Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why did Scottish clubs suck in Europe?

Thankfully, ESPN employ minions to go looking for interesting but tricky statistics, such as the one that this is the first time in 53 years of European club competition that all Scottish clubs have been out by the end of August.

By the time they read that out after the Rangers game, I'd already used wikipedia to look back over the last 15 seasons. Had it not been for ESPN's uber-geek, I probably wouldn't have got to bed till about 4am.

It is worth pointing out that, until recent seasons and the expansion of European competitions so that clubs finishing 15th in the Andorran second division qualify for the Europa League (all right, I am exaggerating a smidgen), that, by the time you had played two European ties, it would be mid-October. Still, it is utterly depressing that no Scottish side is left. For one, it harms the image of the league; for another, the schadenfreude I experienced at watching the Old Firm suffer is balanced out that the dread of them having a lot more free midweeks this season and less stress on their squad depth, presumably making them stronger on SPL weekends.

And finally, it damages our co-efficient to the point where getting a Scottish side into the Champions League or Europa League becomes all the more difficult. So how have we fallen so far, so fast, considering that Rangers made it to a UEFA Cup final only three years ago, and Celtic achieved the same in 2003?

Let's look at the individual teams...

Everyone, with some justification, is focusing their ire on the failure to see off Slovenians Maribor. Do they, as current leaders of their domestic league, perhaps deserve more respect than the Scottish press, and indeed the Scottish champions, gave them? Considering only two of their players are current squad members for the Slovenian national team, probably not. Rangers might not have the financial clout of a decade ago, but Maribor certainly didn't find £3million to spend on players this summer.

The main reason Rangers exited the Europa League was profligacy at Ibrox in the second leg, where they missed chance after chance, especially at 0-0, and seemed to hit the panic button too early. Their opponents clearly earmarked Nikica Jelavic as the main threat, and gambled on leaving more space for his strike partner...a shrewd move as, when the heat is on, you can always rely on Kyle Lafferty to mess things up; the Northern Irishman could not have hit a cow's backside with a banjo.

But this latest setback actually seems to have distracted everyone from the bigger crime...the exit from the Champions League qualifiers to Swedes Malmo, where McCoist inexplicably sent out his side for the first leg (at home?!) with the same 5-4-1 formation Walter Smith saved last year for Manchester United and Valencia. Even then, having lost the first leg, they still should have won the tie, only to have two players sent off in Sweden (both for avoidable and stupid straight red offences) and the concession of a late goal.

Why are Rangers out? Poor tactics, poor finishing, poor discipline. All three should concern Ally McCoist, as Rangers have not exactly set the heather alight domestically either.

In terms of recent European catastrophes, defeat to Sion of Switzerland does not really rank up with the hideous losses to Artmedia Bratislava and Utrecht. It's also a trickier one for me to comment on as I didn't see a single second of the two legs, and because they were really up against it after conceding a penalty and red card in the first minute of the return leg.

But, again, there is a huge difference in resources between the two clubs. Yet, for all their quality, Celtic couldn't break their dogged, defensive-minded opponents down in the first leg at Celtic Park, a turgid 0-0 draw (I might not have seen the match, but I've never seen a goalless draw that couldn't be described as turgid, or maybe lacklustre). Neil Lennon's side faced exactly the same problem when they lost to St Johnstone last week, and - until a blunder from Ricky Foster that was worthy of punishment by castration - at Pittodrie earlier in the month.

It is, in fact, Celtic's big achilles heel under the stewardship of Neil Lennon; when the going gets tough, there isn't a plan B, an alternative tactic. Not only that, but when the players turn to the bench to look for guidance and help from a thoughtful, shrewd manager, they instead see a wee naff jumping up and down waving his arms and turning the air around him blue, in a manner more worthy of a street corner outside Celtic Park than the dugout inside it. Walter Smith might have been capable of finding a way to get a result away from home in Europe when both a goal and a man down - Neil Lennon (and indeed Smith's successor at Ibrox) was never going to be able to manage that.

Hearts got the most glamorous tie they could have hoped for, and with the first leg at home, in front of a crowd that have turned the place into a cauldron. When setting up your team, as massive underdogs, would you go for option A, a screen of defensive midfielders and a gameplan designed to frustrate, or option Romanov, two wingers and an attempt to go toe-to-toe with a bunch of international class players?

It's hard to believe that Hearts' new coach, the Portuguese Paulo Sergio, went for such a kamikaze plan without having his arm twisted by the club's Lithuanian owner. Say what you like about a fairly creditable 0-0 in the second leg against a bunch of Tottenham's youth players; this tie was over as a contest within the opening 30 minutes at Tynecastle, at which point Spurs were already three up. It was so bad that Clive Tyldesley actually sounded pitying, the patronising git. When we are down, you either help us up or kick us in the groin, you don't stand over us sounding sympathetic.

That said, Hearts at least managed something that neither of the Old Firm did - they won a match, having disposed of Hungarian also-rans Paksi in a previous round.

Of course, the Arabs didn't even last beyond the end of July, dumped out by Slask Wroclav of Poland; this was blamed, as all these early defeats are, on the fact the league season hadn't started and their players weren't match fit. It wasn't a problem for their opponents, whose domestic campaign started a week later than United's. Continental sides seem to be able to cope with early European ties and this 'match-fitness' issue, so why the heck can't we?

I'm not really interested in United's exit though; this week is all about the humiliating defeats for Rangers and Celtic, and the humiliating thumping Hearts got the week before. There may not be as much money or quality available as in the days of Dick Advocaat and Martin O'Neill, but these were still matches that should have been won with something to spare. If the national team don't get the job done against the Czechs this week, Scottish football might well have reached its nadir.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Money money money,would be funny, in the SPL

Adequate. Dull. Unspectacular.

All adjectives that could be used to describe Rangers' performance in Inverness at the weekend, in a match which the Ibrox side won thanks to two very controversial penalties indeed, the first following what appeared to be a ball-winning challenge, and the second after an innocuous collision which caused Romanian Dorin Goian to execute a curious mid-air triple twist that Jane Torvill would have been proud of.

They are adjectives that, in hindsight, I suspect the Rangers board wishes could be applied to previous tax retuns. Not least after the HMRC sent round the Sheriff Officers last week to serve papers on the club regarding their outstanding (in more than one sense of the word!) £4.2 million tax bill.

Tch, when the debt collectors come round to your average joe, they are skinheads with baseball bats. For a major company, they are balding and carrying briefcases. Same idea though, except for the fact that Ally McCoist's fingers aren't going to get broken. Yet.

This is a bizarre case indeed, which led Rangers to complain of the process of being conducted "in public" and fans supporters to accuse the taxman of "grandstanding"...despite the fact that no news organizations ran with the story until Rangers brought it to their attention with the above statement. Considering the outstanding payments date back eight years, and Rangers have so far failed to pay them despite the fact this became public before the summer, it seems to this observer that HMRC are quite entitled to seek what they believe they are owed; an accountant and a solicitor who I count amongst my friends (the latter despite being a Gers fan) inform me that this is proper procedure, whatever the club say.

The latter summed it all up beautifully for me: "there's not a company in the world that doesn't do everything it can to minimise a tax bill. That's why a good tax lawyer can get paid a fortune. Maybe Rangers should have got a better one."

This whole affair is juicier than a Florida orange. And it's just the beginning; as I mentioned in a previous post, HMRC have a much bigger case which returns to court in November, seeking somewhere in the region of £20 million in unpaid taxes...against Rangers.

And for all the whinging by their PR men about it being plastered all over the media, the papers have been restrained in their coverage of the whole affair. In fact, there has been a feeling of "thou doth protest too much" - I can't believe I got a Shakespeare line into the blog! - about the whole thing.

They aren't the only ones dodging their bills though; Hearts, it transpires, were served a winding-up order last month by HMRC, and finally paid up approximately £250,000 this week. Astoundingly, the media failed to mention this winding-up order until the bill had been paid - though internet message boards had picked up on it, and Rangers' impending Sheriff Officer visit - though that didn't stop accusations of the club's reputation being blackened.

Rich men and huge corporations, having to pay their taxes? Who'd have thought it? Under a Conservative government, surely only the poor should be paying taxes, getting affected by cuts, that sort of thing.

About the only interesting news in Scottish football recently has been surrounding the financial side of the game, and I've been playing the amusing game of 'read between the lines' a lot. Last week also saw the publication of the annual PriceWaterhouseCooper report into SPL finances - though it always runs a year behind, so it covered 2009-10 and so didn't involve Caley Thistle (as we were languishing in the lower leagues/sweeping majestically to promotion - delete as applicable to suit your point of view).

The interesting points to note? As of that season only Hamilton (now relegated) and St Johnstone were debt free. There was an overall profit of £1 million...but only because Hearts and Kilmarnock had £8 million of debt written off. And, as was picked up by everyone, there has been a massive drop in attendances which threatens to cause huge damage to the Scottish Premier League - 600,000 fewer fans attended during the 2009-10 season than during the 2004-05 season, a drop of 16%.

What wasn't picked up by anyone, apart from a very wise head at who has far too much time on his hands, is that it is not representative of the SPL, not by a distance. Compared to 5 years previously, average attendances at Hearts and Hibs are higher (though not as high as they were 3 years ago), and Dundee United's are stable. Kilmarnock and Motherwell are a little down, but are on an upward trend. Inverness, St. Johnstone and St. Mirren are higher, though the latter two were not in the SPL five years ago. Meanwhile, Celtic's attendances are down 21%. Aberdeen's are down 19% - no surprise considering the mess they were in. Rangers are better but have had the third highest drop off in attendances.

And since Celtic and Rangers' attendances are more than twice that of everyone else, the reason for the vast majority of that drop off - in fact about 60% of that 500,000 total - is fair weather Old Firm fans. Not that you'd know from the SPL's soundbite; "our clubs made a profit...this is incredibly positive" was so far from the truth that I assume they use the same PR firm as Rangers and Hearts do.

The conclusion? For all the Old Firm's whining that they are being held back by weedy provinical clubs, the truth is that they are the ones who are struggling to stay afloat...and they are at risk of drowning the rest of the SPL with them.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

McCoist and Romanov - an alternative view

Yes, I know that recently blog updates have been as sparse as green vegetables on a Scotsman's dinner plate.

Sorry about that. Now and again my attention is distracted away from the busy, unpredictable and stressful world of football, and focused towards the busy, unpredictable and stressful - and rather more important, sadly - world that is known as Real Life.

I'd love to say it won't happen again, but the nature of my day job means that, inevitably, there will continue to be occasional lapses in my blogging. Any association between a lack of new blogposts and Caley Thistle's mediocre start to the season is, of course, purely coincidental...

Anyway, it's not as if I've exactly missed much, is it?

Two big stories have dominated the start of the Scottish football season; firstly, the trials and travails of Ally McCoist, and secondly Hearts' decision to chuck Jim Jefferies.

Let's tackle Tynecastle first. If I was feeling lazy, I would spout out a few paragraphs about how the sacking of Jefferies, and his replacement by Portuguese coach Paulo Sergio, was a scandalous way to treat a decent, dignified man with bags of experience, and how the outrageous, reckless actions of a madman from Eastern Europe who knows nothing about football are damaging one of Scotland's biggest clubs and bringing ridicule onto Scottish football.

Actually, for the record, I am feeling lazy. But I'm not going to write a character assassination of Vladimir Romanov today. For one thing, every other sports hack in the country has already done it, with such similar elements of melodrama, sensationalism, and, frankly, some xenophobia (would a Scottish chairman be treated in such a way? I doubt it) that you would be forgiven for thinking that there was only one football journalist in the entire country, writing under a dozen pseudonyms.

In fact, you could employ similar logic to the McCoist-Rangers saga...where if the press shout "Crisis! Crisis!" loud enough, sooner or later the public will start to believe it (as I discovered to my horror regarding the MMR vaccine debacle a decade ago) and, lo and behold, Rangers fans, who are so volatile at the best of times that they start biting their fingernails to the quick as soon as opponents win a throw-in in their half, will get on the team's back at the slightest provocation. Why? Because the team is in crisis. Everybody says so.

But, for goodness sake, he has been charge for four competitive games, which include a win over St Johnstone and a match in Sweden where, by all accounts, Rangers were the better team even when a man short. Yes, the failure to make the Champions League is a huge blow to the club, but remember Gordon Strachan's start at Celtic? Where they drew 4-4 with Motherwell on opening day (McCoist's Rangers drew with Hears) and got stuffed 5-0 in the Champions League qualifiers by those European behemoths Artmedia Bratislava? Strachan went on to do pretty okay at Celtic Park, I would say.

By all means judge McCoist over, say a fifteen game period - and if Rangers are struggling, then maybe there is a crisis. And, conveniently enough for this piece, Romanov indeed judged his manager over a fifteen game period...and Jim Jefferies' last fifteen games as Hearts boss produced a grand total of one win. Which is pretty appalling, to be honest. My opinion is that the dismissal was still hasty, but it's easy to find Hearts fans who actually agreed with the change of manager.

Look, I'm no fan of Romanov, and I'm certainly no fan of Rangers either. And we should by all means rip the man to shreds over these ridiculous press releases - 'media monkeys' being his latest bizarre comment - but you can't dispute that he has been a pretty successful businessman, and there is no evidence that mismanaging Hearts would be to his financial benefit. And who knows, maybe his logic is that he was aware of a coach who was available and, in Romanov's opinion, more able than his current one, and so why wait before installing him?

To be honest, I'm not sure I totally...or even partly...agree with what I've written above. But doesn't it make a pleasant change from the generic crap that appears in the national rags in response to these sort of events?