Monday, March 28, 2011

Narey's Toepoker is now on twitter

Ladies and gentlemen, Narey's Toepoker can now be found on twitter. Expect my tweeting to be similar to my blogging - unreliable, sarcastic and filled with one-liners which I think are very clever and very funny (and no-one else does).

For the record, I opened it during the second half of the Scotland-Brazil game, which was the football equivalent of OK! magazine - lots of hype and show, a few
names you've heard of, but ultimately just a pointless waste of time.

Scotland boss Craig Levein called it "a great week". I'd be interested to know what lessons he learnt, beyond the fact that a 4-5-1 system, with ten men behind the ball, can frustrate any team in modern international football (such as when Liechtenstein did it to us in September), and that he has a squad of players who
can effectively chase shadows for an hour and a half. That's about it, as far as I can see. To be honest, the only reason I can see for this match being arranged - for I believe that, despite the 55,000 strong crowd the SFA makes no money, such is the charge for Brazil appearing - was to cheer up the Tartan Army, particularly those who wasted their time going to Prague last October to watch Levein's infamous 4-6-0.

Levein has also insisted it was a good team building exercise though - not surprising that, since he took them to La Manga and let them drink beer (I wonder how the players' clubs reacted to that). It remains to be seen whether that will put us in good stead for the remaining Euro 2012 qualifiers which start in September. Levein probably has to win three of those four matches (the fourth is against Spain, ulp) to get a playoff place, which might be the only way to prevent 4-6-0 becoming his legacy.

Sadly, the legacy of the Brazil friendly might yet turn out to be the row over a
banana being thrown at the striker Neymar - whilst the Tartan Army have no reputation for racism (save for anti-English sentiment, of course), this sort of
accusation tends to stick. But I'm fairly confident it wasn't a Scotland fan who threw it - the only time most of them will have seen a banana is when it has been deep-fried in batter...


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Delicious...and the footie wasn't bad either

How I had been waiting for this moment, ever since I saw the advertisement!

There was no time for anticipation; the smell was so lovely that I simply couldn't wait to get started. I pressed my face into the surface, and hungrily ran my tongue and mouth around the rim and sides, in a rhythmic motion. Occasionally a satisfied "Mmm" escaped my mouth, but I quickly returned to the task in hand. Nothing else mattered, not until I had finished sucking up and swallowing all the delicious juices. All this ecstasy for just £2...

There's no doubt at all in my mind; that steak-and-ale pie at Ewood Park, a special deal arranged between the club and the local brewery, was the greatest pie I've ever had at a football ground, even if the foil container meant eating every last morsel required a bit of dexterity. (What did you think I was writing about?)

The football was rather good as well.

It was four months since my last venture south to watch decent football - currently the SPL's fare cannot be described as "decent" - and I was not disappointed. Blackburn-Blackpool might not jump off the fixture companion for the day took some persuading...but I had high hopes. Both teams are embroiled in a relegation battle. Rovers, as the home side, were obliged to give it a go, whilst the word "cagey" is not in Blackpool's vocabulary (nor, however, is the phrase "competent defending"). An open, high-scoring game was anticipated; anything else would lead to foul looks from Allan as he drove us back up the M6 in the evening.

The first ingredient, ideally, is a goal for the visitors, duly provided by Luke
Varney, who nipped in to divert a free kick into the net from close range, and ran off past the linesman and up the sideline in celebration...before looking back to see the most belated offside flag in the history of the world. I've seen late offside flags, but never one so late that the player has run back past the linesman towards the halfway line before the decision (though TV showed that Varney was offside, and it was the right call).

But Blackpool got their goal anyway, only a few minutes later, though it was the home side's turn to feel aggrieved. I've often wondered why, when players are tackled late just after crossing or shooting, a foul is rarely given, so I was impressed that Howard Webb penalised Ryan Nelsen for diving in just after Gary Taylor-Fletcher had sliced a cross - until Match Of The Day pictures later showed that there was pretty much no contact. With no obvious foul, no obvious appeal, and the whistle drowned out by the jeers for the rubbish cross, most of the home fans didn't realise the penalty had been given until Charlie Adam strode up to place the ball on the spot.

Ah, "Chic" Adam, as one of my Rangers-supporting mates always calls him. Back in 2006 I remember him stuck out on the left touchline at Inverness, looking disinterested (and not a little chubby), nestling comfortably in the pocket of our right back as Paul Le Guen's side lurched to an embarrassing defeat. More than four years one, he's probably going to sign for a very good team in the summer. Certainly he dispatched the penalty with aplomb, and five minutes later, for good measure, doubled his tally with a 20 yard free kick which the word "glorious" doesn't quite do justice. Considering I was sat in the Blackburn end, I was grateful that my brain overruled my legs and prevented me leaping to my feet, and that my shout of "Oh my god!" was pretty non-comittal.

You think things were bad for Blackburn? Varney had another effort disallowed for offside, again correctly and this time a damn sight quicker. The booing at half-time doesn't quite compare to the cacophony I once heard after a Newcastle defeat at St. James' Park, but it was pretty close. But there are some certainties in life - death, taxes, and Blackpool conceding away from home. It was apt that the Congolese defender Chris Samba - less a centre-back, more a colossus - and the nippy Canadian winger Junior Hoilett got the goals that earned a point, for they were the only men in blue-and-white who looked like they truly cared. Both strikes owed something to the inadequacies of Blackpool's Ghanian goalkeeper Richard Kingson, who looked allergic to high balls flung into the box such was his inability to deal with them. Wikipedia lists his height as six feet exactly, yet he reminded this writer of the old quip about former Celtic goalie Rab Douglas - "Six feet four standing still,
five feet four on crosses".

Kingson's calamitous keeping cost his side two valuable points and one wonders if, even with five home games left to play, that Blackpool might rue not winning this game. Blackburn's comeback, meanwhile, merely glosses over some glaring deficiencies in organization, creativity and, blatantly, team spirit. Most neutrals would like to see them relegated after their horrendous treatment of Sam Allardyce, and they might yet get their wish - for this writer it will be three from Blackpool, Blackburn, Birmingham and Wigan who will drop through the trap door at the end of May.

Four goals, two disallowed goals, a dodgy penalty, two efforts off the woodwork and a seat within 10 yards of Ian Better-Than-Jesus Holloway. And the greatest pie ever. You can't ask for more than that.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

What is a captain worth?

Ah, the saga of the England Captaincy.

The story so far, as far as I can tell, is this; Chelsea's John Terry was named England captain in August 2006, succeeding David Beckham. He managed to keep the armband right up until the beginning of last year, losing the role not because of his efforts on the pitch but because of embarrassing revelations about his private life; a married man, Terry had been bonking the ex-girlfriend of his former team-mate (at club and international level) Wayne Bridge. Initial claims that his lover had been paid to keep quiet turned out to be rubbish. The most amusing part was that in 2009 Daddie's Sauce had named Terry "Father of the Year" in 2009.

How exactly Terry's colourful private life affected his ability to captain a football team is not clear to me. But he was demoted and replaced by Rio Ferdinand...who has been fit enough to captain his country only four times in a year (three of which were friendlies). And so Liverpool's Steven Gerrard has practically had a monopoly on the armband, leading . Yet all of a sudden, with Euro 2012 qualifiers approaching this month, Capello has performed a huge u-turn and decided he wants Terry back as captain again - apparently upsetting Ferdinand, Gerrard and a few other players.

It seems to be a peculiarly British thing, this obsession with who captains a football team.

Now, the last four men to lift the World Cup are Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro, Brazil full-back Cafu and French midfielder Didier Deschamps. The last three to captain winning teams at the European Championships are Casillas, Theo Zagorakis of Greece and Deschamps.

What do they all have in common? They were the most capped players in their respective squads.

Sure, some of them were great leaders - Cannavaro in particular was an obvious choice for Italy, whilst Deschamps carried obvious authority (though so did teammate Laurent Blanc). But Cafu, the marauding full-back? Casillas, a goalkeeper? These are not men who fit the "Bobby Moore" theme, the player who will inspire, direct and lead the team, the lionheart, the one who will give absolutely everything for the cause.

For me, that's because this sort of player isn't necessary in the modern game. Teams are well enough organized that the captain isn't required from a tactical point of view (compared to the cricket counterpart). Moreover, most coaches would look to three or four experienced players to lead, not just one. The all-conquering Spain team has, along with Casillas, the likes of Puyol and Xavi. Cannavaro was accompanied by Nesta, Pirlo and Gattuso, among others. For them, the armband grants only the honour of leading the team out at the start, not this ridiculous Roy Race-like responsibility.

So if England were to follow the logic of their continental counterparts, their captain would be the bloke in the starting eleven who had the most caps. If he weren't injured, that would be Gerrard - an appointment that would surely satisfy fans and media at least. But in his absence, next in line is Ashley Cole. What sort of effect would making The World's Most Sulkiest Footballer England captain have on the team?

That's the point; leadership on the pitch should be shared out - Cole takes the armband, everyone else takes responsibility. Including John Terry.


Monday, March 14, 2011

The first division? It's easier to predict the lottery numbers

If only Dundee had "remembered" to pay the taxman, so they hadn't had to go into administration. Then they would be top of the first division, instead of stuck in mid-table, weighed down by a 25 point deduction.

Or if only they had appointed Barry Smith as manager last March, instead of Gordon Chisholm, who failed to reverse a collapse which cost the Dens Park side promotion to the SPL last year.

But they didn't. And so, despite being unbeaten for 20 league games, going back to the end of September, with Smith yet to suffer a league defeat since replacing the redundant Chisholm, Dundee are olny sixth in the table. It could be worse, though; the main aim of such a points deduction was to punish the club by making relegation almost inevitable, though not so certain that the fans wouldn't keep pitching off. To their credit, the paper-thin playing squad have stuck up a two-fingered salute to that, and even with nine matches left there is no chance of demotion to the second division.

The moral of this story? Quite simply, the Scottish first division remains as unpredicatable as ever. There are only three certainties: firstly, the side just relegated from the SPL will find it a nightmare to get out of (Inverness were the only team in a decade to return to the top flight at the first go); secondly, teams trying to spend their way to the title will meet a sticky end, even if they do succeed (Livingston, Gretna); and finally, the identity of the title winners will be unclear even as we enter the final weeks of the season.

And so it has been this campaign. Falkirk came down from the SPL and have only sporadically taken advantage of holding on to SPL-quality players like Ryan Flynn and Burton O'Brien. Steven Pressley's side lie third, not quite out of things because of two games in hand, but they lie 11 points off top spot. As mentioned above, it was Dundee who displayed Creative Financial Management this year. And as for the eventual winners, who would have predicted Raith Rovers to lead the way into the final furlongs?

Though Falkirk could still get into the fray with an Inverness-esque conclusion to the season - Caley Thistle won their last ten games last year - the race probably has only two horses, Raith and their Fife rivals Dunfermline. Aside from Falkirk and Dundee, challenges from other sides failed to materialize; financial constraints have hampered Partick and Queen of the South, both of whom face the possibility of part-time football next year. Ross County have dramatically regressed after their run to last year's cup final, and are onto their third coach of the season after Derek Adams left and Willie McStay lasted about as long as a snowball in hell. Jimmy Calderwood will save them from a relegation question that Stirling and Cowdenbeath will be the bottom two...but it's doubtful whether the tanning salons in Dingwall are good enough to keep him in the Highlands beyond the summer.

The above paragraph has managed to summarize every team in the division apart from Morton - who absolutely nobody expected to finish in the top three and seemed unlikely to be a relegation battle. Their current fifth place is about the only predictable thing that has happened all year.

So, as I said, it's Raith and Dunfermline who are battling it out; the Kirkcaldy side's lead has just been cut to two points after defeat to Partick at the weekend. There are ten matches to go. Raith had a cup run of their own last year, before elimination by Dundee United in the semis, but it's a surprise even to their own fans that they have pushed on like this. All their signings last summer were from lower divisions; their single January arrival was journeyman forward Gary Wales, returned from Australia. Rovers' position, one suspects, is mainly due to the nous of manager John McGlynn.

Raith's setup is at contrast to Dunfermline's; whilst almost no-one is left (bar youth players from the time) from the squad that were relegated from the SPL in 2007, there remains a plethora of top flight experience in the likes of Gary Mason, Martin Hardie and Andy Kirk. The Pars have slowly downsized their budget every year in this league - a failure to go up this time might be the last shot they have for a while.

On paper, it is perhaps the latter side that look stronger - Dunfermline do have more depth to go with the experience. But any predictions about this division should be made at your peril...except the one that says that, if changing to a ten-team SPL after next season means three relegated, expect this year's first division winner to go straight back down.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Make Eremenko player of the year!

Here's a pub quiz question for you: How many of the last twenty winners of the Scottish footballer of the year award were playing for a club outside the Old Firm?*

You might not know the answer, but you will know it is not a high number. And there's no surprise in that; the Old Firm's monopoly is challenged less often than Rupert Murdoch's. And, in my memory at least, the few non-Rangers/Celtic names to make the shortlist are often defensive minded players - Andy Webster last year, for example (he was on loan at Dundee United for the campaign).

It's not common for a technically gifted, attack-minded player to turn up at a club outside Glasgow, so no wonder Alexei Eremenko has attracted attention. You could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Kilmarnock fans who had heard of Eremenko before he pitched up at Rugby Park at the end of August on a season's loan; for the record, he is 27, and had previously played for Lecce in Italy and a few Russian clubs, the most recent of which is his parent club Metalist Kharkiv.

Despite being born in the Soviet Union, he moved to Finland at the age of seven and chose to represent the latter; he has nearly fifty caps. One suspects his nationality is a major reason why the Killie boss and fellow Finn, (and also possibly the world's largest teddy bear) Mixu Paatelainen, managed to convince him to move to Scotland. Presumably he also failed to show Eremenko a tourist brochure of Kilmarnock, which makes downtown Tripoli appear almost middle-class - and, at times, less of a warzone.

But Eremenko has flourished; the team is set up with him as a so that everything flows through him in the trequartista position (yes, I know, the phrase "Kilmarnock's trequartista" sounds like an oxymoron) and he has waltzed through the typical SPL midfields that are generally stocked with battling, scrappy midfielders who can't pass wind. In December, Killie stuffed Inverness on our own patch, and with little positive to take from our own performance it was a relief to distract ourselves by purring appreciatively at the way the midfielder cut us open with his vision and movement.

You can tell that everyone else has noticed him; he has been a target for a bit of the rough stuff recently, not least because two red cards for violent conduct show he has a bit of a temper on him. But his misdemeanours are more than cancelled out by his magic.

In American sports, the award of Most Valuable Player is only partly about overall ability, and just as much about which player is "most valuable" and important to his team. Kilmarnock without Eremenko are nothing. If this league had an MVP judged on the criteria above, he would win at a canter. But it appears that the Player of the Year award is not allowed to leave Glasgow, not even for a 40 minute jaunt down the M77, which is a shame.


*The answer, depressingly, is just one: Craig Gordon of Hearts in 2005-06

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Old Firm: All vitriol and hate, no va-va-voom

Two matches on consecutive days this midweek have given SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster incontrovertible evidence of everything that is wrong with his organization.

He probably didn't watch the first of these games up in Inverness on Tuesday night, as Caley took on Dundee United; the word "banal" does not quite do justice to the quality of entertainment on show, as two risk-averse teams, paralysed by the fear of how defeat would damage their top six ambitions, showed less derring-do than the Italian Army circa-1940. A battle between two kittens over a ball of string would have provided more thrill and, frankly more menace as well. The biggest shock was that there were goals at all; two for Dundee United late on, the first after a horrendous defensive error. To be honest, I'd toyed with leaving early even with the score goalless.

And to cap it all, the price of a main stand ticket: £26. In the middle of a recession, when a litre of petrol costs over £1, on a chilly Tuesday night. If the attendance was two-thirds of the announced 3,300 I would be amazed; I believe counting season ticket holders as being there allows less tax to be paid on gate receipts, or something? Anyway, it was an utter waste of an evening, and left me utterly depressed and wondering why I even bother going to Caley Stadium, as well as dreading a home clash with Motherwell on Saturday.

It was also going to be the subject of my blog, until "certain events" at Celtic Park superseded it.

To be honest, my first instinct was to snigger uncontrollably at the whole fiasco - El Hadji Diouf strutting around like a primary school kid trying to impersonate Jay-Z; Lennon and McCoist squaring up like teenagers pretending to want to fight but with both secretly hoping that his mates drag him away before one of them is obliged to throw a punch. The slapstick would shame most pantomime actors. But sadly there are just too many people (mostly young men, mostly alcohol-fuelled, all idiots) who are incited to do stupid things as a result - leading to dozens of arrests in the progress.

So this is what the SPL is these days - ten of the teams scrap around trying not to lose, boring everyone to death, while the other two aren't really about the football, but about having one over the other half of Glasgow. Just as well really, considering the quality of the football.

At least with the Old Firm there is an opportunity to make a statement. 22 years ago two players were convicted of breach of the peace after a fight in a Rangers-Celtic game; you would not have to work hard to find grounds to convict Diouf and Lennon (maybe McCoist as well, though he looked rather more sage and dignified than the snarling Lennon). Maybe if the clubs criticized the behaviour of their management teams and players...not likely considering Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell who claimed that his team and fans had been exemplary (presumably whilst sticking his fingers in his ears, closing his eyes and shouting "la la la, I'm not listening)...then perhaps, perhaps, the message that 22 grown men kicking the crap out of each other, to the sound of 60,000 egging them on, with a background hum of singing about the IRA/Pope/Queen, is just not on anymore.

But if the clubs won't do that, then the idea of games behind closed doors is almost as good. How about starting with the next league cup final next month? That would be a statement.

If only. Neil Doncaster will inevitably appear in the next few days to explain how this would never have happened with a ten team SPL.