Thursday, December 29, 2011

No respite soon for McCoist

On its own, this week's Old Firm defeat was nothing for Rangers manager Ally McCoist to lose much sleep over.

He is bound to be a bit miffed at his side's failure to exert any pressure in the second half; the fact is that for the 40 minutes after Joe Ledley, that well known aerial predator, scored what transpired to be the winning goal Celtic saw out the game with little discomfort. On the other hand, the visitors created several chances in the opening period at Parkhead, including Carlos Bocanegra kneeing the ball over the bar from 2 yards, and of course they would have led had Sone Aluko's rear end not prevented the assistant referee from seeing that Lee Wallace's header had crossed the line before Fraser Forster's ape-like hand clawed it out of danger. Much like the encounter between the two sides in September, there was ultimately little to choose between them, and home advantage was probably the decisive factor.

But, though he continues to exude charisma and calm in his dealings with the press, McCoist is bound to be worried. Celtic might have won nine games in a row, but the main reason they have recovered from being 15 points behind (with two games in hand, mind you) to leading the SPL is that Rangers have won only three of their last seven games - form that, by Old Firm standards, is practically apocalyptic. It would be grossly unfair if the Rangers support were to display mass hysteria should their team drop points at home to Motherwell on Monday, but anything other than a win will go down about as well in Govan as a Buckfast embargo.

What must concern Coisty above all else is what January might bring to Ibrox; for the events of the coming month may have ramifications for both Rangers and Scottish football that stretch well beyond the 2011-12 campaign. He is not going to get a blank cheque book to reinforce the squad; the best he can hope for is some cheap signings, which have as much chance of being duds (a la Ortiz, Bedoya and McKay) as gems (Bocanegra). If the only way to buy new players is to shed Nikica Jelavic for a tidy sum, then I'd suggest, considering the loss of Steven Naismith to a gammy knee for the rest of the season, that he keep his Croat target man and muddle on with what he has. Jelavic, for this writer, is the most talented player in the Scottish game at the current time.

But there's a good chance Jelavic will be offski, whether McCoist likes it or not. Whilst rumours of Liverpool interest at the end of August have subsequently proven frivolous, Roy Hodgson was in the audience in midweek, eyeing the striker up for West Bromwich Albion. I suspect a figure of around £8 million would cause owner Gregg Whyte's eyes to flash up pound signs like a Looney Tunes cartoon character.

That, of course, is not just because that sum would be good business; Rangers' big, whopping mega tax case goes to tribunal on 15th January, I believe. I'll spare my regular readers the tedium of me going through it again, but the long and short of it is that if the Gers lose, they will have to pay up some ridiculous figure of between £20 million and £50 million; even the conservative estimate would force them into administration, closely followed by a fire sale of the likes of Jelavic, Allan McGregor, Steven Davis, and just about anyone with two good legs (so not David Weir then). Points deduction or not, the club could have to face the immediate future with a threadbare squad of young players and, barring the rescue of a sugar daddy, it's possible that the balance could be tipped heavily in favour of Celtic for years to come; Old Firm fans might look at the early nineties, when Celtic narrowly avoided bankruptcy and Rangers won nine-in-a-row with next to no challenge from their neighbours, for some idea of what I mean.

Anyway, Ally McCoist has enough to worry about in the here and now. His expanding waist-line already leads one to wonder whether he deals with the current stresses through comfort eating; if January is a bad month - on or off the field - then there might not be a pie to be found in Ibrox.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Villa won't tolerate McLeish tedium

Alex McLeish is a bit like marmite.

No, I don't mean he is brown and sticky, or that he is only good for spreading on toast. I mean that you either love him or you hate him.

I think that Aston Villa fans are currently tending towards the latter feeling.

On the face of it, Villa are not doing particularly badly. At the time of writing, they lie tenth in the Premier League. Given that the cardiac-challenged Gerard Houllier's single season at the club saw the club finish ninth (albeit only after a very good finish to the campaign under his assistant Gary McAllister), and that the most realistic target for the team, on their budget, is battling for seventh, it doesn't look like McLeish is doing too bad a job.

On the face of it.

In reality, the Villa Park faithful appear to be losing patience already. The only reason why McLeish's players didn't leave the pitch to a cacophony of boos after their defeat by Liverpool this weekend was that the majority of fans had long since left in order to find something to do which would reduce the urge to slit their wrists. Villa were absolutely rotten; they conceded two early goals at corner kicks - something that would have been unthinkable when Martin O'Neill was in charge - and never looked like getting back into the game. In attack, they looked about as dangerous as the common cold.

There were some mitigating circumstances on this occasion; namely the absence of Darren Bent through injury and Gabriel Agbonlahor through suspension. But this doesn't excuse the fact that Villa have managed only 18 goals in 16 league games, including just 10 at home. This, along with 2 wins in the last 9 matches, means that McLeish's honeymoon period is long over. They are closer to the relegation zone than to Newcastle in seventh.

To an extent, the lack of flair and extravagant attacking play has not exactly come as a surprise. The former Aberdeen and Scotland centre-half has made his name in recent years mainly through setting up his sides to be well organized and difficult to break down, while relying on only one or two creative players, or on set-pieces, to provide goals at the other end. This achieved him some spectacular successes, particularly as Scotland boss, where he nearly qualified for Euro 2008 out of a group with France, Italy and Ukraine (I know Jesus could walk on water, but I don't think he could have coached a side to beat the Franch home and away).

And of course he managed to win the Carling Cup last year with Birmingham with an against-the-odds victory against Arsenal. This success may or may not be cancelled out by the fact that the Blues ended up being relegated a few months later. But the season before, he guided City to a comfortable mid-table finish based on a solid 4-5-1 and a backline that gave up goals to opponents in the same way that Philip Green gives up earnings to the tax man.

But his achievements with Scotland and Birmingham were made by getting the underdog to punch above its weight (argh, mixing metaphors!). Aston Villa is a different proposition; a side who were always battling in the top six under Martin O'Neill only a few years ago. They might have cut their cloth since then, having cashed in on James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, but they have enough clout that they splashed out on Darren Bent last January. Certainly the supporters, rightly or wrongly, expect results, and some goals thrown in as well.

What they have instead is Emile Heskey huffing and puffing, and Charles N'Zogbia, McLeish's marquee signing, looking like the N'Zogbia that sulked his way out of Newcastle, rather than the one who at times carried Wigan on his back.

It's worth remembering that, for all his titles at Ibrox, McLeish's '1-0 is worth as many points as 3-0' philosophy left him far less popular at Rangers than you might expect a manager who won two league titles, two Scottish Cups and three League Cups. As soon as results went awry domestically, the fans turned against him, even though he simultaneously guided the Gers past the group stage of the Champions League for the first time - not to be sneezed at, considering the most dangerous forward he had available was Peter Lovenkrands.

Big Eck's current situation begins to remind me of Sam Allardyce's brief and ill-fated time in the Newcastle hotseat. When Big Sam was dismissed midway through the season, he left a team in mid-table who appeared in no danger of relegation, though well adrift of the teams chasing a European place. Certainly, they were no worse than under this predecessors, Graeme Souness and Glenn Roeder. But Allardyce's attempts to rebuild the team from the back resulted in a side that only scored 11 goals in his last 12 games in charge. The only thing supporters hate more than losing a game is losing a really boring game, and when form dipped, there was no goodwill coming from the stands.

For when the fans turn against you, you are doomed. Allardyce was. McLeish isn't yet. But if Villa continue to produce tedious displays under his direction, he could find himself out of a job before long.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chris Hogg reminds us footballers are human beings

I've been musing this week about why it is that there has been so little sympathy shown towards the Hearts players who haven't been getting paid.

I think it's because, to the average fan, footballers appear to be such an aloof bunch, detached from the real world. Some of that is down to the fact that the greatest, most famous players are seen only on a television screen by the majority, making their drama no more real than Eastenders - of course, it could be argued that most soap opera characters seem far less fictional than Mario Balotelli.

Some of that aloofness, however, also comes from the fact that some footballers earn vast wealth which allows them to live a lifestyle which is far beyond what you and me will ever experience. The fact that, even when earning in a week what many people make in a decade is not enough to make some of those prima donnas happy (I'm looking at you, Carlos Tevez) means there is not a lot of sympathy to be had for those players who are going through difficult times. This may be why there has been a lack of obvious public support for the Hearts players squad. Several of these guys will have weekly paycheques that reach four figures, but the story in The Sun that midfielder Ian Black is working part-time as a painter-decorator to pay the bills certainly raised my eyebrows.

So whilst we lose no sleep at all over the plights of the Tevez's of this world (although, bearing in mind the recent passing of Gary Speed, we should perhaps be more mindful of the rumours that Tevez is suffering from depression), those further down football's food chain are, in reality, not a huge amount different from you and I.

A recent and startling example of this is Caley Thistle defender Chris Hogg.

Englishman Hogg is a solid enough centre-back; he was good enough to be captain of Hibernian for a few years, but I would assume his move to Inverness last January, after he fell out of favour at Easter Road, saw a drop in income; certainly it would be fair to argue he was moving to a smaller club. After his initial six month deal expired, he went on trial with Middlesbrough and Crewe initially rather than sign a new deal in the Highlands; some fans took offence to that but you can hardly blame a player for being ambitious. Anyway, no other offer was forthcoming and he re-signed for us in August. This season he has been, by a distance, our best defender...though frankly I would look good in a back line tht included the accident-prone likes of David Proctor and Roman Golobart. At the age of 26, a good campaign would put him in decent stead to start moving back up in the world again.

Then, on Saturday, his teammate David Davis tripped a Dundee United player, who promptly collided with Hogg. When the physio calls for a stretcher before he's even tried to move the player, you know it's a bad injury.

Hogg's anterior cruciate ligament, plus both medial and collateral ligaments, are wrecked. Terry Butcher called it "one of the worst knee injuries we've seen". The inference is clear; Hogg is certainly out for the season, perhaps longer, perhaps forever. His knee joint is a wreck.

The player's response is quite remarkable; this week Hogg has started his own blog, named 'The Fightback'. He is quick to admit that he sees it as self-therapy, but already he has documented meticulously the events following his injury. As a medical professional who has worked at the hospital at Inverness (and who knows some of the people involved in his treatment and rehab), I can easily relate to his experiences there; what is more startling is his willingness to reveal his own emotions and fears, his concerns for his family and his future.

It might not read like Dickens, but it's a damn sight more interesting than most of the stuff I write on my blog. At the moment, Chris Hogg is opening his life up for the rest of the world to take a peek. And it is a good reminder that, even if the Rooneys, Balotellis and Tevez's of this world are very different people from you and me, most footballers are just like us, with the same stresses and supports that we have. So, if you've got a moment, have a look at and check out his story.

Get well soon, Hoggy.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Where do Hearts go from here?

I wonder how many Hearts players watched the recent strikes by public sector workers and thought 'I wish I could do that.'

There have been plenty of moments during the ownership of Vladimir Romanov where Hearts have looked a step away from a catastrophe, but alarm bells were ringing when the players received their October wage packet nearly three weeks late. They are due their December pay cheque this week; each player has received a £1,000 payment in lieu of their November wages so far.

No wonder form is suffering on the pitch, with only one win in seven matches. They lie fifth in the league, but only two points above the team in eighth. They are closer to bottom-placed Dunfermline than they are to third-placed Motherwell.

Romanov's motives, as ever, are difficult to interpret. On the one hand, the current economic climate makes it reasonable to wonder about his personal financial situation and that of his bank, UKIO Bankas, especially when the other major bank in Lithuania was recently taken over by the government. On the other hand, Romanov has been happy to invest in his Lithuanian basketball team, so he must have at least some pocket change to spare.

A more likely explanation is that he is simply fed up of pouring money into Tynecastle's black hole. For all his questionable decision-making during his seven years at the club, Romanov has pumped, according to some estimates, around £20 million into Hearts. And bear in mind that before his arrival, Hearts were effectively insolvent and on the brink of selling Tynecastle. Aside from his first full season in Scottish football, when George Burley's team briefly looked like becoming the first non-Glaswegian champions of the SPL era, Hearts have not been close to challenging the Old Firm. And the prospect of doing so becomes bleaker for every year that passes.

Whilst the wage bill is probably nowhere near where it was five years ago, when some players were on weekly wages reaching five figures, it's not unreasonable to assume Hearts have the third highest budget in the country. They certainly have a bloated squad that needs trimming. But the intention appears to be to cut down the entire forest, not just the dead wood.

According to this weekend's Scotland On Sunday, the players can walk on 14 January if they are not paid by then. But that won't pay the bills. Bear in mind that these are not English Premier League players with vast wealth. A few of the more seasoned pros are bound to have some cash in the bank, you'd think. But, like anyone else in life, these guys will have families to support, mortgage payments, car payments...and, of course, Christmas too.

But the SFA and the SPL won't lift a finger until players make individual complaints against their club. The players, of course, are wary of how their volatile paymaster could punish them for speaking out openly. It seems that there is no escape for the squad for at least another month, unless Romanov loosens the purse strings.


Romanov sells
Romanov wants out, and if Hearts could find new owners then this is the best solution for everyone. But the asking price stands at £50 million, and I can't see anyone offering even a fraction of that for a club who have no obvious prospect of doing better than third in the league without significant investment.

The players get paid
Doesn't seem likely somehow, though you never know with Romanov. Even if he loosens the purse-strings, what's to say that future wages won't be late?

The players walk
This appears a likely outcome right now. The younger players have been getting their wages during all of this, and presumably they would be integrated into the team. It's fair to assume they would struggle, and would slump down the table. But would Romanov really care?


If only Hearts had sold Andrew Driver two years ago, when his stock was through the roof and allegedly offers of £3 million were rejected. His subsequent injury record would surely discourage anyone from risking anything more than a nominal fee.

Goalkeeper Marian Kello has been the most consistent player of the last couple of seasons, but his contract is up this summer. Winger David Templeton was electric at times last season but his form has been erratic during 2011.

The Bosman signings of last summer - Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill, John Sutton and Mehdi Taouil, have not done enough to suggest they are worth paying a transfer fee for.

Hearts' biggest problem is the presence of highly-paid players who are either injured long-term or who can't make the team - Darren Barr, Suso Santana, Kevin Kyle and Calum Elliot stand out. But no-one else wants them either.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Aluko case is doomed to fail

It doesn't help the public image when the SFA's new Compliance Officer, Vincent Lunny, is referred to on Sky Sports News as "Vincent Loony".

I assume it was an unfortunate autocue error, though since the same channel called Caley Thistle's goalscoring midfielder Andrew Shinnie "Andy Shiny" on Saturday, I'm inclined to wonder whether there is a smartass in the studio.

For the record, Lunny has a fairly impressive legal background, including working in war crimes prosecutions at The Hague. Why he would give that up to deal with Scottish football's problems, on a full-time basis, is beyond me.

His career change sees him go from prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic, to prosecuting Sone Aluko.

For Aluko is the main focus of the Scottish football press this week - it's a slow news week - after a rather naff dive at Ibrox on Saturday which conned Steve Conroy into awarding a penalty to Rangers (soft penalties to the Old Firm?! Where have we heard that before?). Conroy's reputation has not been helped by the comments of former SPL ref Kenny Clark, who described the contact by Dunfermline's Gary Mason on Aluko as "not enough to cause a man to spill his pint in the pub".

A fat lot of good this does Dunfermline; the resultant spot-kick conversion from Nikica Jelavic was the decisive goal in a 2-1 Rangers victory when a point would have given the Pars a welcome bonus in their relegation battle. But the SFA appears keen to make up for their official's horrendous blunder; Aluko has been charged with "simulation", and threatened with a two match ban. Which seems a little odd, considering that, if the referee had done his job properly, the former Aberdeen winger would have been shown a yellow card.

When the case is heard on Thursday, expect it to be thrown out.

It matters not that Aluko clearly cheated; there is already precedent this season, when the SFA tried to meet out the same punishment to Hibs' Garry O'Connor when he won a penalty against St. Johnstone with an epic 6.0, 6.0, 6.0 effort. TV pictures showed quite clearly that there was no foul, and, to further fuel the fire, O'Connor's own assistant boss Billy Brown admitted on Sportscene that it was a dive. Yet, when Hibernian challenged the ban, the SFA gave in faster than an Italian on the North African front in 1940. O'Connor escaped a ban, a fine, and even a retrospective yellow card. He got off scot-free, which is more than he is likely to manage when he appears in court later this year regarding charges of drug possession and fraud.

The problem with "simulation" is proving it, just as UEFA found after they tried to punish Arsenal's Eduardo for a dive in a Champions League game versus Celtic. It's very easy to find a TV angle that shows a slight possibility of contact. The attacking player can also claim that he lost his balance. Take the case of Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson who, this weekend, won a dubious penalty at Molineux (his subsequent miss from twelve yards shows that sometimes, there is justice in football). It was a dive, no doubt about that; the way the Swede puffed out his chest reminded me of a sprinter leaning forward to cut the tape at the finish line. But one TV camera suggested a bit of miniscule, minute contact with the leg of Jody Craddock - who was doing his level best to get out of the way - and I bet, if push came to shove, Larsson would claim that he felt the contact, was put slightly off-balance, and has the right to go down as a consequence

So Aluko will, I think, be exonerated, though you'd like to think his reputation might have taken a hit and, the next time he goes down in the box, the referee might look twice. But whilst I agree with the SFA's attempts to root out diving, I just can't see how they will be able to ban players for multiple matches for what ultimately is a bookable offence.

As for Vincent Lunny, his main role as Compliance Officer is to provide a figurehead to the panel thats make retrospective decisions regarding red card appeals and the like. One hopes he can provide some objectivity; the previous philosophy appears to have consisted simply of 'what the referee says goes' - so that if the referee looks at it on TV and refuses to change his decision, the appeal gets thrown out. This is a big deal for a club like Caley Thistle when each appeal costs £1,000 a time, and even more so when very disputable red cards such as Chris Hogg's against Motherwell for denying a goalscoring opportunity are upheld without even the slightest debate.

So I'd like to see Lunny do well; there is a real opportunity to make a significant impact on the Scottish game here. Unfortunately, there is also a real opportunity here for him to become a hate figure of Rangers or Celtic fans (or somehow, like journalist Graham Spiers, a hate figure for both). I can't help feeling that even a lawyer like Lunny will be unable to untangle the bureaucracy involved, and that he'll be dealing with a few smashed windows once Old Firm fans find out where he lives. I'll be surprised if he lasts a year in the post. But I hope I'm wrong.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Celtic visit leaves a bitter taste

The fairytale that was Caley's home game against Celtic will prove a familiar story to those who watch the Scottish Premier League.

Provinical club meets Old Firm team. The Old Firm team struggles to break down the provinicial clubs organized defence early on. The provinical club then threatens to...god forbid...outplay the Old Firm team!

But never fear - over the horizon, on his white stallion, comes the handsome prince, or rather, the referee, to rescue the Old Firm team by awarding either a contentious penalty, or a contentious red card. If he is a true Prince Charming, he will manage to do both at the same time.

On Saturday, Stevie O'Reilly didn't need to come up with a ridiculous spot-kick decision, though had it taken much longer than the sixty-one minutes that Celtic required to break the deadlock, there is little doubt in the mind of the Inverness support that he would have duly obliged. In the end, it transpired that the obscene decision to dismiss Greg Tansey for use of 'an elbow' on Georgios Samaras proved sufficient.

Terry Butcher summed up the incident in one beautiful soundbite - "deadly assault by fingernail". One hopes that, given his apparent knowledge of the human anatomy, Mr O'Reilly's day job is not as an orthopaedic surgeon.

If only it had been a one-off incident, it would be reasonable to dismiss this as a human error, an understandable mistake. But the referee's handling of the match warrants further inspection - two 'handbags moments' during the match, both of which resulted in a yellow for the Caley player and only a long chat for the Celtic player (if one was feeling particularly cruel, they might suggest that Mr O'Reilly was asking the Celtic player for his autograph and phone number), and two gross pieces of time wasting by Celtic players to break up Caley attacks, one of which saw the ball booted 60 yards up the pitch several seconds after a free kick had been awarded.

The bottom line is this: if Samaras had fouled Tansey in the same way, do you think he would have been sent off? As was pointed out by many after this match, anyone who was told 'this match was decided by a controversial refereeing decision' would have very quickly bet their mortgage on Celtic being favoured.

It's worth noting that, though the referees are meant to stay on the pitch after the final whistle had been blown to make sure the players have left the field of play, Mr O'Reilly was off down the tunnel long before any of the Celtic team, walking so briskly that he looked like a man who had just realized he had left the gas on.

Sadly, it's not the first time this has happened to Caley Thistle this season; in August, Euan Norris got Rangers out of a hole by giving a very contentious penalty and sending off Caley's Ross Tokely to boot; just to rub salt into the wound, he awarded a second, even more ridiculous, spot kick later on.

And it's not just us that are suffering. Celtic have not won a league game for two months against a side who have finished with eleven men. Five players have been sent off against them so far in this campaign. Their ratio of fouls to yellow cards is twice as high as any other team (including Rangers) - this suggests Celtic have to commit twice as many fouls to get a yellow card as their opponents. Last year, for all their posturing about bias against them from the Powers That Be, they set a new record for penalties won in a SPL season.

Sadly, the scenario of Saturday is so common that, pre-kickoff, we were all joking in the stands about how, unless Celtic were in front after half an hour, they were bound to get some help from the officials.

The game itself, then, was about as much fun as being punched in the face repeatedly by Rocky Marciano. The whole experience was not enhanced by the usual posturing of the Celtic support, several of whom decided to grace my walk away from Caledonian Stadium after the match with a chorus of pro-IRA chants. They had already disgusted me enough with their bizarre banner 'Our music has survived famine and oppression', which they unfurled at kickoff. I hope there is some sort of subtle meaning to this display that has escaped me - for it seems on the outside to be an attempt to justify the offensive songs that plague so many of their matches.

Besides, judging by the waistlines sported by the majority of the away support, the closest they've come to experiencing a famine was when the local chippy ran out of curry sauce.

If there is any justice in Scottish football, Tansey's red card will be rescinded on appeal, Caley will receive an apology from Stevie O'Reilly (or, failing that, he will be sent to officiate games in Stenhousemuir and Coatbridge for a few weeks), and Georgios Samaras will be fined for clearly feigning injury in order to get a fellow professional sent off.

Sadly, even the first of those is far from probable, given Inverness' prior experience trying to overturn spurious red cards this season.

And yes, for those who are asking, I am still bitter as hell about the whole damn fiasco.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ross County threaten to double the SPL's Highland quota

There's something rather nice about a Scottish footballing weekend where the biggest match doesn't involve the Old Firm, and the inevitable baggage that comes stuck to them like a diseased, festering limpet.

In fact, the biggest match in the country was in, of all places, Dingwall, where Ross County and Falkirk met in a clash between the top two sides in the first division. Whilst there was a bit of stirring beforehand, with the two managers slagging each other off to the press, it came as much amusement, at least to this writer, when Derek Adams and Steven Pressley in fact admitted after the game that their 'spat' was more about increasing interest in the game than about managerial mind-games.

It at least partly worked; more than four thousand souls pitched up to Victoria Park, an attendance that certainly bettered crowds at SPL matches at St. Johnstone, St. Mirren, Dunfermline, Kilmarnock and Inverness (Ross County's local rivals of course) this season. And those of us who turned up saw a match which made up for a lack of quality with great intensity and effort, as the home side ran out 3-1 winners. County now find themselves with a sturdy six point cushion at the top of the table. Whilst it wasn't necessarily a good advert for an expanded SPL - my father and I agreed that, aside from former Caley Thistle stalwart Grant Munro in the home defence, there wasn't a single player on the pitch who would obviously be capable of stepping up a level - it certainly indicated that Scotland's second tier is perfectly capable of putting on a good show, even if the cost of a terracing ticket was a rather steep £14.

The result has also, of course, seriously raised the possibility of County winning promotion to the SPL and, if Caley Thistle were to stay up this year (by no means a sure thing), the top division would contain two Highland teams for the 2011/12 season. Considering there weren't any Highland teams in the whole of the Scottish Football League 18 years ago, that would be no mean feat.

It could also have significant implications. Whilst claims from Caley Thistle fans - and, on occasion, from manager Terry Butcher - that streamlining the SPL to ten teams is an attempt to keep ICT out of the top league and reduce the travelling for everyone else is surely paranoia, there is no doubt that teams do not particularly enjoy jaunting up the A9 a couple of times a season as it is. The idea that this burden could be doubled will probably not enamour the other SPL sides.

In contrast, it would potentially have mutual benefits for Caley and County. For one thing, four derbies a season would pretty much guarantee four capacity crowds - something that would only otherwise happen when the Gruesome Twosome were in town. That would be of fair significance; certainly the likely attendance for next weekend's Caley-Celtic game will be double the number who turned up for the previous home match against Motherwell. So that's a decent increase in gate receipts, no question.

The other interesting factor is that, in terms of decision-making on the future of the SPL, Inverness and Ross County will surely have identical interests, giving them, in effect, a small voting bloc. It would, for one thing, surely mean that there would be no reduction in the size of the division to ten teams whilst both those sides competed in it.

The Scottish football map has certainly changed a bit since 1974, when Inverness Thistle were denied entry to the league in favour of an engineer works team called Ferranti Thistle - the voting clubs were so desperate to avoid the extra travelling north that they elected a club from Edinburgh (which already had two teams), whose ground was not up to standard, and who were not allowed to play under the Ferranti title due to league rules banning the use of a sponsor's name. Ferranti ended up having to move to Meadowbank, and use that name, in order to compete (they are, of course, now Livingston).

In 1994, the Scottish football league finally made up for that scandalous decision by bringing in both Caley Thistle and County - and I wonder if a few chairmen at the top clubs might be regretting that move if, next season, one-sixth of the Scottish Premier League is based more than a hundred miles north of Perth?


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kenny's Kilmarnock Kalamity

Ah, this blog never fails to make me look like a moron.

Last week, I wrote extensively about how Caley Thistle's recent form left me fearing relegation almost as much as I fear salad. And so they only promptly go and welly six past Kilmarnock. In Kilmarnock. I've been to three of Inverness' away games this season, all of which they lost, with only one measly goal to show for it. So forgive me for not fancying a 400 mile round trip to Rugby Park. My parents went...and were rewarded with a BBC Alba clip where my mother could be seen clapping wildly and grinning like a maniac.

Ah, my mum. She promised me a phone call at half-time to tell me how the game is going; I often oblige her with the same if I'm at a game and she's not. My telephone analysis is generally a ten minute monologue with lines such as 'the extra man in midfield is causing problems' or '(insert name) is running the channels well', or, almost inevitably 'David Proctor is having a shocker again'.

Mum? 'We're doing all right today. We'll win.' That's it? 'Yup. Bye.' Considering we were away from home, the score was 1-1 at the time and we'd been behind for most of the game up to that point, I felt somewhat unimpressed. I should have known better than to doubt her; Caley romped to a win far more comfortable than 6-3 suggests. Say what you like about her punditry, but Mum is clearly far superior to Alan Shearer. Even though last year she screamed for a referee to punish an opposing player's foul with 'a ticket'.

Anyway, the moral of this story is that, whenever I write anything negative about a player or team, they instantly hit a rich vein of form, and whenever I scribble something bullish, that player or team instantly dips faster than the Italian economy. So, dear reader, I expect you are asking yourself 'which team will he punish/bless (delete as applicable) with a blogpost this week?'. Actually, I suspect you are asking yourself 'when will he get to the bloody point?'

Alas for Hibs fans, I didn't get round to writing about their wretched defeat to Dunfermline in time to save Colin Calderwood from the sack. CC was ditched just before a club AGM where chairman Rod Petrie was set to be met by an angry mob waving scythes and pitchforks. Coincidentally, Calderwood's successor, John Hughes, was sacked just about a year ago...just before just before a club AGM where chairman Rod Petrie was set to be met by an angry mob waving scythes and pitchforks.

You can't say that Calderwood wasn't backed by his chairman - several signings, including Garry O'Connor, a six figure transfer budget which was wasted on Ross County's Martin Scott, and an opportunity to completely revamp the side. The results never came; just 12 wins in 49 games, and only 42 points in 44 SPL matches. It makes Petrie's decision to stop Calderwood from leaving to become assistant at Nottingham Forest in the summer even more ridiculous than it seemed at the time; instead of £300,000 in compensation, Petrie now has to pay him off.

So in the last five years we have seen the Easter Road dugout welcome John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and Colin Calderwood. All appeared to be young managers with fresh ideas, all set to go places and take the team with them. All have had their reputations utterly wrecked. Only big Mixu, with his wonderful efforts at Kilmarnock last season, has bounced back.

And it is Kilmarnock I want to focus on.

For all has not been well since Mixu departed in the Spring to become manager of his native Finland. His assistant, Northern Irishman Kenny Shiels, was, unsurprisingly, installed as caretaker for the remainder of the campaign. In the summer he was given the job permanently, a decision which seemed based more on his promise to continue the brand of pretty passing football promoted by his predecessor, than on results - his 8 matches as caretaker produced a grand total of 4 points and zero wins.

I thought it was a bit odd that Killie chairman Michael Johnston didn't broaden his horizons, but his decision seemed justified after a start to the season which saw Shiels' side go unbeaten for the opening four matches, including a 4-1 demolition of Hibs...though bear in mind that it wasn't quite clear how utterly brutal Hibs were at this point. Since then, Kilmarnock have slid down the table, with only two further wins, and an incredible clash with Celtic where they blew a 3-0 halftime lead at home.

The failure to emulate last season's success is not surprising, really; last year Paatelainen got the results, and the performances, with a side that included creative midfielders Alexei Eremenko (whose loan spell finished in the summer), Craig Bryson (sold to Derby in the summer) and Mehdi Taouil (signed by Hearts in the summer) and, for half a season, Connor Sammon up front (who went to Wigan last January).

Kilmarnock 2010-11

Shiels has none of these players, though he has replaced Sammon's goals with Paul Heffernan, the Irish veteran signed from Sheffield Wednesday, and replaced some of the creativity with the arrival on loan from Doncaster of his own son, Dean Shiels; in fact, Shiels has been in such good form that he is at last becoming better known for his ability than for the fact that he only has one eye (his right eye was blinded in a childhood accident and removed in 2006). But he's been a rare bright spark. And his loan deal ends in January.

Kilmarnock 2011-12

Even with his own son on board, Shiels has now won only 3 out of 22 SPL games as Kilmarnock manager. You thought Calderwood's record was bad? A run to a league cup semi final has at least prevented him from feeling the heat. But on Saturday, as stated earlier, Killie shipped six goals at home to bottom-of-the-table Inverness. If that isn't relegation form, what is?

The gold medal in the sack race was already won in August by Jim Jefferies; Calderwood has scooped the silver. The way things are headed in Ayrshire, it might just be worth a cheeky each-way bet on Kenny Shiels to be the next to go.

Or, true to the traditions of this blog, he might make me look like a complete twit and take his side on an epic unbeaten run...


Monday, October 31, 2011

One crisis to rule them all?

As I tweeted previously, supporters of many, if not most, SPL teams could easily declare their team to be in a crisis at the moment. Rangers may be top of the league by some distance, but have the increasingly inevitable prospect of administration hanging over them. Celtic's problems are on the field; they, along with Hibernian (understandably, considering Colin Calderwood's dreadful results in charge) and Dundee United (bizarrely, since it's only 18 months since a cup win and the team finished fourth last season), may be looking for a new manager by the new year. Aberdeen boss Craig Brown is far from safe in his post.

St. Johnstone are already searching for a new man to take charge after Derek McInnes left for Bristol City - it's not unreasonable to expect his successor to struggle to emulate McInnes' success at McDiarmid Park. Dunfermline haven't won a game since 20th August. And as for Hearts...well, 'crisis' appears to be the default situation at the best of times, so a situation where the players aren't being paid probably commands a stronger description.

In fact, the SPL side the furthest away from being 'in crisis' are undoubtedly Motherwell, second in the league. Yet, proving once more that logic does not exist in Scottish football, neutral observers attending their away game at Inverness on Saturday would have been astonished to discover that the away side were the team riding high in the table, rather than rock bottom of the league.

For it is Caley Thistle who prop up the SPL a third of the way through the season, even though they utterly dominated the first 75 minutes against Stuart McCall's team. A 2-1 lead at that point seemed scant reward, yet the last quarter of an hour produced a long-range screamer from 'Well veteran Keith Lasley, a questionable red card for Caley's Chris Hogg and a deflected Tom Hateley free kick. Having created all of three chances in the game, Motherwell drove back south with the three points.

Depressingly, this has become fairly standard fare for supporters in Inverness. So far this season, Caley have proven that they couldn't hold onto a lead if it was attached to the collar of a newborn kitten.

In addition to the Motherwell game, they have conceded late equalizers against Dunfermline (twice) and Hearts; in addition, they managed to lose a late winner to Hibs in a game where Caley passed up so many opportunities that there might have been a forcefield around the opposing goal. These five matches have produced just three points; they might have produced fifteen. In fact, in one of our rare victories, against St. Mirren, the Buddies had a last-gasp equalizer disallowed for offside...incorrectly.

The Motherwell game, therefore, follows a rather disturbing pattern for the current campaign - when Inverness play well, they are still quite capable of failing to win. As for when they don't play well...well, you can guess.

I blogged in the summer about my excitement about the new direction the club was taking, bringing in younger players from south of the border and looking to play was two wingers. The latter plan has largely gone out of the window because of necessity; Aaron Doran, signed from Blackburn, dislocated his shoulder at the end of August, whilst his fellow Irish wideman, Jonny Hayes, sustained a similar injury three days before. Hayes made his return to the squad against Motherwell.

The decision to exchange experience for youth has so far proved to be folly; how Caley fans have reminsiced about the solidity of former captain Grant Munro, who has excelled since leaving the club and crossing the Kessock Bridge to sign for Ross County. In his absence, Caley have so far deployed ten different defenders this season. For the Motherwell game, Terry Butcher made three changes to the back four, which could not be less settled if itching powder was poured into their shorts pre-match. The squad cries out for older heads; what it has is only two outfield players over the age of 27. It is fair to say that the lack of experience is a contributor to the failure to see out games.

The summer signings have proven to largely be a disappointment, with the possible exceptions of forward Gregory Tade, who has scored four goals, and midfielder David Davis (on loan from Wolves). That's two out of twelve new arrivals (not counting Tom Aldred, a loan signing from Watford who returned to his parent club in August after failing to cement a regular place). With so many new players, Butcher has no budget to strengthen the squad in January unless some of the on-loan players move on.

And to cap it all, Doran and Hayes are not the only ones to have been on the treatment table. More than once this season the substitutes' bench has not been full. Arguably the best player brought in, Welsh international midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, broke his foot in only his third match. Another staple in the centre of the park, Lee Cox, has only just overcome a long-term groin problem. Niggling knocks here and there seem to have left the team short of at least five names for every game so far.

In short, it feels like everything is going wrong for Inverness Caledonian Thistle this season, and so they have only nine points from their opening thirteen games. The hope is that, once everyone is fit, the results will come. But Caley's next three games are Kilmarnock away, Celtic at home and Hearts away. It's realistic to think that, at the end of November, things will be even worse than they are now. Butcher, like Billy Reid at Hamilton last year, can sleep soundly in the knowledge that he has built up enough credit with his previous successes that his job is not in any immediate danger. But, even at this early stage of the campaign, I would say that, if you have a spare fiver, putting it on Caley Thistle being relegated from the SPL would seem a decent bet.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Could playoffs revitalise the SPL?

I took umbrage this week at a tweet from @ryankeaney, who had suggested that the way to revitalise Scottish football might be through a playoff system, such as that used in the Australian A-League. The poor chap was very polite about the whole thing, especially in light of my whinging that he wanted to use Scotland 'as a testing ground'.

As is sadly the case for a lot of Scots, the natural response to a radical idea proposed by an outsider, particularly an Englishman, is automatically met with antipathy, as if every single person on the other side of the border is potentially the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher.

For all the talk of reform, it is clear that Scottish football in general, and the Scottish Premier League in particular, have the same attitude to new ideas as American oil tycoons have to renewable energy. So I bet a proposal such as the introduction of end-of-season playoffs would go down like the proverbial lead balloon.

But is it such a bad idea?

My passion for American Football (which is called football despite the fact the ball is rarely touched by feet) makes me maybe a little more open to the idea of playoffs - it is not often that the Super Bowl is contested between the two teams had the best record in the regular season. There's no doubt it adds considerable interest and excitement to proceedings - both towards the end of the regular season as teams battle it out to get a playoff place, and during the playoffs themselves. The reward for a better regular season record is home advantage in the playoff matches, so there is less incentive for the top teams to take their feet off the gas after a playoff place has been earned.

It doesn't always feel right though; for example, in 2007 the New England Patriots were clearly the dominant team, winning all 16 regular season games and two playoff games as well...only to lose the Super Bowl final (and the chance to become the first team to win all 19 games in a season) to the New York Giants, who had only barely managed to make the playoffs in the first place.

The idea that the team who tops the SPL at the end of the league season might not win the league title doesn't sit all that easily with me, though maybe that's just because I'm set in my ways. However, the biggest objection to having a playoff competition is plain to see - this season Rangers could well stride away and win the title by more than 10 points; is it fair they could lose the title, and possibly a Champions League place, as a result of a one off match at the end of the season?

Rangers would say no; perhaps the likes of Hearts and Motherwell, who can't compete with the Old Firm over the course of a full campaign, might be more receptive to this prospect.

As far as I can tell, the most prominent football leagues in the world to use this system to decide their champion are Australia's A-League (as mentioned above), and Major League Soccer in the USA; these countries traditionally use playoffs in other sports too, so there is far less resistance to that sort of set up.

The A-League is the one most comparable to the SPL - whereas MLS has teams split into separate conferences, the A-League has 10 teams who play each other three times in the main season for a total of 27 games; the top six enter the playoffs. Interestingly the best two teams in the league season play each other at the start of the playoffs - the winner qualifies for the final and also gets home advantage. The loser of this tie ends up playing the winner of a knockout tournament between the other four teams for the right to play in the final. So there is certainly motivation to finish in the top two in the league.

It's quite a clever structure, I think, and one that could be introduced quite easily to an SPL with a 'top six' mentality already. It certainly improves the chances of a side outside the Old Firm winning it all...and potentially nicking a Champions League spot as well. But, aside from the rather spurious argument that playoffs are against our football tradition - so is diving, but that doesn't stop Scottish players doing it left right and centre - the main reason why playoffs are a non-starter is that it threatens the Old Firm's duopoly on being the only teams who can contest for the title. The idea of St. Johnstone finishing sixth in the table and stringing together a couple of shock results at Celtic Park and Ibrox to win the league and qualify for Europe would probably dislosge what's left of Craig Whyte's stomach contents.

So in this author's opinion, this plan will never happen. But it's a shame it will never be up for consideration, for it has some good points. So thanks to @ryankeaney, for making me open my mind a teensy bit.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Neil Lennon is doomed

Celtic's already desperate SPL title hopes were salvaged thanks to a manager called Lennon this weekend. I'm not talking about Neil, who saw his Hoops side dice with disaster in Kilmarnock by impersonating Craig Levein's Scotland in Alicante and giving their opponents a three goal start before bothering to turn up. Instead it was St. Mirren coach Danny Lennon, and the late equalizer by veteran Steven Thompson at Ibrox that kept the gap between the Old Firm at 10 points, with Rangers having played a game extra.

It was actually St. Mirren who ended the reign of Tony Mowbray at Celtic Park by humping them 4-0 in Paisley, and had Killie held on to their three goal half time lead at Rugby Park, it's reasonable to speculate that Lennon's nineteen month reign at the club might have been at an end. Defeat in France against Rennes on Thursday, which would effectively mean Europa League elimination, and then a failure to beat Aberdeen at Celtic Park three days later, could be the final nail in the coffin.

Lennon must at least be relieved that the next league match is not against a gritty, determined opponent, but against a Dons side who have avoided league defeat at Celtic Park only once in seven years and who shipped 21 goals in 5 matches against Lennon's side last season.

But the first encounter between Celtic and Aberdeen this season, at Pittodrie in August, has proven somewhat prophetic of the problems Lennon has faced. Craig Brown's side were in a terrible mess, with a casualty list reminiscent of the Somme and carrying as much threat as a kitten in a paper bag. Yet the visitors toiled against an organized defence, and having failed to find an early breakthrough, showed all the frustration of someone who can't get the lid of a pickle jar. They had completely run out of ideas, and only found a winner thanks to a catastrophic blunder from Aberdeen captain Ricky Foster (I remember my father shouting "he should be shot for that!" at the television) that gifted Anthony Stokes a goal.

That game was also the first sign of something else that has become apparent this season; Kris Commons, who was in irresistible form in the second half of the season, has regressed dramatically; an unkind (and accurate) person would say that regression is inversely proportional with his waist circumference. Without that spark, Celtic are hugely lacking a creative spark in the final third and are finding it immensely difficult to break down organized defences. And the frustration builds up quickly, resulting in moments such as Commons' sending off at Tynecastle for a stupid, reckless challenge.

The problems up front, though, pale in comparison to what's happening at the other end of the pitch; someone said of the Scotland team recently that they had 'constipation at the front and diarrhoea at the back' but this applies to Celtic too. The backline is just an absolute shambles, aside from goalkeeper Fraser Forster, and has appeared so ever since the highly rated left back Emilio Izaguirre broke his ankle. The Honduran's replacement, Badr El Kaddouri, is enduring such a difficult settling-in period that it seems certain his loan deal will not be extended beyond January. On the other side, Lennon appears determined to keep playing the raw Welshman Adam Matthews, even despite Mark Wilson's solidity last season.

But the biggest concern lies in the centre of the defence, where there has been so much slapstick that it would have been cut from a Naked Gun film for being too farcical for belief. And at the heart of this has been Daniel Majstorovic, the Kojak-alike Swede who last year provided experience and leadership, but who this season has been as reliable as a used British Leyland car. The only explanation for his continued presence in the side is surely the injuries that prevented anyone else from being consistently available - though, out of his multiple partners in crime this season, Glenn Loovens has looked like Majstorovic with a huge blonde wig and Kelvin Wilson appears to still be getting over the shock of finding the SPL is not a doddle compared to the Championship. At Kilmarnock, Charlie Mulgrew was the tweedle-dum to Majstorovic's tweedle-dee; Mulgrew has played at left-back, left-midfield and centre-midfield for Celtic this year, and played exactly like what he was - a player out of position.

So Celtic can't defend, and can't attack. They have no Plan B for when matches become difficult. Lennon's own actions - criticizing players in post-match interviews, his touchline tantrums - do not, at least from the outside, seem a good way to foster a strong team spirit, though the Kilmarnock comeback suggests there is still a bit of pride there. But, after more than a year and a half of Neil Lennon, and investment in the playing squad which far outweighs that at Ibrox, Celtic appear to be roughly back where they were after Tony Mowbray's Paisley humiliation.

For me, Neil Lennon's demise as Celtic manager is now inevitable. I just can't see how he is going to turn around this team. As I tweeted after the Hearts defeat, the only way Rangers will not win the SPL title is by getting a points deduction for entering administration.

The question is whether he will last until the next Old Firm at Celtic Park at the end of December. I don't think he will. And I'm relishing the thought of him coming back up to Inverness in a month's time, even though we're bottom of the would be somewhat apt if it was Caley Thistle who once more etched their name into the Celtic history books.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The secret diary of Craig Levein, aged 46 and three quarters

Saturday 8th October

It's the big game in Liechtenstein tonight. I've been preparing meticulously for this game, watching video footage of each of the opposing players. The Swiss third division is of very high quality, I'm telling you.

The pre-match press conference was full of the usual stupid questions. "How difficult will this game be for Scotland?" asked one hack. "Of course it will be tough", I replied, scratching my sexy beard, "they have no fewer than six full-time players in their team."

Another moronic journalist (aren't they all?) chimes in with "Did you consider Ross McCormack, the Championship's top scorer who is in top form, for a call up? Or Garry O'Connor, who has ten goals this season with Hibernian?". "What good reason could you possibly give me for picking them?", I retort. All the journalists look puzzled. Quite right too. What a stupid question.

I'd much rather have Craig Mackail-Smith than McCormack or O'Connor. For a start, he clearly hasn't washed his hair in months, so his personal hygiene is on the same level as mine. He doesn't have a sexy beard, though.

Since the captain, Darren, had tonsillitis, I had to sit the squad down and explain my tactical plan for his absence. "Right," I said, "with no Darren I think that we'll have to change from 4-5-1." The players' eyes lit up. "Steven, James, you guys aren't playing as midfielders tonight", I told them to their obvious delight. "You're going to be extra full backs". Steven Naismith smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand, which Peter Houston tells me is a Weegie expression of assent.

Thankfully though, Darren's antibiotics kicked in, and he told me he could play. I was delighted, but admitted I was feeling uneasy about playing the all out attacking 4-5-1 system. "Are you sure we shouldn't go back to 4-6-0?" I asked Darren. "They have SIX full-time players".

Sunday 9th October

That was a hairy experience in Vaduz. Initially the stewards wouldn't even let me into the dugout until Stewart Regan from the SFA came down and explained who I was. "Sorry Craig", Stewart said, "but they thought you were a hobo trying to sneak in."

"Why on earth did they think that?" I asked, stroking my sexy beard. Stewart gave me a long hard look, and then sighed. "I've no idea", he said.

Early in the game I whistled Stevie Naismith to the touchline to pass on some instructions. For some reason, he asked me "Got any Bucky?" before looking embarrassed and muttering "sorry, boss, didn't realise that was you".

We won 1-0 in the end. I know Craig Mackail-Smith scored, but I'm convinced we would have done better without playing a striker. At the end I shouted for Stevie and James to go and play as extra full-backs, but they clearly couldn't hear me over the huge crowd noise. Luckily we hung on.

After the game, Jim Spence from the BBC interviewed me and asked if I felt we should have won by more goals. "Listen," I said, feeling exasperated, "they had SIX full-time players! What do you expect?" He looked puzzled. Quite right too.

Monday 10th October

Journalists keep asking me if I wish I'd done anything different during the qualifying campaign. Of course I do - I completely regret my tactical plan for the game in Prague. The bottom line is that 4-6-0 was the wrong idea - if only I'd played more defenders, we'd have won that game. Easily. As for the return game? If only I'd made Christophe Berra stay behind after training for extra diving practice. It's done the world of good for Stevie Naismith.

People keep whinging about the other games, too. But Lithuania are a great team. Vladimir Romanov wouldn't own and pay all these players if they weren't any good now, would he? So a 0-0 in Kaunas and a 1-0 in Hampden are great results, really. And remember, we wouldn't have won at Hampden if I hadn't been clever and placed everyone behind the ball for the last half hour. Some idiot managers would have still kept attacking, just because their team was on top and a second goal seemed inevitable. Not me, though. I think ahead. So when Lithuania started dominating possession and launching high balls into the box, I already had everyone back defending.

I really should get more credit for these smashing ideas. But I'm confident that the football history books will recognise my achievement of inventing the position of "extra full back". And Guardiola thought the False Nine was clever. But, then, his beard isn't as sexy as mine.

Tuesday 11th October

Darren, the captain, caught up with me ten minutes before kickoff. "Look, boss, we can't play that formation tonight."

"Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Darren", I replied. "This system gives us the best chance for a result. If you don't agree, I'll drop you to the bench".

"But boss," he persisted, "we're not allowed to play a 16-1-0 formation, even if we wanted to".

He's a sharp boy, Darren, even sharper than me. I didn't have time to pick a new lineup. Thankfully Stewart Regan had a copy of our teamsheet from Saturday, so I just handed that in instead.

"Okay," I told the players in the dressing room. "Here's our new plan. We'll sit off them like they have leprosy, and let them get three goals up, and then we'll attack them. They won't be expecting that!" Stevie hit his forehead with the palm of his hand again. So did Phil, James and Craig, which was surprising. I didn't realise they were weegies as well.

Wednesday 12th October

After the game, I heard Darren talking to a few of the other players. "Are we making any progress, do you think?" One said. "Aye," Darren replied. "The last manager had a problem with the booze. Now we have a manager who only looks like he has a problem with the booze." I'm not sure what he meant, but it's reassuring to know that my captain thinks we are making progress.

This morning, I got out of bed and started the weekly trim of my sexy beard. I looked at my reflection in my mirror. "So, Craig," I said to it, "should I have any regrets about the qualifying campaign?".
"Of course you should", my reflection said. "Those tactics in Prague and in Kaunas, those mediocre performances in the games at Hampden. But you know what you should have done differently".

"That's right". I said. "Next time, I'll pick more defenders. Then we'll be all right".


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Matchfixing in the SPL?

Saying the SPL has had a wee bit of bad press in the last year or so would be like saying that passing a kidney stone is a wee bit sore.

You'd think an alleged matchfixing scandal involving Scotland's top flight might attract more attention. It's a sign of how low the stock of Scottish football has fallen that the arrest of Motherwell midfielder Steve Jennings is not causing larger headlines than it is. Jennings was lifted, along with eight men from Merseyside (where Jennings is originally from) on charges of Conspiracy to Defraud.

Interestingly, one of the blokes from Merseyside is apparently Wayne Rooney's father. Another is Rooney's uncle. Doesn't Wayne give them any pocket money?

Jennings has been a solid, if unspectacular, player for the Well since Jim Gannon took him north from Tranmere Rovers in July 2009 - he has been a fixture in the midfield since then, doing the 'water carrier' job in front of the centre backs. He reminds me very much of former Inverness player Russell Duncan, stuck in a role without glory, where fans rarely notice the intricate positional sense and 'dirty work' being done but constantly seize upon mistakes as a reason why the team doesn't need such a player. Of course, as soon as he's injured/dropped, his absence is quickly apparent as opposing midfielders rampage through the gaping hole that the 'water carrier' would normally be occupying.

Anyway, my point is that many non-Motherwell fans may not even have heard of Jennings - even though he has been a fixture in the team under three managers - Gannon, Craig Brown and Stuart McCall.

This is all to do with a Motherwell-Hearts game at Fir Park last December, shortly after Brown had left for Aberdeen and just before McCall was installed; the home side were under the caretaker management of Gordon Young. Hearts won 2-1. I'm sure I watched the match, and I remember seeing more than a few bizarre decisions from referee Steve O'Reilly, including an incident where, when a Hearts player deliberately encroached and blocked a quick Motherwell free kick from a yard away, the ref insisted no offence had been committed and let play continue!

Jennings was sent off in unusual circumstances late in the game. He had been booked earlier, but seemed to have been given a straight red card by O'Reilly after protesting his decision to turn down a penalty appeal. The official reason was 'foul and abusive language', and it is believed the word "cheat" was used. On the face of it, it could easily have been construed as a young man losing his cool and taking his frustration too far - he certainly wouldn't be the first or the last to have got himself in such hot water.

But it appears that there is more to this. Only a day after the match, the SPL was informed by the bookies Blue Square that numerous bets had been made, both with them and other bookmakers, on a Motherwell player being sent off, including from brand new accounts which seemed to have been created purely to wager on this outcome. This story hit the press at the time, but quickly seemed to disappear. I had assumed nothing had come of these claims, but in fact the investigations have simply continued under the radar. Jennings served a three match ban at the time, but, having received loud public support from his club, has played in several matches since, including last season's Scottish Cup Final. He signed a new contract at Motherwell in the summer.

Let's not get carried away. Innocent till proven guilty and all that. But that's a lot of arrests, and considering it's nearly a year since the incident, it is fair to assume that the police feel they have some evidence to work on. I would certainly assume Jennings is going to be suspended for the time being by Motherwell. Will he play for the club (or anyone else) again? Only time will tell.

But here's some food for thought - could anyone else be trying (and succeeding) to fix Scottish football matches? One thing's for sure - fans are going to be more suspicious about bizarre antics on the pitch. Which makes me think referees could be in for a hard time...


Monday, October 3, 2011

No escape down south for the Old Firm

The grass is always greener on the other side, the neighbours got a new car that you wanna drive, and when time is running out you wanna stay alive

The lyrics to the Travis song Side might well have been on the mind of troubled Rangers owner Craig Whyte last week, as he stated his intent to find a way to get the club into the English Premier League. It's almost become a tradition up here; every four or five years one or both members of The Gruesome Twosome voice their agitation on missing out on the big bucks available over the other side of Hadrian's Wall, and malign their status as big fish stuck in a pond which is shrinking so quickly that it might now, technically, be a puddle.

Following this comes various rentaquote former players and two-bit pundits turning up in the papers or on Sky Sports News to give their yay or nay opinions...and then after a few weeks the idea transpires to be as much a non-starter as a Hermann Goering appeal against the Nuremburg Trial verdict.

Yet Rangers and Celtic keep coming back pleading to the English top flight, like a geeky bespectacled IT worker on his hands and knees, trying to beg Scarlett Johansson to give him a pity date. You can hardly blame them; they have been left behind to the point that even finishing last in the EPL is worth as much TV and prize money as winning the SPL. But here is why there is no chance of this happening, not for a generation...

How times have changed. Rangers in particular took massive advantage of the post-Heysel situation, attracting numerous English internationals north with the lure of European football. Remember the names - Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, Gary Stevens, Graham Roberts, Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins, Mark Walters, Trevor Steven, Nigel Spackman, Mark Hateley. Oh, and Terry Hurlock, surely the dirtiest player I've ever seen, not so much a Pitbull as a rabid Alsatian.

It's roughly the equivalent of David James, Jamie Carragher, Gareth Barry and Peter Crouch playing north of the border. Hard to imagine now, eh? Yet in 1992-93, the Gers got to within a whisker of a Champions League final, beating English champions Leeds United home and away on the way. Even as late as the end of the last century, with Celtic buoyed by the arrival of Henrik Larsson, there was a case for claiming that both sides were capable of competing at the top of the Premiership.

How time changes.

Below is, in my opinion, the best 11 players from an all-Old Firm team.

How many of these guys, would you say, are good enough to play in the English Premier League? Even with some generosity, I'd say you would only need the fingers of one hand to count them.

Things have deteriorated to the point that, during the summer, Crystal Palace midfielder Neil Danns turned down a move to Ibrox, with the prospects of Champions League football and winning trophies, to sign for another Championship side, Leicester City. Frankly, Rangers and Celtic are now Championship-standard sides, and quite possibly would struggle initially to get out of that dog-eat-dog league. They are a long way from where they would need to be to become an established top division side, and that gap just increases with every passing year.

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect if one was to ask an English football fan what one word first came to mind when thinking of Old Firm supporters, the answer would be "Manchester."

True, Celtic fans have built up a good reputation with their adventures in Europe, but I can't help feeling that this goodwill has been cancelled out by their rivals and their constant run-ins with UEFA. To be honest, the green-and-white half of Glasgow are hardly the occupiers of the moral high ground, and I'd be interested to see how well songs about the IRA might go down in places such as Birmingham, London and Brighton, or any other places which were bombed during those awful times.

The bottom line is that there is just too much baggage, and too much potential for trouble.

How exactly would any club down south actually gain from having Rangers and Celtic in their league system? Really?

I can't think of any particular reason at all.

The clubs who start every season with at least a bit of concern about being relegated from the top flight - your Boltons and Fulhams - will find their status even more threatened. Thoughts of self-preservation would surely win out here.

Meanwhile, whilst the Manchester clubs and Chelsea are probably out of reach, I would think the rest would fear that, with their fanbases and potential income from their crowds, that sooner or later Rangers and Celtic might be able to establish themselves and even challenge for European places...thus taking away income from these other clubs.

Do the Old Firm actually bring anything positive to the table? They might have bigger grounds and bigger attendances than the Norwichs of this world, but I'm not sure that it's possible for the English Premier League to make more money than it already does from TV deals and the like; I don't think that having the Glasgow clubs on board makes the income pie any bigger, but just means there are two more teams fighting for slices of that pie.

It probably is in the interests of Rangers and Celtic to leave Scottish football if they want to increase their incomes. There might even be a case that Scottish football could benefit from their departure (but that's an argument for another day). But when the English Premier League clubs turn around and say "What's in it for us?", the answer at the moment is just "errrr...." And that's not going to win any argument.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If Brown can't save Aberdeen, who can?

In December 2010, Aberdeen finally got the manager they needed. Mark McGhee's tenure in the Pittodrie hotseat was an utter disaster; not fiery and spectacular like the Hindenburg, but cold, slow and chilling, like the Titanic. With the team looking as likely to win as a gambler who has walked under a ladder and smashed a mirror on his way to the roulette table, it was clear that chairman Stewart Milne needed an experienced, seasoned captain to steady his ailing ship.

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown seemed the perfect fit; Brown had proven that, even having turned 70, he could still fight fires, having turned in results at Motherwell almost immediately after replacing the erratic Jim Gannon. On a tight budget too. Whilst the football was hardly Barcelona, it was not exactly Catenaccio either. And Milne, like many other Scots, no doubt had fond, oak-ageing memories of the fact that Brown's Scotland side, as dour as a Gordon Brown speech, nevertheless was a solid as granite, meticulously organized, and, most importantly, did well (better than his successors, at least).

Brown was the perfect fit for Aberdeen, and Aberdeen was the perfect fit for Brown; the sleeping giant, a club with wonderful tradition and history, a huge but alienated fanbase just waiting to tempted back to the stands. He may be sprightly and healthy, but nevertheless this would surely be his last hurrah at the top level (in Scotland at least), an opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the greatest Scottish coaches of the last twenty years.

Ten months later, Brown's Aberdeen have won only 9 and drawn 7 out of 31 league games. Their opening 8 SPL matches of the new season have produced a solitary win, over Inverness in a game which, even allowing for my bias in favour of their opponents, they did not really deserve to win. I'm pretty sure they were tenth in the league when McGhee was sacked. Their position now? Tenth.

And, following on from his predecessors, Brown has now managed to embarrassingly lose a cup tie to a lower division team; McGhee had Raith Rovers, Calderwood had Dunfermline, Queen of the South (in a semi final after knocking out Celtic in the quarters) and Queen's Park, and now Paw Broon has seen the Dons succumb to East Fife. Having got themselves out of jail, and into extra time, with an injury-time penalty that looked softer than a bowel motion after a curry, they then managed to arse up the shootout.

There was a lot of goodwill in the North-East for Brown when he took charge. Not only has it evaporated, but it has reformed into clouds of apathy that are pouring a shower of derision on him and his side. (Did I try too hard to extend that metaphor? Probably)

The knives aren't out for him yet...there is a feeling that, if Craig Brown can't succeed here, who can? And who would want this poisoned chalice of a job, which appears to curse all coaches so that they take the post as a decent coach with a solid reputation, and leave it with so little credibility that they might as well change their names to 'Gary Megson' by deed poll.

But less than 4,000 turned up for this midweek League Cup humiliation. Less than double that were at the home league match with Kilmarnock last weekend, where Aberdeen showed a rare glimpse of backbone by earning a draw from a 2-0 deficit. These are fans who vote with their feet; as a student I attended a Pittodrie clash with the same opponent on my birthday in 2002, when Ebbe Skovdahl's side were battling it out for third in the table. The attendance was over 15,000, even though the away support consisted of three men and a dog.

You'd be daft to bet against Broonie turning this around. But, whilst the present is bleak for Aberdeen, there has always been optimism for the future. Right now, their current predicament appears to be a purgatory that will never end...unless it is ultimately replaced by the hell of relegation.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The crack about Garry O'Connor

When I was a kid I used to love imagining that I would be a professional footballer. Sometimes I still do, usually when I see Gary Caldwell playing for Scotland. Even then, just as now, I couldn't understand why a professional footballer, an athlete, wouldn't make the fairly benign (to me) sacrifices required to become the best you can be; a good diet, dedication to fitness, avoidance of illicit substances, keeping dodgy acquaintances at arms length. If you're being paid a five-figure sum every week, it seems like the least that can be expected of you. Some of those who have the potential to be greats embrace it as a way of life; they are those who become Zidane, or Messi, or, for all his chav-like behaviour on the pitch, Wayne Rooney. There are plenty who, as teenagers, seem only a little above ordinary, but who dedicate themselves to becoming the very best they can be. Sadly, there appear to be very few Scots who fall into the latter category (there are, of course, none in the former either). Depressingly, Garry O'Connor instead appears destined for enshrinement in the ranks of the Might Have Beens. O'Connor was good enough to be capped by Scotland as long ago as May 2002, within a month of turning 19. Yes, it was during the Vogts era of the national team, when there were so few credible options up front that a hat trick in Aberdeen's Wednesday afternoon student league had the potential to attract a call up. But still, even as a teenager O'Connor attracted attention, not least because of his burly 6ft 1in frame. Even as a teenager he proved capable of leading the line for Hibs as a lone striker. He had the odd scrape here and there (I'm sure I remember TV evidence being used to retrospectively ban him for violent conduct once) but by 2005-06, under Tony Mowbray and part of a generation that some optimists felt might go on to provide Scotland's backbone for a generation - Steven Whittaker Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan - O'Connor did enough to be the first to earn The Big Move. It wasn't just any move; if the £1.6 million fee raised one or two eyebrows, the destination caused rather more jaws to drop; Lokomotiv Moscow. The wrong move? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but while it is a lazy stereotype to say that British players tend to struggle playing in foreign leagues, it does also seem to be true more often than not. O'Connor started well, scoring on his debut, but he struggled to settle and was in and out of the team. The move didn't seem to do much harm to his career - Birmingham City paid £2.2 million for him just over a year later - and it certainly didn't harm his bank account either, what with a £16,000 weekly wage in Russia, plus, I presume, hefty signing-on fees. But that Birmingham move was all the way back in the summer of 2007. What happened in the four and a bit years since then? Well, you'd have to have hidden under a rock to have missed the revelations on TV this week regarding how O'Connor served a ban in secret after testing positive for cocaine. Sadly, he doesn't appear to have learned his lesson, having been arrested in May in Edinburgh on charges of cocaine possession; last week it emerged that allegations of trying to run away from the police and of having molested a female police officer are part of this case. At the time of the incident he was without a club, and might have considered himself lucky that Hibs offered him the chance to return to Easter Road. After today, when it was revealed he is now facing a charge of fraud related to an insurance claim over an accident involving his £100,000 Ferrari, he must be incredibly relieved that he already has an employer - an employer in such a crisis that they can't afford not to stand by him. And on the pitch? Er...not very much has happened. Nine goals in three and a half years at Birmingham. Only one cap since 2007. A brief resurgence in form since his return to Hibs, which in fact led to calls for an international recall earlier this month...which probably won't be repeated in a hurry. What a waste. O'Connor would never have been a Wayne Rooney, but he could have been good enough to be a good Premier League striker, and certainly good enough to win far more than sixteen caps. I don't know much about the legal system, but I wonder whether he may be at risk of a custodial sentence if he is found guilty on at least one of the above charges. What a waste. Of course, he might not see it that way; there is that well-known anecdote about the bellboy who delivered champagne to George Best's hotel room, and found him entertaining a scantily clad beauty queen with his bed covered in thousands of pounds of casino winnings, who asked 'Where did it all go wrong?'. Maybe, having probably earned enough to set his family up for life, even at the age of 28, Garry O'Connor thinks the same way. L.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Transparency, or just temporary?

On Friday, Rangers 'withdrew cooperation' from The Herald and its associated newspapers, The Sunday Herald and The Evening Times, after The Herald supposedly ran scaremongering stories over Rangers' short, claiming there were concerns over the club's solvency.

As I've said before, the PR agency the Ibrox side are employing seems about as suitable for the job as a lioness would be for babysitting infant wildebeest. Various journalists from other newspapers tweeted about this move almost instantly, though few papers and news media reported it. By Saturday afternoon, the BBC reported the leaking of legal documents concerning the upcoming unfair dismissal case of Martin Bain, the former Rangers Chief Executive deposed as part of Craig Whyte's takeover. On Sunday, the front page of the Sunday Mail (sister paper of the Daily Record, a paper accused by many Rangers fans of being biased against the club, yet derided as The Daily Ranger by supporters of other clubs) ran this story.

All the while, Rangers denounced a 'whispering campaign' against them, suggesting that elements in the media have an agenda against them, a charge they have already accused HMRC of over their pursuit of unpaid taxes. They presumably think the same of the Scottish legal profession, given the way those court papers ended up on the net. Yet there has been no talk of legal action against the journalists who have been reporting these stories, and one word that has been conspicuously absent from all these tales of £50 million tax bills and accusations of potential future insolvency - 'deny'.

Those who read this blog (all three of you) will please note that I posted on the subject several months ago, even when the mainstream media (save the BBC's Scottish Economic Editor) seemed to be steering clear of it. The reason is pretty clear - it is easy for those in Govan to issue veiled threats to the press which go along the lines of "report negative stories about us and we'll stop talking to you". It's a powerful threat - for, let's face it, articles about the Old Firm make up, oh, roughly 99% (give or take 1%) of news stories about Scottish football. I doubt I would continue reading The Times if the back page stories were about Aberdeen's defensive frailties or Dundee United's injury strewn forward line (though, if I had any morals, I wouldn't be reading a Murdoch paper anyway...but Graeme Spiers remains the best and most interesting of Scottish hacks).

So now all the gory details of Rangers' financial problems are in the public eye, though, if you knew where to look, you could have found them on the net six months ago. There are enough pro-Celtic journalists out there who seized on the story long before the end of last season. And while even the best of these, such as Phil Mac Ghiolla Bain, put a hugely biased slant on the tale, time has proven their reporting to be accurate.

Not that Celtic are innocent of putting pressure on reporters; Scotland international-turned-pundit Pat Nevin revealed to a Scottish Parliament committee this week how, during the broadcast of this year's Scottish Cup Final, he dared to comment on the very audible singing of pro-IRA chants. The response? Furious complaints by Celtic to the BBC. You would have to search far and wide to find any match report on the Cup Final that mentioned sectarian songs...just as, for example, nobody commented how, at Inverness earlier this season, the entire Rangers end broke into a loud rendition of "You can stick the Virgin Mary up your arse".

The most striking example of this appears to be the infamous assault of Neil Lennon at Tynecastle (though, according to the courts, it wasn't an assault, of course)...a horrific event, obviously, but it apparently escaped the notice of the papers that, following that incident, Celtic fans attacked stewards and pelted the ballboys and girls with missiles; one ballboy was hospitalized.

Hopefully the fact that this tax issue has finally broken into the public domain will encourage Scottish journalists to dare to report on other failings of Rangers and Celtic...and goodness knows there are plenty to choose from.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Levein - the beginning of the end

The train back from Mount Florida to Glasgow Central station is not usually the place where you expect to hear wit and wisdom. But after Scotland's 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic game, the crowded carriage, for all the alcohol previously consumed, was a fairly subdued place.

At least until someone committed the cardinal sin of breaking wind. "Has somebody farted?" piped up one fan. "Naw", said another, "it's the stench of failure".

Only when we were pulling into Glasgow Central did some random supporter dare to give a view on the game; "Levein will have learned a lesson today." The responses from his mates were fairly predictable - the first was "Aye...that he's s***" and the second was "How many lessons does he need to learn?"

Our nation is infamous for holding grudges and keeping chips on our shoulders, and so the name Kevin Blom will be remembered for a long while north of the border, for he was the incompetent and pathetic referee who decided that Danny Wilson's ball-winning tackle and the subsequent dive by Jan Rezek (the word 'simulation' doesn't seem appropriate here, as Rezek's collapse to the deck looked so fake that it invites ridicule and laughter as much as fury) was worthy of the Czech's equalizing penalty. Three minutes later, he was given the opportunity to right his wrong when Christophe Berra was felled in the box (there wasn't much contact, but those sort of fouls are given more often than not) - instead he chose to compound his errors by booking Berra for diving. Oh, the irony.

Mr. Blom will not be taking his summer holidays in Scotland any time soon, one suspects.

But he provides a useful scapegoat for Craig Levein, who took the opportunity after the match to cry for Blom's demotion (castration and crucifixion would be more popular punishments in the eyes of the Tartan Army) and so dodge some awkward questions about Scotland's performance, not least the facts that Scotland had created nothing in the final third prior to Kenny Miller's opening goal (courtesy of a keeper error) on half-time, the failure of a five man midfield to press the ball or provide anything more than a modicum of support to lone striker Kenny Miller for long periods - at times Miller could have done with semaphore flags to communicate with his teammates, such was his isolation - and the way that the Czechs were allowed to dominate possession as if Hampden Park was their ground, with Tomas Rosicky given acres of space to dictate play in the middle of the pitch.

It was not a vintage Scotland performance, not by a long shot; they were grateful for Milan Baros' horrendous miss from 6 yards in the opening minutes, and for another, less mentioned, oversight by Blom, who failed to give Baros a first half penalty after a reckless challenge from Charlie Adam. But Levein's gameplan for a must-win home match against a Czech Republic side who are barely a shadow of the great team of the early part of the last decade consisted of "ten men behind the ball, and lets see if we can fluke one at the other end". In fact, they nicked two, what with the two outstanding Scots, Kenny Miller and Darren Fletcher, finding the heart and guts to drag Scotland back in front late on before Blom's denouement. Scotland maybe created one more clearcut chance in the entire contest - two goals from three chances is one heck of a return. But they still couldn't win.

Five games into this qualifying campaign, we have just five points. Our only win was the debacle against Liechtenstein, where a 97th minute winner was required. Our only decent performance was in the match we were always going to lose, against World Champions Spain. The other games were a 0-0 draw in Lithuania, where both teams set out with no interest in anything but defending, and, of course, that game in Prague where the boss bet everything on that 4-6-0 strategy which few have forgiven him for.

It's just not good enough. I don't care that friendlies have produced victories over Wales, Northern Ireland and Denmark, for these are not the results that could have dragged us out of the fourth pot for the World Cup qualifying draw. Levein's competitive record shows two fairly typical traits for our national side, the ability to raise our game against illustrious opponents, and our difficulty breaking down minnows. However, Levein has shown an insistence on defensive, safety-first, risk-averse tactics and formations against everybody except Liechtenstein...even though most would say our side is better on paper than both the Czechs and Lithuania.

Scotland's group for the World Cup is a humdinger - Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales. It's a group which you could imagine Scotland getting through from, with a little luck. It's also a group where you could just as easily imagine us finishing bottom. And Levein has had far less bad luck than his predecessor, George Burley; he was burdened with the Iwelumo Miss against Norway, as well as an unfortunate sending off that cost us in the return game, plus some horrendous refereeing away to Holland and a plethora of missed chances against the Dutch at Hampden. Mr. Blom's blunders at Hampden are the first time that fate has conspired against Levein's Scotland team; every other setback has been, frankly, their own damn fault.

Levein has plenty of supporters still behind them? Who else could we get who is better, they say? Many don't like Gordon Strachan, nor would they wind back the clock for Walter Smith. I would jump at having either of them in the Scotland dugout. I would dismiss the memory of Berti Vogts and be open to the appointment of a foreign coach. Frankly, I would even give the bloke who farted on the train a shot at it - I can't see it being much worse, though I suppose we couldn't call him 'a breath of fresh air'.

Still, at least that trip back from the ground made me feel better. As if the comments weren't enough to amuse me, I found myself sitting next to a middle-aged man from Latin America, who, it appeared from my eavesdropping, was Costa Rican. Thank goodness he didn't say it loudly; the last thing a bunch of depressed Scotland supporters needed was to know there was a man from Costa Rica in their midst as a reminder of another great embarrassment.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why did Scottish clubs suck in Europe?

Thankfully, ESPN employ minions to go looking for interesting but tricky statistics, such as the one that this is the first time in 53 years of European club competition that all Scottish clubs have been out by the end of August.

By the time they read that out after the Rangers game, I'd already used wikipedia to look back over the last 15 seasons. Had it not been for ESPN's uber-geek, I probably wouldn't have got to bed till about 4am.

It is worth pointing out that, until recent seasons and the expansion of European competitions so that clubs finishing 15th in the Andorran second division qualify for the Europa League (all right, I am exaggerating a smidgen), that, by the time you had played two European ties, it would be mid-October. Still, it is utterly depressing that no Scottish side is left. For one, it harms the image of the league; for another, the schadenfreude I experienced at watching the Old Firm suffer is balanced out that the dread of them having a lot more free midweeks this season and less stress on their squad depth, presumably making them stronger on SPL weekends.

And finally, it damages our co-efficient to the point where getting a Scottish side into the Champions League or Europa League becomes all the more difficult. So how have we fallen so far, so fast, considering that Rangers made it to a UEFA Cup final only three years ago, and Celtic achieved the same in 2003?

Let's look at the individual teams...

Everyone, with some justification, is focusing their ire on the failure to see off Slovenians Maribor. Do they, as current leaders of their domestic league, perhaps deserve more respect than the Scottish press, and indeed the Scottish champions, gave them? Considering only two of their players are current squad members for the Slovenian national team, probably not. Rangers might not have the financial clout of a decade ago, but Maribor certainly didn't find £3million to spend on players this summer.

The main reason Rangers exited the Europa League was profligacy at Ibrox in the second leg, where they missed chance after chance, especially at 0-0, and seemed to hit the panic button too early. Their opponents clearly earmarked Nikica Jelavic as the main threat, and gambled on leaving more space for his strike partner...a shrewd move as, when the heat is on, you can always rely on Kyle Lafferty to mess things up; the Northern Irishman could not have hit a cow's backside with a banjo.

But this latest setback actually seems to have distracted everyone from the bigger crime...the exit from the Champions League qualifiers to Swedes Malmo, where McCoist inexplicably sent out his side for the first leg (at home?!) with the same 5-4-1 formation Walter Smith saved last year for Manchester United and Valencia. Even then, having lost the first leg, they still should have won the tie, only to have two players sent off in Sweden (both for avoidable and stupid straight red offences) and the concession of a late goal.

Why are Rangers out? Poor tactics, poor finishing, poor discipline. All three should concern Ally McCoist, as Rangers have not exactly set the heather alight domestically either.

In terms of recent European catastrophes, defeat to Sion of Switzerland does not really rank up with the hideous losses to Artmedia Bratislava and Utrecht. It's also a trickier one for me to comment on as I didn't see a single second of the two legs, and because they were really up against it after conceding a penalty and red card in the first minute of the return leg.

But, again, there is a huge difference in resources between the two clubs. Yet, for all their quality, Celtic couldn't break their dogged, defensive-minded opponents down in the first leg at Celtic Park, a turgid 0-0 draw (I might not have seen the match, but I've never seen a goalless draw that couldn't be described as turgid, or maybe lacklustre). Neil Lennon's side faced exactly the same problem when they lost to St Johnstone last week, and - until a blunder from Ricky Foster that was worthy of punishment by castration - at Pittodrie earlier in the month.

It is, in fact, Celtic's big achilles heel under the stewardship of Neil Lennon; when the going gets tough, there isn't a plan B, an alternative tactic. Not only that, but when the players turn to the bench to look for guidance and help from a thoughtful, shrewd manager, they instead see a wee naff jumping up and down waving his arms and turning the air around him blue, in a manner more worthy of a street corner outside Celtic Park than the dugout inside it. Walter Smith might have been capable of finding a way to get a result away from home in Europe when both a goal and a man down - Neil Lennon (and indeed Smith's successor at Ibrox) was never going to be able to manage that.

Hearts got the most glamorous tie they could have hoped for, and with the first leg at home, in front of a crowd that have turned the place into a cauldron. When setting up your team, as massive underdogs, would you go for option A, a screen of defensive midfielders and a gameplan designed to frustrate, or option Romanov, two wingers and an attempt to go toe-to-toe with a bunch of international class players?

It's hard to believe that Hearts' new coach, the Portuguese Paulo Sergio, went for such a kamikaze plan without having his arm twisted by the club's Lithuanian owner. Say what you like about a fairly creditable 0-0 in the second leg against a bunch of Tottenham's youth players; this tie was over as a contest within the opening 30 minutes at Tynecastle, at which point Spurs were already three up. It was so bad that Clive Tyldesley actually sounded pitying, the patronising git. When we are down, you either help us up or kick us in the groin, you don't stand over us sounding sympathetic.

That said, Hearts at least managed something that neither of the Old Firm did - they won a match, having disposed of Hungarian also-rans Paksi in a previous round.

Of course, the Arabs didn't even last beyond the end of July, dumped out by Slask Wroclav of Poland; this was blamed, as all these early defeats are, on the fact the league season hadn't started and their players weren't match fit. It wasn't a problem for their opponents, whose domestic campaign started a week later than United's. Continental sides seem to be able to cope with early European ties and this 'match-fitness' issue, so why the heck can't we?

I'm not really interested in United's exit though; this week is all about the humiliating defeats for Rangers and Celtic, and the humiliating thumping Hearts got the week before. There may not be as much money or quality available as in the days of Dick Advocaat and Martin O'Neill, but these were still matches that should have been won with something to spare. If the national team don't get the job done against the Czechs this week, Scottish football might well have reached its nadir.