Friday, February 28, 2014

Crummy Lunny isn't doing his job

So, it's been nearly a week since St. Mirren's hatchetman/enforcer/thug Jim Goodwin did his best to decapitate Ross County's Filip Kiss with a forearm smash in Dingwall.  If it had occurred in a WWE ring, most fans would have winced and thought it was a bit OTT.  In a street, it would have probably warranted police attention.  On a football pitch, under the jurisdiction of Willie Collum (who was so close to the incident that, had Kiss lost some teeth, they might have hit the official), it was classed as a fair challenge.  Later in the game, there was another iffy incident involving Goodwin, when he headed the back of Melvin De Leeuw's napper, injuring both players.  If it was anyone but Goodwin, you'd put it down to a clumsiness and stupidity stereotypical of the player's not-so-distant neanderthal cousins.  But, given that it occurred inches from the home dugout, you could forgive County boss Derek Adams for going mental; in the end Adams and his opposite number, Danny Lennon, were both sent to the stand after having a shouting match - a pretty pointless punishment given they sat a few rows behind their dugouts and were able to dish out instructions as per usual.

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After the game, Adams called for the SFA's Compliance Officer, Vincent Lunny, to take action.  And Lunny has, though not in the manner expected.  It is Adams and Lennon who will be called in to Hampden, cited for their touchline antics.  Goodwin?  As it stands, he'll only be visiting the national stadium if he has tickets for the athletics at the Commonwealth Games.  He will not face punishment for the challenge on Kiss.

This blog is not meant to be a character assassination of the Irishman, honestly.  Goodwin has a richly deserved reputation for being a master of football's dark arts - he has thirteen yellow cards this season, for a start - but plenty of blame for that should go on the officials who, for example, fail to keep count of the umpteen niggly fouls he commits and only book him after the fifth or sixth misdemeanour, or who spot the retaliation from the likes of Kris Boyd but not the umpteen bumps, nudges and kicks off the ball on Biyd beforehand, or who, in this case, have a blind spot for shocking challenges a few yards away.  If nobody's going to stop him, then why should he stop?

And he's certainly not going to stop when he gets away with actions like this.

Lunny, a qualified solicitor, has been the SFA's Compliance Officer since October 2011.  It was a move that, from memory, seemed to improve the disciplinary system initially.  If a referee didn't catch you, the SFA would - which is exactly as it should be.

This season, however, the actions of Lunny and the SFA in regards to player discipline have been inconsistent at best, and downright dodgy at worst.  The phrase "trial by Sportscene" has been used more than once by managers, implying that incidents will not be dealt with unless they are on the BBC highlights.  This accusation  may have some merit.  For example, Dundee United's Gavin Gunning received a 2 game ban after being caught on camera taking a sly kick at Celtic's Virgil Van Dijk back in August.  Yet when Celtic's Anthony Stokes kicked Hibs' Jordan Forster off the ball a few months later at Celtic Park (an incident mentioned by plenty of journalists at the game), no action was taken.  The incident wasn't shown on Sportscene...though STV Sport got hold of footage and ran an article on it (from which the video has sadly been deleted).  It was indisputably no less of an offence than Gunning's but it was ignored.  On the other hand, Goodwin was the centre of attention on Sportscene after the game with Ross County, albeit with his teammate Steven Thompson inexplicably trying to defend him; but that hasn't prompted Lunny and co to react.

Off the field, meanwhile, we had the betting scandals surrounding Rangers midfielder Ian Black and Ayr United striker Michael Moffat.  In January, Moffat was recently found guilty of placing seven bets on six Ayr United games between August 2012 and August 2013, and of betting on 150 other matches between February 2012 and September 2013.  Black, of course, was found in August to have bet against his "then-registered club" three times between 2006 and 2013, betting on 10 other matches involving his registered club, and on another 147 matches.

Moffat's bets were always in favour of his club; Black made some on his club not to win, in matches he was playing in.  Black got a three match ban with seven suspended.  Moffat, whose offence was clearly not has grave, got a six match ban - albeit reduced on appeal to four matches with two suspended after an almighty outcry.

But, for me, the most dubious judgement of the year was regarding the actions of Dundee United's Nadir Ciftci, which actually occurred right in front of me in Inverness during a League Cup Quarter Final.  Ciftci was sent off after some handbags on the touchline and was subsequently accused of grabbing a linesman by the throat.  I saw it with my own eyes, and 'grabbing by the throat' is to say the least an exaggeration.  He had a grip of the scruff of his neck for maybe a split-second, presumably before his brain kicked into gear and realized that laying hands on a match official is a bloody daft thing to do.  He was also accused of grabbing an ICT player by the face...on top of the red card in the fracas.

The end result of all of it?  A one match ban for "excessive misconduct at a match by placing an open hand into the lower area of the assistant referee's throat".  Correctly, the original red card was reduced to a yellow, as there was no evidence that, at that point, he had done anything beyond some rather pathetic pushing and shoving.  However, the other charge was dropped...despite clear evidence of his hand in the face of Graeme Shinnie.

Why did he get such a desultory punishment?  For me, it's because the officials and the SFA made an arse of it.  The original red card was unwarranted.  The claims by the match officials regarding the contact between Ciftci and the linesman were over the top.  And the SFA took several weeks to even meet up to discuss it.  It was a cock-up of the highest order.  I suspect the one match ban was a facesaving exercise, because even putting a hand on a referee or linesman should result in much more than that, but if Dundee United and Ciftci had continued fighting the case then it would have led to extreme embarrassment.

The current system with the Compliance Officer is no longer fit for purpose.  If you want this to work fairly, every minute of action from each game, at least in the top flight, needs to be viewed retrospectively by someone in the SFA, so that nothing is missed.  Given there's only six matches a week, that really isn't all that much to ask - heck, they could fast forward when the ball goes out of play.  In the USA, the NFL review every second of every match...and there are 16 matches each week, with lots more action happening!  The current system of cherry-picking incidents on what appears to be individual whims is just ridiculous.  But, hey, isn't Scottish football all about the individual whims of the men at the top?


Monday, February 24, 2014

The battle for sixth and eleventh

At the top and at the bottom, the Sponsorless Scottish Premiership has gone much as expected.  Celtic are 24 points clear at the top and certain to win the league.  Hearts are 18 points adrift at the bottom and certain to be relegated.

As for the rest, this weekend's results seem to have divided the remaining 10 teams into 2 mini-leagues.  Aberdeen, Motherwell, Dundee United and Inverness CT appear to be just about guaranteed a top six place, given that the gap between fifth and sixth is now 9 points with not very many games left.  Those four sides will battle it out for second place, I suppose.

The other six teams are separated by only 8 points.  In this mini-league, there is a big prize for the side that finishes at the top - that final coveted place in the top six before the split.  There is also a significant punishment for coming bottom of it - for the first time, the eleventh placed side in the league will have to beat a team from The Championship in a playoff to maintain their top flight status.

There's plenty at stake for those six teams, then.  Below, I look at the points totals that historically have been achieved by the team in sixth at the split, and the team that finishes eleventh, and assess the prospects of each side for the rest of the season.

In the thirteen seasons since the split was introduced, the points total for the team in sixth at the split (after 33 games) has ranged between 41 and 48 points - but only twice has the team in sixth had more than 44 points.  The points total for the team in seventh at the split has ranged between 37 and 44 points.

In the thirteen seasons since the split was introduced, the points total for the team finishing eleventh has ranged from 32 to 41.  Only three sides have finished eleventh with 38 or more points.

LEAGUE POSITION: 6th - 25 games, 32 points, GD +1

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: The Perth Saints haven't been quite the same, for me, since Steven Maclean got injured - his return in a few weeks from a knee operation will allow him to renew his excellent partnership with Stevie May up front.  Tommy Wright will, however, probably have to do without experienced central defender Frazer Wright and his best midfielder, Murray Davidson, for the rest of the season.  Curiously, Wright has stuck with a number of players who have suffered dips in form, such as Nigel Hasselbaink, Gary McDonald and David Wotherspoon, though he brought in alternatives in January.  He may need to make changes to get the team firing again.

CURRENT FORM: Much poorer than I realized - 11 points from their last 12 league games.  At the start of that run, St Johnstone were 4 points behind second place, and 6 points ahead of seventh place.  In their last six away games, they've scored only a single goal.

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? With games in hand on the teams below them, St Johnstone remain hot favourites to take that sixth place.  Their last five matches before the split are against the five teams directly below them in the league, so their fate is very much in their own hands.  It would take a collapse of epic proportions to suck them into the fight for eleventh.

LEAGUE POSITION: 7th - 26 games, 32 points, GD -5

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: January business was all about papering over cracks with loan signings.  Whether this will prove to be enough remains to be seen.  Terry Butcher appears to have settled on his favoured back four, which has helped, but Hibs don't seem to have enough goals in their attack.  The return of some width to the team with Alex Harris (back from injury) and loanee Duncan Watmore may help.

CURRENT FORM: Under Butcher, Hibs have 17 points from 13 league matches.  Under Pat Fenlon, they picked up 15 points from 11 league matches.  That's, um, well, not really a lot of difference at all, is it?  Since they won the New Year derby against Hearts, they've won only one of six league games, and been knocked out of the cup by Raith Rovers.

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? I actually had it in my mind that Hibs were the form team in the bottom half, and was a bit shocked to discover I was wrong.  Their last three home games are against Motherwell, Dundee United and Aberdeen.  Remarkably, rearranged fixtures have left them with four consecutive away games in March.  Might that be the difference between top six and bottom six?  I'd pencil in their travel to Perth on 22 March as the big one for them.  And, no, they won't come eleventh.

LEAGUE POSITION: 8th - 27 games, 27 points, GD -12

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: Fair play to Magic Johnston, who recognised the mistakes he made in the summer transfer window and got rid of plenty of dead wood in January.  He also realized that youth is the way to go at Rugby Park - five players under 21 started this weekend's game.  There's a lot more solidity and confidence in this squad than there was a few months ago, though the dependence on Kris Boyd for goals remains.

CURRENT FORM: It's been steady as she goes since the start of December - five wins, three draws and five losses.  That's the sort of form that leaves you on the brink of missing out on the top six, but also adrift of a relegation battle.

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? Killie's last game before the split is against St. Johnstone at Rugby Park.  It'll be difficult to keep in the top six hunt till then, though, given that the three games before that are against the top three teams in the table.  Kris Boyd's goals should keep them ahead of St Mirren and Partick - if he gets crocked, though, it might be a different story.

LEAGUE POSITION: 9th - 26 games, 25 points, GD -14

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: Derek Adams gutted his squad in January - seven of his starting lineup this weekend weren't at the club in December - and it has paid dividends.  County are stronger in every area of the pitch than they were in the latter stages of 2013.  The only issue remains a lack of goals up front, with Yoann Arquin the only out-and-out striker to have scored a league goal for the club this season.

CURRENT FORM: County's eight league games in 2014 have yielded 14 points.  That's not too shabby at all and suggests that they're on the up.  They have, however, won away from home only once this season.

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? The Staggies have an excellent recent record at home to local rivals Inverness - and will fancy that they can win both the clashes between the sides before the split.  If County continue in their current vein of form they have a chance of sneaking above the teams above them - though their last four pre-split games (Motherwell away, Aberdeen at home, Celtic away, Inverness at home) may cost them too many points.  I certainly can't see them finishing lower than their current position though.

LEAGUE POSITION: 10th - 27 games, 25 points, GD -16

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: Alan Archibald identified his side's weaknesses as being a weak central defence, no-one to anchor the midfield, and a lack of goals, and moved in January to rectify these.  Whilst I don't think Lee Mair really sorts out the first problem, Prince Buaben certainly adds some steel and Lyle Taylor, in fits and starts, is more effective than Kris Doolan was up front.  I'd say that, on paper, they look as strong as most of the other teams around them.

CURRENT FORM: On Saturday, at the fourteenth time of asking, Partick Thistle won a home league game.  Incredibly it was only their second win in eighteen games since mid-October.  Is it a sign that the Jags have turned the corner, or just a momentary blip?

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? With no games in hand over the sides above them, Thistle would probably have to win five of their next six to make the top six - which isn't going to happen.  Their next two matches - away to Ross County and at home to Hibs - will tell us if they can push on from the victory over Aberdeen.  I think, when it comes to it, Partick and St. Mirren will finish tenth and eleventh...but in which order?

LEAGUE POSITION: 11th - 27 games, 24 points, GD -19

STRENGTH OF SQUAD: Argh.  Danny Lennon has once more returned to his early season 'square pegs in round holes' philosophy - which meant that in Dingwall on Saturday St. Mirren played central midfielders Conor Newton, Jim Goodwin and Kenny Maclean at right back, centre half, and on the wing respectively, whilst using the absolutely hapless Eric Djemba-Djemba in the middle of the park and leaving Adam Campbell and Paul McGowan on the bench.  It seemed a few months ago like Lennon had found his strongest XI - but he appears to have forgotten it again.  He needs to find it again, sharpish.  I'll give you a clue, Danny - it has Goodwin in midfield, McGowan and Campbell up top, and Djemba-Djemba not at all!

CURRENT FORM: Rank rotten.  Whichever way you choose to judge it - 10 points out of a possible 45, or 5 points out of a possible 30, or 1 win in 10 league games, or 2 wins in 15 league games - St Mirren are not going well at all.

WILL THEY FINISH SIXTH OR ELEVENTH, OR INBETWEEN? They have next to chance of making it up to sixth place, as they have no games in hand.  However, most fans won't be looking beyond next weekend's clash with Kilmarnock at St. Mirren Park; a defeat could well leave the Buddies with a big hole to dig their way out of, especially as they follow that game with visits to Tannadice and Celtic Park.  In fact they play every top six team except Aberdeen before the split.  If St. Mirren are to avoid that playoff, it will be because they do well in the post-split fixtures.

My verdict - St. Johnstone to hold off Hibs and Ross County for sixth, and St. Mirren (with a new face in the dugout) to contest the playoff.  What do you think?


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rangers in the last chance saloon

So, administration has been prevented - or at least delayed - at Ibrox by news of a £1.5million emergency loan from current shareholders Laxey Partners and James and Sandy Easdale.  This vindicates the rumblings that have been coming from a certain Irish blogger for the last few weeks - Rangers wouldn't have to do this unless they really had pissed away all £20million-plus raised in their IPO little over a year ago, or if they could get a loan from a bank.  Rather than getting their money back, Laxey and the Easdales will get extra shares in return next year.  It feels a bit like the corporate equivalent of getting a payday loan from Wonga.

It does appear to be a vote of confidence from these investors in CEO Graham Wallace, who, if only to protect his own professional reputation, appears to be doing everything he can to get the club out of this mess - a huge contrast to his predecessors, Chuckles Green (who seems to have fled the nest with a ton of cash) and Craig Mather (a man incredibly out of his depth).  This money would not have been raised if there was no way back.  But, for a club who have been losing more than £1million per month, it will simply pay the wages and the bills for a few more weeks, tiding things over until season ticket money begins to come in.

But it is clear that Rangers are in the last chance saloon.  We already know costs have to come down - they lost £14million in 2012-13, after all.  It's five weeks since the playing squad rejected pleas to take a 15% paycut across the board; it will be amazing if, once Wallace's 120 day review of the runnings of the club concludes in April, the spectre of pay cuts isn't raised once more, particularly as the wage bill is enormous compared to every SPFL club except Celtic.  Staffing costs (£9million) were even higher than the players' costs (£8million), which means that, contrary to Ally McCoist's press comments which suggest splashing out on a comprehensive scouting system, it will be more likely that the bloated coaching staff will be pruned.  McCoist finally signed off on a 50% paycut in January, which still leaves him as the second highest paid SPFL manager on an obscene salary of £400,000 per year.

The club have one more shot at sorting out this shambles, thanks to Wallace.  It is incredible that the reckless spending has gone on so long - unnecessary luxuries such as booking swanky hotels for afternoon naps prior to evening games, as Rangers did before they travelled to Forfar last month, must be expunged for good.  Given that fans have already spent what they can, and investors are mostly running a mile, I can't see how a new share issue would raise much more money - and it wouldn't be in the interests of the shareholders already holding the power at Ibrox.  The club has to be run at a profit from now on.  If the money runs out next season, it runs out when Rangers are in a league that is a million times more tricky than League One, if only because they will be up against a resurgent Hearts.  So another administration would unquestionably delay the return to the top flight even further.

How to cut costs?  Here's seven players who Rangers should look to move on...

STEVE SIMONSEN (contracted till summer 2014)
Rangers already have Scott Gallacher to back up Cammy Bell, but Ally McCoist wanted Gallacher to get game time out on loan, which is why 34 year old Simonsen, once a £3m keeper with Everton but who last season played for Dundee, was signed.  But three senior goalies is pushing it; in fact, no other team in the SPFL has three keepers over the age of 21.  Besides, Gallacher is 25 in July and surely is about as good as he's going to get.  He also proved himself competent in six starts at the beginning of the season.  At least one of Bell's backups needs to go, and Simonsen is the one on a higher wage.

EMILSON CRIBARI (contracted till summer 2014)
Of course, every side looking to mount a challenge in Scotland's lower leagues needs a Brazilian central defender...said no-one, ever - except Ally McCoist, of course.  Cribari was a regular last season but has warmed the bench for nearly all of 2013-14, making just 3 league starts so far.  The former Lazio and Napoli man offers depth which is not really required.

ROSS PERRY (contracted till summer 2015)
He's probably not of top-flight quality - he certainly didn't look comfortable playing in the SPL pre-liquidation - but he spends so much time injured that it's hard to tell.  Perry's last first team game was in February 2013 - a torn hamstring, followed by an ankle injury in the summer, have kept him on the treatment table.  Takes up a squad place that should be occupied by a youngster.

KYLE HUTTON (contracted till summer 2014)
Another sicknote.  Hutton managed to stay fit through most of last season, but didn't make a league start even when he was fit.  He then broke his leg in November.  With Black, Lewis Macleod and Nicky Law all playing well, Hutton is surplus to requirements.

ARNOLD PERALTA (contracted till summer 2017)
And, of course, every side looking to mount a challenge in Scotland's lower leagues needs a Honduran central midfielder...said no-one, ever - except Ally McCoist, of course.  Given Peralta has started only 10 league games, he's clearly not a first choice, particularly because Rangers only need one combative player in the middle of the park and prefer Ian Black.  He'd be useful backup if the Gers could afford it...but, at the moment, they can't afford it, and they will cope comfortably in The Championship without him.

DAVID TEMPLETON (contracted till summer 2016)
Let me remind you that Rangers spent £800,000 to sign Templeton at the end of the 2012 summer transfer window.  A few days before that, he had scored for Hearts at Anfield in a Europa League game.  Since then he's started only 34 games - that's more than £23,000 for every start.  Factor in his £5,000 per week wages and he's expendable, given Rangers' current plight.  They might even manage to convince someone to pay a fee for him too - though nowhere near £800,000.

LEE WALLACE (contracted till summer 2017)
Ooh, controversial!  Wallace is unquestionably the best player at Ibrox.  I was impressed when he appeared as a sub for Scotland in Macedonia that he didn't look off the pace at all, suggesting that he doesn't play down to the quality of the opposition.  He's also the only player who could be expected to command a transfer fee of significance.  Rangers would get by with Ricky Foster or Steven Smith playing at left-back.  There'd be rebellion in the stands if Wallace left, but needs must...


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The SPFL omnishambles

Well, the SPFL didn't arse up arrangements for the League Cup final quite as spectacularly as my blog from a couple of weeks ago suggested they would...but they came damn close.

As my good friend Iain Meredith pointed out on twitter, "only the SPFL could cock up allocation for a game where everyone who wants to go is pretty much guaranteed a ticket".

This is the seating arrangements for Celtic Park, as published by Aberdeen's website.  The red seats, of course, will go to the Dons.  The blue seats are for ICT.  Unsurprisingly, Aberdeen's allocation is much larger than that of Inverness.  Why that means that Caley Thistle fans are being shunted into a corner of the ground - a corner which is famous amongst Scottish away supports for being uncomfortable and offering a 'restricted view' that is so restricted that putting a paper bag over one's head does not make it any worse - is a mystery.

Inverness have cried foul, with chairman Kenny Cameron furiously stating that negotiations had not even concluded by the time this seating plan was revealed.  To their credit, most Aberdeen fans see it as ludicrous as well.  A few hours later, Neil Doncaster, Chief Executive of the SPFL, insisted that "negotiations are ongoing".  Stable Door.  Horse.  Bolted.

Following on from the fiasco of the semi final, one wonders if there is a conspiracy here.  The SPFL seem to have it in for ICT, for some reason.  Perhaps Doncaster was once hit on the head by a caber when attending a Highland Games?  Maybe he wasted an entire summer fruitlessly searching Loch Ness for the monster?  Or has he forever held a grudge after losing £20 betting on a home win at Celtic Park on 8th February 2000?

Regardless, it is only about 3 and a half weeks till the final, and there's still no sign of when tickets will be on sale.  Nor is there any idea whether extra buses or trains will be put on from Inverness, since, as with the semi final, there is precious little available in terms of public transport from the Highlands prior to the Sunday kickoff.

(UPDATE AT 1800: Seating arrangements have been changed.  ICT get the Lisbon Lions Stand.  A tiny smidgeon of common sense has been shown)

Sadly, as all Scottish football fans are aware, this is by no means an isolated mishap.  Far more likely is that Caley Thistle are not being intentionally screwed over at all.  It is just that the SPFL are an incompetent, shambolic mess of an organization.

Recently I blogged about how Motherwell's accounts for last season showed a loss, despite playing European football and finishing second in the league.  Well, their AGM was on Monday, which meant the subject was in the papers again.  If you recall. the club released a statement when the accounts were released which overtly criticised the league body - "The directors also express disappointment that no main sponsor has been found to replace the Clydesdale Bank.  The effect on this season's commercial distribution is clear".  According to sources present at the AGM, this was again alluded to, along with a concern that the league isn't getting the full value for the deals it is signing.

Over the last few weeks, I have been contacted by an insider at one SPFL club, who was even more damning than I had been.  It's not just that the organization is inept.  "It's definitely not operating for the benefits of clubs or fans...individual commercial deals are being strangled by centralised deals while (the SPFL) take credit for 'doing new business'.  They are effectively taking money out of clubs' pockets and using it to justify their existence."

A couple of intriguing examples were given.  One was a dissatisfaction at the decision to occasionally broadcast games live on BBC Alba - "It actually costs clubs to have BBC Alba games.  Money lost from lower attendance and lost hospitality is more than BBC Alba put into the SPFL."

However, with the BBC Alba deal and other actions by the SPFL board, "only recently did club chairmen find out that these contracts were no longer being passed through club commercial departments before sign off".

So it is alleged that the SPFL, rather than acting for the benefit for the clubs, is actually doing deals which are not only detrimental to the clubs' income, but which they can trumpet to the brain-dead Scottish media as 'new commercial opportunities' which, in reality, are actually just facades to justify the inflated salaries of Doncaster and his cronies.

Omnishambles indeed.

And it seems that clubs like Motherwell and Inverness are starting to run out of patience with an organization that appears less and less fit for purpose.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The least likeable players in Scottish football?

A bit of fun this week, given I've not got much else to write about.  Are these the 10 least popular players in Scottish football?  If I've missed anyone obvious, please let me know...

That hatchet job on Keith Lasley a few weeks back tells you that Stokes is 'that sort of player', but to be honest the biggest beef I have with him is his off-field antics - being pictured at a memorial party for a murdered Real IRA member in Dublin is not a bright thing for a Celtic player to do.  Neither is tweeting "Thinking of you" on the day of his funeral.
Ultimate moment: forever claiming he had been denied a late penalty in the 2011-12 Scottish Cup semi final against Hearts, even though TV footage showed a clear dive.  He was given a one match ban after the game after a post-match red card from the referee for "offensive, insulting and/or abusive language and/or gestures".

The man they call 'Jig' (why?!) is of course a hero to Rangers fans, which may be why the rest of us can't stand him.  I suppose we should show some respect for him for pulling off the remarkable feat of wangling a £16,000 a week wage for a team in the fourth tier of Scottish football, yet still remain a hero.  That said, his insistence on trying to referee every Rangers game, even in the lower leagues, and his repertoire of niggly fouls and dives do not endear him to many outside the Ibrox support.
Ultimate moment: this embarrassing attempt to win a penalty at the end of a match last season.  The opponents?  The mighty Stirling Albion.

Presumably clubs look at the World Cup appearances on Fallon's CV (as a member of the 2010 New Zealand squad) and allow that to cloud their judgement of a centre-forward who was so ineffectual for St. Johnstone this season that by the beginning of January, they were trying to find a way to get shot of him.  As for his previous two years at Aberdeen, he managed 9 goals in 45 appearances, only 3 of which were in the league.  He did manage 2 red cards, but partially redeemed himself with the Dons fans by getting himself sent off against them for the Perth Saints in December, just seconds after coming on as a sub.
Ultimate moment: telling The Guardian that his career moves are based on messages from God - once "I had a dream and the Lord told me to stay at Plymouth".  Goodness knows what sins he's committed, given that God then sent him to Aberdeen and Perth.

What a complete waste of talent.  I remember seeing him play for Hibs at Inverness in 2010, where he looked totally bored and disinterested and didn't break a sweat...but still scored twice.  Without a club for a year after failed spells in China and at Bristol Rovers, Riordan has been constantly moaning about no-one will offer him a deal.  His recent failure to turn up for training at Morton when on trial might offer an explanation?  Riordan really doesn't have anything to do with his spare time though, given he has been banned from every single nightclub in Edinburgh.
Ultimate moment: being caught on video singing that Hearts' Rudi Skacel was a 'f****** refugee' in 2005.

What a complete waste of talent Mk II.  I've written about O'Connor before, here.  Since that blog in September 2011, O'Connor spent a brief time in Siberia - as a player, not a Gulag prisoner - and, after a year out of the game, is now hauling his rather enormous belly around Championship pitches while playing up front for Greenock Morton.  Don't forget that he was once a £2million English Premier League striker who failed a drugs test for cocaine.  Classy.
Ultimate moment: giving the false surname 'Johnston' to police questioning him over drug possession; when asked to spell it, he started 'J...O...S...' and then legged it.

In real life, the Caley Thistle captain is quite a nice guy, actually.  On the field, though, he becomes absolutely obsessed with winning, and doing whatever it takes to win.  Few players are quite so prone to dissenting officials when things are not going well.  Dundee United fans will want to know why he isn't ranked higher, given that he somehow escaped a red card for a horror challenge on Gary Mackay-Steven in August, and then sparked a brawl in the League Cup match between the two teams in October after an altercation with the same player.
Ultimate moment: Trying to avoid police by hiding under a car after a nightclub fracas.  It didn't work.

Look into Scott Brown's eyes.  They are completely dead.  This man has no soul.  That's presumably why he struts around the pitch winding up opponents without the slightest twinge of guilt.  Not only does it not keep him awake at night, in fact it probably helps him sleep better.
Ultimate moment: scoring in an Old Firm game, and then celebrating right in front of Rangers' El-Hadji Diouf.

Maybe it's the incompetence, maybe it's the scowl, maybe it's the outrageous Nu-metal style shaved head and beard combo, but even Hearts fans don't like Jamie Hamill.  Fans of other clubs don't like him much either, probably because he's the sort of person who grabs his genitals and thrusts them at opposing supporters (as he did to ICT fans in December).  I have to admit to some schadenfreude in seeing him miss in the League Cup semi-final shootout.
Ultimate moment: complaining bitterly about being erroneously sent off for handball in Inverness in August...and then feigning injury to get a Raith player sent off in a cup game a few days later.

Oh, Blackie, how I used to love you when you anchored Caley Thistle's midfield.  But the tyro was prone to a shocking tackle or two even then, and his reputation for poleaxing opponents has spiralled since then.  Now at Rangers, Black moaned to the media last season about how he was getting kicked up in the air in the lower leagues; he's used to be the only one dishing it out.  So far in his Rangers career he has managed 20 yellow cards and 2 reds in just 61 games.  And then there's his off-field antics...
Ultimate moment: Being charged by the SFA for betting...against his own team!

Most teams have a defensive midfield player whose primary role is to break up the opposition's play by any means necessary.  The teams that don't have a player like that usually need one.  Irishman Goodwin is the ultimate master of this dark art.  Opposing fans lose count of the number of fouls he commits in a game...but they're all so niggly and minor that referees seem to forget them instantly.  All the while, he'll stick an elbow in here, a foot in there, with a remarkable knack for knowing when nobody is looking.  This guy is pure evil...and St. Mirren fans love him for it.
Ultimate moment: Goading Kris Boyd into punching him in a league game in August; afterwards Goodwin told the press that it was "a good scrap".


Friday, February 7, 2014

Admin Mark II?

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain 
My friend, I'll say it clear 
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain 
I've lived a life that's full 
I traveled each and ev'ry highway 
And more, much more than this, I did it my way

Every day, the website of The Scotsman runs a wee article on its sports page called 'Rumour Mill'.  Essentially a ripoff of the BBC's 'football gossip' page, it refers to the significant Scottish football stories in both its own paper and others.  In here, you usually find the same old claptrap that you get from all Scottish media outlets - that is, condescending rubbish that panders to the Old Firm.

What you don't normally get is a reference to a blog.  You certainly don't get a reference to the blog of Phil MacGhiolla Bhain, the Irish journalist.  Plenty of you will be aware of Phil, whose love of Celtic and Ireland, and hatred of Rangers and unionism, are pathological to a point that I, and plenty others,  find rather uncomfortable.

He was also one of those, like the famous Rangers Tax Case blogger, who prophesied the doom of Rangers in 2012, well ahead of the game.

And over the last few weeks, he has been pontificating (sorry, unfortunate word to use here!) his predictions of apocalypse at an increasing rate once more.  His tales of how Rangers Mark II are heading for the rocks are entertaining and amusing, but are they true again?  After all, there was not a peep from the Scottish press suggesting, as he has, that CEO Graham Wallace is on the brink of resigning, how attempts to cut costs are being thwarted, that pleading with various banks and investors to provide credit has met on deaf ears, how Rangers will run out of money by the end of February!

But of course, the papers took months to pick up the scent last time as well - too many hacks, of course, make an easy living out of copying down whatever any prominent Rangers figure says as if it is gospel, and are far from keen to bite the hand that feeds them.  Succulent lamb, and all that.  Now, as far as I can tell, The Scotsman is the first to take any sort of baby step forward - albeit with several uses of the word "alleges".

Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew 
When I bit off more than I could chew 
And through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out 
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way

What do we know for certain?

We know that, according to former finance director Brian Stockbridge, the cash raised from last year's IPO was due to run out by the Spring.

We know that Rangers lost £14 million in 2012-13, with a wage bill of £17 million, more than half of which went to non-playing staff.

We're pretty damn sure that the playing squad's wage bill won't have dropped much from last season's total of £8 million, given plenty of new signings were made.  And we know the players were asked to take a 15% pay cut last month - a request they flatly rejected.  If the wage bill is similar to last seasons, I'd reckon that would save about £600,000 between now and the rest of the season.

We know that a bid for Lee Wallace in January from Nottingham Forest was rejected - a move that you'd think would be at odds with the situation I'm hinting at.  But there have been rumours that Forest weren't offering enough money up front for it to be worth Rangers' while to sell their prize asset.

To put it bluntly, how can Rangers not run out of money?

All the while, the share price is dropping to the floor - you can now buy a hundred shares in the club for less money than a matchday ticket at a top flight game.  Not a big deal for the folk who were in charge when the shares were issued, as they got theirs for just a penny each.  But the punters who bought theirs for 80p+ per share have already lost two-thirds of their money.

Don't worry, some say.  Another share issue will save them!  But who in their right mind would invest the sort of money required to get a significant stake, given that so many shares are in the hands hands, exactly?  The hands of mysterious, nameless figures hiding behind the names of companys from Jersey, the Isle of Man and elsewhere.

And as for a white knight coming along - well, if Dave King, convicted of 42 counts of tax fraud by South Africa, is deemed a fit and proper person to run a football club, then we should all just pack it in.  And that's if he ever puts his moolah where his eating orifice is...which he never has, despite all the apparent opportunities in the recent past.

I've loved, I've laughed and cried 
I've had my fill, my share of losing 
And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing 
To think I did all that 
And may I say, not in a shy way, 
"Oh, no, oh, no, not me, I did it my way"

Rangers have indeed been doing it Their Way.  New club or not, the same path of reckless overspending appears to be leading them in the same direction, towards Destruction City.


Monday, February 3, 2014

SPFL confirm League Cup final kickoff and venue

The SPFL have issued the following press release this afternoon:

"The SPFL is disappointed to confirm that Inverness Caledonian Thistle will play in the League Cup final against Aberdeen, after the Highlanders won their semi-final away to Hearts on penalty kicks.

The league is delighted by the success of its choice of semi-final venues.  The decision to play the Inverness-Hearts match in Edinburgh was clearly vindicated by the fact that there were only 8,000 empty seats at Easter Road, despite the fact that the majority of Hearts fans had to travel all the way from the other side of Edinburgh during a cold Sunday morning in February.

We would also like to apologize to the BBC for failing to make sure that Sunday's match was concluded in 90 minutes, as their coverage of the rugby was heavily disrupted.  The referee has been heavily censured for not taking further steps to ensure that the match was completed by the previously agreed time.

As regards the kickoff time and venue of the final, the SPFL would like to emphasize that the needs and wishes of the supporters of Inverness and Aberdeen were heavily prioritized.  Thus we are proud to announce that the 2013-14 League Cup final will kick off at 0400 on Thursday 20 March.  This will ensure that there is no risk of any other BBC programmes being affected.  Of course, BBC One will be showing 24 hour news at this point, so the final will be broadcast on BBC Alba, who have kindly moved a double bill of Donnie Murdo to another point in the schedule.

In addition, the SPFL board have struck the perfect balance between supporter convenience, matchday atmosphere and ensuring enough tickets are available to meet demand by hiring out the Camp Nou in Barcelona for the final.  We fully expect Inverness and Aberdeen supporters will fill this stadium for the big occasion.

In further news, we can also confirm that, from next season, the format of the League Cup will be drastically altered.  The number of clubs entering the competition will be reduced to two, allowing us to guarantee a Rangers v Celtic final and so ensure that a sponsor can once more be found for the tournament."

Neil Doncaster*

(As told to Narey's Toepoker)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Transfer window musings

Reality cheque for Celtic
As you would expect, the Champions were the only Scottish side to spend money during the window, and they captured plenty of deadline day headlines by signing Leigh Griffiths - which is amusing because last season Neil Lennon claimed that none of the Player Of The Year nominees (including Griffiths) would get anywhere near his first team.

For a million quid, Celtic get a striker who has proven that he can bang in a shedload of goals at this level, so it's a pretty good value deal.  They do not get a centre forward who is capable of performing at Champions League level, however.  With Stokes, Balde and Pukki available, Celtic are now stocked with attackers who are not really good enough for that stage - which makes me think that they are struggling to attract the quality that they need.

More worryingly for them, they couldn't convince Joe Ledley to sign a new contract, and so had to cash in on the Welsh international rather than lose him for nothing in the summer.  Ledley joins Kelvin Wilson, Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper as players who chose to move south in the last 6 months rather than stay at Celtic Park.  Given his lacklustre form and reluctance to agree a new deal, Georgios Samaras will probably follow suit this summer, while Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk are currently being closely eyeballed by other clubs.  As I predicted on this blog last season, Celtic are struggling to satisfy the ambitions of their better players.

Loan sharks
No fewer than nine of the Premiership clubs signed players on loan during January; by my count no fewer than 20 players have moved north temporarily from English clubs.  In this financial climate, it's understandable why teams are doing this, but it is depressing that the SPFL is beginning to become a nursery for youngsters from south of the border to come and get a few games - especially when few of them will remain after May.

I also can't help feeling that the clubs who are concentrating on keeping their current squads together, rather than bringing in a load of short-term signings (Caley Thistle particularly stand out) will be better off in the long term.  But time will tell if I'm right.

On the other hand, this is the only way that the likes of David Moberg Karlsson, a Swedish winger signed by Sunderland for £1.5million last summer, will end up playing at Rugby Park.  That was a signing that came out of the blue, but on paper it looks like an impressive one.

It's also worth noting that Celtic felt the need to send three of their more impressive youths - Bahrudin Atajic, Dylan McGeouch and Callum McGregor - down South rather than loan them to Scottish clubs.  Tony Watt of course remains abroad, in Belgium.  I doubt that other Premiership clubs are turning up the opportunity to lease these players; instead it seems Celtic feel that there is more benefit from playing in England's League One and League Two than for a rival club, which is a shame.

Surprise moves
It's only a few years since Birmingham City paid a seven figure sum for Rowan Vine.  It's only 6 months since he left St Johnstone for "bigger things" (his words, not mine) at Hibs.  Vine wakes up this morning as a Greenock Morton player, after joining the side at the bottom of the Championship.  The Englishman looked podgy and unfit during his few appearances at Easter Road, and was weighed down even further by an enormous beard that previously belonged to Tom Baker in an episode of Blackadder II.  Vine was Kenny Shiels' ninth signing of the window as he attempts to drag Morton away from the abyss; he will now join forces up front with another Easter Road alumnus, Garry O'Connor, where they will form a 'large and large' pairing.

Celtic's decision to cancel Mo Bangura's contract also came as a shock to Celtic fans - who were horrified to discover that the Sierra Leone forward (£2.5 million fee, 16 appearances, no goals, not played for the club since August 2012) was still actually on the books at Parkhead.

Meanwhile, down in League One, Dunfermline demonstrated that they are now in rude health by bringing in Ross Forbes from Partick Thistle and Danny Grainger from St. Mirren - two players capable at a much higher level.  The Pars are now in prime position to grab second spot in that division, and, dare I say it, to take advantage of any misfortune (or points deduction) that might yet hit the side above them in that league.

Surprise moves that didn't happen
I correctly predicted on twitter that Vine, Mark Kerr (released by Partick Thistle) and Rory Fallon (let go by St. Johnstone) would all leave their clubs - all three were 'surplus to requirements' if you're being polite, and 'wage thieves' if you aren't.  Others to leave by 'mutual consent' on deadline day - which translates as "we don't want you here, so sling yer hook" - included Chris Clark of Aberdeen, Celtic's Mo Bangura, Tim Clancy of Hibs, and Branislav Micic of Ross County.  Amongst those who surprisingly weren't shown the door were another Hibee, Kevin Thomson, who has already been told that he's surplus to Terry Butcher's requirements.  Has the ex-Scotland man been given a second chance, or did he just refuse to chuck in a decent wage?  Ditto his teammate, Tom Taiwo.

It was impressive that St. Johnstone were able to withstand bids for star man Stevie May, and surprising that no team was willing to meet the Perth side's asking price for the outstanding young striker.  And it's incredible that no-one has a made an offer that Caley Thistle can't refuse for Billy McKay for three consecutive transfer windows, despite the Ulsterman's consistency in front of goal.

No reality cheque for Rangers
I might go into more detail regarding this in a future piece, but the world and his dog knows Rangers are haemorrhaging money, which makes it all the more curious that they declined the opportunity to flog their prize asset, Lee Wallace.  The club asked the squad to take a 15% pay cut a few weeks ago, a measure which, based on last year's wage bill of £8 million (!), would have saved about £600,000 between now and the rest of the season.  Selling Wallace would have covered that, plus a bit more.  With former finance director Brian Stockbridge having previously admitted the club would be running out of hard cash by Spring, it's hard to see where the Gers will come up with enough dough to cover them till next season's season ticket money comes in.