Monday, January 30, 2012

'Trial by TV' is for the best

The SFA's new penchant for 'trial by TV' as the Scottish rags are calling it, underwent a backlash last week.

Unsurprisingly, it came from parties who had been punished; Motherwell, after forward Michael Higdon was given a one match ban for what appeared to be a GIRUY gesture as part of a goal celebration at Tannadice (directed at his own fans), and Hibernian, after BBC Alba cameras picked up Leigh Griffiths giving a middle-finger salute.

Griffiths is a bizarre case. The former Dundee striker, on loan from Wolves, has now picked up three bans for similar actions in the space of only six weeks. First there was a one match ban for giving the GIRUY to Rangers fans at Easter Road who mocked him for losing his footing. The two subsequent offences, which occurred in a cup game at Cowdenbeath (after he scored a goal) and in a home league game against St. Johnstone, were, incredibly, aimed at his own supporters.

Whilst I can easily believe that Hibs fans might turn on their team quite quickly at the moment, considering that they are the biggest under-achievers since Charlie Chaplin entered and failed to win a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest, I can't help feeling this is a rather sad indictment of Griffiths. It will surely have been noted by his parent club that, if he can't cope with the pressure cooker that is Central Park (Cowdenbeath's ground is better known for it's stock car racing track than it's atmosphere), then he doesn't really stand a chance playing at Molineux or other English Premier League grounds.

I also wonder how far Griffiths has to go before Hibernian and their new manager Pat Fenlon tire of him as well. So far the repeat offending has led to a total of five matches without an important first team player. It would have been quite easy to get shot of him - the decision to extend his loan spell beyond January actually came after the Cowdenbeath incident. Considering the club's problems in recent times with on- and off-field discipline, it would have been an opportunity for the new boss to stamp his authority. Fenlon has so far accumulated only 4 points from 8 league games in the Easter Road hotseat; he badly needs Griffiths to prove that his trust is not misplaced.

As for Higdon, the case was a bit less clear-cut - it has been argued, not without justification, that he often celebrates goals in this manner. What was more disturbing were the comments coming out of Motherwell, whose manager Stuart McCall appeared to imply that whether players were caught or not depended on the affiliations of whoever was editing the match highlights for Sportscene, and whose spokesperson released a statement after the ban was upheld containing lines such as 'We have material concerns about the approach, the informal communication around it and the obvious disproportionate nature of the suspension' and 'We do not believe this process as executed is doing anything other than setting all of us back. The focus is supposed to be on football, more needs to be done to keep the administration of the game on that track'.

You'd think Higdon was being sent to prison by a kangaroo court, not banned slightly harshly for the grand total of one game.

I previously questioned how long Compliance Officer Vincent Lunny's patience would last as the inevitable criticism rained down on him; prior to this he has been slagged off by Rangers (after banning Sone Aluko for diving) while Hearts' Ryan McGowan was suspended retrospectively after a headbutt. On the other hand, it has been used successfully to clear players who have wrongly been sent off - Caley Thistle's Greg Tansey is a case in point. Aberdeen midfielder Peter Pawlett, of course, got both ends of the stick - an unfair red card for a sliding challenge was rescinded...but he got a two match ban for a dive ten minutes earlier that won a penalty.

I'm all for this retrospective stuff. Officials are bound to make mistakes even if they are top drawer (not a description that can be applied to many north of the border). While obviously there has to be a limit - there aren't enough hours in the day to go through every single iffy decision - I'd rather there was some action than none at all. Only time will tell if this becomes a deterrent or not, but certainly I'd like to think that, for example, forwards will think twice about 'simulation' if they know that they will get a subsequent ban, as well as having their reputation damaged.

So, the longer that Mr. Lunny puts up with this - it must seem like a picnic compared to his previous job, which was trying war criminals in The Hague (no, really) - the better. And hopefully clubs will concentrate less on bemoaning the system and more on encouraging their players to show some integrity and to behave like adults.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

SPL must tread carefully with Hearts

Vladimir Romanov might be regretting his decision to pay his players on time.

Hearts had picked up 13 out of a possible 15 points in the league prior to Saturday's travel to Inverness; it seems that (Ryan Stevenson, who remains 'on strike' over the late wage payments, aside) all the rigmarole surrounding the club had served to stiffen the will of the players, rather than break it. Last week's 5-2 win over St. Mirren, in a match where the Tynecastle side played 80 minutes with ten men, was not a result or performance which suggested a lack of motivation. They lie third in the table.

January was supposed to be a nightmare month, with Romanov flogging any player he could, and an exodus the like of which had not been seen since Moses complained to the Egyptian Pharoah about the working conditions for immigrants. No sign of that so far - only Eggert Jonsson (sold to Wolves for a generous £200,000), Calum Elliot and Janos Balogh have left so far.

The squad finally got the money they were owed last week, and promptly lost 1-0 in the Highlands. Coincidence?

Of course it is. Hearts were far from their best, but they were battling the elements as much as their opponents; the gale force wind might have been in their favour in the second half, but it was so strong that it was as much of a hindrance as an advantage. But one never knows what is going on in Mad Vlad's mind, or what conclusions he might draw from hearing that result, whilst sitting in his castle, drinking human blood...(or at least that's what I imagine he does)

Maybe Ian Black shouldn't ditch the painter-decorator sideline he had going in the lead up to Christmas just yet, in case that February paycheck gets delayed as a result.

Of course, some of you will have, by now, have noted the deliberate mistake in the opening paragraph. The Hearts players were not, by the SPL's definition, paid 'on time'. Romanov claims the club processed the payments on Monday and, for various admin reasons, not all the money arrived in accounts until Tuesday. The subsequent charge handed down of 'failing to behave with the utmost good faith' by the Scottish Premier League can, it seems, be roughly translated as 'taking the f****** piss out of us' and implying that the delay was pre-meditated.

Hard to believe that, in this whole debacle, the SPL could manage to lose some of the moral high ground, but they are doing their best to do so, not least after the BBC's Chick Young appeared to have picked up insider information that the likely penalty when the organization's board meet is an eight point penalty. The fact that this has got out is deeply embarrassing, especially since, as pointed out by Guardian journalist and unashamed Jambo Ewan Murray, the men who will decide Hearts' punishment include representatives of St. Johnstone, Motherwell and Dundee United - who happen to be the three teams directly below them in the league and who therefore stand to benefit most from taking points off the Edinburgh club. It could be comparable to letting Orange, O2 and T-Mobile convene to punish Vodafone for not paying tax...if, of course, Vodafone were actually being punished...

A points deduction seems, to this author, to be a somewhat inappropriate punishment - taking away the fruits of the players' laudable efforts during a difficult time. I'm not saying Romanov and co. should get off Scot-free - a fine might seem counterproductive at a time where there are obviously financial issues, but perhaps a transfer embargo? Preventing the signing of new players for this transfer window, and perhaps even the coming summer, seems like enough of a slap on the wrist.

Considering the fact that the SPL have done little more than bat an eyelid to so many other offences in the past - the constant sectarian singing (a fixture in the away end at both Caley's home games against the Old Firm this season), the claim by the Scotsman that six clubs were late with at least one payment to the taxman in the last year - it would seem incredible, and incredulous, for them to hit Hearts like this.

It has been a week where the back pages in the Scottish rags have been unanimously dediated to events at Tynecastle, which seems staggering considering a much, much bigger story going on just along the road in court in Edinburgh, where the tribunal into Rangers' ongoing tax saga finally concluded. The result, to be announced in approximately six weeks, could of course plunge the Gers into administration.

If Hearts get an eight point deduction for all this, then what on earth would Rangers get in the hypothetical situation that they can't meet a £30million-plus bill to the taxman? One wonders...


Monday, January 9, 2012

Pars in Peril

The fourth official held up the board. SIX minutes.

The most surprising thing about the amount of time added on was that no-one in the ground was surprised.

There were no signs of protest from the away dugout; Dunfermline manager Jim McIntyre stood, arms folded, face impassive. He knew as well as anyone that his side had done everything that was possible to slow the game down, waste time, extend stoppages. Entire civilizations have risen and fallen in the time taken to make a single substitution. As early as the 55th minute, his goalkeeper had been given the ball back after an injury stoppage...and promptly refused to pick it up until an opposing player had sprinted fifty yards to hurry him up.

All this might have been excusable had it not been for the fact that it was not at Ibrox or Celtic Park that Dunfermline were clinging onto a precariously 1-0 lead in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. Rather, it was a Caley Thistle side who had been reduced to ten men for an hour, with the Pars scoring from the free kick that followed Kenny Gillet's red card. Most teams, especially when they already had two strikers on the pitch, and two wingers as well, would have kept the ball, stretched the play, and worn the opposition down. Dunfermline instead stuck nine players behind the ball, and showed no inclination to press for a decisive second goal. They gambled everything on Inverness lacking the ingenuity, or energy, to break them down, but they did not reckon against the footballing gods displaying a rare sense of justice to go to their dark sense of humour.

Four of the six added minutes had elapsed when keeper Chris Smith came out of his area to deal with a long punted clearance from the Caley backline. TV pictures are inconclusive as to whether the ball took a bobble; there is no doubt that Smith's right leg swung so wildly that he might have had his eyes closed. His foot missed its target by more than a few centimetres. Inverness winger Jonny Hayes, closing him down more out of hope than expectation, couldn't believe his luck, tapping into an empty net to earn his team an unlikely replay next week.

If Dunfermline were looking for some solace from a league campaign where, after going unbeaten for their opening four matches, they have picked up just six out of a possible forty-eight, they did not find it. They might not have lost in the Highlands, but its fair to suspect that, once the players had returned to the dressing room, it felt like a defeat.

How things have changed since May, when they were first division champions and returned to the SPL after four seasons in the second tier. They hardly played like Barcelona, but McIntyre had established a philosophy of passing football, and stuck to it even as fans grew impatient over a failure to challenge for promotion in his first two full seasons in charge. Last Spring's success seemed to justify the actions of the manager, and his chairman John Yorkston.

But, in my season preview, I wrote "Dunfermline's problem is that that their squad is based around several players who have SPL experience...but were simply not good enough the last time round". And, so far, they haven't been up to the task this time round either; the exception, goalkeeper Paul Gallacher, will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. His understudy, Smith, proved himself unreliable even before this weekend's match when he punched a corner into his own net in a game against St Johnstone.

The defence has not been helped by the injury that has sidelined centre-back Kevin Rutkiewicz for the entire campaign so far, but even his presence would not alleviate the horrendous lack of pace or mobility in the back line. The midfield, like last season, depends almost entirely on the 35 year old (and increasingly fragile) Martin Hardie for its engine. Most damningly, McIntyre's marquee summer signing, Ross County striker Andy Barrowman, has failed to shed the reputation he acquired during 18 months as Caley Thistle's highest paid player, when he managed only three goals and earned a reputation for being lazy and for shirking a battle. His tap-in from a goalkeeping gaffe on Saturday was, remarkably, his first goal from open play in Inverness; he had scored only a penalty in seventeen games playing at home for Caley Thistle.

Gone is the passing game. Even when a man to the good on Saturday, and with two wingers on the pitch (in fact, David Graham and Joe Cardle might be the club's two outstanding players), there was nothing but long balls up the middle; in the end, there were more hoofs than at the Grand National (I'll get me coat). To go along with that was a deeply cynical edge - the only thing that they have perfected to a tee appears to be the tactical foul. Those hardy supporters who had travelled 150 miles to sit in the away end on a dreich Highland Saturday must have been in need of an intravenous infusion of antidepressants by the end.

And, to cap it all, there appears to be precious little cash to spend in the January window. Chairman Yorkston has already admitted that the club overbudgeted, expecting an average attendance far higher than the current 5300 total. They didn't even have the finance to keep on-loan Hearts full-back Jason Thomson after his deal expired at the beginning of this month. McIntyre needs to get players through the exit door in order to get new faces in, and his success in touting his reserves to first division clubs (and in persuading them to go) might make all the difference.

He also desperately needs his first team to do the job properly when they face Inverness all over again next midweek, in a replay that should never have happened. A win and a cup run might just bring a little bit of confidence back. For, if Dunfermline continue to play like this, they are certs for relegation. And if they continue in their current style, no-one will miss them.


Monday, January 2, 2012

The SPL kids who will flee south in 2012

Let's face it, Scottish football is to the rest of the world as Iran is to international politics; a bunch who shout loudly and claim to be far more important and significant than anyone else believes, and, to extend the metaphors, known mainly on the international stage because of a couple of belligerent figureheads who either loved or hated in their own country and who generally cause nothing but trouble.

There's no doubt that the standing of the SPL is diminishing as the years go by. No longer do most young prospects make their living here, unless they are at the Old Firm - and even then they often look to leave the nest as well. More money and fame, as well as the opportunity to test themselves at a higher level, lie over the border. In the last 18 months alone, the likes of James McArthur, Aiden McGeady (who of course went to Russia), Danny Wilson, Leigh Griffiths (now back on loan at Hibs), Craig Bryson, Chris Maguire, Craig Forsyth and David Goodwillie have left for bigger and better things...with varying degrees of success.

As the income of SPL clubs diminishes, the number of young players fleeing south seems likely to only increase. So who are the most likely fledglings to make the move in the next 12 months?

It's already been nearly two and a half years since this ginger-haired midfielder made his debut at 16, making him Aberdeen's youngest ever player. Fyvie has thankfully showed no ill effects after his return from the cruciate ligament injury that forced him to write off most of the last campaign. Rumours were abound in the summer of a seven figure bid from Fulham; whilst this came to nought, it seems likely that before long the Dons will have to cash in on his precocious talent.

As Neil Lennon pointed out after Celtic's recent Old Firm win, the remarkable thing about Forrest is his consistency; the 20 year old winger has been a fixture in the team this year, and it's hard to think of a poor performance, sometimes putting veteran teammates to shame. Comparisons with former alumnus Aiden McGeady are inaccurate - Forrest is less about tricks and more about sheer pace - but there's no doubt that he's the best prospect Parkhead has produced since the Irish international. His only weakness is a dependence on his right foot. He's the best young Scotsman in goodness knows how long, and I wonder if the SPL is too small a pond for his talents to blossom.

I'm cheating slightly here, as Matthews was brought north from Cardiff City only last summer and is not quite a prospect in the same manner as the others on this list. But the right back has established himself as first choice over more experienced colleagues, and even at 19 is a Welsh international; in fact he was one of the Celtic players contacted over potential availability for the GB Olympic team. Good defensively, and with a good enough crossing foot that he often takes corner kicks, Matthews has already been linked with Everton and Fulham, among others.

By the time you read this Allan may already be over the border; West Bromwich Albion are looking to complete a £400,000 deal for the under 21 international. We haven't seen that much of him in the Arabs' first team, partly because he was dropped for rejecting a new deal and demanding £1,600 a week (in SPL terms, this is a lot of money!). But his performances in an attacking midfield role attracted interest from plenty of clubs, and it seems someone will be willing to meet his wage demands.

Could Russell follow in the footsteps of former teammate David Goodwillie, whom United sold to Blackburn for £2.5m in August? Recently at Inverness he came off the bench early in the second half with the team 2-0 down, and scored twice as United came back to win. But he was only a sub that day because of inconsistent performances in previous games. A forward who has the speed to play wide as well, Russell scored against both Celtic and Rangers last season, proving he is not overawed by big occasions. A little more maturity could see him go a long way.

Robinson had largely disappeared off the radar after making his debut as a 16 year old in April 2008, when he became the SPL's youngest ever player. Initially used as a striker, his diminutive 5ft 7in frame may be one reason why he has dropped deeper; he has in the last couple of months established himself in the middle of the park at Tynecastle where he has the engine, bite and skill to make him a real prospect as an all-round midfielder. At 19, you can't help feeling there is plenty of improvement yet to come as well, and he's likely to get plenty of first-team action as his club look to get rid of their more experienced earners.

There has been plenty of upheaval in the Killie midfield over the last year or so, but Kelly, an under 21 international, remains pencilled in on the teamsheet. Last year he was often found drifting in the from the right flank, but the departures of Bryson, Taouil and Eremenko mean he is now often to be found right in the thick of the action. A deeper position on the pitch means he has yet to score this term, but his 8 goals last season prove that he can be a threat going forward too.

The big surprise about Murphy is that he hasn't left Motherwell before now. This season, his team's use of Michael Higdon as target-man and fulcrum has seen the 22 year old forward playing more of a wide role, and as a result his goals tally is only a mediocre six so far this term. But Murphy showed last season the damage he can do with his pace and assured finishing; just think of the sumptuous solo goal he scored in the Scottish Cup semi against St. Johnstone. He's not going to get much better staying in the SPL, so expect a move to at least a Championship side in either January or the summer.

Wide midfielder Wylde has easily outstripped the stagnating John Fleck to become the best of Rangers' young players, though he still lacks consistency; too often his final ball is, well, a bit wild. But his pace is blistering and he has a good grasp of his defensive duties for one so young. Rangers' potential financial problems might mean Wylde becomes a first choice on the left flank for years to come, or it might mean they are obliged to cash in on his potential.

McLean has been the figurehead of manager Danny Lennon's push to make St. Mirren more of a creative passing team; after some rough experiences last season he has exploded in form in this campaign, adding a goal threat to his midfield play. His assurance on the ball has already brought comparisons with Barry Ferguson. Talk is that Burnley have offered £350,000 for the Buddies' prize asset; with McLean under contract till 2014, expect them to hold out for a much bigger fee.

It'll be interesting to see how many of these I'm correct about. Given the accuracies of my blogs in 2011, I'm betting on between zero and one...