Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hearts: Sex, drugs and ranting Romanov

If Hearts had any sort of PR sense at all, you'd think that someone would have, by now, claimed that the latest barmy statement from their owner Vladimir Romanov was lost in translation.

We're used to, at least a few times a year, some bizarre comments from the Lithuanian about how the Old Firm, referees, the SFA, the mafia, and pretty much everyone except Richard Nixon being out to get him. Hearts are already facing a £100,000 fine for having yet another shocker of a disciplinary record this year - and Romanov is about to be yanked in front of the SFA (again) for slagging them off about it.

But Friday's statement, published on the club website, plumbed new depths in terms of indignity, indecency and, well, pure madness. Here are some choice quotes for you...

"For almost seven years now we have been fighting to shield the club from crooks, criminals and thieves. Many of the top players at the club have felt the bitter results of the swindles that have been carried out"

"Over a short space of time 4 players at our club have been on the wrong end of the can be presumed that each of these cases is not a coincidence, but the result of targeted actions of a mafia"

"What's happening with the club today is not a new thing. For almost seven years, we have been fighting to shield the club from crooks, criminals and thieves"

"Every year Hearts fights to be in the top three, but even last season in the last 1 games of the season it was almost like someone replaced the team with a different one. Whose fault is that? Players? Manager's? Or it is mafia.

"Stealing players, bad games, problems with the law - all of that on top of record SFA fines. Problems are just shifted to another level.

"Mafia are dragging kids into the crime, in order to blackmail and profit on them. It is not possible to separate these people from paedophiles and you don't need to do that. Each year we are forced to fight these maniacs harder and harder.

"We are standing in their way, not letting them manipulate the game of football in the way they want. As such they undermine us in every possible way they can.

"The task of the club is to tear these kids out of hands of criminals."

This last statement is particularly sickening, coming a few days after Hearts defender Craig Thomson was convicted on two counts of indecent behaviour, where he had had "sexual conversations" with, and sent dodgy photos to, two girls aged 12 and 14. Thomson has been put on the sex offenders' register.

The bizarre claims of "paedophiles" trying to damage Hearts is indecent to the point of inducing nausea in this author's stomach, particularly at a time where Hearts have decided, in the face of rather a lot of criticism, not to sack Thomson.

This decision, of course, is due to a genuine belief that he has been punished by the law for his crimes, and a desire to rehabilitate a troubled young man. What do you mean, he's a talented under-21 international who could potentially command a six-figure sum in a few years? What would that have to do with it? You'd have to be a right cynic to claim such a thing.

Should Thomson have been sacked? I have to admit, it's not a black and white issue...although the Scottish tabloid press appear to be demanding nothing short of a lynch mob for him. Hearts already have two other players I can think of who are awaiting a court date; midfielder Ian Black (formerly a favourite of mine at Inverness) and youngster Robert Ogleby, who last month were charged with possession of cocaine - as indeed was former Scotland striker Garry O'Connor, who has recently returned to Hibernian. The Crown Prosecution Service apparently recommends up to a £5,000 fine +/- a 6 month prison sentence - sounds fairly unlikely they will get a custodian sentence.

But should these guys be sacked if they are found guilty drug offences? You couldn't claim they are a danger to others in the same way Thomson is, but they are supposed to set an example. Certainly, I'd be sacked from my job if I was convicted of such a crime. But another former Inverness player, Richie Hart, was found guilty of cocaine possession a few years back and was kept on at the club.

It's a question of where you draw the line, I guess.

The most infamous footballers-cum-criminals in the UK are probably Lee Hughes, who was a £5million striker before a conviction for Causing Death by Dangerous Driving and spending two and a half years in prison, and Marlon King, who Wigan sacked after he was imprisoned for Sexual Assault and Actual Bodily Harm. They had paid £4million for him in January which time he had already been in prison for Receiving Stolen Goods, and twelve other convictions, including two for assaults on women. King has just signed a lucrative contract with Birmingham City.

So, in conclusion? The fact that a convicted sex offender, and other criminals, especially violent ones, continue to draw a substantial wage from football clubs, a wage far beyond that of your Average Joe, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. But, even if Hearts had done the honourable thing, someone else was bound to swallow their moral objections and stick him on their payroll. But I'll say this; if he worked for Tesco, I doubt he'd have kept his employment...and I doubt his boss would have claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

McLeish the Villain

Looking at the McLeish-Villa-Birmingham love triangle from 400 miles north...

What's the problem?
Villa fans (or at least some of the more outspoken ones) appear to be mortally offended by the idea of appointing the manager of their local rivals. Whilst it's hardly Rangers-Celtic territory in terms of animosity between the sets of fans, bear in mind that earlier this season there were ugly scenes at the end of a Carling Cup match between the sides. Meanwhile, Birmingham City are claiming that McLeish resigned and jumped off their sinking ship simply to try to facilitate a smoother move to Villa Park.

Could Villa do better?
We already know that big Eck was not their first choice...or their second...or their third...Rafa Benitez apparently decided it wasn't for him, whilst Roberto Martinez couldn't be tempted away from his bosom buddie Dave Whelan and perennial relegation battles at Wigan. Meanwhile, overtures towards Steve McClaren went down about as well as a hot dog vendor at a vegan summer camp; it seems that English fans remain unconvinced that men who use umbrellas can also be capable football managers, though Dutch side Twente, whom he guided to the Eredivisie title, might disagree (conversely, Wolfsburg would back the umbrella theory wholeheartedly).

The bottom line is that, for all the money splashed on Darren Bent in January, owner Randy Lerner's pockets are no longer as deep as they used to be, and Villa's stock is not what it was 18 months ago. The supporters do appear to be fairly realistic about that; it's not as if they expect Jose Mourinho to walk into the dugout. McLeish might well be the best of what was available - though technically he wasn't available...

Is it a good move for McLeish?
My gut feeling is that he didn't have a bright future at Birmingham - investment from owner Carson Yeung was nowhere near what he had claimed it would be two years ago, and in fact there have been several articles suggesting the club have some significant financial trouble looming on the horizon. Meanwhile a club statement post-relegation stated "The club can confirm that manager Alex McLeish's job is safe but that the board will expect him to lead the side back to the Premier League in the 2011-12 season"...which roughly means "If we don't start the season well then he'll be sacked". The sale of the better players, such as goalie Ben Foster and centre-backs Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, seems inevitable, with the subsequent funds raised unlikely to be available to strengthen the squad.

So he didn't have much job security as it was, to the point where it is rumoured he might accuse City of constructive dismissal; whether he has any more security now is open to debate.

Is he actually a decent manager?
McLeish's trademark is organizing average sides to compete toe-to-toe with much better teams - evidence for this includes his spell as Hibs manager, his Champions League run in 2005-06 with Rangers, and both last season's mid-table finish and this year's Carling Cup triumph with Birmingham. Don't forget Scotland's unbelievable win in Paris either; his tactical setup for that match was pretty much perfect.

There are two obvious concerns about him. The first is the insipid style of play that his Birmingham side played, showing about as much passion for adventure as an agoraphobia sufferer. No doubt the Scot would argue this was a necessity, especially away from home, in order to deal with stronger opponents. The second issue is the fact that he appears to have a huge problem turning a losing team around when results go against him - his final season at Rangers was, domestically, a catastrophe, whilst he appeared incapable of righting the wagon when Birmingham's wheels came off so spectacularly after their Carling Cup win.

What are his chances of success?
Not great - if Gerard Houllier was maligned from the moment he walked into the hotseat, and the fans were antagonized by the mere idea of Steve McClaren, then McLeish is up against it from the word go. He needs a good start to get the boo-boys off his back, a task which will be all the harder if Ashley Young and Stewart Downing leave. But if the football is of poor quality and the results aren't forthcoming then he could be the next recipient of the Roy Hodgson Award for Abysmal Managerial appointments.

Do I think he'll succeed?
No. But let's face it, I never get anything right...


Saturday, June 11, 2011

End this pitiful punditry!

What do you remember most about watching last year's Holland-Uruguay World Cup semi final?

Was it how much the South Americans missed Luis Suarez, suspended for his goalline handball in the quarter final? What about the rare sight of Arjen Robben scoring a headed goal. Or the fact that Dutch hatchetman Mark Van Bommel committed a bazillion fouls, yet escaped a booking until deep in injury time...which he got for kicking the ball away?

For me, it was the absence of inane chat disturbing the background of an entertaining football match. For ITV's co-commentator, Jim Beglin, was absent because of illness, leaving Clive Tyldesley on his lonesome. And thankfully, because even Clive Tyldesley can't talk non-stop for ninety minutes...unless Manchester United are playing...and so there were some lovely long silences to cherish.

Football is by no means unique in its use of ex-players as pundits in the television coverage - just check out rugby, cricket, tennis and formula one to name a few other sports. But these sports have found articulate, interesting, entertaining personalities to sit in the studio or in the commentary box, and appear to have loads to choose from.

Football coverage, in contrast, is characterized by a load of ex-pros who steadfastly refuse to be critical or unpleasant towards the players they are watching (many of whom are contemporaries) and are capable of no more insight than "He ought to have done better there".

Sometimes its the sheer mauling of syntax which does my head in - for example, I find Jamie "the defence, literally, literally fell asleep there. Literally" Redknapp completely unwatchable. Sometimes its the outrageous and poorly hidden bias - check out Redknapp again, ex-Celtic player Andy Walker, and pretty much any studio pundit during an England game for this. And sometimes it's the sheer laziness and lack of effort put in.

The award for the latter goes to none other than Mr. Alan Shearer, whose nuggets this season included "nobody's even heard of Hatem Ben Arfa", the French striker who, prior to joining Newcastle had eight caps for France, significant Champions League experience with Lyon and was the subject of a £8.5m move to Marseille in 2008. This followed on from pieces of useful info from his World Cup campaign, which included "Germany might look to bring on Gomez for his pace". That'll be the 6ft 2in target man Mario Gomez, who has the turning circle of a bus and the pace of a wheelie bin.

It's slightly insulting to know that my licence fee contributes towards his six figure salary, especially as his job description appears to consist of 'smirk at anything Gary Lineker says, and look constipated at any other time'. Though it's not as insulting as my licence fee being spent on Strictly Come Dancing.

There are good pundits out there - the analytical and thoughtful Lee Dixon and the brutally honest Graeme Souness emerged this season as reasons not to change the channel during half time, but the fact that Alan Hansen now seems to be making an active effort to trot out tired cliches on Match Of The Day rather than points of interest seems to suggest that the producers of the programmes feel their target audience has an average IQ in only double figures.

But you don't have to look too far for wisdom regarding the beautiful game...but you won't often find it on British TV. Thankfully, there are still some journalists out there who see more to football than headlines such as ' blasts about something completely inconsequential' or ' in crisis'. Check out the likes of Tim Vickery (the BBC's South American football guru), or Sid Lowe (the absolute authority on La Liga, and a damn entertaining one too). My favourite of all is Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting The Pyramid, and who is The Man when it comes down to tactics. Wilson is also the editor of the new quarterly publication, The Blizzard, which is worth a shufti if you have the time.

So why not put these folks on the telly? They may or may not be articulate (Lowe has commentated for ESPN, so hopefully he falls in the first category) but they can't be any worse than some of the stuff already on the studio sofas.

Either that, or I'll just have to pray that the latest addition to the Sky stable, Gary Neville, turns out to be bright, thoughtful, impartial and witty.

Some hope.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Analyzing the Old Firm's season

It feels like, at some point in every season, I believe, briefly, that someone can challenge the Old Firm's dominance of Scottish football. On the pitch, that optimism tends to be more poorly thought-out than the building of nuclear power stations in an earthquake zone (too soon?).

And, apart from a moment in February where Hearts, after upsetting Rangers at Tynecastle, looked like an outside bet to get in on the act (they lost 4-0 at Celtic Park three days later, and that was the end of that), there was never any real doubt over who would finish in the top two positions in the table. The gap between second and third was 29pts, the largest such margin in six seasons. So, whilst the overall standard of the eleven players Rangers and Celtic can put on the park has dropped considerably compared to a decade ago - when the likes of Stefan Klos, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Barry Ferguson, Ronald De Boer, Claudio Reyna, Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and Stiliyan Petrov were wearing Old Firm colours - the Gruesome Twosome are as far ahead of the rest of the pack as ever.

Of course it was Rangers who prevailed, despite having a squad thinner than an anorexic's waist, and the credit for that has to go to three folk: manager Walter Smith, who managed to keep calm, collected and dignified whilst everything was going off around him (more on that later); striker Nikica Jelavic who, after missing the first half of the season with an ankle problem, hit an explosive streak of form after Christmas and more than made up for Kenny Miller's January departure to Turkey; and Lady Luck, who shielded the Huns from having too lengthy an injury list at any one point.

And it's easy to forget that they gave an excellent account of themselves in the Champions' League as well, giving Manchester United and Valencia a very hard time, and then were unlucky to be eliminated from the Europa League by PSV Eindhoven. Walter Smith's final season as Rangers manager was as successful as any other he has had, and the pressure is on his groomed replacement, Ally McCoist, to hit the ground running.

If you'd told me Rangers would win the title after Celtic stuffed them 3-0 in February, I would have found a mental health officer to sign the other part of the sectioning papers. At that point Neil Lennon had defied doubts about his lack of managerial experience, making up for occasional tactical lapses partly through his spirit and passion, but mostly through a string of excellent buys - Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal and Gary Hooper will go on to much better things, whilst Kris Commons was a shrewd January acquisition, managing 14 goals.

But Celtic ran out of steam, and it's certainly worth debating how much the off-field issues surrounding their coach impacted on the team itself. For the second half of the season was all about the off-field events at Ibrox and Celtic Park. At the former, the issue of sectarianism raised it's ugly head (we're talking Barbara Streisand ugly here, so pretty damn ugly) again, both domestically and abroad, though the Hoops were hardly saints themselves. For the record, on my way to games at the Caledonian Stadium this year, I have heard Rangers fans singing raucously about killing Catholics while publicly downing bottles of Buckfast, and Celtic fans singing raucously about killing protestants while publicly downing cans of Strongbow.

Rangers also had to deal with the protracted, and now completed, takeover bid from Gregg Whyte; there remains some doubt over whether he can put his money where his mouth is. But that was a minor distraction compared with the storm that engulfed Lennon in the second half of the season, and which I've covered at length before. In the end, a promising season for Celtic finished with only a Scottish Cup, though the cult of personality developing in the support at Celtic Park should give Lennon plenty of leeway yet.

So, sadly, from a neutral point of view, it was depressing to see these two sides utterly dominate the league again. If that was bad enough, it was soul-destroying to watch as their off-field antics dominated the headlines and further defiled the already lousy image of Scottish football.

Next season? There are too many uncertainties to be able to say which side of the Old Firm will be stronger. The only certainties in life are, as they say, death, taxes, and that Rangers and Celtic will finish in the top two positions in the SPL.

League: 1st, 93pts
Scottish Cup: 5th round
League Cup: winners

Star man: Miller in the first half of the season, Jelavic in the second. The latter not only scores lots of goals, he has proven he can score them from anywhere.
Waste of space: The Rangers fans (or at least the moronic element) might have hailed El Hadji Diouf as a hero, but he contributed relatively little to the team apart from s**t-stirring in the Old Firm games.

Confirmed first team departures: Kyle Bartley (end of loan), El Hadji Diouf (end of loan), Richard Foster (end of loan), Vladimir Weiss (end of loan) David Healy
Other likely departures: Andrew Little
Needs for next season: A new centre-back to replace David Weir; at least one winger.

League: 2nd, 92pts
Scottish Cup: winners
League Cup: finalists

Star man: Honduran full-back Izaguirre, though his form dipped alarmingly in the final weeks of the season.
Waste of space: Freddie Ljungberg's January signing was a complete waste of time and money, as he made only two starts.

Confirmed first team departures: Fraser Forster (end of loan), Freddie Ljungberg, Ben Hutchinson
Other likely departures: Andreas Hinkel, Efrain Juarez
Needs for next season: A new keeper (unless Forster returns), another centre-back.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hearts, Dundee Utd...still miles behind

Somehow, somehow, Hearts, and their fans, appear to have decided that this season was not a success.

Never mind that they came third in the league, always holding a comfortable cushion over the chasing pack. Never mind that they best both halves of the Old Firm on their home ground this season. Never mind that manager Jim Jefferies left me with considerable egg on my face for suggesting that he was an overrated, bumbling oaf.

But they rather limped over the finish line, winning only one of their last twelve games - a shame, as it looked like they might have had a smidgeon of a chance of splitting the Old Firm after a smash-and-grab win over Rangers in February. And their successes on the pitch have been rather overshadowed by that idiot "supporter" whose attempt to punch Neil Lennon would have even put Audley Harrison to shame. Plus Vladimir Romanov has been whinging again, as he still holds the belief that he, a Lithuanian banker (no, that's not a spelling error, I didn't mean to put a 'w' in that word) is better equipped to pick the team than any manager.

Hearts' big problem, the one that kept them well adrift of The Gruesome Twosome, was squad depth, which is more shallow than Ed Miliband's personality...despite having an enormous first team squad (this tells you about the quality of the backups). No side outside the Old Firm, in truth, could afford to lose the likes of Lee Wallace, Andrew Driver and Kevin Kyle for half a season each. So Jefferies has, already, hit the transfer market hard to try and plug the gaps; John Sutton is a Kyle-esque target man and should prove a good acquisition from Motherwell, while Jamie Hamill (Kilmarnock) and Danny Grainger (St Johnstone) both provide competition in the full-back area. Expect at least one other former Killie player (probably Mehdi Taouil, possibly Craig Bryson) to join his old manager at Tynecastle, while the arrival of Zander Diamond from Aberdeen is dependent only on a medical.

It's not a bad gameplan Hearts have - buy up the best players from every other SPL side. Is it enough to displace the Old Firm next year. No chance. But it's nice to dream.

They certainly appear in better nick than their closest challengers for a place on the SPL podium, Dundee United, who couldn't match a 2009-10 season with a 3rd place finish and a cup win but still did pretty well under the unheralded Peter Houston. The Arabs' coach has proven he can motivate his players and that he has tactical flexibility; this summer will test his transfer acumen, for he needs almost an entire midfield to offset the departures of his engine room partnership, Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben, and Scotland international winger Craig Conway.

Houston has managed to convince Willo Flood back to the club for the third time, after the diminutive Irishman was released by Middlesbrough, and and appears to have a bit of a thing for midgets as he has also signed John Rankin, anotehr clever midfielder who never really showed his best at Hibernian. On the plus side, highly-rated striker David Goodwillie - I will, never, ever, tire of sniggering at that surname - signed a new contract in the Spring, but this was less out of loyalty and more out of giving him security at a time when he still has a rape charge hanging over him.

The story is that United are yet another SPL team who are obliged to make budget cuts this summer. I just wonder whether Houston can emulate his predecessor, Craig Levein, who picked up Gomis from Cowdenbeath and Buaben from Ajax reserves. But he has to be pleased with his side's campaign, particularly either side of Christmas when Goodwillie peaked in form, and with their sensational 3-2 win at Ibrox on April 2. Keeping up that level of performance is going to be a huge task, though, and barring some amazing signings upset wins over the Old Firm will be rare treats rather than the norm in the years to come. I can envisage Dundee United dropping out of the top six next season. But I've been wrong before. Lots and lots and lots of times.

League: 3rd, 63pts
League Cup: 3rd round
Scottish Cup: 4th round

Star man: Rudi Skacel's return to the club was a surprising success, but this season's star was Slovak keeper Marian Kello.
Waste of space: Defender Darren Barr arrived from Falkirk last summer with a burgeoning reputation and a Scotland cap. Now he only gets in the team as an emergency full-back.

Confirmed first team departures: Dawid Kucharski, Jamie Mole, Paul Mulrooney, Ruben Palazuelos
Other likely departures: Janos Balogh, Calum Elliot, Gary Glen
Needs for next season: If Diamond and Taouil sign, Jefferies can say he has two decent guys at every position. But has he got the cash to improve the squad quality further?

League: 4th, 61pts
League Cup: quarter finals
Scottish Cup: quarter finals

Star man: David Goodwillie was awesome this season, and will go on to great things if he can avoid trouble with the law.
Waste of space: Mihael Kovacevic, who missed most of the season with a knee injury and then, in his first start, got sent off within 20 minutes against Rangers.

Confirmed first team departures: Prince Buaben, Craig Conway, Darren Dods, Morgaro Gomis, Mihael Kovacevic, David Robertson, Andis Shala
Other likely departures: Barry Douglas
Needs for next season: A dominating centre-half so Scott Severin can be pushed into midfield; a wide player to replace Conway; a defensive midfield player.