Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lennon lucky rather than good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 19, 2012

St. Mirren on the slide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hearts in crisis

At least the players haven't given up yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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