Friday, March 29, 2013

You think that Scotland team was bad?

Marshall, Hutton, Hanley, Caldwell, Whittaker, Bridcutt, McArthur, Naismith, Boyd, Maloney, Rhodes.

That was the Scotland lineup against Serbia.  They may have lacked talent, but they made up for it

I wondered whether this was the poorest Scotland XI ever for a competitive game.  It might well have been.  But then you take a look at some of the blokes who have managed to win international caps in the last decade or so, and even Grant Hanley's inclusion doesn't make me feel quite so nauseated.

Taking players who won their first caps from the reign of Berti Vogts onwards, this is the worst XI I could come up with.  Could you do better?"> src = "" border = "0" alt = "football formations"/>

It seems harsh to pick on Gallacher today, given that it's only 24 hours since he was made redundant by Dunfermline.  Berti Vogts was certainly lacking in d,ecent keepers, given that Neil Sullivan seemed to be past it (though Sullivan is actually still playing at age 43 for Doncaster Rovers!), which would explain why he made a guy playing for a struggling Dundee United side his first choice.  Maybe Gallacher would have gone on to fulfil his potential, but he chose to move to Norwich in 2004 and promptly found himself third choice at Carrow Road.  He's now just completed his second spell at East End Park, having spent two years in between at St. Mirren where I note he actually managed to earn a recall to the national team in 2009.

Yes, I'm as shocked as you are that Robbie Neilson was ever capped - I think I'd managed to repress that particular memory.  A full back built more for comfort than speed, Neilson did a solid job for a decade at Hearts and won 10 under 21 caps, but a plethora of injuries ahead of a World Cup qualifier in Ukraine meant that Walter Smith needed him to start in Kiev.  That 2-0 defeat was the sum total of his international career.  After an unsuccessful couple of years at Leicester and a season at Dundee United marred by a stupid red card in a cup tie with Celtic, Neilson appears to have finished playing and is part of the coaching staff at Falkirk.

I know Craig Levein had a paucity of options in central defence, but still - Garry Kenneth may have done an okay job for Levein at Tannadice, but all he could do competently was head the ball.  His positional sense was dreadful and he had the turning circle of a bus.  Despite that, Dundee United turned down a £500,000 offer from Blackpool in January 2010, claiming he was worth £2 million!  His international debut in August 2010 against Sweden saw him up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Oh dear.  A week and a half later, I witnessed Kenneth being ripped to shreds by Inverness striker Adam Rooney - who, let's face it, is not quite as good as Ibrahimovic -  in a league game that United lost 4-0.  He decided to leave the club last summer for bigger and better things - I'm not sure that Bristol Rovers in League Two was exactly what he had in mind, though.

This is cheating a bit, as Cummings made his only Scotland appearance against a Hong Kong Select XI in a game which the SFA recognised as an international but FIFA did not.  Legend has it that Berti Vogts knew so little about Cummings that he sent the message about his call-up to Chelsea...only to be told the player had been out on loan at West Bromwich Albion for several months.  Who is Cummings?  Exactly.  He briefly appeared in the SPL with Dundee United in 2002-03, before spending the best part of a decade at Bournemouth in League One and League Two.  He's now at AFC Wimbledon.  He was damn good for me in Championship Manager 1999/00, honest.

LEFT BACK - JAMES MCEVELEY (3 caps, 2007-2008)
An England under-20 international, Liverpool-born McEveley switched allegiances and made his Scotland debut under Alex McLeish, who was desperately in need of a left-back (even at this time, Gary Naysmith was about the only decent one we had).  McEveley was a regular for Derby County in the Premier League in 2007-08...which sounds good, but they were the worst side in the competition's history (and also included Scots Stephen Pearson and Kenny Miller amongst their number!).  He drifted out of contention pretty quick, though Craig Levein did call him up to a squad in 2010 after he had joined Barnsley.  The most interesting facts about him?  He broke teammate Hakan Sukur's leg in training at Blackburn, which is not surprising considering his penchant for a robust tackle.  Not only that, but his heart stopped for two minutes during an operation on a broken cheekbone in 2009; despite this, he was back playing within a month.

I'm sure that Killie youth team product Canero wasn't anything special as a youngster - he didn't even get an under-21 cap - but Berti Vogts capped him in a friendly against Denmark in 2004.  A move to Leicester that summer (signed by Craig Levein) turned sour quickly, and whilst he established himself at Dundee United after that, he left after only a few months to try his luck in MLS.  One fansite referred to him as "a waste of $142,996" as he managed only nine appearances, mostly as a substitute.  To be fair, he was constantly injured and he quit football in 2006, aged only 25.

MIDFIELD - BRIAN KERR (3 caps, 2003-2004)
Maybe Brian Kerr is a nice chap outside football, but fans of his previous clubs don't have much good to say about him.  Whilst he won all his caps when he was still on Newcastle's books - the fact he couldn't get in the first team didn't stop Vogts from calling up the defensive midfielder - he proved an excellent player for 4 years at Motherwell, only to ditch them for more money at Hibs.  At Easter Road, he was frankly dreadful, but Terry Butcher, his boss at Fir Park, took him up to Inverness where he did a decent job on a short-term deal as the club narrowly failed to avoid relegation...only for Kerr to turn down a new deal to join Dundee, also in the first division but spending money like it was going out of fashion.  We all know how well that turned out.  He won the third division title with Arbroath in 2012.

MIDFIELD - MICHAEL STEWART (4 caps, 2002-2008)
If only he was half as good as he thought he was, Michael Stewart would have been better than Jim Baxter.  Being once heralded as the next big thing at Manchester United inflated his ego, and it never burst.  Like Kerr, Berti Vogts' desperacy led to Stewart getting in the national team long before he was playing regular first team football.  He had two years at Hibs and three years at Hearts where he was decent, but nothing more - which was enough for George Burley to call him up again in 2008 -and he was club captain in his final season at Tynecastle.  A subsequent move to Turkey was a disaster, and after a brief spell at Charlton Athletic he appears to have left the game.

MIDFIELD - IAN BLACK (1 cap, 2012)
We can argue plenty over whether the 'feisty' midfielder, who is remembered better for his iffy tackles as an Inverness and Hearts player than for his impressive range of passing, was good enough to play for his country.  What is undisputable is that, given he had been playing for Rangers in the third division, Craig Levein should have never brought him in for a friendly with Australia.  That said, it was a terrible shame to see him booed by the crowd when he came on as a sub, which deflected from a rare Scotland win.  His performances for the Ibrox side this season suggest a second cap is a long, long way off.

STRIKER - CHRIS IWELUMO (4 caps, 2008-2010)
Sorry, Chris, I know you were a perfectly decent striker at club level and worth your place in the national squad as a target man option off the bench, but THAT MISS against Norway is all anyone will ever remember you for.  Given that George Burley chose to bring you on instead of the on-form Kris Boyd leading to Scotland's best natural goalscorer (at the time at least) refusing to play for Burley again, it's fair to say you did a lot of damage.  And thinking of THAT MISS still makes the colour drain from my face.

STRIKER - ANDY GRAY (2 caps, 2003)
When I was researching players for this blog, I realized I hadn't even heard of Gray, Harrogate-born but the nephew of former Leeds and Scotland international Eddie Gray.   Turns out Berti Vogts called him up after he scored 15 goals in the second tier for Bradford in 2002-03.  He scored a few goals subsequently for the likes of Sheffield United, Burnley and Charlton, and is now back at Bradford in League Two.  But his impact as an international was clearly zero.

An alternative XI - Matt Gilks, Robbie Stockdale, Darren Barr, David McNamee, Jamie McAllister, Stephen Hughes, Gareth Williams, Richard Hughes, Paul Devlin, Scott Dobie, Chris Maguire

Give it a bit more time, though, and maybe Grant Hanley and George Boyd can get on this list yet...


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

We're doomed

Maybe it's just Charlie Adam's fault.

The, shall we say, rotund midfielder came on as a half-time substitute for Scott Brown in Cardiff last October, when Scotland were 1-0 up.  We went on to lose 2-1 (with Adam one of those culpable for Gareth Bale's winning goal, letting the Spurs star ghost past him without the slightest attempt at a challenge).  Five months later, Gordon Strachan brought Adam off the bench 63 minutes into the return game.  As before, we were 1-0 ahead.  As before, we lost 2-1.

Maybe it's just Charlie Adam's fault.  But it's probably not.

It's not difficult to argue that Scotland's national team are at it's worst ever ebb.  Our start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers has been so poor that a negative result in Serbia may actually make us the first European side mathematically eliminated from qualification...and that's with four games still to go.  At the time of writing, our FIFA world ranking is 66, just behind Albania and Libya.  Whilst these rankings have always been justifiably taken with a pinch of salt, it may be possible that, right now, they are fairly accurate - or even generous to us.  We are only the 31st ranked European country - which means you wouldn't bet on us to qualify for the 24 team Euro 2016.

It's not as if this has been a brief dip.  Just look at our results in competitive games since Alex McLeish left the manager's post in November 2007 (friendly results are worth about as much as a bank account in Cyprus, whatever Craig Levein claims).  We won only three of eight 2010 World Cup qualifiers under George Burley, beating Iceland twice and Macedonia at home.  Craig Levein took charge of twelve competitive games, and won only three - two of which were against Liechtenstein.  Since that epic night in Paris, some five and a half years ago, we have won only two away qualifiers, and have lost on our travels to the likes of Georgia, Macedonia and Wales.

One of the Scottish red-tops ran with the headline 'Brutal' on Saturday morning after the Wales reverse.  That sounds like the perfect one word description for our national team.

As regards the Wales game, it wasn't just the result that was so shocking.  We were utterly outplayed by a country which has a population half the size of ours, and who don't even consider football to be their national sport.  Aside from Cardiff City and Swansea City, both in the English league pyramid, Welsh football clubs either play in a domestic competition which is probably weaker than the Scottish first division, or in the English non-leagues.  Despite this, they could boast players like Bale, Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, Liverpool's Joe Allen and Swansea defenders Ben Davies and Ashley Williams.

What Gordon Strachan would have given for a player like Williams in our backline.  On a recent SPL Podcast, we reminisced about Craig Brown's Scotland side that went to Euro 96 and France 98 with a back three of Tom Boyd, Colin Hendry and Colin Calderwood.  On Friday night, our central defenders were Grant Hanley, of Blackburn Rovers, and Wigan's Gary Caldwell.  Caldwell hasn't been a regular recently.  Hanley, despite scoring, played like a man who has walked into several walls during his life - which is somewhat fitting as he also looks like a man who has walked into several walls during his life.

Further up the pitch, the visitors showed a willingness and ability to pass the ball around, play a patient possession game, and wait for us to lose our shape and/or our discipline.  If we had been 2-0 down at half-time, we could hardly have complained.  Take away a bright 15 minutes at the start of the second half, and otherwise the Welsh were rampant.  It's hardly an exaggeration to claim we were unable to put two passes together; depressingly, that seemed to be part of a gameplan that belonged to the 1970s - punt long balls and kick anything that moves.  Hanley and James McArthur, among others had escaped punishment for some very robust tackles long before Robert Snodgrass deservedly got a second yellow card when giving away a penalty.

There are some mitigating circumstances - we were without Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and James Morrison in midfield, while Steven Fletcher had barely touched the ball before going off with an injured ankle.  But the Welsh played the first half with a clearly ill and out-of-sorts Gareth Bale, and without their talisman for the entire second period.  And they still looked far superior.

From Gordon Strachan's point of view, he at least has time.  Not even the greatest optimist in the Tartan Army gave us a chance of qualifying from this group after the mess his predecessor left him.  So a few dodgy results at the beginning will be forgiven.  But is there hope for the future?

As I stated above, the problem is long-standing.  The fact is that Wales are producing far superior players than we are.  Making it to the under 19 European Championship final in 2006 has translated into diddly squat - only five players have gone on to be capped for Scotland and one was, for the love of god, Garry Kenneth (Snodgrass, Graham Dorrans and Steven Fletcher, who started on Friday, plus Lee Wallace are the other four).  It's hard to feel excited about the current under 21 squad, and I live in fear that the exciting Somali-born Chelsea prodigy Islam Feruz will turn his back on us at senior level.  It's happened before, after all - arguably the two technically most gifted Scottish players since the millennium - Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy - chose to represent Ireland instead.

The national team's loss of prestige - after all, it is now more than 15 years since we last qualified for a major tournament - coincides nicely with the steady decline in the quality of the domestic league.  Celtic have given Scottish football a bit of a boost with their Champions League run this year, but in coefficient the Scottish league ranks just twenty-fourth in Europe, behind the likes of Israel and Belarus.  Aside from Celtic, the other Scottish clubs have managed to win just one of the 10 European ties (going by results over two legs) played over the last two seasons.

Ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you that Scottish football, domestic and international, is, frankly, crap.

What needs to be done?  Maybe a great big investment in infrastructure, in pitches, in coaching, might reap some reward.  But the SFA claim to be doing that, and it's making zero difference so far.  Performance director Mark Wotte is the poor sod tasked with job of making a purse out of a sow's ear.  As for the clubs, the sheer presence of the English Premier League next door sucks away interest from the SPL, leading to a TV deal that is worth frankly peanuts compared to that available to leagues such as Norway and Greece.  There's no obvious solution to that.

Is there any way of turning this around?  I'm not convinced there is.  For all the talk of reconstruction rescuing Scottish clubs, I see only an inexorable decline whatever the league structure they choose.  With the clubs either too poor or too incompetent to produce talented youngsters, the only hope is that the best Scots get snapped up by English clubs and trained by them, much in the way the best Welsh players have been.  Maybe it's time to accept that our clubs, aside from the Old Firm (if they manage to escape us) will never return to the levels they once were at.  Maybe it's time to accept that our national team is down at the levels of a Macedonia or an Albania, where, barring the lucky emergence of a Golden Generation and/or a freak set of results, we will never make it to a major tournament again. 

Football has moved on, and Scotland has been left behind, with increasingly little hope of catching up.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Pars’ plight betrays black and white truth about Scottish football

(The following is a guest piece, written by my good friend Jamie Donald)
After weeks of speculation, scaremongering and frantic scrabbling, it looks like Dunfermline Athletic’s protracted wasting away will finally be brought to a terminal conclusion in the coming days.
If it’s the hope that kills you then we Pars fans have died a thousand times since the turn of the year, with every mooted door to salvation being slammed shut, often at the last moment.
For the past few weeks the club has felt like a beloved family pet on its last legs, with potential investors swithering whether to pay for surgery to remove a small tumour when the whole thing is riddled with cancer anyway.
But now it’s come down to it, now that months of uncertainty have clarified into stark reality, I don’t really know how to react. With administration looking like the absolute best-case scenario, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that the club I have followed for nearly 20 years, that I have poured so much of my time, cash and heart into, is in real danger of disappearing.
I hesitate to use the word “dying” for fear of sounding callous, but much of this feels a lot like grief – the denial, the rage, the questioning, the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach.
My wife’s been supportive, but I know she doesn’t really understand. She can see that I’ll be bored on a Saturday afternoon, but it’s the more intangible reasons that are the things I can’t imagine living without; the almost primal tribalism, the us-against-them, the sense of belonging to something even when that something generally gives you more misery than joy.
Much has been said and written of owner Gavin Masterton’s role in the whole sorry affair. He has been painted as everything from the benevolent fan who just flew too close to the sun, to a cynical tycoon seeking liquidation for the club so he can flog the stadium for real estate. As ever, the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle; certainly he has invested heavily, too heavily, in the club, but it’s the lack of transparency that many fans have been unable to stomach, or forgive.
There have been plenty of rumours flying around for months, even years, but it’s only in the past few weeks that the severity of the situation has been made clear outside the four walls of the boardroom. If more details had been revealed to fans earlier, would things have been any different? It’s impossible to say, but the steering group hurriedly cobbled together and headed by folk hero Jim Leishman has expressly stated it simply ran out of time to find an answer.
What is clear is that the Pars are having to reap a harvest that they could never afford to sow. The recent successful period of the mid-noughties brought three cup finals, a fourth-place finish and two (albeit brief) ventures into Europe, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we had a golden team built on clay foundations.
Of course, Dunfermline weren’t the only club to attempt to live far outwith their means. Such was the feeling of invincibility and permanence around football, even Scottish football, a decade ago that clubs assumed the cash flow would continue to increase ad infinitum. The humbling number of supporters from other clubs at Saturday’s 4-3 home defeat to Dumbarton was perhaps testament to the acknowledgement that the Pars aren’t the first club to be staring into the abyss, and the knowledge that they almost certainly won’t be the last.
I’ve never been a fan of the cliché, “It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts”, but on this occasion it rings strangely true. We all love a good cup run, beating our local rivals or getting it right up the Rangers, but now it’s not about the winning, or indeed the losing, but the existing. I’d rather sit through a season of gubbings than not have a stadium to sit in, or a team to shout for. It’s a truth that’s just beginning to sink in.
When not cheering on his beloved Pars, Jamie Donald is the chief sub-editor at the Evening Express newspaper in Aberdeen.  He became friends with Narey's Toepoker at Aberdeen University and they watched the early rounds of the 2002 World Cup together on a tiny TV in Crombie Halls.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reconstruction must be delayed...or scrapped

Ah, the Scottish Premier League 'split' is almost upon us, a feature of every season since the Millennium.  I think you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Scottish football fans who like the split.  Because of it we often end up with a league table where the team in seventh has more points than the team in sixth, or where some teams get to play an extra home game whilst others play one fewer.  It doesn't feel right to a lot of us.  We've had thirteen seasons to get familiar with it, and it still doesn't feel right.

Yet nobody seems to be able to come up with a better solution yet...or, at least, a solution that suits everyone.

Scottish football's Powers That Be have been trying to agree on a plan ever since the dawn of time (at least, that's how it feels), but last summer's debacle that saw Rangers end up in the fourth tier seemed to provide the necessary desire impetus for change.  The Scottish Football League, representing the 30 clubs outwith the SPL, proposed a top division of 16 and an expanded League Cup, but that has been shot down as the SPL clubs want a smaller top flight - basically, so that their slice of the league's income is bigger and because a larger division means playing each other less often and missing out on one or two paydays from the Old Firm coming to down.  So, at the moment, with reservations, the SFL appears to be supporting the plan proposed by the SPL (all these acronyms are bloody confusing, aren't they?) for a top division of 12, and a second tier of 12, which will split after 22 matches into three groups of 8.  The main carrot for the smaller teams is a much wider spread of prize money and TV cash to the sides in the second tier.  Yes, you're right - none of this is about the greater good.  It's all about self-interest.  How depressing.

The trouble is that the SPL clubs don't seem to be fully behind the plan their own organization has proposed.  They plan to vote on implementing the plan in about three weeks - it needs 11 of the 12 clubs to vote in favour of it in order to pass (of course, this assumes the SFL clubs vote for it too).  As it stands, Ross County seem set to vote against it.  Having pledged to follow the will of the club's support, chairman Roy McGregor has discovered that County's fans are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan.  Their main objection is the split after 22 matches - they don't think it's fair to pay for season tickets when they don't know who their opponents are for the last 14 games of the season.

St. Mirren's chairman has also been public with his reservations.  The SPL's chief executive, Neil Doncaster continues to insist, when asked, that the clubs are all behind his plan, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary; whatever pills he is on, I'd like some of them.

Meanwhile, the clubs in the lower divisions hardly seem united behind the 12-12-18 plan either - not least because the goalposts keep getting shifted.  The head of the SFL, David Longmuir, emailed his 30 members last week to suggest the addition of Old Firm 'colt' teams (that is, their reserve sides) to the bottom tier.  This got shot down in flames publicly by the chairmen of Falkirk (Martin Ritchie) and Raith Rovers (the esteemed Turnbull Hutton, who you may recall as being one of the heroes of last summer's debacle) who pointed out to the embarrassment of Longmuir that, a few weeks earlier, the subject had been brought up at an SFL meeting and wholeheartedly rejected.

Longmuir's move was quite bizarre; I initially liked the idea of Rangers B and Celtic B in the bottom tier, on the grounds that I believed their fans would turn up in reasonable numbers to watch games at places like Montrose, Clyde etc and it would mean more cash for the small clubs.  But, given the revelations in this weekend's Scotland On Sunday that, according to Strathclyde Police, the average attendances at Rangers and Celtic this season have plummeted below 40,000 (the clubs count their season ticket holders as present when giving figures to the press, in order to disguise the shoddy numbers), it seems unlikely the colt teams would attract much attention.  Considering the mess the Rangers seniors are making of winning the third division, one wonders how well their reserve side would actually compete, at least initially.  More than one journalist has openly considered that Longmuir might even be positioning himself for a job offer from Ibrox - we'll see how that goes.

The Gers' chief executive, Charles Green, continues to mouth off about the whole affair, painting his club as the big losers in the reconstruction plan, as, despite winning the third division, he claims they wouldn't be promoted as they'd be playing all the same teams again (plus a few extra), in the third tier of 18.  Rangers would be no further away from the SPL - they'd still be two seasons adrift of returning to the top flight - but the club need the narrative of 'climbing the leagues' and beating everyone on the way in order to keep their supporters interested in watching the lousy football on display at Ibrox every fortnight.  Given the crowds are nowhere near as large as Green's PR department would have you believe, it's no wonder he is fighting tooth and nail over this - including his humorous suggestion that Rangers should go straight into the second tier of 12 and bypass half a dozen more deserving second division teams on the way. 

Of course, rather amusingly, Rangers are only associate members of the SFL, and therefore have no vote and no real voice in the proceedings.

So the debate rages on - today the SFL clubs met again to 'refine the reconstruction document'.  The timetable for putting it in place for next season is now tighter than Eric Pickles' thong (now there's a simile to put you off your dinner) - the current season finishes in less than two months and, presumably, the 2013-14 campaign kicks off in late July, only four months away.  The 12-12-18 plan, if implemented, would mean no relegation from the first division or second division this season plus a need for refinement of the second division playoffs and the scrapping of the third division playoffs.  So there are several clubs who are unsure what their current league position means with only seven or eight matches left.  What.  A.  Farce.

Frankly, it's too late already.  There is no sign of any consensus, and the plan looks destined to fail.  Better to set the deadline back a season and take some time to sort this out.  Though, given the various organizations have been arguing over this subject for as long as I can remember, another year may not make the slightest difference.

Of course, there is a wild card in all this.  The SFA had said last summer that they would step in and take control of the situation if necessary - after all, they are supposed to be in charge of the whole thing.  So far, there's not been a peep from them.  If I was generous, I would call it a laissez-faire attitude.  But to outsiders like me, they simply appear to be fiddling while Scottish football burns.


Friday, March 15, 2013

I can't stand Derek Adams - but he's a hell of a manager

It's the fifth Highland derby of the season tomorrow.  We've already had two SPL clashes, plus a cup tie and a subsequent replay.

Somehow, Ross County have not managed to win any of them.  The first clash in October finished 3-1 in favour of Inverness, with an injury time volley by Aaron Doran adding considerable gloss to the scoreline; at 2-1 down, the Dingwall side were utterly dominant in the second half.  The Scottish cup fourth round match in Dingwall was a proper helter-skelter affair, with the visitors leading twice yet still managing to trail 3-2 to Richard Brittain's injury-time strike...only for a Richie Foran shot to go in off teammate Philip Roberts' knee in injury-time-in-injury-time; ICT hung on for a 2-1 win in the replay despite being camped in their own penalty area for the last half-hour in a siege that rivalled the Alamo.

And the last one?  A crappy nil-nil draw in Dingwall, on a crappy pitch, where both teams played crappy football.  The less said about it the better.  But, sitting in the away end, I felt pretty pleased with a point.

Coming into Saturday's match, Caley Thistle are fourth in the SPL, and really only one more win away from clinching a place in the top six after the split.  If you'd offered that to any ICT fan back in August, they'd have bitten your hand off - and probably your forearm and elbow as well.  But the euphoria surrounding what has been an excellent season for us has receded dramatically in recent weeks.

That's because Ross County haven't lost a match since Christmas.  Their eleven games since then resutled in eight wins and three draws, culminating in a sensational victory over Celtic last weekend where they came from two goals down to win through substitute Steffen Wohlfarth's last minute strike.  Newly promoted sides are supposed to struggle against relegation; Ross County, last year's first division champions, lie third in the table, one point above their local rivals and only two behind second-placed Motherwell.

If Derek Adams doesn't win manager of the year, there's something seriously wrong.

Adams is the architect of County's success; a former player at the club - I saw him score both goals in a 2-0 League Cup win over Dundee United in 1998, just before he signed for Motherwell - he returned to the playing staff in 2006 after spells at Aberdeen and Livingston and ended up as manager in October 2007, whilst the Staggies were in the second division.  Promotion was achieved that season, and he was in the dugout as County went on that remarkable run to the 2010 Scottish Cup Final. I've never quite understood why he left for six months to become assistant boss at Hibs, but County were lucky to avoid the drop in his absence and his return in May 2011 coincided with a romp to promotion in which the club lost only one league game.

For the record, I can't stand him.  His face is so sour he looks like he's constantly chewing on a lemon.  His post-match interviews after negative results are often just a great big whinge.  But the 37 year old is undoubtedly a talented manager whose move to bigger things is surely a matter of time.

football formations
Adams' Ross County side are hardly masters of tiki-taka; the use of a big target man in Sam Morrow gives the defenders an out ball which is hugely useful on the dodgier SPL pitches, not least their own Victoria Park.  But during his tenure they have always been difficult to beat; set up in a 4-5-1, the midfield is very narrow, making it very difficult for opponents.  The trade-off is that there is a huge reliance on the full-backs for width.  At the start of the season, Marc Fitzpatrick on the left and Ross Tokely on the right struggled to provide this - the improved results over the course of the campaign have come with the January arrival of the Greek Evangelos Ikonomou (who has gone up in the world from his previous appearances in Shooting Stars on the BBC) at left-back and the good form on the opposite flank of ex-Dundee United man Mihael Kovacevic.

The arrival of Ivan Sproule, of course, has been a huge factor too.  The Northern Irishman seemed utterly washed up during his second spell at Hibs, but has enjoyed a renaissance in the North with 5 goals since his transfer window arrival.  His inclusion makes the midfield a little vulnerable, but the gamble has paid off; Morrow comes deep, taking the opposing centre backs with him, and Sproule forever looks to come in off the right flank, using his impressive pace to attack the empty space.  With Iain Vigurs and Richard Brittain, both excellent passers and set-piece menaces, and the underrated Rocco Quinn delivering the ammunition, County have a midfield as good as any in Scotland bar Celtic.

Their secret weapon, for what it's worth, is clearly Paul Lawson.  Why?  A regular last season, the former Celtic youth player was left on the bench in the early part of the campaign, but he's been back in the team since the winter break, and he must be doing something right; having not started any of the league defeats earlier in the season, and missed the sole loss of last year's first division campaign, he has not lost a league game in which he has started since April 2011.  That's 45 league games.  If nothing else, surely he has to be in the team for superstition value. 

The bottom line is that this Ross County side are excellent value for their league position.  They aren't always fun to watch - and I wonder if Adams' more direct style would translate to a higher level such as the English Championship - but he's surely worth a punt.  He's probably a good enough coach that he's not wedded to just one style.  He's been linked strongly with a return to Pittodrie as manager, but I can't help feeling that it would be a bad move for him.  Ian Porterfield, Alex Smith, Alex Miller, Paul Hegarty, Ebbe Skovdahl, Steve Paterson, Jimmy Calderwood, Mark McGhee, Craig Brown - anyone would think the Aberdeen job was cursed the moment Sir Alex Ferguson left the building in 1986, and Adams would be wise to steer clear of that particular poisoned chalice.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's time for all Scottish clubs to get artificial pitches

There's a lovely, if tortuous, cycle route just south of Inverness - a 3km climb to the highest point is hard going, trust me - which takes you past Essich farm and rejoins the main road just south of Dores.  Some of the farmer's fields at the top of the hill are filled with cattle, sheep or horses.  At this time of year, others still have a ploughed appearance.  If there has been heavy rainfall, there will be puddles everywhere and, depending on the contours, some of the fields may end up containing a small lake.  There is often a faint smell of dung in the air.

Whatever the time of year, whatever the weather, I would wager that each of these fields would be more suitable for football than Aberdeen's Pittodrie pitch has been in recent weeks.

The Dons' home game against Ross County just over a week ago was an embarrassment.  I'm sure High Definition was not meant to show up divots in glorious technicolor, but it was blatantly obvious to every viewer that the playing surface was hideous.  Rumour has it that Aberdeen's players had to send out a search party to locate winger Jonny Hayes after he fell down one of the potholes.

On that Tuesday evening, you probably could have counted the blades of grass at Pittodrie.

Neither team even bothered trying to play a passing game; by the end of ninety minutes the matchball had been punted so often it was bruised.  Aberdeen had to substitute their target man striker Rory Fallon at half-time and play the diminutive Niall McGinn through the middle, and spent the second period aiming high balls at the forward which he could never hope to win.  Why?  Because passing it to his feet was impossible.

Ross County won the match 1-0.  Watching it on ESPN cost me an hour and a half of my life that I'll never have back.  Even Barcelona couldn't have played properly on that pitch.  I would wager that, if twenty games of football were played on that surface, none of them would have entertained the neutral, even if Aberdeen weren't playing.

I remember being impressed at the time by how Ross County had apparently done their homework, and set up their team to play to the conditions.  A few days later, I discovered why; they were already used to it.  The Highland Derby on Saturday was contested on a pitch which had so much sand on it that it could technically have been classified as a beach.  One flank was bereft of grass from the halfway line to the by-line at one end.  The consequence?  Another 90 minutes of hoof-ball, goalscoring opportunities at a premium, and a goalless draw.

Even Inverness, despite having an award-winning groundsman, are not without problems.  At a recent match against Dundee United, winger Aaron Doran had to check a mazy dribble when the ball hit a divot and literally leapt off the ground to about the height of his thigh.  An under-20s rugby match between Scotland and Wales takes place this weekend at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium; god knows what the place will look like afterwards.

It's not as if this is a new problem - remember the issues Motherwell had with Fir Park a few years back?  Scottish football has enough trouble selling itself to anyone other than die-hard fans, but poor pitches invariably lead to poor games.  And, with football from England, or Germany, or Italy, or Outer Mongolia, only a few clicks of the TV remote away, it's just one more reason to add to the list why casual football watchers tend to give the SPL a miss.

So thank the lord above that artificial pitches are coming back on the agenda in a big way.

The SFA and the PFA have recently launched a survey of Scotland's professional footballers to ascertain their views on synthetic surfaces.  We're not talking about the glorified concrete used by QPR in the 1980s, but the lovely soft, rubber-crumb stuff now a feature at many a 5-a-side football centre around the UK.  We've seen these pitches used for international matches, and Champions' League games; Celtic's best performance of this season, a 3-2 win away to Moscow Spartak, was on an artificial pitch.

Seven SFL grounds (not counting Pittodrie or the Global Energy Stadium!!) no longer use grass - Montrose's Links Park, Stenhousemuir's Ochilview (shared by East Stirling) and Alloa's Recreation Park installed artificial turf in 2007,  with Airdrie United's Excelsior Stadium following suit in 2010.  Last summer Clyde's Broadwood Stadium, Forfar's Station Park, and Annan Athletic's Galabank joined the club.  I've had the opportunity to walk onto Montrose's pitch (it's all about who you know!) and it was fantastic.  I've watched two matches there, where, even in the Scottish third division, attempts were being made at playing a passing game, and with more success than you might expect from a side who felt the need to sign Phil McGuire last summer.

Most importantly perhaps, it makes sense from a financial point of view.  Of course, the chances of postponed matches are dramatically reduced - though one time I was at Links Park on a Friday night their match against Elgin was nearly abandoned due to fog and one wag in the home end yelled at female assistant Morag Pirie "Can I walk you back to your car, Morag?".  The need for expensive undersoil heating - still necessary to playing in Scotland's top flight, even though it is not a requirement in the English Premier League - is removed, saving a fortune as it costs several thousand pounds an hour to switch on.

Players can also train at the ground during the week without damaging it, thereby saving on alternative facilities; I can imagine that Inverness players would jump at the chance to move away from the windswept Fort George field they use.  And in the evenings the pitch can be used by the community, for coaching kids or for 5-a-side football leagues or the like; the latter makes a nice little earner.

On that last point, it's worth wondering what state Dunfermline would be in now had the SPL (which still forbids artificial pitches) not made them tear up East End Park's synthetic pitch in 2005, robbing them of useful income...

There are still some naysayers out there.  Mark McGhee, then Aberdeen boss, publicly blamed Fraser Fyvie's cruciate ligament injury on Alloa's pitch a few years ago - though it was also claimed that Fyvie had chosen inappropriate boots for the surface.  Meanwhile, Rangers have fantastic 3G facilities at their Murray Park training ground...but manager Ally McCoist incredibly refuses to let his players train on them because he says the injury risk is too high!  McCoist too blamed a player's injury - that of David Templeton - on an artificial surface at Annan, but the player himself admitted afterwards he had ignored his physio's advice to wear more suitable boots.  It is easy to find anecdotal evidence of an increased casualty rate, but I note a study was actually done in Norwegian football - and published in the British Medical Journal - which documented more than 600 injuries to first team players in training and matches between 2004 and 2007 and showed no difference in injury rates depending on the surface.

The one thing we don't know for certain is the long term effect - will playing regularly on artificial pitches increase the risk of osteoarthritis in hip and knee joints in later life, for example?  Given several pros who spent their entire career on grass still need replacement joints at a young age, though, it's reasonable to suspect it may not make much of a difference.

In my opinion, the argument for artificial pitches is overwhelming.  At a time where Scottish football clubs need to increase their income, and improve the quality of their product, it's increasingly hard to argue that plastic is the way forward.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Pars on the brink

The side relegated from the SPL always gets installed as a favourite for the First Division title the following season.

I'm not quite sure why.  Inverness managed to bounce back at the first attempt in 2009-10; they are the only team to do so since the top flight expanded to 12 clubs more than a decade ago.  So it isn't a huge surprise that Dunfermline are running a distant third, 13 points adrift of Greenock Morton with only 11 games in left.  They will not be going up this season.

At the start of the season, promotion was obviously the main objective.  Come March, survival has become the sole priority.

In truth, the club's finances have been in a rotten state for years.  In the early part of the millenium, then manager Jimmy Calderwood assembled a talented squad, with the likes of Craig Brewster and Stevie Crawford up front, Barry Nicholson in midfield and Andrius Skerla in defence - but that sort of quality doesn't come cheap.  In 2003-04, they finished fourth in the SPL and reached the Scottish Cup Final, losing to Celtic, but Calderwood left that summer for Aberdeen.  The club's debts have not been much below £10 million since then.  On the pitch, the Pars were relegated two seasons after the Tangoman's departure, and didn't return to the top table until 2011-12.

Inexplicably, on the back of a first division title decider in 2011 against local rivals Raith Rovers which packed out East End Park, chairman John Yorkston budgeted for the season in the SPL on the assumption that the club would get 5,000 fans in for every home game...only for the figure to be barely half that.  Even when, to mild embarrassment, a stand at the ground was closed to cut costs, the club continued to struggle, though manager Jim McIntyre had hardly broken the bank to improve the squad.  By the time McIntyre was sacked and replaced by Jim Jefferies, relegation was almost a formality, and Dunfermline returned to the SFL after winning only five league games all season.

The word 'clearout' doesn't do last summer justice; Jefferies was under orders to cut the squad to 22 players - at least 4 of whom were youths - at an average wage of £500/week, and no fewer than 17 first teamers departed.  Aside from veterans Stephen Jordan and Craig Dargo, the other signings were all under 22 years old.  And after losing only 1 of their opening 10 league games, it was looking rosy.

Is it coincidence that the form dipped when the cashflow stopped?  You tell me.  Certainly October was the first month that wages were late - there are reports that even now bonuses from that month haven't been paid.  The wages haven't been paid on time since then.  Finally, last week, the squad got their cash for January, but this week only 20% of February monies were paid.  Using primary school maths, that equates to a grand total of about £100 for each player - this is not Manchester United we're talking about.

Five months of late wages.  Five months of players having to try and fend off bills that need paid, to feed themselves and their families, to pay mortgages.  Dunfermline's owner, Gavin Masterton, rather insensitively claimed last week that getting 20% is better than nothing, and that at least the players had a job - I'm not convinced they'd get less money if they signed on.  Morale has finally flatlined, with five defeats in the last six games.

When questioned about their debts - apparently around £8.5 million, the club have pointed out for years that it is all to Masterton and his company.  There is no bank looking to send around the bailiffs here.  So, in theory, as Masterton would never call in the debt, there might as well be no debt.

The problem is that Masterton is running out of money.  The club's income is insufficient to pay the bills, and Masterton is no longer able to fill in the gaps.  Manager Jefferies, who's long career as a coach means he is less immediately affected by the late payments, came out this week in full support of his squad in a candid interview on the club website.  Quotes such as "the club have no money", "these players are very, very close to breaking point" and "we have to get this sorted out or there will not be a Dunfermline Football Club" do not bode well.

Talk of a £300,000 share issue to get the club to the end of the season sounds frivolous, and whilst Hearts fans were happy to throw their money into a black hole in similar circumstances earlier this year, there are fewer Dunfermline supporters and one can't help feeling they might show some more common sense than their Tynecastle counterparts.  The future is, in a word, bleak.  There's no white knight on the horizon in Fife.  At best, they muddle on till May, gut the playing squad and face the likelihood of struggling to maintain first division status next season - the obvious comparison is Clyde, who have gone from being one win from SPL promotion to being bottom of the SFL in less than 9 years; at worst, they become the second 'newco' in as many seasons to start at the bottom.  And it would be a damn sight harder for them to climb back to the top than for their predecessors.