Monday, October 31, 2011
St. Johnstone are already searching for a new man to take charge after Derek McInnes left for Bristol City - it's not unreasonable to expect his successor to struggle to emulate McInnes' success at McDiarmid Park. Dunfermline haven't won a game since 20th August. And as for Hearts...well, 'crisis' appears to be the default situation at the best of times, so a situation where the players aren't being paid probably commands a stronger description.
In fact, the SPL side the furthest away from being 'in crisis' are undoubtedly Motherwell, second in the league. Yet, proving once more that logic does not exist in Scottish football, neutral observers attending their away game at Inverness on Saturday would have been astonished to discover that the away side were the team riding high in the table, rather than rock bottom of the league.
For it is Caley Thistle who prop up the SPL a third of the way through the season, even though they utterly dominated the first 75 minutes against Stuart McCall's team. A 2-1 lead at that point seemed scant reward, yet the last quarter of an hour produced a long-range screamer from 'Well veteran Keith Lasley, a questionable red card for Caley's Chris Hogg and a deflected Tom Hateley free kick. Having created all of three chances in the game, Motherwell drove back south with the three points.
Depressingly, this has become fairly standard fare for supporters in Inverness. So far this season, Caley have proven that they couldn't hold onto a lead if it was attached to the collar of a newborn kitten.
In addition to the Motherwell game, they have conceded late equalizers against Dunfermline (twice) and Hearts; in addition, they managed to lose a late winner to Hibs in a game where Caley passed up so many opportunities that there might have been a forcefield around the opposing goal. These five matches have produced just three points; they might have produced fifteen. In fact, in one of our rare victories, against St. Mirren, the Buddies had a last-gasp equalizer disallowed for offside...incorrectly.
The Motherwell game, therefore, follows a rather disturbing pattern for the current campaign - when Inverness play well, they are still quite capable of failing to win. As for when they don't play well...well, you can guess.
I blogged in the summer about my excitement about the new direction the club was taking, bringing in younger players from south of the border and looking to play was two wingers. The latter plan has largely gone out of the window because of necessity; Aaron Doran, signed from Blackburn, dislocated his shoulder at the end of August, whilst his fellow Irish wideman, Jonny Hayes, sustained a similar injury three days before. Hayes made his return to the squad against Motherwell.
The decision to exchange experience for youth has so far proved to be folly; how Caley fans have reminsiced about the solidity of former captain Grant Munro, who has excelled since leaving the club and crossing the Kessock Bridge to sign for Ross County. In his absence, Caley have so far deployed ten different defenders this season. For the Motherwell game, Terry Butcher made three changes to the back four, which could not be less settled if itching powder was poured into their shorts pre-match. The squad cries out for older heads; what it has is only two outfield players over the age of 27. It is fair to say that the lack of experience is a contributor to the failure to see out games.
The summer signings have proven to largely be a disappointment, with the possible exceptions of forward Gregory Tade, who has scored four goals, and midfielder David Davis (on loan from Wolves). That's two out of twelve new arrivals (not counting Tom Aldred, a loan signing from Watford who returned to his parent club in August after failing to cement a regular place). With so many new players, Butcher has no budget to strengthen the squad in January unless some of the on-loan players move on.
And to cap it all, Doran and Hayes are not the only ones to have been on the treatment table. More than once this season the substitutes' bench has not been full. Arguably the best player brought in, Welsh international midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, broke his foot in only his third match. Another staple in the centre of the park, Lee Cox, has only just overcome a long-term groin problem. Niggling knocks here and there seem to have left the team short of at least five names for every game so far.
In short, it feels like everything is going wrong for Inverness Caledonian Thistle this season, and so they have only nine points from their opening thirteen games. The hope is that, once everyone is fit, the results will come. But Caley's next three games are Kilmarnock away, Celtic at home and Hearts away. It's realistic to think that, at the end of November, things will be even worse than they are now. Butcher, like Billy Reid at Hamilton last year, can sleep soundly in the knowledge that he has built up enough credit with his previous successes that his job is not in any immediate danger. But, even at this early stage of the campaign, I would say that, if you have a spare fiver, putting it on Caley Thistle being relegated from the SPL would seem a decent bet.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
As is sadly the case for a lot of Scots, the natural response to a radical idea proposed by an outsider, particularly an Englishman, is automatically met with antipathy, as if every single person on the other side of the border is potentially the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher.
For all the talk of reform, it is clear that Scottish football in general, and the Scottish Premier League in particular, have the same attitude to new ideas as American oil tycoons have to renewable energy. So I bet a proposal such as the introduction of end-of-season playoffs would go down like the proverbial lead balloon.
But is it such a bad idea?
My passion for American Football (which is called football despite the fact the ball is rarely touched by feet) makes me maybe a little more open to the idea of playoffs - it is not often that the Super Bowl is contested between the two teams had the best record in the regular season. There's no doubt it adds considerable interest and excitement to proceedings - both towards the end of the regular season as teams battle it out to get a playoff place, and during the playoffs themselves. The reward for a better regular season record is home advantage in the playoff matches, so there is less incentive for the top teams to take their feet off the gas after a playoff place has been earned.
It doesn't always feel right though; for example, in 2007 the New England Patriots were clearly the dominant team, winning all 16 regular season games and two playoff games as well...only to lose the Super Bowl final (and the chance to become the first team to win all 19 games in a season) to the New York Giants, who had only barely managed to make the playoffs in the first place.
The idea that the team who tops the SPL at the end of the league season might not win the league title doesn't sit all that easily with me, though maybe that's just because I'm set in my ways. However, the biggest objection to having a playoff competition is plain to see - this season Rangers could well stride away and win the title by more than 10 points; is it fair they could lose the title, and possibly a Champions League place, as a result of a one off match at the end of the season?
Rangers would say no; perhaps the likes of Hearts and Motherwell, who can't compete with the Old Firm over the course of a full campaign, might be more receptive to this prospect.
As far as I can tell, the most prominent football leagues in the world to use this system to decide their champion are Australia's A-League (as mentioned above), and Major League Soccer in the USA; these countries traditionally use playoffs in other sports too, so there is far less resistance to that sort of set up.
The A-League is the one most comparable to the SPL - whereas MLS has teams split into separate conferences, the A-League has 10 teams who play each other three times in the main season for a total of 27 games; the top six enter the playoffs. Interestingly the best two teams in the league season play each other at the start of the playoffs - the winner qualifies for the final and also gets home advantage. The loser of this tie ends up playing the winner of a knockout tournament between the other four teams for the right to play in the final. So there is certainly motivation to finish in the top two in the league.
It's quite a clever structure, I think, and one that could be introduced quite easily to an SPL with a 'top six' mentality already. It certainly improves the chances of a side outside the Old Firm winning it all...and potentially nicking a Champions League spot as well. But, aside from the rather spurious argument that playoffs are against our football tradition - so is diving, but that doesn't stop Scottish players doing it left right and centre - the main reason why playoffs are a non-starter is that it threatens the Old Firm's duopoly on being the only teams who can contest for the title. The idea of St. Johnstone finishing sixth in the table and stringing together a couple of shock results at Celtic Park and Ibrox to win the league and qualify for Europe would probably dislosge what's left of Craig Whyte's stomach contents.
So in this author's opinion, this plan will never happen. But it's a shame it will never be up for consideration, for it has some good points. So thanks to @ryankeaney, for making me open my mind a teensy bit.
Monday, October 17, 2011
It was actually St. Mirren who ended the reign of Tony Mowbray at Celtic Park by humping them 4-0 in Paisley, and had Killie held on to their three goal half time lead at Rugby Park, it's reasonable to speculate that Lennon's nineteen month reign at the club might have been at an end. Defeat in France against Rennes on Thursday, which would effectively mean Europa League elimination, and then a failure to beat Aberdeen at Celtic Park three days later, could be the final nail in the coffin.
Lennon must at least be relieved that the next league match is not against a gritty, determined opponent, but against a Dons side who have avoided league defeat at Celtic Park only once in seven years and who shipped 21 goals in 5 matches against Lennon's side last season.
But the first encounter between Celtic and Aberdeen this season, at Pittodrie in August, has proven somewhat prophetic of the problems Lennon has faced. Craig Brown's side were in a terrible mess, with a casualty list reminiscent of the Somme and carrying as much threat as a kitten in a paper bag. Yet the visitors toiled against an organized defence, and having failed to find an early breakthrough, showed all the frustration of someone who can't get the lid of a pickle jar. They had completely run out of ideas, and only found a winner thanks to a catastrophic blunder from Aberdeen captain Ricky Foster (I remember my father shouting "he should be shot for that!" at the television) that gifted Anthony Stokes a goal.
That game was also the first sign of something else that has become apparent this season; Kris Commons, who was in irresistible form in the second half of the season, has regressed dramatically; an unkind (and accurate) person would say that regression is inversely proportional with his waist circumference. Without that spark, Celtic are hugely lacking a creative spark in the final third and are finding it immensely difficult to break down organized defences. And the frustration builds up quickly, resulting in moments such as Commons' sending off at Tynecastle for a stupid, reckless challenge.
The problems up front, though, pale in comparison to what's happening at the other end of the pitch; someone said of the Scotland team recently that they had 'constipation at the front and diarrhoea at the back' but this applies to Celtic too. The backline is just an absolute shambles, aside from goalkeeper Fraser Forster, and has appeared so ever since the highly rated left back Emilio Izaguirre broke his ankle. The Honduran's replacement, Badr El Kaddouri, is enduring such a difficult settling-in period that it seems certain his loan deal will not be extended beyond January. On the other side, Lennon appears determined to keep playing the raw Welshman Adam Matthews, even despite Mark Wilson's solidity last season.
But the biggest concern lies in the centre of the defence, where there has been so much slapstick that it would have been cut from a Naked Gun film for being too farcical for belief. And at the heart of this has been Daniel Majstorovic, the Kojak-alike Swede who last year provided experience and leadership, but who this season has been as reliable as a used British Leyland car. The only explanation for his continued presence in the side is surely the injuries that prevented anyone else from being consistently available - though, out of his multiple partners in crime this season, Glenn Loovens has looked like Majstorovic with a huge blonde wig and Kelvin Wilson appears to still be getting over the shock of finding the SPL is not a doddle compared to the Championship. At Kilmarnock, Charlie Mulgrew was the tweedle-dum to Majstorovic's tweedle-dee; Mulgrew has played at left-back, left-midfield and centre-midfield for Celtic this year, and played exactly like what he was - a player out of position.
So Celtic can't defend, and can't attack. They have no Plan B for when matches become difficult. Lennon's own actions - criticizing players in post-match interviews, his touchline tantrums - do not, at least from the outside, seem a good way to foster a strong team spirit, though the Kilmarnock comeback suggests there is still a bit of pride there. But, after more than a year and a half of Neil Lennon, and investment in the playing squad which far outweighs that at Ibrox, Celtic appear to be roughly back where they were after Tony Mowbray's Paisley humiliation.
For me, Neil Lennon's demise as Celtic manager is now inevitable. I just can't see how he is going to turn around this team. As I tweeted after the Hearts defeat, the only way Rangers will not win the SPL title is by getting a points deduction for entering administration.
The question is whether he will last until the next Old Firm at Celtic Park at the end of December. I don't think he will. And I'm relishing the thought of him coming back up to Inverness in a month's time, even though we're bottom of the league...it would be somewhat apt if it was Caley Thistle who once more etched their name into the Celtic history books.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Saturday 8th October
It's the big game in Liechtenstein tonight. I've been preparing meticulously for this game, watching video footage of each of the opposing players. The Swiss third division is of very high quality, I'm telling you.
The pre-match press conference was full of the usual stupid questions. "How difficult will this game be for Scotland?" asked one hack. "Of course it will be tough", I replied, scratching my sexy beard, "they have no fewer than six full-time players in their team."
Another moronic journalist (aren't they all?) chimes in with "Did you consider Ross McCormack, the Championship's top scorer who is in top form, for a call up? Or Garry O'Connor, who has ten goals this season with Hibernian?". "What good reason could you possibly give me for picking them?", I retort. All the journalists look puzzled. Quite right too. What a stupid question.
I'd much rather have Craig Mackail-Smith than McCormack or O'Connor. For a start, he clearly hasn't washed his hair in months, so his personal hygiene is on the same level as mine. He doesn't have a sexy beard, though.
Since the captain, Darren, had tonsillitis, I had to sit the squad down and explain my tactical plan for his absence. "Right," I said, "with no Darren I think that we'll have to change from 4-5-1." The players' eyes lit up. "Steven, James, you guys aren't playing as midfielders tonight", I told them to their obvious delight. "You're going to be extra full backs". Steven Naismith smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand, which Peter Houston tells me is a Weegie expression of assent.
Thankfully though, Darren's antibiotics kicked in, and he told me he could play. I was delighted, but admitted I was feeling uneasy about playing the all out attacking 4-5-1 system. "Are you sure we shouldn't go back to 4-6-0?" I asked Darren. "They have SIX full-time players".
Sunday 9th October
That was a hairy experience in Vaduz. Initially the stewards wouldn't even let me into the dugout until Stewart Regan from the SFA came down and explained who I was. "Sorry Craig", Stewart said, "but they thought you were a hobo trying to sneak in."
"Why on earth did they think that?" I asked, stroking my sexy beard. Stewart gave me a long hard look, and then sighed. "I've no idea", he said.
Early in the game I whistled Stevie Naismith to the touchline to pass on some instructions. For some reason, he asked me "Got any Bucky?" before looking embarrassed and muttering "sorry, boss, didn't realise that was you".
We won 1-0 in the end. I know Craig Mackail-Smith scored, but I'm convinced we would have done better without playing a striker. At the end I shouted for Stevie and James to go and play as extra full-backs, but they clearly couldn't hear me over the huge crowd noise. Luckily we hung on.
After the game, Jim Spence from the BBC interviewed me and asked if I felt we should have won by more goals. "Listen," I said, feeling exasperated, "they had SIX full-time players! What do you expect?" He looked puzzled. Quite right too.
Monday 10th October
Journalists keep asking me if I wish I'd done anything different during the qualifying campaign. Of course I do - I completely regret my tactical plan for the game in Prague. The bottom line is that 4-6-0 was the wrong idea - if only I'd played more defenders, we'd have won that game. Easily. As for the return game? If only I'd made Christophe Berra stay behind after training for extra diving practice. It's done the world of good for Stevie Naismith.
People keep whinging about the other games, too. But Lithuania are a great team. Vladimir Romanov wouldn't own and pay all these players if they weren't any good now, would he? So a 0-0 in Kaunas and a 1-0 in Hampden are great results, really. And remember, we wouldn't have won at Hampden if I hadn't been clever and placed everyone behind the ball for the last half hour. Some idiot managers would have still kept attacking, just because their team was on top and a second goal seemed inevitable. Not me, though. I think ahead. So when Lithuania started dominating possession and launching high balls into the box, I already had everyone back defending.
I really should get more credit for these smashing ideas. But I'm confident that the football history books will recognise my achievement of inventing the position of "extra full back". And Guardiola thought the False Nine was clever. But, then, his beard isn't as sexy as mine.
Tuesday 11th October
Darren, the captain, caught up with me ten minutes before kickoff. "Look, boss, we can't play that formation tonight."
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Darren", I replied. "This system gives us the best chance for a result. If you don't agree, I'll drop you to the bench".
"But boss," he persisted, "we're not allowed to play a 16-1-0 formation, even if we wanted to".
He's a sharp boy, Darren, even sharper than me. I didn't have time to pick a new lineup. Thankfully Stewart Regan had a copy of our teamsheet from Saturday, so I just handed that in instead.
"Okay," I told the players in the dressing room. "Here's our new plan. We'll sit off them like they have leprosy, and let them get three goals up, and then we'll attack them. They won't be expecting that!" Stevie hit his forehead with the palm of his hand again. So did Phil, James and Craig, which was surprising. I didn't realise they were weegies as well.
Wednesday 12th October
After the game, I heard Darren talking to a few of the other players. "Are we making any progress, do you think?" One said. "Aye," Darren replied. "The last manager had a problem with the booze. Now we have a manager who only looks like he has a problem with the booze." I'm not sure what he meant, but it's reassuring to know that my captain thinks we are making progress.
This morning, I got out of bed and started the weekly trim of my sexy beard. I looked at my reflection in my mirror. "So, Craig," I said to it, "should I have any regrets about the qualifying campaign?".
"Of course you should", my reflection said. "Those tactics in Prague and in Kaunas, those mediocre performances in the games at Hampden. But you know what you should have done differently".
"That's right". I said. "Next time, I'll pick more defenders. Then we'll be all right".
Thursday, October 6, 2011
You'd think an alleged matchfixing scandal involving Scotland's top flight might attract more attention. It's a sign of how low the stock of Scottish football has fallen that the arrest of Motherwell midfielder Steve Jennings is not causing larger headlines than it is. Jennings was lifted, along with eight men from Merseyside (where Jennings is originally from) on charges of Conspiracy to Defraud.
Interestingly, one of the blokes from Merseyside is apparently Wayne Rooney's father. Another is Rooney's uncle. Doesn't Wayne give them any pocket money?
Jennings has been a solid, if unspectacular, player for the Well since Jim Gannon took him north from Tranmere Rovers in July 2009 - he has been a fixture in the midfield since then, doing the 'water carrier' job in front of the centre backs. He reminds me very much of former Inverness player Russell Duncan, stuck in a role without glory, where fans rarely notice the intricate positional sense and 'dirty work' being done but constantly seize upon mistakes as a reason why the team doesn't need such a player. Of course, as soon as he's injured/dropped, his absence is quickly apparent as opposing midfielders rampage through the gaping hole that the 'water carrier' would normally be occupying.
Anyway, my point is that many non-Motherwell fans may not even have heard of Jennings - even though he has been a fixture in the team under three managers - Gannon, Craig Brown and Stuart McCall.
This is all to do with a Motherwell-Hearts game at Fir Park last December, shortly after Brown had left for Aberdeen and just before McCall was installed; the home side were under the caretaker management of Gordon Young. Hearts won 2-1. I'm sure I watched the match, and I remember seeing more than a few bizarre decisions from referee Steve O'Reilly, including an incident where, when a Hearts player deliberately encroached and blocked a quick Motherwell free kick from a yard away, the ref insisted no offence had been committed and let play continue!
Jennings was sent off in unusual circumstances late in the game. He had been booked earlier, but seemed to have been given a straight red card by O'Reilly after protesting his decision to turn down a penalty appeal. The official reason was 'foul and abusive language', and it is believed the word "cheat" was used. On the face of it, it could easily have been construed as a young man losing his cool and taking his frustration too far - he certainly wouldn't be the first or the last to have got himself in such hot water.
But it appears that there is more to this. Only a day after the match, the SPL was informed by the bookies Blue Square that numerous bets had been made, both with them and other bookmakers, on a Motherwell player being sent off, including from brand new accounts which seemed to have been created purely to wager on this outcome. This story hit the press at the time, but quickly seemed to disappear. I had assumed nothing had come of these claims, but in fact the investigations have simply continued under the radar. Jennings served a three match ban at the time, but, having received loud public support from his club, has played in several matches since, including last season's Scottish Cup Final. He signed a new contract at Motherwell in the summer.
Let's not get carried away. Innocent till proven guilty and all that. But that's a lot of arrests, and considering it's nearly a year since the incident, it is fair to assume that the police feel they have some evidence to work on. I would certainly assume Jennings is going to be suspended for the time being by Motherwell. Will he play for the club (or anyone else) again? Only time will tell.
But here's some food for thought - could anyone else be trying (and succeeding) to fix Scottish football matches? One thing's for sure - fans are going to be more suspicious about bizarre antics on the pitch. Which makes me think referees could be in for a hard time...
Monday, October 3, 2011
The grass is always greener on the other side, the neighbours got a new car that you wanna drive, and when time is running out you wanna stay alive
The lyrics to the Travis song Side might well have been on the mind of troubled Rangers owner Craig Whyte last week, as he stated his intent to find a way to get the club into the English Premier League. It's almost become a tradition up here; every four or five years one or both members of The Gruesome Twosome voice their agitation on missing out on the big bucks available over the other side of Hadrian's Wall, and malign their status as big fish stuck in a pond which is shrinking so quickly that it might now, technically, be a puddle.
Following this comes various rentaquote former players and two-bit pundits turning up in the papers or on Sky Sports News to give their yay or nay opinions...and then after a few weeks the idea transpires to be as much a non-starter as a Hermann Goering appeal against the Nuremburg Trial verdict.
Yet Rangers and Celtic keep coming back pleading to the English top flight, like a geeky bespectacled IT worker on his hands and knees, trying to beg Scarlett Johansson to give him a pity date. You can hardly blame them; they have been left behind to the point that even finishing last in the EPL is worth as much TV and prize money as winning the SPL. But here is why there is no chance of this happening, not for a generation...
THERE'S NOT ENOUGH QUALITY
How times have changed. Rangers in particular took massive advantage of the post-Heysel situation, attracting numerous English internationals north with the lure of European football. Remember the names - Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, Gary Stevens, Graham Roberts, Trevor Francis, Ray Wilkins, Mark Walters, Trevor Steven, Nigel Spackman, Mark Hateley. Oh, and Terry Hurlock, surely the dirtiest player I've ever seen, not so much a Pitbull as a rabid Alsatian.
It's roughly the equivalent of David James, Jamie Carragher, Gareth Barry and Peter Crouch playing north of the border. Hard to imagine now, eh? Yet in 1992-93, the Gers got to within a whisker of a Champions League final, beating English champions Leeds United home and away on the way. Even as late as the end of the last century, with Celtic buoyed by the arrival of Henrik Larsson, there was a case for claiming that both sides were capable of competing at the top of the Premiership.
How time changes.
Below is, in my opinion, the best 11 players from an all-Old Firm team.
How many of these guys, would you say, are good enough to play in the English Premier League? Even with some generosity, I'd say you would only need the fingers of one hand to count them.
Things have deteriorated to the point that, during the summer, Crystal Palace midfielder Neil Danns turned down a move to Ibrox, with the prospects of Champions League football and winning trophies, to sign for another Championship side, Leicester City. Frankly, Rangers and Celtic are now Championship-standard sides, and quite possibly would struggle initially to get out of that dog-eat-dog league. They are a long way from where they would need to be to become an established top division side, and that gap just increases with every passing year.
THE FANS ARE A TURN OFF
Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect if one was to ask an English football fan what one word first came to mind when thinking of Old Firm supporters, the answer would be "Manchester."
True, Celtic fans have built up a good reputation with their adventures in Europe, but I can't help feeling that this goodwill has been cancelled out by their rivals and their constant run-ins with UEFA. To be honest, the green-and-white half of Glasgow are hardly the occupiers of the moral high ground, and I'd be interested to see how well songs about the IRA might go down in places such as Birmingham, London and Brighton, or any other places which were bombed during those awful times.
The bottom line is that there is just too much baggage, and too much potential for trouble.
WHY WOULD THE PREMIER LEAGUE WANT THEM?
How exactly would any club down south actually gain from having Rangers and Celtic in their league system? Really?
I can't think of any particular reason at all.
The clubs who start every season with at least a bit of concern about being relegated from the top flight - your Boltons and Fulhams - will find their status even more threatened. Thoughts of self-preservation would surely win out here.
Meanwhile, whilst the Manchester clubs and Chelsea are probably out of reach, I would think the rest would fear that, with their fanbases and potential income from their crowds, that sooner or later Rangers and Celtic might be able to establish themselves and even challenge for European places...thus taking away income from these other clubs.
Do the Old Firm actually bring anything positive to the table? They might have bigger grounds and bigger attendances than the Norwichs of this world, but I'm not sure that it's possible for the English Premier League to make more money than it already does from TV deals and the like; I don't think that having the Glasgow clubs on board makes the income pie any bigger, but just means there are two more teams fighting for slices of that pie.
It probably is in the interests of Rangers and Celtic to leave Scottish football if they want to increase their incomes. There might even be a case that Scottish football could benefit from their departure (but that's an argument for another day). But when the English Premier League clubs turn around and say "What's in it for us?", the answer at the moment is just "errrr...." And that's not going to win any argument.