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 Road...as 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.