Thursday, December 20, 2012

Have Hibs lost their bottle?

Pat Fenlon had found the magic formula.

His first half-season at Easter Road just seemed to produce more of the same.  Hibernian's results didn't improve - in fact they seemed to get worse, with his first 19 league games producing only 3 wins.  Whilst the staggering ineptitude of Dunfermline ensured that the Hibees involved relegation, the apparent silver lining of a cup run only served to produce the season's nadir in a humiliating defeat at the hands of their city rivals.

But the start of the new campaign was the gorgonzola to last year's calcium carbonate.  An opening weekend thumping at Tannadice did not bode well, and when they fell behind to Hearts in the first half of the second game, I feared the worst.  But an equalizer from Leigh Griffiths seemed to spark the side, and that draw was the start of a run of results which seemed to establish Hibs as The Best Of The Rest.  Just like last year, everyone was focused on Leigh Griffiths...but not because of his petulance or, well, general 'ned'-ness.  The on-loan Wolves striker was scoring more frequently than Silvio Berlusconi on a viagra infusion.  New goalkeeper Ben Williams appeared to have broken the Hibernian Goalkeeper Curse which has afflicted every man between the sticks since Jim Leighton left the club, with help from the super-solid James McPake in front of him.  Other new signings like Ryan McGivern and Paul Cairney fitted in quickly, while winger David Wotherspoon looked like the best Scottish player in the SPL after Griffiths.

Even luck seemed to be going their way.  On a Friday night at Fir Park, Motherwell had a goal wrongly chalked off at 1-0 down, and conceded two penalties - one was contentious, the other scandalous.  Somehow, the visitors managed to come away with a 4-0 win.  After following it up with two more wins, they found themselves top of the SPL.  Even though Celtic were two points behind with a game in hand, it was still impressive.  It felt like Fenlon had come back from his summer holiday with a bouquet of four-leaf clovers and a caged leprechaun.

Six weeks later, Hibs are not top.  They are fourth.  They have managed only 3 points from the last 5 league games.  It all started when they fell victim to Dundee's "we only beat teams from Edinburgh" policy (their other two league wins both came against Hearts).  If the subsequent defeat to Aberdeen was unfortunate - the Dons defence was inspired, while Jamie Langfield just had one of those days goalkeepers have now and again - that was cancelled out by a smash-and-grab win in Perth which came after a dominant St. Johnstone spurned a penalty with the game still goalless.  The dogged cup win over Hearts, in a match so bad that neither team should have been allowed to progress to the next round, perhaps suggested that everything was rosy again; anyone who watched Fenlon's side get annihilated in Inverness the following weekend would tell you the opposite.  And, to cap it all, last Saturday Hibernian blew a 2-0 lead at Easter Road against Motherwell, with Bob McHugh's late winner condemning the home side to a fourth defeat in five in the SPL.

Initially I blamed the bad form on injuries.  McPake tweaked his back, and the defence, a rock with him in the centre, crumbled.  With Tim Clancy also out, Fenlon had to play Lewis Stevenson as a full-back, and he also had to play Alan Maybury, who should be right-back-in-the-dressing-room, not right-back.  Without McPake to take the lead, Paul Hanlon has lost his way, as anyone who saw his hideous attempts at marking Inverness players will tell you.  But McPake's return to the team against Motherwell did a fat lot of good - the team still lost and the defender was sent off late on, the result of a pointless second yellow card that displayed an alarming lack of discipline from the club captain.

It's alarming because it reminds me greatly of last season's Hibs, and the Hibs of the season before that, and the...oh, you get the picture.  Suddenly, they look like a mess.  The heads go down as soon as they concede.  The midfield is devoid of bite (though the return of another absentee, Gary Deegan, might rectify that).  The only thing missing is some v-signs from Leigh Griffiths.

But even the star striker has gone off the boil.  Perhaps it was inevitable after 13 goals in 13 league outings that the former Livi and Dundee man would hit a bad patch.  However, it seems to have coincided with confirmation from Wolves that his parent club want to sell him on in January, having apparently decided he isn't good enough for The Championship, but not in their interest to farm him out.  They want a fee, but Hibs chief exec Rod Petrie has been talking about cutting budgets, not buying players.  Unless The Tache takes his wallet out, Griffiths is offski in less than a month.  It seems reasonable to speculate that this has affected his motivation a bit.

So, is this just a blip, or was the good start to the season just a fluke?

At the moment, logic dictates we should assume the former to be more likely than the latter.  Hibs played some good football earlier this season, especially at home.  With the squad coming back to full strength, Fenlon must be confident that the results will come.  The last four games before the winter break should give us a good idea of where Hibs are right now - Kilmarnock away, Ross County at home, Celtic at home and Hearts away.  Anything from the third of those games is a bonus, and anything but a win against County will be considered a letdown by the home fans, but the results in the two away games will give us a marker regarding whether they are likely to be embroiled in the battle for second place.

I'm not saying its panic stations for Fenlon and Hibernian yet.  There are enough quality players available to him; there are also considerably fewer squad members with big egos and bad attitudes to poison the rest of the team than in previous years.  But the last few weeks have produced a few warning signs, signs we have seen before many a time at Easter Road.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inverness prove the SPL has gone mad

Flashback to the morning of 29 September.  Caley Thistle's first seven league games had produced a grand total of zero wins (albeit with five draws). They lay eleventh in the table.  A few days earlier, they had required a penalty shootout to see off second division side Stenhousemuir in the League Cup.

That morning, I pointed out via twitter that, since January, the club had won only four out of twenty-six competitive games, including one out of eleven at home.  Two of those four wins came in the last two league games of 2011-12, which were essentially dead rubbers.  Another one was away to Arbroath in the League Cup (which, given Celtic's travails against Paul Sheerin's side, doesn't look so unremarkable now).  In case you hadn't got the point, I made it clear: I felt that Inverness were heading in the wrong direction and that Terry Butcher, manager since January 2009, was no longer up to the job.

That afternoon, we stuffed Dundee United 4-0 at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.

Fast forward to 8 December, which saw a 3-0 home win over Hibernian which was as comprehensive as it sounds.  Three days later came another victory, over Ross County in their Scottish Cup replay.  ICT have now lost only one of their last sixteen games in all competitions.  Their last ten league games have produced 21 points.  Such is the closeness of the SPL that, instead of being second from bottom, they are now second from top.  The last three league results have seen victories against a side top of the league (Celtic), a side second in the league (Aberdeen) and a side second in the league (Hibernian).

Clearly, I have no idea what I'm on about, even when it comes to my own team.

Most Caley Thistle fans will tell you that last season was a slog.  Crippled early in the campaign by incessant injuries, we seemed to change our back four every week - out of necessity rather than choice.  A brief peak in form around the turn of the year ended after Andrew Shinnie broke his foot.  A dreadful finish to the campaign meant that we only guaranteed our safety by taking the ball to the corner flag to earn a goalless draw at home to hapless Dunfermline with two matches left.  The summer's transfer dealings didn't fill the support with much confidence.  First team regulars Kenny Gillet, Greg Tansey, Jonny Hayes and Gregory Tade turned down new contracts and left.  Many of the replacements were English lower league players - guys like David Raven, Simon King, Ross Draper and Gary Warren.  Hardly confidence-inspiring.  And instead of bringing in a proven goalscorer (Tade had been the top scorer with just 9 goals), we gave a two year contract extension to the diminutive Irish forward Billy McKay, who had done little to impress the previous season.

As I said above, our start was rocky.  But something clicked.  It turns out that Terry Butcher knew what he was doing.  At both ends of the pitch, Caley Thistle have improved almost beyond recognition from a season ago. 

Unsurprisingly, given that we are the SPL's top scorers, its the attackers who have earned most of the plaudits.  Andrew Shinnie's outstanding form in the old-fashioned "number ten" role earned him the honour of a Scotland cap in November.  Irish winger Aaron Doran, who spent so much time on the treatment table last season that I began to worry he was made of glass, scored a terrific volley to clinch victory in the derby with Ross County in October; the consequence has been a surge of self-belief which has transformed his game.  I was furious to learn that he was named Young Player of the Month for November, as he's out of contract in the summer and I don't want him to attract attention.

In fact, ICT scooped all the awards for November - Butcher took the manager's gong, while McKay, criticized by me on almost an hourly basis last season, was Player of the Month.  The striker has scored nine in his last ten games, and already has eleven for the season.  Captain Richie Foran has been deployed all over the pitch - in midfield, on either flank and both up front and just off McKay - with impressive results.  There should also be a special mention for Arsenal loanee Philip Roberts, who has been in and out of the team; whilst displaying the sort of inconsistency you expect from a 20 year old, his contributions include the glorious dragback that left two Celtic players sliding on their backsides and set up McKay's winner at Celtic Park.

But good teams need a solid foundation.  In this case, the stats which show that only St. Mirren and Dundee have conceded more goals are misleading - take away our three SPL defeats (4-2 by Celtic, and 4-1 and 5-1 shellackings by Motherwell) and we have let in 15 goals in the other 14 games, a very respectable record.  Is it a coincidence that our excellent run started after former Real Madrid youngster Antonio Reguero took over in goal?  Ryan Esson has been an excellent servant over the last few years, but the Spaniard has done little wrong, and took advantage when injury let him into the side.

In front of him, the current back four was largely forced by injuries, but has gelled beautifully after youngster Josh Meekings, deployed at full-back last season, took up a role in the centre of defence.  Right-back David Raven had a dreadful start, but has improved with every match, both in a defensive and attacking sense.  Under-21 international Graeme Shinnie remains first choice on the other side.  But it is the other centre-back who has been the real stand-out.

"Gary who?", we said - closely followed by "He can't be any good if he was playing for Newport County."  The signing of 28 year old Gary Warren from the English Conference was about the most underwhelming move we made all summer.  But Warren is no ordinary footballer - his playing career was put on the backburner as he concentrated on qualifying as a PE teacher.  He didn't become a full-time player until 2011.  One can't help feeling that he has more left in the tank than the average 28 year old defender...or that he is destined to play at a higher level still.  He has provided leadership at the back, and I'm not sure he's missed a header all season.

The other player deserving of more recognition is midfielder Ross Draper.  At 6ft 5in, the former Macclesfield man manages even to have an inch on his beanpole teammate Owain Tudur Jones, but while the latter is a holding midfielder, relaxed almost to the point of languid, Draper is built like a house and gets about the pitch like he's on amphetamines.  He never shirks a tackle or a block, and he's undoubtedly the engine of this side.

And don't forget the management.  At times last year some players were hiding, while others looked like they were giving a lot less than 100%.  Terry Butcher has got this team playing some good football, and he's got them playing for him and for each other.  There have been some less than stellar performances, but sometimes sheer effort and attitude has been enough to grind out results.  And, of course, a little bit of luck here and there (as Ross County manager Derek Adams will no doubt tell you!)

Can it go on?  Of course not.  It's absolutely mad that Inverness are second in the SPL.  We're due a downturn, and losing one or two key players would cripple this team.  And writing a blog lauding them will only inevitably jinx our amazing run (yes, I have that power!).  But it's fun while it lasts.  And, most importantly, it has been a lot of fun so far.  And that is what matters.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Reconstruction is no panacea

Ah, reconstruction.  The dictionary definitions include "The action or process of reconstructing or being reconstructed", "A thing that has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed", or "that thing that everyone involved about in Scottish football has been arguing about whilst doing nothing for what seems like forever".

Come on, it's now only a matter of time until the latter definition makes its way into the Chambers Dictionary.

So, let's recap.  Currently, the Scottish Premier League is the top flight of professional football in this currently.  Formed in 1998, it broke away from the Scottish Football League, blatantly for no other reason than that the elite teams wanted more of the cash.  The SPL has twelve teams, with one relegated every year and replaced by the winners of the SFL's first division.  There is a split after 33 games with the top six and bottom six playing each other again once.

The SFL is made up of three divisions of ten teams.  There's some playoffs involved so that, potentially, two teams can be promoted or relegated between the divisions - except between the first division and the SPL, and between the third division and - well, there's no division below the third division, so there's no relegation at all.

If you're a team in the Highland League, or the East of Scotland League, or the South of Scotland League, or in the Junior Leagues, and you aspire to make it into the Scottish Football League, all you have to do is, um, wait for a team (who isn't Rangers, of course) to go bust. It doesn't matter how good you are, or how hopeless the team at the bottom of the third division is, you can't get in.

So, that's the current system.

Everyone hates the current system.

Everyone agrees there needs to be change.

Sadly, that's about the only thing anyone agrees on.

From what I recall, the SFA promised that it's 'working committee' would come up with a proposal by the end of November.  What has actually happened, is that the SPL and the SFL have come up with their own ideas.

The SFL struck first.  They want to expand the top flight to sixteen teams, with a third tier of sixteen as well, and a division of ten between them.  They want to expand the League Cup, so there is a group stage; the top teams get more home games, increasing their chances of getting through, whilst the weaker sides get some extra cash.  There is a pyramid system of sorts, where the bottom team in the third tier would face a playoff against a non-league side.  The entire system would come under the jurisdiction of one body...and the SPL would be made defunct.

The SPL responded with their own plan.  The top division remains a twelve team league.  The second tier would also contain twelve teams...but midway through the season, these divisions would be amalgamated and then split into three groups of eight - the best eight sides in the top division are in a 'Championship' group, the bottom eight sides in the second tier play to avoid relegation to a third tier, and the top four in the second tier and bottom four in the first tier have their own league where the top four at the end of it will play in the top tier at the start of the next season.  (Got that?  It's a bit complicated, but not that complicated.  Just because Daily Record journalists aren't bright enough to understand it doesn't mean it's complicated)  The entire system would come under the jurisdiction of one this case, the SPL.

There doesn't seem to be much common ground here.  The SPL want rid of the SFL, and the SFL want rid of the SPL.  The SFA, who should be in overall charge of all this, appear to be doing, well, SFA about it (those who don't get that quip need to get better at their internet acronyms) - a bunch of Emperor Nero's, fiddling away...

On the face of it, the SFL plan looks closer to what supporters are generally perceived to want - mainly because there is an expanded top flight.  Moreover, I don't think any Scottish football supporters trust the SPL to organize a piss-up in a brewery, and that fits in well with the fact that the SFL clubs remain scarred by the abysmal, arrogant attitude shown to them by the SPL during the Rangers crisis.  We all know that the SPL is loyal not to Scottish football in general, but to those twelve elite clubs that come under its jurisdiction at one given fact, it can be argued that its loyalty, historically has really just been to Rangers and Celtic.

But what strikes me about both these reconstruction plans is that neither of them appear designed to strengthen the whole of Scottish football.  It's all about the short-term, about protectionism.  The SPL want to keep the bulk of the money for their teams, and to make relegation from the SPL less terrifying for their current members.  Their plan seems to cater for twenty-four of Scotland's clubs, while leaving the rest to scavenge.  In contrast the SFL wants the cash to be distributed around all the 42 clubs, and increase the number of teams feeding at the top table, whilst still protecting its poorer teams from losing their league status.

It seems that everyone is looking to league reconstruction as the panacea that will rescue Scottish football from the doldrums.  But will it?  I don't think so.  Neither seems particularly superior to the current, detested setup.  I'm not convinced either will attract more sponsors, or higher television audiences, or bring back the fans who appear to be deserting the domestic game in their droves, or lead to better players both for the clubs and for our National Team.  As my close friend (and former contributor to this site) Iain Meredith put it, it's like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But neither plan is really about that.  It's just a power struggle between two organizations interested only in their own.  And, sooner or later, the SFA has to step in, like a referee in a boxing match, and stop the fight, because it is the organization that is supposed to look out for all of Scottish football.  It's the one that should be coming up with these plans, not these cartels with their self-interests and bias.

Until it does, we seem stuck on an inexorable path filled with bickering and squabbling, where no-one wins and we all lose.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lennon lucky rather than good?

Inverness Caledonian Thistle will, forever, be inexorably linked in the minds of football fans worldwide with victory over Celtic.  I'm not kidding - in southern New Zealand in 2006, I was asked by a local where I came from, and when I said "Inverness, Scotland", he repeated that famous headline that appeared in The Sun on February 9th, 2000.

It is, therefore, a little sobering to realize that this weekend's 1-0 win at Celtic Park was the first time ICT had won there since that fateful occasion, and is only their fifth ever win over the Hoops.  This one, in a way, is the least remarkable of the bunch.  The humiliation of John Barnes's side in 2000 was followed by another cup win in Inverness in 2003, over a side managed by Martin O'Neill that had beaten Liverpool at Anfield three days before (and which, mind you, had Javier Sanchez Broto in goal). There have been two more Inverness victories since they graduated to SPL level - a stunning comeback from 2-0 down to beat Gordon Strachan's side in December 2007, then the sensational 3-2 win in May 2011 that singlehandedly destroyed Neil Lennon's bid for a first league title.  This win comes in November, and, on its own, looks like simply a mild embarrassment and blip for the home side.  After all, Celtic remain top of the table.

It is anything but a blip though.  The table below shows Celtic's records after 14 matches in every season since the SPL started.

1998-99 14 5 5 4 25 16 20
1999-00 14 10 0 4 38 14 30
2000-01 14 12 2 0 33 12 38
2001-02 14 13 1 0 32 5 40
2002-03 14 12 1 1 42 8 37
2003-04 14 13 1 0 46 5 40
2004-05 14 12 1 1 38 14 37
2005-06 14 11 2 1 38 12 35
2006-07 14 12 1 1 28 10 37
2007-08 14 10 2 2 38 12 32
2008-09 14 12 1 1 36 14 37
2009-10 14 9 3 2 30 14 30
2010-11 14 11 1 2 33 10 34
2011-12 14 9 2 3 25 15 29
2012-13 14 7 4 3 24 13 25

Celtic may be top of the league, but it is their worst start to a season in 14 years.  Managers such as John Barnes and Tony Mowbray were vilified for starts to a season which were better than this.

Neil Lennon must count himself lucky that he lives in this particular universe.  In plenty of parallel ones, his side did not come back from 3-0 down to draw at Kilmarnock last October - the Northern Irishman said himself after the game that his position would have been untenable had they lost.  In a few other ones - this is me opening a can of worms, no question - the taxman might have come to the conclusion that Rangers' EBT scheme was indeed shady and immoral, but, frustratingly, legal.  Rangers might have found a more reliable buyer than Craig Whyte; they might have avoided administration and given Celtic a much stronger run for their money for the title last year. Certainly, if they were in this year's SPL and unencumbered by a financial or points penalty, it seems inconceivable that they would have won only half of their opening fourteen matches.

Frankly, if Celtic were currently miles adrift of Rangers in the league table, as they would have been in pretty much every other season in the history of the Scottish Premier League, Neil Lennon would be on the brink of a P45.  Barcelona or no Barcelona.

This season's Champions League campaign has kept Lennon in a job.  Imagine that it was they, not Spartak Moscow, who are out of Europe with a game left.  His players produced a terrific performance to win in Russia, and of course gave everything in both matches against Barcelona.  But in plenty of parallel universes (I've been reading too much Brian Cox recently) Barca would have won at Celtic Park as well, and had a more comfortable victory at the Camp Nou.  Celtic have saved their best performances for the big stage, but they have had their fair share of luck too.

The dual demands of domestic and European football have proven a convenient excuse for the poor start to the SPL campaign.  The defeat to Inverness came, of course, only four days after the travel to Portugal to play Benfica.  The heroic loss in Catalonia was followed up by a home loss as well, to Kilmarnock.  Draws at Ross County and at home to Hibs and St. Johnstone mean that the team's record in SPL games immediately after European ones is 4 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses.  Celtic fans will tell you that the players are tired, or that they aren't as motivated to play St Johnstone as they are to play Spartak.  They will also say that the club are so certain that, as soon as their European adventure is over, they will steamroller the rest of the SPL, that they simply can't be bothered giving 100% right now.

That just doesn't wash.  Considering that Lennon believes his Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama is worth not just more than the whole Inverness team, but probably worth more than the whole of the City of Inverness (many thanks to Andrew Sutherland for that quip), it's just not acceptable.  Celtic's second best XI would be, on reputation, comfortably superior in pretty much every position to the strongest lineup of every other SPL side.  To have been so sloppy as to drop 17 out of 42 points so far raises questions over the mentality of the players, and over the ability of the manager to motivate them sufficiently.

Of course Lennon won't be sacked.  Celtic will win this league title, and that will keep the supporters happy enough.  The kudos from beating Barcelona will keep his job secure for a long while yet.  But whilst some say that the Hoops' Champions League efforts prove he is a top manager, I say their domestic ones prove that he is lucky rather than good. And he is lucky that, at this moment in time, being lucky is enough.


Monday, November 19, 2012

St. Mirren on the slide

Yes, I know it's a bit rich for me to blog on another team's struggles, just after my own side has been given an absolute shellacking at the hands of Motherwell.  I say that it was just one of those days where nothing goes right for one team and everything goes right for the other.  You may say that Inverness were nowhere near as good as their lofty league position suggested and this is the start of a slump down the table.  Tomatoe, tomato.

But I still think it's fair to say that the SPL result that caught the eye this weekend was at Dens Park, where any Hibs fan dreaming of an unlikely title challenge was given a ruder awakening than the guy in bed with the horse's head in The Godfather.  (Incidentally, remind me to check the credits of that film, just to confirm that the horse's head was indeed played by a young Leigh Griffiths)  It's only a month or so since I confidently proclaimed that Dundee's relegation was as certain as a Zimbabwean general election result.  Cue victories over both Edinburgh sides, sandwiching a credible draw at Fir Park.  Far from doomed, Barry Smith's side are now right back in the mix, only one point away from the side above them.  To those of you who add this to the million and one reasons why no-one should ever believe anything I write on this blog, I reply thus - who's the bigger fool, the fool or the fool who wastes five minutes of his life every week reading my ill-thought out opinions?

I digress.  Today's blog is not about Dundee again - it is about that team just a point ahead of them.  That team is St. Mirren.

All was rosy in the Paisley garden (or would be, if that garden didn't contain mattresses and rubbish) at the end of September, after the Buddies managed to win by the odd goal in nine in a remarkable clash with Ross County at Love Street.  The six games since then have produced a grand total of six defeats.  There was brief respite with a shoot-out victory of Aberdeen in the quarter-finals of the League Cup...but the Dons subsequently got sweet revenge with a resounding 4-1 league win.  St. Mirren had twelve points at the end of September, and were fourth in the table; nearly two months later, they still have twelve points.  Nobody - not even Inverness - has conceded more goals in the SPL.

Having only narrowly missed out on the top six last season, this was supposed to be the year the Buddies pushed on.  It's Danny Lennon's third year in charge, and all but three of the players are his signings, so he seemed to have put in place his philosophy of attractive, passing-based football.  There was plenty of quality, ranging from highly-rated younger players such as Paul McGowan and Kenny McLean to battle-hardened veterans like captain Jim Goodwin and striker Steven Thompson.

So what's gone wrong?  And is this a blip, or a sign that the club are heading inexorably in the wrong direction?

Dave McFarlane, St. Mirren fan, fellow SPL Podcast contributor and editor of Born Offside, tells me injuries haven't helped.  Centre-back Darren McGregor succumbed to a second cruciate ligament injury, which has been a huge blow not just because he is the side's best defender, but because he organizes the back four - in short, "he is the difference between Marc McAusland (the other first choice central defender) looking like a competent SPL defender and a shaven baboon in a football shirt".  The loss of McGowan, "our creative spark", has left a lack of options up front.  In recent weeks Lennon has gone with Thompson and fellow target man (or, as Dave referred to him, "blimp") Sam Parkin up front - a tactical plan which doesn't really fit in with a slick passing game.

Dave remains convinced there is light at the end of the tunnel.  "St. Mirren play fantastic crisp passing football , and we can outplay any team in the SPL when the players' minds are on it.  While we're on a terrible run right now, the teams above us will eventually hit a bad patch too."  He's certainly not losing much sleep over the threat of a relegation battle.  "Dundee still look too poor to stay up and once suspensions/injuries kick in, I think they'll really struggle."

But is Danny Lennon, whose only managerial experience before this gig was at Cowdenbeath, capable of taking the Buddies forward?  The fans are beginning to voice discontent at the boss, whose tendency to blame bad luck is becoming tired.  "If he continues to act like a stubborn petuanlent child and say nothing is wrong, and it's all the fans fault etc etc then no. If(it's a big IF) Danny realises that things aren’t working as they are at the moment, finally takes feedback on board and tries to change things up a little, then he's earned the chance over his tenure to get us out of the current mire. Danny must learn from his mistakes and learn to accept that sometimes, just sometimes, we weren't the better team on the day, instead of making petty excuses."

A campaign that started with plenty of positivity is in danger of turning into a long hard slog.  Are St. Mirren better than eleventh place suggests, or are they the team most likely to end up in a relegation scrap with Dundee?  We'll know more after next Saturday...because the two sides clash at St. Mirren Park.  If the home side crash to a seventh successive reverse, they might have to change the name of the ground to Panic Station.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hearts in crisis

At least the players haven't given up yet.

There wasn't a lot of sexy football coming from the Jam Tarts in Inverness on Saturday (to be fair, the home side were hardly strutting around the pitch either).  Simple short passes went astray, first touches were poor, and there seemed to be no strategy beyond punting high balls into the box.  There wasn't much creativity or flair on show; Callum Paterson, the current great hope for the future, was pretty inconspicuous.  Andrew Driver, who used to be the great hope, had a torrid, blundering cameo as a substitute where even managing to get the ball out from between his feet appeared beyond him.

But the players did show guts; if they weren't going to manage to play decent football, then they were damned if they would let Caley Thistle do so.  They managed to bludgeon their way to a draw, albeit with the aid of a very dubious injury time penalty, but it was a draw that they deserved.

On the pitch, this is hardly a vintage Hearts side, and they don't look like they will challenge for honours any time soon, but they aren't a catastrophe either.  The catastrophe, of course, is taking place off the pitch.

Just as I started writing this blog, it was announced that the Tynecastle club have managed to do a deal with the taxman, so that they can pay their outstanding £450,000 tax bill in two instalments, the second of which is due on December 3, less than three weeks for now.  But is it the breathing space required to get their affairs in order, or just a stay of execution?

The big surprise, frankly, is that it has taken so long for push to come to shove.  Vladimir Romanov's (almost) eight year ownership of the club has been marked almost from the beginning by overt financial mismanagement - just think of how mediocre Senegalese defender Ibrahim Tall was paid £8,000 a week, or the £800,000 transfer fee spent on winger Mirsad Beslija.  "Mirsad who?" I hear you ask.  Well, I rest my case.

At the beginning it seemed like the Lithuanian and his UBIG investment group (and his bank, UKIO Bankas) had money to burn, and that Romanov wouldn't tire of throwing cash at the club.  But eight years is a long time.  Once a regular at home matches, 'Mad Vlad' has appeared only sporadically in Gorgie more recently.  Some say it's because he has a new mistress, a Lithuanian basketball team, which is getting all his affection and dough.  But, given that the national bank of Lithuania recently raised concerns about UKIO Bankas, and that an aluminum factory owned by Romanov in Bosnia was unable to pay its one thousand employees last month, might it be that the money has simply run out?

As for Hearts, it's a year since they first admitted to difficulties paying wages - just remember the ignominous story of how midfielder Ian Black got himself a part-time job as a painter-decorator in order to make up the shortfall in the run-up to Christmas.  I've lost count of the number of times wages have been paid late in the last twelve months; the SPL finally lost patience and hit the club with a transfer embargo a few weeks ago.  It's unclear when manager John McGlynn last received his payslip; his lack of complaint may be partly due to his love of the club (he was, after all, a coach at the club for a decade until 2006), but may partly motivated by an awareness that results on the pitch have left his position vulnerable and any signs of rocking the boat could lead to his dismissal.  I also note that players have again had to defer wages in order that the current tax bill is met.

The big alarm bell regarding the current tax bill is that it is for overdue PAYE and VAT - which of course is supposed to come straight out of wages and go straight to the taxman.  As Rangers did last year, Hearts seem to have deliberately hoarded this money, presumably because of a cashflow problem.  For them to need to do this suggests they are in what I believe accountants call 'a proper Help Ma Boab situation.'  As if this doesn't induce enough panic, the club also announced an upcoming share issue which aims to earn £2 million - which is entirely to pay for running costs and outstanding bills.  It has been implied that, without this money, the club will not manage to complete the current season.  The words 'Black' and 'Hole' come to mind.  So do 'Emotional' and 'Blackmail'.

Fans of other clubs have been generally sympathetic to Hearts' plight.  They have not been met by the same derision and disgust that Rangers and their supporters faced when their problems came out into the open earlier this year.  This may be because the sums involved are considerably smaller, or it may be because Hearts fans have generally showed humility regarding the situation, whereas the Rangers support responded to criticism with V-signs and shouts of "You can't punish us, because We Are The People!".  It may also be because those of us who support other Diddy Teams lie awake at night worrying that it could be our club next.

But our clubs (Rangers excepted, of course) haven't been run into the ground by the reckless spending of a megalomaniac owner, who now won't/can't (delete as applicable) pay the bills.

It is clear that the future of Hearts will not be secure until Romanov and his minions are no longer involved with the club.  Even if they manage to scrounge the cash to keep the taxman at bay for a little longer, I don't believe enough supporters will be naive enough to invest in worthless shares to raise anywhere near the cash required to get to May 2013 in one piece.  That said, I don't believe liquidation is likely either; it is unlikely the tax man (even if it turns out he is also due £1.75million from the wages of previous loan players, which Hearts are currently fighting) would be able to derail a CVA.  But administration seems very possible.  I'm not surprised that there are several businessman with maroon loyalties who are apparently willing to join together to buy Romanov out - Edinburgh is a big place, with more than a few wealthy people - but takeovers take time; Romanov's own takeover of Hearts took six months.  And administration would mean an eighteen point penalty, and probably relegation.

Having thought about it a lot, I've come to this conclusion; I have no sympathy for Hearts FC.  That's not to say I don't have plenty for their fans; the last eight years have been a wild ride for them, with plenty of highs (such as two Scottish Cup wins) but plenty of lows as well.  And despite often having resources which outstripped every other non-Old Firm club, they never displayed the sheer arrogance, or contempt for fans of smaller clubs, that Rangers and Celtic supporters are so famous for.  But as a taxpayer, I don't think football clubs should be allowed to avoid tax bills, or to agree to pay players salaries that they can't afford.  So Hearts FC should be made to pay what they are due, and if they can't do that, then they should be dealt with accordingly.

But, most refreshingly, a lot of Hearts fans feel exactly the same way, and would take any points deduction or punishment on the chin.  That's why I would happily buy any one of them a pint in the pub.  But I wouldn't chuck a five pound note in a collecting bucket to pay the club's tax bill.  As I said above, 'Black' and 'Hole'.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

11 down, 27 to go

"It is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is perhaps the end of the beginning."

So spake Winston Churchill in November 1942.  Everyone assumes he was referring to the battle of El Alamein, but might he have actually been talking about the start of the 2012-13 SPL season?

Ok, the historians are probably correct on this one, but the quote itself makes sense in the context of the current campaign.  Aside from a couple of Dundee United games still to be played (against Celtic and Motherwell), everybody has now played everybody once, and so we have a pretty good idea of who is hot...and who is not.

And you only have to look at the table to see that it is Celtic who are hot (for they lie top, as every single person in the whole world predicted before the season started) and Dundee who are not.

Except Celtic - whisper it - have only been great in fits and starts.  Only once since the 1998-99 season, when Jo Venglos was manager, have they had fewer points after ten games...and that was last season, when the tenth game saw that remarkable comeback from three goals down at Rugby Park that probably saved Neil Lennon from the sack.  Kilmarnock got their revenge at the weekend with an unlikely victory at Parkhead, while the Bhoys have been held to draws in Dingwall (where they required an injury time equalizer) and at home to Hibs, and fell to defeat at St. Johnstone.  But in other games they have looked very impressive, especially on the European stage.  So will the real Celtic please stand up?

Of course, Celtic may not be firing on all cylinders, but they currently have a two point advantage over the chasing pack, and with the aforementioned game in hand.  It's not always been impressive, but so far it has certainly been adequate.  They still have the league's best players, with powerhouse Kenyan Victor Wanyama the early favourite for Player of the Year. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster has done enough to earn an England call-up, and Gary Hooper remains the most lethal finisher north of Carlisle.

As for Dundee?  Well, I thoroughly dissected them a few weeks ago - almost as thoroughly as opponents have dissected their defence.  To cut a long story short, they are completely and utterly pants.  They were relegation favourites from the start, but nobody expected them to be as bad as this.  They have only one win, four points and four goals.  They are already eight points adrift of the next worst team.  And things would be even worse but for some outstanding performances from veteran keeper Rab Douglas.  Even this early in the campaign, relegation looks inevitable; Jesus might have been able to turn water into wine, but I doubt even he could keep the Dark Blues in the SPL.

The rest of the league is so close that you could just about throw a dishcloth over the other ten teams.  Six points separate second from eleventh.  Anyone can beat anyone.  But some clubs will be happier about that than others.

The Highland teams, for a start, will be pretty satisfied with how things are going.  Many - including me - tipped my own Inverness to struggle, and a failure to win any of the opening seven games seemed to back that up, but three straight victories (including one over their neighbours) have seen them rocket up the standings into fifth place.  Not only that, but they have metamorphosed into an attacking, entertaining team - 23 goals scored, 19 conceded.  Yes, I'm as shocked as you are.

Ross County, in contrast, have lived up to pre-season expectations that they would be awkward opponents, difficult to beat and capable of grinding out results.  They are ninth, but only three points adrift of their rivals.  The defence has had some dodgy moments, such as shipping five goals in Paisley but I've been pleasantly surprised at how well the likes of Iain Vigurs and Stuart Kettlewell have made the step up.  Involvement in a relegation battle would require not only a Lazarus-like recovery from Dundee but a Barings Bank-like collapse from either of these teams.

Aberdeen fans, meanwhile, haven't been this happy since a truck containing several dozen sheep crashed and overturned on Union Street.  We all know that Craig Brown teams are solid at the back and hard to break down, but the summer signings of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn, plus the emergence of Ryan Fraser, give him a creative triumvirate that has scythed through many a defence this season.  Celtic outcast McGinn has been the best SPL player outside Glasgow this season.  If Scott Vernon hadn't spurned a gazillion goalscoring chances, the Dons might have been doing even better than their current third place.  Their only defeat so far came on opening day, courtesy of a late blunder at Celtic Park by Clangers Langfield.  It's looking rosy at Pittodrie.

But the biggest turnaround has come at Easter Road, where Hibernian, riding the superb form of Leigh Griffiths (who has managed to go three whole months without getting suspended for something!) and David Wotherspoon, have gone from second from bottom last year to second from top.  Add in a goalkeeper (Ben Williams) who appears to have largely avoided the curse that traditionally causes otherwise competent shot-stoppers to turn into hapless clowns when playing for the Hibees, and an almost entirely revamped defence, and Pat Fenlon's side look very good indeed.  As long as Griffiths keeps out of harms way - and out of trouble - it's not unreasonable to believe that they will remain at the right end of the table indefinitely.

The above sides are all making strides in the right direction; others appear to have regressed.  Dundee United were favoured by many to be "the best of the rest", and that looked like a solid prediction when they won their first two games of the season...but they only registered their third victory seven matches later, at St. Mirren on Saturday.  They have two games in hand on the sides above them, but their current tenth place is a real disappointment.  What will concern Arabs is that it only took an injury to a single important player - Gary Mackay-Steven - for the wheels to fall off.  Strikers Jon Daly and Johnny Russell have shown only snippets of their quality, and even now manager Peter Houston doesn't seem to know who his best back four are.  He'll hope the return from injury of Mackay-Steven and the signing of Rudi Skacel will galvanise the side.

Skacel's former side, Hearts, are only seventh and have failed to push on from last season's Scottish Cup win.  New boss John McGlynn's direct style and reliance on unproven youngsters has led to remarkable inconsistency (thumped at home by Kilmarnock, yet impressive victors at Tannadice, for example), although the club's recurrent problems paying wages on time cannot possibly be helping.  Given the trigger-happy reputation of Vladimir Romanov, you can't help worrying for McGlynn's job security, though teenager Calum Paterson looks like a real talent.  The Jambos' impressive Europa League performances against Liverpool seem a long time ago.

Motherwell's European performances were far less memorable than those of the Jambos, but they at least started the domestic season well...then they blew a 3-1 lead at Pittodrie.  Since then, Michael Higdon's goals dried up, they were beaten convincingly by Celtic in the league and Rangers in the league cup, and Stuart McCall's side have slumped -twelve points from the first six games, one from the last four.  The Steelmen have enough quality to bounce back, but a repeat of last season's top three finish looks unlikely right now.

St. Mirren have also disappointed a bit, after finishing last season well.  When the slick passing gets going they can either be very very good; when it doesn't they are more rancid than a turd sandwich.  The Buddies haven't been helped by the loss of Darren McGregor to another bad injury.  Eleventh place suggests they are a lot worse than they actually are, and they are dangerous on the attack with Steven Thompson, Lewis Guy and Paul McGowan, but they have really struggled at the back - only Dundee have conceded more.  It wouldn't be surprising if they finished a bit higher, but they don't look like a top six side.

Kilmarnock sometimes do look like a top six team - but, just like last season, Kenny Shiels' side look incapable of stringing two good results together.  There are plenty of positives for the Rugby Park side, with midfielder Liam Kelly fulfilling his potential and striker Cillian Sheridan proving a sensational signing.  With Cammy Bell and Jeroen Tesselaar back from injury and Momo Sissoko's return to the club, maybe the defence will be tighter and Killie will head onwards and upwards.  Or maybe not.

And lastly we have St. Johnstone, who having managed to make it into the top half last season, are well on course to repeat the feat.  A rotten start (2 points from 5 games) was followed by a surprise win over Celtic which sparked a run of five straight wins.  Just like last year, Steve Lomas has strikers who can score goals, and he appears to have got the Jekyll version of striker Gregory Tade playing at the moment.  They've not been flashy, but they have been effective, and they trail Hibs and Aberdeen only by goal difference.  There's enough depth on the bench to suggest that the Perth side will repeat last season's top six finish, though I'm not convinced they will be good enough for a podium place.

So that's the state of play.  Only twenty-seven games to go, then.  And plenty of time for me to be proven spectacularly wrong...again...


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dundee already doomed

Yes, I admit it; I tweeted on Friday morning that I thought Inverness were a bit vulnerable without captain Richie Foran leading the line, and that Dundee were due a home win.

Oh me of little faith.  But if you're always pessimistic, you're never disappointed! After ICT managed an impressive 4-1 victory at Dens Park, I did look like a bit of a pillock. But frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn.

Inverness Caley Thistle started the season with no wins and five draws in their opening seven games. Given their poor form in the second half of 2011-12, a relegation battle seemed inevitable. But they have won three straight matches - admittedly against the bottom three teams in the league at the time of writing - scoring eleven goals in the process. Beating Dundee opens up a ten point gap between us and the Dark Blues, and already the possibility of getting dragged into a dogfight at the bottom of the table seems almost as remote as the chance of seeing the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a second class railway carriage.

Bear in mind that ICT were tipped by many to be the only side that might be weak enough to finish below Dundee.  The prospects don't look good for Barry Smith's side; parachuted into the SPL at the last minute after the Rangers debacle, they started the campaign with a squad built for the first division.  Smith's decision to bring in players with decent top flight experience, such as Colin Nish (who, after last night, incredibly has eleven career goals with four different teams against Inverness), Mark Stewart, Mark Kerr and Brian Easton seemed sensible, but he is really paying for doing little to strengthen a back line which wasn't all that special in the second tier.  Dundee's defending has been comical; they couldn't do a worse job if they were blindfolded.  They are lucky that 40 year old goalkeeper Rab Douglas, who looks more like a doorman than a footballer these days, has been rolling back the years, or they would have been on the end of some real hidings.

After ten matches, Dundee have a solitary win, at Hearts. They have also scored only four goals, two of which were penalties.  They are already adrift at the bottom, with only four points. To add insult to injury, their League Cup campaign consisted of a shoot out win versus Peterhead, and an ignominious defeat to Queen's Park.

It seems unthinkable that the teams immediately above Dundee in the league will be unable to stay above them - their neighbours Dundee United surely have too much quality, whilst Ross County are likely to bring in substantial reinforcements in January to protect their top flight status. And given that the odds are already stacked against them, can Dundee afford to risk spending money to improve their survival chances?  Or are they better off just muddling on till May, banking the extra cash from being in the SPL, and prepare for the first division again?

I feel huge sympathy for Barry Smith. A Dens Park legend as a player, he performed a miracle in stabilising the ship after the club entered administration in 2010.  He is on a hiding to nothing here, and I can only hope that, if the defeats continue to stack up, his employers give him the support he deserves.  But, even in mid-October, even though we are less than a third of the way through the season, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that Dundee are already doomed.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sacking Levein should only be the start

Craig Levein has ceased to be. He is pushing up the daisies, he's joined the choir invisible - that's right, Monty Python aficionados, he is an ex-Scotland manager.

Well, not quite, but the argument for keeping him going is about as logical as that used by Michael Palin in that Dead Parrot sketch.
Levein's departure is inevitable - there is no way anyone will tolerate him hanging on till the March qualifiers.  The question now is whether he will be kept on the wage bill for the friendlies with Luxembourg in November and Estonia in February.  Given that he is the lamest of lame ducks, letting him guide Scotland through these matches seems utterly pointless.  To quote Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain in May 1940, "In the name of God, go!"

But how much will sacking the beleaguered boss set the SFA back?  SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS!

You can bet that the SFA will be sending the bailiffs round to Craig Whyte's place to make sure his fine is paid - they'll need the cash.

If you think that's bad, consider this - apparently Levein had a clause in his contract that allowed us to chuck him at the end of the Euro 2012 qualifiers without giving him so much as a bean.  This time last year, poor results, a failure to even make a playoff and the 4-6-0 farce gave the men at the top more than enough reason to change the guard.  Their dilly-dallying and lack of leadership back then will mean that the former Hearts and Dundee Utd manager will pick up a hefty financial reward for his incompetence - money that is sorely needed by the Scottish game.

I mean, who negotiated that contract in the first place - a five and a half year deal for a manager with no Champions League or top European league experience, with a salary even higher than that of George Burley?  It's almost as bad as when Leeds United signed Seth Johnson, and Peter Ridsdale's opening offer was £30,000 a week...when Johnson's agent was intending to hold out for no less than £13,000; when his jaw dropped, Ridsdale misread the situation and upped his offer to £37,000 a week!

I digress.  I would be pushing my luck to slag off the appointment of Levein in the first place, but not to criticize the SFA's handling of his tenure.  The writing was on the wall a year ago - perhaps even further back - yet the SFA board chose not to read it.  Their failure is an expensive one.  It's the last thing that they need as well, given that their handling of the Rangers crisis in the summer was shabby at best and downright negligent at worst.  Chief Executive Stewart Regan was heavily criticised by SFL clubs over that fiasco; in fact those clubs tried to hold a motion of no confidence in him, only to be told they weren't allowed to do so.  This is a guy who tried to claim that dropping Rangers down the leagues "would cause social unrest".  It's also a guy who was quite happy to keep Campbell Ogilvie in his role as SFA president...the same Campbell Ogilvie who, as secretary of Rangers, signed off several EBTs and actually had one himself.  The concept of 'gardening leave' was invented for times like these - instead Ogilvie was kept in his post amid claims from Regan that he "doesn't have any involvement in the investigation."  Pull the other one, chaps.

The importance of a good manager at international level cannot be underestimated; when the team gets together only a few times a year, tactics and organization are paramount, as is motivation.  In Levein, Scotland chose a coach with no experience managing in the top flight of a major European league, or of managing in the Champions League.  We picked a mediocre manager, and hoped for the best.  Compare that with the Republic of Ireland, who speculated to accumulate and at least managed to qualify for a European Championship finals with Giovanni Trapattoni at the helm.  Sadly, it may be that the cost of paying off Levein leaves us hamstrung financially when trying to attract someone with pedigree.  And I wouldn't trust Regan and co to pick his replacement.  I wouldn't even trust them to pick up a pint of milk for me.  They'd probably pick up a crap brand, pay over the odds for it, and then take so long to bring it to me that it will have turned sour.

There is at least a beacon of hope; the results of our under-17 and under-19 sides are very positive, which might mean that we are beginning to get things right at youth level.  The appointment of Mark Wotte as performance director seems like a sensible idea - and I say that, if we trust in his abilities, we should give him a significant say over who succeeds Levein.  Certainly he seems a damn sight more qualified to make that decision than those procrastinating pen-pushers at the top of the ladder.  The end of Levein should be a catalyst for greater change, the straw that breaks the camel's back.  Regan and Ogilvie are not taking Scottish football in the right direction.  We need new faces and new ideas, pronto.  Sack the lot.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Levein's Last Stand?

Does nobody study history any more?

A couple of days ago I pointed out on Twitter that it would be rather appropriate if Craig Levein 'met his Waterloo' in Belgium.  You see, the Battle of Waterloo was held in Belgium, where Napoleon was finally defeated; hence the phrase 'met his Waterloo' is often used to describe somebody who is meeting their end or denouement.

My followers on Twitter thought I was making some sort of obscure Abba reference.  You're all philistines and neanderthals, I tell you!

Moving on from my fit of pique, Scotland's boss faces a World Cup qualifying double header against Wales and Belgium with his jacket on a shoogly peg indeed.  Not only did Scotland pick up a paltry two points out of a possible six from their opening ties at home to Serbia and Macedonia, but his side were arguably second best in both matches.  Had it not been for some inspired goalkeeping by Allan McGregor, there is every possibility that we would not even have managed a draw on either occasion...and Levein would have signed on at the job centre by now.

Surely a failure to pick up even one win in these two games will be the final nail in the coffin.  For all the claims by the national coach that the team are making progress, Scotland's ten competitive matches under his tutelage have produced only three wins - two of which came against Liechtenstein, the other at home to Lithuania.  Whilst the FIFA rankings should always be taken with a pinch of salt, it surely means something that Scotland's current ranking of 56 is our worst since 2005.

The Tartan Army have earmarked the clash with the Welsh as a must-win game, and quite right too.  If the Scots disappointed, Chris Coleman's Wales have been catastrophically awful - they have lost all four matches under his tenure, including back-to-back defeats to start World Cup qualifying.  The second of those games was a 6-1 shellacking by Serbia; but for an excellent goalkeeping performance they would have met a similar fate in the earlier game at home to Belgium.

Not only that, but Scotland have Scott Brown and the two Fletchers back - Darren, for me Scotland's outstanding footballer, returns from illness and Steven has resolved his tiff with the boss.  The latter smacks of a desperate act - it is only 4 months since Levein confidently told journalists he would never pick the Sunderland striker, whatever the circumstances - but whatever the circumstances we are always going to benefit from having a £14 million striker in the fold.  Barring some last-gasp calloffs, this will be about as strong a team as Levein could possibly field.

The bottom line is this - if Scotland cannot beat this Wales side, they have no hope of making it to Brazil.  And Levein probably has no hope of reprieve.  The match on the following Tuesday in Belgium looks like a tough prospect, where a draw would be considered a decent outcome.  A win seems an unlikely prospect, especially given Scotland's away record in recent years.  Since THAT famous win in Paris more than five years ago, Scotland have played nine away qualifying games, winning only two (against Iceland and Liechtenstein) and drawing one (in Lithuania).  Aside from expected defeats to powerhouses Spain and Holland, we have also come away empty handed from Georgia, Norway, the Czech Republic and Macedonia.  Aside from the Liechtenstein win, Levein's only other away win with Scotland was in a friendly in Cyprus.  Five of his nine away games have been lost.

Forgive me for not being confident, even about the clash in Cardiff.  It's possible that the Welsh will turn this into a local derby, which may work against us as well.  And whilst we need to win, this Scotland team do not have a reputation for being adventurous - I sometimes wonder if the management believe that ten draws will be sufficient to earn qualification.  With anyone else it would seem unthinkable that Steven Fletcher wouldn't start tomorrow night...but this is Levein we're talking about; he sometimes seems to make decisions just to spite the fans and journalists who dare to point out his mistakes (leaving Jordan Rhodes out of the lineup and picking Ian Black would be recent examples).  It would not be a surprise if his starting eleven were sent out to be cagey and risk-averse...again.

My personal opinion is that Scotland require an absolute minimum of four points to stay in the hunt; anything less and the dream of the copacabana is which case the manager's reign should end with it. I worry that three points, or even two, might be enough to deter the SFA from pulling the trigger, and leave us putting up with further embarrassment for several months yet.

If nothing else, Craig, please do one thing for me: SHAVE.  At least look dignified, for crying out loud.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Stripping Rangers of titles is pointless

Apparently, Rangers...or Oldco Rangers, or The Club Formally Known As Rangers, or The Biggest Scandal in Scottish Football History, or whatever else you'd like to call them...are finally going to be liquidated later this month.

That's right; the football season is now more than two months old, and still this sorry saga hasn't died a death.  And it won't for a while yet; the tribunal on the club's use of Employment Benefit Trusts, chaired by Lord Nimmo Smith, will sit in November.  This tribunal will firstly decide on whether these EBTs were illegal in football terms; if Oldco Rangers are found guilty of this, the tribunal will then have to decide on a punishment.

Of course, as a result of the impending liquidation, Rangers have been thrown out of the SPL and forced to start in the bottom tier.  They are currently under an embargo which prevents from signing any players in the next two transfer windows.  Several first team players with a market value of six or seven figures have walked away for nothing.  Whilst Celtic fans look forward to an away trip to Barcelona in the Champions League in a few weeks, Bluenoses instead have travels to Stirling and Cumbernauld ahead of them.

It is worth noting that this outcome is not really a 'punishment'; Rangers went bust, and ultimately have been treated the way any other club could (or, at least, should) have been treated in the circumstances - by being chucked to the bottom of the league pyramid.  But, aside from expelling them from the league all together - or handicapping them with a points deduction, there aren't very many options available to the tribunal for punishing Rangers.

It seems that the most likely outcome is that the Ibrox club will be stripped of the trophies it won during the EBT period.  It's unclear whether they will be handed to the teams which finished as runners-up - which could mean cup wins for the likes of Queen of the South and Ayr United, and that Celtic would, belatedly, crush the Nine-In-A-Row record set by Jock Stein's Hoops side and the Rangers of the 1990s - or whether they would just be expunged in the record books.

Unsurprisingly, Rangers fans are pretty hacked off about this possibility.  The Gers' head honcho, Charles Green, has used the situation brilliantly; he's spouting conspiracy theories faster than David Icke, he's suggested a sectarian agenda against his club, all the while keeping the more, shall we say, rank-and-file Rangers support onside and interested in what's going on.  Whatever you say about the average Rangers fan - and there's plenty I could say but for the fact that this is a family blog - they have turned out in heroic numbers for matches against the likes of Montrose and East Stirlingshire, and rallied to the club's cause.  And part of that has been because Green has easily won the PR war against Scottish football's authorities.  As in the time of Craig Whyte, the Scottish sports media are happy to print any old rubbish being spouted from the press office in Govan, no questions asked, while the people in charge procrastinate and fail to take charge of the situation.

Only today, Campbell Ogilvie, SFA President and, of course, Rangers club secretary during the EBT years (and who, it turns out, actually had an EBT), casually told the BBC that he hadn't been able to do his job properly for the last six months.  This begs an obvious question - why is he still being paid, instead of being suspended or placed on gardening leave pending this inquiry?  The answer, of course, is because there is an utter lack of leadership.

I personally can't see anything to gain from this whole palava, other than that the tribunal will surely make the rules regarding player contracts black and white - and I don't see why you need a tribunal to do that.  Even if Rangers are stripped of these honours, do you think for a second that the club, or their fans, will accept it, or that the players will hold their hands up, admit it was a fair cop, and hand back their medals?  No chance.  The official record books may put an asterisk next to their name, or declare that there was no title winner at all, or might hand the championships to Celtic, but every Gers fan will remember seeing their players and manager lifting the trophy.  The best comparison is in Italy, where Juventus still believe themselves to be the winners of the league titles that they lost over the Calciopoli scandal.  The authorities think otherwise, but Juve still put an extra star on their shirt this season because they insist they won 30 titles, instead of the 28 that the record books say they won.

Stripping Rangers of their titles is, for me, a pointless exercise in posturing, that will succeed only in further stirring up the animosity between the club and, well, everyone else in Scottish football.  What matters in the real world is not who did or didn't win football leagues - its the disgusting £94 million tax bill that hasn't been paid by the people who ran the club during these times.  I couldn't give a s*** about Rangers losing titles - but I care hugely about the idea of a huge business denying the public purse such astronomical amounts of money.  That cash could have been spent on hospitals, or schools, or plenty of other worthwhile things; instead it got used to make sure the likes of Jerome Bonnissel and Gavin Rae got paid a few extra bob than they should have been.  That's what the focus should be on - and it's shameful that it isn't.

Sticking Ally McCoist and his squad in the third division should have drawn a line under the whole sorry affair, and it was supposed to - the big item on the agenda now should be reconstruction.  Stewart Regan, the SFA Chief Executive, declared in the summer that a plan would be in place for this by November; that deadline is looming but we've heard nothing to suggest any agreement is in the pipeline.  I'd love to think that this is because people are quietly working on it, but the men in charge of Scottish football have done nothing in the last few years to suggest that they can be trusted on this.  Now, more than ever, we need to be looking at the future - our national game is broken and needs fixed.  In order to this, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, we are better off with Rangers on the inside pissing out, than on the outside pissing in.  But whilst this mess rumbles on, Scottish football remains stuck in it's rather ignominous recent past.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Can Celtic be challenged for the title?

Curse Josh Magennis!

I'm sure I'm not the only neutral who thought that on Sunday.

Not that I have anything against Aberdeen - my time as a student in the city means I have a soft spot for the club - but the striker's last-gasp equalizer prevented Motherwell from going three points clear at the top of the SPL, and four clear of Celtic.  The Bhoys still have a game in hand, but had Stuart McCall's side held on at Pittodrie for three points, they could have lost their Fir Park clash with Neil Lennon and co next weekend and still been ahead of them in the league.

Still, those out there who thought this season's title race would be over by Christmas might be reassessing their viewpoints.  The 'tic still loom ominously in the rear-view mirrors of Motherwell and second-placed Hibernian, after a regulation win over Dundee, but that was only their third win in their first six league matches.  Points have been dropped in draws away to Ross County (where they were lucky not to be beaten) and at home to Hibs, and then last week in Perth.  After the Hibs match, Paul 'Steakheed' Fisher, a Celtic fan, agreed with me on The SPL Podcast that his club didn't seem to have their eye on the ball domestically, with their focus firmly on the Champions League.  The assumption was that, later in the campaign, they were bound to assert their dominance and walk over everyone else when it mattered.

That said, it should be pointed out that, in previous seasons, having such a mediocre start to the campaign would put a Celtic manager under pressure.  Neil Lennon must be grateful for the fact he's not staring up the table at a Rangers side with a 100% record after their six or so games, or he would be taking plenty of flak.  The overwhelming opinion is still that Celtic will retain their title, and comfortably.

But is it possible that someone could challenge them?

The only way, realistically, that Celtic can be stopped is if one other team in the SPL manages to prove itself superior to the other ten sides - so superior that it wins the vast majority of its matches and can keep up with the Hoops.  In theory, the same pitfall might await Rangers - even if they continue to rack up big home wins, it is conceivable that one other team (most likely, at this moment, to be Queen's Park) could match their results and make the third division title race less of a formality - though I wouldn't bet against Ally McCoist's side!

The potential 'dark-horse' candidates in the SPL are, presumably the ones at the top of the table just now - Motherwell.  At the start of the season, most considered Dundee United and Hearts the Best of the Rest.  But the latter have been incredibly inconsistent, and their young players, though talented, still have a lot to learn.  The loss of David Templeton was a setback too.  United, meanwhile, may be the first to demonstrate why it is unlikely a challenge to Celtic is sustainable over the course of a whole season - injuries. The loss of flying winger Gary Mackay-Steven and talismanic captain Jon Daly has coincided with a dramatic dip in form after a bright start.  One could easily see the same happening to 'Well if they were denied the services of free-scoring centre forward Michael Higdon or their outstanding goalkeeper Darren Randolph for a spell.

Celtic, in contrast, have already used 28 different players in all competitions this season; their bench - and even beyond that - is so vastly superior to that of their domestic opponents.  Maybe, just maybe, if they continued to stutter, and if they had to sell Wanyama, Kayal, Hooper et al, and if Motherwell (or someone else, I suppose - though I can't see Hibs making such strides) kept everyone fit, and at top form, there might be just a semblance of a challenge to the Celtic Park monopoly.  But it seems extraordinarily unlikely - the bookies' odds on Celtic winning the title are 1-41.

But, from this neutral's point of view, it would be nice if Neil Lennon's applecart could be upset once again this Sunday, keeping my hopes of an open title race alive for just a wee bit longer.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Five years of Narey's Toepoker

This blog celebrated its fifth birthday this month.

That's right; I have been ranting and raving and talking rubbish for five whole years on this site.

I started this blog in September 2007 with two aims. Firstly, most of my friends, particularly those from university days, were scattered all over the country, including those who I wasted hours in the pub discussing every football-related matter I could think of, and I saw this as a way of compensating for that. Secondly, I needed something to pass the time; my job at the time involved lots of weekend work and plenty of days off during the week. I wanted to find something to do that didn't involve Pro Evolution Soccer 6 (yes, I was single, as you've no doubt worked out).

Looking back at the earlier posts, what instantly strikes me is how much has changed in football over what is a relatively short time period - or, more specifically, how the complexion of the game in Scotland has been altered. One of my first blogposts was on Scotland's stunning win in Paris, part of a Euro 2008 qualifying campaign that infected fans with optimism for the future in the same way the Bubonic Plague infected peasants in the Middle Ages (well, not quite the same way, though the optimism was to die in the same way that those peasants did - quickly and unpleasantly). That season, both Old Firm sides reached the Champions League group stages; Celtic made it to the knockout stages, while Rangers' European journey finished with a UEFA Cup Final. Even Aberdeen were still in Europe after Christmas.

Saying Scottish football was in rude health might have been exaggerating, but it was toddling on nicely, maybe on one or two medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but you certainly wouldn't have had any reason to look for a terminal illness.

Five years ago, if you'd told me Rangers would be in the third division, the Scottish national team would be getting outplayed by the likes of Macedonia at home, and that Charlie Mulgrew would be the best defender in the country, I'd have sectioned you.

The blog feels very different from when I started - back then, I wrote about anything and everything - and that continued until I realised that there were actually a few people other than my mates who were reading it. It was much easier to write about Jose Mourinho, or Chelsea, or Barcelona, but there are thousands of people who do that a lot more knowledgably, and a lot more eloquently, than I do. So I chose to focus entirely on Scottish football - where there are only dozens who are more knowledgable and more eloquent! Not only that, but the last couple of years - specifically, the pathetic, self-serving coverage by Scotland's mainstream media of the Rangers debacle - revealed to me that the best coverage and opinions of Scottish football came from bloggers; I strived, and still strive, to try to be part of that. I don't know if I'm succeeding, but I'm still trying (in more ways than one!)

  It's all quite remarkable, really - I haven't got bored of doing it, and people don't seem to be getting tired of reading it - in fact the number of hits per month is higher than it has ever been. This has opened up some incredible opportunities for me; for example, a couple of years ago the author Paul Smith interviewed me for his book Tannadice Idols, mainly on the grounds that this blog's title refers to the only particularly interesting thing that Dundee United full-back David Narey did in his long career.

Giving Twitter a go eighteen months ago seems to have made a big difference - especially as my current job suits Tweeting far more than blogging, simply because of time constraints. And it's allowed me to get in touch with other bloggers, and ultimately led to things like my recent involvement with The SPL Podcast, which has been immense fun (apart from how I appear to be having a breakdown every week over Caley Thistle's defending).

There's a few folk who deserve thanks for the encouragement they've given me; my best friends Iain Meredith (who wrote a couple of blogposts in 2009 before he got a proper job, the git) and Tom Webster (who reads this regularly for some reason, even though he couldn't actually be less interested in football if he tried). Another good friend, and local journalist, Colin Macleod, has always got an opinion on what I've written; one day I hope I will find enough free time to collaborate with him on a book about Caley Thistle that we've talked about writing for years.

I've never met Gary Andrews, but he is a wonderful blogger who used to write for, and who bigged me up on more than one occasion. I hope he doesn't regret it! And lastly I think a mention should go to Tom Hall (who I've also never met), who is the man behind the magnificent Scottish Football Blog, surely the gold standard for footie blogs in this country, and who I'd love to be even half as good as. If it wasn't for these five people, I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have lasted five whole years.

If there's one thing I'd like to do differently in the future, it would be this - Write Positive Things. I'm a naturally pessimistic person (it's not that the glass is half-empty - I believe somebody's nicked the glass) and it's easy to find negative things to write about Scottish football. That's a bad combination. It's also much easier to be critical in writing than it is to be praiseworthy. Maybe there just isn't very much cheer in our domestic game at the moment, but maybe I'm not looking hard enough. So that's the Birthday Resolution.

Here's to (hopefully) another five years of Narey's Toepoker. God knows where on earth Scottish football will be in 2017...


Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Secret Diary of Craig Levein (aged 47 and 3/4)


Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, I'm so excited! The World Cup qualifiers start on Saturday, and we've got Serbia at Hampden Park! It's nearly a year since our last competitive match and I've thought of nothing else for months. The fans are going to be totally blown away by what I've got in store for them... ...

that's right - I've got a pair of new glasses! Not just any glasses either - not ordinary spectacles, not sunglasses, but tinted lenses! They're the most amazing thing I've thought of since I invented the "extra-full back" position for the 4-6-0 formation!

One pair of cool glasses plus one sexy beard equals one inspiring football manager! Just seeing me in my glory will totally lift the players to produce a brilliant performance - and when the fans see me on the Big Screen, they're bound to start chanting my name and provide an atmosphere that will intimidate the Serbs into capitulation. It can't possibly fail. I know I'm blowing my own trumpet, but I am, frankly, a genius.


A lot of the players are missing injured for the Serbia game, which of course makes things a lot easier when it comes to picking the team - fewer balls go in the hat for the Starting Lineup Bingo. Paul Dixon was so chuffed when his number came up, you should have seen his face. I was a bit wary of picking him because he's never played in League One, so I don't know how good he is, but Starting Lineup Bingo has never failed to pick the right team yet. I can't believe that Steven Fletcher once suggested that I should pick players on merit. Idiot. He's not getting back into the squad until he agrees to play bingo like the rest of them.


I sat down to talk tactics with Peter Houston, my assistant, before the game. I'm really worried because Serbia are absolutely amazing - they are so good that they almost managed to qualify for the European Championships. I really want to play a defensive formation, but I know that those neanderthals in the Tartan Army and the press will slag me off if I play 4-6-0 again. But Peter has a brainwave - "How about we play Kenny Miller up front? It's almost the same as having no centre-forward at all."

The man is a genius. Almost as much of a genius as me.


I went to give the pre-match team talk - but when I arrived in the dressing room, some jakey from off the streets with straggly, unwashed hair, who hadn't shaved for months and stank of Buckfast, was standing in front of the players, slurring incoherently at them!

"What's going on?!" I exclaimed. "Who's he?"

Peter looked embarrassed. "Sorry, boss, we thought he was you."

"How on earth could you get him mixed up with me?" I asked incredulously, stroking my sexy beard.

Peter looked at me for a few seconds. He sighed. "I don't know, boss", he said.


What an amazing result yesterday. I couldn't sleep last night for the adrenaline. I just can't believe we held Serbia to a goalless draw at home - after all, they're so amazing that they nearly qualified for the European Championships.

The players seemed unusually subdued afterwards, but I told them not to worry - the jeering from the fans was just a sign of their disappointment at how rubbish Serbia were. I was almost disappointed too - I'd expected them to play some sexy football and put on a show.

Jamie Mackie came to have a quiet word with me that evening - he was a bit disappointed that he'd only been left on the bench. I checked no-one was nearby and then whispered into his ear "Don't worry, I'll make sure your number comes up in the Bingo on Tuesday, because you're my little favourite." After all, as I pointed out to Peter Houston, Mackie runs and runs and runs - and what else could you want from a footballer? It's why Kenny Miller is such an asset to the team.

"Yes," Peter agreed, "Jamie Mackie is certainly more ways than one." Then he walked off. I've no idea what he meant.


Macedonia tomorrow. I'm absolutely terrified of this one. They are almost as good as Serbia - they even have some players who are talented enough to play in the Macedonian league - so I can't take any chances. So it's got to be Kenny up front again. The media and the fans keep badgering me to pick Jordan Rhodes, but I'm not convinced by his form - he hasn't scored any goals in League One this season.

I've spent ages trying to work out how to deal with Macedonia's star player, Pandev. But inspiration came to me in bed last night - I'm going to play Shaun Maloney in a deep midfield position. I know it seems ridiculous - and that's the whole point. It'll look like such a bizarre move that it'll confuse Pandev and the rest of the Macedonians to the point that they won't be able to concentrate on the game. So by pretending to be stupid, I'll actually be a genius again.

When I announced the decision to the squad, most of the players hit their foreheads with the palm of their hand. Peter keeps telling me this is a Weegie expression of assent, but I must admit I've only ever seen players in our squad doing it.


The tinted spectacles worked so well against Serbia that I'm going to bust them out again, even though it's an evening game. What could be more stylish than wearing dark glasses at night? And I've got a new secret weapon - a waterproof jacket. With the specs and the jacket, and the sexy beard as well, Macedonia won't stand a chance.


That was an absolutely fantastic result last night, I can't believe we're still undefeated after playing two such difficult opponents. All we need is to pick up draws in our other eight qualifying matches, and we're sure to be on the way to Brazil. Now my attention turns to the next game, in Cardiff. The Welsh will be reeling after that thumping by Serbia, and I'm really afraid that they could give us a real doing. So there's nothing for it - I'll have to reel out the good old 4-6-0 formation again.

Anyway, off into work now. The SFA board called me this morning to discuss a new contract for me! Apparently it's some new thing called a P45? Hopefully I'll get the raise I'll deserve...


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Destination Brazil?

When my father was my age, Scotland had been knocked out of three consecutive World Cups on goal difference.  They would qualify for three of the next four, and for two European Championships as well during that period.  But by the time the 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil, it will have been sixteen years since Scotland qualified for a major football tournament.  That's more than half the time I've been alive.

At any World Cup or European Championships, you're bound to see the odd saltire, brought along and hung in a stadium by some hardy fans who are just along to watch some good football and enjoy the show.  But the Tartan Army haven't been invited en masse to one of the big events since 1998 in France.  It's still depressing to think that the last game Scotland played in a major tournament involved Jim Leighton letting in a goal at his near post, and a toothless Craig Burley getting sent off for a challenge on a Moroccan that was not so much a tackle as grievous bodily harm.

In that time, we have had a few proud moments - beating Holland at home, and defeating the French twice (including THAT McFadden goal) come to mind - but those have been largely cancelled out by humiliating results against the likes of the Faroe Islands and Norway, and the problems off-the-field (Barry Ferguson, Allan McGregor, Kris Boyd, Steven Fletcher).

So, with the start of another qualifying campaign on the horizon, what are the chances that Scotland will be in South America in two summers' time, and the fans partying with bikini-clad Brazilian babes on the Copacabana?

Well, for a start, we could have done better in terms of the group.  Because we came third in a pretty mediocre Euro 2008 qualifying section (bar Holland, of course) and third in a pretty mediocre 2010 World Cup qualifying group (apart from the Spanish) - we've paid the price in terms of seeding.  The group includes Belgium, Serbia and Croatia - all teams who have qualified for major tournaments more recently.  We've not managed to pick up a minnow either (not that Liechtenstein proved easy pickings) - instead we've got awkward opponents in Macedonia and Wales.

On the bright side, there's not an overwhelming group favourite.  Stranger things have happened than Scotland topping this group.  However, stranger things have also happened than us finishing rock bottom of it.

I don't honestly feel Scotland are hugely inferior to the Serbs, who are a young team being rebuilt by a new coach, whilst the Croats have useful forwards and midfielders but are vulnerable at the back.  The Belgians are easily the best team on paper - a midfield of Hazard, Fellaini, Witsel and Dembele is worth more than £75million in transfer fees - but in recent years their quality has been overshadowed by egos and infighting.  So there's probably not a lot to choose between these four sides, and the outcome of the group may depend on who gets the lucky breaks, or on who gets their tactics right on the big day.

And that allows me to segue straight onto the subject of our national team manager.

We start off with two home games, against Serbia on Saturday and Macedonia on Tuesday.  We cannot afford a slow start.  We only have ten matches, and there's not much time for catching up if we fall behind early.  I think four points is the absolute minimum; any less, and the task becomes monumentally difficult.

My worry is that Levein started the last campaign with a safety-first attitude, playing defensive tactics against a vastly inferior Lithuania team away from home, and then (after narrowly avoiding a catastrophe against Liechtenstein thanks to seven minutes of injury time) producing the infamous 4-6-0 against the Czechs.  We were very much left on the back foot and never recovered.  But he must be mulling over whether caution and trying to avoid defeat is the best option against Serbia, especially as he will know that defeat would leave his jacket on a very shoogly peg.

There is, of course, a £12 million elephant in the room.  For Levein continues to refuse to pick Steven Fletcher, despite a dearth of options at centre-forward and despite Fletcher coming up with a brace in his league debut for Sunderland.  Instead the boss will go with Kenny Miller once more up front - despite the fact he is nearly 33 and now playing in MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps - and Jordan Rhodes as his backup.  It remains a staggering decision - can you imagine a Wales manager refusing to play Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsay?  But with Scotland's other Fletcher - Darren - still working his way back from illness, the team are devoid of their two best players.  And Scott Brown's ongoing chronic problems cause him to miss out, too.

To cap it all, we go into the first match with major problems defensively - Phil Bardsley and Steven Whittaker were already unavailable, and Danny Fox and Russell Martin have both withdrawn injured.  Coupled with the fact that (at the time of writing) Charlie Mulgrew is a major doubt, Alan Hutton - frozen out at Aston Villa - and the uncapped Paul Dixon are the only full-backs in the squad.  Rumour has it that Levein wants to use Gary Caldwell in a defensive midfield role (why oh why is the in-form James McArthur not even in the squad?!), so we have the sobering prospect of Christophe Berra and Andy Webster as centre-backs.  You think that's bad?  Berra's partner is due to give birth any day now; if she pops on Saturday morning Berra is likely to be replaced by Grant Hanley.  Dear god....

For quality, Scotland will be dependent on the one area where we have depth, attacking midfielders - of whom Levein has, curiously, called up eight.  With several in excellent form - especially James Morrison, Robert Snodgrass and Shaun Maloney - I'd hope he'd gamble on using three behind Miller, with Caldwell and either Charlie Adam or Graham Dorrans behind them.  Of course, I'd rather have Caldwell in defence, though I never thought I'd see the day that I would believe that.

To be honest, I have zero faith in Levein, and haven't since the Prague fiasco.  I suspect he will come up with some tactical 'masterstroke' that will leave us impotent once more.  We don't have a brilliant squad, especially depth-wise, so the manager's role in making the team greater than the sum of their parts is critical.  Alex McLeish and Walter Smith managed it. George Burley certainly didn't.  Craig Levein has provided no evidence so far to show that he can do it.

I'd love to be proven wrong, honestly.  I don't want Scotland to fail.  But I strongly believe that, after Tuesday, we will have three points or fewer on the board, that our chances of World Cup qualification will be almost irreparably damaged, and there will be a lot more folk calling for a change of national coach than just me.