Saturday, May 26, 2012

If Rangers are guilty,they must be expelled

I can't believe it's come to relation to the Rangers saga (why hasn't anyone labelled it Rangers-gate yet?) I'm going to use the example of Italy as a bastion of morality.

That's right, Italy - the country of the mafioso, the land of Silvio Berlusconi and his Bunga-Bunga parties, a nation whose football clubs seem to be dogged, every few years, by tales of scandal and corruption.

But, in Italian football, there is at least precedent for punishing clubs.  Even the biggest ones, as demonstrated by the Calciopoli affair.  Three major teams were implicated in the match fixing scandal, including Juventus, winners of the previous two Serie A titles.  The Turin club were relegated a division, started the next season on minus-nine points, and were fined £31 million.

They also know what to do with clubs that go bust.  Fiorentina were another club punished as part of Calciopoli.  When they went under in 2002, there was no 'newco' solution, not even a thought of a reprieve.  The new entity rejoined the league three tiers lower.

Now, the Rangers situation is hardly the same as either of those, but my point is that major European clubs have messed around before, and been suitably punished for their actions...severely.

And the actions of Rangers Football Club increasingly call for sanctions of which Scottish football has never seen.

The SFA have already concluded their investigation into the running of the club over the last year, and particularly the deliberate non-payment of tax/PAYE on wages during the Craig Whyte 'era'.  An independent panel concluded that only match-fixing could be more heinous.  Their report implicated several directors as either complicit or having deliberately turned a blind eye, and suggested that expulsion from the SFA was seriously considered as a punishment.  That was felt to be too harsh, and instead a 12 month transfer embargo was declared.

Rangers had their appeal rejected by another independent panel...after all of about three hours, which may or may not suggest it was considered frivolous.  Incredibly, they are taking this to the civil courts.  Considering both independent panels have included a Law Lord, it would be a surprise if the verdict is overturned.  But going to civil courts over footballing matters, instead of the Court for Arbitration in Sport, is against UEFA and FIFA rules, and football's governing bodies have stamped down hard on this sort of thing before.  Swiss club Sion tried to appeal against a transfer embargo of their own earlier this season, and the Swiss FA and it's clubs were threatened with expulsion from FIFA and UEFA if they didn't punish Sion - in the end the club ended up with an astronomical fine and a points deduction which would have relegated them had another team not gone bankrupt.

Why are Rangers continuing to fight?  I suspect it's a delaying tactic, to try to suspend the embargo for long enough that they can sign players this summer.  Or it might be at the behest of 'preferred bidder' Charles Green, whose interest in buying the club would surely be tempered by being unable to improve the squad for a year.  But the onus is now on the SFA to stick it to the Ibrox club for taking this action, or risk being punished by UEFA and FIFA themselves.

Of course, this is only one of the issues Rangers are dealing with...

These centre around the EBTs - the loans to offshore trusts that the club used to pay players some of their wages without having to pay tax on them.  This was the centre of Mark Daly's BBC investigation.  There are two issues with these.

Firstly, the tax man thinks they were illegal and wants around £100 million in back taxes, toot suite.  Rangers' appeal against this demand went to a tribunal and the verdict has been awaited for about two months.  Obviously, if Rangers are ordered to pay up, they will be unable to, and HMRC becomes the biggest creditor by a distance.  For all the positive spin in the Scottish papers about 'doing a deal' with Hector, it is believed the authorities have their eye on several English clubs who have been doing the same thing.  Cutting a deal with Rangers would encourage other clubs to behave as irresponsibly, in the knowledge that, if caught, they can get away with paying only a fraction of what they should.  Some of the clubs, and amounts, involved, would be much bigger than Rangers and their potential debt - in the long run it may be in the tax man's interests to make an example of the Ibrox club.

Does that make sense, or has my train of thought gone wildly off the rails?

Moving on, the other factor with the EBTs is whether they were against SFA rules, which require all player contracts and payments to be declared.  If the Gers had been dodging tax, they gained an unfair financial advantage over other clubs - both in Scotland and in European football.  Each of those players would have been ineligible to play under SFA rules.  The BBC investigation found evidence of more than 50 players, and 20 staff, who had benefitted - there were some matches where the entire Rangers team might have been ineligible to play.

The SPL are conducting an investigation into this - you'd think that, if these payments had been declared, such an investigation would be open-and-shut.  What is staggering is that this investigation started on 4 March, and only this week did the SPL demand that Rangers pass them all the relevant documentation...after the BBC investigation aired.  The SPL's involvement in this, so far, has not covered them in glory...but more of that another time.

Rangers run out of cash at the end of the month.  The players who agreed to wage deferrals are due to return to their normal rate of pay - and I believe, get all the wages they are owed from the last three months - or they can leave for a fraction of the fee Rangers would normally demand.  The senior players in this situation are:

Allan McGregor
Dorin Goian
Kirk Broadfoot
Lee McCulloch
Maurice Edu
Steven Davis
Kyle Lafferty
Lee Wallace
Steven Naismith
Steven Whittaker
Carlos Bocanegra
Alejandro Bedoya
Neil Alexander

That's 13 players.  Could a fire sale of these guys make the club even a total of £10 million?  I'm not convinced.

Duff and Phelps (more on them later too) require the Charles Green consortium to pay ongoing costs throughout the summer until a CVA is agreed, but the rumoured CVA offer - 6p in the pound - is so derisory that creditors might feel more confident if they were paid in magic beans.  Liquidation - however you put it, it's the same as going bust - looks inevitable.

This week, the English FA dealt with the case of Darlington, who formed a Newco after going into liquidation.  Their verdict?  Relegate Darlington four divisions.

The SFA have already sanctioned Rangers with a transfer embargo, and that was just for the actions of the past year.  If they are found to have been paying players illegally for about a decade,that would surely be grounds for significant action, well beyond the transfer embargo.  If they are liquidated - well, it is not unreasonable to say that were any other Scottish club liquidated, with the exception of Celtic, they would be thrown out of the SPL and their Newco offspring would be invited to duel with Spartans and Gala Fairydean for a spot in the third division.

In this blogger's view, were Rangers to be liquidated, and to be found guilty by the footballing authorities of having been paying players illegally, they must be expelled from the Scottish Premier League, and from Scottish football.  By all means then invite them to reapply for the third division.  But no other punishment fits these crimes.  There is nothing, except match-fixing, that they could have done in footballing terms which is worse.

But, if I have time in the next few days, I will try to go into how the SPL, the other clubs, and the Scottish Media are determined - against all ethics and morality - to keep the Rangers monstrosity alive - and why.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Team-by-team:The 2011-12 SPL season (part 2)


Marks out of ten: 3

Overview: The season couldn't end quickly enough.  It started badly and finished badly, rescued only by a good run between October and January which coughed up enough points to steer ICT clear of a relegation fight.  A horrendous injury list didn't help, but by the end of the campaign Terry Butcher's side looked disorganized, bereft of ideas and short of direction.  They finished tenth, but only a final day win gave them more points than the season they were relegated.  A League Cup defeat at Ayr and a timid Scottish Cup exit to Celtic only add to the impression that 2011-12 saw the highlanders take a step in the wrong direction.

Star man: Even the better players in the side were inconsistent and had plenty of mediocre performances.  I'll pick winger Jonny Hayes simply because Caley Thistle were twice the team when he was on song.

Waste of space: The Route One tactics hardly suited diminutive striker Billy McKay, but a total of 3 goals from 19 starts does not construe a harsh reflection on his performances.  He just never looked confident in front of goal.

Is the future bright? Butcher claims that he wants to keep the majority of these players together.  Maybe if they all stay fit, another season together will see the players gel.  More likely, it'll be more of the same.  With Hibs surely unable to get any worse and Ross County dangerous newcomers, it's reasonable to suggest Inverness as the early favourites for the drop next season.


Marks out of ten: 7

Overview: Stuff the league position, all that Killie fans gave a damn about was their League Cup triumph...and quite right too.  New boss Kenny Shiels tried to pick up where Mixu Paatelainen left off, and the drop from fifth last season to seventh this time around can be blamed on being unable to replace several crucial players who left last summer.  Kilmarnock weren't always winning, but they were always worth watching.  The fans can easily forgive missing out on the top six in exchange for a crack at silverware, and a product worth watching at Rugby Park.

Star man: The manager's own son, Dean Shiels, was not in the team because of nepotism; he was the playmaker who made the side tick and he chipped in with plenty of goals too.  Such was his impact that a dip in his form around springtime coincided with the poor run that ended their top six hopes.

Waste of space: Dutch midfielder Danny Buijs was signed to become a pivotal cog in the midfield.  He was one of the higher paid players, so a spate of injuries, along with mediocre performances when he was fit, made his spell at the club a failure.  He's already returned to Holland.

Is the future bright? If Killie can find the money to keep Shiels and striker Paul Heffernan, they certainly shouldn't be any weaker next season, though keeper Cammy Bell will be the subject of interest.  Two or three astute signings are all they need to get back in the top six next year.


Marks out of ten: 8

Overview: How can third in the league be considered anything other than a success?  It was, all in all, a great season for Well, who were solid, difficult to beat and good at grinding out results even when they weren't playing at their best.  It was their consistency that got them above the likes of Dundee Utd and Hearts in the end.  And Rangers' problems mean, of course, that in July the Steelmen get a crack at the Champions League qualifiers for the first time.  Stuart McCall is a popular man in the town right now...

Star man: There were plenty to choose from, but goalkeeper Darren Randolph's sophomore season in the SPL was just as good as his first.  His performances have got him onto the Standby list for Ireland's Euro 2012 squad.

Waste of space: McCall's fringe players were, in general, a pretty capable bunch.  If I was being cruel, I'd single out midfielder Ross Forbes for criticism, mainly for his failure to develop beyond a few promising performances two years ago that seemed to have earmarked him as one for the future.

Is the future bright? The prospect of the Champions League might allow Motherwell to attract better players to the club, but many a team has struggled in the league whilst competing in European competition.  Another podium finish might be too much to ask, but the nucleus of this squad, if kept together, should bring many a top six place in the near future.


Marks out of ten: 5

Overview: How on earth do you analyze Rangers' season, after all the off-field rigmarole?  Before the midden hit the windmill, things seemed to be unravelling; a commanding early league lead was whittled away and they exited Europe before the end of August.  But Ally McCoist perhaps deserves a little credit for managing to motivate the players to the point where, despite a 10point deduction, they still finished miles clear of third place.

Star man: American defender Carlos Bocanegra is well past his best, but his experience and composure made him a stand-out in the SPL.  He was a commanding presence in the centre of the backline all season long.

Waste of space: Bocanegra's countryman Alejandro Bedoya cost just as much in a transfer fee, but couldn't even get himself in the team when youth players were being used towards the end of the season.  He wasn't the only poor Gers signing last summer, but he was the worst.

Is the future bright? Whatever the Daily Record says, that twelve month transfer embargo won't be overturned soon.  There is little doubt that Rangers' big players will leave the sinking ship this summer - the question is whether the skeleton squad left behind will be allowed to compete at SPL level or not...but that's another story...


Marks out of ten: 7

Overview: After a great start, the Saintees managed to overcome the mid-season departure of manager Derek McInnes and kept enough momentum to hold on to a place in the top half, their highest league finish for more than a decade.  That's not bad for a side who had the lowest average attendance in the SPL, despite their good results.  McInnes' replacement, Steve Lomas, has done a decent job so far, though his January signings were hit-and-miss.  It's hard to see how the club's supporters can expect more than what they got this season.

Star man: The Spanish striker Francisco Sandaza seemed like a bit of a gamble, after an injury-hit couple of years, but he proved himself one of the best finishers around, even if he was prone to more than a little play-acting.

Waste of space: David Robertson left Dundee United for McDiarmid Park last summer in order to get more first team football...but the attacking midfielder started only eleven matches and didn't seem to feature much in Lomas' plans.

Is the future bright? Can Lomas take St Johnstone higher?  His next big test will be his ability to find cheap gems in the transfer market.  Whilst they have more than enough quality to feel confident they will be nowhere near the bottom end of the table next season, they will find it difficult to emulate this season's finish, especially if the likes of Sandaza leave for bigger things.


Marks out of ten: 6

Overview: The Buddies achieved their highest league finish, and most points, since the SPL expanded to 12 teams - which must be worth at least some plaudits.  Still, they were only eighth in the table, and early thoughts of top six evaporated after a terrible run at the start of 2012.  Coach Danny Lennon is keen to keep the ball on the deck, though they also proved adept at using Steven Thompson as a target man.  A Boxing Day win over Rangers was a highlight, and it was the first time in many years that there were no concerns about being dragged into a relegation battle.

Star man: Paul McGowan was always an attacking threat, playing either wide in midfield or as a second striker.  The former Celtic youngster seems to keep on improving, and Lennon seems to know how to get the best out of him.

Waste of space: Aussie midfielder Aaron Mooy showed enough last season to suggest he might become a good player, but he struggled with back problems and, when fit again, failed to impress.

Is the future bright? There are plenty of decent youngsters at St. Mirren Park, and the boss is proving adept at picking up decent players from the lower leagues.  If he can get another good year out of veteran Thompson and keep the likes of McGowan and Kenny McLean, the club might well be able to aim higher next season, especially with defensive linchpin Darren McGregor back after missing almost the whole season with a cruciate ligament injury.  There's justification for optimism in Paisley.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Team-by-team:The 2011-12 SPL season (part 1)

Marks out of ten: 4

Overview: The best thing you can say about the Dons' season is that they haven't gone backwards - they finished 9th in the league for the third consecutive time.  Craig Brown has just about worked out how to solidify the backline, but at the expense of attacking flair and goals.  Attendances at Pittodrie are as low as they have ever been, and there is a feeling of apathy both on and off the pitch.  There were, briefly, hopes of cup glory - only to be dashed by yet another semi-final defeat, the fifth in five years in domestic cup competitions.

Star man: Finnish midfielder Kari Arnason joined from Plymouth last summer and added class in the centre of the park, as well as proving capable of playing at centre-back if need be.  He's unlikely to stay beyond the summer, though, unless his wage demands are met.

Waste of space: Mohamed Chalali had never scored a senior goal before he joined the club; the striker broke his duck but managed only two, forcing his way into the starting lineup only five times.  It's no surprise his contract hasn't been renewed.

Is the future bright? Another summer, another clearout.  But Brown's budget is not going to be increased, and while several of the youngsters look promising, the likes of Fraser Fyvie might not be able to resist the temptation to move south.  Barring a long-overdue cash injection to improve the squad, there's no obvious reason why the Dons should be obvious candidates for next season's top six.

Marks out of ten: 8

Overview: Opinion is a bit split on how to judge Celtic's season.  On the one hand, they won the league at a canter, after a horrendous start which left Neil Lennon on a shoogly peg back in the Autumn.  Any championship is not to be sneezed at.  Alternatively, it could be said that, given Rangers' problems, a title win was the absolute minimum expected requirement.  They could and should have won more this season; whilst defeats in the League Cup final and Scottish Cup semi came with some controversy, the team did not play well on either occasion, and were comprehensively defeated in two Old Firm games.

Star man: As I've said before, if you told me a year ago that Charlie Mulgrew would be Player of the Year, I'd have had you sectioned.  But Mulgrew proved adept in several positions for the Bhoys, and his set piece delivery and goal threat were a welcome bonus.

Waste of space: Mohamed Bangura's first season in Scotland was wrecked by injuries.  Three starts and no goals is a rotten return so far for the £2 million fee that Celtic paid for the Sierra Leone striker last summer.

Is the future bright? The issues affecting the other half of Glasgow almost guarantee title wins for the next few years and the chance to build a domestic dynasty.  Lennon's reputation will increasingly stand on his ability to  lead Celtic to success on the European stage.  He has a good record for good-value buys in the transfer market - can he keep it going?


Marks out of ten: 7

Overview: It's incredible to think that there were doubts about Peter Houston's job security after a poor start to the season, but from about December the Arabs clicked in spectacular fashion, with goals flowing and some good football on display.  Had the campaign been a few weeks longer they would have overhauled Motherwell for third spot, but a repeat of last year's fourth spot is an excellent return.  Having knocked Rangers out of the cup at Ibrox, the only major disappointment was a tame loss to Celtic in the next round after Robbie Neilson's early red card.

Star man: Captain Jon Daly hit the form of his life this season; always a solid, hard-working target man, the Irishman hit the goal trail this season and finished with 22 in all competitions, ending up on the shortlist for Players' Player of the Year.

Waste of space: Slovak striker Milos Lacny arrived on loan from Sparta Prague in January, but injury problems limited him to just six sub appearances and a solitary goal.

Is the future bright? Houston managed to rebuild the team last summer after losing some important players - with Dusan Pernis, Garry Kenneth, Paul Dixon, Danny Swanson and Scott Robertson set to bid adieu, can he do it yet again?  It's no secret that United are cost-cutting and I expect Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven to be the subject of tempting offers this summer.  A sixth straight top six finish will not come easy.


Marks out of ten: 1

Overview: The newly-promoted Pars actually made quite a solid start to the campaign...and then everything went completely belly-up.  By the time Jim McIntyre was sacked as manager, they had won only 2 of the previous 26 league games, and replacement Jim Jefferies was unable to perform the required miracles to keep them up.  Off the field, the club revealed it had budgeted for much higher crowds and had to close a stand at East End Park, and at one point a delayed payment of gate receipts from Rangers led to wages being delayed.  Dunfermline's return to the SPL was short and anything but sweet.

Star man: Winger Joe Cardle had plenty of off-days, but he was always willing to give it a go and chipped in with 8 SPL goals.  He's one of the few in the squad who might have a chance of staying in the top division.

Waste of space: Few of the players could be faulted for effort - the problem was simply that they weren't good enough.  Goalkeeper Chris Smith was the pantomime villain - after being thrust into action after a season-ending injury to Paul Gallacher, he became notorious for blunders - not least his 96th minute fresh-air kick which gifted Inverness an equalizer in the cup (plus another howler in the replay) which denied the Pars a lucrative tie with Celtic in the next round.

Is the future bright? As Dunfermline found out the last time they were relegated, the first division is not easy to get out of.  Many of the players in the squad won the division in 2010-11 at the club, and they will certainly be considered amongst the favourites for promotion next year.


Marks out of ten: 7

Overview: Everything is rosy if you win the cup, especially if you beat the league champions in the semi-finals with a last-gasp penalty, then annihilate your local rivals in the final.  So Hearts fans will forgive a pretty erratic league campaign, where top six never looked in danger but a finish above fifth place never looked likely.  After a mediocre start, results under Portuguese coach Paulo Sergio steadily improved, and so did the quality of the football.  But at the start of the season this squad looked more than capable of third place, and Vladimir Romanov is more interested in selling the club than strengthening it.

Star man: I swear Rudi Skacel does nothing except score goals...but he came up with 17 from midfield this season.  The veteran Czech is a darling of the Hearts support, who will be devastated if, as expected, he and his deadly left foot are allowed to depart Gorgie for good.

Waste of space: Signed last summer from Motherwell amid a bit of fanfare, John Sutton was a huge disappointment - his confidence appeared to evaporate within a few minutes of pulling on a Hearts jersey.  He was shipped out to Australia on loan in January.

Is the future bright? It wouldn't be Hearts if there wasn't uncertainty surrounding the coach - at the time of writing it is unclear if Sergio will be kept on.  The impending departure of first team regulars such as Ian Black, Adrian Mrowiec, Stephen Elliott and (probably) Skacel does not bode well - it's likely that several Academy players will be thrown in at the deep end next year.


Marks out of ten: 3

Overview: Hibs might well have been relegated had they not sacked Colin Calderwood in November.  His replacement, Irishman Pat Fenlon, steadied the ship with a number of loan signings, but he had to wait till the penultimate game of the season for his first home league win and it wasn't until then that the Hibees were safe.  Under Fenlon's charge they won only 5 of 23 league games (with 19 points out of a possible 69) and  finished one place and four points worse off than last time round.  A cup run lifted some of the gloom...until an absolute tanking in the final by their nearest rivals Hearts.  It was very much a season to forget.

Star man: There were long periods where he didn't seem to be pulling his (excessive) weight, but it's hard to begrudge Garry O'Connor his 16 goals in all competitions this season.  The former Scotland international is likely to end his second spell at Easter Road this summer, though.

Waste of space: Take your pick of several excellent candidates.  I'm plumping for Martin Scott, signed for £100,000 from Ross County 18 months ago and who has so far made only 29 appearances for the club.  In pre-season he broke a teammate's jaw in a training ground fight, and he has been out of first team contention for months (possibly due to a bust up with Fenlon).  He was publicly made available for loan in March...and there don't appear to have been any takers.

Is the future bright? Most of the loanees will not be back.  Neither will club captain Ian Murray, and probably not O'Connor.  For the second summer in a row, there will be a huge rebuilding job for Hibs, though Rod Petrie has at least got a reputation for giving his managers a decent wage budget.  The Tache will splash the cash, but will Hibee hopes continue to be dashed?


Thursday, May 17, 2012

2011-12 Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year Part 2

For austerity's sake, here are the previous players who have obtained this prestigious honour...

2007/08: Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Wilkie, Lee Naylor, Barry Robson, Stephen Hughes, Barry Ferguson, Aiden McGeady, Scott McDonald, Steven Fletcher

2008/09: Lukasz Zaluska, Andreas Hinkel, Gary Caldwell, Lee Wilkie, Sasa Papac, Scott Brown, Bruno Aguiar, Pedro Mendes, Andrew Driver, Scott McDonald, Kris Boyd

2009/10: John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker, David Weir, Andy Webster, Sasa Papac, Steven Davis, Morgaro Gomis, James McArthur, Anthony Stokes, Kris Boyd, David Goodwillie

2010/11: Marian Kello, Steven Whittaker, Daniel Majstorovic, Michael Duberry, Emilio Izaguirre, Steven Naismith, Beram Kayal, Alexei Eremenko, David Templeton, Nikica Jelavic, David Goodwillie

Not a Caley Thistle player among them.  You won't be surprised to learn that this year's team doesn't include one either.

Here's the remaining six names:

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Ian Black (Hearts)
Honourable mentions: Kari Arnason (Aberdeen), Scott Robertson (Dundee United), Nicky Law (Motherwell), Steven Davis (Rangers)

I love Wanyama. He has a great engine, rarely gives away stupid fouls and has excellent positional sense and discipline for one so young. The Kenyan has looked just as competent at centre-back as when anchoring the midfield. He will go on to better things, mark my words. I picked Black rather than Davis partly so I could shoehorn someone with some sort of ICT link into the team, and partly because he's had the best season of his career. His goal at Ibrox was possibly the best in the country this season. Davis has stood out again for Rangers though. It's no surprise that Arnason and Robertson, both stars for their teams this season, are likely to leave the SPL this summer, while Law has stood out in Motherwell's midfield.

WIDE MIDFIELDERS: James Forrest (Celtic), Dean Shiels (Kilmarnock)
Honourable mentions: Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United), Rudi Skacel (Hearts), Jonny Hayes (Inverness), Sone Aluko (Rangers)

Errrr...I know Shiels (and probably Skacel too) has probably spent as much time this season playing through the centre as in wide areas, but I absolutely had to get him into the team. Shiels has been the heartbeat of Kilmarnock's team this year, looking every inch the player he promised to be when he was a youngster in the Hibs lineup. Forrest has been electric for Celtic and is the most impressive Scottish youngster around right now. Skacel doesn't do a whole lot more other than score goals, but my word does he score goals. I didn't go for Mackay-Steven or Aluko because the former still hasn't convinced me that he can hurt good full-backs (yet) and the latter had a pretty mediocre start to his Gers career before coming into stunning form in the last couple of months.

FORWARDS: Gary Hooper (Celtic), Jon Daly (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Paul Heffernan (Kilmarnock), Michael Higdon (Motherwell), Francisco Sandaza (St.Johnstone), Paul McGowan (St. Mirren)

I decided I couldn't put Nikica Jelavic in the team, just because he left in January; he was, however, outstanding up till then. Hooper's consistency is outstanding and I don't believe there is a better finisher in the country. Daly is undoubtedly the best target man in the SPL and hit goalscoring form in a big way this year - in fact he made the shortlist for Player of the Year. He gets in ahead of Sandaza, whose form seemed to take a dip after Rangers attempted to tap him up during the transfer window. Heffernan and Higdon led the line well for their clubs this season.

So that's this year's team.  As with previous seasons, any of these eleven players has won the right to get a free pint from me, should they come up to me in the pub and request such.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

2011-12 Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year part 1

It's that time again folks.  I've done a Narey's Toepoker Team of the year for the SPL three times before - I'm worried the universe will end if I don't come up with one this year either.

Here's the goalie and the back four for 2011-12.  Anyone expecting the inclusion of Chris Smith (Dunfermline), Sean O'Hanlon (Hibs), Patrick Ada (Kilmarnock), David Proctor (Inverness) and Daniel Majstorovic (Celtic) will be somewhat disappointed, and probably needs to see a psychologist.

GOALKEEPER: Cammy Bell (Kilmarnock)
Honourable mentions: Fraser Forster (Celtic), Darren Randolph (Motherwell)

Bell's once-in-a-lifetime performance in the League Cup final was enough in itself to get him in this team; at times it was like there was an invisible forcefield around his goal.  It wasn't his only good performance this season, and it's not surprising that he's been linked with moves south this summer.  The behemoth Forster improved on last season and was very reliable; Randolph's performances at Fir Park got him within a whisker of Ireland's Euro 2012 squad.

LEFT BACK: Paul Dixon (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Steven Hammell (Motherwell), Jeroen Tesselaar (St. Mirren)

Dixon definitely is off-ski this summer, presumably south of the border.  Injuries had held him back a bit in previous seasons, but he was outstanding on the left hand side of the Arabs' defence this season.  Solid at the back, yet also more than capable of delivering a good cross ball, expect him to get his first Scotland cap next season.  Hammell was solid as ever in Motherwell's backline, while Dutchman Tesselaar was a standout for St. Mirren this season.

RIGHT BACK: Adam Matthews (Celtic)
Honourable mentions: Tom Hateley (Motherwell), Dave Mackay (St. Johnstone)

I was hugely impressed by Matthews, who must be a wildcard to make Team GB for the Olympics.  His positional sense is better than I expected from a raw 20 year old.  Add in his delivery from corners and long throw ins and you have a young man who will go on to better things than Celtic.  Hateley, mostly a midfield player earlier in his career, has made right-back his position for Well, while I was always impressed by the veteran Mackay when I saw him play for St. Johnstone.

CENTRE BACKS: Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Honourable mentions: Andy Webster (Hearts), Shaun Hutchinson (Motherwell)

I could have put Mulgrew in any of about four different positions.  I never thought I'd see the day, but Mulgrew was Scottish football's outstanding player this season.  Quite apart from his incredible 9 goals this season, he was consistently excellent in defence and midfield.  Bocanegra was the best player in Rangers' backline; the American showed a reliability somewhat lacking in his partner Doian Goian!  Webster was excellent for Hearts and looks like he's getting back to his best, while youngster Hutchinson is developing into a very promising centre half indeed.

I'll come up with the other half of the team later in the week.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

SPL - Slow, Procrastinating, Loitering

I clearly need to buy a new dictionary.

You see, I thought the definition of the word 'deadline' was 'The latest time or date by which something should be completed'.  But, given the multiple deadlines that Duff & Phelps have set, then allowed to expire, when trying to negotiate with the playing staff over wage cuts, and with prospective owners, I'd begun to doubt my understanding of the word.

To be honest, I have so little trust in what Duff & Phelps say that, were they to announce that grass is green, I would feel the need to open my back door and look at my garden to make sure (of course, if you have been watching football regularly at Fir Park over the last few years, you may have forgotten what grass looks like).

However, it's not just Daudling & Procrastinating who are at it.  The Scottish Premier League had yet another meeting yesterday to try to come to an agreement on what on earth to do about Rangers, and, after six hours they came to the decision that...(drum-roll please)...they wouldn't make a decision until their next meeting on 30 May.  It was claimed afterwards that this was at the request of the Gers, who didn't actually send a representative along.

Whether this is true or not, there are two ways of looking at this delay.  It could be good for the Bluenoses - Dunfermline, whose chairman John Yorkston has probably been the most vocal in terms of advocating punishment, have been relegated and so will be replaced at that meeting by newly promoted Ross County, who cannot be any less supportive of the 'newco plan'.  Delaying things till the end of the month might also give Bill Miller ample time to complete his takeover - if newco Rangers already exist by this point, it would be very difficult for the SPL to then punish them for a so-called 'Insolvency Transfer Event' retrospectively.  In fact, it might be difficult for the SPL to punish them at all, especially if they (as it seems) have little stomach for throwing the book at the club in the likely event of liquidation.

On the other hand, there is plenty of scepticism out there (amongst non-Scottish journalists, of course - the Scottish ones have already successfully removed their heads from the rectum of Paul Murray and inserted them into the back passage of Miller) about just how realistic the American's takeover plan is.  Rangers still have the Big Tax Case and the Dual Contracts saga hanging over them.  I can hardly see Miller buying the club if there is a risk he will be landed with a £75 million bill from the Revenue a few weeks later.  His 'incubator' plan sounds like complete b******s...which probably means it is.  The SPL's decision to delay their meeting might, in fact, be an attempt to save themselves from making a decision at all.

Rangers' money will run out soon.  If nothing concrete is in place by June, the players will leave en masse unless their huge salaries are restored.  The tax tribunal result is due imminently (though we've been saying that since March), and so is the result of the investigation into their EBTs and dual contracts.  The SPL is between a rock and a hard place - the clubs are worried about the potential short-term loss of income that would follow the demotion of Rangers (and, according to some rumour, under huge pressure from Sky and, in the case of some clubs, Lloyds bank).  However, if they finally disprove the fable that is 'sporting integrity' by letting a newco Rangers back in with little or no punishment, there is a huge risk of a fan backlash.  You only have to look at the attendances at every non-Old Firm ground in the country (except maybe Tynecastle) to see that home supports have already dwindled to the point that only the diehard fans are turning up.  Even success at Motherwell, St. Johnstone, Dundee Utd and Kilmarnock have barely brought supporters through the gate.

At last week's Caley Thistle-Dunfermline game I asked a few people for their opinions and the reality was this - if a newco Rangers are given special dispensation, it suggests that the Old Firm have a divine right to be the two strongest and most successful clubs in Scotland, regardless of what they do.  If the league is going to be manipulated in this way, then it is a sham.  What would be the point of spending several hundred quid a year watching it?

It's difficult to know how many of those threatening boycotts are serious.  I would be deeply upset by Rangers getting an easy deal, but could I really give up supporting my football club, even out of principle?  I'm not sure I'm strong enough.  But I feel strongly enough about the current situation that, when the letter about season ticket renewals popped through my door, I emailed Caley Thistle to ask for their opinion on the matter.  I was surprised, and hugely, hugely impressed, when, three hours later, I got an email back...from none other than the club chairman, Kenny Cameron.  Not a terse, polite, dismissive one-line message, but an 800 word response.

I won't print it in full here - whilst he hasn't said anything particularly controversial or damning, Mr Cameron presumably considered it to be a piece of personal correspondence so I feel uncomfortable about breaking any confidence of his - but here are a few choice quotes:

"If the Liquidation scenario were to transpire (apparently Mr Millers preferred option through his incubator company etc) it would be up to the SPL Board which comprises the Chairman, CEO, plus the current 4 Club representatives (Celtic, Dundee Utd, Motherwell & St Johnston) currently on the Board (ICTFC not being a member of the Board at this time) to decide on the inclusion or otherwise of a “NEWCO” in to the SPL. We can advise the Club reps of our feelings on this matter which will no doubt influence / assist them in their thought process but ultimately we will not have a vote on the day should the doomsday scenario arise for RFC"
"(the current sanctions) in our opinion fall way short on how a club can be dealt with should they be involved in an “insolvency event”"  
"as a club we firmly believe that if you misbehave you should be punished and you should accept your punishment with good grace and move on"
"please do not believe everything that is said regarding the Rangers situation"
"The key to change within the SPL is the 11-1 voting system and if this were to move to an 8-4 or even 9-3 system we feel it would be a major step forward for the game in Scotland and what can be achieved in the future" 
"we opposed the 10 team league introduction proposed last year, we knew that not only ICTFC fans but the majority of fans in Scotland did not want this to proceed and for once the 11-1 majority voting system currently in existence for this type of change worked in the favour of the smaller clubs or “rebels” as we are sometimes called in the press"

Make of that what you will, but at least one SPL chairman gives the impression that he gives a monkey's what his fans think.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rangers' lunatic fringe try to take us down with them

I spent the weekend before last in Glasgow, staying with a close friend from University days.  He, for all his qualities is a Rangers supporter...though, despite his bluster and the fact that his mood for days afterwards depends on the team's most recent result, he has not attended at Ibrox for more than a decade, despite literally living within walking distance.  Last September, I had told him about the increasingly frequent rumours of his club's financial and tax problems, to which he responded (and I quote), "You're talking a load of b******s, man".

Having been looking forward to telling him "I told you so" for weeks, you can imagine my disappointment when he happily admitted I was right, verbally laid into everyone who had anything to do with Rangers, and asked me for my opinion about what would happen next.

As regards the consequences of the administration process, plus the (alleged) dual contracts and the (alleged) ginormous tax bill, he was easily persuaded...Rangers, in the interests of fairness, have to be punished severely for their actions if found guilty.  I have a good few Bluenoses amongst my friends, all of whom think in a similar way...though understandably they baulk at the prospect, they agree that, if any other club were to be liquidated, they would be, at best, having to apply against the likes of Spartans and Gala Fairydean for a place at the bottom rung of the SFL ladder.

And it is surely now no longer a case of 'if'', but of 'when' Rangers are liquidated.  Neither of the remaining bids seem viable, whatever the claims of Gers champions such as the Daily Record.  The Blue Knights claim a CVA can happen...which seems rather unlikely when, with the Big Tax Case tribunal result still unavailable, we don't even know just how much cash the club owe.  As for the bid from the American Bill Miller, he always claimed it was conditional on no further punishment against Rangers, and, whilst trying to confuse everyone with technobabble, it is clear that, if he was to buy the club, he would liquidate.  The fact that Ally McCoist, in his Old Firm game interviews, seemed to be using the dreaded L-word in every sentence suggests that the end is nigh.

The big question of course, is how Rangers will be punished.  Last week, the SFA fired the first shot across their bows, and it was a big one; their tribunal ruled that they should get a twelve month transfer embargo.  It seems fairly logical - Rangers have been purchasing players they couldn't pay for, and offering wages that they couldn't meet, so stopping them from doing so seems sensible to me.  But it has huge implications, since the beginning of June is likely to see an exodus that Moses would be proud of; the wage deferrals the playing staff agreed to end, and barring payment of their outstanding monies in full, they are all in a position to leave for fairly paltry fees.  If the transfer embargo sticks, those outgoing players could not be replaced.

But will the embargo stick?

Or, more accurately, will the bigwigs at the SFA lose their nerve?

For the response to the decision was rather chilling.  Rangers boss Ally McCoist called for the names of independent panel to be made public...even though all Scottish clubs have signed up to an agreement that these people should be kept anonymous, and are taken from a list of names sent to all clubs at the start of the season which can be vetted by the clubs involved.  Of course, the reason for the anonymity is so that these people are protected by any media/supporter backlash.  And the backlash came - the names were leaked on the internet and the three men have had to take police advice.  There was a police presence overnight at Raith Rovers' Starks Park after threats that the ground would be burned down as retribution for the involvement of club director Eric Drysdale.  The Daily Record's outrageous article, which called for their identification and used the sort of imagery and headlines that are normally associated with wanted criminals, deserves more than just censure.

As for McCoist, who claimed he couldn't be made responsible for what 'the lunatic fringe' did in response to his comments, he has lost the title of 'The Last Person At Rangers With Any Shred Of Dignity".  For it has turned out that Rangers privately were made aware of who the people on the panel were.  The call for so-called 'transparency' from Fat Ally cannot be explained away as anything other than an attempt to stir trouble and to intimidate the powers that be.  I'd like to think that he feels rather ashamed with himself.  But it's difficult to tell.  

To cap it all, 7,000 Rangers fans marched on Hampden on Saturday in protest at the SFA.  What with Queen's Park playing at home, did it not occur to the organizers of this that no-one would be in during the weekend?  Whilst 7,000 sounds impressive, it is, as someone pointed out, only 10% of the number of Rangers fans who felt the need to head south of the border to trash Manchester.  And considering it is claimed that nearly a million Scots (plus plenty folk from Ulster and elsewhere) support them, 7,000 doesn't seem all that impressive, to be honest.

But whilst it must be recognised that the supporters behaved well and caused zero trouble, thus inflicting some damage on my stereotype of the typical Gers fan, it was again alarming to hear the comments of Sandy Jardine, former Rangers and Scotland player and the apparent spokesperson of this march - "There is nothing off the table, we will wait and see what the SFA and SPL do.  They might not take any action, which is great. But if they do then we will address these actions in an appropriate manner."

What exactly is 'an appropriate manner'?  I can't help feeling that it's not going to be a stern letter of complaint.  And it just seems to pour more fuel on the fire of the 'lunatic fringe', which increasingly seems less of a fringe.  In fact, should I be referring to my Bluenose friends as the 'sane fringe' of the club's support?

Hopefully the SFA will hold firm.  Perhaps they will be even more motivated to do so because of the actions towards the likes of Eric Drysdale, in order to prove that they cannot be bullied and intimidated.  If their response to the Rangers appeal is lenient, it sends out one hell of a bad message to these thugs and nutjobs.