim McIntyre. But it's hard to believe the Pars will be stronger than last year, after losing the spine of their defence (Paul Gallacher, Scott Wilson and Greg Shields) over the summer. There will be a lot of onus on new arrival Willie Gibson to create chances for the forwards, who at least are among the best at this level - Graham Bayne is a top target man, and Andy Kirk a brilliant finisher. But too many of the squad have been brought in from other first division clubs, and there is only one player left - Alex Burke - who has played SPL football in the last two years. Whether Dunfermline have the quality to compete at the top of the table is very doubtful indeed.

It's hard to know what to make of Queen of the South, who always appear to lack the depth and quality to be anything other than relegation battlers, yet constantly prove everyone wrong. They have a solid bunch of hard-nosed veterans this year, with Jamie McQuilken and Derek Lilley in defence, Barry Wilson and Steve Tosh pulling the strings and Derek Holmes up front. Their starting eleven looks capable of giving any team a hard time, but if the older players run out of legs they may well be nearer the bottom than the top.

Despite being an ICT fan, I have no particular urge to give Ross County a hard time; they comfortably re-established themselves as a first division side last season and will not expect to be embroiled in the fight at the bottom this time round. With the exception of Craig Brewster and Stuart Golabek, it appears a young squad, and a lot depends on whether the likes of new signings Iain Vigurs and Garry Wood (both showed potential at Caley, but both were lazy as heck on the training ground) and other youths like Michael Gardyne can make the step up. If these players are on a path to prove they were good enough for the top division after all, County could prove a surprise, but if the going gets tough, they may not have enough leadership to pull together.

Morton are another side who appear hard to gauge; they finished the season very strongly indeed, and the arrival of Neil MacFarlane appears to be the only change to last year's squad. Their problem appears to be a lack of goals up front, and surely the oak-aged James Grady is no longer the answer. Their defence is sorely lacking in depth, but their midfield, with the steeled McFarlane joining the highly rated winger Jim McAlister and the solid Allan Jenkins, will compensate for a lot of their weaknesses.

Raith Rovers have waited too long to return to this division, but they will have to work hard to stay in it. Long gone are the glory days of the mid-nineties; the damage done by the Claude Anelka era leaves Kirkcaldy's finest with a host of young players and first division cast-offs, with only defender Grant Murray, forward Graham Weir and midfielder Stephen Simmons having previously showed promise at a higher level. If these three stay fit they should survive, but otherwise a lack of depth and a lack of quality could put them in trouble.

The same can be said of Ayr United who as the promotion playoff winners are inevitably expected to be battling against relegation. They do at least have, in Brian Reid, a very under-rated young manager, and his summer signings have been sensible - Craig Samson in goal and Andy Aitken and Billy Gibson in defence all offer experience. Kevin James is still going as well. They badly need Bryan Prunty, lethal in division two, to make the step up and provide a good strike rate in order to keep them up.

And, last, and definitely least, we have the dreaded Livingston. If there is any justice in the world, they will get their ten point penalty and, with only a handful of senior players left, be doomed to relegation before we even start. There's not a lot else you can say about them.

So here's how I think it will finish...

1. Dundee
2. Inverness Caledonian Thistle
3. Partick Thistle
4. Ross County
5. Dunfermline Athletic
6. Morton
7. Queen of the South
8. Raith Rovers
9. Ayr United
10. Livingston

Prove me wrong, ICT, prove me wrong!


Edit: Obviously Livi-gate (which is worth a rant at a later date) changes things, but I think you can just slot Airdrie United into that tenth place on my prediction table instead. Simples!