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.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

All hail Walter Smith

I was working on Tuesday night, so I missed out so I missed out on the Old Trafford Drama Society's re-enactment of the Alamo. Am I right to think it was simply a case of 90 minutes of United knocking the ball about and completely failing to find a way through a pack of blue shirts? Thought so. Not all that bothered I missed it then.

But this just confirms the suspicion that the greatest Scottish coach of the last decade was in one of the dugouts in Manchester. No, not Alex Ferguson, the other bloke.

Just to get things straight, I have no love for ultra-defensive, anti-football tactics. But anyone who feels Rangers were obliged to turn up on Tuesday playing attractive open football needs a serious reality check. Needs must.

Who would have thought it back in the late nineties, when nine seasons of domestic dominance by Rangers, coupled with a catalogue of continental humiliations, came to an end? In my memory, it was a pretty dark time. Scottish football was more predictable than an Iranian election result; Celtic were a shambles that nearly went out of business, and the other sides spent stupidly (remember Aberdeen spending a million on Paul Bernard?! Exactly) yet couldn't compete the cash being splashed by David Murray. Rangers bludgeoned everyone at domestic level, yet barring that one season where they were robbed of a European Cup final spot by the cheats of Marseille they failed to make even the slightest impression in the Champions League. Not only that, but a regular feature was a tactical naivety which seemed to constantly cost the Ibrox side in crucial games.

Compared to now, it's like night and day. I was rather unsure about Walter Smith's appointment as Scotland coach in 2004, as I thought he lacked the nuance to organize us into a team that was difficult to beat. How wrong I was. And his return to Rangers led to a spectacular UEFA Cup run built around sturdy defensive efforts away from home, as well as further league titles. His side have the flexibility to play 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in the league, or 4-5-1 (and even 5-4-1 as on Tuesday night). I can't think of many other Scottish, or even British, sides as versatile.

So I salute you, Walter Smith. Even if I couldn't stand Rangers then, and I still can't really even stomach them today, I have no qualms about you. Don't suppose you might want to pass along a few tactical tit-bits to our current Scotland manager? Please?


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Against Liechtenstein we got lucky. The next time, we won't

Were it not for Stephen McManus' late, late, late goal, Scotland would have ended up with, surely, the worst result in the history of the national team.

In the end, it was the biggest let-off since O.J. Simpson.

Craig Levein tried to pretend afterwards that he hadn't been bricking it, but he is a hopeless liar. His reign as national coach might not have been instantly ended after a draw, but he would have been tarnished with a stain that, simply, would have been almost impossible to wash out. He was condemned to the electric chair, strapped in, braced for the end...but there was a power cut. The execution has been delayed, at least for now. As the former Hearts and Dundee United manager will have realized last night, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

For Scotland were not "good" at all - there was a lack of endeavour, a lack of energy, a lack of determination. While Charlie Nicholas' post-match accusation that "the Old Firm players didn't turn up" might have been harsh, there were few of the starting eleven who could hold their heads high; Allan McGregor had no chance for the Liechtenstein goal, while Darren Fletcher worked himself into the ground - though his end product was not as outstanding as his work ethic. In contrast, Kris Boyd looked disinterested, nervous and...shall we say, chunky? As for James McFadden, his half-time substitution was like putting down a dying pet; Fadders is normally twice the player when representing his country, but he had an absolute shocker, and everyone knew it.

Levein wasn't particularly "good" either, apart from his substitutions. James Morrison brought a dynamism to the final third of the pitch which was woefully absent in the first 45 minutes, and his gamble with Barry Robson at left back paid dividends as well. But these were corrections to mistakes that should never have been made in the first place, as his tactical shape was just bizarre. The world and his aunt knew the visitors would set out in a 4-5-1, keeping their back line narrow. Yet Scotland started with two strikers, neither of whom were a target man (yes, I am fully aware that we don't have one available), and with two wide midfielders - McFadden and Scott Brown - who were never going to be getting to the by-line. In fact, their natural instincts took them infield, into traffic reminiscent of the M8 in Glasgow during rush-hour.

The last time Scotland resoundingly thumped a "diddy" team was back in 2006, when we thwacked the Faroe Islands 6-0; that day, Miller, Boyd and McFadden lined up as a front three, which worked because Kenny and Fadders drifted wide when the ball was on their side of the pitch, and attacked the back post when it was coming in from the opposite flank; that day, the attackers were also supported by the running from midfield of Darren Fletcher and Nigel Quashie (remember him?!). As far as I can see, there are only two ways to play these teams - either with a big target man and a direct style (think England's Crouch, or former Czech international Jan Koller) or by filling the pitch with players who can make runs from deep, or who can pick passes. If the latter system means using only one centre-forward, with three attacking midfielders behind him, then so be it; as Levein found out, there is no point playing two strikers if they get no service. This was a match for players like Graham Dorrans and Charlie Adam, who can play that killer ball. But I can't help feeling the manager was worried about the negative press he would get from playing only one up front against the minnows of Liechtenstein - even though Spain used the same 4-3-3/4-5-1 system against them on Friday that they used in the World Cup.

Anyway, we got away with it, thank heavens - and just as well too, since Lithuania (who looked pretty hopeless against us on Friday) won in the Czech Republic, putting us in a fairly sweet position. It's only two matches in, and Scotland have already played their Get Out Of Jail Free card. We can't afford to need to be lucky again - for the rest of this, we're just going to have to be a hell of a lot better.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

The physics of free-kicks

Apparently some French physicians have proven, following much study (and, I bet, a bit of expense too) that Roberto Carlos' stonking free kick at La Tournoi, thirteen heady years ago, did not, in fact, defy the laws of physics.

Forgive me, but I assumed that the whole point of having laws of physics is that, by definition, they cannot be defied? Does that mean that, had these scientists - who clearly have far too much time on their hands - been unable to work out how he scored, that all the life's work of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, amongst others, would have been utterly disproved?

Actually, considering the arguments used to claim that the evidence for evolution is spurious - the "so-called missing links" - I can foresee a future pro-God, anti-Science argument along the lines of "You haven't proved how Roberto Carlos made the ball swerve like that, so therefore the goal must be divine intervention". In which case, you'd think Kaka', well known as an evangelical Christian, would be far more capable in dead-ball situations. In fact, since he may not even manage a regular place in the Real Madrid team this season, does that mean that the will of Jose Mourinho is greater than the will of God? Sounds like the sort of thing The Special One would claim, anyway.

Equally, these physicists could have saved a lot of time and energy if they'd just come down to watch me play on a Monday evening; I've been a master of the Roberto Carlos-style shot from distance for several years. Of course, whilst the Brazilian aimed for the corner flag and scored, I tend to aim for the goal, only for the ball to hit the corner flag...but it's all the same, really. Isn't it?

Anyway, we can all sleep more soundly in our beds now we know that scientists have worked out the process by which even the most dramatic of free kicks is scored. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who will still lie awake in bed at night until they get the hang of penalties as well. After all, no-one has yet explained how John Carew managed to balloon that spot-kick at Newcastle a fortnight ago...or predict when and where the ball will eventually land...


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Looking forward (or not!) to another Scotland qualifying campaign

My father disputes this vehemently, but I swear that, during the mid-nineties, a Scotland away game in Eastern Europe against a middle- or lower-ranking opponent was nothing to be scared of; instead it was something to be bored by.

We would go over there, give a fairly mediocre performance, survive one or two scares, yet, according to my memory, we always seemed to contrive to win 1-0 or 2-0. Usually with a Scott Booth goal involved.

That era came to a resounding halt with the infamous 0-0 draw with Estonia in Monaco in 1997 - the part of me which holds longstanding grudges (a significant part, I must admit) requires me to point out that the game should never have been played, as FIFA and UEFA rules (which were overturned by UEFA's Swedish president, whose countrymen were actually in Scotland's group) should have upheld the 3-0 win awarded to us after the "one team in Tallinn" fiasco. But since then, we have seemed extremely vulnerable when away from home against almost anyone - whether this is due to our inferiority, or an improved quality of an opponent (probably both) is hard to say.

Since our France '98 qualification, our away record in qualifying has included dropped points to Lithuania (draw in 1998, defeat in 2003), Faroe Islands (draws in 1999 and 2002), Estonia (draw in 1999), Moldova (draw in 2004), Belarus (draw in 2005), Georgia (defeat in 2007) and Macedonia (defeat in 2008). So forgive me for saying I would really be okay with a draw in Lithuania on Friday.

It's hard to believe, looking back, that the earliest entries in this blog were about THAT game in Paris, THAT McFadden goal, and displayed an optimism about the future that turned out to be more naive than anyone who believes a word of Tony Blair's memoirs. Instead, after watching Walter Smith and Alex McLeish drag us out of the horrors of the Berti Vogts era, we had to cope with George Burley dragging us back into them.

There is one thing in our favour for these qualifiers - second place guarantees us at least a playoff. Assuming Spain will walk the group...which they will...and Liechtenstein will be hammered left right and centre...which they should (if we drop points to them, Levein should be cremated on a huge funeral pyre in the middle of Glasgow - whilst still alive) - then we compete with the Czech Republic and Lithuania. Take four points off each of them, and we will surely come second.

It's as easy as that.

But if only that was easy.