Thursday, April 28, 2011

Narey's Toepoker SPL Team of the Year, Part 1

It's that time of year again - the fourth annual Narey's Toepoker team of the year!

Here's a quick reminder of the previous "winners"...

2009/10 - Ruddy (Motherwell), Whittaker (Rangers), Weir (Rangers), Webster (Dundee Utd), Papac (Rangers), Davis (Rangers), Gomis (Dundee Utd), McArthur (Hamilton), Stokes (Hibs), Boyd (Rangers), Goodwillie (Dundee Utd)

2008/09 - Zaluska (Dundee Utd), Hinkel (Celtic), Caldwell (Celtic), Wilkie (Dundee Utd), Papac (Rangers), Brown (Celtic), Aguiar (Hearts), Mendes (Rangers), Driver (Hearts), Boyd (Rangers), McDonald (Celtic)

2007/08 - McGregor (Rangers), Hutton (Rangers), Cuellar (Rangers), Wilkie (Dundee Utd), Naylor (Celtic), Robson (Celtic), Hughes (Motherwell), Ferguson (Rangers), McGeady (Celtic), McDonald (Celtic), Fletcher (Hibs)

So only Lee Wilkie, Scott McDonald, Sasa Papac and Kris Boyd have ever made the lineup twice in the three years; Wilkie has retired, and Boyd and McDonald are down south, so can Papac, Rangers' Bosnian left back, become the first player to make my team of the year three times? Read on to find out.

Or, if you can't be bothered reading on - no, he doesn't.

Honourable mentions: Darren Randolph (Motherwell), Allan McGregor (Rangers)

The quality of the SPL may be dropping everywhere else on the pitch, but in goal standards are as high as ever, for me - Celtic's Fraser Forster, Ryan Esson of Inverness and Killie's Cammy Bell were also candidates. Kello shades it - the Lithuanian goalie spent last season warming the bench but has shone this season for Hearts. When his side upset Rangers at Tynecastle a couple of months ago, he looked simply ubeatable. His opposite number that day, McGregor has had another good season, though he made a couple of high-profile Old Firm errors, while Randolph of Motherwell was an excellent find from Charlton Athletic last summer and will go on to better things.

Honourable mentions: Mark Wilson (Celtic), Jamie Hammill (Kilmarnock)

Admittedly, since Christmas Whittaker has played more often at centre-back or in centre-midfield than in his preferred position, whilst this season he turned out for Scotland on the opposite flank. But, aside from a shocker in the euro 2012 qualifier with Spain, he has been consistent and solid for Rangers, and over the last 18 months his defending has improved immeasurably. He was a shoo-in for this position, though after several injury-hit years Celtic's Mark Wilson finally looks like the player he was expected to become.

Honourable mentions: Sasa Papac (Rangers), Paul Dixon (Dundee Utd)

As mentioned above, Papac is pipped this the little Honduran Izaguirre, who may yet end up Player of the Year. He has been sensational, with craft, skill, a good delivery, pace to burn, and yet a solid defensive sense. He cost what, £600,000? Celtic might yet get ten times that much for him this summer. As for the rest, Papac has been solid, and no-one else really stands out - Dixon makes the shortlist having looked decent at left back and centre half for United.

CENTRE BACKS: Daniel MAJSTOROVIC (Celtic), Michael DUBERRY (St Johnstone)
Honourable mentions: Marius Zaliukas (Hearts), Madjid Bougherra (Rangers), Darren McGregor (St. Mirren)

Purists are going to slag me for picking ex-Chelsea and Leeds veteran Duberry, who can't do anything except head the ball miles away and punt the ball miles away. But he does it so well that I'd kill to have him in the Caley back four. As for Majstorovic, he's become Celtic's David Weir - a guy well into his thirties, picked up on a free as a stopgap solution, who has been absolutely sensational. He also has the scariest looking eyebrows in Scottish football. Zaliukas nearly got in, while McGregor of St. Mirren has been wonderful since Xmas, only a year after he was playing for Cowdenbeath.

That's the end of part one. What will the rest of the team be? Has Nikica Jelavic done enough to get in, despite being injured for months? Who will play in the cursed left midfield position (i.e. there wasn't one last year)? Can I spuriously squeeze a Caley Thistle player into the team? And will El Hadji Diouf be picked? (I think you know the answer to the last question)

Stay tuned!


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sammy the Tammy fires Pars back to SPL

In light of the recent threats made against the life of Neil Lennon, it was perhaps a little tasteless of Dunfermline's mascot, Sammy the Tammy - who appears to be a bear of some sort - to take to the pitch prior to kickoff in the big Fife Derby in a cardboard tank...yes, you read that right...and pretend to machine-gun the away support. That said, anyone who feels offended by a guy in a bear suit walking around in a cardboard box pretending to shoot people with a "gun" made out of toilet roll tubes probably needs a sense of humour transplant.

Anyway, "inspired" by their mascot, the Pars came from behind to beat Raith 2-1, thanks to a second half double from midfielder Martin Hardie, a 35 year old journeyman who spent a few years as a squad player in the SPL with Partick and Dunfermline, before helping fire St. Johnstone to their 2008-09 promotion. His aging legs lacked the oomph for the top division, but a January move to East End Park has paid dividends, and his strikes on Saturday took his goals total to eight.

Hardie symbolizes the potential problem Dunfermline face next season; a squad with next to no top flight experience. I was present when they were relegated in May 2007 away to Inverness; distanced at the bottom from mid-season, they appointed Irishman Stephen Kenny as manager and found enough form to give themselves half-a-chance of staying up (as well as a cup run). Their escape appeared to have gained further momentum when Jim McIntyre volleyed them in front in the first half, and their fans were still celebrating when Caley won a free kick on the edge of the box with 13 minutes left. To the surprise of the home support and the relief of the visiting fans, Canadian left back Richard Hastings, who scored less often than the Elephant Man at a Miss World contest, stepped up...only for his tame effort to go straight through the arms of keeper Dorus De Vries for the equalizer.

Dunfermline collapsed, conceding a late winner to Rory McAllister's deflected strike, and relegation was sealed. A fortnight later Celtic saw them off 1-0 in the cup final, thanks to a goal by Jean-Joel Perrier-Doumbe, a Cameroon full back who did literally nothing else in his Celtic career. There are barely any survivors left on the playing squad from that day; midfielder Gary Mason is back at the club after a spell at St. Mirren, full-back Calum Woods is still present, and McIntyre is now manager, having replaced Kenny in January 2008. But the squad is full of players who have spent their careers in the first division, plus those such as Hardie, top scorer Andy Kirk and defender Kevin Rutkiewicz (on loan from St Johnstone) who have played in the SPL before, and who clearly weren't good enough.

McIntyre has a lot to do to make sure his side emulate their predecessors - only one side in a decade has been immediately relegated the season after winning the first division, and that was the infamous Gretna - but he might need Sammy the Tammy to mow down the opposing players, as well as the fans, in order to give Dunfermline a good chance of staying up.

Still, that can wait; barring two defeats to finish the season, they have the right to enjoy the celebrations first.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Dropping down a division in search of good news

It would be easy for me to rustle up another blogpost on the main pieces of news from the SPL this week. But it would just be a bit depressing.

First up was another delay in the Rangers takeover saga, which looks increasingly like it could drag on longer than the Middle East peace process.

That was overshadowed by the revelation that the police are investigating an attempt to send nail bombs to Neil Lennon, his outspoken lawyer Paul McBride, and some Scottish MSP who apparently has done nothing wrong other than wear a Celtic top a few weeks ago.

Even amongst the other clubs in the top division, there was scarcely any positive news to be found: Dundee United and Kilmarnock, fourth and fifth in the table respectively, both suffered 4-0 hammerings at home to the Old Firm. United had three players sent off, all for professional fouls, against Rangers (who got three penalties in the process); the referee, Willie Collum had dismissed Aberdeen's Andy Considine in the same circumstances 2 days earlier, against Celtic.

Interesting observation - Collum rhymes with Gollum, which is particularly apt given this official's resemblance to the deranged hobbit from Lord of The Rings. A hobbit might have done a better job officiating at Tannadice; the first red card was a penalty but never a professional foul, the second was a professional foul but was outside the box, and the third was neither a foul nor a true goalscoring opportunity. Collum's incompetence, I would say, was equalled by the pillock who reffed Caley-Hearts last weekend, Crawford Allan; the only explanation for some of his decisions is that he underwent a lobotomy prior to kickoff.

Anyway, it seems like all my blogposts these days are turning into a rant against the Old Firm, the SPL, the SFA, refs, anything to do with the top tier of our league. So this week, I'm going to turn my attention to the most important match in Scotland this weekend.

No, I don't give a stuff about the Old Firm game on Sunday (all right, that's a lie, I'll be watching it as avidly as anyone else). But when was the last time 12,000 people went to a Scottish first division game? That'll be the case at East End Park tomorrow, as Dunfermline meet Raith in what may turn out to be title decider. The prize? Promotion to the SPL, and the relative riches on offer (think of it as the difference between living in the gutter and living in a poorhouse).

There are two matches left after tomorrow; Dunfermline lead Raith by a point, so a home win would give them an almost unassailable advantage. To cap it all, it's a local derby, with Rovers nipping 14 miles along the road from Kirkcaldy. It's a big enough derby that 7,000 attended the earlier meeting between the sides in November, a crowd bigger than many in the SPL. Now, with so much at stake, East End Park is sold out for the first time since god knows when. Neither were given much of a chance 8 months ago, but have taken centre stage as the pre-season favourites stumbled - Dundee got their points deduction, Falkirk have struggled to mount a challenge, and Ross County collapsed after the departure of Derek Adams. So these are the only two horses left.

To be honest, the nostalgic in me would love to see both these teams back in the top flight. Raith haven't been there since 1997; in fact, things got bad enough that they spent a short period in the second division before being revitalized by their current manager, John McGlynn, who has pushed on after a cup semi-final place last season. Dunfermline, meanwhile, were relegated from the SPL in 2007, and have downsized every year since; failure to go up this year will mean further cuts.

Hopefully it will be a great game and a great occasion; goodness knows Scottish football could do with some positive press. Even the first division couldn't produce that earlier this week, after floodlight failure caused the abandonment of Queen of the South's home game with Ross County. One of those things, you would say...except this match was abandoned in March as well, because of floodlight failure too. The original fixture in January was called off with the visitors more than halfway through their 225 mile journey south. And, to cap it all, County, battling against relegation, were 2-0 up on Tuesday night with only 20 minutes to go when play was stopped. It was an expensive night for them in more ways than one.

So next Tuesday they do it all again - if they do manage the full 90 minutes it will mean the sides have completed four league matches, with two abandoned and one postponed, plus the Challenge Cup Final, which was postponed originally as well. You don't have to be mad to watch football in Scotland, but it helps...


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Semi-detached from reality

A lot has been made this week of the English FA's insistance that the FA Cup semi finals be played at Wembley, despite the fact they involved two teams from Manchester, one from Stoke and one from Bolton.

The FA say it provides a rare opportunity for fans to visit the stadium, especially considering it might be a long time before Bolton or Stoke reach another cup semi.

The cynics say that it's all about squeezing as much cash as possible out of the £767 million white elephant (I've been there, and it is an unbelievable venue, but it's still a horrific waste of money), not least as a third of the tickets go to corporate sponsors at the like.

You could make a similar argument for the situation of the Scottish cup semis, both of which are played at Hampden.

But at least in England one match sold out, whilst the other had an attendance of over 75,000. North of the border, Hampden Park played host to 11,920 folk on Saturday, as Motherwell played St. Johnstone, and 30,381 on Sunday for Aberdeen-Celtic.

Hampden has 52,103 seats. This means that all the fans who went to the two games could have been accomodated at the same time, whilst still leaving nearly 10,000 seats empty.

Disturbingly, it appears even Celtic couldn't sell all their tickets for the match. At least they had a support in five figures though; the empty seats were horrendously obvious on Sky's coverage of both matches, but particularly the first.

But Hampden has a contract to host both of those games along with the final, so year after year we see two semi finals in a quarter-full stadium. Those who have been to the ground will be aware that the gently sloped stands, miles away from the pitch, produce an atmosphere equal to that found in a mortuary. Even when it is full.

The teams have a little bit of an incentive to play the games there - the total gate money from both semis is split four ways, so if an Old Firm team is playing (or both are) then you want to squeeze as much cash out of them as possible. But the attendance for the first semi would not have sold out Pittodrie, or Tannadice, or Easter Road, or Tynecastle. In fact, it would not even have sold out Motherwell's own Fir Park. And the supporters know it - the atmosphere is rubbish, the stadium's rubbish and, in the case of Aberdeen and St. Johnstone fans, it's a bit of a drive.

And it's on telly.

So why on earth would you pay £35 for a ticket when, like at Wembley, all the decent seats at the half way line go to sponsors anyway?

It doesn't take someone with the intellectual capacity of a boiled potato (the entrance qualification for a referee in Scotland incidentally, don't get me started on the officials at Caley-Hearts this weekend) to see the solution; if one or both semis involve the Gruesome Twosome, play them at Hampden. If not, pick a geographic location which suits, with a capacity of no more than 20,000, and at least guarantee a proper cup-tie atmosphere. And don't charge ridiculous prices. Then, maybe, supporters will make the effort.

Sadly, it's a sign of the times that this is nowhere near the daftest thing happening in Scottish football at the moment. Nowhere near.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Got a spare £2,500? Why not wrestle a ref?

What does it take in order to be sued for slander?

Paul McBride QC is probably pretty well qualified to tell us; presumably he feels he could get away with calling the SFA "dishonest" and "biased" this week.

That's right, the fallout from that Old Firm cup replay continues to spread, causing untold damage. It's a bit like Chernobyl but without the radioactive sheep (insert joke about Aberdeen fans here).

As soon as the news of the paltry punishments for Majdid Bougherra (£2,500 fine for manhandling the referee twice) and El Hadji Diouf (£5,000 fine for ignoring a policeman and throwing his shirt into the crowd, and for not leaving the pitch immediately on being sent off) - all right, they are paltry in terms of footballer's wages, I tweeted "Celtic will claim conspiracy again", and I was right.

The trouble is that their grievance is quite understandable, especially considering the other outcome was that Ally McCoist got off scot-free for his part in the touchline spat with Neil Lennon, whilst Lennon got a touchline ban (mind you, since that ban ended up running concurrently with another ban, Lennon didn't actually have to sit in the stand for any extra games. Still with me?). Yes, Lennon wagged his finger, and snarled a bit, but Coisty was hardly an angel himself.

Diouf is lucky he didn't get a breach of the peace charge to add to all his previous convictions. Meanwhile, the message from the Bougherra incident is that for five grand you can now physically interfere with the ref during the game - stop sniggering at the back, there - which might be enough to deter players at provinicial clubs but is really only a day's wages to some Old Firm players. If Paolo Di Canio gets a twelve match ban for shoving an official, surely jostling and physically intimidating one has got to be worth at least a game or two?

As for the QC's comments above (McBride, for the record, is the lawyer who defended Neil Lennon recently), the main issue for me is that, if the SFA doesn't have grounds to sue him, it must be because they are worried they can't prove that they aren't dishonest or biased.

For the record, I don't think the SFA are either of these things. I just think that they are completely useless. McBride's other comment that "they are the laughing stock of world football" is only partly true though - Rangers, Celtic and the rest of the Scottish game increasingly come under that banner.

Still, look on the bright side, we could make a few bob on the side by offering Referee Wrestling as an activity - at £2,500 it's a bargain, and I can think of a lot of fans who would be up for it. Depends on who the official is, I guess. Willie Collum probably wouldn't put up much of a fight, whereas Iain Brines is a scary looking bloke who looks like he might fight dirty. But I could see it being the ultimate birthday present for many of our supporters - "happy birthday, darling, here's your present - 10 minutes in the ring with Calum Murray. I paid an extra £500quid so you're allowed to gouge his eyes as well".

I'm onto something here, I reckon. Maybe this is what will turn around the
finances of our football clubs...


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sectarianism - just an excuse for a punch-up

Yesterday, before the news of Rangers getting into trouble with UEFA again broke, I was chatting to my best mate, a solicitor and Gers fan. Apart from that, he's an okay guy; at least his recent attendance at their last Europa League game puts him in a minority - Rangers fans who have actually bothered to go to watch their team play in the last decade.

He made the point that sectarianism is not really Scotland's "secret shame", the headline-grabbing but fairly meaningless quote used by former First Minister Jack "Flash" McConnell. Rangers fans are not really 24-7 haters of popery and catholicism, and Celtic supporters do not support the cause of the IRA and wish death on the royal family (there will, I suppose be some nutjobs who are the exception to this general statement).

"Sectarianism" is basically an excuse for a bunch of idiot thugs to goad each other, an excuse for them all to get tanked up and go out and beat the living crap out of each other, and, according to the police, their own wives and girlfriends as well. No, Scotland's "secret shame" is not religious hatred. Nor, despite my smartarse best mate's suggestion, is it George Burley. As any Scot will tell you, alcohol is the root of it all.

Just give me a moment while I climb down from my moral high ground...

Anyway, I must admit to surprise at the reaction from Ibrox today, with Chief Executive Martin Bain harping on about how Rangers have done everything possible to deal with the problem, and how everyone else sings nasty songs as well. The problem is that Rangers fans appear to be unique in travelling to Catholic countries, such as Portugal last month, and singing songs whilst there like Billy Boys, with its infamous line "we're up to our knees in fenian blood, surrender or you die". They also sing it loudly and proudly even in venues like Inverness, not just when they want to piss off the other half of the Old Firm.

As for dealing with the problem, Rangers must know who the people who buy the allocation of away tickets are and where they are sitting (or standing, as is often the case); I refuse to believe that, had they the motivation, they would be unable to identify these people and ban them from attending these matches. And whilst those with pure sectarian beliefs are likely few and far between, those who sing the songs are hardly a minority, as the background noise at the recent League Cup Final showed.

Let's get one thing straight; regular readers of this blog (hello, all three of you) know I try to loathe both halves of the Old Firm as equally as possible - like childhood vaccinations, they are unpleasant and cause discomfort but do appear necessary for the greater good. And so I will happily point out that Celtic supporters have a rather curious selection of tunes as well - I simply have less knowledge of what the lyrics are. I don't know why they belt out The Fields of Athenry and what a song about a famine in another country, 150 years ago, has to do with football; I am also aware that their version has been known to include lyrics about the IRA. But, for some reason Rangers can't fathom, UEFA don't care. Maybe it's because Celtic fans haven't caused so many problems before, like when Rangers were previously sanctioned for dodgy songs in Spain in 2007. Or because Celtic fans can go to European finals without wrecking the host city; just compare the parties in Seville in 2003 and the riots in Manchester in 2008.

Anyway, sectarianism isn't really the problem. The problem is the moronic thugs who cite it as their reason for kicking other folk in the head and who the clubs don't have the guts to tackle, and who are fuelled to the eyeballs by booze that the government don't have the guts to tackle. And so the problem goes on, and on, and on, to the point where I suspect that, to most people outside the country, it's the only thing about Scottish football that they know about.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Craig Thomson ruined my weekend

As the midday kickoff time for Inverness-Celtic approached, the Highland capital was bathed in spring sunshine; the sky was blue, there was a slight breeze coming in off the Moray Firth, and you couldn't have asked for a better backdrop to a game of football.

Which makes it all the more farcical that, two hours earlier, the match had been called off.

The rain on Friday night had been torrential to the point where my sleep was actually disturbed in the early hours. But with the previous few days having been generally dry, my only thought regarding the Celtic game was "a muddy pitch will level things up a bit".

But apparently Caley's pitch doesn't drain as well as it should - mainly because the undersoil heating that is compulsory in the SPL (more of that later) prevents the pitch being forked properly. But at 10-30, when the postponement was announced (referee Craig Thomson had actually called it off as early as 09-45) I looked out at my back garden. The grass was damp. There were no standing puddles on the patio. And the sun had been out for an hour.

Apparently Caley and Celtic asked for a later inspection...but were turned down. They then came to the shared conclusion that delaying the kickoff till 1pm would give the pitch sufficient recovery time, so they phoned the SPL to ask their permission...and no-one was in. No-one. On a matchday. So, on a beautiful afternoon for football, there was no football to watch.

It's just another addition to the long list of cock-ups that have characterized our national game this season. 2010-11 will be remembered as the season where Scottish football became a laughing stock;

The season where numerous matches were postponed because undersoil heating doesn't actually work when it gets properly cold, or because the streets outside stadiums were icy; the season where one half of the Old Firm uses legal loopholes to make sure the punishment for their manager's petulant childish tantrums is minimized;

The season where the SFA was exposed as completely unfit-for-purpose by their management of the above's antics;

The season where the other half of the Old Firm finally admitted they have been financially mismanaged to the point of bankruptcy, only a few months after forking £4million on a striker;

The season where, with fans complaining about the tedium of having to watch their side play the same teams again and again and again, the SPL instead pushed for a reduction in fans will have to watch their side play the same teams again and again and again.

The Edinburgh derby is on TV as I write this, but I'm switching the channel to Craven Cottage as soon as Fulham-Blackpool starts. Because if I wanted to watch a circus, I would at least expect some acrobats, some elephants and a lion-tamer. I don't want Neil Lennon as the ringmaster for a bunch of clowns.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Have Rangers been screwing the taxman?

Hang on a mo, have I got this right?

No, the bit about Rangers being £29 million in debt doesn't surprise me. It's not so long that the figure being banded about was double that.

It's the tax bill that made my eyes leap out on stalks.

The taxman is already awaiting £2.8 million rhat apparently Rangers owe from between 1999 and 2003, the significance of which is unclear; The Ibrox side's chairman Alistair Johnston has made a big deal out of how the club "have done nothing illegal", which is interesting considering no-one had openly accused them of doing so. Even more curioser is this quote: "I have no idea of the sum for which we may be liable, but Rangers cannot afford much." It's not easy to be sympathetic to this, since only nine months have passed since £4 million was shelled out on striker Nikica Jelavic.

But the blog of BBC Scotland's Douglas Fraser suggests "The figures bandied around are north of £20 million." If that means the full tax bill, rather than the total debt, that is, er, slightly scary.

It's not too long since Dundee ended up in administration because they couldn't pay £300 grand to the HRMC. I know Rangers are a much bigger business, but that is a much, much bigger debt. Gregg Whyte must have a very good plan if he still fancies taking the club over...which appears to involve David Murray footing the tax bill.

As for Rangers supporters slagging off Lloyds Bank for wanting their money, that's why the money was loaned, not gifted. Funny that how, with Rangers' income not increasing, and fewer and fewer saleable assets on the pitch, the bankers don't think the club can be trusted to sort out their debt on their own.

Sorry, but I couldn't be less sympathetic if I was asked to provide Colonel Gaddafi with asylum. Good luck to the banks and to the taxman; Rangers deserve to reap what they have sown.