Monday, November 21, 2011

Celtic visit leaves a bitter taste

The fairytale that was Caley's home game against Celtic will prove a familiar story to those who watch the Scottish Premier League.

Provinical club meets Old Firm team. The Old Firm team struggles to break down the provinicial clubs organized defence early on. The provinical club then threatens to...god forbid...outplay the Old Firm team!

But never fear - over the horizon, on his white stallion, comes the handsome prince, or rather, the referee, to rescue the Old Firm team by awarding either a contentious penalty, or a contentious red card. If he is a true Prince Charming, he will manage to do both at the same time.

On Saturday, Stevie O'Reilly didn't need to come up with a ridiculous spot-kick decision, though had it taken much longer than the sixty-one minutes that Celtic required to break the deadlock, there is little doubt in the mind of the Inverness support that he would have duly obliged. In the end, it transpired that the obscene decision to dismiss Greg Tansey for use of 'an elbow' on Georgios Samaras proved sufficient.

Terry Butcher summed up the incident in one beautiful soundbite - "deadly assault by fingernail". One hopes that, given his apparent knowledge of the human anatomy, Mr O'Reilly's day job is not as an orthopaedic surgeon.

If only it had been a one-off incident, it would be reasonable to dismiss this as a human error, an understandable mistake. But the referee's handling of the match warrants further inspection - two 'handbags moments' during the match, both of which resulted in a yellow for the Caley player and only a long chat for the Celtic player (if one was feeling particularly cruel, they might suggest that Mr O'Reilly was asking the Celtic player for his autograph and phone number), and two gross pieces of time wasting by Celtic players to break up Caley attacks, one of which saw the ball booted 60 yards up the pitch several seconds after a free kick had been awarded.

The bottom line is this: if Samaras had fouled Tansey in the same way, do you think he would have been sent off? As was pointed out by many after this match, anyone who was told 'this match was decided by a controversial refereeing decision' would have very quickly bet their mortgage on Celtic being favoured.

It's worth noting that, though the referees are meant to stay on the pitch after the final whistle had been blown to make sure the players have left the field of play, Mr O'Reilly was off down the tunnel long before any of the Celtic team, walking so briskly that he looked like a man who had just realized he had left the gas on.

Sadly, it's not the first time this has happened to Caley Thistle this season; in August, Euan Norris got Rangers out of a hole by giving a very contentious penalty and sending off Caley's Ross Tokely to boot; just to rub salt into the wound, he awarded a second, even more ridiculous, spot kick later on.

And it's not just us that are suffering. Celtic have not won a league game for two months against a side who have finished with eleven men. Five players have been sent off against them so far in this campaign. Their ratio of fouls to yellow cards is twice as high as any other team (including Rangers) - this suggests Celtic have to commit twice as many fouls to get a yellow card as their opponents. Last year, for all their posturing about bias against them from the Powers That Be, they set a new record for penalties won in a SPL season.

Sadly, the scenario of Saturday is so common that, pre-kickoff, we were all joking in the stands about how, unless Celtic were in front after half an hour, they were bound to get some help from the officials.

The game itself, then, was about as much fun as being punched in the face repeatedly by Rocky Marciano. The whole experience was not enhanced by the usual posturing of the Celtic support, several of whom decided to grace my walk away from Caledonian Stadium after the match with a chorus of pro-IRA chants. They had already disgusted me enough with their bizarre banner 'Our music has survived famine and oppression', which they unfurled at kickoff. I hope there is some sort of subtle meaning to this display that has escaped me - for it seems on the outside to be an attempt to justify the offensive songs that plague so many of their matches.

Besides, judging by the waistlines sported by the majority of the away support, the closest they've come to experiencing a famine was when the local chippy ran out of curry sauce.

If there is any justice in Scottish football, Tansey's red card will be rescinded on appeal, Caley will receive an apology from Stevie O'Reilly (or, failing that, he will be sent to officiate games in Stenhousemuir and Coatbridge for a few weeks), and Georgios Samaras will be fined for clearly feigning injury in order to get a fellow professional sent off.

Sadly, even the first of those is far from probable, given Inverness' prior experience trying to overturn spurious red cards this season.

And yes, for those who are asking, I am still bitter as hell about the whole damn fiasco.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ross County threaten to double the SPL's Highland quota

There's something rather nice about a Scottish footballing weekend where the biggest match doesn't involve the Old Firm, and the inevitable baggage that comes stuck to them like a diseased, festering limpet.

In fact, the biggest match in the country was in, of all places, Dingwall, where Ross County and Falkirk met in a clash between the top two sides in the first division. Whilst there was a bit of stirring beforehand, with the two managers slagging each other off to the press, it came as much amusement, at least to this writer, when Derek Adams and Steven Pressley in fact admitted after the game that their 'spat' was more about increasing interest in the game than about managerial mind-games.

It at least partly worked; more than four thousand souls pitched up to Victoria Park, an attendance that certainly bettered crowds at SPL matches at St. Johnstone, St. Mirren, Dunfermline, Kilmarnock and Inverness (Ross County's local rivals of course) this season. And those of us who turned up saw a match which made up for a lack of quality with great intensity and effort, as the home side ran out 3-1 winners. County now find themselves with a sturdy six point cushion at the top of the table. Whilst it wasn't necessarily a good advert for an expanded SPL - my father and I agreed that, aside from former Caley Thistle stalwart Grant Munro in the home defence, there wasn't a single player on the pitch who would obviously be capable of stepping up a level - it certainly indicated that Scotland's second tier is perfectly capable of putting on a good show, even if the cost of a terracing ticket was a rather steep £14.

The result has also, of course, seriously raised the possibility of County winning promotion to the SPL and, if Caley Thistle were to stay up this year (by no means a sure thing), the top division would contain two Highland teams for the 2011/12 season. Considering there weren't any Highland teams in the whole of the Scottish Football League 18 years ago, that would be no mean feat.

It could also have significant implications. Whilst claims from Caley Thistle fans - and, on occasion, from manager Terry Butcher - that streamlining the SPL to ten teams is an attempt to keep ICT out of the top league and reduce the travelling for everyone else is surely paranoia, there is no doubt that teams do not particularly enjoy jaunting up the A9 a couple of times a season as it is. The idea that this burden could be doubled will probably not enamour the other SPL sides.

In contrast, it would potentially have mutual benefits for Caley and County. For one thing, four derbies a season would pretty much guarantee four capacity crowds - something that would only otherwise happen when the Gruesome Twosome were in town. That would be of fair significance; certainly the likely attendance for next weekend's Caley-Celtic game will be double the number who turned up for the previous home match against Motherwell. So that's a decent increase in gate receipts, no question.

The other interesting factor is that, in terms of decision-making on the future of the SPL, Inverness and Ross County will surely have identical interests, giving them, in effect, a small voting bloc. It would, for one thing, surely mean that there would be no reduction in the size of the division to ten teams whilst both those sides competed in it.

The Scottish football map has certainly changed a bit since 1974, when Inverness Thistle were denied entry to the league in favour of an engineer works team called Ferranti Thistle - the voting clubs were so desperate to avoid the extra travelling north that they elected a club from Edinburgh (which already had two teams), whose ground was not up to standard, and who were not allowed to play under the Ferranti title due to league rules banning the use of a sponsor's name. Ferranti ended up having to move to Meadowbank, and use that name, in order to compete (they are, of course, now Livingston).

In 1994, the Scottish football league finally made up for that scandalous decision by bringing in both Caley Thistle and County - and I wonder if a few chairmen at the top clubs might be regretting that move if, next season, one-sixth of the Scottish Premier League is based more than a hundred miles north of Perth?


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kenny's Kilmarnock Kalamity

Ah, this blog never fails to make me look like a moron.

Last week, I wrote extensively about how Caley Thistle's recent form left me fearing relegation almost as much as I fear salad. And so they only promptly go and welly six past Kilmarnock. In Kilmarnock. I've been to three of Inverness' away games this season, all of which they lost, with only one measly goal to show for it. So forgive me for not fancying a 400 mile round trip to Rugby Park. My parents went...and were rewarded with a BBC Alba clip where my mother could be seen clapping wildly and grinning like a maniac.

Ah, my mum. She promised me a phone call at half-time to tell me how the game is going; I often oblige her with the same if I'm at a game and she's not. My telephone analysis is generally a ten minute monologue with lines such as 'the extra man in midfield is causing problems' or '(insert name) is running the channels well', or, almost inevitably 'David Proctor is having a shocker again'.

Mum? 'We're doing all right today. We'll win.' That's it? 'Yup. Bye.' Considering we were away from home, the score was 1-1 at the time and we'd been behind for most of the game up to that point, I felt somewhat unimpressed. I should have known better than to doubt her; Caley romped to a win far more comfortable than 6-3 suggests. Say what you like about her punditry, but Mum is clearly far superior to Alan Shearer. Even though last year she screamed for a referee to punish an opposing player's foul with 'a ticket'.

Anyway, the moral of this story is that, whenever I write anything negative about a player or team, they instantly hit a rich vein of form, and whenever I scribble something bullish, that player or team instantly dips faster than the Italian economy. So, dear reader, I expect you are asking yourself 'which team will he punish/bless (delete as applicable) with a blogpost this week?'. Actually, I suspect you are asking yourself 'when will he get to the bloody point?'

Alas for Hibs fans, I didn't get round to writing about their wretched defeat to Dunfermline in time to save Colin Calderwood from the sack. CC was ditched just before a club AGM where chairman Rod Petrie was set to be met by an angry mob waving scythes and pitchforks. Coincidentally, Calderwood's successor, John Hughes, was sacked just about a year ago...just before just before a club AGM where chairman Rod Petrie was set to be met by an angry mob waving scythes and pitchforks.

You can't say that Calderwood wasn't backed by his chairman - several signings, including Garry O'Connor, a six figure transfer budget which was wasted on Ross County's Martin Scott, and an opportunity to completely revamp the side. The results never came; just 12 wins in 49 games, and only 42 points in 44 SPL matches. It makes Petrie's decision to stop Calderwood from leaving to become assistant at Nottingham Forest in the summer even more ridiculous than it seemed at the time; instead of £300,000 in compensation, Petrie now has to pay him off.

So in the last five years we have seen the Easter Road dugout welcome John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes and Colin Calderwood. All appeared to be young managers with fresh ideas, all set to go places and take the team with them. All have had their reputations utterly wrecked. Only big Mixu, with his wonderful efforts at Kilmarnock last season, has bounced back.

And it is Kilmarnock I want to focus on.

For all has not been well since Mixu departed in the Spring to become manager of his native Finland. His assistant, Northern Irishman Kenny Shiels, was, unsurprisingly, installed as caretaker for the remainder of the campaign. In the summer he was given the job permanently, a decision which seemed based more on his promise to continue the brand of pretty passing football promoted by his predecessor, than on results - his 8 matches as caretaker produced a grand total of 4 points and zero wins.

I thought it was a bit odd that Killie chairman Michael Johnston didn't broaden his horizons, but his decision seemed justified after a start to the season which saw Shiels' side go unbeaten for the opening four matches, including a 4-1 demolition of Hibs...though bear in mind that it wasn't quite clear how utterly brutal Hibs were at this point. Since then, Kilmarnock have slid down the table, with only two further wins, and an incredible clash with Celtic where they blew a 3-0 halftime lead at home.

The failure to emulate last season's success is not surprising, really; last year Paatelainen got the results, and the performances, with a side that included creative midfielders Alexei Eremenko (whose loan spell finished in the summer), Craig Bryson (sold to Derby in the summer) and Mehdi Taouil (signed by Hearts in the summer) and, for half a season, Connor Sammon up front (who went to Wigan last January).

Kilmarnock 2010-11

Shiels has none of these players, though he has replaced Sammon's goals with Paul Heffernan, the Irish veteran signed from Sheffield Wednesday, and replaced some of the creativity with the arrival on loan from Doncaster of his own son, Dean Shiels; in fact, Shiels has been in such good form that he is at last becoming better known for his ability than for the fact that he only has one eye (his right eye was blinded in a childhood accident and removed in 2006). But he's been a rare bright spark. And his loan deal ends in January.

Kilmarnock 2011-12

Even with his own son on board, Shiels has now won only 3 out of 22 SPL games as Kilmarnock manager. You thought Calderwood's record was bad? A run to a league cup semi final has at least prevented him from feeling the heat. But on Saturday, as stated earlier, Killie shipped six goals at home to bottom-of-the-table Inverness. If that isn't relegation form, what is?

The gold medal in the sack race was already won in August by Jim Jefferies; Calderwood has scooped the silver. The way things are headed in Ayrshire, it might just be worth a cheeky each-way bet on Kenny Shiels to be the next to go.

Or, true to the traditions of this blog, he might make me look like a complete twit and take his side on an epic unbeaten run...