Saturday, February 23, 2013

Barry Smith deserved better

Normally, it wouldn't be much of a surprise.  At the best of times, the job of football manager is about as safe and secure as paying a jakie two quid to look after your car.  So, when a club are fifteen points adrift at the bottom of the table, two-thirds of the way into the season, haven't won in twelve league games, and (a curious stat, this) haven't managed to beat an SPL team that aren't from Edinburgh, it would generally be considered kosher to hand the boss his jotters.

And, sure enough, Dundee ended the tenure of Barry Smith on Wednesday, after nearly two and a half years in charge at Dens Park.

The timing itself seems ridiculous.  Dundee are doomed to relegation - I said so on this blog as early in the season as October.  They have only twelve matches left.  Even if they were to put together an absurdly good run of form - which looks about as likely as Scarlett Johansson turning up on my doorstep looking to borrow a cup of sugar - the closeness of this season's SPL means that the team that finishes eleventh is likely to have a higher points total than normal.  All they have to play for is the Scottish Cup, with a derby match looming in the quarter-finals.

If Smith has been sacked because of results, then why get rid of him now?  Will a new-manager bounce really get the team to cup glory?  Bringing in a new boss before the end of the transfer window would have allowed the squad to be added to, as well as more time to turn things around.  The 'interim manager' has to make do with what he has, which isn't very much.

Replacing him for the time being with John 'bomber' Brown is just staggering.  The statement on the club website - "Having been inundated by high calibre candidates over the last few days, one man stood out as perfect for the position of Interim Manager of Dundee FC" - has made thousands of Scottish football fans howl with laughter.  Brown's managerial career so far has consisted of a couple of years at Clyde where he oversaw their relegation from the first division, and went out in a blaze of glory with an expletive-ridden interview to the club website just prior to his departure.  More recently, you may recall he spent last summer trying to make himself the figurehead for Rangers fans against the takeover of Charles Green's consortium...only for his complete lack of eloquence and, to be blunt, intelligence to quickly turn him into a figure of fun.

The idea that Dundee dumped Smith for this complete clown beggars belief, especially given that we know a number of more seasoned and, well, decent candidates were interviewed.  They couldn't have done any worse if they'd hired Billy Dodds, for crying out loud.

It's not just any manager Dundee have dismissed here.  Barry Smith was club captain for nine years until 2006.  He made 400 appearances for the club.  When they went into administration for the second time in 2010, it was Smith who came in to take over as manager, and who performed a miracle by saving them from relegation to the second division despite a 25 point deduction.  They were unbeaten in his first 23 league games, despite a skeleton squad.  I saw them win at Ross County during that run - I've rarely seen a team with more spirit.

Last year they finished a distant second to County in that division - hardly a failure - and of course their promotion was confirmed only days before the start of the season thanks to the procrastination surrounding the Rangers debacle.  That excuse only partly explains Dundee's hideous season - Smith made eight signings in August and September, as well as bringing back Gary Harkins to the club from Kilmarnock in January - but there's no doubt they were at a whopping disadvantage from the start.  The lack of transfer window reinforcement, Harkins aside, actually suggested to me that the club had accepted their fate and were going to concentrate on preparing for a tilt at the first division next season.

If there was any manager who deserved the benefit of the doubt, and a bit more patience, it was Barry Smith.

Dundee FC, in truth, don't command much sympathy from Scottish football fans, not after ending up in administration twice thanks to reckless spending.  It's hard to believe they've come up with a way to become further derided.  But they've managed it.  Smith, a dignified man who has shown himself to be a competent manager, will find another job soon enough.  I can't help feeling his next club, on their way up, will end up passing a Dundee side on the way down.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Some reconstruction transparency at last

If any SPL club chairman needed to do something to improve his relationship with the fans (aside from Vladimir Romanov, of course), it's Michael Johnston at Kilmarnock.

Rightly or wrongly, Johnston has developed a reputation as a stooge to the Old Firm, whether be it in terms of happily selling out three quarters of Rugby Park to away fans so that in successive years Rangers and Celtic could not so much contest a match against Kilmarnock as hold a title-winning party, or when Johnston was the sole SPL chairman to abstain on the thorny issue of whether Rangers should be thrown out of the league or not.  Killie fans just don't trust him.

So when it comes to 'reconstruction', Johnston was likely to face an unenviable task in placating Kilmarnock supporters.  That might be why the club's website published this and this, at last revealing important information about the plans to redesign Scottish football.

The first document goes through the alternatives to 12-12-18, giving the reasons why each system is considered unpalatable.  It doesn't tell you anything that a person of average intelligence wouldn't have deduced already - insert joke about Rangers fans being knuckle-draggers here - but its at least coherent and makes sense.  What it doesn't do, of course, is go through the negatives of the proposed idea.  Interestingly, it hints that a 14 team top flight was considered, and that 'bigger clubs that fear they might not make the top six every season' derailed a 6/8 split.

The second document confirms the plan for the top two divisions splitting into three groups of eight teams after twenty-two games.  Ultimately, it could lead to four teams being 'promoted' to the Premier Division at the end of the season.  Alternatively, it could lead to nobody being promoted at all.  Mind you, it is stated that one of the reasons the status quo is unacceptable is that 'only one team in twelve is relegated - the lowest proportion in Europe'. Yet it is curious that the idea of introducing a '2 up, 2 down' system (or introducing playoffs for a further promotion/relegation spot) and otherwise keeping the current format does not seem to have been countenanced.

I was particularly intrigued the extra information divulged on the third tier - the eighteen team division.  The top two in that division will be promoted; the third, fourth, fifth and sixth placed teams go into playoffs with the fifth and sixth placed sides in the third group of eight.  And a pyramid system finally seems closer to reality (East Stirling beware!) with the bottom two sides in the third tier forced to playoff with two non-league teams.

But the most important nugget revealed by Kilmarnock is the redistribution of money.  The top eight teams in the SPL will take a hit.  The other teams in the top two tiers will reap the benefits, particularly the sides in the second tier.  The thirteenth best side in Scottish football will make £387,000 in prize money, rather than the current paltry £78,000.  In contrast, the share of prize money going to the SPL's top two sides drops from £4.1 million out of £17.9 million to £3.2 million.  The cynic in me notes that the champions are hit less than the second placed team, and the gap in cash between first and second gets bigger - a concession to placate Celtic, perhaps?  Certainly it doesn't seem conducive to increasing the competition at the top of the table, but maybe that's not the idea.

None of the extra money will find its way to the teams in the third tier, incidentally.  It seems they will have to try and survive with the same meagre resources they have now.

So, the situation is a little less cloudy, and we have a bit more transparency.  So do I feel a bit warmer to the prospect of 'reconstruction'?

Not a bit of it.  Not whilst the words 'can't organize', 'piss-up' and 'brewery' come to mind whenever I remember who is in charge of it all.  The smart money remains on the whole thing turning into one great omnishambles.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Craig Thomson ruined my birthday

As has been well documented, Celtic's 'reserves' beat Inverness on Saturday, up in the Highlands.

On my birthday.

I was really looking forward to the game.  My football-hating girlfriend - 'hating' is, in this case, not strong enough a word - actually went to the trouble of contacting ICT and asking whether they could put out a tannoy announcement at half-time.  Not only did the club comply with her request, but they also sent me a birthday card signed by the players.  All free of charge.  So huge kudos to Caley Thistle for that, it made my day.  Oh, and huge kudos to my girlfriend.  Of course.  Definitely.  Err....I suspect I may get in trouble for putting those sentences the wrong way round...

Sadly, events on the pitch did not turn out well.  The league leaders rested pretty much their entire first team ahead of their big Champions League clash with Juventus - only Fraser Forster and Kris Commons went on to start three days later against the Old Lady - but the backups did an adequate job in winning 3-1 despite falling behind.

It might - might - have been a bit more difficult for them had referee Craig Thomson not been rather generous to them with his decisions.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be following my twitter feed during the match will have quickly tired of my ranting, but I insist that Inverness were hard done by.  I was already seething by the time, early in the second half, young defender Marcus Fraser blocked a cross with his elbow in the box.  On the one hand, he was only about 5 yards away when the ball was kicked; however, he had also thrown himself in front of the cross with his arms outstretched in a manner more befitting the aforementioned Forster.  Thomson, five yards away, shook his head.  Every 'diddy team' fan will tell you that, when it's Celtic who are attacking, those decisions tend to be given.

About 20 minutes later, with ICT well on top and on the attack, Beram Kayal stayed down in his own area after making a sliding clearance, holding his thigh.  With the ball about to come back in to the Celtic box, Thomson stopped play, signalling a head knock.  (I'm getting unusually good use out of italics today, aren't I?) When Kayal instantly bounced back to his feet and jogged off for a quick spray of Deep Heat on the aforementioned thigh, Celtic of course booted the drop ball 80 yards up the pitch.  At this point, the home support were some flaming torches and a couple of pitchforks short of a lynch mob.

I was so incensed that I actually went home after the match and perused Soccerbase in order to find evidence that Thomson is dodgy, that Scotland's supposed top ref gives the 'tic all the decisions.  Did I find any?  Not a bean.  He's officiated his fair share of Celtic defeats.  So maybe he had a bad day.  More likely, I am just as biased as any other football supporter.

But, as far as I'm concerned, Craig Thomson ruined my birthday.  So there.  Reader, I demand your sympathy.

The one thing almost - almost (those italics again!) as annoying as Thomson was the subsequent media reaction - howls of derision at how the side second in the SPL had been beaten at home by Celtic's reserves.  Let's look at this 'second-string' team.  We mentioned Forster, England's number two keeper, Israeli international Kayal and Scotland international Commons earlier.  At the back were Rami Gershon, another Israeli international, and Thomas Rogne, who has 2 caps for Norway.  Four more capped players, Tom Rogic (Australia), Anthony Stokes (Ireland), Paddy McCourt (Northern Ireland) and Miku (Venezuela) also started.  (For the record, I claimed on this week's podcast that Miku was so bad before he scored a late tap-in that he looked like he could end up in a Findus Lasagne.  He was horrendous).  And the other two, Marcus Fraser and Dylan McGeouch, are under 21 internationals for Scotland.

Second-string?  All eleven are probably better players than their Inverness equivalents.

In fact, having come to that conclusion, I then racked my brains - if no Inverness player could get into Celtic's SECOND ELEVEN, which other SPL players could?

It's not easy.  Johnny Russell?  Leigh Griffiths?  Gary Mackay-Steven?  I'm not sure any of them are obviously better than the equivalent players who turned out in the green and white hoops on Saturday.

It's one thing for Celtic to have such superior resources that they have eleven players who are better than anything else the SPL can throw at them.  It's another for them to have TWENTY-TWO.  Even in the absence of Rangers, there is clearly zero chance of anyone else being able to challenge them in the immediate future.

And given that the Bhoys released outstanding financial figures this week, suggesting their bank debt is almost zero and that they are in remarkably rude health, there isn't exactly much hope for the future either.  Everyone else - even Rangers, I suspect, when they do return to the top tree - will be playing for second place for a long time to come.

But I suppose playing for second place is better than playing for third...


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Partick vs Morton for promotion

Phil Brown to Partick Thistle?!  You must be joking.

The permatanned former Hull and Preston boss, whose stock has inexorably fallen since that fateful afternoon in Manchester where he gave his half-time teamtalk on the pitch, has apparently stated his interest in replacing the departed Jackie McNamara at Firhill.  This is almost as ridiculous as when, in 2007, Neil Warnock was linked with Inverness.  In that case, the unemployed Warnock was really taking the opoortunity to keep himself in the public eye; I can't help feeling that Brown is doing the same.

Even if the guy has applied for Partick, surely the club's inability to provide him with an on-site tanning booth will prove a sticking point - that's why we haven't seen Jimmy 'tangoman' Calderwood pitch up there before now.

Partick could do with appointing a new manager ASAP, in order to keep their first division promotion challenge on course.  After the first couple of months of the season, it looked like a two horse race between Thistle and the newly-relegated Dunfermline, but the Pars have hit the skids both on and off the pitch (their difficulties paying staff are now beginning to rival the problems at Hearts).  Partick themselves have had a blip in the last couple of months, and both sides have been overtaken by Greenock Morton.  The Ton have been absolutely flying in the league, and have a five point lead, though Partick have two games in hand. 

With a return to the SPL within reach, I'm not sure the Jags will want to place their destiny in the hands of their inexperienced interim coach, Alan Archibald - though given the likely alternative may be Gus McPherson, or Billy Dodds, or both, the words "rock" and "hard place" come to mind.  Maybe I'm being harsh on Dodds, but the 'insights' he provides for Radio Scotland imply that he could write down everything he knows about football on the back of a postage stamp.  I'm certainly not being harsh on McPherson, who was a crude, uncompromising full-back during his playing days and whose previous coaching exploits at St. Mirren and Queen of the South give the impression that his dream XI would consist of a goalkeeper and ten Gus McPhersons.  Partick could, and should, do better than those two.

McNamara had built a decent squad at Firhill, with a few veterans such as Archibald himself, ex-St. Mirren midfielder Hugh Murray and journeyman striker Steven Craig supplanting a relatively young side.  Many of the players are either former SPL youth teamers - such as ex-Motherwell duo Ross Forbes and Steven Lawless, and former Hibs midfielder Sean Welsh - or, in the likes of Aaron Muirhead (Annan), Aaron Sinclair (Montrose) and Paul Paton (Queen's Park), the best talent that the lower divisions have.  McNamara had them well drilled, with a decent goal threat from Craig up front and midfielders Lawless and Erskine.  In the right hands, they are potential first division champions - but a lot will depend on who the board appoint.

Meanwhile, Morton haven't played in Scotland's top flight since 1988; they now have a hell of a chance to get back in with the elite.  In contrast to Partick, they are a team best described as 'pragmatic', I think; aside from their two outstanding young central midfielders, Fouad Bachirou and Michael Tidser, they are mostly experienced journeymen who have been playing at this level for years - guys like Mark McLaughlin, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Martin Hardie and Peter McDonald know what it takes to win this league.  The signing of Colin McMenamin, the striker who scored 20 goals in this division for Ross County last season but who looked painfully out of his depth in the top flight this year, seems to fit the bill.

Hardie, 37 in April, is quite remarkable.  A former Partick and Dunfermline player, he scored a shedload of goals from midfield - many of them crucial - after joining the Pars in January 2011; without him they might have been pipped to promotion by Raith Rovers that season.  He simply didn't have the legs for an SPL campaign though and was in and out of the team last year before being let go in the summer.  Having missed the early stages of the campaign with injury, he has already contributed 8 goals from just 13 starts.

So when the Cappielow club were drawn to play Dundee away in the Scottish Cup, there seemed to be a real possibility of an upset.  Yet the Dark Blues, hopelessly adrift at the bottom of the SPL, annihilated Alan
Moore's side 5-1.  In truth, the margin of defeat could have been wider.  It's dangerous to make a judgement on the back of a single game, but it supports my suspicion that, on paper, the gap between the bottom of the SPL and the top of the first division is very wide indeed.

If Morton are promoted, they are going to need considerable reinforcement to stand a chance of surviving.  Dundee signed twelve players last summer - eight of which joined after they were confirmed to be playing in the top flight.  That hasn't been enough to make them competitive.  Partick's squad may be younger, but many of their players failed to make the grade at SPL clubs before - that's why they are at Partick.  I suspect they would need similar investment to stand a chance.  Bluntly, neither of these teams is anywhere near as strong as Ross County were when the Dingwall club was promoted.

But that's a problem for next year.  With Dunfermline adrift and in freefall, and with Livingston's in-form youngsters having left themselves too much to do to catch the leaders, Partick and Morton will duel it out for promotion.  Given both clubs have a great history in the Scottish game, and that it's a long time since either were at the top table (it's nine years since Partick's last spell in the SPL finished), it'll be great to have one of them back.