Friday, November 27, 2009

Thoughts from the last week or so

Aargh, I've spent all week planning to write this - and then constantly found more important things to do, like, er, lazing on the couch watching Garth Marenghi's Darkplace on DVD.

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

(Insert cunning French handball pun here)

Ever heard of "The Football War"? In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras played each other in a play-off to decide who qualifed for the Mexico World Cup the following summer. A two leg match between the teams resulted in two home wins (back then aggregate scores weren't used) where the visiting sides were intimidated and threatened by home fans, while there were plenty of reports of attacks on Honduran citizens living in El Salvador and vice versa. In the end, El Salvador qualifed for the World Cup by winning a playoff after extra-time in Mexico, a neutral venue. But with this helping fuel extreme tensions between the two nations, the two countries were at arms within a fortnight. The war lasted only four days, but resulted in an estimated 4,000 deaths, population displacement on a horrific scale, and absolutely no benefit whatsoever to either country.

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".

If only.


Monday, November 16, 2009

End of the road for George Burley

Have to admit, I didn't expect this.

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

The eyes have it

Picture the scene...

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

The greatest (own) goal ever

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

You don't know what you're doing!

This post was initially titled "A bad week for referees", but then I thought, "when isn't it a bad week for referees?" No wonder that the numbers of people wanting to become football officials is apparently slumping; not a match on Sky Sports appears to go by without Andy Gray moaning about the man in black (or yellow, or blue, or, at Old Trafford yesterday, in white - I thought at one time that he had looked back on Sodom and turned into a pillar of salt). The habit of ESPN pundit Chris Waddle of taking a few seconds to praise the ref in several matches this season has been a rare exception. On my part, when I was at Wigan-Chelsea in September, Florent Malouda poleaxed Mario Melchiot five yards away from me...and the ref missed it. Thing is, I didn't see it either; TV evidence suggested it was a tackle potentially worthy of a red card.

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

Ronaldinho at his most audacious

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.