Monday, January 28, 2019

Martin Canning and Hamilton. Being crap is bad enough, but being boring is unforgivable

After Brendan Rodgers told the media that Martin Canning "has done a wonderful job" at Hamilton, one couldn't help thinking of the bit in Return Of The Jedi when Obi-Wan Kenobi tries to convince Luke Skywalker that his claim that his father was dead "was true, from a certain point of view".

That point of view is certainly held by Canning's employers. They are quick to point out that this is the fifth consecutive season that Accies have spent in the top flight, no mean feat considering that as recently as 2001 they were fighting it out in what is now League Two. This is the longest run they've managed at this level since the Second World War.

And they've been doing it on a shoestring. That's inevitable given their average attendance has been bottom of the pile in each of those five years they've been back in the Premiership. Said shoestring has become even tighter after the club lost £700,000 in a vishing scam last year; now saddled with £450,000 of bank debt, goodness knows what might have become of them had they been relegated last season.

But they weren't. In fact they went one better than they did in 2016-17, finishing tenth ahead of Partick Thistle and Ross County and so avoiding a second consecutive relegation playoff.

When I say 'one better', I mean their league position. They finished with one fewer point than in 2016-17, when they had to beat Dundee United to secure their status. Most seasons, 33 or 34 points gets you relegated. Accies have been extraordinarily fortunate to enjoy three straight campaigns - including this one - with extraordinarily inept teams; ICT in 2016-17, Thistle and County last time out, Dundee and St. Mirren this season.

The final league positions in Canning's three full seasons in charge have been tenth, eleventh and tenth. His initial half-season saw them come seventh...after they plunged down the table as they won three of his first eighteen games in charge.

I know I've made this quip before, but Accies are Scottish football's Theresa May - consistently hopeless, yet somehow still surviving thanks to the unimaginable incompetence of others. But it makes for a grim spectacle, often not helped in the past by an artificial pitch that on many occasions seems to slow down the ball far more than it should. The surface was improved last summer at some cost; the quality of play has not improved with it.

The supporters are tiring of it all. I suspect you would too if your team had won just nineteen home games in the league in four years, just one in every four played. The closest thing they've come to a spectacular result at the Hope CBD Stadium is a couple of derby wins over Motherwell. Away from home there's been a win at Ibrox, but it's Canning's only victory against either of Scotland's biggest clubs in twenty-three attempts. Twenty of those games, including Saturday's reverse at Celtic Park, were defeats.

Nor have there been cup runs to crow about. They managed the last eight of the 2016-17 Scottish Cup...only to be thumped by Rangers. That's the only year Canning has won a Scottish Cup tie. They've been eliminated in the first knockout round of the League Cup four times in a row.

In short, there has been a complete dearth of euphoria moments, or results to be proud of. Add in a turgid style of play which contrasts badly with the swashbuckling attacking play of his predecessor - but so resembles that of the much deplored (outside Hamilton at least) Billy Reid, who signed Canning for Hamilton as a player - and it's no wonder fans are losing the rag. Once the novelty of playing the best clubs in the country every week wore off, what was left?

It's not often that one can try to compare the plight of Hamilton Accies with that of Tottenham Hotspur. But when Mauricio Pochettino dismissed the thought of winning a cup as not nearly as important as Spurs' league form, I imagine Accies fans could relate to the feeling of deflation amongst the White Hart Lane faithful. Watching football is supposed to be a form of entertainment. We enjoy watching good football.  We really enjoy lots of goals. We really love it when our team wins. And those moments when something really special happens - I think of them as 'McFadden in Paris' moments - these are the ones we cherish, the ones that make up for a hundred shitty nil-nil draws in horizontal rain.

Trophies, promotions, victories against the odds - these are what football fans live for. But those who run the clubs prioritize other things - mostly the bank account. And of course they have to, because if that bit is screwed up then you end up without a club at all. And that's fine until the fans revolt and stop spending their money. Following Hamilton currently requires a quite remarkable amount of loyalty.

So that's the tricky situation Accies find themselves in. Canning has produced just enough on the pitch to keep his employers onside...but not nearly enough for the supporters. But Canning could argue that it's becoming ever harder to come up with a decent product for them. The five most talented players in his squad from just over a year ago - Michael Devlin, Ali Crawford, Greg Docherty, Lewis Ferguson and David Templeton - have all moved on. None have been adequately replaced.

Ferguson, the one bright spark in a relatively barren period at the club's famed academy, chose to leave for Aberdeen rather than sign a new deal. The £240,000 compensation was critical in the context of the recent financial issues but given the teenager's outstanding form in the North-East it now looks like daylight robbery. The current youth side have impressed this season but aren't apparently ready for promotion to the first team; in the meantime only two youth products, Scott McMann and Ziggy Gordon, have started more than half the club's matches this season. And Gordon doesn't really count given he has just returned from a two year spell away.

Of course in football you often have to run just to stand still, but its harder to do so with such a tight budget. For every David Templeton that pops up there has been a Fredrik Brustad, a Marios Ogkmpoe (who has been out injured for a year), an Oumar Diaby or an Antonio Rojano.

And the risk of replacing Canning is that, instead of finding the next Alex Neil, his replacement turns out to be even worse. St. Mirren fans could testify to that - when they tired of Danny Lennon, their decision to replace him was followed by relegation and three hellish years. Relegation has done considerable harm to much bigger clubs than Accies, ones with far more capacity to absorb disaster than they do.

Canning made 250 appearances for Hamilton as a player. He needs to last another couple of years in the dugout to beat that tally as a manager. The chances of that are looking pretty slim.

  • February 2008 - joined club as a player, made over 250 appearances over 10 years
  • 2012/13 - started coaching under-17s
  • January 2015 - became interim manager and then permanent boss after Alex Neil left for Norwich.
  • Accies were third in the league at the time. They won three of their last 18 games and finished seventh.
  • 2015/16 - Tenth in the Premiership, seven points clear of the playoff spot. Knocked out of the cups by Raith Rovers and Annan Athletic respectively.
  • 2016/17 - Won only seven league games all season and finished eleventh. Avoided relegation by thumping Dundee on the final day of the season and then beating Dundee United in a playoff.
  • 2017/18 - Won nine league games and finished tenth, ahead of Partick Thistle on goal difference.
  • 2018/19 - Only four wins in twenty-three games so far but still just ahead of Dundee and St. Mirren. Have scored fewer goals and conceded more than any other Premiership side so far.
  • Overall record - Played 178, won 42, drawn 43, lost 93, scored 185, conceded 102
  • Overall league record - Played 155, won 34, drawn 37, lost84, scored 154, conceded 270, 139 points

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

Friday, January 11, 2019

How to fix Scotland's referee crisis, in several hard steps

Who'd be a referee?

The aftermath of the Old Firm game and the treatment of John Beaton - regardless of how you felt about his performance - has not been a proud moment for Scottish football. And it follows on from four months of seemingly endless refereeing controversies and criticisms. According to several managers and clubs, there is a real problem with the standard of officiating. According to the officials, it is harder than ever to do their job right, and they are being given an unfairly hard well as being put at risk of harm.

And as ever there are lots of complaints and very few suggestions for improvement. That's because there is no easy fix. To be frank, it's not just referees who are to blame for this. Not by a long shot.

If Scottish football is indeed motivated to sort this problem out, it needs to deal with several different groups and the problems they have created. Let's go through them, one by one...

They make mistakes. Apparently this is news to many people in football, despite the fact that it is a pretty common occurrence amongst human beings in many other walks of life. Is this is down to bad luck, incompetence, or some sort of bias? That, I suppose, is open to debate.

So is the widely-held belief that officials have never been as bad as this. I myself often hark back to a 'golden era' 20 years ago. Back then, Hugh Dallas' gravitas (he was fourth official in a World Cup Final, after all), the possibility that John Rowbotham might abduct dissenting players and take them back to his home planet, and the beaks' annual fiddle of Willie Young's fitness test results (so he could continue exuding his wonderful command of games even when several yards behind the play) gave the impression that our referees were decent.

But the fact is that back then, and even earlier, newspaper columnists decried the standard of officiating. And twentieth century refs didn't have to cope with the forensic examination of their decision making that there is now.

That said, there hasn't been a Scottish referee deemed worthy of a World Cup since 2002, though there has been one at each of the last two European Championships.

So how do we stop them making mistakes? Apart from suggesting they need to get better - which is not particularly helpful - the best way to avoid this will be to give them more support, which we'll come to.

I'm not up for asking officials to explain decisions post-match...simply because no answer they give will actually satisfy those who feel wronged. Besides, they have enough on their plate without having to worry about media training as well.

It's easy to forget that in any given match there are many players - possibly a majority - who will actively attempt to deceive the officials. This may range from claiming a throw-in that isn't theirs to Darren O'Dea's disgraceful antics, with a heck of a lot of other incidents inbetween. If there are a million and one attempts to con the ref over the course of ninety minutes, is it any surprise that even a handful of them succeed?

Moreover there is the constant badgering and harrassing of referees by players. There's constant appealing and questioning of decisions, often in an aggressive or confrontational manner. It would require an iron will to not be discomforted by this.

Making it easier for the referees to do their job would certainly help. Sadly, it seems unrealistic to stop Ryan Christie appealing for a foul whenever he feels the slightest gust of wind on his back though. A good start would be putting the kibosh on dissent once and for all. There is no good reason why football can't copy rugby and have a system where only captains can talk to officials, with any backchat at all deemed worthy of a card. In one televised game recently Rangers' Ryan Jack could be seen shouting "f*** off" at a referee who was booking him for a foul. That can't be right.

Post-match interviews are wonderful entertainment, but it's actually pretty unfair to stick a manager in front of the cameras/microphone straight after a stressful match. Inevitably they will say things that, in the cold light of day, they probably wish they hadn't, or at least that they had phrased better. And often that includes slagging off referees. As one wit put it on Twitter recently: "a common side effect of a bad performance is blaming the officials."

But coaches and their clubs making statements insinuating conspiracies is inappropriate and embarrassing. And don't try to persuade me that there are sincere motives behind doing so. If there were, they would be suggesting changes that might help. And don't dare forget that all these moaning clubs have had representatives in high places in the SPFL and SFA in recent years ,yet have shown no interest in doing anything about these issues. The aims are simply to deflect from their own problems, appease the lowest common denominators amongst their support, and to put pressure on officials going forward.

And they forget that said lowest commond denominators include a tiny minority of Grade A morons who will be incited to do stupid things like, say, threatening John Beaton...

As ever, the sage Old Firm Facts sums it up perfectly.

There's a bloke who sits near me at Caley Thistle games who accuses the officials of being biased against Inverness every single week, regardless of who they are, what they've done and what the score is. And I'm pretty sure it isn't tongue-in-cheek.

Let's face it, rocks will melt in the sun before Aberdeen fans stop singing their infamous ditty "referee, you're such a f****** p****. Referee, you're a horse's a***". But social media now gives the real nutjobs a loud voice, as well as an echo chamber for encouragement. That in itself is a societal issue, so expecting football to sort it out is not realistic though.

Here's how I'd like the SFA to handle things:

- Be completely transparent over who is on the panel that decides what happens to players that get cited. In fact, make them all referees. Whisper it, but the panel doesn't actually have referees on it. And yet, when they change the decisions everyone assumes the match official is the one who got it wrong.

- Force said panel to publish reasoning behind the decisions they make. This makes it harder for them to be inconsistent.

- There's a stupid FIFA directive that stops a decision being changed if the ref 'saw it at the time'. It's a stupid directive. Find a way of circumventing it. By all means re-referee all games, like in rugby, if the footage is there to do so.

- I'm a bit of a VAR sceptic, but officials and clubs want it and there's a way of paying for it, then go for it. It can't be any worse than what we have.

- And finally there needs to be a change in how referees are picked for matches and rise up the rankings. Because if Andrew Dallas is refereeing a League Cup Final then something is very, very wrong.

But how motivated are these different groups to change?

I'm sure for a start that referees would prefer to be as accurate and fair as possible. But they are a convenient scapegoat - for clubs, for players, for fans and even for the SFA. That's been the case for a long time. The current situation, one of coin throwing, death threats and police protection, should surely focus some minds. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

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