Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If Brown can't save Aberdeen, who can?

In December 2010, Aberdeen finally got the manager they needed. Mark McGhee's tenure in the Pittodrie hotseat was an utter disaster; not fiery and spectacular like the Hindenburg, but cold, slow and chilling, like the Titanic. With the team looking as likely to win as a gambler who has walked under a ladder and smashed a mirror on his way to the roulette table, it was clear that chairman Stewart Milne needed an experienced, seasoned captain to steady his ailing ship.

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown seemed the perfect fit; Brown had proven that, even having turned 70, he could still fight fires, having turned in results at Motherwell almost immediately after replacing the erratic Jim Gannon. On a tight budget too. Whilst the football was hardly Barcelona, it was not exactly Catenaccio either. And Milne, like many other Scots, no doubt had fond, oak-ageing memories of the fact that Brown's Scotland side, as dour as a Gordon Brown speech, nevertheless was a solid as granite, meticulously organized, and, most importantly, did well (better than his successors, at least).

Brown was the perfect fit for Aberdeen, and Aberdeen was the perfect fit for Brown; the sleeping giant, a club with wonderful tradition and history, a huge but alienated fanbase just waiting to tempted back to the stands. He may be sprightly and healthy, but nevertheless this would surely be his last hurrah at the top level (in Scotland at least), an opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the greatest Scottish coaches of the last twenty years.

Ten months later, Brown's Aberdeen have won only 9 and drawn 7 out of 31 league games. Their opening 8 SPL matches of the new season have produced a solitary win, over Inverness in a game which, even allowing for my bias in favour of their opponents, they did not really deserve to win. I'm pretty sure they were tenth in the league when McGhee was sacked. Their position now? Tenth.

And, following on from his predecessors, Brown has now managed to embarrassingly lose a cup tie to a lower division team; McGhee had Raith Rovers, Calderwood had Dunfermline, Queen of the South (in a semi final after knocking out Celtic in the quarters) and Queen's Park, and now Paw Broon has seen the Dons succumb to East Fife. Having got themselves out of jail, and into extra time, with an injury-time penalty that looked softer than a bowel motion after a curry, they then managed to arse up the shootout.

There was a lot of goodwill in the North-East for Brown when he took charge. Not only has it evaporated, but it has reformed into clouds of apathy that are pouring a shower of derision on him and his side. (Did I try too hard to extend that metaphor? Probably)

The knives aren't out for him yet...there is a feeling that, if Craig Brown can't succeed here, who can? And who would want this poisoned chalice of a job, which appears to curse all coaches so that they take the post as a decent coach with a solid reputation, and leave it with so little credibility that they might as well change their names to 'Gary Megson' by deed poll.

But less than 4,000 turned up for this midweek League Cup humiliation. Less than double that were at the home league match with Kilmarnock last weekend, where Aberdeen showed a rare glimpse of backbone by earning a draw from a 2-0 deficit. These are fans who vote with their feet; as a student I attended a Pittodrie clash with the same opponent on my birthday in 2002, when Ebbe Skovdahl's side were battling it out for third in the table. The attendance was over 15,000, even though the away support consisted of three men and a dog.

You'd be daft to bet against Broonie turning this around. But, whilst the present is bleak for Aberdeen, there has always been optimism for the future. Right now, their current predicament appears to be a purgatory that will never end...unless it is ultimately replaced by the hell of relegation.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The crack about Garry O'Connor

When I was a kid I used to love imagining that I would be a professional footballer. Sometimes I still do, usually when I see Gary Caldwell playing for Scotland. Even then, just as now, I couldn't understand why a professional footballer, an athlete, wouldn't make the fairly benign (to me) sacrifices required to become the best you can be; a good diet, dedication to fitness, avoidance of illicit substances, keeping dodgy acquaintances at arms length. If you're being paid a five-figure sum every week, it seems like the least that can be expected of you. Some of those who have the potential to be greats embrace it as a way of life; they are those who become Zidane, or Messi, or, for all his chav-like behaviour on the pitch, Wayne Rooney. There are plenty who, as teenagers, seem only a little above ordinary, but who dedicate themselves to becoming the very best they can be. Sadly, there appear to be very few Scots who fall into the latter category (there are, of course, none in the former either). Depressingly, Garry O'Connor instead appears destined for enshrinement in the ranks of the Might Have Beens. O'Connor was good enough to be capped by Scotland as long ago as May 2002, within a month of turning 19. Yes, it was during the Vogts era of the national team, when there were so few credible options up front that a hat trick in Aberdeen's Wednesday afternoon student league had the potential to attract a call up. But still, even as a teenager O'Connor attracted attention, not least because of his burly 6ft 1in frame. Even as a teenager he proved capable of leading the line for Hibs as a lone striker. He had the odd scrape here and there (I'm sure I remember TV evidence being used to retrospectively ban him for violent conduct once) but by 2005-06, under Tony Mowbray and part of a generation that some optimists felt might go on to provide Scotland's backbone for a generation - Steven Whittaker Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan - O'Connor did enough to be the first to earn The Big Move. It wasn't just any move; if the £1.6 million fee raised one or two eyebrows, the destination caused rather more jaws to drop; Lokomotiv Moscow. The wrong move? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but while it is a lazy stereotype to say that British players tend to struggle playing in foreign leagues, it does also seem to be true more often than not. O'Connor started well, scoring on his debut, but he struggled to settle and was in and out of the team. The move didn't seem to do much harm to his career - Birmingham City paid £2.2 million for him just over a year later - and it certainly didn't harm his bank account either, what with a £16,000 weekly wage in Russia, plus, I presume, hefty signing-on fees. But that Birmingham move was all the way back in the summer of 2007. What happened in the four and a bit years since then? Well, you'd have to have hidden under a rock to have missed the revelations on TV this week regarding how O'Connor served a ban in secret after testing positive for cocaine. Sadly, he doesn't appear to have learned his lesson, having been arrested in May in Edinburgh on charges of cocaine possession; last week it emerged that allegations of trying to run away from the police and of having molested a female police officer are part of this case. At the time of the incident he was without a club, and might have considered himself lucky that Hibs offered him the chance to return to Easter Road. After today, when it was revealed he is now facing a charge of fraud related to an insurance claim over an accident involving his £100,000 Ferrari, he must be incredibly relieved that he already has an employer - an employer in such a crisis that they can't afford not to stand by him. And on the pitch? Er...not very much has happened. Nine goals in three and a half years at Birmingham. Only one cap since 2007. A brief resurgence in form since his return to Hibs, which in fact led to calls for an international recall earlier this month...which probably won't be repeated in a hurry. What a waste. O'Connor would never have been a Wayne Rooney, but he could have been good enough to be a good Premier League striker, and certainly good enough to win far more than sixteen caps. I don't know much about the legal system, but I wonder whether he may be at risk of a custodial sentence if he is found guilty on at least one of the above charges. What a waste. Of course, he might not see it that way; there is that well-known anecdote about the bellboy who delivered champagne to George Best's hotel room, and found him entertaining a scantily clad beauty queen with his bed covered in thousands of pounds of casino winnings, who asked 'Where did it all go wrong?'. Maybe, having probably earned enough to set his family up for life, even at the age of 28, Garry O'Connor thinks the same way. L.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Transparency, or just temporary?

On Friday, Rangers 'withdrew cooperation' from The Herald and its associated newspapers, The Sunday Herald and The Evening Times, after The Herald supposedly ran scaremongering stories over Rangers' short, claiming there were concerns over the club's solvency.

As I've said before, the PR agency the Ibrox side are employing seems about as suitable for the job as a lioness would be for babysitting infant wildebeest. Various journalists from other newspapers tweeted about this move almost instantly, though few papers and news media reported it. By Saturday afternoon, the BBC reported the leaking of legal documents concerning the upcoming unfair dismissal case of Martin Bain, the former Rangers Chief Executive deposed as part of Craig Whyte's takeover. On Sunday, the front page of the Sunday Mail (sister paper of the Daily Record, a paper accused by many Rangers fans of being biased against the club, yet derided as The Daily Ranger by supporters of other clubs) ran this story.

All the while, Rangers denounced a 'whispering campaign' against them, suggesting that elements in the media have an agenda against them, a charge they have already accused HMRC of over their pursuit of unpaid taxes. They presumably think the same of the Scottish legal profession, given the way those court papers ended up on the net. Yet there has been no talk of legal action against the journalists who have been reporting these stories, and one word that has been conspicuously absent from all these tales of £50 million tax bills and accusations of potential future insolvency - 'deny'.

Those who read this blog (all three of you) will please note that I posted on the subject several months ago, even when the mainstream media (save the BBC's Scottish Economic Editor) seemed to be steering clear of it. The reason is pretty clear - it is easy for those in Govan to issue veiled threats to the press which go along the lines of "report negative stories about us and we'll stop talking to you". It's a powerful threat - for, let's face it, articles about the Old Firm make up, oh, roughly 99% (give or take 1%) of news stories about Scottish football. I doubt I would continue reading The Times if the back page stories were about Aberdeen's defensive frailties or Dundee United's injury strewn forward line (though, if I had any morals, I wouldn't be reading a Murdoch paper anyway...but Graeme Spiers remains the best and most interesting of Scottish hacks).

So now all the gory details of Rangers' financial problems are in the public eye, though, if you knew where to look, you could have found them on the net six months ago. There are enough pro-Celtic journalists out there who seized on the story long before the end of last season. And while even the best of these, such as Phil Mac Ghiolla Bain, put a hugely biased slant on the tale, time has proven their reporting to be accurate.

Not that Celtic are innocent of putting pressure on reporters; Scotland international-turned-pundit Pat Nevin revealed to a Scottish Parliament committee this week how, during the broadcast of this year's Scottish Cup Final, he dared to comment on the very audible singing of pro-IRA chants. The response? Furious complaints by Celtic to the BBC. You would have to search far and wide to find any match report on the Cup Final that mentioned sectarian songs...just as, for example, nobody commented how, at Inverness earlier this season, the entire Rangers end broke into a loud rendition of "You can stick the Virgin Mary up your arse".

The most striking example of this appears to be the infamous assault of Neil Lennon at Tynecastle (though, according to the courts, it wasn't an assault, of course)...a horrific event, obviously, but it apparently escaped the notice of the papers that, following that incident, Celtic fans attacked stewards and pelted the ballboys and girls with missiles; one ballboy was hospitalized.

Hopefully the fact that this tax issue has finally broken into the public domain will encourage Scottish journalists to dare to report on other failings of Rangers and Celtic...and goodness knows there are plenty to choose from.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Levein - the beginning of the end

The train back from Mount Florida to Glasgow Central station is not usually the place where you expect to hear wit and wisdom. But after Scotland's 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic game, the crowded carriage, for all the alcohol previously consumed, was a fairly subdued place.

At least until someone committed the cardinal sin of breaking wind. "Has somebody farted?" piped up one fan. "Naw", said another, "it's the stench of failure".

Only when we were pulling into Glasgow Central did some random supporter dare to give a view on the game; "Levein will have learned a lesson today." The responses from his mates were fairly predictable - the first was "Aye...that he's s***" and the second was "How many lessons does he need to learn?"

Our nation is infamous for holding grudges and keeping chips on our shoulders, and so the name Kevin Blom will be remembered for a long while north of the border, for he was the incompetent and pathetic referee who decided that Danny Wilson's ball-winning tackle and the subsequent dive by Jan Rezek (the word 'simulation' doesn't seem appropriate here, as Rezek's collapse to the deck looked so fake that it invites ridicule and laughter as much as fury) was worthy of the Czech's equalizing penalty. Three minutes later, he was given the opportunity to right his wrong when Christophe Berra was felled in the box (there wasn't much contact, but those sort of fouls are given more often than not) - instead he chose to compound his errors by booking Berra for diving. Oh, the irony.

Mr. Blom will not be taking his summer holidays in Scotland any time soon, one suspects.

But he provides a useful scapegoat for Craig Levein, who took the opportunity after the match to cry for Blom's demotion (castration and crucifixion would be more popular punishments in the eyes of the Tartan Army) and so dodge some awkward questions about Scotland's performance, not least the facts that Scotland had created nothing in the final third prior to Kenny Miller's opening goal (courtesy of a keeper error) on half-time, the failure of a five man midfield to press the ball or provide anything more than a modicum of support to lone striker Kenny Miller for long periods - at times Miller could have done with semaphore flags to communicate with his teammates, such was his isolation - and the way that the Czechs were allowed to dominate possession as if Hampden Park was their ground, with Tomas Rosicky given acres of space to dictate play in the middle of the pitch.

It was not a vintage Scotland performance, not by a long shot; they were grateful for Milan Baros' horrendous miss from 6 yards in the opening minutes, and for another, less mentioned, oversight by Blom, who failed to give Baros a first half penalty after a reckless challenge from Charlie Adam. But Levein's gameplan for a must-win home match against a Czech Republic side who are barely a shadow of the great team of the early part of the last decade consisted of "ten men behind the ball, and lets see if we can fluke one at the other end". In fact, they nicked two, what with the two outstanding Scots, Kenny Miller and Darren Fletcher, finding the heart and guts to drag Scotland back in front late on before Blom's denouement. Scotland maybe created one more clearcut chance in the entire contest - two goals from three chances is one heck of a return. But they still couldn't win.

Five games into this qualifying campaign, we have just five points. Our only win was the debacle against Liechtenstein, where a 97th minute winner was required. Our only decent performance was in the match we were always going to lose, against World Champions Spain. The other games were a 0-0 draw in Lithuania, where both teams set out with no interest in anything but defending, and, of course, that game in Prague where the boss bet everything on that 4-6-0 strategy which few have forgiven him for.

It's just not good enough. I don't care that friendlies have produced victories over Wales, Northern Ireland and Denmark, for these are not the results that could have dragged us out of the fourth pot for the World Cup qualifying draw. Levein's competitive record shows two fairly typical traits for our national side, the ability to raise our game against illustrious opponents, and our difficulty breaking down minnows. However, Levein has shown an insistence on defensive, safety-first, risk-averse tactics and formations against everybody except Liechtenstein...even though most would say our side is better on paper than both the Czechs and Lithuania.

Scotland's group for the World Cup is a humdinger - Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales. It's a group which you could imagine Scotland getting through from, with a little luck. It's also a group where you could just as easily imagine us finishing bottom. And Levein has had far less bad luck than his predecessor, George Burley; he was burdened with the Iwelumo Miss against Norway, as well as an unfortunate sending off that cost us in the return game, plus some horrendous refereeing away to Holland and a plethora of missed chances against the Dutch at Hampden. Mr. Blom's blunders at Hampden are the first time that fate has conspired against Levein's Scotland team; every other setback has been, frankly, their own damn fault.

Levein has plenty of supporters still behind them? Who else could we get who is better, they say? Many don't like Gordon Strachan, nor would they wind back the clock for Walter Smith. I would jump at having either of them in the Scotland dugout. I would dismiss the memory of Berti Vogts and be open to the appointment of a foreign coach. Frankly, I would even give the bloke who farted on the train a shot at it - I can't see it being much worse, though I suppose we couldn't call him 'a breath of fresh air'.

Still, at least that trip back from the ground made me feel better. As if the comments weren't enough to amuse me, I found myself sitting next to a middle-aged man from Latin America, who, it appeared from my eavesdropping, was Costa Rican. Thank goodness he didn't say it loudly; the last thing a bunch of depressed Scotland supporters needed was to know there was a man from Costa Rica in their midst as a reminder of another great embarrassment.