Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Where do Celtic go from here?

On the one hand, there has been a famous home win over Barcelona, a run to the knockout stages of the Champions League and a 44th Scottish league title, along with the prospect of the Double.

On the other hand, there has been six league defeats and a league cup semi final exit to St. Mirren; meanwhile, the title-winning margin, currently at 15 points, is maybe not all that impressive given that the entire annual wage budget of second-placed Motherwell would probably pay for one pair of underwear for Georgios Samaras.

So does this count as a successful campaign for Celtic?
In Europe, it's hard to deny that getting to the last sixteen of the continent's premier club competition is a great achievement, particularly when the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City didn't manage it.  Sure, they had some luck, but they also produced impressive performances against Barcelona (twice, even though they lost at Camp Nou) and away to Spartak Moscow, and were deserving of second place in their group.  Neil Lennon showed a tactical eptitude far beyond what I and many others believed he was capable of.

Domestically, you couldn't say the same.

The Scottish Premier League title probably was a formality.  There was no way that anyone else would be able to sustain a challenge over an entire season.  But it wasn't until mid-December that the gap between first and second grew beyond three points.  Many had predicted the Bhoys would 'win the title by Christmas'.  They didn't even manage to do it by Easter.  There have been good performances - they have won by three or more goals no fewer than ten times this season.  But only once in the last thirteen seasons have they lost more than six SPL matches.  Losses at Ross County (after leading 2-0), Motherwell and St. Johnstone were careless.  Crashing at home to Kilmarnock and Inverness was unforgivable.  Meanwhile, the late December defeat at Easter Road is the only home game Hibernian have won since November 11.

In their defence, they could only beat what was put in front of them, and there was no doubt that some of the poorer results before the new year were related having to keep important players fresh for midweek European matches.  A run of 11 wins in 12 games over the winter, in between Champions League ties, shows that, when the focus was purely on the league, they got the job done.  But it isn't unreasonable to suggest that the squad weren't always 100% motivated for domestic duty.  And undoubtedly, the manager deserves some blame for that, and also made some bizarre and glaring tactical errors on occasion too.

The supporters didn't always seem up for it either.  We've previously discussed the abysmal attendances at Celtic Park this season, which according to Strathclyde Police average around 33,000 rather than the 'official' figure of over 40,000 which always counts season ticket holders as attending.  Even for the title-winning party game against Inverness at the weekend, there were a few thousand empty seats.

One wonders what the crowd figures will be like next season.  Will those people who never turned up renew their season tickets?  The news yesterday that prices have been cut by up to £100 suggests that Celtic are worried they won't.  But with no lure of an Old Firm match for a couple of years yet, the main motivation to pay for the whole domestic campaign seems to be just to get into pole position for tickets for cup finals and European games.  We'll see what happens.  But even treading water in this regard might be the best the club can hope for.

As for the players, is it realistic that this season's Champions League exploits can even be equalled?  I wouldn't be surprised if many sought a new challenge next season - apart from winning the League Cup (big whoop!) I don't see how they can achieve any more than they already have.  Don't forget as well that, over the border, fatter wage packets will be on offer, even from clubs at the bottom end of the Premier League.  Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama will be subject to bids, certainly.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the likes of Fraser Forster, Adam Matthews, Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras dealing with the temptation to try their hands down south again.

If Neil Lennon's hand is forced and he has to sell, Celtic can at least expect a good financial return which would allow him to bring in fresh talent.  But whether he can get a 20-goals-a-season forward like Hooper for £2.5 million again, or an all-action midfielder like Wanyama for £1 million again, is uncertain.

The best case scenario?  The fans will come back in numbers, the club's top players will stay, a few reinforcements will be added, and the team will romp to the treble and again perform credibly against Europe's best clubs.  But maybe season ticket sales will drop, several players will leave, the new signings won't live up to their predecessors, there will be more apathy during the domestic games and they struggle even to get through the two qualifying ties just to get to the Champions League group stage.  I can't help feeling the latter scenario is a bit more likely.

There are only two certainties for Celtic's 2013/14 campaign - that they will win the SPL again, and that they will have got rid of that donkey Miku.  But, after a wee leap forward, next season may well see a step or two back.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Can Scottish football be saved?

Well, it's not exactly been a slow news week in Scottish football, has it?

First, we had the highs - two absolutely wonderful Scottish Cup semi-finals.  Even the most cynical of supporters (yes, that's me) couldn't help feel that, just maybe, the game north of the border still has a positive future.

The good vibes didn't last beyond Monday afternoon, where the chairmen of the SPL clubs dragged Scottish football's reputation right back down.

I'm not going into all the grisly detail - partly because you've probably already read it a million times, and partly because I just can't be bothered.  But absolutely nobody came out of this smelling of roses.  St. Mirren and Ross County haven't really convinced anyone that their decision to vote down 12-12-18 is based on their fans' wishes, rather than short-term self-interest.  However, for the men in charge of two of the nation's most dysfunctional clubs, Aberdeen and Hearts, to claim that the Buddies and the Staggies, two of the best run clubs in the country, are destroying Scottish football, stunk of 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black'. 

The SPL as an organization has shown zero evidence in recent years that it could organize a swinging party involving lots of alcohol in a location where alcohol is manufactured...and Monday just provided us with more proof of this.  Given that, after weeks of trumpeting a no compromise, "all or nothing", party line, they then suddenly started offering major concessions out of thin air to try and win the dissenting parties around.  I don't blame Stewart Gilmour and Roy McGregor for not taking the bait.  If SPL CEO Neil Doncaster said the sky was blue, I'd demand evidence in triplicate from him.

What is needed to sort out this dispute is a football equivalent of Henry Kissinger.  What we've instead got is, in Neil Doncaster and the SFA's head honcho Stewart "there will be social unrest if Rangers aren't in the SPL" Regan, are the football equivalents of the Iraqi Information Minister.  I suppose it could be worse - rumour has it that Henry McLeish has offered his help.  Oh, dear god...

So as per, well, forever, no-one can agree on the best path for the professional game to take.  The doom-mongers are once more preaching 'Armageddon', as apparently 12-12-18 was crucial to bring in sponsorship money and more TV cash; for right or for wrong, it is clear that the income from these areas is deemed far more crucial than that from the fans at the gate, who have made their view on this league format very clear indeed - i.e. that it should be inserted where the sun doesn't shine.

But nobody in public dares whisper what is arguably the most pressing question - can Scottish football, in its current state, actually be rescued?

I think that just about anyone, other than those Aberdeen fans who still think it is 1983, accepts that the glory days are gone.  No longer will provincial Scottish sides compete for European trophies.  World class players like Brian Laudrup and Henrik Larsson will not spend the best years of their career playing in our league.  But sustaining the current setup, where the league champions are at least good enough to make the Champions League group stage, where the vast majority of clubs in the top two divisions are full-time, and where most players consider the SPL to be a step up over at least England's League Two, seems a reasonable target.  But I'm not sure how realistic it is.

Scotland's biggest disadvantage at the moment is, frankly, that it is next door to England, and the Premier League's riches.

This piece from a year ago shows how much the SPL's TV deal is worth compared to other European leagues.  It's no surprise we lag behind France, Germany, Holland etc.  On the other hand, Denmark's deal is worth more than twice ours!  Bad negotiating on the part of the SPL?  I tend to think it's more because it's so easy for Scots to watch English matches that are higher quality, and the interest, and audience levels, for SPL games are not particularly high.  Therefore SKY and ESPN - or BT Vision from next year - are less inclined to pay the money that other leagues are getting.  Therefore, Scottish clubs are getting less income, and so they are falling further and further behind teams in other European leagues, who make more money and therefore can pay higher wages.

When Bradford City reached the English League Cup final this year, commenators pointed out their players were 'only' being paid about £1,200 per week.  That's probably well above what the highest paid player at half the SPL clubs is currently on.  Bradford are a League Two side.  That's scary.

Even if 12-12-18 brings in some more TV and sponsorship money, my gut instinct is that, at best, it allows us to tread water whilst our continental compatriots thrash upstream.  And I can't see any solution, barring a cash injection from the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, that can provide a better outcome than that.  At worst, stagnation continues, the quality of the SPL drops further, and, as has seemed inevitable for several years, the first division becomes predominantly part-time.

But Scotland has a population of 5 million.  England, with a population of 55 million (-ish. I can't be bothered looking up wikipedia to check) sustains 92 professional league clubs.  Using that ratio, Scotland would have less than 10.

Maybe we just have to accept that, in the greater scheme of things, the quality of the domestic league in Scotland is doomed to end up closer to that of Wales and Ireland than to that of England.  From a fan's point of view, I can live with that.  ICT might be much weaker, but so would everyone else.  The quality and cost of the players is not necessarily linear to the quality of the entertainment.  I'd still go and watch my team, quite happily.  I suspect the fans of other 'diddy' clubs would feel much the same.

But I bet that thought keeps some people awake at night.  Stewart Milne, for a start; he needs the money not for the good of Scottish football, but to pay the creditors and keep Aberdeen afloat.  But you can only swim against the tide for so long if the tide doesn't change.


Monday, April 8, 2013

On the outside, looking in

A game in hand at home to St. Mirren.  Then a home game against Dundee.  Only three points required from these two games.  Kilmarnock couldn't have asked for a better shot at clinching the final top six place.

Killie's clash against the Dens Park side would have been academic had they done better than a 1-1 draw against the Buddies three days earlier.  But they were still odds-on favourites for sixth spot in the SPL, only to lose out thanks to some delicious late twists; Gary Harkins, who left Killie in January, conjured up a brace to give a Dundee a 2-1 victory at Rugby Park. Even then, a draw at Tannadice would still have let Kenny Shiels' side off the hook...only for Rory Boulding, who left Killie in January (see a theme here?) to strike with the last kick of the game.  Dundee United make the top six.  Kilmarnock do not.  It was a double success for Boulding, who presumably scored just to make me look like a twat for calling him the worst signing of the season.  More fool me.

Meanwhile, it was a bit of a pyrrhic victory for Dundee - it simply fends off their inevitable relegation for another week, and in fact denies them a money-spinning post-split home derby with United.  As for Kilmarnock, seventh place seems about right.  At no point this season have they looked like they should be in the upper echelons of the league, but neither have they been in the bottom three.  They've actually won only three league games since Boxing Day, but that record is roughly comparable with the teams they were fighting for that coveted sixth spot.

I wonder, in Killie's case, how much the arrival of Kris Boyd - or, to give him his full title, Fat Kris Boyd - helped or hindered their cause.  Boyd scored in both the St. Mirren and Dundee games, but he is now even less useful outside the penalty area than in his Rangers days, given his girth and lack of mobility.  Given Kilmarnock have benefitted so much in recent times from the hard work of Paul Heffernan (who partnered Boyd against Dundee) and the hold-up play of Cillian Sheridan, Boyd doesn't seem to fit in very well.  Sheridan appears to be hugely out of favour, barely even getting off the subs bench at the moment.  But you'd be a brave manager to leave out the SPL's all time leading goalscorer, even if he is tubby.

More likely, Kenny Shiels has been unable to replace the injured James Dayton.  The Englishman has been in sparkling form recently, though his manager's attempts to tout him for England last week may have been the most ridiculous comments he has made all season (and that's saying something).  But a rib injury in Dingwall caused him to miss the last two matches, and his flair and creativity were sorely absent.

But seventh in the table is where Kilmarnock finished last season, so there won't be all that much complaining going on down Rugby Park way.  You can't say the same regarding Aberdeen and Hibs.

November seems such a long time ago now.  Yet, that month, Hibs came into a match at Dundee top of the table, and Aberdeen were three points behind in third.  Hibs lost that day.  They have managed only three league wins since - and just 16 points from the last 60 available (thanks to Scottish Football Blog for that stat).  Aberdeen have managed just 20 from the same period.  The Dons have at least got the excuse that their home pitch at Pittodrie is in such disrepair that it stopped Craig Brown's side from playing the ball on the deck and therefore getting the best out of players like Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn.  Pat Fenlon can hardly say the same.

Fenlon can at least claim some progress - barring a spectacularly awful end to the campaign, Hibs will finish higher than their eleventh place last May - but, looking at their squad, the club's support were entitled to expect better.  It appeared at times earlier in the season that they were heavily dependent on 20 goal striker Leigh Griffiths, and that they struggled mightily when he was off the boil.  Since the New Year, Hibs have started losing matches even when Griffiths is playing well, which is hugely worrying.  The likes of James McPake and David Wotherspoon, impressive before Christmas, have regressed - Wotherspoon is no longer an automatic first choice.  Midfielders Matt Done and Scott Robertson, January transfer window signings, have added nothing to the side.  Maybe Kevin Thomson can provide a spark when he is fully fit?

I said it in December - a few days before Hibs beat Celtic, just to make me look like a complete prat - that the situation at Easter Road had begun to smell of the one Fenlon had inherited from Colin Calderwood - a bunch of relatively well-paid players who weren't gelling together, and who were living on past glories - a bunch of prima-donnas, essentially.  Now the smell has become an almighty stink.  There's no backbone at all.  When the going gets tough, these players, with the exception of Griffiths and goalkeeper Ben Williams, do not get going.

So far, Fenlon has largely escaped criticism.  Having had five managers in the six and a half years since Tony Mowbray left, the club and the fans crave stability.  But the only solace left in Hibernian's season is that they are still in the Scottish Cup.  Lose next weekend's semi-final with Falkirk, and the knives will be well and truly out. 

Over at Pittodrie, a disappointing season has led to a managerial change, as Derek McInnes becomes the next man to take on what appears to be Scottish football's Mission Impossible.  Fenlon can only hope that his employers don't follow their lead.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The worst signings of the 2012-13 SPL season

What can I say?  I'm in a 'lists' sort of mood.  I was going to blog about the teams missing out on the top six...only for Kilmarnock to screw up and keep the battle for sixth alive for one more weekend.  So, for your own amusement, a list of (in my opinion) the ten worst signings made by SPL clubs this season

10. Sam Parkin (St. Mirren - signed in June after leaving Queen of the South)
Sorry, Sam, I just don't like you. The target man was clearly signed as a backup for Steven Thompson, but on occasion Danny Lennon has deployed both up front - leading to a dismally direct style of play. Parkin barely looked like a first division striker in Dumfries last season; he certainly hasn't improved, though his apologists will point out that he's managed 3 goals this season. Yet Lennon seems to prefer him to Lewis Guy, who looks far more potent.

9. Don Cowan (Dundee - signed on free transfer in February after release by Stevenage) This guy is no more a professional footballer than I am!  Maybe it's early days, as he only joined Dundee in February, but the former Stevenage striker has looked completely out of his depth on his fleeting substitute appearances so far.  Yet John Brown appears to still rate him more than the likes of Colin Nish...

8. Rudi Skacel (Dundee Utd - signed in October after leaving Hearts in the summer; released in January)
Oh, Rudi, why did you have to spoil it all?  He might be 33, but the Czech proved last season that he was still a big goal threat and was a hero of Hearts' cup triumph over Hibs.  He clearly harboured hopes of a new deal at Tynecastle but the transfer embargo scuppered that and he joined up at Tannadice.  Sadly, he seemed to still be fixated with his former club, choosing the squad number '51' in tribute to the scoreline at Hampden in May.  When his new team played his old team at Edinburgh, he contributed sweet FA before being a standing ovation from Hearts fans.  He managed a solitary goal, against Inverness, and his short-term deal wasn't extended.  He's moved back to former club Slavia Prague.

7. Craig Beattie (St. Johnstone - signed in August after leaving Hearts; released in January)
Beattie was a reasonably hot commodity in the summer after doing well at Hearts at the end of last season, and Steve Lomas fought off plenty of competition to sign him.  Given Hearts couldn't afford to keep him, it's fair to assume he was earning a decent wage.  Perenially injured, he made a grand total of four appearances, all as a substitute, and was let go during the winter transfer window.  Notts County took him on trial but decided he was too unfit.  He's currently at Barnet, but has managed only 1 start since arriving in February.

6. Simon King (Inverness - signed in July after being released by Gillingham)
A fan favourite at Gillingham, the centre-back had struggled badly with injuries over the last two seasons, and the move to the Highlands was supposed to be a fresh start.  He was a first choice at the start of the campaign, but certainly looked off the pace and was ripped to shreds in a home defeat by Celtic.  In September he was ruled out with a knee injury...and we've never seen him again.  No-one's ever reported on the seriousness of the problem, but he wouldn't get back in the team now even if he was fit.  He'll be best remembered up here for being the victim of a player prank, where his fancy car was completely covered in coloured post-it notes by his teammates (it was funnier than it sounds).

5. Gregory Vignal (Dundee Utd - signed in September having not had a club since 2010; released in November)
The French full-back has a decent CV - playing for Liverpool, Portsmouth and Birmingham in the Premier League, a season at Rangers in 2004-05 and some under-21 caps - but had been a free agent for nearly two years after leaving Greek side Atromitos.  We'll never know if he was good enough for another crack at the SPL - he did his hamstring playing in a reserve game in October and was let go two months before his short-term contract was due to expire.  He never played for the first team.  Hopefully he was on a pay-as-you-play deal.

4. Shefki Kuqi (Hibernian - signed in August after leaving Oldham)
We were all looking forward to seeing Kuqi's famous 'swan dive' goal celebration - and we're still waiting.  Used mainly as an impact substitute, the 36 year old has managed to make virtually no impact.  It seems he is still on Hibs' books, but he's rarely even made the bench since the winter break.  On the bright side, the announcer at the Caledonian Stadium pronounced his name as "Shifty Cookie" when the Hibees visited.  Time to retire, Shefki?

3. Peter Enckelman (Hearts - signed in August after leaving St Johnstone in the summer; released in January)
I'll never forget the Finn's terrible blunder for Aston Villa in a Birmingham derby back in 2002; given he's had a distinguished career and 12 international caps, he can't be all that hapless, but he had become increasingly unreliable during his two seasons in Perth and was released after Alan Mannus became first-choice keeper.  Ostensibly a back-up at Tynecastle, he played only 76 minutes for the club, coming on as a sub for the injured Jamie MacDonald at Celtic Park.  Within a quarter of an hour, he let a tame shot from Georgios Samaras go straight through him for the game's only goal.  Given Hearts' financial problems this season, it's no surprise they didn't extend his contract beyond January.

2. Miku (Celtic - signed on loan from Getafe in August 2012) Last week, the Venezuelan striker told journalists from his native country "It was a mistake to go there [Scotland]. Simply because I cannot do anything.  At first I did not understand. I said to myself: 'How might come to play in the best league in the world [Spain] and play no part in Scotland?'".  Regarding the Celtic coaching staff, “We do not talk. I like people to tell the truth. I don’t like that they say one thing to my face and another thing behind my back."  Safe to say he won't be staying in Glasgow, then.  He might have managed 12 La Liga goals last year, but he's not been an upgrade over Celtic's other attacking options.  On a rare start in Inverness in February, he was utterly hopeless (yes, I know he scored in that game, but I stand by my assessment).  A huge disappointment.

1. Rory Boulding (signed by Kilmarnock in July after leaving Livingston, but released in January; signed for Dundee Utd in March)
This guy must be terrific in training.  Having failed to make it at Bradford and Accrington, the Englishman couldn't even get in Livingston's team at the start of 2011-12, but scored 10 goals in 6 games at the end of the season and did enough in a trial at Rugby Park to convince Kenny Shiels to offer him a three (yes, THREE!!) year contract.  He made a grand total of one start and disappeared from the first team reckoning  pretty damn quick.  Let go in January - hopefully paying up that contract didn't cost Killie a fortune - he went on trial with Dundee Utd in March and managed to get a deal from Jackie McNamara after Johnny Russell was injured.  Needless to say, he ain't no Johnny Russell.