Thursday, December 20, 2012

Have Hibs lost their bottle?

Pat Fenlon had found the magic formula.

His first half-season at Easter Road just seemed to produce more of the same.  Hibernian's results didn't improve - in fact they seemed to get worse, with his first 19 league games producing only 3 wins.  Whilst the staggering ineptitude of Dunfermline ensured that the Hibees involved relegation, the apparent silver lining of a cup run only served to produce the season's nadir in a humiliating defeat at the hands of their city rivals.

But the start of the new campaign was the gorgonzola to last year's calcium carbonate.  An opening weekend thumping at Tannadice did not bode well, and when they fell behind to Hearts in the first half of the second game, I feared the worst.  But an equalizer from Leigh Griffiths seemed to spark the side, and that draw was the start of a run of results which seemed to establish Hibs as The Best Of The Rest.  Just like last year, everyone was focused on Leigh Griffiths...but not because of his petulance or, well, general 'ned'-ness.  The on-loan Wolves striker was scoring more frequently than Silvio Berlusconi on a viagra infusion.  New goalkeeper Ben Williams appeared to have broken the Hibernian Goalkeeper Curse which has afflicted every man between the sticks since Jim Leighton left the club, with help from the super-solid James McPake in front of him.  Other new signings like Ryan McGivern and Paul Cairney fitted in quickly, while winger David Wotherspoon looked like the best Scottish player in the SPL after Griffiths.

Even luck seemed to be going their way.  On a Friday night at Fir Park, Motherwell had a goal wrongly chalked off at 1-0 down, and conceded two penalties - one was contentious, the other scandalous.  Somehow, the visitors managed to come away with a 4-0 win.  After following it up with two more wins, they found themselves top of the SPL.  Even though Celtic were two points behind with a game in hand, it was still impressive.  It felt like Fenlon had come back from his summer holiday with a bouquet of four-leaf clovers and a caged leprechaun.

Six weeks later, Hibs are not top.  They are fourth.  They have managed only 3 points from the last 5 league games.  It all started when they fell victim to Dundee's "we only beat teams from Edinburgh" policy (their other two league wins both came against Hearts).  If the subsequent defeat to Aberdeen was unfortunate - the Dons defence was inspired, while Jamie Langfield just had one of those days goalkeepers have now and again - that was cancelled out by a smash-and-grab win in Perth which came after a dominant St. Johnstone spurned a penalty with the game still goalless.  The dogged cup win over Hearts, in a match so bad that neither team should have been allowed to progress to the next round, perhaps suggested that everything was rosy again; anyone who watched Fenlon's side get annihilated in Inverness the following weekend would tell you the opposite.  And, to cap it all, last Saturday Hibernian blew a 2-0 lead at Easter Road against Motherwell, with Bob McHugh's late winner condemning the home side to a fourth defeat in five in the SPL.

Initially I blamed the bad form on injuries.  McPake tweaked his back, and the defence, a rock with him in the centre, crumbled.  With Tim Clancy also out, Fenlon had to play Lewis Stevenson as a full-back, and he also had to play Alan Maybury, who should be right-back-in-the-dressing-room, not right-back.  Without McPake to take the lead, Paul Hanlon has lost his way, as anyone who saw his hideous attempts at marking Inverness players will tell you.  But McPake's return to the team against Motherwell did a fat lot of good - the team still lost and the defender was sent off late on, the result of a pointless second yellow card that displayed an alarming lack of discipline from the club captain.

It's alarming because it reminds me greatly of last season's Hibs, and the Hibs of the season before that, and the...oh, you get the picture.  Suddenly, they look like a mess.  The heads go down as soon as they concede.  The midfield is devoid of bite (though the return of another absentee, Gary Deegan, might rectify that).  The only thing missing is some v-signs from Leigh Griffiths.

But even the star striker has gone off the boil.  Perhaps it was inevitable after 13 goals in 13 league outings that the former Livi and Dundee man would hit a bad patch.  However, it seems to have coincided with confirmation from Wolves that his parent club want to sell him on in January, having apparently decided he isn't good enough for The Championship, but not in their interest to farm him out.  They want a fee, but Hibs chief exec Rod Petrie has been talking about cutting budgets, not buying players.  Unless The Tache takes his wallet out, Griffiths is offski in less than a month.  It seems reasonable to speculate that this has affected his motivation a bit.

So, is this just a blip, or was the good start to the season just a fluke?

At the moment, logic dictates we should assume the former to be more likely than the latter.  Hibs played some good football earlier this season, especially at home.  With the squad coming back to full strength, Fenlon must be confident that the results will come.  The last four games before the winter break should give us a good idea of where Hibs are right now - Kilmarnock away, Ross County at home, Celtic at home and Hearts away.  Anything from the third of those games is a bonus, and anything but a win against County will be considered a letdown by the home fans, but the results in the two away games will give us a marker regarding whether they are likely to be embroiled in the battle for second place.

I'm not saying its panic stations for Fenlon and Hibernian yet.  There are enough quality players available to him; there are also considerably fewer squad members with big egos and bad attitudes to poison the rest of the team than in previous years.  But the last few weeks have produced a few warning signs, signs we have seen before many a time at Easter Road.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Inverness prove the SPL has gone mad

Flashback to the morning of 29 September.  Caley Thistle's first seven league games had produced a grand total of zero wins (albeit with five draws). They lay eleventh in the table.  A few days earlier, they had required a penalty shootout to see off second division side Stenhousemuir in the League Cup.

That morning, I pointed out via twitter that, since January, the club had won only four out of twenty-six competitive games, including one out of eleven at home.  Two of those four wins came in the last two league games of 2011-12, which were essentially dead rubbers.  Another one was away to Arbroath in the League Cup (which, given Celtic's travails against Paul Sheerin's side, doesn't look so unremarkable now).  In case you hadn't got the point, I made it clear: I felt that Inverness were heading in the wrong direction and that Terry Butcher, manager since January 2009, was no longer up to the job.

That afternoon, we stuffed Dundee United 4-0 at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.

Fast forward to 8 December, which saw a 3-0 home win over Hibernian which was as comprehensive as it sounds.  Three days later came another victory, over Ross County in their Scottish Cup replay.  ICT have now lost only one of their last sixteen games in all competitions.  Their last ten league games have produced 21 points.  Such is the closeness of the SPL that, instead of being second from bottom, they are now second from top.  The last three league results have seen victories against a side top of the league (Celtic), a side second in the league (Aberdeen) and a side second in the league (Hibernian).

Clearly, I have no idea what I'm on about, even when it comes to my own team.

Most Caley Thistle fans will tell you that last season was a slog.  Crippled early in the campaign by incessant injuries, we seemed to change our back four every week - out of necessity rather than choice.  A brief peak in form around the turn of the year ended after Andrew Shinnie broke his foot.  A dreadful finish to the campaign meant that we only guaranteed our safety by taking the ball to the corner flag to earn a goalless draw at home to hapless Dunfermline with two matches left.  The summer's transfer dealings didn't fill the support with much confidence.  First team regulars Kenny Gillet, Greg Tansey, Jonny Hayes and Gregory Tade turned down new contracts and left.  Many of the replacements were English lower league players - guys like David Raven, Simon King, Ross Draper and Gary Warren.  Hardly confidence-inspiring.  And instead of bringing in a proven goalscorer (Tade had been the top scorer with just 9 goals), we gave a two year contract extension to the diminutive Irish forward Billy McKay, who had done little to impress the previous season.

As I said above, our start was rocky.  But something clicked.  It turns out that Terry Butcher knew what he was doing.  At both ends of the pitch, Caley Thistle have improved almost beyond recognition from a season ago. 

Unsurprisingly, given that we are the SPL's top scorers, its the attackers who have earned most of the plaudits.  Andrew Shinnie's outstanding form in the old-fashioned "number ten" role earned him the honour of a Scotland cap in November.  Irish winger Aaron Doran, who spent so much time on the treatment table last season that I began to worry he was made of glass, scored a terrific volley to clinch victory in the derby with Ross County in October; the consequence has been a surge of self-belief which has transformed his game.  I was furious to learn that he was named Young Player of the Month for November, as he's out of contract in the summer and I don't want him to attract attention.

In fact, ICT scooped all the awards for November - Butcher took the manager's gong, while McKay, criticized by me on almost an hourly basis last season, was Player of the Month.  The striker has scored nine in his last ten games, and already has eleven for the season.  Captain Richie Foran has been deployed all over the pitch - in midfield, on either flank and both up front and just off McKay - with impressive results.  There should also be a special mention for Arsenal loanee Philip Roberts, who has been in and out of the team; whilst displaying the sort of inconsistency you expect from a 20 year old, his contributions include the glorious dragback that left two Celtic players sliding on their backsides and set up McKay's winner at Celtic Park.

But good teams need a solid foundation.  In this case, the stats which show that only St. Mirren and Dundee have conceded more goals are misleading - take away our three SPL defeats (4-2 by Celtic, and 4-1 and 5-1 shellackings by Motherwell) and we have let in 15 goals in the other 14 games, a very respectable record.  Is it a coincidence that our excellent run started after former Real Madrid youngster Antonio Reguero took over in goal?  Ryan Esson has been an excellent servant over the last few years, but the Spaniard has done little wrong, and took advantage when injury let him into the side.

In front of him, the current back four was largely forced by injuries, but has gelled beautifully after youngster Josh Meekings, deployed at full-back last season, took up a role in the centre of defence.  Right-back David Raven had a dreadful start, but has improved with every match, both in a defensive and attacking sense.  Under-21 international Graeme Shinnie remains first choice on the other side.  But it is the other centre-back who has been the real stand-out.

"Gary who?", we said - closely followed by "He can't be any good if he was playing for Newport County."  The signing of 28 year old Gary Warren from the English Conference was about the most underwhelming move we made all summer.  But Warren is no ordinary footballer - his playing career was put on the backburner as he concentrated on qualifying as a PE teacher.  He didn't become a full-time player until 2011.  One can't help feeling that he has more left in the tank than the average 28 year old defender...or that he is destined to play at a higher level still.  He has provided leadership at the back, and I'm not sure he's missed a header all season.

The other player deserving of more recognition is midfielder Ross Draper.  At 6ft 5in, the former Macclesfield man manages even to have an inch on his beanpole teammate Owain Tudur Jones, but while the latter is a holding midfielder, relaxed almost to the point of languid, Draper is built like a house and gets about the pitch like he's on amphetamines.  He never shirks a tackle or a block, and he's undoubtedly the engine of this side.

And don't forget the management.  At times last year some players were hiding, while others looked like they were giving a lot less than 100%.  Terry Butcher has got this team playing some good football, and he's got them playing for him and for each other.  There have been some less than stellar performances, but sometimes sheer effort and attitude has been enough to grind out results.  And, of course, a little bit of luck here and there (as Ross County manager Derek Adams will no doubt tell you!)

Can it go on?  Of course not.  It's absolutely mad that Inverness are second in the SPL.  We're due a downturn, and losing one or two key players would cripple this team.  And writing a blog lauding them will only inevitably jinx our amazing run (yes, I have that power!).  But it's fun while it lasts.  And, most importantly, it has been a lot of fun so far.  And that is what matters.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Reconstruction is no panacea

Ah, reconstruction.  The dictionary definitions include "The action or process of reconstructing or being reconstructed", "A thing that has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed", or "that thing that everyone involved about in Scottish football has been arguing about whilst doing nothing for what seems like forever".

Come on, it's now only a matter of time until the latter definition makes its way into the Chambers Dictionary.

So, let's recap.  Currently, the Scottish Premier League is the top flight of professional football in this currently.  Formed in 1998, it broke away from the Scottish Football League, blatantly for no other reason than that the elite teams wanted more of the cash.  The SPL has twelve teams, with one relegated every year and replaced by the winners of the SFL's first division.  There is a split after 33 games with the top six and bottom six playing each other again once.

The SFL is made up of three divisions of ten teams.  There's some playoffs involved so that, potentially, two teams can be promoted or relegated between the divisions - except between the first division and the SPL, and between the third division and - well, there's no division below the third division, so there's no relegation at all.

If you're a team in the Highland League, or the East of Scotland League, or the South of Scotland League, or in the Junior Leagues, and you aspire to make it into the Scottish Football League, all you have to do is, um, wait for a team (who isn't Rangers, of course) to go bust. It doesn't matter how good you are, or how hopeless the team at the bottom of the third division is, you can't get in.

So, that's the current system.

Everyone hates the current system.

Everyone agrees there needs to be change.

Sadly, that's about the only thing anyone agrees on.

From what I recall, the SFA promised that it's 'working committee' would come up with a proposal by the end of November.  What has actually happened, is that the SPL and the SFL have come up with their own ideas.

The SFL struck first.  They want to expand the top flight to sixteen teams, with a third tier of sixteen as well, and a division of ten between them.  They want to expand the League Cup, so there is a group stage; the top teams get more home games, increasing their chances of getting through, whilst the weaker sides get some extra cash.  There is a pyramid system of sorts, where the bottom team in the third tier would face a playoff against a non-league side.  The entire system would come under the jurisdiction of one body...and the SPL would be made defunct.

The SPL responded with their own plan.  The top division remains a twelve team league.  The second tier would also contain twelve teams...but midway through the season, these divisions would be amalgamated and then split into three groups of eight - the best eight sides in the top division are in a 'Championship' group, the bottom eight sides in the second tier play to avoid relegation to a third tier, and the top four in the second tier and bottom four in the first tier have their own league where the top four at the end of it will play in the top tier at the start of the next season.  (Got that?  It's a bit complicated, but not that complicated.  Just because Daily Record journalists aren't bright enough to understand it doesn't mean it's complicated)  The entire system would come under the jurisdiction of one this case, the SPL.

There doesn't seem to be much common ground here.  The SPL want rid of the SFL, and the SFL want rid of the SPL.  The SFA, who should be in overall charge of all this, appear to be doing, well, SFA about it (those who don't get that quip need to get better at their internet acronyms) - a bunch of Emperor Nero's, fiddling away...

On the face of it, the SFL plan looks closer to what supporters are generally perceived to want - mainly because there is an expanded top flight.  Moreover, I don't think any Scottish football supporters trust the SPL to organize a piss-up in a brewery, and that fits in well with the fact that the SFL clubs remain scarred by the abysmal, arrogant attitude shown to them by the SPL during the Rangers crisis.  We all know that the SPL is loyal not to Scottish football in general, but to those twelve elite clubs that come under its jurisdiction at one given fact, it can be argued that its loyalty, historically has really just been to Rangers and Celtic.

But what strikes me about both these reconstruction plans is that neither of them appear designed to strengthen the whole of Scottish football.  It's all about the short-term, about protectionism.  The SPL want to keep the bulk of the money for their teams, and to make relegation from the SPL less terrifying for their current members.  Their plan seems to cater for twenty-four of Scotland's clubs, while leaving the rest to scavenge.  In contrast the SFL wants the cash to be distributed around all the 42 clubs, and increase the number of teams feeding at the top table, whilst still protecting its poorer teams from losing their league status.

It seems that everyone is looking to league reconstruction as the panacea that will rescue Scottish football from the doldrums.  But will it?  I don't think so.  Neither seems particularly superior to the current, detested setup.  I'm not convinced either will attract more sponsors, or higher television audiences, or bring back the fans who appear to be deserting the domestic game in their droves, or lead to better players both for the clubs and for our National Team.  As my close friend (and former contributor to this site) Iain Meredith put it, it's like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

But neither plan is really about that.  It's just a power struggle between two organizations interested only in their own.  And, sooner or later, the SFA has to step in, like a referee in a boxing match, and stop the fight, because it is the organization that is supposed to look out for all of Scottish football.  It's the one that should be coming up with these plans, not these cartels with their self-interests and bias.

Until it does, we seem stuck on an inexorable path filled with bickering and squabbling, where no-one wins and we all lose.