Monday, December 27, 2010

The ten worst Celtic signings of the century

Told you I had a Celtic list as well. In fact, I wrote it a month ago, to post when I was going through a busy patch and didn't have time to write something fresh. Which makes it a bit inexcusable that I've barely posted in the last fortnight.

10) JUNINHO (free transfer from Middlesbrough, August 2004)
Martin O'Neill must have hoped he was signing the Juninho who had lit up the Premier League at Middlesbrough in the late nineties, or at least the one who was solid in midfield for Brazil at the 2002 World Cup. Instead he got a timid, titchy player whose legs had gone and who couldn't cope with the physicality of the SPL - and who couldn't dislodge Neil Lennon and Stiliyan Petrov from the team. He scored only one goal for the club and left after a year for Australia, having earned a healthy wage in the process.

9) MARC-ANTOINE FORTUNE (£3.8 million from Nancy, July 2009)
Fortune was Tony Mowbray's marquee signing, having had a solid five months on loan under his tutelage at West Bromwich Albion. The Frenchman was a decent target man who could run the channels and hold up the ball - but not a goalscorer - he only scored 2 goals in his first 12 games. That tally was to improve - a total of 12 in 43 - but he was so mediocre he made Georgios Samaras look decent. Celtic at least got £2.5 million back when West Brom signed him in August 2010.

8) DAVID FERNANDEZ (£1 million from Livingston, June 2002)
Both Rangers and Celtic have gone through spells of stealing the best talent from other SPL clubs - possibly more to weaken their opponents than to strengthen their own squads. Fernandez was a prime example; a Spaniard brought across to play in the first division for Steve Archibald's Airdrie in 2000, he moved to Livingston when that all went belly-up and was their star man in the 2001-02 season as the team finished third. Martin O'Neill quickly moved in and, for a million, he got a guy who made all of 20 appearances in 3 years, with a solitary goal against Suduva in the UEFA Cup. But Livingston went downhill after that. After leaving Celtic, Fernandez had spells at Dundee United and Kilmarnock where he appeared to earn decent wages for doing not very much.

7) GLENN LOOVENS (£2.5 million from Cardiff, August 2008)
Obviously transfer fees are not what they used to be, so you would expect to get a centre-half of decent quality for £2.5 million. Instead, Celtic got Dutchman Glenn Loovens, a standout in the Championship with Cardiff City but just accident- and injury-prone since his move to Scotland. Tony Mowbray tried pairing him with both Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell; when that didn't work out he bizarrely chucked the other two and kept Loovens, who hasn't held down a regular place under Neil Lennon. Talk is of him returning to Cardiff in January, with Celtic unlikely to get their money back.

6) JOS HOOIVELD (£1.4 million from AIK Solna, January 2010)
As I said on a previous blog - what does Jos Hooiveld actually look like? As stated above Mogga chucked Caldwell and McManus and spent heavily on this Dutchman who had looked good in Finland and Sweden, but who picked up a thigh injury in his second game and has only made nine appearances in a year. So far, so good...he's another one who may be off to pastures new when the transfer window opens.

5) JIRI JAROSIK (£2 million from Chelsea, June 2006)
Gordon Strachan seemed hell-bent on signing European midfield players - none of whom worked out (also see the next two entries, as well as Marc Crosas). Jarosik had looked out of his depth at Chelsea, then out of his depth at Birmingham as well. The Czech international midfielder did score two Champions League goals for the club, but did little else of note other than look disinterested on the bench and moved to Russia after eighteen unimpressive months.

4) MASSIMO DONATI (£3 million from Milan, June 2007)
The irony with Donati is that he finally put in a few good games for Celtic at the start of the 2009-10 season...and was promptly sold to Bari. A holding midfield player, the Italian was signed with a bit of fanfare, the most expensive purchase of that summer. His high point was scuffing in a late winner against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, but amid reports of homesickness he fell behind Scott Brown, Paul Hartley and Barry Robson in the queue. He made only 13 appearances in his last year and a half at the club.

3) MORTEN RASMUSSEN (£1.8 million from Brondby, January 2010)
Celtic must wish they hadn't let Tony Mowbray waste so much of their money in his final transfer window. Rasmussen was known as "Duncan" in his home country because of an alleged resemblance to Duncan Ferguson, though since the Dane is a six foot one inch goal poacher I certainly can't see a similarity. Mowbray appeared to quickly decide he didn't like him and marooned him on the bench; Neil Lennon liked him even less and packed him to Germany for a year's loan. Where he still sits on the bench.

2) THOMAS GRAVESEN (£2 million from Real Madrid, August 2006)
Remember when the bald headed Dane strutted around midfield for Everton like he owned the place (usually because he actually did own the middle of the park)?
Celtic didn't get that Thomas Gravesen, who went missing and has never been seen again; instead they got the Gravesen who looked timid and lost at Real Madrid for eighteen months prior to arriving at Celtic Park. He actually scored in an Old Firm game, and a hat-trick against St Mirren too, but sank without trace, with rumours of a poor attitude abounding. A year's loan back at Goodison Park didn't go well and he was let go after two years where he might well have been Celtic's highest paid player.

1) RAFAEL (£5 million from Gremio, January 2000)
Now you know why I made these lists "of the century" instead of "of the decade" - so I could include the misfit Brazilian defender whose full name, Rafael Felipe Scheidt, gave tabloids and fans instant, everlasting amusement. The manager who brought him to Parkhead, John Barnes, was sacked within a month, and his fee of £5 million eventually transpired to be £1 million for each of the five appearances he made in a Celtic shirt. Surely this counts as the worst signing in Scottish football history?

Happy Christmas and New Year to you all.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Grubby political fingerprints smudging everything

The other day, FIFA suddenly decided it would be a good idea to play the 2022 World Cup in the winter. No matter that, during the whole voting process, the Qatar bid was all about playing in state-of-the-art stadiums with special cooling systems to keep the players and fans cool. There was no mention, over the three years that the bid was advertised, that a Qatari World Cup would be used to try and force the rest of the footballing world to stop what it was doing, release all its players, and work out some way of sorting out their leagues to deal with it.

Of course there wasn't a mention - that sort of condition would have prevented anyone from touching the bid with a barge pole. So the World Cup we get will not be the World Cup we were told we would get. Sounds like a liberal democrat campaign promise. The cynic in me believes that Sepp Blatter knew a December World Cup would be inevitable long ago, but kept it quiet - it's amazing how gazillions of petro-dollars can keep one's mouth firmly shut.

The same week, Henry McLeish's long-awaited report into Scottish football was released. I actually trawled through the whole thing (two hours of my life I will never have back) and here are a few points worth noting.

1) It appears to have been written by an eight year old. Literally. Typos and grammatical/spelling errors everywhere. At least most 21st century eight year olds know Microsoft Word has a spellcheck function. The pick of the bunch: "The SFA's turnover in 2009 was £25". I know there's a credit crunch but, well, I paid more than that for my cup final ticket.

2) McLeish does not, technically, recommend a 10 team SPL - he mentions it as one of the best options for change, along with a 14 team league. There is certainly no mention of a two-tier SPL...despite about a hundred BBC articles since the report was published saying that his report endorses this.

3) There is, tucked away in the report, a quiet mention that a 14 team SPL would be "more in tune with what fans and spectators are asking for". I don't see the SPL themselves paying even lip service to this. You would think that customer opinion might we worth more than a warm bucket of piss (a prize goes to whoever knows where that reference comes from).

4) What is there to be gained from a 10 team SPL? It's quite simple; the money is only divided ten ways. As it is, more than a third of the cash goes to the top two teams - with a massive drop off to third place. We've seen, in recent years, Aberdeen and Hearts both finish as low as 9th, and Dundee Utd finish lower. Therefore, everyone except the Gruesome Twosome will have a nervous thought or two about relegation. Methinks this does not mean exciting football - a nil-nil at home will always seem like an ok result. But the Old Firm get more dosh, so what do they care? The bottom line is this - a 10 team SPL is about as competitive as a 100m dash between Usain Bolt and a paraplegic whose wheelchair has been clamped.

5) McLeish claims a 14 team league means "the quality of the SPL would also be a major consideration" - i.e. we would be letting two rubbish teams in. Since the last decade has only seen the damned Gretna relegated the year after promotion, and with St. J nearly making top six last year and Inverness flying this time around, this argument, frankly, is complete hokum.

6) So what is this report actually useful for? Real toilet paper would be more comfortable, and I can't think of any other reasons.

The bottom line? Never again should anyone believe for a second that anyone at the top of football is interested in the good of the game, for all they care about is self-preservation and the lining of their own pockets. The only thing that makes them less crooked than some of those who call themselves MPs is that no-one's charged the cleaning of their moat to FIFA or the SPL yet.

But it's only a matter of time.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The decline of Clyde

Ever heard of Steve Hislop? Even by Caley Thistle fans, he is hardly a club legend, having spent two years at the club from 2003 till 2005. Since then he had brief spells with Gillingham (who dopily paid us £50,000 in a transfer fee), and Livingston when they were an SPL club, and since then has tottered around clubs in the second division. He currently plays for East Fife, and I'm sure I read in the papers a few years back that he is training to become an optician or something.

There are plenty of reasons why Clyde FC lie bottom of the Scottish league at the time of writing, but Steve Hislop is one of them. For in spring 2004, Clyde led the first division, ten points clear at one point, though Inverness, their main chasers had games in hand. In March, the Bully Wee travelled to the Highlands for a rearranged midweek game where, with Caley 2-1 up, midfielder Roy McBain was sent off for handball on the goalline. The resultant penalty was missed and the home side won 3-1. Clyde, managed by Irishman Alan Kernaghan at the time, hardly collapsed, but they dropped enough points in the run-in to give Inverness a sniff. When the sides met again at Broadwood in May, it was the penultimate game of the season and Clyde were still two points clear - a draw would mean they just needed see off Alloa, the division's whipping boys, to get to the promised land of the Scottish Premier League.

Hislop had been at Inverness for eighteen months, having joined from Ross County but his hard work and constant running never really made up for his inherent clumsiness. My own username on the club's fan website is "Hislopsoffsideagain", out of homage to a commonly used phrase on the terraces during his tenure. He was a bit part player during that season, demoted to the bench because of the prolific scoring of veteran striker Paul Ritchie. But he came off the bench at Broadwood with the score 1-1, and it was he who arched his neck back to power home a header with 11 minutes left that turned out to be the winning goal. Clyde gubbed Alloa the next week but it was no use, for Inverness saw off St. Johnstone and won the division instead.

In 2004, Clyde were that close to being in the top division. As 2010 draws to a close, they are at the foot of the third division, with only one win from their opening twelve matches.

And unlike Livingston, they've never been demoted because of going to administration. They've ended up in the fourth tier of Scottish football because they've been relegated twice.

Clyde FC are a team that can be found mentioned even in the oldest history books
about footie in this country. Founded in 1877, they were named for the river that runs through Glasgow, and whci was adjacent to their first pitch at Barrowfield. The side joined the Scottish Football League in 1891 and soon afterwards moved to Shawfield, the ground which would be their home for 88 years. Shawfield was initially owned by the club, but was also (and still is) used for greyhound racing - and for financial reasons Clyde sold the ground to the Greyhound Racing Association in 1935. This somewhat came back to bite them...for in 1986 their owners evicted them so that Shawfield could be renovated.

To be honest, Clyde were just another team in Glasgow anyway. Though they won the Scottish Cup three times, the last in 1958, and spent several seasons in the top flight, they were but a tiny fish in a pond ruled by the Old Firm and where the scraps went to Partick Thistle. It was with Partick that Clyde had to groundshare, initially, when they left Shawfield. As if five years as tenants at Firhill didn't damage their support base enough, a further two years at Hamilton, out of Glasgow altogether, probably eradicated this. So Clyde took the gamble of completely abandoning their roots, and left for the new town of Cumbernauld, about 20 miles out of Glasgow and with a population of 50,000. And without a football team. North Lanarkshire Council built (and still own) a stadium called Broadwood, and a capacity crowd of 6,000 turned up for the first game. Not a bad idea, huh?

Except that Cumbernauld is not a very affluent town. No, let's be honest - it is an absolute hole. And its proximity to Glasgow means that, inevitably, the locals still enjoy a considerably loyalty to the Gruesome Twosome. In reality, even when challenging in the first division, Clyde's attendances were less than 2,000. On the pitch, the club found itself in the third division in 1998, but the reigns of managers Ronnie MacDonald and Allan Maitland saw back-to-back promotions, with the coaches improving the squad by attracting the best players from junior football. Trying to get to the SPL was a big gamble, however, and one which failed miserably.

By the end of that season, creditors were sniffing around, and whilst they never quite ended up in administration, a Compulsory Voluntary Agreement was required which left the club debt-free, but weak, even after a shock cup win over Celtic in 2006 (best remembered as Roy Keane's debut for the Hoops). Even with a poor team, the bills were run up again and the last two seasons have seen back-to-back
relegations. And to cap it all, this week they have announced that they are going to leave Broadwood.

Sadly, it's not as if they are leaving much of a support behind, much like in the 1980s.

Clyde's story is increasingly typical of the lower reaches of the Scottish game; a club who have been around forever, but whose support has drained over years and years. The lack of income off the field leads to a lack of quality on the field - and this means less paying fans, and so less income...and so on. And Clyde were one of those teams, like Livingston, and Dundee, and plenty of others, who gambled it all on reaching the big time, and were almost irreparably damaged as a result. Goodness knows where the club go next - there is no other "Cumbernauld" out there, no town that looks like ripe pickings. If they go back to groundsharing in Greater Glasgow, who would go and watch them?

The romantic in me finds it a depressing tale, and hopes that this historic club
find themselves a niche in the Scottish game. The pragmatist in me wonders whether there is any point to their existence any more.

And their current plight is a depressingly common one throughout the lower reaches of Scottish football. They might just be the first who end up fading away. There will be others.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Craig Brown takes up Pittodrie's poisoned chalice

Reasons why Craig Brown might think leaving Motherwell for Aberdeen is a good idea...

1) He wasn't given the assurances he was looking for regarding strengthening Motherwell's squad - guys like Alan Gow are out of contract in January whilst his top scorer, Nick Blackman is only on loan.

2) Stewart Milne has offered guarantees that Brown will be given cash to perform a complete overhaul of the squad - you can currently count on the fingers of one hand the number of players they have who are good enough for a top six SPL side. (In which case, where has the money come from and why wasn't McGhee allowed a sniff of it?)

3) The age of 70 is old enough that Brown's memory might be beginning to go - has Milne tricked him into thinking that the year is 1985, that the Dons are still a force in the game and that his centre-backs will be McLeish and Miller rather than Ifil and Diamond?

(that last comment is going to lead to accusations of ageism...)

The thing is, two summers ago Aberdeen wanted to replace an (apparently) underachieving management team, and they went and picked up a new coach who had plenty of experience north and south of the border, who had done impressive things on a shoestring Motherwell.

That turned out well, huh?

Either Craig Brown will be the man who finally turns Aberdeen around and brings the fans, and good football, back to Pittodrie, or he will dent his own reputation and legacy and just become another in the long list of coaches who have failed in the North East.

Which outcome do you think is more likely?


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Just a bit of fun - the ten worst Rangers signings of this century

It's a slow news week football-wise, so I thought a wee blast from the past might be fun. As the potential sale of Rangers continues to develop, chairman David Murray might not want to look at this list of reminders of where a lot of his money got wasted (for the sake of fairness, not to mention fun, there will be a Celtic list at some point too - otherwise someone will accuse me of sectarianism).

So, for the record, here are the ten worst Rangers signings of the 21st far...

10) JEROME ROTHEN (loan from Paris St. Germain, September 2009)
Rothen by name, rotten by nature; Walter Smith has made few transfer market mistakes in his second spell as Rangers boss but this was one. The French winger won 13 caps, the last in 2008, and was the only signing that summer - he played eight games in an eight week period, the last of which was a dire performance in a 4-1 home humping by Romanians Unirea. He came down with "a viral illness" after that and was shipped out in January. At least he only cost four months' wages.

9) EGIL OSTENSTAD (free transfer from Blackburn, August 2003)
Alex McLeish really didn't have much cash to splash in the summer of 2003. My memory of the burly Norwegian forward's time at Ibrox is of an old man who looked years past it - yet I'm surprised to see that Ostenstad was only 31 when he signed for Rangers. A cult hero in his younger days at Southampton, he had achieved little in four years at Blackburn prior to this and started only two league games all year. His only goals came in league cup games against lower league teams St. Johnstone and Forfar.

8) MARCUS GAYLE (£1 million from Wimbledon, March 2001)
A very good example of the reckless spending during the Advocaat years - a couple of strikers injured with six weeks of the season left? No problem - here's nearly a million quid for a useful but unspectacular forward from down south. Four games and no goals later, he was shipped back to London - to sign for Watford - for £100,000 less.

7) MICHAEL BALL (£6.5 million from Everton, August 2001)
On the face of it, Ball, a 22 year old left back who had just won his first England cap, looked like quite a coup for Advocaat - but his four years in Govan were basically a nightmare. He was fined for swearing at his manager when subbed during his first Old Firm game, then, after only his eleventh appearance, he buggered his knee and was out for a year and a half. Then having worked his way back to fitness, he barely played at the beginning of the 2003-04 season because his 60th game would trigger a £500,000 payment to Everton. This was resolved - but he left in 2005 after only 78 appearances for the club, in a £500,000 move to PSV Eindhoven.

6) LIONEL LETIZI (free transfer from Paris St. Germain, June 2006)
One of Paul Le Guen's early moves as boss was to sign Letizi, who had been PSG's keeper for six years, to be his number one goalkeeper. He gifted Dunfermline a goal in his third league game, then was injured after his fourth and watched Allan McGregor put in a string of good performances as his replacement. Le Guebn controversially chose to restore Letizi to the side despite this, and was "rewarded" when another catastrophic blunder gifted Inverness a 1-0 win at Ibrox. Despite consternation from the supporters, he stuck with the Frenchman for another few weeks, but eventually dumped him. After a grand total of eight appearances, it was no surprise when he left shortly after Le Guen's dismissal.

5) KARL SVENSSON (£600,000 from IFK Gothenburg, May 2006)
Another to follow Le Guen into Ibrox, Svensson was as catastrophic as every other signing the Frenchman made as Rangers coach (with the exception of Sasa Papac). His poor performances at centre-half were all the more mystifying as he had been in Sweden's World Cup squad prior to his move to Scotland. He couldn't head the ball and he couldn't tackle, and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than Glasgow. Despite this, his boss persisted with him right up to his sacking, but he made only seven appearances under Walter Smith before signing for Caen on a free.

4) NUNO CAPUCHO (£670,000 from Porto, June 2003)
As I said before, McLeish had almost no transfer kitty at all that summer - so why splash it on this hapless Portuguese wide man? That said, at the time it looked like a decent deal for a 31 year old who had played at the 2002 World Cup and started in the 2003 UEFA Cup final. Don't be fooled by the fact he scored six goals in his solitary season - I remember seeing him being kept under control by Aberdeen's Scott Morrison (not exactly the best full-back ever) at Pittodrie that season. He was so bad that everyone laughed at him instead of booing him.

3) JOSE-KARL PIERRE-FANFAN (free transfer from Paris St. Germain, July 2005)
Rangers' dealings with Paris St. Germain have not been particularly good, have they? At least they didn't have to pay a fee for Fanfan, who scored on his debut but fell out with McLeish and played only nine games, none after November. Yet he hung around for another nine months, leeching wages until his release in August 2006.

2) FILIP SEBO (£1.8 million from Austria Vienna, August 2006)
If we chuckled at Capucho, we sniggered at Sebo. a clown of a striker from Slovakia, who displayed plenty of energy - but generally just ran around the park in a manner more befitting of a headless chicken. Austria Vienna's chairman mischievously admitted, 6 months after his transfer, that he would have accepted a third of what Rangers paid for him. He made only four league starts (I saw one of those in Inverness, where he was so bad the home fans started chanting his name) and was generally used as an "impact sub", though it is hard to say what impact was ever made. Sebo scored two goals for Rangers before leaving for the French league; believe it or not, he was recalled to his national team this year.

1) TORE ANDRE FLO (£12 million from Chelsea, November 2000)I actually feel a little sick in the stomach at the thought of a Scottish team paying this sort of fee, especially for a good, but hardly world-class player like Flo - the Norwegian's reputation was destroyed by the fact that he simply couldn't match Henrik Larsson's scoring rate. His 38 goals in 72 games for Rangers is not that bad, but £12 million? Dear god. Rangers at least got £6.75 million back when they sold him to Sunderland in 2002.

Any others you can think of? Certainly I nearly put Bert Konterman on this list as well.

Ah, the memories...


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welcome to rant city

Rant one: the world cup.

I would love to go to a World Cup - in fact I would happily exchange one of my upper limbs for this privilege. However, the destination would need to fit certain criteria; firstly, it would need to be relatively straightforward to get to the country, and to travel throughout that country. Secondly, I'm not going anywhere where my own safety is at significant risk.

The 2010 World Cup was in South Africa - expensive to travel to, with a poor infrastructure for travelling around the country, where the risks of carjacking and violence are very high. Chances of me going - half the chance a snowball has of surviving in hell

The 2014 World Cup will be in Brazil - expensive to travel to, with unmaintained roads, a railway network that has seen barely any investment in years, and concerns over the safety of its air travel. And as the esteemed Tim Vickery pointed out for the BBC this week, it is also a place where muggings etc happen a lot. And it will be bloody hot. Chances of me going - half the chance a snowball has of surviving in hell

The 2018 World Cup will be in Russia - expensive to travel to, though it might have a decent infrastructure in eight years (none of it has been built yet - nor have most of the stadia). Personal safety is a huge issue, though I'm protected a bit by the fact I'm not black, gay or a journalist representing a free press. Chances of me going - half the chance a snowball has of...well you get the picture.

The 2022 World Cup will be in Qatar - expensive to travel to, whilst the infrastructure doesn't exist right now either. In fact, the stadium for the final will be built in a city that...doesn't exist yet. Seems safer than the other countries - though the foreign office lists it as being at significant
risk from terrorism. The main worry is the 40-plus degree heat in the summer months. Chances of me going - half the chance a snowball has of surviving

At least Spain/Portugal and Belgium/Holland are affordable, straightforward destinations for the majority of supporters - let's not beat around the bush here, the vast majority of football fans who can afford to go to World Cups are European. And whilst I enjoy the irony of David Cameron moaning about people making him promises and turning out to be lying, it's quite sickening to see what the World Cup has become - you have to beg to get it, not bid, and it's all about who can provide FIFA with the most cash whilst asking the fewest questions. The only solace - hell hath no fury like the British press scorned. Sepp Blatter and co think Panorama and the Sunday Times were the worst of it? This could become very interesting over the next few months.

Rant two: Undersoil heating

I emailed a complaint to the BBC this week after an article that suggested that Inverness, St. Johnstone and Aberdeen were all likely to have their games called off because "of the weather in the North East".

Inverness - North East? Perth - North East? Obviously the writer has never ventured beyond the Forth Road Bridge in his life - and he assumed somewhat erroneously that the weather in the Highlands was bound to be exactly the same as in Aberdeen and Tayside.

Well, it's not. We've had barely any more snow since the original fall at the end of last week. The temperature is still low, but the roads are generally okay (except for my street, which apparently doesn't appear on the maps of any council snow plough drivers). So I was massively hacked off to hear that all the SPL games were called off this weekend - on Wednesday afternoon. Caley had quite proudly been telling everyone that our pitch would be playable - but
apparently it is too unsafe for spectators and stuff.

If the roads are too unsafe to go to the football, doesn't that make them too unsafe to, well, do anything? I don't see the police closing all the shopping centres so that people aren't encouraged to make non-essential purchases. Besides, the A9 was worse last weekend...when the SPL showed no interest in postponing Caley's away game at Celtic whatsoever. The team bus barely arrived at the ground in time.

And to cap it all, Inverness' undersoil heating (installed at a six-figure cost) was switched on the first two days this week (at a cost of about £3,000 a day) because SPL rules dictate all clubs must have it and use it. Yet it appears that now, whenever the weather is bad enough to require USH, the police will demand the game be called off anyway. So what the heck is the point? And how do these central-belt wusses intend to pay us back for the money wasted trying to get the game on? When the game should have been on anyway?

Rant no.3 - why bother selling hot food on the shelves at supermarkets when the queues are so long that its cold by the time you pay for...oh, wait, thats not about football. I'll just have to rant about that to someone else then.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Whoa! Its another great El Clasico

What was Jose Mourinho thinking?

Last season, the Portuguese maestro demonstrated why he is arguably (along with perhaps Guus Hiddink) the greatest tactician of the era when he guided Internazionale past Chelsea and Barcelona on the way to Champions League glory. Against both sides, he lined up with three forwards, including Samuel Eto'o out wide, and played a high pressing game, with a screen of defensive midfielders whose main - nay, only - job was to stop Xavi, Iniesta and Messi from getting on the ball; in the two legs against Barca, he gave the Catalans all the possession they wanted 30 yards from their own goal, but denied them the space even to breathe, let alone play, anywhere else on the pitch.

And yet, for his first Clasico as Real Madrid manager, at the Nou Camp, Mourinho played an attack minded 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldo, Di Maria, Ozil and Benzema all starting. And it ended up a massacre. The 5-0 scoreline just about does justice to the gulf in class; Barcelona were brilliant, Madrid abysmal. The Special One, as a manager had never, ever, lost by more than 3-0 before in his career. But his previous successes have been with teams built in his image. Porto, Chelsea and Inter won trophies galore by playing a pragmatic style, eschewing flair for solidity when necessary. At the first two teams he had a bunch of hungry, ambitious players willing to do whatever required to win - after all, what had John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba achieved before they came under his charge? Meanwhile, in Italy the players are far more receptive to tactics and organization than elsewhere - and again, they would do absolutely anything if it meant victory in the Champions League. Real Madrid, however, are different. Very different.

Some things never seem to change, however hard you try, and one of those is the apparent fact that the Real Madrid starting lineup will be filled with egos. Earlier in the decade it was Ronaldo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Figo, Beckham and Zidane. They got annihilated by a wonderful Barcelona team as well, 3-0 at the Bernabeu in November 2005, where Ronaldinho gave the greatest performance of his
life. Real are supposed to be all about flair and excitement - maybe Jose felt he couldn't play an extra defensive midfielder; maybe he wasn't allowed to; maybe he felt the squad lacked the discipline to produce the type of performance which brought his Inter side such joy last year.

Or maybe his own ego got the better of him, and he dared to believe that his own flamboyant forwards could destroy Barca in their own back yard. The result was delightful for the neutral, but humiliating for Madridistas. The midfield wasn't nearly crowded enough - giving time to Xavi and Iniesta is like giving matches to an arsonist. The latter remains one of my favourite players on this earth, buzzing like a hornet all over the park, whether to run at defenders or to play an incisive pass (like the one for Xavi's goal). His running, along with that of Barca's front men, put Real Madrid's lackadaisical, workshy forwards to shame; it also meant that their backline had no time to pass out of defence, and the home side had a monopoly on possession.

I have already extolled Iniesta, but what can one say of Xavi? Now thirty, he has been the fulcrum of sides that, at club and international level, have won just about everything that they possibly can over the last three years. He seems, superficially, so limited - he is of diminutive stature, he lacks pace, he is not proficient at tackling, and, last night notwithstanding, his goal return is modest. Yet, in my lifetime at least, I cannot remember a player who appears to control a match in the way Xavier Hernandez Creus (his full name) does. It seems every attack, every incisive movement, is dictated, in some way, by his passing. Sid Lowe, the Guardian's esteemed journalist, described his effects best - not only does he see, and make, the killer passes, but he sometimes moves and passes in such a way that it extols a teammate to make a run that he would not otherwise have made. Does that make sense? In short, Xavi is a unique player, able to move his teammates, and opponents, around the field as if it were a chess board. And it is much easier to win a chess game if you move your opponent's pieces as well as your own. And, unlike so many stars, Xavi produces it in the biggest of matches last night.

As for the other twenty players? The less said about Mourinho's bunch, the better. The lack of discipline was no surprise, nor was the lack of willingness to press the ball - the day Ronaldo closes down a defender will be the day the world ends. But it was a surprise that Xabi Alonso couldn't put a foot on the ball, and it was a shock to see Mesut Ozil so ineffective that he was substituted at half-time - he couldn't have been more anonymous if he had been wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Jose brought on that extra holding midfielder at the break, but not only had the horse already bolted, he had wrecked the stable door on the way out as well. Mourinho teams have never gone to pieces in this way before - his Special One aura, polarized and imbibed by over seven years of almost unstoppable victory, seemed to fade over the course of one wet Catalonian evening, finally evaporating as Sergio Ramos went for his early bath for a crude hack on Messi.

And what of the Argentinian wonderkid? A pretty average performance - for him, that is. After all, he only hit the post and laid on Villa's two goals. Pedro got one as well. And it is worth glorifying Sergio Busquets as well - the defensive midfielder provides the steel to go with his teammates' silk. Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta - has there ever been a better midfield combo? That is one to debate. Barcelona's defence might still be their achilles heel, but such was the lack of threat from their opponents that they were never stretched.

I've raved and waxed lyrical about Barcelona in the past, and with good reason.
They are not perfect, not by a long shot, but in their pomp they are a simply unbelievable team to watch. I really, really, could have watched that ninety minutes all over again from start to finish (though that proves I have too much
time on my hands). In short, Barcelona are the best club side of a generation.
The Clasico shows Jose Mourinho has a long way to go to get his side competing on an even keel.

But if anyone can do it, he can. The return game is in April; I can't wait.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Caley Thistle unbeaten away for a year

What should Caley Thistle maanger Terry Butcher get for Christmas this year?

Well, he loves his red wine. He's certainly done enough to deserve a humungous crate of the stuff.

Considering his side's glorious start to the season, though, he can't be far off being able to write 'bronze statue of myself outside Caledonian Stadium' on his letter to Santa.

A year ago, Caley were mid-table in the first division, and were about as consistent as the bowel habit of an Irritable Bowel sufferer. Now they lie fourth in the SPL with any fears of a relegation battle rapidly receding. Butcher currently has the dream scenario of any coach - his team are punching above their weight, getting results and playing some damn attractive football in the process. He is idolized by the home support as a consequence of this, plus his charming, eloquent and honest post-match interviews.

And to cap it all, the lazarus-esque comeback from two down at Celtic Park this weekend means that Inverness have been unbeaten away from home in the league for a whole year. That, ladies and gentlemen, is some record, even if the first ten matches were in the second tier. And nicking a point off the Hoops feels like pretty much the perfect way to do it - plenty of non-Celtic fans will be toasting us for ruining Neil Lennon's weekend.

This stunning form can't last forever; surely even the most optimistic of Highlanders knows we will eventually lose away (quite possibly on our next trip south, to Tynecastle in three weeks). The next two matches, home games with Dundee United and Rangers, could burst the bubble spectacularly. Injuries are an inevitability; so too, I think, is the departure of star striker Adam Rooney in the summer when his contract expires.

But it has been some year for Inverness Caledonian Thistle - wins, points, a title and a heck of a lot of fun. So, Mr. Butcher, if you demand that bronze statue, I'm sure I can be easily persuaded to make a contribution...


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The referee crisis!

This ad may or may not appear in job centres near you this week...

Are you looking to supplement your income with a weekend job?

Why not become a Scottish Premier League referee?!

We are looking for men between 20 and 49 who possess the following qualities:

- An urge to spend a Saturday afternoon running around in the freezing cold

- A keenness to listen to professional sportsmen swearing, shouting and throwing tantrums when decisions go against them

- An enjoyment of the sound of up to fifty thousand supporters questioning your competence, integrity and/or sexuality

- Delight in reading quotes from football managers questioning your competence, integrity and/or sexuality (well, maybe not the last one)

- A satisfaction from knowing that giving a dubious penalty might result in verbal or physical violence being directed towards yourself, family or your property

- A willingness to find oft-repeated quips about Specsavers amusing

- An ability to look good in fluorescent yellow

The Scottish Premier League offers you the opportunity to earn a reasonable, though not substantial remuneration for ninety minutes work every weekend - uniform and whistle supplied!

Note: applications will not be accepted from those who fit the following criteria...

people who support Rangers

those who are of the Protestant faith

anyone who has cheered goals scored by any team against Celtic

anyone who has cheered goals scored by any team other than Celtic

anyone who questions the doctrine of papal infallibility

anyone who disagrees with John Reid's attitude on the Iraq invasion

anyone who is not on Neil Lennon's Christmas card list

Dougie McDonald

(just me being a little mischievous)


Thursday, November 18, 2010

I got the blog on Derek Adams done after all! (Unlike the lib dems, I keep my promises!)

What do you mean, Mark McGhee is still in a job?

A week ago, the Aberdeen manager was about as likely to hold onto his job as I am to fulfil my lifelong ambition to become a house-husband (if any rich women are reading this, please please please contact me). Yet somehow he is still drawing a wage from the Pittodrie coffers and the vultures have completely stopped circling.

Another Scottish manager did depart his club last week, though; Derek Adams, a young, up-and-coming coach who remains the only domestic manager to defeat Neil
Lennon's Celtic without Lennon blaming it on evil, twisted Freemasons in the SFA
(or so I understand it), and in the process guided Ross County to last year's Cup Final, surprisingly left Dingwall. Having been linked with the St. Mirren job in the summer, and been touted as a replacement for McGhee - Adams even spent a short period as a player at Pittodrie - it came as a little bit of a surprise that he has gone to Easter assistant to Colin Calderwood, who he apparently had never met before.

Nope, I can't work out the logic either.

County hadn't started the season terribly well - one of the pre-season promotion favourites (according to me, anyway), they were nearer the bottom than the top, though they had also reached the final of the Challenge Cup, Scotland's version of the Johnstone Paint Trophy (a tournament that was of vital importance to me last year when Caley were in it, but is seen as a diddy cup now that we're not.

Hypocrisy? Damn right). County have a strong squad for first division level, and Dundee's impending gazillion-point deduction would make relegation really unlikely indeed. Certainly, Adams was under no apparent pressure. So why has he left to become someone else's number two?

Maybe it's just the income - it wouldn't be surprising if Hibs pay their assistant more money than County pay their boss. Maybe Adams knows something about County that we don't - the funding of chairman Roy McGregor has allowed them to live well beyond the means a team from Dingwall should, and it might be a sign the cashflow is being turned off. If the latter is the case, perhaps Adams thought he should get out before his reputation was damaged by poor results with a weaker squad. But I can't help feeling he would have been better waiting for the next SPL post to come, whether at Pittodrie (McGhee will never manage to get to the end of the season) or elsewhere, rather than being in the shadows of Hibernian's backroom team.

However, it does mean much amusement for those many Inverness fans who wish ill on their Highland rivals - the frontrunner to replace Adams is his assistant, Craig Brewster - he who proved on his second spell at Caley that he is to management what salmonella is to your bowels. Hopefully for the Staggies, a 3-0 defeat at home to Dundee last weekend, under Brew's charge, might have knocked some sense into the chairman. If it doesn't, the sound of sniggering from across the Kessock Bridge will be deafening...


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

One third of the way through - a look at SPL runners and riders

You know what's really annoying? Using the notes app on your ipod to type up a blogpost on Derek Adams (who has just left his managerial post for the assistant's role at Hibs) and then discovering you have no way of transferring it to your computer. Damn.

So while I find the time and energy to rewrite the whole thing (no guarantee here), here's a look at how the SPL fares one-third (yes I know 38 does not divide by 3, but 13 games is close enough) through the campaign.

ABERDEEN (11th, 10pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? No, absolutely not. After winning their first two games, the Dons have picked up only 4 out of 33 points since. The 9-0 humiliation by Celtic was the football equivalent of Haye-Harrison. Somehow, Mark McGhee is still in a job - is that because they can't afford to sack him?

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? McGhee keeps insisting we judge him when his injury list is shorter - but his team need to break the losing habit quick or become embroiled in the relegation fight.

THE STAR: Paul Hartley has shone despite the dross around him; depressingly his teammates don't seem inspired by his efforts.

THE DIDDY: Zander Diamond is now more accident-prone than Mr Bump from the Mr Men - though his fellow defenders run him close in these stakes.

CELTIC (2nd, 33pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? Normally 33pts would be enough to be top of the table, but second is nothing at Celtic Park. Add in their early European exit and an Old Firm defeat at home and it's been far from perfect. But Lennon's buys have done well, especially Gary Hooper.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? Lennon's antics off the field will ultimately do more harm
from good - though they have deflected criticism away from his side's poorer performances. The bare minimum is to be within touching distance of top when
the next clash with Rangers comes around.

THE STAR: Hooper has proven that the SPL is now below the level of The Championship by producing a better goals rate for the Hoops than he did at Scunthorpe United. He is a very capable finisher indeed.

THE DIDDY: Jos Hooiveld plays so rarely that I doubt anyone who is not a diehard
Celtic fan even knows what the Dutch defender looks like.

DUNDEE UTD (6th, 18pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? After last season, it's been a bit of an anticlimax at Tannadice - the European adventure ended very quickly and they have been infuriatingly inconsistent so far. Injuries to their best creative midfielders, Craig Conway and Danny Swanson, have had a big impact,

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? The defence appears the weak point, after the return of Andy Webster to Ibrox and Garry Kenneth's on-field post-traumatic stress after his nightmare Scotland debut in August. They need to hold onto Conway and David
Goodwillie in January to mount a push for a European place.

THE STAR: This isn't a hard one (I'll get me coat) - Goodwillie, despite the most unfortunate surname in Scottish football, has continued to develop well this season and has been scoring goals even when his teammates have been struggling.

THE DIDDY: Kenneth has had a very poor season, as too has captain Jon Daly; the big striker's loss of form has seen him relegated to the bench in recent weeks.

HAMILTON (12th, 9pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? Clearly not; Accies find themselves rock bottom with only two wins so far this season - both away from home. The loss of James McArthur and Mickael Antoine-Curier has been keenly felt. Three months into the season, manager Billy Reid still can't work out what his best eleven is.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? The last two seasons have seen a massive upsurge in form in the new year - Reid will be banking on this, plus some clever transfer window deals, to pull his side up the table. If that upturn doesn't happen, it could be a long season.

THE STAR: Former Caley winger (and whinger) Dougie Imrie has shown energy and graft which few - if any - of his teammates can match.

THE DIDDY: Jim McAllister was always tipped for bigger things when he was at Morton - but the winger, signed in the summer, has completely dropped off the radar.

HEARTS (3rd, 23pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? There is an unusual feeling of stability at Tynecastle currently, at least on the pitch, where despite a few early blips, Jim Jefferies' side are now the best of the rest. Recent victories over Hibs, Celtic and St. Johnstone coincided with their best performances of the season.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? You always worry about Romanov rocking the boat, but Hearts have the quality and depth of squad to continue this run; they are surely the current favourites to finish in third.

THE STAR: There's nothing subtle or pretty about Kevin Kyle, but the targetman's sheer presence terrifies defenders all over the country. Though exciting youngster David Templeton has also been outstanding.

THE DIDDY: Hard to think of an obvious candidate - though Janos Balogh, last season's first choice keeper, has slumped to third string behind Marian Kello
and Jamie McDonald.

HIBERNIAN (8th, 14pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? John Hughes had to be let go after a hopeless start and the recent win at Ibrox bodes well for Colin Calderwood. Hibees fans will be praying that their recent upsurge in form continues.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? Calderwood needs to tame all the egos at Easter Road - no
mean feat. Hibs have the quality to get into the top six, but do they have the

THE STAR: Liam Miller can always be trusted in the engine room, and supplants
his industrious play with the odd goal.

THE DIDDY: Goalkeeper Mark Brown hasn't been great, which reflects somewhat badly on former Motherwell stopper Graeme Smith; he remains stuck on the bench despite Brown's mediocrity.

INVERNESS CT (5th, 21pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? This is not beyond my wildest dreams, but then my dreams are
pretty wild. ICT's unbeaten away record has turned thoughts more towards a top six push than a relegation battle. This is despite only one home win so far this season.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? If the away form continues and the home hoodoo is solved, this could turn into something special; the flip side is that if we stop winning away and still can't get any points in the Highlands we will slide down the table pretty fast.

THE STAR: Adam Rooney is getting the goals, but if Cammy Bell is in the Scotland squad then Caley's outstanding keeper Ryan Esson must be knocking on the door.

THE DIDDY: Israeli Gil Blumenshtein has barely been seen this season - his constant injuries have prevented the forward from making any impact at all.

KILMARNOCK (7th, 17pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? After a slow start, big Mixu has begun to get his side settled and the good performances are now turning into good results. He's even managing to get goals out of Connor Sammon, for goodness sake. Most Killie fans would settle for 7th at this point, I think.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? The rumours of Paatelainen being considered for the Finland job must worry those at Rugby Park. If he stays, and his side avoid crippling injuries, there should be no repeat of last season's nervy finish.

THE STAR: Alexei Eremenko, the Finnish playmaker, has shown an artistry in midfield reminiscent of Russell Latapy at Hibs. He makes this side tick and it is imperative that his loan deal is extended beyond its January expiry date.

THE DIDDY: Winger Graeme Owens barely got a sniff of action last season; now he
doesn't even get that.

MOTHERWELL (4th, 22pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? Broadly speaking, yes - though Well have managed to lose five games, fourth place will please the fans as well the very savvy Craig Brown. Motherwell have shown the ability to win both at home and on their travels, with a young team who are likely to get better.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? An injury crisis might derail them, but they have better depth than most. Sooner or later they will cash in on Mark Reynolds, Jamie Murphy etc - but not till next summer at the earliest.

THE STAR: Nick Blackman, on-loan from Blackburn, has been scoring for fun. Can Brown tempt him to stay permanently?

THE DIDDY: So much for young midfielder Ross Forbes, who started 2009-10 with a bang, but has been reduced to only cameo roles this season; his development has well and truly stalled.

RANGERS (1st, 34pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? Top of the league and doing well in the Champions' League - it doesn't get much better than this for Walter Smith. And with Kenny Miller scoring for fun domestically, who needs Kris Boyd? That said, after winning their first ten league matches the Ibrox side have stuttered just slightly in recent weeks.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? The one worry for the Gers is their lack of squad depth, and sooner or later they will have to, for a period, rely on Kyle Hutton, John Fleck, Gregg Wylde etc. But they will fancy that they will still be at the summit by the time the next Old Firm game comes around.

THE STAR: Allan McGregor has been one of the best keepers in Europe this season,
with brilliant saves galore at domestic, European and international level.

THE DIDDY: Kyle Lafferty. Nothing to do with his ability; I just don't like the
guy. As for underperformers, James Beattie's injury problems have made his £1.5m purchase look like a waste of money so far.

ST. JOHNSTONE (10th, 11pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? Not really. Maybe expectations were too high following an impressive return to the top flight last season, but Saints would have hoped to kick on and push for the top six again, rather than looking over their shoulders. Recent heavy defeats to Kilmarnock and Motherwell are worrying for Derek McInnes.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? I think most would be surprised if St. Johnstone are still in the bottom three come January - there is certainly enough quality in the side and McInnes is a talented young coach. The big worry is that he will be tempted away by a bigger job.

THE STAR: I've not seen much of the team this season, but on those occasions the veteran centre back Michael Duberry has been an absolute behemoth. He might be 35, but he looks a class above SPL level.

THE DIDDY: Another veteran, former Scotland international Scott Dobie, hasn't stayed fit long enough to do anything for the club he joined in the summer.

ST. MIRREN (9th, 11pts)

SO FAR SO GOOD? To be honest, its no surprise that the Buddies are in the lower echelons of the table. This season was always going to be one long battle against relegation, and manager Danny Lennon will be relieved his side have not been cast adrift at the bottom, especially considering a spate of injuries.

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? Lennon's side are still to fully gel - not surprising considering the number of new faces. The defence still looks vulnerable and only Michael Higdon looks like providing a consistent supply of goals. The priority remains staying up.

THE STAR: St. Mirren fans have been raving about on-loan Celtic forward Paul McGowan, who provides the creative spark for this otherwise workmanlike team.

THE DIDDY: Some of Lennon's purchases from his former side, Cowdenbeath, have
worked; the exception is Paul McQuade, who has been injured most of the time and
has looked out of his depth when fit.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

McGhee exposes Aberdeen's failings

How many car owners, when they notice a problem developing with their vehicle, initially ignore it and hope it will go away, only to find that, when they finally take it to the garage, it costs a darn sight more to fix than if it had been taken down right at the beginning?

The guys who have run Aberdeen FC for the last fifteen years might be able to relate to that today, as they prepare to dismiss Mark McGhee and look for a new manager. For their club are broken, battered and rusting. Not quite a write-off yet, but getting there.

One of my earliest football memories was the 1990-91 title showdown at Ibrox; two Mark Hateley goals denied Aberdeen the league. That was about five years after Fergie exited for Old Trafford, yet the Dons could still boast a squad including two members of the Dutch 1990 World Cup Squad (Theo Snelders and Hans Gillhaus) plus future (Scott Booth and Eoin Jess) and current Scotland internationals (Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Jim Bett, Stewart McKimmie). Yet whilst the nineties also produced two further second-place finishes, and a third place, the last fourteen seasons have seen Aberdeen, the side with the biggest stadium (and arguably the biggest fan base) outside the Old Firm, finish third just once. In the second half of that decade, they spent money as stupidly as anyone - £1million for midfielder Paul Bernard (remember him? Thought not), £700,000 plus Billy Dodds for Robbie Winters (Dodds went on to become Scotland's first choice centre forward for a number of years. Winters didn't.), but on balance they got plenty of it back with shrewd sales of guys like Jess and the Englishman Craig Hignett.

In short, there is no reason why Aberdeen should be worse off than Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United, Motherwell or many others. Yet, barring short sharp injections of transfer funds at the start of the reigns of Ebbe Skovdahl and Jimmy Calderwood, the 21st century has so far been an era of overwhelming prudence. Yet, it is claimed the club are still in significant debt. How? I don't believe they have forked out a transfer fee in five years. The playing staff has been not so much trimmed as stripped bare - since 2005 the likes of Markus Heikkinen, Kevin McNaughton, Russell Anderson, Chris Clark, Michael Hart, Barry Nicholson, Scott Severin, Lee Miller, Mark Kerr and Charlie Mulgrew have left. They are hardly world-beaters, but each of these players were far superior to their replacements. As logic would dictate, the slashing of the wage bill has led to a detriment in quality on the pitch - which leads to a crowd of less than 6,000 for a Tuesday night game with Inverness...which in turn leads to less income, and the whole cycle begins again.

When will it stop? Stewart Milne has been chairman since 1998. He has hardly spent big (not compared with the reckless spending in recent years of Dundee and Motherwell pre-administration, or Hearts post-Romanov), yet his club are no better off financially than they were twelve years ago. Yet the first team are remarkably poor. Milne will not pump significant money of his own in - fair enough, that's his prerogative - but shouldn't he have found further sources of investment by now? I know it's a recession, but oil brings a lot of money to the North-East. How has Pittodrie managed to miss out on any of it? As for the youth system - well, several other SPL teams have managed to produce good youngsters, to sell them for a profit later on. When did Aberdeen last do that?

What about the managers? Considering the difficulties that Steve Paterson (before him) and McGhee (after him) have had in the managerial hotseat, how good does Jimmy Calderwood look right now? Aside from the initially cash to splash, he hardly broke the bank, yet Tangoman's Dons finished in the top six every year. Is that because he was a good driver of the Aberdeen car, or because other recent coaches have been bad? McGhee returned to Pittodrie with a reputation burgeoned by his success at Motherwell; he was on the shortlist for both the Scotland and Celtic jobs over the previous few months. But it just hasn't happened for him; he will leave the club as, statistically, the second worst manager in their history.

Whilst his hands have been tied financially, he has not handled transfer policy well - out of his signings, only Paul Hartley and Scott Vernon look astute, and he leaves behind a squad devoid of natural full-backs, and which has a huge weakness at the back. In the summer, Motherwell managed to attract Darren Randolph north to play in goal, while St. Johnstone got Peter Enckelman, the Finnish international. McGhee, inexplicably, chose to sign St. Mirren reserve Mark Howard, who has proved equal to Jamie Langfield only in terms of his ability to commit blunders. And trading away Ricky Foster in exchange for Andrius Velicka, who has been only fit enough to start one game, is a gamble which is failing miserably.

Add to that the regression or stagnation of more established players (Diamond, Aluko, Maguire and Langfield come to mind) who were supposed to go on to better things. The only silver lining of McGhee's tenure at Aberdeen is that the cracks are no longer papered over; the problems are there for all to see. Whether they might now be solved or not is another matter - the man who replaces McGhee has one hell of a job on his hands. For let's face it, this Aberdeen side is not too good to go down.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Celtic conspiracy theories now beyond tiresome

Celtic striker Gary Hooper ought to try being a player or supporter for a smaller club than his current employer. "Everyone wants to beat us and maybe the referee wants to give decisions against Celtic so that they can tell someone that they gave a bad decision against one of the biggest clubs in the world" he told the press this week.

What. A. Muppet.

I am utterly, utterly bored of the whole refereeing fiasco going on in the SPL right now. I'd be lying if I said I was completely aware of all the facts; I know Dougie McDonald awarded a penalty for Celtic at Tannadice, then changed his mind after a chat with his linesman (I never saw the incident, but have been informed by several folk that the final decision was the correct one). Then he and his linesman blamed each other in the press, the linesman quit, and McDonald is apparently a liar. And so he is refereeing at Ross County tomorrow, which seems a pretty harsh punishment if you ask me. Dingwall in November? Ouch. If anyone would like to explain the finer detail of it all, I would be happy to feign interest for a few minutes, but to be honest I don't care.

But if one more moronic, paranoid Celtic player, coach or fan claims there is a conspiracy against their side, who have won "only" six titles in the last decade and "only" four Scottish Cups in that period, I swear I can't be responsible for my own actions. Yes, Kirk Broadfoot dived and won a penalty in the Old Firm game (I note several newspapers chose to describe it as "dubious", rather than as what it was, an act of cheating). But for the love of Pete, take the blinkers and the green-and-white-tinted spectacles off. No-one from Celtic was mentioning the shocking tackle that should have got Anthony Stokes a straight red after 75 seconds. No-one was mentioning the fact that Rangers were cruising to victory even before the penalty decision. No-one was mentioning that Lennon was completely outwitted tactically by Walter Smith (though that wnet without saying, I guess). Who's biased now?

As for the idea that referees give decisions against the big teams - well, you have got to be flipping joking. Paolo Di Canio once said "The only way you can get a penalty at Old Trafford is if Jaap Stam takes out a machine gun and shoots you, and even then they will say you were outside the box". Fans of other Scottish teams (yes, Mr Hooper, teams other than Rangers and Celtic exist) will vouch for a similar policy when visiting Glasgow. Remember Mike McCurry screwing over Dundee United at Ibrox a few years ago - disallowing a goal for offside because someone 30 yards from goal was "interfering with play", and turning down the most stonewall penalty (possibly because the dismissal of David Weir would have been necessary)? What about ICT's first league clash against Celtic in 2004, where Mr "honesty" Lennon himself pretended to have been elbowed to get Inverness forward Juanjo sent off by a certain Dougie McDonald?

As is increasingly the case in Scotland, and England, and everywhere else, managers and players are trying to deflect the blame for their own mistakes and inadequacies onto officials - because it's harder for them to talk back. Once for all, let it be made clear; football officials do not give dodgy, bizarre decisions as part of a bizarre (freemason, if you listen to some Celtic fans) conspiracy or plot. They give these decisions because they have a poor view, or because it happens quickly, or because players cheat, or because they are under pressure from partisan crowds, or because they are just rubbish referees.

So, Celtic, get over it, for goodness sake - how many more officials have to get death threats and windows smashed before you shut up and show some dignity, huh?


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wembley - wow

On two previous occasions, Inverness have been playing at Ibrox when I've been down south watching English Premier League football. On both those occasions, in October 2006 and February 2009, Inverness have won 1-0. On both those occasions, I was informed by multiple text messages from friends and family, physically felt the colour drain from my face, and failed to notice anything that happened in the last five minutes of the game I was at (one of which was a Newcastle-Man Utd match). On both those occasions, several Rangers-supporting friends conveniently switched off their mobiles rather than take a rather smug and slightly abusive call from me.

Imagine my disappointment on Saturday, then, when Caley "only" nabbed a 1-1 draw at Castle Greyskull. Actually, to be honest, my mum texted me to inform me of doo-doo-doo-Eric Odhiambo's equalizer, and I really didn't pay very much attention to the dying seconds at Craven Cottage.

Yes, I was at Craven Cottage in London, for Fulham versus Wigan. Craven Cottage, the first football ground where I have seen fans arrive half an hour late with their shopping. From designer stores. I bet you don't get that at any other football ground - except maybe those rich beggars in the stands at Chelsea?

I didn't go all the way to London for that game. Honest. I'm not that bad (I am aware that many of you who are acquainted with me may or may not believe me on this). I went all the way to London so I could turn to the dark side and watch the, er, other type of football. You know, the American one? So I spent Sunday afternoon at Wembley Stadium. Now, I agree that no building, ever, should cost £798 million. But, well, if you were going to spend more than three quarters of a billion squids on a sports ground, it would look like this.

As I've got older, I can look back at the various football grounds I've visited, and the ones I remember best are the ones which seemed to me like the most incredible thing I've ever seen - even more incredible than a penalty against Celtic at Celtic Park (Josef Stalin was probably less paranoid about the world being out to get him than Celtic are about referees being out to get them). That started, believe it or not, with Easter Road circa 1991, the first match my dad took me to. - it was supposed to be a Dunfermline-Aberdeen game a year earlier, only for the family to get Kirkcaldy belly, and so I missed a four goal haul by Eoin Jess. Instead, at Easter Road, I got a first half hat-trick from Dutch striker Hans Gillhaus, in that bygone era where Aberdeen players made the Holland national team for World Cups. Yes, that really happened. Hard to believe, isn't it? It was also the game where Alex McLeish picked up the knee injury that was to curtail his playing career. I was just seven.

On from there, the next awe-struck moments would have been Ibrox in 1992 (a very dull 0-0 draw between Scotland and Portugal) and Hampden in around 1995 for a humping of the Faroe Islands. Believe it or not, the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium in Inverness never really made me gape in awe.

There was a big gap after that, but more recently, with the opportunities for travelling to games that come with getting older (and having your own transport and income), the next ones to excite me would have been the back-to-back 2006 experiences of Celtic Park for another Scotland-Faroes game - say what you like about Celtic, but the word "cauldron" has never been used so aptly as a metaphor for a stadium - and my first Premiership ground, the Riverside in Middlesbrough, which was also the first time where I have been underneath a giant flag. The next year, St. James' Park in Newcastle was the first ground to give me an acute attack of vertigo...the City of Manchester stadium being the second.

But, at this moment in time, Wembley takes the biscuit. 83,000 people were at that game, and you could believe it. The stands are as vertical as is reasonably possible, keeping the crowd noise in. The views from everywhere seem to be fantastic. And, though my friend insisted the Wembley arch was an architectural necessity, I can't help thinking it was put in the design simply because it would look awesome when lit up at night. And it did.

I know a few folk who have been to the Camp Nou; they assure me that the 99,354 Barcelona stadium is out of this world, especially in combination with the equally exhilarating football usually on display from the home team. But, for the moment, I say Wembley? Wow.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mixu's Killie have style, but need substance

Argh, this blog entry is hideously late. Sorry about that - I do now have two weeks holiday and therefore considerably more free time in which to spout the horrendous drivel that this blog is all about. The flip side is that last week was a mare work-wise, getting every loose end tied up so I can put my feet up. Figuratively speaking, anyway.

For my first action on finishing work on Friday evening was to drive to Glasgow in preparation for Inverness' away game at Killie on Saturday, followed by the joys of the City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday - those of you who watched that game on the box will understand that, whilst the early red card was a shame and denied us a real contest, the opportunity to see Arsenal pass it around against ten men was, well, rather special. The insistence of the Mancunian support (who really all do sound like Liam Gallagher, and display the same levels of intelligence) that their own team were being royally shafted, against all logic, was also special, in its own way.

And on top of it all, my bluenose companion from Glasgow, dragged to Rugby Park on Saturday but an extremely willing accomplice for the following day's trip south, spent most of the time constantly checking his iPhone for updates from Celtic Park. Although his joyous raving after Rangers' 3-1 win was almost unbearable, it was a necessary evil - Celtic's half-time lead had left him on the brink of committing hara-kiri, which in turn would have deprived me of a lift back up the M6.

So, it was one heck of a weekend of football, and it's only appropriate that I use this entry to discuss the most glamorous, exciting, sexy part of it.

That's right. I'm going to talk about Kilmarnock.

Cup winners under Bobby Williamson in 1997, Killie fans have not really had much to shout about since, particularly since Jim Jefferies' brand of football won enough points to consistently preserve SPL status, but not enough plaudits to fill Rugby Park - it's 18,128 capacity is only a monument to the glory days of the sixties, and was only a quarter-filled on Saturday. Kilmarnock have spent seventeen consecutive seasons in the top flight, with a few fourth placed finishes and the aforementioned cup win along the way, but with finances tighter, fewer exciting young players (especially of the standard of Steven Naismith and Kris Boyd) and reduced income, Killie's priority these days is simply to stay up. Last winter, Jefferies left after eight seasons, and his replacement, Tangoman Calderwood, kept them up on only the last day, but left because he didn't fancy more dogfights against the drop.

Step in big Mixu Paatelainen, who might not be the most astute coach in the country, but is almost certainly the cuddliest. As Only An Excuse joked when Mixu was still a player, "Rangers have Broxy the Bear, Celtic have Hoopy the Huddle Hound, and Hibs have Mixu Paatelainen". Mixu came to Hibs in January 2009 with a good reputation from guiding little Cowdenbeath up the ranks, and then some success in his native Finland. He attempted to provide Easter Road with a brand of attractive, passing football...and failed miserably, let down by the inflated egos of his players, a lack of quality or organization at the back and by having no plan B (this may sound familiar to John Collins and John Hughes, and might yet be the fate of Colin Calderwood also).

So Mixu arrived at Rugby Park this summer, a little bit older and, one hopes, a little wiser. Given a budget for the playing squad which would barely feed a family of four for a week, I tipped Killie to go down this season. The big Finn has done his best to get round that with loan signings - young defenders Ben Gordon (from Chelsea) and Momo Sissoko (from Udinese in Italy) - who looks like Sol Bamba did at Dunfermline; big and athletic, but also clumsy and accident-prone, so Mixu will hope to mould him into the Sol Bamba who has done okay at Hibs - plus young forward Harry Forrester (Aston Villa) and his own countryman Alexei Eremenko, a skilful, technically gifted central midfielder with an eye for a pass and an outstanding set-piece delivery. Add in a couple of Portuguese players - winger David Silva (no, not the one at Man City, trust me) and forward Rui Miguel, who got Killie's consolation goal on Saturday, and perhaps there is a squad that can avoid a descent into the first division that might condemn the club, shackled by an estimated £12 million of debt, to a Dundee-esque fate.

And from my vantage point in the away end, Mixu's insistence on trying to make his side play well is fairly admirable. Killie lined up 4-5-1, with three central midfielders - Eremenko, Manuel Pascali and Craig Bryson - who are all useful ball players, each looking to play the killer pass. His wide players, David Silva and Liam Kelly, were clearly detailed to come inside to allow overlapping from the full-backs. It looked quite good. In the middle third.

It's the problems Kilmarnock face in the other two thirds of the pitch which explain why they lost to Caley Thistle on Saturday, and why they currently lie tenth in the table. Their centre midfield are good at keeping the ball - but there is no ball winner there, no hard man to break up play or to win it back. So their defence is over-exposed whenever the opposition breaks, particuarly with the pace that Inverness have in attack. Moreover, the system relies on playing the ball out of defence on the ground - a good idea when Gerard Pique is your centre-back, but not when it is Frazer Wright, who was pick-pocketed by Jonny Hayes for the critical second goal for the visitors at the weekend. It isn't the first blunder they've had at the back this year, and it is unlikely to be the last.

But the even bigger issue is surely up front. I've made plain in previous blogs my belief that a goalscorer is everything for a team in the bottom half, and Mixu must wish he could play himself up front, or alternatively Kevin Kyle, who left for Hearts in the summer. Connor Sammon, the Irishman currently leading the line, is, well, an ordinary striker - ordinary speed, ordinary feet, ordinary in the air, ordinary at holding up the ball, ordinary at finishing. He is not a poor player, but he offers nothing special. Kilmarnock have a decent supply line for a centre-forward, but they need one who can take advantage of it.

We've only played nine games so far in the league, so it is a bit early for judgements on Mixu's Killie revolution. He is likely to get a bit of time to implement his ideas - his chairman does not sack coaches easily, and St. Mirren look so inept they are surely favourites for the drop currently. But a cynic would say the lower half of the SPL is not the place for his style of football, and you can't help thinking that Mixu Paatelainen is likely to go the same way at Kilmarnock as he did at Hibernian.


Friday, October 15, 2010

4-6-NO! Spain game shouldn't cover up Czech disaster

On reflection, I thought it best if I held off from blogging after Scotland's loss in Prague last week, at least until after the Spain match. Two reasons for this: first, I knew it would turn into a massive rant about the shear stupidity and ridiculousness of playing 4-6-0, and into a massive character assassination of national coach Craig Levein; Second, I knew that if I slaughtered him, and Scotland produced an epic upset win over the world champions a few days later, I would look like a complete pillock.

So I waited, and I waited, and on Tuesday night we got our tactics spot on, we gave a very good Spanish side a heck of a fright, and came very close to an unlikely point. Even the best sides, having blown a two goal lead away from home in front of a veracious home crowd, might have suffered a massive loss of belief; it's a marker of just how good this Spain team are that, in those circumstances, they responded by moving up a couple of gears and pressing for a win that they probably won't actually need. Scotland were superb though, to a man - except maybe for Steven Whittaker (who in addition to giving away a penalty and getting a foolish red card also failed to tuck in and pick up Iniesta for Spain's second goal). Over the two matches, Allan McGregor, often an object of my scorn, has shown form and consistency suggesting that he really is an international class goalkeeper, and that Craig Gordon might now be Scotland's second choice between the sticks.

But it shouldn't take our attention away from the shame of the match three days earlier.Whilst working in psychiatry last year, I met a Dutchman who had travelled over (and been sectioned) because he was completely, utterly convinced that he was King of Scotland. This is despite a Dutch name, a blatant Dutch accent, and absolutely no ties whatsoever to this country. But despite all the logic and reasoning to the contrary, this man could not be swayed - he knew he was right.

I'm not saying Craig Levein needs to be sectioned...though I would be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed my mind...but when he sent out his outfield players in a 4-6-0 formation, I soon thought of that Dutchman. Every pundit, every fan, everyone knew it couldn't work - every time we would play the ball out of defence it would instantly come back. All it would do was guarantee a "Scotland nil" outcome. And so our fears were confirmed. But Levein, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise, remained (and remains) absolutely certain that this was the right way to play. Ten thousand Scotland fans, having forked out decent money in poor economic times to go and cheer on their national team, were treated to watching the Czech Republic play football, and watching the away side doing their level best, often through foul means rather than fair, to stop football being played. It was embarrassing and shameful, and even more so for the fact that Levein was neither embarrassed nor ashamed.

Would we have done better with a more open system? I personally think so; this Czech side are but a shadow of their predecessors from the last decade. But we didn't try, so we'll never know. Scotland were too conservative tactically in Lithuania, too conservative tactically in Prague, and too complacent tactically against Liechtenstein at Hampden. We only have eight matches; Levein can't afford to get it wrong three times out of every four.

What the Spain game showed is that whilst we might still be a little deficient in terms of quality, the attitude and backbone is there - these Scotland players care in a way that they rarely showed in the days of Burley. These guys want to play for their country. They even showed that in the way they stuck steadfastly to the ill-conceived masterplan in Prague. Craig Levein has eleven months to strategize for the next step of a campaign where he probably now needs consecutive wins over the Czechs and Lithuania at home, and Liechtenstein away, to get us into second place. Scotland's campaign so far has proven that, if we don't make it, it will be his fault, and only his fault.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

McGhee next for the chop?

No wonder Mark McGhee had a massive rant to the Aberdeen Evening Express about the apparent unfairness of John Hughes' exit from Hibs. Though the club finished fourth in the table last season, Hibernian's form in 2010 had been poor, and they were without a league win since opening day and the supporters were baying for his head. McGhee is all too aware that the Aberdeen support are turning against him, and his side have picked up only one point from the last fifteen - if the Dons board use the same logic as their Leith equivalents, big Mark could be next for a P45.

McGhee will point out to anyone who will listen that he has been given no funds for his squad, and that when he took over in the summer of 2009 he was left a splintering squad which, in hindsight, had blatantly overachieved under Tangoman Jimmy Calderwood. But that doesn't account for the sheer malaise that has enveloped his side. I don't normally tune in to Radio Scotland at the end of a Saturday matchday - generally because I don't want to hear anything more about an Inverness defeat, and because there is always the risk of having my ears polluted by Jim Traynor, Scottish football's answer to Rush Limbaugh - but the combination of a Caley win and the fact that the only CD in my car was the new Gorillaz album (a bit of a disappointment, frankly; Demon Days is far superior) led me to make an exception to the rule last weekend. Therefore I was treated to McGhee's post-match interview - a window to the soul if there ever was one.

Having just watched Aberdeen toil for 90 minutes on their way to defeat in the Highlands, it was hardly music to the ears of the Red Army, as their coach insisted that he was "not worried in the slightest" about recent form, as "I was missing seven players today, players which provide our flair" - which was a curious excuse, as Inverness were missing six of their own, and centre-back Nicola Vujadinovic hardly counts as a creative fulcrum. His team selection hardly inspired confidence either; he claimed Zander Diamond (who is a shadow of the player he was five years ago) could make the Scotland squad if he made fewer mistakes, and the entertainment highlight was his explanation for changing goalkeepers - "It was windy and Mark Howard is a better kicker than Jamie Langfield". Firstly, it was slightly breezy at best, and secondly, Howard's kicking does not make up for his complete lack of any goalkeeping ability. This is the man who was unable to get into the St. Mirren team last year, and who managed to punch a corner into his own net at Tannadice last month. On Saturday he added to his "reputation" by completely misjudging a Jonny Hayes cross that looped straight into the net - TV replays show that he didn't even manage a half-decent flap at the ball, instead taking a weird skip and jump as it sailed over his head.

And besides, whoever picked a goalkeeper for his ability to kick?

And to cap it all, the back line was a fiasco. The aforementioned Diamond had a mare; so too did his fellow centre back, Jerel Ifil, whose perm gave him the appearance of a 1970s porn star. Certainly his understanding of the word "tackle" was different to those of the other players. Meanwhile, on the left, Andrew Considine looked exactly like what he is - a central defender playing out of position. I bet Hayes isn't the first winger to tear him a new backside this season, and he won't be the last.

McGhee might actually believe that he shouldn't be judged until his injury list is shorter. However, following the international break, his side have back-to-back home games against Hearts and Hibs (the latter may be under Jimmy Calderwood himself by then). If the results aren't coming, he might not be around long enough to see the likes of Andrius Velicka get to fitness. He has only two ways of staying in the Aberdeen job beyond Christmas - a remarkable turnaround in form, or a board inhibited by the cost of firing him.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Hughes leaves Hibs

Blast it. I knew I should have written about "the inevitable demise of John Hughes" last week. But, just as I have finally gotten round to it, it's too late. What's the past tense of "demise"? "Demised"?. If so, then John Hughes has demised. Or, for those who speak English, he has gone by that strange method called "mutual consent" (I have previously pointed out on this blog that this sounds more like the defence argument in a rape trial than a way of dismissing an employee, but it's such a good line that I thought I should use it again). Not surprising though, as, for a team with a manager nicknamed Yogi, there had been a lot of Boo Boos on the pitch...all right, I'll get my coat...

Hibs chairman Rod Petrie possesses not the Midas touch, but the Mediocrity touch; whatever he brings to Easter Road appears to become, well, a bit so-so, ever since Tony Mowbray left. It's probably a curse from the same witch-doctor who has condemned all Hibs goalkeepers to be incapable of catching a cold. Yet imagine if Petrie had gone to a fortune teller in the back streets of Leith in October 2006, just after Mowbray's departure...

Petrie: "I've lost an outstanding young manager, and so many of our star young players are leaving en masse for bigger things - Thomson, Whittaker, Brown, Riordan, O'Connor, Murphy, Murray. How on earth are we going to cope for the next few years?"

Strange woman in tent charging a quid to read palms: "Let me look into my crystal ball...I see that, in the next four years you will win the league cup, bring Riordan and Murray back, entice Liam Miller to play for the club, and receive a million pounds for selling your star striker. And you will build a beautiful new stand which will win many plaudits for the way it makes Easter Road look less like a dump."

Petrie: "The League Cup?! A new stand?! A million pounds?! Liam Miller?! What could possibly go wrong? (Skips out of the tent, singing Sunshine on Leith)

Strange woman: "Wait! But in four years you will be third from bottom, there will be no team spirit, Riordan will be only half the player he was, and you'll have just sacked John Hughes...damn, he's gone. Oh well, he'll find out soon enough. I'll just have to go back to my day job of dispensing methadone."

So where do Hibs go from here? The club has become the football equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing; Lots of big names, but none of them would be there if they had managed to succeed somewhere else. Hughes' replacement will have a tough task to get performances out of this bunch, not least because of the huge egos on the pitch and the high expectations in the stands. Jimmy Calderwood is the bookies' favourite currently; I'm not convinced that he could do much better, but I can't think of any better options. I can envisage the advert the club are drawing up for the post: "Requires huge swathes of self-belief, and/or masochistic tendencies".

Anyway, there's plenty of dark clouds over Leith this week, and not a touch of sunshine.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Administration might spare Dundee's Chisholm a place in the sack race

Livingston fans, I think, would buy quite easily into the idea that lightning strikes twice. Extreme financial mismanagement led them into administration in 2004, but the impotent leaders of the Scottish game allowed them to get back on their feet with their SPL status intact, though without several players and staff who were made redundant. You would have thought the club might have learnt from the mistakes...yet they lurched down the same road last summer and, at last, were given due punishment - a humiliating relegation to the third division.

The parallels with Dundee FC are scary. An SPL club when they too went into administration in 2003, the Dens Park side had amassed an extraordinary £23 million of debt with a bizarre transfer policy involving the purchase of big name veterans such as Craig Burley, Temuri Ketsbaia and Fabrizio Ravanelli, as well as a shedload of random foreigners on big wages. They survived only after philanthropy from fans and local business folk that would cheer Bob Geldof's heart; somehow, they avoided liquidation, although also at the expense of the jobs of numerous people, many of whom were doing normal jobs for normal (i.e. non-footballer) wage packets. A lot of people suffer when a top division team can't pay the bills, but not that many of them are players.

Dundee fans won a lot of respect for their tireless work to keep their club afloat seven years ago...and lost some of it when it became clear last season that they intended to spend their way to promotion back to the SPL. The £350,000 total outlay on Gary Harkins and Leigh Griffiths seems simply scandalous now, considering the tax bill that the club owe and their failure to pay wages this week. Is Calum Melville, their main "benefactor", given his financial advice by Fred Goodwin?

There will be plenty of upset and fear around the club, but the off-field fiasco might yet be a boon for one man - beleaguered manager Gordon Chisholm. Chisholm left Queen of the South to replace Jocky Scott in March, just when the wheels had completely fallen off Dundee's title challenge. His record in nineteen competitive games so far reads as 6 wins, 6 draws and 7 losses, including cup exits to Stenhousemuir and Brechin this season. Whilst not bankrolled to the same dramatic extent as his predecessor, Chis was given plenty of scoof to overhaul the playing squad and this blog had them as obvious favourites to win the division this season (not that I've ever been wrong before or anything...).

At the time of writing, Dundee are seventh, ten points adrift already of Dunfermline. It has to be said that Jocky Scott was chucked for less than this.

But the Dark Blue half of the City of Discovery has enough to worry about financially at the moment; the price of paying off the contracts of Chisholm (and assistant Billy Dodds) is one to be baulked at, at this moment in time. The longer the turmoil in the backroom persists, the longer he might avoid the heat...though, I suppose there's no guarantee he will get his wages any sooner than anyone else.

Note this - some folk obviously haven't learned from the punishment inflicted on Livingston. If Dundee do end up in administration, consistency demands that they too get relegated to division three. On the bright side for them, it does at least mean local derbies come back - with Montrose and Arbroath, that is.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Fan Fiction for Scottish football?

Interesting story doing the rounds on the internet this week - there are allegations from several of the (in my opinion) best football writers around, such as Sid Lowe and Rafael Honigstein of The Guardian, Gabriele Marcotti of The Times and Gavin Hamilton of World Soccer that a journalist for The Daily Star Sunday named Ben Fairthorne has been fabricating stories for the newspaper for the last few years. Each is an unlikely scoop from a supposed interview with a top European star. This is how articles such as "Torres v Vidic: Now it's personal", "Joe Hart should play for Manchester United says Casillas" and "Gigi Buffon exposes Manchester City's Back Four Flaw" came to be.

Apparently the agents of numerous players have issued categorical denials of interviews ever taking place. It's really disturbing to find that there are people out there who make a living out of telling lies...or it would be if we hadn't had a decade of Tony Blair as Prime Minister (meow!). However, I wonder whether there is a career opportunity for me to be Scotland's equivalent? Here are the pieces I'm thinking of writing...

"Larsson to succeed Walter Smith at Rangers"

"I love my side's sexy football, says Hamilton Accies' Billy Reid"

"Lennon and Celtic question Pope's infallibility"

"Aberdeen's directors invest money in team"

"Craig Brown gets embalmed, will continue managing for at least another 40 years"

"Darren Mackie for Scotland call-up"

"Barry Ferguson to appear on Countdown"

"It wasn't the referee's fault we lost, says (insert name of Scottish manager of your choice)"

"Le Guen: I'll finish what I began at Ibrox"

"Lennon stops dyeing hair, reveals natural colour is brown"

"Romanov never interferes with team selection: Jefferies"

"Kenny Miller considering January Celtic switch"

"Sasa Papac ate my hamster"

"Caley Thistle win home game"

Actually, the last one could be the least realistic of the lot.

Anyone else got any ideas?


Friday, September 24, 2010

Northampton nightmare leaves Hodgson in trouble

Now, as a Caley Thistle fan, I obviously love a cup upset as much as the next person...unless the next person happens to be John Barnes of course. There was no chance of us Going Ballistic once more at Celtic Park this week though - instead Inverness suffered their equal worst defeat of their short history, going down 6-0.

It wasn't much of a surprise, really; Celtic put out a very strong side, which was to be expected as, following their European exit, Neil Lennon needs to do everything he can to get his grubby hands on some form of silverware, even if it is only the League Cup. In contrast, Caley boss Terry Butcher rested several attackers and made it pretty clear that his focus is on Saturday's league match. Given that Caley are away to St. Mirren, it might be the case that those players missing on Wednesday night were seeing their doctor to get the necessary vaccinations for a weekend away in Paisley. Unfortunately there is no vaccine for cholera, and the smallpox jab has long been discontinued, so the team can't be entirely risk-free, but whatya gonna do?

Whilst Butcher chopped (sorry, unintentional pun there) and changed some of the team, he left our rather confidence-bereft back four largely in place - with a weaker set of players in front of them. I'm not quite sure I follow the logic of that; now we've been hammered, the back line will be left with a level of morale comparable to the Italian army during the second world war, with a game against potential relegation rivals to come. Oh, goody.

However, there was one cup-upset to enjoy this week - well, I say enjoy, but to be honest I quite like Roy Hodgson and am increasingly worried about his long-term future at Anfield - i.e. that he doesn't have one. Liverpool's start to the season has been about as underwhelming as being given a pair of socks as a Christmas present. Fixtures haven't helped, as their first five league matches have included clashes with Arsenal and both halves of Manchester, but it was disturbing to see them outplayed by Birmnigham City a fortnight ago, and while their big guns sat out the Northampton humiliation, the side chosen by Hodgson looked more than good enough on paper.

Hodgson is already beginning to look like he's on a shoogly peg. The next two league games are both at home, against Sunderland and Blackpool, and anything short of maximum points will mean the knives could be out for the next match after that - the derby with Everton. It's still three weeks until that clash, so plenty could change between now and then, but who would have thought in July that, with Moyes also going through his worst period as manager at Goodison, the first Merseyside Derby of the campaign could see both coaches under real pressure?


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Barry Ferguson: Aye or Naw?

So Barry "Boozegate" Ferguson may be interested in returning to the Scotland fold, according to one or two sources last week. Certainly there is no doubt about the thoughts of Craig Levein - the national team's headmaster - sorry, coach - definitely wants Bazza dictating the midfield like in the good old days. On the other hand, the Tartan Army, and a good few others, are still obviously very offended and hurt by the v-sign they got from Ferg during the Iceland game last year. Does no-one else see the irony in football fans being offended by abuse from players? No? Ok, I'll move on then.

I'm fairly sure that, if I met Barry Ferguson in social circumstances, we would not get on; in fact, if you looked up the word "ned" in an illustrated dictionary, you would see a picture of the former Rangers man in a shellsuit. Had he not succeeded as a footballer, it does not take a leap of imagination to suggest he might spend his weekends going up to folk who had parked their vehicle in a side street to say, threateningly, "Two quid to look after your car, mister?"

Moreover, some of the criticism of his international performances is unfair - I don't blame him for being "injured" for much of the Vogts era, and my memory of our two victories over France in Euro 2008 qualifying is of Ferguson having a blinder in both matches - but there is no doubt that, for whatever reason, he has failed to be as consistent as at club level. It is not hard to recall some absolute stinkers - his last international away to Holland, for one.

And Bazza always gives the impression of a man who thinks he knows better than anyone else. Walter Smith and Alex McLeish managed to channel that, (though Smith got shot of Ferguson when it was clear he was too big for his boots) but neither Paul Le Guen nor Craig Burley could get him to perform anywhere near his best(this might be because Ferguson actually did know better than those two, particularly the hapless Le Guen who could have been out-done in the tactical stakes by an ameoba on one of Jupiter's moons). Does Levein command Ferguson's respect sufficiently to be able to get him to play to Levein's needs, rather than Ferguson's? I'm not convinced.

In short, Barry Ferguson is a prat whose commitment to the national cause is questionable. I'd love to say "Cheers Barry, but I can't trust you worth a monkey's, and we have plenty of depth in the midfield anyway so we don't need your ability to do nothing but pass sideways and backwards." But if I said that, there would be reasonable grounds for me to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The trouble is that we simply don't have enough quality to turn away a player of Barry Ferguson's quality - at his best, his ball retention and positioning can really enhance a team. Just look at Birmingham City. Put him in the side, and that might finally free up Darren Fletcher to be more adventurous, and it might free up the increasingly ponderous Lee McCulloch to, er, sit on the bench.

I don't like Barry Ferguson, I really, really don't. I probably wouldn't even urinate on him if he was on fire. But the moral victory of keeping him out of the Scotland team is worth zero points to our qualification chances. If he wants a game, then realistically we have to give him one.