Wednesday, October 31, 2012

11 down, 27 to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dundee already doomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sacking Levein should only be the start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Levein's Last Stand?

Does nobody study history any more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 1, 2012

Stripping Rangers of titles is pointless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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