Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Enjoy Champions League nights while they last

Tonight Celtic play their second Champions League Group Stage match, away to Anderlecht.  Given that their other group opponents are powerhouses Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain, the clashes against the Belgian champions may turn out to be little more than a two-legged tie for a Europa League spot next spring.

But that's okay for Celtic.  Because what mattered was getting to the Group Stages and getting their hands on that lovely £30million or so that comes with it.  Just look at their final results for the 2016-17 season, announced last week; Turnover rose impressively to £90m, and pre-tax profits were up to £6.9m.  Both of those increases can be put down to their return to the continental promised land, after two barren years under Ronny Deila.

But you can see that profits are rather dependent on that UEFA cash.  The club's accounts from this season and the last two years show that the club's business plan requires them to either reach the Champions League or sell a star player - Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk moved on for eight-figure fees after Deila's two European disasters - to avoid running at a loss.  And as I've commented on before, it's not a bad plan...providing Celtic make it to the Champions League on a fairly regular basis.  And given that there have never been more than two consecutive seasons without a Scottish club in the Group Stage, there's been little reason for concern there.

Until next season.

Because 2018-19 sees some big changes to the Champions League, big changes that could give Celtic a real problem.  Most Scottish football fans think having to get through three qualifying rounds is already grossly unfair; next season the Scottish champions - who will be Celtic, by the way - will have to play four rounds.  They will be amongst 44 domestic champions battling for just four places in the Group Stage.

For comparison, Celtic are one of five sides (Olympiakos, APOEL, Qarabag and Maribor are the others) to reach this year's Group Stage via the 'Champions route'.  Not only are there fewer places to play for, but the Dutch and Swiss champions - who qualified for the groups automatically this year - will drop into the qualifiers too.  So there are effectively only four places for these clubs, when there were effectively seven this season.

That is going to make it really, really difficult.  Whilst Celtic are hardly minnows in this pond, four matches gives lots of scope for bad luck and disaster.  And their club co-efficient score is high enough that they would be seeded throughout.  But imagine if you had seen off the likes of Astana (who they beat in the final qualifying round this year) or Maribor (who put them out at that stage two years ago) and there was an even harder game to come against the champions of Holland or Greece.

Success propagates success - the Champions League money helps Celtic attract better players and improve their squad, and year on year they should get just that little bit stronger and that little bit more competitive on the continental stage.  But failure propagates failure - no Champions League football means players leaving either for financial reasons or because they want to play at that higher level, and there is less money to replace them.  Celtic were dangerously close to being stuck in the lateral spiral during Deila's tenure, and in the next few years they could end up back in it through little fault of their own.

Plenty of fans of other clubs would no doubt rub their hands at the thought of such a prospect.  After all, if Celtic had to cut their cloth, then the gap between them and the rest of Scottish football would surely narrow?  And yes, that is true.  The idealists amongst us dream of a league sufficiently competitive that, for the first time in three decades, a non-Old Firm team could win it.  For my generation (I was born in 1984), Scotland's European successes are something our elders talk about.  Emulating them is not only pie in the sky, but it also feels completely unimportant.

The clubs themselves would be more wary.  After all, Celtic's qualification for the Champions League means 'solidarity payments' for the other Premiership clubs, to the tune of £365,000 this season.  For Motherwell, for example, that's an eighth of their annual turnover.  Of course it's buttons compared to what Celtic are getting, but other Scottish clubs operate in a different financial universe.  (For the record, Motherwell CEO Alan Burrows suggested that it might be up to 20% of some clubs' turnover, while for Aberdeen it is only about 3%).

So if Celtic - or, I am duty bound to say, no other Scottish club - can no longer reach the Champions League as often, then there may be a knock-on effect that means other clubs have to cut their cloth.  Given that there's no sign of any significant improvement in TV or sponsorship income on the horizon, that would be a major concern.

Maybe, just maybe, I am being too pessimistic (it has been known!) about Celtic's future success in Europe.  But given their excellent reputation for financial management, I would be amazed if their board hasn't already contemplated their future income streams, and trembled just a little.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

We'll always have Paris: that James McFadden goal, ten years on

Ten years ago today, James McFadden made himself a Scottish footballing legend.

Hyperbole?  I don't think so.

The first sixty-four minutes at the Parc Des Princes were a siege around Scotland's goal.  Not that the French had created much, but the 2006 World Cup finalists were absolutely dominant.  No doubt seeking revenge for a smash-and-grab defeat at Hampden a year earlier (Gary Caldwell!!!), it was only a matter of time until Ribery, Trezeguet, Anelka et al made the breakthrough.

Starting McFadden up front on his own had seemed an odd decision, one that might not have been made had Kenny Miller been available.  He was hardly going to hold the ball up, or run the channels.  Maybe Alex McLeish's logic was that Scotland would be devoid of possession anyway and it was worth shoehorning in the one player who could conjure something magic out of nothing.  Maybe it was just that the only other option was Garry O'Connor.  Maybe it was just a roll of the dice.

Regardless, a Craig Gordon goal kick cleared the midfield and McFadden dropped off the French defence to take the ball down, a good thirty-five yards out.  He turned and shifted the ball out of his feet.  Still thirty yards or more away from goal, no-one made much effort to close him down.  So he had a pop.  It was so ambitious that the xG rating was probably minus something.

The ball was hit well, with plenty of power and a decent amount of swerve, but it wasn't heading for the top corner.  The French goalkeeper, Mickael Landreau got into a decent position to turn it over the bar but his left hand inexplicably diverted the ball sideways instead of upwards, and into the back of his own net.

Cue pandemonium.

Keen to sell as many tickets as possible, and aware that the Tartan Army were hardly likely to cause trouble, the French had been extremely relaxed about segregation; this meant that, in addition to a huge contingent of Scots in the away end, large numbers were dotted around throughout the stadium.  Almost everywhere one looked, there were Scottish fans going mad.

On Sky Sports News, Gordon McQueen lost his s***, yelling "I don't believe it!  I don't believe it!  Jay-sus, what a goal fae Scotland!" on live telly.

And in my flat in Aberdeen, four of us went absolutely berserk, the euphoria enhanced by the complete lack of anticipation, the total shock.  We all just jumped around, screaming incomprehensibly.  My closest friend Iain let out what I assume is the closest thing going to a primal scream.  He then managed to kick the TV control and change the channel...putting celebrations on temporary hold as I fumbled to change it back.  Then we all kicked off again.

It's ten years, and yet I still remember it vividly.  I'm pretty certain every other Scottish football fan remembers exactly what they were doing, and what they did, when James McFadden scored that.

And of course that was the only goal of the game.  Scotland had beaten the French again, and on their own patch.  And stuff the dodgy keeper; it was an unbelievable goal.  I could barely sleep that night, high on ecstasy (no, not that sort!).  I found myself phoning my parents late at night to share the joy with them.  My mum answered the phone with "you'll have to wait a minute.  Your father's trying to find the expensive whisky."  My dad then came on the phone trying to sound indignant: "what on earth could you be calling about at this time?"  But there was so much happiness in his voice that it gave the game away.

On Sky Sports, they showed the highlights of the game first, before England's win over Russia.  That's how big a deal it was.  And the panel of Englishmen couldn't have been more chuffed for us.  When it comes to football, the England-Scotland rivalry really does only flow in one direction.

A friend of mine who was at the game reminisces of how the bars in the French capital stayed open for hours afterward; bar owners from former North African colonies were keen to celebrate along with the Tartan Army.

Of course, it can be argued that it was all for nowt in the end.  Scotland didn't get to Euro 2008, with McFadden of all people missing a glorious chance that might have beaten Italy.  And since then we've not got remotely close to qualifying for anything.  McFadden was only 24 when he scored that goal, but his career never quite hit the heights it once threatened to.  Within a couple of years, even a Scotland strip stopped having a Superman-like effect on him.  His last cap was in 2010.  Constantly dogged by injuries, he has just signed for Championship Queen of the South.  Given he is 34 and has played only rarely in the last two and a half years, it seems a lot to hope for that there are many glory days left.

But moments like that are what football fans live for.  The nil-nils in wintry weather, the disappointing defeats, the relegations, the anticlimaxes...the hope that another one of those moments might be around the corner is what keeps us all going.  And when it happens, we treasure it forever.  Just writing this gives me goosebumps.  There is a giant blowup photograph of the goal at the front door of the Scottish Football Museum; as if visitors need to be reminded!

People don't forget moments like that.  In 2013, I was fortunate enough to witness a virtuoso performance from McFadden in Inverness, where he scored twice for Motherwell in a 4-3 defeat.  Even in the home end, we were all chuffed to bits for him, and felt privileged to have got to see him put on a show like that.  For anyone else, we might not have been so magnanimous.  But James McFadden had built up an awful lot of credit.

He'll always have Paris.  And we'll always have Paris.  Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman?  The romance between James McFadden and Scotland is greater even than that.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Five years on, the Rangers saga might yet do for Stewart Regan and his SFA cronies

It's been more than five years since liquidation, newco and all that.  But the whole Rangers thing just won't go away.  And this is becoming a problem for SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan.

Since 2012, Scottish football's powers that be have resisted any pressure for an enquiry into how the fiasco was managed, mostly by using the ongoing Big Tax Case as an excuse to repeatedly kick the can down the road.  Well, the Big Tax Case finally concluded at the end of the summer, with confirmation that EBTs really were unlawful.  That can has got stuck in a drain and ain't going no further.

The SFA still wants to hide behind the Nimmo Smith verdict - that Rangers were guilty of improperly registering players (and the newco fined as a result) but that they did not gain any sporting advantage as a result.  That bit, of course, is ludicrous; of course Rangers gained a sporting advantage as the use of EBTs meant they were able to pay higher wages and therefore attract better players.

That sticks in the craw with many fans - despite Regan's claim that "the final decision in the Big Tax Case signalled closure for many involved in the game", and is the reason for continued calls to strip titles.  This author couldn't give the tiniest damn about that; I'd love to believe the main motivation for doing so is justice and fairness, but I'm pretty certain its just so Celtic supporters can get it up their Rangers equivalents by overtaking them as the winners of the most league titles, and by smashing the nine-in-a-row record.

Of course, if titles were taken away then cups would be too, but what would retrospectively declaring Queen of the South as 2008 Scottish Cup winners do?  The players don't get to lift a trophy; the fans don't get to celebrate the greatest day of their football lives.  Nobody feels better...except those who get a rather unhealthy kick out of schadenfreude.

The matter of SFA governance, on the other hand, is a more significant issue and easily justifies calls for an enquiry.  After all, the organization was not completely oblivious to the existence of EBTs - Campbell Ogilvie, vice-president of the SFA from 2003 to 2011 and then president till 2015, was a secretary and director at Rangers during the EBT era.  Hell, he even had his own one!

We also know that, because of unpaid tax, Rangers should not have been granted a licence to play in Europe in 2011/12, but the SFA gave them one anyway.  Regan has tried to appease by detailing his Compliance Officer to look into this, but that has satisfied no-one.

Regan's big advantage is that his organization is not really accountable to anyone - fans, clubs or otherwise.  That's how he has managed to survive as Chief Executive for seven years despite a tenure known more for big dinners than big achievements.  And given that the leadership of SFA generally operates like an old boys' club, it suits those next in line for the status quo to remain.

Which is why Celtic's decision to throw a spanner in the works came as a bit of a surprise.  Their chief exec, Peter Lawwell, is on the SFA board (he was appointed in 2013).  And yet his club stuck the boot in on Saturday with a statement criticizing the SFA's decision not to commission an independent review.  Moreover, they said that failure to do so would "represent a failure in transparency, accountability and leadership".

This is surely not too far away from being a vote of no confidence.

It also puts Regan in a terrible bind now.  Agreeing to the enquiry now looks like capitulating to the thrall and influence of Scotland's biggest club; conversely, rejecting Celtic's demands makes it look like they have something to hide.  As much as we all love a good conspiracy, Duncan Mackay on Twitter made an excellent point:
But even if Regan and his cronies simply screwed up big-time, that would be a huge issue in itself, one that would make his position untenable.

That said, what is Celtic's motivation here?  They could simply be playing to the gallery, sating the appetites of their diehard supporters who demand Rangers be crushed for all time as punishment for their tax-avoiding sins.  Or this could be out of genuine concern regarding the governance of Scottish football (being a cynic, I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes as I typed that sentence).

A more likely reason may be that the club have scented the huge weakness in the SFA and see this as the perfect opportunity to try and elicit greater influence - whether that is for Celtic alone, or for all Scotland's clubs in general (after all, the SPFL have also agreed that a review is required), is unclear.

What is certain though is that, for the first time in his seven years in charge of the Scottish Football Association, incompetence may actually be close to costing Stewart Regan his job.  And it's difficult to see how he can wiggle his way out of this situation.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Talking points from Vilnius

Pace to burn
During the home draw with Lithuania last year, Scotland's play was so pedestrian it could have been in slow motion.  That was because Chris Martin was up front and, Oliver Burke (who didn't seem to know what position he was playing) aside, there was no threat of anyone getting in behind or stretching play.  So the visitors pressed high up the pitch and the Scots couldn't get anything going.

Contrast that with last night, when Gordon Strachan fielded a front three of James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Matt Phillips.  It could be argued that none of them were outstanding; Griffiths did have two assists but looked increasingly frustrated as the match went on and his linkup play dipped in quality as a result, while Phillips went on some great dribbles but didn't offer that much of an end product.  Meanwhile, I have a theory that the 'threat' of James Forrest is often worth far more than the player himself - the Lithuanian left-back stayed deep throughout because of the constant worry that Forrest would fly into the space behind him and do some damage, even though we all suspect that all he'd do is run the ball over the byline and fall over.

In fact the best work the trio did was without the ball.  Their pressing play on the Lithuanian defence and goalkeeper in the first half was outstanding and frequently allowed possession to be won back easily.  But their presence - and Griffiths' ability to hold the ball up against bigger defenders - was crucial to the gameplan.

Outstanding Armstrong
Of course, everyone else put in a shift too.  And the epitomy of the 'energy' that Gordon Strachan raved about was, of course, Stuart Armstrong.  The Celtic midfielder even risked messing up his immaculate hair to head in the opener; not a hair was put out of place, of course.  Heck, if Armstrong was stuck outside in the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey for three days, I bet it would still look great.

The man himself contributed far more than the goal.  His relentless running provides an invaluable link between midfield and attack and his willingness to get on the ball and drive at the back four was a delight.  To be honest, it's got to the point that, if a Scotland fan came home to find his wife cheating on him with Stuart Armstrong, he'd probably consider it a privilege.

Centre-back still a concern
The Lithuanians did have a handful of decent chances, with the one that Arvydas Novikovas spurned at 0-0 particularly crucial.  Novikovas turned his ex-Hearts teammate Christophe Berra inside out on the way, just one of a few times that Berra's limitations were exposed.  There was another moment in the second half where he made a mess of shielding a ball out of play and got caught out.  Charlie Mulgrew hardly breezed through the game either.  It doesn't help that the gallivanting full-backs can leave the centre-backs exposed, but there's no question that this position is the achilles heel.  As ever, there is reason for significant concern when we play a team that can press us the way we pressed Lithuania.

As for the future, I can't help feeling that Kieran Tierney's long-term role for the national team will be in central defence, especially if as expected his club team-mate Tony Ralston emerges as a quality right-back.  Tierney's height isn't ideal for the position - though he is marginally taller than Fabio Cannavaro was (no, I'm not comparing Tierney and Fabio Cannavaro).  But it is astonishing that a lad of 20 can look so comfortable playing out of his best position at this level.  His last three caps have come as a right-back, a right sided centre-back and as a right-back again.  This boy is something special...and therefore I'm continually filled with dread that someone is going to injure him badly and stop him becoming the world class player he seems destined to be.

No problems on plastic
The players were right to largely shrug their shoulders about the playing surface pre-match, and the fact that it had been heavily watered clearly benefitted the Scots' passing and made conditions far more similar to grass (Kilmarnock and Hamilton take note please!!!).  But it was amusing to watch players from both sides frequently checking their thighs for rug burn after various slips and slides.  Not so to see Matt Ritchie lose his footing as he tried to round the keeper for a late fourth goal.  Ritchie had admitted a few days ago that he had never played a competitive game on such a surface; if he had, then maybe he'd have worn the correct studs.

What next?
Malta at home on Monday should be a banker - anything other than three points and the country should just give up football and replace all the stadia with tennis courts instead.  The bottom line is that we're going to have to win the two other games (Slovakia at home then Slovenia away) to get a playoff.  So if Gordon uses the term 'not a must-win' again, we are all entitled to hit him very hard with sticks.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.