Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fir Park Potato Patch

At what point does Motherwell's pitch become unfit for purpose?

I've not been the biggest admirer of High Definition TV so far, but I saw the second half of Well's clash with Celtic yesterday whilst having lunch at my parents' place, and their lush screen showed the Fir Park surface in detail that my cheap Panasonic box just can't match.

Watching the first 45 minutes on my own telly, I thought the surface looked abysmal enough. On HD it became apparent that the players would have been better off playing in a ploughed field. The only "grass" in the stadium on Sunday afternoon would have been in small stashes in young mens' pockets, for a celebratory joint after the game. Motherwell suffered from the conditions last midweek when St. Mirren's winning goal took a freak bounce off a divot and flew over their prostrate keeper; this weekend they benefitted as Celtic failed to get out of second gear.

But it has been a problem for three years now - in the summer of 2009 they spent £350,000 on trying to fix it, yet within six months it was wrecked again. Out came the excuses - the poor weather, the constant need for undersoil heating - and when they were fined in August 2010, it was only £5,000, with another £40,000 suspended. One suspects the remainder of the fine might be called in pretty soon. They relaid the whole the end of last season (another 100 grand down the drain) and lo and behold, by winter it again has more craters than the face of a pimpled teenager.

I have no idea what the solution is, but you simply can't keep playing on a pitch that only lasts half a season...and Motherwell surely can't afford to fork out a six figure sum for repair every summer.

That said, maybe I will have to come down from the moral high ground soon enough - there was an under 20s rugby international at Inverness on Friday night, which will not have been kind to our grass either.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Celtic have got the hang of being a Selling Club

David Weir has given extraordinary value for money for Rangers. A free transfer signing in January 2007, at the age of 36, the centre-back was nothing more than a stopgap to help Walter Smith stabilize and solidify the team after the fiasco that was Paul Le Guen's reign at Ibrox.

Four years on, Mr Stopgap has played two hundred games for the club. Far from declining with age, he was Scotland's Player Of The Year last season, despite turning 40 the same month that the campaign ended. He has been a wonderful signing for the club; an object of consistency and professionalism.

This makes it all the more sad that last weekend's Old Firm game showed his time is at an end.

Gary Hooper was the harbinger of doom; poor Weir appeared to be moving in slow-motion at times in comparison to the Celtic striker, such was the difference in acceleration. The first time Hooper got the veteran one-on-one he left Weir languishing on his backside, having been nutmegged. That was the warning which Rangers didn't, or couldn't heed; shortly afterwards the Englishman danced gracefully around his opponent once more, and this time he scored. For the second goal, Weir simply didn't have the pace to get back after Celtic had got in behind - no defender was within 5 yards as Hooper slid home for his second goal. It was largely the story of the game, with Celtic quicker in thought and in action and Rangers looking slow and weary.

The miracle is how long Weir has lasted; his durability has allowed his manager to ignore nagging worries about the need to bring in fresh blood in central defence. Smith has even been able to let the likes of Danny Wilson (who seems to feel he will develop better in Liverpool's reserves than in Rangers' first team) and Andy Webster (who Smith just didn't seem to like) leave. But now the task of replacing Weir rears its ugly head at last...though it will be a problem for Smith's successor.

But a new defender will cost money which Rangers don't have. In recent years the Ibrox side seem to have largely gone for big splashes in the transfer market rather than cheaper deals - Nikica Jelavic for £4m, Kyle Lafferty for £3m, Steven Davis for £3m, Madjid Bougherra for £2.5m, Maurice Edu for £2.5m...these are the sort of signings that have been made. Bougherra and Davis in particular could probably succeed in the Premier League, but would they fetch bigger fees than Rangers paid for them initially? I'm not convinced. In fact, the only player in the whole squad who appears likely to make the club considerable profit is goalkeeper Allan McGregor.

The marker of a successful "selling club" - for that is what SPL sides are now,
ultimately, is to buy cheap and sell expensive, so you can then buy better and
slightly more expensive players next time and sell them for even bigger prices and so on. Rangers haven't got the hang of it yet. In contrast, for all the dislikeable things about Neil Lennon, his transfer moves so far have been glorious. One consoling thought for Bluenoses after Sunday was that the best players on the pitch - Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre and Beram Kayal - are far too good for this diddy league; they will surely be seduced by bigger clubs in the near future. But the combined fee for that trio in the summer is in fact slightly less than the price Rangers paid for Jelavic; whilst the suggestion by Craig Brown that Izaguirre is "like Roberto Carlos" and the £10million tag that Celtic have supposedly put on him are pure hyperbole, the Honduran full back is good enough to earn his club, say, £4million? I'd say the same for Hooper and Kayal as well. Assuming Celtic's £9million debt is wiped out by Champions League qualification next season (if they win the league, far from a foregone conclusion), that money can be reinvested in the playing squad.

It's some turnaround from Tony Mowbray and his dud signings. Add in shrewd free
transfers such as Daniel Majstorovic, Cha Du Ri and Charlie Mulgrew and Lennon
appears to have achieved what every manager dreams of...a dramatic short term
improvement in the team, coupled with a sound long-term plan. I don't know who
deserves more plaudits - Lennon or his scouts - but Celtic are on a much firmer
footing than their rivals right now.

If Rangers don't get the hang of being "a selling club" fast, the balance of power in Scottish football will be very firmly in the East End of Glasgow.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An ode to Ronaldo (no, not the Portuguese one)

Here's a debate for you...who is the greatest footballer since Maradona?

It's an interesting argument, one that means a lot to me as it is essentially the same question as "who is the greatest footballer of my lifetime?" - I am only old enough to remember football after the 1990 World Cup.

Some might say that there is a plethora of candidates amongst current players, whether it be the apparent reincarnation of Maradona, Lionel Messi, or his teammate Xavi, the master of tiki-taka, or their Clasico nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, a man whose ability to do anything with a football is equalled only by his ego and his penchant for petulance.

Go back a little and you have Kaka', the Brazilian schemer who dominated Serie A for years with Milan, but whose reputation has been blunted by persistent injury problems since his 2009 move to Madrid and a mediocre 2010 World Cup. And what about Ronaldinho, the buck-toothed magician with a seemingly infinite box of tricks, who fall from grace after the 2006 tournament was even more rapid than his rise?

Retreat to the millennium and you have one Zinedine Zidane, the Algerian-born French international with the distinctive bald head which delivered two goals in the 1998 final in Paris, who won pretty much everything there was to win at club level in Italy and Spain, and at international level, and whose wondrous control, skill and eye for the killer pass made him one of the few players glorious enough to be remembered for something other than headbutting an opponent in a World Cup Final.

The list of World Player of The Year winners in the nineties includes many more
icons: yet more Brazilians such as centre-forward Romario and the beguiling Rivaldo; George Weah, the almost complete centre-forward who led Milan's attack for years and who was denied international glory only by the misfortune of having to represent Liberia; "the divine ponytail" Roberto Baggio, about whom everything was divine except the ponytail itself; Marco Van Basten, the Dutchman who was the most lethal of strikers.

And let's not leave out the other greats who played deeper on the pitch, such as the lung-busting German Lothar Matthaus, or his doppelganger (in style at least) a few years further on, Matthias Sammer. The seemingly ageless Italian defenders Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini deserve more than just a mention in dispatches for their services. And many would say that the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel rivals mythical names such as Banks and Yashin for the title of greatest goalkeeper.

But anyone who has followed the beautiful game over the last twenty years will note the glaring omission from the list enough. Most of them will look back and think "how on earth did he not end up the greatest of them all?"

And yet, when you type "Ronaldo" into wikipedia, you now get Cristiano Ronaldo as default, then Ronaldo Assis de Moreira - Ronaldinho's real name.

Talk about a fall in stock.

But for the period between the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, Ronaldo was THE MAN. Just look at the stats - between 1994 and 1996 he scored 54 goals in 57 games for PSV Eindhoven, then 47 in 49 games during his one season at Barcelona, then 34 in 47 games in his first year at Internazionale. They were hardly tap-ins either; Ronaldo was six foot tall and stocky, but blessed with exhilarating pace and acceleration, accompanied with outstanding close control. Give him the ball anywhere in the 18 yard box, and it would end up in the net. No wonder he was World Player Of The Year in 1996 and 1997. As satellite television and the Champions League turned football into global entertainment, so Ronaldo was the first superstar.

He went into France '98 as the main attraction...but after four goals in the earlier rounds, he allegedly suffered some sort of fit the night before the final (though this does not ever seem to have been confirmed) and was left off the original team sheet, only to be restored before kickoff. It was no surprise that he had a shocker. Eighteen months later, he buggered his knee for the first time; between November 1999 and Christmas 2001 he played only one match. But he returned to fitness in time for Japan and Korea - though some unkind (and probably accurate) folk suggested the stockiness had turned to flab - and despite an ridiculous haircut, with a semicircle of forehead hair on an otherwise shaven skull, he took the star billing he had been denied four years earlier. Eight goals (including both in the final) and the tournament golden boot completed a redemption almost so corny it could have been scripted by Richard Curtis.

A mega-money move to the Galactico clan at Real Madrid followed, as admittedly did lots of goals over the next 3 seasons. But the bursts of acceleration were briefer, the waistline wider, the frown deeper. Germany 2006 showcased a man who, even at 29, was past his best. Over the last five years, up to his retirement this week, "The boy O" as referred to in Only An Excuse (as in "Ronald O") faded from view, with some nice pay days back in Italy and then in Brazil. The numbers look good - 350 club goals, 62 international ones, including the most ever in World Cups. Three World Player Of The Year awards (for he won in 2002 as well) do not lie.

While Ronaldo was brilliant, he was not the best ever, for me. He just didn't do it for long enough - three seasons of genius do not a Pele make. Not by a long shot. But for a gammy knee, he probably could have been. This buck-toothed Brazilian was what Alan Shearer (in an "expert" Match Of The Day analysis) would call A Player.

A bloody good one, too, deserving of a lot more fanfare that he's been getting.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Will this be the year Accies go down?

Very curious goings-on this weekend across the Kessock Bridge from me, as Ross County sacked manager Willie McStay (insert innuendo joke here - I'm going for "Willie could not guarantee staying up") after only nine games. That makes it sound even more drastic than it was, as McStay had taken charge in Dingwall a full three months ago and according to Staggies fans had fallen out with several key players, filled the side with Celtic reserves on loan, and most importantly had won a grand total of zero matches. County are currently eighth in the table and, with a wage bill above average for the division, could not risk relegation. Still, it felt like a knee-jerk decision, unless of course the board of directors have someone lined up quickly.

Given the rumours are that Chris Sutton is a candidate, I suspect they don't.

About 180 miles south, Billy Reid may be thanking his lucky stars that he has a chairman that has no penchant for over-reacting, and also that he has built up a
lot of credit during his five-and-a-half year tenure at New Douglas Park. For
Hamilton Accies are 5 points adrift at the bottom of the SPL (albeit with a game
in hand on 11th placed St. Mirren). They have only two wins all season, the last of which was on 30 October. Neither of them were at home. They have scored only 14 goals in 23 matches in the league. In January they made several signings, but almost all were young players from England's lower leagues. The big sales in recent seasons of James McCarthy, James MacArthur and Brian Easton are offset by the mediocre income from the SPL's lowest average attendance, so there was no money for strengthening. They have used 35 different players in the league this season, which tells you there is a lot of doubt over who the best XI are.

If there was a recipe for a dish named "relegation certainty", it would contain all the above ingredients.

Of course, about roughly this time last year, I posted about how Accies were embroiled in a relegation battle, about how they couldn't score, how Reid constantly changed the team and signed and discarded players seemingly on a whim, how their style of play was defensive, boring and, at times, quite devious, and how I was convinced their dysfunctional setup meant they were doomed. I looked like a bit of a prat when Hamilton went on a superb run in the final third of the campaign and finished seventh. Funnily enough, they escaped the drop with a similar surge of form the season before that. Might lightning strike a third time?

The trouble for Reid now is that his side are adrift of the rest, and that the teams above St Mirren - Hibs and Aberdeen - have started putting results together themselves. It will be very surprising if anyone else gets stuck in a dogfight. Their next three games are away, though considering their home form this may not be a bad thing. Hamilton have proved me wrong before, but the odds are more heavily stacked against them than ever.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some transfer window musings

So much for the recession

An economist would say it's all about supply and demand - the supply of world class footballers is low, but demand is high, and therefore they are very expensive indeed. But £50 million for Fernando Torres? It feels a bit risky, like buying a three year old sportscar - it looks gorgeous on the surface, and you know the level of performance will be high, but there have to be concerns about reliability and miles-on-the-clock. From the world cup onwards, Torres has looked a shadow of the player he was before; Roman Abramovich and Carlo Ancelotti will be hoping this is because of the general malaise at Anfield, rather than because the Spaniard's best years are behind him.

But if that's a bit of a gamble, then what can you say about the arrival at Liverpool of Andy Carroll? To put a bit of perspective on things, £35 million is roughly what Barcelona paid this summer for David Villa, an international striker who has been a goal machine in La Liga, European competition and the international stage for several years. It is also what Liverpool paid Newcastle for a centre forward who has only been a Premier League regular for half a season, who has been out for several weeks with an injury (allegedly caused by falling off a bar stool) and who has...erm..."character issues" - it is worth noting that recent charges that he assaulted his ex-girlfriend were dropped, but he has an assault conviction for smashing a glass in a man's face and broke teammate Steven Taylor's jaw in a training ground fight last season (breaking
his own hand in the process). Classy bloke. He might turn out to be the best England centre forward in a generation, but he might turn out to be the next Joey Barton. I can't help thinking that his new strike partner, Uruguayan Luis Suarez, is the much safer bet, even if he cost a cool £23 million.

El Hadji Diouf at Ibrox

If Andy Carroll is the best example of how much football clubs are willing to overlook character issues, then El Hadji Diouf surely runs a close second. The Senegalese player has just been hounded out of Blackburn after claims that he taunted QPR and Scotland striker Jamie Mackie whilst the player was being treated for a broken leg. He is already infamous in Scotland for his behaviour at Celtic Park whilst playing there for Liverpool in a UEFA Cup tie; having gone over the advertising boards trying to prevent a throw in and landed in the front row of the Celtic support, he got a few pats on the head from the local jakies...and promptly turned around and spat at them (he ended up with an assault conviction and a fine - though it might be said that his spittle was the closest thing to soap that would land on those Celtic fans for a long while).

Diouf also got banned whilst a Bolton player for gobbing in the face of Portsmouth's Arjan De Zeeuw, and was questioned by police for racially abusing an Everton ball boy. Off the field, he has a string of motoring offences including driving without a licence. In short, he is not the sort of man you want your daughter to be dating. But I'm sure Rangers fans won't care if he scores against Celtic in the cup this weekend.

By the way, does anyone else appreciate the irony of Rangers fans expressing moral outrage over Diouf;s signing? These are people who support a club irrevocably associated with sectarian hatred and bigotry, so they aren't exactly bastions of society themselves...

Deadline day may decide who wins the first division

Aside from Diouf, transfer deadline day was pretty low key north of the border...but the most intriguing and important move of the day, for me, came at East End Park - the sale of Dunfermline's outstanding winger Willie Gibson to English lower league side Crawley Town. It will be pretty difficult for the Pars to replace a player of his quality, and it might tip the battle for promotion to the SPL in the favour of their Fife rivals Raith Rovers - who managed to hold on to their own star man, Gregory Tade, in the face of interest from bigger clubs. But it's very tight at the top of the table, with Falkirk also close behind (Dundee would be top but for their points deduction), and with squad depth minimal at all the clubs it might well be the team who has the fewest injuries and the least fixture congestion who emulates Inverness Caledonian Thistle's storming run to the title last year.

Why couldn't Andy Webster succeed at Rangers?

I know his first year or so at Ibrox were destroyed by injuries, but Webster was so good on loan at Dundee United last season that he was shortlisted for Player of the Year honours. Yet even when fit he got precious little opportunity this season, as Rangers continue to shirk their responsibility of grooming a successor to the evergreen David Weir. Walter Smith just didn't seem to rate him for some reason. Webster was released from his contract on Monday, which allows him to find a club outwith the transfer window - he is rumoured to be returning to Hearts, whom he left in 2005 after a contract dispute to Vladimir Romanov. If he reaches his previous high standards, this could really come back to bite Rangers hard...

And one last thing...

I'm delighted by Caley Thistle's transfer window business - young Irish winger Aaron Doran comes on loan from Blackburn with glowing references, whilst former Hibs captain Chris Hogg gives us cover at centre-back and right-back, areas of weakness. How Hibs could afford to let Hogg go is beyond me - they spent deadline day getting another goalkeeper (they now have four) called Jakub Divis - the joke is that his shirt will say "Divis 1" as a marker of where the Hibees will be next season. Hamilton, their main relegation rivals, brought in a bunch of young players from down south and Ireland. St. Mirren just didn't bring in anyone. It will be interesting to see how these deals influence the battle against SPL relegation.