Thursday, December 29, 2011

No respite soon for McCoist

On its own, this week's Old Firm defeat was nothing for Rangers manager Ally McCoist to lose much sleep over.

He is bound to be a bit miffed at his side's failure to exert any pressure in the second half; the fact is that for the 40 minutes after Joe Ledley, that well known aerial predator, scored what transpired to be the winning goal Celtic saw out the game with little discomfort. On the other hand, the visitors created several chances in the opening period at Parkhead, including Carlos Bocanegra kneeing the ball over the bar from 2 yards, and of course they would have led had Sone Aluko's rear end not prevented the assistant referee from seeing that Lee Wallace's header had crossed the line before Fraser Forster's ape-like hand clawed it out of danger. Much like the encounter between the two sides in September, there was ultimately little to choose between them, and home advantage was probably the decisive factor.

But, though he continues to exude charisma and calm in his dealings with the press, McCoist is bound to be worried. Celtic might have won nine games in a row, but the main reason they have recovered from being 15 points behind (with two games in hand, mind you) to leading the SPL is that Rangers have won only three of their last seven games - form that, by Old Firm standards, is practically apocalyptic. It would be grossly unfair if the Rangers support were to display mass hysteria should their team drop points at home to Motherwell on Monday, but anything other than a win will go down about as well in Govan as a Buckfast embargo.

What must concern Coisty above all else is what January might bring to Ibrox; for the events of the coming month may have ramifications for both Rangers and Scottish football that stretch well beyond the 2011-12 campaign. He is not going to get a blank cheque book to reinforce the squad; the best he can hope for is some cheap signings, which have as much chance of being duds (a la Ortiz, Bedoya and McKay) as gems (Bocanegra). If the only way to buy new players is to shed Nikica Jelavic for a tidy sum, then I'd suggest, considering the loss of Steven Naismith to a gammy knee for the rest of the season, that he keep his Croat target man and muddle on with what he has. Jelavic, for this writer, is the most talented player in the Scottish game at the current time.

But there's a good chance Jelavic will be offski, whether McCoist likes it or not. Whilst rumours of Liverpool interest at the end of August have subsequently proven frivolous, Roy Hodgson was in the audience in midweek, eyeing the striker up for West Bromwich Albion. I suspect a figure of around £8 million would cause owner Gregg Whyte's eyes to flash up pound signs like a Looney Tunes cartoon character.

That, of course, is not just because that sum would be good business; Rangers' big, whopping mega tax case goes to tribunal on 15th January, I believe. I'll spare my regular readers the tedium of me going through it again, but the long and short of it is that if the Gers lose, they will have to pay up some ridiculous figure of between £20 million and £50 million; even the conservative estimate would force them into administration, closely followed by a fire sale of the likes of Jelavic, Allan McGregor, Steven Davis, and just about anyone with two good legs (so not David Weir then). Points deduction or not, the club could have to face the immediate future with a threadbare squad of young players and, barring the rescue of a sugar daddy, it's possible that the balance could be tipped heavily in favour of Celtic for years to come; Old Firm fans might look at the early nineties, when Celtic narrowly avoided bankruptcy and Rangers won nine-in-a-row with next to no challenge from their neighbours, for some idea of what I mean.

Anyway, Ally McCoist has enough to worry about in the here and now. His expanding waist-line already leads one to wonder whether he deals with the current stresses through comfort eating; if January is a bad month - on or off the field - then there might not be a pie to be found in Ibrox.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Villa won't tolerate McLeish tedium

Alex McLeish is a bit like marmite.

No, I don't mean he is brown and sticky, or that he is only good for spreading on toast. I mean that you either love him or you hate him.

I think that Aston Villa fans are currently tending towards the latter feeling.

On the face of it, Villa are not doing particularly badly. At the time of writing, they lie tenth in the Premier League. Given that the cardiac-challenged Gerard Houllier's single season at the club saw the club finish ninth (albeit only after a very good finish to the campaign under his assistant Gary McAllister), and that the most realistic target for the team, on their budget, is battling for seventh, it doesn't look like McLeish is doing too bad a job.

On the face of it.

In reality, the Villa Park faithful appear to be losing patience already. The only reason why McLeish's players didn't leave the pitch to a cacophony of boos after their defeat by Liverpool this weekend was that the majority of fans had long since left in order to find something to do which would reduce the urge to slit their wrists. Villa were absolutely rotten; they conceded two early goals at corner kicks - something that would have been unthinkable when Martin O'Neill was in charge - and never looked like getting back into the game. In attack, they looked about as dangerous as the common cold.

There were some mitigating circumstances on this occasion; namely the absence of Darren Bent through injury and Gabriel Agbonlahor through suspension. But this doesn't excuse the fact that Villa have managed only 18 goals in 16 league games, including just 10 at home. This, along with 2 wins in the last 9 matches, means that McLeish's honeymoon period is long over. They are closer to the relegation zone than to Newcastle in seventh.

To an extent, the lack of flair and extravagant attacking play has not exactly come as a surprise. The former Aberdeen and Scotland centre-half has made his name in recent years mainly through setting up his sides to be well organized and difficult to break down, while relying on only one or two creative players, or on set-pieces, to provide goals at the other end. This achieved him some spectacular successes, particularly as Scotland boss, where he nearly qualified for Euro 2008 out of a group with France, Italy and Ukraine (I know Jesus could walk on water, but I don't think he could have coached a side to beat the Franch home and away).

And of course he managed to win the Carling Cup last year with Birmingham with an against-the-odds victory against Arsenal. This success may or may not be cancelled out by the fact that the Blues ended up being relegated a few months later. But the season before, he guided City to a comfortable mid-table finish based on a solid 4-5-1 and a backline that gave up goals to opponents in the same way that Philip Green gives up earnings to the tax man.

But his achievements with Scotland and Birmingham were made by getting the underdog to punch above its weight (argh, mixing metaphors!). Aston Villa is a different proposition; a side who were always battling in the top six under Martin O'Neill only a few years ago. They might have cut their cloth since then, having cashed in on James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, but they have enough clout that they splashed out on Darren Bent last January. Certainly the supporters, rightly or wrongly, expect results, and some goals thrown in as well.

What they have instead is Emile Heskey huffing and puffing, and Charles N'Zogbia, McLeish's marquee signing, looking like the N'Zogbia that sulked his way out of Newcastle, rather than the one who at times carried Wigan on his back.

It's worth remembering that, for all his titles at Ibrox, McLeish's '1-0 is worth as many points as 3-0' philosophy left him far less popular at Rangers than you might expect a manager who won two league titles, two Scottish Cups and three League Cups. As soon as results went awry domestically, the fans turned against him, even though he simultaneously guided the Gers past the group stage of the Champions League for the first time - not to be sneezed at, considering the most dangerous forward he had available was Peter Lovenkrands.

Big Eck's current situation begins to remind me of Sam Allardyce's brief and ill-fated time in the Newcastle hotseat. When Big Sam was dismissed midway through the season, he left a team in mid-table who appeared in no danger of relegation, though well adrift of the teams chasing a European place. Certainly, they were no worse than under this predecessors, Graeme Souness and Glenn Roeder. But Allardyce's attempts to rebuild the team from the back resulted in a side that only scored 11 goals in his last 12 games in charge. The only thing supporters hate more than losing a game is losing a really boring game, and when form dipped, there was no goodwill coming from the stands.

For when the fans turn against you, you are doomed. Allardyce was. McLeish isn't yet. But if Villa continue to produce tedious displays under his direction, he could find himself out of a job before long.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Chris Hogg reminds us footballers are human beings

I've been musing this week about why it is that there has been so little sympathy shown towards the Hearts players who haven't been getting paid.

I think it's because, to the average fan, footballers appear to be such an aloof bunch, detached from the real world. Some of that is down to the fact that the greatest, most famous players are seen only on a television screen by the majority, making their drama no more real than Eastenders - of course, it could be argued that most soap opera characters seem far less fictional than Mario Balotelli.

Some of that aloofness, however, also comes from the fact that some footballers earn vast wealth which allows them to live a lifestyle which is far beyond what you and me will ever experience. The fact that, even when earning in a week what many people make in a decade is not enough to make some of those prima donnas happy (I'm looking at you, Carlos Tevez) means there is not a lot of sympathy to be had for those players who are going through difficult times. This may be why there has been a lack of obvious public support for the Hearts players squad. Several of these guys will have weekly paycheques that reach four figures, but the story in The Sun that midfielder Ian Black is working part-time as a painter-decorator to pay the bills certainly raised my eyebrows.

So whilst we lose no sleep at all over the plights of the Tevez's of this world (although, bearing in mind the recent passing of Gary Speed, we should perhaps be more mindful of the rumours that Tevez is suffering from depression), those further down football's food chain are, in reality, not a huge amount different from you and I.

A recent and startling example of this is Caley Thistle defender Chris Hogg.

Englishman Hogg is a solid enough centre-back; he was good enough to be captain of Hibernian for a few years, but I would assume his move to Inverness last January, after he fell out of favour at Easter Road, saw a drop in income; certainly it would be fair to argue he was moving to a smaller club. After his initial six month deal expired, he went on trial with Middlesbrough and Crewe initially rather than sign a new deal in the Highlands; some fans took offence to that but you can hardly blame a player for being ambitious. Anyway, no other offer was forthcoming and he re-signed for us in August. This season he has been, by a distance, our best defender...though frankly I would look good in a back line tht included the accident-prone likes of David Proctor and Roman Golobart. At the age of 26, a good campaign would put him in decent stead to start moving back up in the world again.

Then, on Saturday, his teammate David Davis tripped a Dundee United player, who promptly collided with Hogg. When the physio calls for a stretcher before he's even tried to move the player, you know it's a bad injury.

Hogg's anterior cruciate ligament, plus both medial and collateral ligaments, are wrecked. Terry Butcher called it "one of the worst knee injuries we've seen". The inference is clear; Hogg is certainly out for the season, perhaps longer, perhaps forever. His knee joint is a wreck.

The player's response is quite remarkable; this week Hogg has started his own blog, named 'The Fightback'. He is quick to admit that he sees it as self-therapy, but already he has documented meticulously the events following his injury. As a medical professional who has worked at the hospital at Inverness (and who knows some of the people involved in his treatment and rehab), I can easily relate to his experiences there; what is more startling is his willingness to reveal his own emotions and fears, his concerns for his family and his future.

It might not read like Dickens, but it's a damn sight more interesting than most of the stuff I write on my blog. At the moment, Chris Hogg is opening his life up for the rest of the world to take a peek. And it is a good reminder that, even if the Rooneys, Balotellis and Tevez's of this world are very different people from you and me, most footballers are just like us, with the same stresses and supports that we have. So, if you've got a moment, have a look at and check out his story.

Get well soon, Hoggy.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Where do Hearts go from here?

I wonder how many Hearts players watched the recent strikes by public sector workers and thought 'I wish I could do that.'

There have been plenty of moments during the ownership of Vladimir Romanov where Hearts have looked a step away from a catastrophe, but alarm bells were ringing when the players received their October wage packet nearly three weeks late. They are due their December pay cheque this week; each player has received a £1,000 payment in lieu of their November wages so far.

No wonder form is suffering on the pitch, with only one win in seven matches. They lie fifth in the league, but only two points above the team in eighth. They are closer to bottom-placed Dunfermline than they are to third-placed Motherwell.

Romanov's motives, as ever, are difficult to interpret. On the one hand, the current economic climate makes it reasonable to wonder about his personal financial situation and that of his bank, UKIO Bankas, especially when the other major bank in Lithuania was recently taken over by the government. On the other hand, Romanov has been happy to invest in his Lithuanian basketball team, so he must have at least some pocket change to spare.

A more likely explanation is that he is simply fed up of pouring money into Tynecastle's black hole. For all his questionable decision-making during his seven years at the club, Romanov has pumped, according to some estimates, around £20 million into Hearts. And bear in mind that before his arrival, Hearts were effectively insolvent and on the brink of selling Tynecastle. Aside from his first full season in Scottish football, when George Burley's team briefly looked like becoming the first non-Glaswegian champions of the SPL era, Hearts have not been close to challenging the Old Firm. And the prospect of doing so becomes bleaker for every year that passes.

Whilst the wage bill is probably nowhere near where it was five years ago, when some players were on weekly wages reaching five figures, it's not unreasonable to assume Hearts have the third highest budget in the country. They certainly have a bloated squad that needs trimming. But the intention appears to be to cut down the entire forest, not just the dead wood.

According to this weekend's Scotland On Sunday, the players can walk on 14 January if they are not paid by then. But that won't pay the bills. Bear in mind that these are not English Premier League players with vast wealth. A few of the more seasoned pros are bound to have some cash in the bank, you'd think. But, like anyone else in life, these guys will have families to support, mortgage payments, car payments...and, of course, Christmas too.

But the SFA and the SPL won't lift a finger until players make individual complaints against their club. The players, of course, are wary of how their volatile paymaster could punish them for speaking out openly. It seems that there is no escape for the squad for at least another month, unless Romanov loosens the purse strings.


Romanov sells
Romanov wants out, and if Hearts could find new owners then this is the best solution for everyone. But the asking price stands at £50 million, and I can't see anyone offering even a fraction of that for a club who have no obvious prospect of doing better than third in the league without significant investment.

The players get paid
Doesn't seem likely somehow, though you never know with Romanov. Even if he loosens the purse-strings, what's to say that future wages won't be late?

The players walk
This appears a likely outcome right now. The younger players have been getting their wages during all of this, and presumably they would be integrated into the team. It's fair to assume they would struggle, and would slump down the table. But would Romanov really care?


If only Hearts had sold Andrew Driver two years ago, when his stock was through the roof and allegedly offers of £3 million were rejected. His subsequent injury record would surely discourage anyone from risking anything more than a nominal fee.

Goalkeeper Marian Kello has been the most consistent player of the last couple of seasons, but his contract is up this summer. Winger David Templeton was electric at times last season but his form has been erratic during 2011.

The Bosman signings of last summer - Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill, John Sutton and Mehdi Taouil, have not done enough to suggest they are worth paying a transfer fee for.

Hearts' biggest problem is the presence of highly-paid players who are either injured long-term or who can't make the team - Darren Barr, Suso Santana, Kevin Kyle and Calum Elliot stand out. But no-one else wants them either.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Aluko case is doomed to fail

It doesn't help the public image when the SFA's new Compliance Officer, Vincent Lunny, is referred to on Sky Sports News as "Vincent Loony".

I assume it was an unfortunate autocue error, though since the same channel called Caley Thistle's goalscoring midfielder Andrew Shinnie "Andy Shiny" on Saturday, I'm inclined to wonder whether there is a smartass in the studio.

For the record, Lunny has a fairly impressive legal background, including working in war crimes prosecutions at The Hague. Why he would give that up to deal with Scottish football's problems, on a full-time basis, is beyond me.

His career change sees him go from prosecuting Slobodan Milosevic, to prosecuting Sone Aluko.

For Aluko is the main focus of the Scottish football press this week - it's a slow news week - after a rather naff dive at Ibrox on Saturday which conned Steve Conroy into awarding a penalty to Rangers (soft penalties to the Old Firm?! Where have we heard that before?). Conroy's reputation has not been helped by the comments of former SPL ref Kenny Clark, who described the contact by Dunfermline's Gary Mason on Aluko as "not enough to cause a man to spill his pint in the pub".

A fat lot of good this does Dunfermline; the resultant spot-kick conversion from Nikica Jelavic was the decisive goal in a 2-1 Rangers victory when a point would have given the Pars a welcome bonus in their relegation battle. But the SFA appears keen to make up for their official's horrendous blunder; Aluko has been charged with "simulation", and threatened with a two match ban. Which seems a little odd, considering that, if the referee had done his job properly, the former Aberdeen winger would have been shown a yellow card.

When the case is heard on Thursday, expect it to be thrown out.

It matters not that Aluko clearly cheated; there is already precedent this season, when the SFA tried to meet out the same punishment to Hibs' Garry O'Connor when he won a penalty against St. Johnstone with an epic 6.0, 6.0, 6.0 effort. TV pictures showed quite clearly that there was no foul, and, to further fuel the fire, O'Connor's own assistant boss Billy Brown admitted on Sportscene that it was a dive. Yet, when Hibernian challenged the ban, the SFA gave in faster than an Italian on the North African front in 1940. O'Connor escaped a ban, a fine, and even a retrospective yellow card. He got off scot-free, which is more than he is likely to manage when he appears in court later this year regarding charges of drug possession and fraud.

The problem with "simulation" is proving it, just as UEFA found after they tried to punish Arsenal's Eduardo for a dive in a Champions League game versus Celtic. It's very easy to find a TV angle that shows a slight possibility of contact. The attacking player can also claim that he lost his balance. Take the case of Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson who, this weekend, won a dubious penalty at Molineux (his subsequent miss from twelve yards shows that sometimes, there is justice in football). It was a dive, no doubt about that; the way the Swede puffed out his chest reminded me of a sprinter leaning forward to cut the tape at the finish line. But one TV camera suggested a bit of miniscule, minute contact with the leg of Jody Craddock - who was doing his level best to get out of the way - and I bet, if push came to shove, Larsson would claim that he felt the contact, was put slightly off-balance, and has the right to go down as a consequence

So Aluko will, I think, be exonerated, though you'd like to think his reputation might have taken a hit and, the next time he goes down in the box, the referee might look twice. But whilst I agree with the SFA's attempts to root out diving, I just can't see how they will be able to ban players for multiple matches for what ultimately is a bookable offence.

As for Vincent Lunny, his main role as Compliance Officer is to provide a figurehead to the panel thats make retrospective decisions regarding red card appeals and the like. One hopes he can provide some objectivity; the previous philosophy appears to have consisted simply of 'what the referee says goes' - so that if the referee looks at it on TV and refuses to change his decision, the appeal gets thrown out. This is a big deal for a club like Caley Thistle when each appeal costs £1,000 a time, and even more so when very disputable red cards such as Chris Hogg's against Motherwell for denying a goalscoring opportunity are upheld without even the slightest debate.

So I'd like to see Lunny do well; there is a real opportunity to make a significant impact on the Scottish game here. Unfortunately, there is also a real opportunity here for him to become a hate figure of Rangers or Celtic fans (or somehow, like journalist Graham Spiers, a hate figure for both). I can't help feeling that even a lawyer like Lunny will be unable to untangle the bureaucracy involved, and that he'll be dealing with a few smashed windows once Old Firm fans find out where he lives. I'll be surprised if he lasts a year in the post. But I hope I'm wrong.