Saturday, January 29, 2011

Could Hibernian be relegated?

It was no surprise, after Hearts upset Rangers at Tynecastle last week, to hear this question being asked loudly - "could Hearts challenge for the title?"

Having watched that game, I felt confident the answer was an emphatic No. Rangers had been utterly dominant, spurning a plethora of chances and running into an inspired goalkeeper in the shape of Marian Kello. Admittedly Hearts were hugely weakened by Kevin Kyle's absence, but they were so bereft of quality in the final third that Ryan Stevenson's late winner was in fact their first shot on target.

In short, it was not a statement of intent from Jim Jefferies side. And so it proved at Celtic Park in midweek, where they crashed 4-0. Sadly, this season's title race will be between the same two horses, one jockey in royal blue and the other in green and white hoops. Still, Hearts look an odds-on bet for third place.

But another burning question is being asked about Edinburgh football. This query is "Are Hibernian too good to be relegated?". The answer is far from certain. It was no secret that Hibs had stagnated under John Hughes; the second half of last season and the opening two months of this campaign were abysmal, and he had to go. And on the face of it, Colin Calderwood looked like a decent appointment - plenty of experience and some success with Northampton and Nottingham Forest.

Three months and fifteen games later, Hibernian are eleventh in the table, three points above bottom side Hamilton (who have two games in hand). In the league, they have won just twice in that period, although that included a fantastic 3-0 win at Ibrox. The nadir was a desperate, dismal humiliation at Somerset Park, going out of the cup in a replay to Ayr United. That was no smash-and-grab cup upset; Ayr were excellent value for their win and could have won the original tie at Easter Road.

Yet, on paper, the Hibs squad looks, well, so good. Guys like Ian Murray and Liam Miller, who, half a decade ago, were starters for Rangers and Celtic respectively. The talismanic Derek Riordan, former Aberdeen right back Michael Hart, ex-Killie striker Colin Nish, and Graeme Smith, who was excellent in goal for Motherwell a few years back.

But all these guys appear to be a few seasons past their best, and unable to roll back the years. Their talents have ebbed, but, as the story goes, their egos have not. There is no team spirit, no morale, no will-to-win. Attack-wise, Riordan still shows flashes of his immense ability, but these are completely overshadowed by the hunched shoulders, the sulks, the silly fouls. Calderwood has been unable to find a suitable number nine to partner him - Nish's confidence is shot by constant jeers from the fans, whilst loanee Darryl Duffy has failde to hit his stride after a broken foot. No-one has come close to replacing the goals of Anthony Stokes, sold to Celtic in August.

As for the defence...well, what defence? If Calderwood didn't have a hard enough task already, the loss of his two centre-backs earlier this month, Sol Bamba (sold to Leicester) and Jonathan Grounds (whose loan from Middlesbrough ended) left him even more trouble. He has three senior goalkeepers in Smith, Mark Brown and Graham Stack, all of whom appear dogged by the Hibernian Goalkeeping Curse which struck previous incumbents such as Ollie Gottskallsson, Simon Brown, Zibi Malkowski, Andy McNeil and Yves Ma-Kalambay. Hart at right-back has been a disaster, and Calderwood is left with Ghanaian Francis Dickoh - voted the worst player in Dutch football last season - at the heart of the defence. Bizarrely, Chris Hogg, previously a captain of the side, has been ostracized.

Calderwood has not so much dipped his toe into the transfer market as dived in head-first; three new players so far. But he has no new centre-back, and no new centre-forward. There's no "marquee signing" here to inspire the support. Maybe former Liverpool youngster Victor Palsson will turn out to be a gem. As it is, fifteen of his players are out of contract, and therefore need not fear first division football next year. Almost all of them are the senior ones.

So in conclusion, are Hibs too good to be relegated? As the weeks, and the defeats, mount up, the answer is, increasingly, "probably not". If Hamilton find a semblance of form, the Hibees could be bye-bye.


Monday, January 24, 2011

More female officials please, and not just to annoy Andy Gray

It's not been a good few months for Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray. It will be a while before people will forget his comment about Lionel Messi on Monday Night Football after almost three years of extraordinary performances - "but could he do it on a Wednesday in January at Stoke?" Whether it be a result of jingoism, xenophobia, or just plain ignorance, it was the sort of stupid comment that we increasingly hear from football pundits these days, as intelligent, thoughtful folk are chucked off the sofas to make way for ineloquent, poorly-prepared, and, well, thoughtless morons such as Alan "he ought to have done better there" Shearer and Jamie "the defence literally fell asleep" Redknapp. Oh, the relief when I turn on to Match Of The Day and see Alan Hansen and Lee Dixon on the screen. I have nightmares that, a few years down the line, Hansen will be replaced by Ian Wright, or that Andy "tactics truck" Townsend will be poached from ITV.

To complete the horror, such a Match Of The Day From Hell would probably be presented by James "being hideously overweight with a wobbly chin somehow makes me funny" Corden.

But whilst moronic comments about the football itself are now par for the course and something I just feel obliged to put up with now - like my receding hairline, it annoys me and worries me but there's not a lot I can do about it - sexist rubbish isn't. So whilst on the one hand it seems unfair that Andy Gray and his co-presenter, Richard Keys, were caught off-air making ridiculous comments about the female assistant referee (or lineswoman?) at the Wolves-Liverpool game - surely it's a bit harsh to catch them for what was supposed to be a private conversation - the things they were saying were an absolute joke.

It's made all the sweeter by the fact that Liverpool's opening goal involved a borderline offside decision...which Sian Massey got absolutely spot on. At Inverness-Hamilton that afternoon I witnessed, for the umpteenth time this season, a male assistant who looked chubby, unfit and struggled to keep up with play; Massey had no problem sprinting down the line as Liverpool broke with speed. (Insert innuendo about her being "fit" if you wish)

So it's nice to see that Mr Gray and Mr Keys look like complete twits.

The one other thing that I noticed from Molineux on Saturday though was that the Wolves defenders and goalkeeper turned round with arms raised, made as if to sprint after the assistant to protest...and then suddenly realized it was a lady and stopped. Or at least did it from a distance instead of crowding and attempting to intimidate her. Such decorum made a pleasant change. It makes me wonder whether more female officials are what we need in order to try and expunge dissent from the game.

That said, it'll probably just lead to lots of wolf whistles and dodgy shouts from the crowd. That'll become tiresome quickly, unless it is of the quality at a Montrose-Elgin game I was at a few years ago and which almost got abandoned because of a pea-souper of a fog. Morag Pirie, a Scottish official, was running the line that day when one wag shouted "Can I walk you back to your car after the game, Morag?"

I can't remember her reacting. Which is probably for the best.


PS - The obligatory jokes about the incident are coming thick and fast; examples include...
1) Andy Gray re-iterates his scepticism about the abilities of lineswoman Sian Massey - "let's see how well she does on a Wednesday night in January at Stoke"
2) Sky pundits have been quick to defend Andy Gray's comments - "It certainly looks bad, but he's definitely not that sort of pundit"

Anyone got any others?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ian Holloway - better than Jesus?

It's already well documented that the bods at West Ham United are getting increasingly ancy about the possibility of Championship football next season; every second day's football news carries a snippet about manager Avram Grant (he who has an unusual similarity to Baron Greenback from Dangermouse fame) being on the brink of the sack, even though the Hammers are only one point from safety.

But it's a remarkably close battle at the bottom of the Premier League this season; at the time of writing the bottom nine teams are separated by only five points. It's not quite panic stations yet, but several other managers will be feeling a little uncomfortable in their dugouts just now; Mark Hughes has hardly managed to emulate Roy Hodgson's achievements at Fulham, while Alex McLeish's Birmingham have regressed, possibly because he blew the transfer budget on Nikola Zigic, the 6ft 8in circus freak of a Serbian forward. Zigic is not only rather mediocre in the air, but he is not even worthy of the cliche "good touch for a big man" which forever damns the likes of Peter Crouch with faint praise.

On the other side of Brummy, Gerard Houllier's honeymoon period evaporated quicker than an ice cube between Pavarotti's buttocks, with Aston Villa currently languishing in eighteenth place after only three wins from the Frenchman's seventeen league matches in charge. Houllier's former club Liverpool already pulled the plug on the aforementioned Hodgson's life support, but are right in the thick of trouble and have gambled on Kenny Dalglish reliving his glory years as Anfield manager in the eighties (rather than his nightmare seasons at Newcastle and Celtic more recently). Even David Moyes, after all the wonderful work he has done for Everton, is facing a bit of heat. Chucking Moyes now would be like criticizing Churchill's second stint as Prime Minister - after all the good work he did, against all the odds, he deserves a bit of slack, surely.

West Brom, Wolves and Wigan, at least, seem to have expected a relegation battle and, at the moment, seem to offer security for their respected coaches. But it wasn't meant to be like this. The chances of relegation this season were meant to be 33% lower than normal. There was supposed to be a bit more grace, a bit less pressure.

Because Blackpool weren't supposed to be, well, doing bloody brilliantly.

If you are bored, look up 'Ian Holloway quotations' on google, for such gems as "I love Blackpool. We're very similar - we both look better in the dark" and his analogy for winning ugly, "To put it in gentleman's terms, if you've been out for a night and you're looking for a young lady and you pull one, some weeks they're good looking and some weeks they're not the best. Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi. She wasn't the best looking lady we ended up taking home but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee".

The man has a wit that ITV sitcoms simply dream of. He is, also, a miracle worker. For a start, he's made Charlie Adam a star. Charlie Adam, who I once saw sulking on the left touchline at Inverness on a cold Tuesday night in December, being utterly owned by Caley's lumbering full back. Yet he will almost certainly find himself at a much bigger club in the next six months. I know Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and changed water into wine, but I seriously doubt he had the capacity to make Charlie Adam into a Premier League midfield player. That Holloway has done the same with so many other journeymen is simply extraordinary.

And not only that, but Holloway's Blackpool play with a style and panache which makes them the most watchable side in Britain currently. And I include Arsenal in that, for Arsene Wenger shows a degree of restraint in big matches. Holloway doesn't know the meaning of "restraint", in his interviews or his tactics. He is the anti-Rafa Benitez; as the joke goes, "why do Liverpool play two defensive midfielders? Because they don't have a third in the squad". Now it could be paraphrased into "Why don't Blackpool play four strikers? Because they only have three to pick from".

They got their backsides handed to them in heavy away defeats by Arsenal and Chelsea early in the season, yet they bounced up and have won eight games. It was said of the ultra-defensive Greece of Euro 2004 that coaches had forgotten how to play against such old-fashioned defensive tactics. I wonder whether, circa 2010-11, they have forgotten how to play against the old-fashioned "lets score more goals than you" that Blackpool adopt.

There's definitely a part of me that worries that the Seasiders might yet crack, Hull-style, and slide back down towards oblivion. This season 40 points will probably be required to stay up. But they are already only 12 short of that, with 18 games left. The bookies have Blackpool odds-on to stay up; if they do, only the supporters of the relegated teams will begrudge them.

And most importantly, if they stay up then it means post-match interviews with Holloway on Match Of The Day next season, which are better than most of the highlights.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reading between the lines with Neil Doncaster

Looking up the wikipedia page of SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster, it's not surprising that his original career was as a solicitor.

No wonder his silver tongue appeared, just for a second, to have got the Scottish sports media eating out of his hand with a load of claptrap earlier this week. Let's have a look at some of his soundbites, and, well, rip them to shreds...

"We've certainly had the indication that the plan on the table is more attractive to TV than the status-quo"

From whom? Sky? The BBC? Why on earth would the SPL trust TV companies so soon after the Setanta fiasco? And how much more attractive - how much more money would there be (and why won't you tell us?)

"if we stay as we are then we will be managing continuing decline"

Actually, the fans would tell you the reason for not staying as we are is that they can't be bothered with the boredom and lack of variety of playing each other so often.

"No one else has put any alternatives up. I think those who want 16 teams in the top flight are deluding themselves"

Actually, Henry McLeish himself put up the alternative of a 14-team SPL. You might be right about sixteen being too many. But you've made an effort to point out the pros of 10, and the cons of 12, 16, 18 and 20. There is another even number in there which you are blatantly ignoring.

"This is not just looking after our own. It's about the best interests of all 42 clubs"

How is this in the interests of, say, Albion Rovers and Montrose? What do they have to gain from this? (Since this is another question you won't answer, is it reasonable to infer that they have nothing to gain?). As you have said, you are splitting the cake into bigger slices - for the top ten teams. And who gets the two biggest slices? Who do you think? I'll give you a clue - it ain't Caley Thistle and Kilmarnock.

"It's about ensuring teams don't face the financial oblivion that the likes of Falkirk and Inverness have done in recent years"

Since when were Inverness in financial oblivion? Being in the top division didn't stop Dundee, Livingston and Motherwell from going to administration, nor did it stop Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Kilmarnock, among others, from building up ridiculous levels of debt. And how does the money reach Albion Rovers, Montrose etc?

"We have to acknowledge that the popular vote is for a larger league but you can't just ask the question in isolation"

How many other businesses are run on the premise that you do eactly the opposite of what your customers want?

"If you put it to them that your club will lose at least £1m then it doesn't look very attractive"

These are his "calculations" based on apparent loss of TV money and big games. These are also calculations that nobody has seen, and may not even exist - which reminds this writer of the dossier on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.

"It's imperative that we bring more money in, we get the best players that we can afford and that fans see more exciting football."

I almost wonder if Doncaster forgot his facade for a moment here...he has basically admitted it is all about the money in the coffers. The last phrase shows a real lack of knowledge about football - anyone who watches it can tell you that the best players do not necessarily mean the most exciting football. As for "the best players we can afford", Scottish football did this in the 1990s, and it turned quickly into "the best players we can't afford now but will once we've lured more fans and won trophies", then morphed into "the best players we can't really afford but we'll kid ourselves that we can" and eventually rotted into "the best players which we have to make redundant, along with lots of normal people associated with the clubs".

Thankfully, it appears Dundee United, Inverness, Kilmarnock and Hearts, plus the SFL (who haven't even been consulted on the plan to remove a quarter of its teams and potentially even expunge it) are going to put a foot down to stop Doncaster. But watch the SPL's Chief Executive in his next TV interview...I swear that, if the lights catch him at the right angle, you can see very thin strings hanging from his arms and legs. Strings which a cynic might say are being operated by his Old Firm puppeteers.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Blackburn and Newcastle - the neutral's choices for oblivion

Football is silly.

Come on, who else is big enough to admit it?

It is a game where grown men run around a field, often whilst wearing garish shirts (for, if you were to look up "garish" in an illustrated dictionary, you would find a picture of Fulham's current away strip, which is the colour of a Fulham home shirt after it has been put in the wash with the underwear of a man with e.coli food poisoning), aiming to put a ball in one net whilst stopping other men from doing the same thing. It is a game which some of these men are paid the GDP of a small country to play. It is a game watched by thousands, many of whom are quite pleasant, humble, unassuming people the other 99% of the time, but whilst attending the football match become horrible, threatening, vile, dislikeable morons.

Sometimes, it is difficult to see how it could become more silly.

Then I read about Blackburn Rovers bidding for Ronaldinho, and it turns out it could.

PT Barnum famously said that there's one born every minute. That referred to customers. Increasingly it refers to those providing the custom. You've got to love the quote given to the BBC by Anurhadra Desai, who is the public face of Venky's, the Indian owners of Rovers - "The impression is I've never watched a football match. I've not watched in a stadium but I have been watching the World Cup in India."

Okay, we all stand corrected; she is obviously fully qualified to run a football club and decide transfer policy. By applying the same logic she might also suggest that ownership of a box set of Grey's Anatomy is all you need to become a doctor. I actually thought that, after years of idiotic men running football clubs, a woman might bring a degree of common sense to the whole thing - turns out they are just as dumb as the rest of us. Having sacked Sam Allardyce, they appointed his coach, Steve Kean, to replace him, apparently on the simple grounds that he told them he will play attractive football. Kean has never managed a club before. But apparently he said the right things, so he got the job.

Why is it that successful entrepreneurs, with their remarkably successful companies and the years and years of sound business sense which has led to their millions, suddenly completely lose the plot when they take over football clubs? Still, Blackburn are yet to emulate Mike Ashley's lunacy at Newcastle - there is grounds for sectioning a man who appoints Alan Pardew as manager of his football club.

And so neutrals everywhere are quite up for the Toon disappearing back into the Championship, having treated Chris Hughton quite abysmally, and for Blackburn, once a club run by the very dignified Jack Walker, to follow them. In such a close season, where there are probably thirteen clubs who could be relegated and 40 points might be required to stay up, where Blackpool are yet to do "a Hull" and collapse, where battle-hardened teams like Stoke, Aston Villa, Everton and Fulham are likely to grind their way up the table, there is every possibility that Blackburn and Newcastle could take up two of the three relegation spots.

And that's even if Ronaldinho ends up in a Rovers shirt. But doesn't that idea just sound silly?