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 twofootedtackle.com, 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 trying...in 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.


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Templeton: From hero to zero

On Thursday night at Anfield, the 23 year old Hearts forward David Templeton wrote himself into club folklore - with a helping hand from Pepe Reina, who helpfully spilled a speculative shot from 30 yards into his own net.  It was a goal that took the Tynecastle side to within a couple of minutes of taking the mighty Liverpool to extra time on their own ground and, though Luis Suarez spoilt the party with a decisive strike at the death, thousands of Jambos who made the trip to Merseyside went away on cloud nine, and with young Templeton holding a special place in their Hearts.

Usually employed as a winger, Templeton had played both legs of the tie in a more central role, as the closest support to John Sutton.  His livewire performances made him stand out even without taking into account his goal.  He didn't always make the right decisions, but his workrate, his pace and his skill could not have failed to attract the attention of scouts from south of the border.  A former Stenhousemuir youth player signed by Hearts in 2007, he had made a name for himself a year ago with some excellent performances in the maroon, culminating in a stunning solo goal that helped win an Edinburgh derby against Hibs.  Standards had dropped in the second half of last season, but, with his contract up for renewal next summer Templeton was surely going to attract attention from bigger clubs than Hearts.  Not in the English Premier League, but certainly in The Championship.  Perhaps an offer might even come in before this transfer window closed, from a desperate club in need of an exciting wide player.

Less than 24 hours later, Templeton could be found in Glasgow, discussing personal terms on a move to join Rangers.  He won't be eligible for this weekend's home game against Elgin City, so his debut will have to wait till the Ibrox side travel to Annan Athletic after the international break.  From playing in the Europa League, in front of the famous Kop, to playing in the Scottish Third Division, against cops...and butchers and bakers and candlestick men and so forth.  On Thursday night, it didn't seem inconceivable that he could, with the right move and the right coaching, go on to become a very decent footballer indeed; a reasonable bet for a Scotland cap in the next year or two.  Now he is set to spend the next three years playing against mainly part-time opposition, nowhere near testing himself against the best.  It's hard to see how playing the likes of East Stirlingshire four times a year will make him a better player.

Of course, given what happened to Ian Black - unable to get into the Scotland squad while at Hearts, he was controversially called up shortly after signing on for Rangers' third division campaign - Templeton might think that moving to Govan will improve his international chances...

It seems such a waste of talent.  And it's difficult to empathise with the player's decision.  There's no doubt that Vladimir Romanov wanted to cash in on him - and indeed on Ryan McGowan, who actually turned down the opportunity to move with his teammate - though Hearts fans will hope, after the Lee Wallace fiasco, that their Lithuanian owner insisted Charles Green paid upfront, in cash, for the player this time.  But he was certainly going to be the subject of good offers elsewhere, had he waited a little longer.  A Bosman move next summer would surely have netted him a good signing-on fee.

I can only think that Templeton chose to sign for Rangers either out of a keenness to remain in Scotland and because of being offered a weekly wage with a lot of zeroes.  As with Black, Dean Shiels and Francisco Sandaza, he appears to have become the latest beneficiary of the bizarre Rangers transfer policy of paying extortionate wages to SPL players to drop down three tiers, when they could surely find cheaper options that would do the job of getting them at least to the first division.  Whilst the fee has not been confirmed, the fact that Hearts had demanded £1.3million for Templeton and McGowan together suggests the former has probably signed for over £500,000.  I'm staggered nobody in the press, or in the Rangers support, has questioned the sense of paying that sort of money for a player to play in the third division - or where the cash has come from.

What's just as surprising was the lack of further transfer activity at Ibrox.  It seems that, though McCoist himself felt he needed five or six signings, the only other new face is Australian-Italian striker Francesco Stella, who spent last season playing in Italy's fourth tier.  One suspects that Green asked McCoist "Do you want a Stella?" and the Rangers coach is still wondering where his pint of lager is.  With Carlos Bocanegra and Kirk Broadfoot gone, the squad is quite thin on numbers, and if Templeton, Shiels et al come off badly when they experience the more 'agricultural' elements of lower league defending, Rangers might find that life in the SFL continues to be anything but plain sailing.