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Friday, 26 August 2011

The Gulf Between the SPL & EPL

As a Celtic fan in my mid- twenties, one of my favourite footballing memories is of the night John Hartson smashed an absolute rocket of a shot past a despairing Jerzy Dudek at Anfield to put the seal on a brilliant UEFA Cup victory. Fans of a slightly older vintage than myself hold the 1970 European Cup victory over Leeds in front of 136505 spectators in similar regard. For Rangers supporters, once again Leeds were the opposition in a genuine ‘Battle of Britain’ during the 92-93 season, the Scots were victorious and the images and emotions from that tie are forever ingrained in the conscience of the Rangers support.

Scottish clubs have more often than not, emerged victorious from cross border skirmishes. The Scottish mentality ensures that these victories are both savoured and celebrated, in fact the only time Scottish football fans ever come close to uniting as one and backing their traditional rivals is when the opposition is from south of Hadrians Wall (and I don’t mean Berwick Rangers).

On Thursday evening the latest instalment of the ‘Battle of Britain’ series took place at Tynecastle. In the maroon corner, representing the SPL, stood Heart of Midlothian, in the white corner we had Tottenham Hotspur of the EPL. I shall extend my use of a boxing analogy to say that if the referee could have stopped it he would have. It was probably the finest example of one team outclassing another in every area of the pitch I have ever seen. The 0-5 scoreline, if anything flattered the Scottish side.

Those of us who had dreamed of the glamorous visitors from down south being sent home, if not vanquished then at least with pride wounded were left crestfallen. Many “experts” had predicted a tough time for Spurs, and expressed surprise at the ease of victory. The question is though, should the fact that ‘the best of the rest’ from England’s top division are so far ahead of their Scottish equivalent be a surprise to anyone but the most blinkered of supporters?

If I was informed that Bill Gates has a bigger television in his living room than I do I would not feel surprise, it would make perfect sense, he’s minted and I’m skint. He can afford material extravagancies while I cannot. The EPL is far stronger, far superior to the SPL purely because it has the money to buy expensive trinkets.

Gareth Bale, the Spurs left winger is valued at £40m and is often (rather generously) described as a genuinely world class player, he is in monetary terms the most valuable player in their side. His opposite number at Hearts is also his team’s biggest on-field financial asset, but while Bale would command an astronomical fee, Andrew Driver could probably be purchased for something in the region of £2m.

The thing is though, the two leagues actually share the same problems, the lack of young players making the move from academy, to first team, to national honours is of equal concern either side of the border. Administration is a genuine issue for both EPL and SPL clubs. You could also throw in the ownership and running of clubs by some suspect individuals and the dwindling of match day attendances.

If you are being harsh (and its Monday so I’m going to be) you could say both the EPL and SPL are turds, the only difference being, in England their turd is more aesthetically pleasing having been polished with the Sky Sports billions.

If the SPL continues on its current path, the days of sending the English home ‘tae think again’ are over. The financial gulf is now too prohibitive to ever be bridged. If Scotland could somehow make its club game more competitive and focus on developing home-grown talent then there is some hope that those days could one day return. Until then it should be no surprise when English teams, who can afford to shop at Harrods, outclass Scottish sides whose budgets only stretch to the Asda value range.

Back to domestic matters, and Celtic fans went into this weekend dreaming of a 5 point lead over their Glasgow rivals, however Rangers produced their most impressive display of the fledgling McCoist reign resulting in a 3-0 win at Fir Park, while Celtic to the fury of their manager, missed yet another penalty and numerous other chances before going down 1-0 to St Johnstone. A hoped for 5 point cushion has become a 1 point deficit.

After their European exploits, Hearts will probably be satisfied with their 0-0 draw at Kilmarnock. Dundee United were surprisingly beaten 1-0 at home by Dunfermline, who have made an impressive start to their return to the top division. St Mirren reinforced the belief that Danny Lennon’s men have made real progress this year with a 2-1 win at Easter Road. Aberdeen finally managed to put the ball in the oppositions net (twice!) and were rewarded with the 3 points in their Pittodrie clash with Inverness Caley.

Mid-week sees the second legs of the Europa League qualifiers take place. For what it’s worth I expect Rangers to go through relatively comfortably, Celtic are surely in for a nervy night in Switzerland but I think they may just squeeze through (as long as it doesn’t go to penalties), I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Hearts are going out.

A Review of 'The Smell of Football'

I am a massive fan of football in general, not just of my chosen side but the game itself, warts and all. I have also always enjoyed reading, even at school where reading a book voluntarily was frowned upon I often had my nose buried in a book. It makes sense then that my bookcase is packed with tomes on ‘the beautiful game’. One genre that is conspicuous by its absence though, is the footballers’ autobiography.

Usually I find these books fall into one of two categories, either a back slapping, self-congratulatory ego stroking exercise, where the author uses his book to show just how good pals he is with all the ‘top top guys’ in football. Or even worse the guy still in his mid-twenties, broaching such weighty subject matter as whether he should sign a sponsorship deal with Nike or Adidas. Time is finite and there are so many books worthy of your attention that I find it difficult to justify settling down and investing my time in one of these PR exercises.

So when I was asked to review “The Smell of Football” by Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone as a reward for winning writer of the month at, my initial thought was to say thanks but no thanks. However after conducting a quick bit of research on the book I decided that maybe I should put my preconceptions to one side, and give it a chance.

I have to say I am delighted that I did. Mick (or Baz as he is almost universally known) comes across as an intelligent, articulate and most importantly, self-aware man. His insight into the game, at a wide variety of levels, is utterly fascinating.

Baz started his career as a talented full back at his ‘hometown club’ Birmingham City, his candid account of how he failed there due to his own mental fragility is startling for its frankness. Those of us who have no insider knowledge of footballers and what makes them tick, have often debated how important the ‘mental’ side of the game is. This book gives you a genuine glimpse into the world of a footballer and all the psychological challenges it entails, and the truths it uncovers are not only intriguing but may make you re-evaluate your opinion on some of those players who incur your derision on a Saturday afternoon.

The book covers Baz’s journey from a nervous, at times panic stricken teenager at Birmingham, all the way through to his time as a vital part of Everton FC’s backroom staff (as chief of medicine). There are stops at Blackburn (the peak of his playing career), Preston, a spell in management and his time training in physiotherapy (he also spent some time selling clothes from the back of his car!)

The book is full of genuine laugh out loud moments, some unique insights into the nutritional habits of footballers from Baz’s era (10 egg omelette anyone?) and anecdotes involving everyone from Sam Allardyce to Crstiano Ronaldo. Put together these would make a very enjoyable read, it is the inclusion of Baz’s honesty when addressing his weaknesses and how they almost ruined his career before it began, that make it an essential one.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to email a few questions to the author, and I must thank him for taking the time to answer my queries. Here is a transcript of that email interview.

1.If you were starting your career now, do you think that your psychological problems would have been addressed/noticed by the club?

If I look back on my time as physio at Everton, then – had I been a player there – it certainly wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. There are so many people around the team nowadays that it would be impossible for something like that not to be detected.

2. How far do you think you could have gone in the game if you had achieved your potential? England honours?

I played at Youth Level for England and was considered the brightest prospect at Birmingham as a 17 year old.
So, looking at it theoretically, full England honours wouldn’t have been out of the question – I certainly had the potential.

However, I think it’s important to remember that not having confidence is just as bigger drawback as lacking pace or technique on the ball. To play international football you have to both of those, plus lots of confidence in your ability too.

3. Did you ever consider writing the book without discussing your mental fragility? i.e just a collection of dressing room stories.

No, not at all. There wouldn’t have been any merit in that.
For me the first quarter of the book – which deals with my struggles at Birmingham – is what really sets it apart. The experiences of that difficult period of my career are what motivated me to write.
4. What is the most significant change you have seen in your years in the game?

I’d have to say the overall speed of the game. Matches today are so much quicker than they were when I first started out in football. That’s reflected in training nowadays too as it’s vital players are prepared for the level of intensity that awaits them on a Saturday.

5. Do you see a move away from the traditional pre-season "run till you drop" approach toward a more structured system?

Oh yes, that happened a while ago already. Most clubs in this country are well beyond that now.

6. As a former player would you be in favour of technology in the game? i.e goal-line video technology.

I would definitely be in favour of goal-line technology as that can quickly tell you one way or the other if the ball’s crossed the line. It’s either in or it’s not. Simple. 

Looking at other areas of the pitch, I’m not sure what else could be introduced that would be as clear-cut and easy to implement, so I’d leave it at that for now.

7. Are there teams in Premier League today that significantly fitter than others, or is everybody at a similar level?
I have a feeling Blackpool may have stayed up last year if they had been fitter and been able to keep their performance levels up for the entire game.

Top players these days are all naturally fit, so generally speaking it is a level playing field in the Premiership.

The difference lies in the fact that teams with less technical ability will have to play with their eyeballs out for 90 minutes just to try and get a result, which obviously means they’ll grow tired more quickly.

I thought Blackpool were superb last season, but they were just maybe lacking one or two players with a bit of the power you find in the squads of the Top Four clubs.

8. Finally, are you optimistic for the future of the game in this country?

Yes, Football’s one of our finest products, which I’m sure will continue to serve us well in the future. The sport’s being going for hundreds of years and is too big for people to let go to waste.

If you look at the national team, then I think maybe a bit more realism is required. The fact that we invented the game has no bearing on anything that happens today, and we’ve got to accept that a leveling-off has occurred internationally.

Population-wise, we’re a comparatively small nation, so I think the stats would probably show that we’re doing OK for a country of our size.

I can only give this book 5/5. I did consider docking a point for some of his musical references (Queen!) but that would be pandering to my personal prejudices. If you have an interest in football, even if you normally steer clear of autobiographies, this book will both enlighten and amuse in equal measure.

Mad Vlad Strikes Again

The good thing about being a fan of Scottish football is that off-field events often make up for the lack of entertainment the actual process of twenty two men hoofing a ball around a park provides. This of course is in no small part due to “Mad Vlad” Romanov, the chairman of Hearts.

After a mixed season last year, Hearts were active in the transfer market over the summer months, bringing in experienced, proven SPL players. Fans of the Gorgie club approached the new season with a cautious optimism, their early displays did nothing to dispel the thought that Hearts would once again gain the dubious honour of being, ‘best of the rest’. What we had all overlooked though, was that it had been almost two weeks since Vlad had done anything a bit mental. You do sometimes get the impression with Romanov that he’s worried we’ll forget just how “Mad” he truly is. The furore over his backing, then sacking, then quietly loaning out to Kaunas (the Lithuanian team he “owns”) of convicted sex offender Craig Thompson had just died down when he decided that after 3 games, and an all-round encouraging start to the season, it was time for another new manager. Anyone questioning this move was apparently a “fool” or an “idiot”.

A new manager was in place, seemingly before Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown had time to clear their desks, never mind organise some goodbye drinks. Paolo Sergio seems to have spent the majority of his career in Portugal getting sacked, so should feel right at home (but would be advised not get to comfy) in one of the ‘hottest’ hot seats in football. Now apparently Romanov has decided he quite fancies winning the title this year, this can only end well.

In Romanov’s defence, Jim Jeffries was nowhere near as popular amongst the Hearts support as some would have you believe, also like all the best of this new breed of “sugar daddies”, Romanov craves “sexy football” from his team and I doubt even their wives would associate Jeffries and Brown with the word “sexy”.

The new regime at Tynecastle got off to a cracking start as they progressed to the final qualifying stages of the Europa League, thus setting up a mouth-watering “Battle of Britain” with Tottenham. Although instead of a glamorous tie against the crème de la crème of the EPL in the nation’s capital, recent events in the London borough of Tottenham (and Harry Redknapp’s obvious disdain for the tournament) have turned it into a trip into a warzone, to get beaten by Spurs reserves.

Rangers crashed out of Europe at the hands of the (not so) mighty Malmo. This game looks like it was Madjid Bougherra’s final one in the royal blue, and he used it to confirm that he had now completed his transition from asset to liability. Steven Whittaker should still be apologising to his team mates, and fans, after his utter stupidity (in getting sent off for retaliation) gave Rangers a mountain to climb that they really could have done without.

In the SPL this week, it was ‘raining goals’ at East End Park as Dunfermline and Inverness shared the spoils in a six goal thriller, at Tannadice an entertaining 1-1 draw between Dundee United and St Mirren was overshadowed by a triple leg break suffered by United captain Scott Severin, Motherwell continued their good form with a win over Paolo Sergio’s Hearts, in a game where both Keith Lasley of Motherwell and Ian Black of Hearts were sent off (more on Black later). Aberdeen’s main objective last season seemed to be providing as much of a boost to Celtic’s goal difference as they possibly could, so they surprised everyone on Sunday by not only losing by just one goal to nil, but by keeping 11 men on the park and not even giving away a penalty. Whilst this signals some progress at Pittodrie, they have now gone 3 full games without even looking like they might fancy scoring an actual goal.

The celebrations of the Celtic support were muted somewhat after news filtered through that last year’s player of the year, Emillio Izzaguire, had suffered a broken ankle that would rule him out for 4-6 months.

The injuries suffered by both Izzaguire and Severin are huge blows to both the players and their respective clubs, and everyone wishes them a full and speedy recovery. One slight positive is that both injuries were sustained in perfectly fair challenges, and there can be no demonising of a guilty party, as is so often the case.

This brings me onto Ian Black, the Hearts midfielder. He was dismissed in the game at Fir Park for a tackle that was a combination of late, reckless and high. Ian Black is a viscous, talentless cheat and has no right to call himself a footballer, there is no place in the game for “players” such as him and the sooner he disappears the better for everyone. If you think I am being unfair then you have either never seen Black play, or are a member of his immediate family.

Adam Gets His Reward

The Barclays (BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD EVER!!!!) Premier League kicked off at the weekend. There were many new acquisitions on show, brought to England from the four corners of the globe, from the bargain basement to the eye wateringly indulgent. In amongst them all though was the worlds’ oldest looking 25 year old, a slightly rotund individual hailing from the far flung shores of Dundee, Charlie Adam took his place in the Liverpool midfield as the Anfield crowd welcomed in the new season.

His debut went well, he was one of Liverpool’s better players providing an assist for Luis Suarez to open the scoring. The Kop were appreciative of his efforts and already some feel his presence may be key to Liverpool’s fortunes this season.

Rewind 3 years to when Adam was still at his boyhood club Rangers. Anyone professing the opinion that Adam would one day play for one of England’s most iconic clubs would have been in danger of being sectioned under the mental health act. These days when Adam looks up and prepares to launch one of his trademark 60 yard passes, a ripple of excitement and anticipation flows through the crowd, back in his Rangers days the imminent execution of a similar pass would more often  than not be greeted by groans from the Iborx faithful.

Adam’s confidence was shot in his final months at Ibrox. The pressure of playing for one of the Glasgow giants had proven too much (he is of course not alone in suffering this affliction). Often in these cases the player slides down the Scottish football ladder never coming close to fulfilling their potential. Adam though took a chance on a move to Blackpool with their ‘love him or hate him’ manager Ian Holloway. Holloway believed in him, embraced his talents and accepted his limitations. The decision to join Blackpool has of course eventually led to his place in the Liverpool midfield via a nomination for player of the year in the aforementioned BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD EVER!!!

Adam is now a regular in the Scotland squad, Derek Riordan is not, neither is Kris Boyd, Garry O’Conner may one day force his way back in but at this moment his tally of caps is paltry. There are many, many more examples of players having failed to hit the heights their talents could have facilitated. Sometimes it is due to bad luck, sometimes the players’ attitude means they think they have made it when they still have much to learn (I’m looking at you Gary O’Conner). More often than not though, potential is wasted by bad decisions.

It seems that two youngsters, Gregg Wylde from Rangers and Islam Feruz from Celtic may be on their way south to the land of milk and honey that is the EPL. Whether these moves work out or not is anyone’s guess. However any player with a decision to make should consider the case of Adam who made the right move, (despite its lack of glamour) and is now playing at the highest level, then contrast it with the likes of Derek Riordan who now plays in China or Kris Boyd now plying his trade in a Turkish league riddled with corruption. It’s difficult, but young footballers would be well advised to consider the effects tomorrow, of the career choices they make today.

There was plenty of action in the SPL this weekend. Rangers secured victory in Inverness in a game they dominated but required two penalties to see off the Highlanders.” It’s a conspiracy” cry some in the Celtic support, and while at least one of the awards was clearly incorrect, Rangers did have a goal harshly ruled out earlier in the game. Incompetence is more a more plausible explanation than favouritism. Celtic were impressive, but slightly flattered by the 5-1 win over Dundee United who showed signs they should be able to cope with a raft of summer departures. Dunfermline picked up their first 3 point haul of the season with a 1-0 win over St Johnstone. Motherwell’s title charge continued with a last minute winner at St Mirren. The tabloids will be dusting off the ‘three horse race’ headlines not used since George Burley’s reign at Hearts, especially if ‘Well can continue their impressive start when the Champions visit at the weekend. Hearts continued their impressive start under their new manager with a comfortable 3-0 win over Aberdeen, Craig Browns men are sticking manfully to their plan of refusing to engage the opposition goalkeeper in any way shape or form. They may come to regret this. Kenny Sheils won his first game as Kilmarnock manager since taking charge at the back end of last season, the game shown live on ESPN was an absolute cracker and a brilliant advert for Scottish football, the 4-1 win over Hibs was by far the best game shown on British telly over the weekend until Real Madrid and Barcelona, who seemed to have taken inspiration from the Ayrshire sides passing out from the back strategy, provided some competition for that award.

Three SPL clubs are competing in Europe on Thursday, so next week’s column may be less cheery than usual.

The Legacy of Jock Stein

When Celtic took on the might of Inter Milan in a recent pre (mid?) season friendly, it was a tie dripping in nostalgia. Now admittedly our day in the Dublin sun didn’t quite match up to ‘the heat of Lisbon’ but it gives us an excuse to reminisce (not that one is needed) about what was really achieved that day.

Having been born just a few weeks after that tragic night at Ninian Park, when Mr Stein passed away having secured Scotland’s passage to the World Cup, I like many, never had the privilege of seeing that side in the flesh.  And this bring s me to my point, I know there are many of my generation, Celtic and non-Celtic fans alike, who tend to look upon events that occurred before their time with a certain scepticism. There is undoubtedly a feeling amongst younger fans that ‘rose tinted’ spectacles cloud the judgement of those re-calling the events of a previous generation. As someone who has a keen interest not just in the history of Celtic, but the game football itself, I know that in the case of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ and their inspirational manager, that the ‘rose tinted’ glasses can be thrown away, their achievements and legacy, stand the test of time.

We all know the stories of the ‘11 local lads’, their singsong in the tunnel which so unnerved the Milanese, and the image of ‘Cesaer’ halfway up the stand, arms aloft, that magnificent trophy glinting in the sun is one that will outlive us all. What many who were not around at the time of these seminal events are aware of though, is the impact that the manner and style, of Celtic’s play had on, not just Scottish or British football but the whole of continental Europe.

Celtics opponents that day were one of the most formidable club sides ever assembled. Under their fearsome manager Helenio Herrera, La Grande Inter had claimed 3 scuddetti and had won back to back European Cups before they faced the Lions in Lisbon.

Their success of the Italians was not built on free flowing, expressive football, quite the opposite. Herrera adopted, and made famous, the system of ‘catenaccio,’ that the name translates as “door-bolt” probably tells you all you need to know about Herrera’s general approach to the game.

Whilst not exactly aesthetically pleasing, ‘catenaccio’ was efficient, ruthless, and most of all successful. And where others see success, they tend to follow. It seemed that football no longer had a place for expression and individualism, the thought of playing to entertain was fading, efficiency and discipline were the new ‘buzzwords’.

Mr Stein not only defeated the system, he smashed it, and he did it with a style of “football, pure, beautiful, inventive football” he sent his bhoys out with the instruction to “attack as we have never attacked before”.
Italian cynicism was overwhelmed by Scottish skill and flair. ‘Catenaccio’ lost its air of invincibility and its flaws were laid bare for all to see.

The next great side that came along did not practice the dark arts of ‘catenaccio’ as had seemed inevitable before that day in the Lisbon sun, instead it was the wondrous Ajax side of the 70’s that came to dominate. The Lisbon Lions were the forerunners for Rinus Michels and his Cruyff inspired “Total Football”, Celtic showed Europe that while negative football could of course be effective, it was limited and could be exploited.

Barcelona currently set the standard for the world game, their success is of course due to a variety of factors, but two hall marks of their approach in particular would have met with the approval of Mr Stein. The relentless pressing of the opposition, high up the field, allows Barcelona to gain possession in an already dangerous area, Mr Stein talked of there being no better place to win the ball than the opponents penalty box, and the use of the full-back as an attacking force is as vital to Guardiola’s Barcelona as it was to Stein’s Celtic. Dani Alves and Tommy Gemmell may not share many physical attributes, but the similarities in their playing styles are uncanny. Then of course there is the commitment to attacking football shared by the two sides.

The song asks “if you know the history” and when you do, it turns out it’s even more impressive than you ever dared imagine.

Incidentally while I am too young to have seen the ‘Lions’ play I did, as an awestruck teenager have the honour of meeting, Tommy Gemmell, Stevie Chalmers, Bobby Lennox and Berti Auld. I can still remember the pride I felt as I lined up amongst them for the obligatory photograph, unfortunately I can also remember doubling over in pain, as Tommy Gemmell grabbed me (firmly) by the balls just as the camera flashed! Oh well I suppose as a goal-scorer in two European Cup finals I can forgive him.
Hail Hail.

What Price Success?

What Price Success?

Being a football supporter is by its very nature a divisive pastime. Tribal loyalties separate us from each other. There is one thing that unites all fans though, irrespective of the team they support, be it Manchester United or Accrington Stanley. All football fans share a dream of success. No matter how deeply in the doldrums your club currently resides, there is always a time when you allow your mind to wander, thoughts of administration are cast aside and you imagine your team popping champagne corks on the Wembley turf. It is the same trick of the mind that lets you believe that with just a little more luck you would have ‘made it’, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“I would give anything for just a taste of success”. We have all uttered words to this effect at some point during our tenure as a football fan. When you’re watching your side of over-paid prim-donnas struggling to string two passes together, with the rain lashing down and the irritating fan that sits next to you having turned his obnoxious dial up to 11, a glimmer of hope would be seem a fair trade for your (footballing) soul.

The thing is, the Devil is out there, and the deal is on the table.

No more mid-table mediocrity, the transfer window will cease to be a time of depressing departures, instead it will be a time of exhilarating arrivals, Tuesday and Wednesday nights will be more Champions League than Carling Cup. The question is though, what is the price tag on these promises?

Manchester City fans are currently basking in the glory of an FA Cup win, along with their entry into the most exclusive of clubs, Champions League contenders. It is certainly an exciting time if you wear the sky blue. The triumphs of Man City however, are in the eyes of many, tainted. Many of the jibes aimed at City, and their wealthy owners can be attributed to jealousy, however, I wonder, are there some City fans who feel that in amongst all the excitement and celebrations, something is being lost? Is the club they associated themselves with changing beyond all recognition? If so does that lessen your emotional attachment?

Chelsea fans may feel a similar way. The Abramovich reign has brought unprecedented glory to the Bridge, however it must have been galling for those who have stuck with their side through the good times and the bad, to see Ray Wilkins, a man they hold in the highest esteem, discarded so casually by the Russian, and the treatment of a thoroughly decent, and successful, man in Carlo Ancelotti certainly did not cast the club in a positive light. Defenders of Abramovich say it is his club, he paid for it, and can therefore conduct his business in whatever way he sees fit. Now that may be technically correct, but the fear that a football club, steeped in history, is now little more than a plaything for a mysterious oligarch is a very real one.

Reservations about the conduct of whoever runs the club are one thing, what may be more relevant is the lengths clubs are now prepared to go to, to increase that ever important revenue stream. Man City now play at a stadium named after the national airline of the United Arad Emirates, Leicester City play at something called the ‘King Power’ stadium (no I have no idea either and can’t be arsed googling it). They are not alone, while stadiums were previously named after the area in which they, and their core support were resident, now they are named after whoever writes the biggest cheque. Protests against such moves have been noticeable but not exactly vociferous, we will learn more about how much fans are willing to accept, in the name of improving the ‘bottom line’, if for example, the new owners of Liverpool decide they have to sell the naming rights to Anfield. Would Liverpool’s fans awareness that times have changed, that they have fallen behind their rivals be enough to over-ride their sense of history?

The drive to maximise a clubs income won’t stop at re-naming the stadium though, how about changing the name of the club itself to incorporate the name of a sponsor? Maybe commercial potential could be increased by changing the teams’ colours? In fact how about re-locating the club somewhere else entirely? The new breed of football club owners are not in it for the love of the game, they are motivated by profits and profits alone. It is up to the fans to decide how much of their traditions they are happy to let slip away in the name of success.

There is a further problem though, this deal that was offered at the start of this blog isn’t as straightforward as it seems. The Devil has played a trick on us all. Now his side of the deal has changed, to sooth the pain of watching the club you hold so dear being stripped of all its integrity (Blackburn Rovers anyone?), guaranteed success is no-longer on the table, it has been replaced by an offer of status quo. As it becomes ever harder just to stand still as a football club, soon enough, our footballing soul will no-longer be sold for success, but mere survival.

It is a heavy price to pay for such a scant return, but it is the inevitable consequence of footballs transformation from sport, to business.

This article first appeared on

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dr Reids Tenure at Celtic Park

Dr Reid Cannot Depart Soon Enough

On the 14th of October a cloud that has darkened our great club is due to be lifted. That is the date upon which Tony Blair’s “attack dog,” Dr John Reid shall step down from his position as chairman of Celtic.

During my years supporting the ‘bhoys’ I’ve known some dizzying highs, along with some crushing lows. Despite the trials and tribulations that are associated with following any football club, the depth of my feelings for Celtic have never faltered. The reasons for this dedication are more than just ingrained tribalism. As a Celtic fan I do not just identify with the athletes who sport the four leaf clover on their chest, I also feel a great connection to the roots, or even the very ethos, of the club.

The knowledge that the conception of Celtic was fuelled by notions of compassion, and charity, should be a source of great pride to every member of the Celtic family. The fact that charity is still at the heart of the club, even in this age of balance sheets and bottom lines is a credit to directors past and present.

That one of those directors is Dr John Reid however, has been a source of unease to many of us since his appointment.

In its formative years, Celtic as a club was concerned with the support, and protection of the oppressed Irish Catholic minority in Glasgow. As the years progressed, Celtic became ever more inclusive (unlike some others) and the bonds many fans of the club felt with oppressed peoples throughout the world grew ever stronger.

With Dr Reid in position as a high profile Chairman, the public face of a club that had always stood with the downtrodden, was now the face of the oppressor.

In my expression of this viewpoint I am often lazily cast as either a bigot or an Irish Republican sympathiser. My disdain for the former Defence Secretary and his association with my club has nothing to do with the politics of the ‘Emerald Isle’. Rather it is my sincerely held belief that someone who was the very epitome of a “hawk” when it came to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, has no place at club that’s values and traditions were so greatly offended by those incursions.

In June 2009 Reid received his honorary degree from Stirling University “for his contribution to public affairs”. While the news outlets covering the event described him as ‘Dr John Reid Celtic Chairman’, the placards of the protesters derided him, as ‘Dr John Reid War Criminal’.

To see a club such as ours, so closely associated in the eyes of the world, with a man who played such a pivotal role in taking Britain into two conflicts that will go down in British political infamy, was an affront to the noble beginnings which define our club.

Many of you reading this may dismiss my thoughts on the ‘not so good doctor’ as irrelevant, that what goes on in the boardroom should be of no concern to those on the terraces, that it is on the pitch matters that count, or maybe that I am allowing my political ideologies to cloud my judgement. While I accept that at the vast majority of football clubs these points would be entirely valid, I genuinely believe that at Celtic, things are different.

The charitable beginnings, the encouragement of tolerance and inclusiveness, that runs right through the history of the club right up to the present day, is what sets us apart from others. It is what keeps us ‘faithful through and through’, irrespective of trophies collected and titles won. When we can find no hero’s on the pitch, it is enough to know that the club itself is assured of its hero status. That it is why as fans we must fight to keep Celtic grounded in its noble and admirable roots, and to my mind the presence of Reid ran counter to those.

The reason I am writing this article now is I believe it ties in with the soul searching currently going on amongst the Celtic support. While issue of sectarian/offensive singing has been tiptoed around by many Celtic fans, recent articles by the excellent Irish journalist Phil MacGiollaBhain seem to have brought the matter to a head. I am not here to draw up a list of which tomes I feel are acceptable, and which are not, I have faith that with proper debate and discussion the right conclusions will be reached.  What cannot be allowed though, is that in (the utterly essential) cleansing of the song list, our traditions our uniqueness are also washed away.

It is imperative that Celtic remain in touch with the core, founding values, established in St Mary’s Church hall by Brother Walfrid. With Reid’s departure, the club will move ever nearer to those values we hold so dear.

A Scotsman's view on the World Cup Draw

Our Road to Rio is Mapped Out

In a ceremony that in keeping with FIFA traditions flirted heavily with farce, Craig Levein was shown the size of his task in guiding the nation to world footballs A list party for the first time in 16 years (yes it really has been that long).

Scotland were drawn out of the hat in Group A, alongside; Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales. As per usual with our national side re-action has varied from the wildly over-optimistic, (one punter on the Daily Record website claimed if we didn’t win this group we should hang our heads in shame) to our default, giving up before we’ve started defeatism.

In reality the draw could have been better but it certainly could have been much worse. In previous campaigns we have been paired with at least one so called “superpower”. This time however there is no Spain, or Italy standing in the way of us actually having our own team to support at a major tournament, rather than whoever is taking their turn at beating the English at penalties.

Points gained away from Glasgow look likely to be at premium. And if you’re not of the sunniest of dispositions, it could be argued that we may struggle to pick up anything other than air miles from our travels. Incidentally, with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro all present in the group, the re-formation of Yugoslavia would not only save on travel costs but would ease fixture congestion greatly, I accept the potential political, and international security ramifications of this move may just outweigh the footballing benefits.

I do not possess the attention span for a long and detailed analysis of each of our opponents, (and I’m guessing neither do you) but here are a few brief thoughts on what we are up against.

Croatia are the top seeds, no-longer the power they once were they are still a technically proficient outfit, with the brilliant Modric pulling the strings and Rangers star Jelavic a familiar face in attack, they will fancy their chances, as the saying goes.

Serbia came out of pot two, and while there were certainly stronger teams in there with them, they are still a strong and experienced side. Manchester United’s Captain Nemanja Vidic is a formidable presence in defence and in Milos Krasic they have an attacking midfielder in the mould of Pavel Nedved who he effectively replaced at Juventus. Unless we somehow conjure up a centre half with even a modicum of aerial ability the giant Zigic may just wreak utter havoc (it is however just as likely that he turns in a performance that makes Chris Iwelumo look like Maradonna).

Belgium is the last team we wanted from pot 3. They can boast a world class defensive unit, consisting of Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Kompany. How these three will cope with Kenny Miller, running around quite quickly but with very little purpose, or James McFadden, dribbling into a corner, losing the ball and then going in the huff, only time will tell. The names Defour, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku may only be familiar to those of us who spend their days playing football manager, (Lukaku on loan was a great bit of business until that bloody update ruined everything!) but by the time the qualifying campaign kicks off they may very well be household names.

Macedonia’s star man is Pandev of Italian giants Internazionale who, while undoubtedly a good player is also a complete headcase. If we are lucky he will have gone on one of his regular strikes by the time we face his side. It is imperative we get the scheduling of this game correct, unlike the last time when we travelled to Skopje, wilted in the heat and succumbed to a 1-0 reverse.

The Welsh national side had to endure the humiliation of being seeded below our old friends the Faroes for this draw, however they were clearly the strongest side in pot 6. The Arsenal midfielder Ramsey captains the side and is a class act, depending on who you ask, Gareth Bale is either one of the very best players in the world, or a man who has made a career out of being able to kick the ball and then run very fast after it, either way, if he can run rings around the Brazilian Maicon then the chances are he will cause Alan Hutton a few problems.

All in all I am cautiously optimistic. Each team looks capable of taking points off the others and if we can turn Hampden into a venue to be feared once again, we may find ourselves in a position to capitalise on slip ups elsewhere. It does concern me however that this group does seem set up for yet another “glorious failure.”

It was a quiet weekend in the SPL, with Celtic competing in the Dublin Super Cup, (where the use of the word Super was stretched to the very limits of credibility) Rangers took advantage with a win in Perth that those with a positive outlook on life would describe as routine, (laboured is probably closer to the truth) nevertheless Ally McCoist will be relieved to get a win under his belt before the crucial 2nd leg of Rangers European tie against Malmo. There were single goal away wins for both Dundee United and Hibs, against Hearts and Inverness respectively, while Kilmarnock and Motherwell played out a relatively entertaining goalless draw.

Two final thought from the World Cup draw. If someone at the English FA could tell their Scottish counterparts what you have to do to be allowed to hand pick your qualifying group then that would be ace. They could hire Berti Vogts as manager and still negotiate their way past that lot! Also I watched the draw unfold on twitter, and the majority of tweets in my feed seemed to be jokes about Ronaldo and his rather rotund appearance. Now there is a picture of Ronnie, during the draw holding up the word ‘Hungary’ that some have used as a rather cruel joke but I refuse to stoop to such depths just for a cheap laugh, and anyway this should not be how we remember O Fenomeno, so I urge you to make a visit to youtube to relive some of his best moments. Enjoy.

Do Ryanair fly direct to Rio?

Monday, 1 August 2011

The FA Cup Must Embrace Reform

The FA Cup Must Embrace Reform

As the start of the season grows ever nearer, fans up and down the country will begin to accept that the chances of that ‘20 goal a season’ man or ‘midfield maestro’ arriving to provide the X factor/final piece in the jigsaw they so crave are ever more remote. Instead of drawing up a wish list of new signings, it’ll soon be time to discuss the merits of the current bunch of legends/flops/promising youngsters etc. who’s wages are the reason your season ticket is an inflation busting drain on your bank balance.

The talk will then turn to what would constitute a successful season, depending on where your allegiances lie, European qualification may be the bare minimum, or maybe you’d be happy as long as your favourites avoid relegation, even if this involves a last day ‘great escape’ where you need a calculator to work out the relevant permutations of results elsewhere, for some fans nothing less than the title will suffice, and in these uncertain times there will be those hoping they still have a club to support in 12 months’ time.

In years gone by, somewhere near the top of most fans pre-season wish lists would be the FA Cup. In the current climate however, the oldest club competition in the world is seen as at best a bonus, and at worst a fixture list clogging inconvenience.

The media outlets who have shelled out for the rights to broadcast the FA Cup continue to talk of it as ‘the jewel in England’s football crown’, it’s ‘the envy of the world’ they tell us, and the phrase ‘English football’s showcase’ is the moniker commonly attached to Cup Final day . They have paid good money for this product and it is clearly in their best interests to keep us believing in the ‘magic of the cup’. Unfortunately, to break the illusion of this particular ‘magic’, all it takes is a quick scan of the starting line-ups of most top level clubs when the FA Cup interrupts the more profitable business of league duty.

In the eyes of many observers the FA Cup began its slide into irrelevance at the turn of the millennium, when Manchester United, champions of England and all of Europe, did not defend the third leg of their historic treble. They were instead in Brazil competing in the FIFA Club World Championship where they succumbed to the utterly mental but vastly talented Vasco da Gama strike-force of Romario and Edmundo (and also the runs apparently, but I’m not sure that’s relevant).

Whether or not you place the blame with the Manchester club, or more likely the FA’s desire to raise the profile of English football is of no consequence. It is clear that the FA Cup no longer holds the prestige it once did and for many the lack of enthusiasm can be traced back to that ill-fated Brazilian expedition.

However there are clearly other factors at play. Ironically one of the biggest problems facing the FA Cup is the success of the domestic league. The financial rewards for success in the Barclays Premier League are so great, and the consequences of failure so dire, that clubs have no choice but to focus on league duty even if it is to the detriment of cup glory.

Managers such as Ian Holloway, Mick McCarthy and Gerard Houllier have sent out shadow squads in the FA Cup, reasoning that a good cup run is less desirable than having a fresh first eleven for the next league game. Any condemnation of these actions has mainly emanated from the media, the clubs support, while not being delighted with the notion of essentially accepting defeat, know that come the end of the season it’s the league that matters.

Amongst clubs in the higher echelons of the league the attitude is similar. Messer’s Wenger and Ferguson are of course not concerned with relegation, their disdain for the FA Cup is based on its tendency to add bulk to an already weighty fixture list.

In season 2010-11 even one of the cup’s most appealing features, a David against Goliath battle on Goliath’s home turf, failed to grasp the public’s imagination. Manchester United against Crawley Town at Old Trafford was tainted by the non-league clubs (relative) financial extravagance and universally disliked manager Steve Evans.

However it is not inconceivable that the FA Cup can re-gain its former, and rightful place in the hearts and minds of English football supporters. For this to become a reality though, reform will have to be embraced even at the expense of traditionalism or sentimentality.

For a start the antiquated practice of replays should be discarded. Very few things encourage the ire of the big four/six clubs more than a cup replay popping up at the ‘business end’ of the season. A more streamlined FA Cup would encourage them to take it more seriously and would be a relief to already overworked players. Replays are often an anti-climax when compared to the original tie. Take Leyton Orient against Arsenal last season, a heroic and pulsating 1-1 draw was followed by a 5-0 cruise for the Premier League club. Sure the Orient support got an evening out at one of the finest arenas in world football, but from a footballing point of view they gained little. The argument of course will be that in this situation the financial benefit of a replay to Orient takes priority over any notion of footballing romance. In response to that, a system of income distribution more heavily weighted toward the lower league club, offsetting any potential financial loss associated with a one off tie, would be an easy sell to Premier League clubs if it meant the end of replays and the easing of fixture congestion. It would also surely increase the potential for everyone’s favourite cliché ‘the FA Cup giant killing’.

Aside from the grand old trophy, the reward for triumph in the May sunshine is a place in UEFA’s Europa League. Unfortunately to most supporters in England this competition makes the ‘Johnstone’s Paint Trophy look prestigious. A real reward at the end would make the cup a much more enticing prospect.

So, how about a playoff between the FA Cup winners and the fourth placed team in the Premier League, with the winner receiving that much coveted chance at Champions League glory nights against the best Europe has to offer? Admittedly this would upset a few (sorry Arsene) but imagine how seriously teams such as Tottenham and Liverpool would take the FA Cup if it offered a route into the Champions League? And anyway is the fourth placed team in a league of twenty really more deserving of that spot than the national cup winners? While we’re at it why not hold the playoff game abroad (Dubai, China, the US) along the lines of the FA’s proposed 39th game (remember that?). The revenue from a game like this would be extraordinary and could be re-invested at the grass roots of the game. The presence of the two Glasgow giants is a proposal that would certainly liven up proceedings, as well as delighting TV executives (although probably not police chiefs).

You may well feel that these ideas are unworkable, or that the FA Cup should be a bastion for traditionalism, but ask yourself, how high is cup success is on your team’s agenda? Does a defeat in the cup hurt as much as one in the league? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a competitive, compelling national cup competition even if it was at the expense of a few traditions?

Saturday, 30 July 2011

More Than a Club

More Than a Club

Season 2010-11 is one that will stick in the minds of most associated with Scottish football. For those of us of a Celtic persuasion however it is one that, due to some scarcely believable occurrences, will resonate within our club for many years to come.

Events on the pitch were mixed. Some wonderful football was played, a swagger that had been missing for too long showed signs of re-emergence. We had new heroes to embrace from as far afield as Honduras and Israel, closer to home a diamond of a striker was unearthed from the rough of the English Championship. In May we once again celebrated in the Hampden sun. However the crushing blow of European failure before the season was properly under way was a tough one to take, and of course on that ill-fated evening on a sodden Inverness pitch it became clear that the Championship flag would fly in the West for another 12 months.

It was matters off the pitch however where attention focused and the media glare was brightest. Our manager was lied to by one of this country’s “top” officials after a penalty bungle at Tannadice. The mainstream media missed no opportunity to deride Lennon as a “rookie” manager, and the portrayal of him as some snarling beast, barely able to contain himself was as appalling as it was inaccurate. Then of course we had the two events that made the blood of any ‘right minded’ individual run cold. It is a flawed society indeed that is no-longer shocked by mere death threats, but that is the situation we find ourselves in, it was only upon learning that we lived in a world where our manager had been the target of a viable explosive device that we experienced true shock. The image of a tracksuited Heart of Midlothian fan storming the Tynecastle technical area, with PC plod trailing in his wake, to launch a physical attack upon Lennon was beamed around the world. We now feared for our mangers safety and his sanity.

However when I look back on the season past it is not bullets or bombs, goals or defeats that stick in my mind. The moments I will take from 2010-11 are the ones that reminded me that as a Glasgow Celtic fan I really am privileged to support ‘more than a club’.

In a Scottish Cup tie we witnessed our ‘boy captain’ grow into a leader of men. With a swing of his left boot, McGregor was left clawing at thin air and the bhoys and ghirls in the Broomloan stand were sent into raptures, he then turned, raised his arms, and with barely a flicker of emotion stared down king rat himself. In one moment the armband around his bicep became a perfect fit and Celtic fans all around the globe rejoiced in doing ‘the Broony’.

Then on the last day of the season, with the title was gone, and with helicopter Sunday effectively a non-event, something extra-ordinary happened. Like the Tynecastle attack these pictures were shown by the worlds media, these were not images of hate however, what the world saw and heard was 60,000 people ‘doing the huddle’. Despite the fact that our great rivals had beaten us to the prize we all crave the most, the Celtic support rejoiced. It was breath-taking and it was unique.

People who do not share our allegiances mock us when we talk of ‘the Celtic way’, our insistence that winning is not the be all and end all, that it should be done in a certain style is derided by those out with the Celtic family. One of the reasons Gordon Strachan was never universally accepted by the support was his failure to grasp this, he was convinced we only cared about winning. Last season proved him wrong. Strachan’s reign may have been trophy laden but it lacked soul, the Lennon era has not yet yielded great silverware, though it will surely come, but the connection between club and supporter is back.

 Heavyweight (in all senses) hacks like James Traynor pour scorn on us when we ask that our manager is ‘Celtic minded’, but even deep down they must realise that our club is different. The normal rules don’t apply. Last season we reaffirmed our uniqueness.

It is unlikely that any of us will ever know if it’s a ‘grand old team to play for’, but we can be damn well sure that it is indeed a ‘grand old team to see’.

SPL the First Weekend

Thoughts from SPL matchday 1

So the first round of SPL fixtures have been completed with a week of July still to go. If you are looking for a detailed analysis of each fixture, player ratings etc. then you’re reading the wrong blog. I will however share some of my thoughts from the first weekend of the SPL.

First things first, at no point did any of the punters attempt to storm the dugout and attack the opposition’s manager, as far as we’re aware no manager/former politician/lawyer received a viable explosive device alongside their gas bill, no-one was forced to resign due to incompetence, dishonesty or for forwarding offensive e-mails. This surely signals a collective enlightenment within Scottish society (either that or the nutters are still in Benidorm stocking up on cheap fags).

In terms of matters on the pitch a few things stood out. Hearts outstanding first half display at Ibrox earned a share of the spoils and turned Rangers Flag Day party into a bit of a damp squib. The limitations within the Rangers squad have been well documented, and Saturdays display will serve as a reminder to new owner, Craig Whyte that the rebuilding of Rangers cannot be done on the cheap. While media coverage is usually focussed on incoming players there is no doubt that ensuring Alan McGregor remains at the club is the most important piece of business McCoist will conduct this summer. The Scotland ‘keeper was once again outstanding, and probably saved his team from a rare Ibrox reverse.

Celtic got off to a satisfying start with a victory at Easter Road over a dogged but limited Hibs. If Neil Lennon can keep star men Beram Kayal and Emiliano Izaguirre out of the clutches of their Premier League suitors, along with the mooted purchase of a new no1 and someone to provide a different option upfront, then the Celtic support will be confident that the Championship flag will be hoisted in the East in 12 months’ time.

Motherwell recorded an impressive win over Inverness and will do well to keep a hold of the talented Jamie Murphy who rounded off a flowing team move to open his account for the season. Also in that game Keith Lasley fired in an early contender for goal of the season only to be outdone by Kilmarnock debutant Rory Mckeown’s stunner against Dundee United.

All in all a relatively positive start to the SPL campaign then. I however have stumbled across an even greater reason for optimism, and it concerns the rather unlikely combination of the Scotland national side and South American silverware.

On Sunday night I settled down to watch the final of the Copa America, this is a tournament where putting the ball in the net has been maybe not expressly forbidden, but at the very least frowned upon, and the main objective for the majority of the teams seemed to be to repeatedly kick the opposition until an actual fight breaks out. Now any Scottish football aficionados will tell you these are qualities naturally present in many who have pulled on the dark blue jersey. Combine this with pitches that would make even the Fir Park groundsman blush and it becomes ever clearer that the Copa America is the natural home of the Scottish national side.

The Copa consists of the ten CONMEBOL sides plus two invitees, one of which is always Mexico. It’s time to start a campaign for that last place in the 2015 tournament. European football is heavy on passing and light on thuggery, our lack of success in international football is not a failing of tactics or technique it is purely a geographical issue. In a competition where the emphasis was on fouls rather than the more traditional goals we would surely excel. The players would bloody love it as well; imagine the money Kenny Miller would save on fake tan! And next to the Paraguayan midfielder Walter Ortigoza, Charlie Adam looks like the poster boy for Slimfast.

If we want to add to our Kirin cup success of 2006 (remember that?) then forget the Euro’s, we’ll still have a punt at the World Cup but the Copa 2015 is the way to go. The campaign starts here.

There is one moment from the weekend’s action that deserves special attention. It involved Dundee United’s mercurial/infuriating/utterly pish (delete as appropriate) attacker Danny Swanson. This young man managed to sum up every facet of his game in about 8 seconds of action. First his attempt at a clipping a free kick over the Kilmarnock wall barely reached shin height (infuriating) he then swept a sublime half volley into the bottom corner from the rebound (brilliant) then during his celebration removed his shirt (not very clever) the next phase of his celebration then involved the internationally accepted, ‘that’s my name’ back to the crowd point at name and number move, however having removed his shirt our Danny was left pointing to the back of his black vest (crowd left either laughing or shaking head in disbelief). I think instead of the murmurs of discontent from the Tannadice faithful the next time Danny’s on field decision ends a promising move, we should all just be thankful he’s managed to get out of bed and find his way to the stadium in time for kick off.

Football’s back and, for now at least I’m bloody delighted.

Scottish 'Fitba Reforms

Radical reforms are needed to revive Scottish football

As Scottish football gears up for another season, with a week still to go before we even reach August, reform is still very much in the air.

Scotland is without a doubt utterly obsessed with its national pastime. More people attend SPL games per head of population than any other league in the world and our footballing capital, Glasgow can boast 3 football specific stadiums with capacities north of 50,000, only Istanbul can match this.

Combine this level of fanaticism, with the crucial role played by our “wee” nation during footballs infant years, (“football came from Scotland” is the Tartan Army’s retort to football’s coming home) and logically we should have a thriving, absorbing spectacle that is the envy of more populous nations.

The reality though is quite different. The national side which used to compete regularly (if not successfully) at World and European competitions, has not been to a major tournament since France ’98, a whole generation of tartan army foot soldiers have been denied the opportunity to spend two weeks semi-naked, and vomiting while simultaneously trying to convince any passing Dutch/Swedish female fans to join them in the city centre fountain they have claimed in the name of the Kingdom of Fife tartan army. In terms of club football, our UEFA co-efficient is not only low, but is heading toward the, you’d be as well not bothering level, alongside the other Celtic leagues.

Now UEFA and FIFA statistics on team performance should be taken with a pinch of salt (England are apparently the 4th best international side in the world!) and to be honest what I find more damming is I cannot remember the last time I heard someone (excluding SFA/SPL employees) saying something positive about Scottish football.

No wonder then that reform is Scottish football’s “buzzword”.  Our former First Minister and (more impressively?) ex East Fife player, Henry McLeish, was recently charged with conducting a review into Scottish football and coming up with a series of recommendations aimed at returning some of our past glories. The first part of the review focussed on youth development and raised many pertinent issues, some which are beginning to be acted upon (the appointment of the Dutchman Mark Votte as SFA performance director is in particular a step in the right direction). In the second phase of the review Mr McLeish focussed on the ‘here and now’, this is where the arguments have started, and the media spotlight has shone brightest.

A lot of what is said in this second part of the report makes sense. The re-introduction of a winter break would be welcomed by most, and a reduction in the number of administrative bodies is long overdue.  What has really piqued the interest of fans up and down the country though, is the proposals referring to league re-construction.

Two leagues of ten, SPL1 and SPL2, a league of fourteen, a league of sixteen, relegation playoffs, championship playoffs, split, no split. Throw this combination of words and numbers together in any way you see fit and what you get will probably match one of the ideas debated by Scottish Footballs governing bodies. McLeish’s report favoured an SPL1 and 2 each with 10 teams where playoffs to decide relegation/promotion would be utilised. At the time of writing this seems to have been rejected (although to be honest it’s bloody hard to keep up).

The plan to save our national game seems to involve little more than adjusting a number somewhere between ten and the mid-teens. Numbers are important in this debate however, namely 5.2million (Scotland’s population) and forty two (the number of League clubs in Scotland). Put bluntly there are too many clubs competing for the attention (and cash) of a small and dwindling audience. Scottish football is being weighted down by clubs that really have no business being part of the league set-up.

There are far too many clubs who are allowed to cling onto existence purely because they are football clubs. There financial results make them unviable as businesses and they do very little to enthuse their supports (the most recent average attendance figures for div3 I could find showed under 500 passed through the gates per game). The problem is that these clubs can do no more than ‘tread water’, occasionally a ‘sugar daddy’ will come along, plough in some funds and the club will have its moment in the sun only to fall spectacularly back to earth, remember both Livingston and Gretna have represented Scotland in European competition in recent years, Gretna no longer exist and Livingston are in the midst of a long slog through the divisions. Most clubs in Scotland have nothing to play for and there is nothing to encourage them to strive for anything beyond the status-quo.

We should be discussing a top division of 16 teams with a 30 game season, a second division of 10 teams with a play-off system between the two leagues. The lower leagues could be regionalised (as McLeish proposes) but they should be run in summer months when the top two leagues are dormant, Celtic and Rangers should be encouraged to enter their reserve teams in these regional leagues (Celtic in one, Rangers in the other, swapping every year). Attendances, revenue and ambition would all increase for those at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, combine this with a play-off system between the winners of the two regional divisions (Celtic and Rangers B teams would not be allowed to win promotion) and the bottom placed second division side and almost every club would have something to play for, and a more importantly a reason to improve.

Alongside these proposals we should be trying to make SPL TV a viable alternative to Sky and ESPN and the ‘pocket change’ TV deal we were forced into. Clubs that are failing should be left to die or even more controversially encouraged to merge, this is undoubtedly unpopular but surely one thriving club is better for an area than one mediocre and one on its knees? (The city of Dundee I’m looking at you).

Scottish football must be streamlined, incompetence should not be tolerated and equally innovation must be encouraged, and rewarded. We can no longer afford to carry the deadweight that is dragging the game down. It is time for difficult decisions to be made, without pandering to sentimentality.

Once the current proposals are debated and watered down they will amount to no more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Scotland’s population is the most obese in Europe (must be all those ‘Killie pies and East End Park bridies) and our national game is similarly overburdened, it’s time for a crash diet.

Football Lacks a Feminine Touch

The formation and potential make up of a British Olympic football side has been much discussed recently. Most of the debate has centred on whether the Celtic nations will actually participate, and if they do, what players will form the side that competes for the gold medal on home soil. Also there have been some suggestions as to who should be awarded the spots reserved for those over 23 years of age.

One aspect of the potential GB Olympic side that has not really been given much coverage though, is who should be given the honour of being appointed manager/first team coach. There does however seem to be a general consensus that Stuart Pearce will step up from his duties as England U21 manager. Now, I have nothing against Pearce per se (even though he did once put David James on up front when managing Manchester City) however his appointment shows a real lack of imagination and highlights a deeper problem within the game on these isles.

The path into management is a well-trodden one. Players who have been deemed to display the necessary qualities (determination, professionalism etc.) during there playing days are, if they show the inclination to do so, in high demand when clubs begin the search for someone to step into the managerial “hot-seat”. Depending on the profile of the player, they can often be awarded jobs at the top level of club, and sometimes international, football with no applicable managerial experience. Occasionally the desire to appoint someone of a high profile, or a “fans favourite”, overrides even the lack of a relevant accredited coaching qualification (yes I am thinking of Alan Shearer).

In my opinion, this blinkered approach to managerial appointments has been to the technical, and tactical, detriment of our game.

During the Premier League era there has undoubtedly been a small, if significant move away from the belief that to be a success as a manager you had to have been a success as a player. The likes of Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez have shown that the lack of a significant playing career is not necessarily a hindrance when it comes to carving out a career in management.

The appointment by Chelsea, of Andres Villas Boas is even more of a step away from the traditional model. Villas Boas had no playing career to speak of and at 33 is the same age as some of the elder statesmen in his squad of global superstars. To win the much vaunted “respect” of the dressing room he will have to rely on his qualifications, his CV and his training methods being sufficient to impress the likes of John Terry and Didier Drogba.

Villas Boas may very well be an exception, but his appointment led me to consider the amount of untapped coaching potential out there with no route into the game, and more specifically, with the continued rise of the women’s game I began to wonder, could a woman ever be appointed manager of a top level club?

I posed this question on twitter and to people I know involved in (the lower echelons of) the game. The overwhelming consensus was that it would be impossible for a woman, no matter how skilled, to command a dressing room full of battle hardened grizzly footballers. There was almost universal agreement that within those particular confines, sexism was still prevalent. Incidentally while everyone I spoke with agreed that the ingrained sexism still evident in football, would be too large an obstacle to overcome in regards to a female managing a group of males, none would admit to being sexist themselves.

The conclusively negative nature of the responses I garnered, initially led to me dismissing the notion as entirely unrealistic. However after further consideration and debate, it became clear to me that while the chances of a female manager at the top level are remote, there are far fewer stereotypical prejudices to overcome when you begin to consider some of the other technical/coaching positions that are now part and parcel of almost all clubs.

Roles such as; academy director, chief scout and in some cases director of football, are utterly integral to the success of a modern day football club. They are also, crucially, a step removed from the testosterone and machismo of the dressing room. There is nothing to stop these positions being filled by adequately qualified female candidates.

British football is often criticised (fairly or otherwise) for being stuck in the “dark ages”. One of the reasons cited for this is that most coaches come from the same background, with the same thoughts and ideals drummed into them. The woman’s game is much less established and therefore its participants are naturally more open to a new way of thinking. An influx of females into the male game could conceivably bring with it the more modern “enlightened” approach our game is crying out for.

The benefits would not only be restricted to on the pitch matters. Imagine the public relations boost a club would enjoy if a high profile position was filled by, for example, a former England woman’s international. Clubs are always on the lookout for ways to attract new fans through the turnstiles, and this would be one very effective way of marketing yourself as a family orientated club. I admit some would potentially see the appointment as based purely on PR, rather than footballing grounds but that attitude would surely disappear if faced with on, and off pitch success.

To enable any of this to become a reality, there would have to be a concerted effort to encourage more women to take the necessary qualifications. The resulting increase of properly qualified coaches would also have the result of raising standards within the woman’s game itself. As our European counterparts (notably Spain) have proven, the number of qualified coaches is directly proportionate to the level of player produced.

Admittedly clubs may be reluctant to take what may be seen as a radical departure from the norm, and would probably need some encouragement to do so. I see no problems with a system that forces clubs to interview at least one woman when an appropriate position becomes available. The NFL has a similar rule (the Rooney rule) regarding Black and Hispanic candidates for coaching roles and it has been hailed as a success in its remit of raising the ethnic diversity of coaches within the league.

It seems to me that football is disregarding a huge amount of knowledge and potential, for no reason other than, at best traditionalism and at worst institutionalised sexism and I personally would have no problems with a woman occupying a high profile role at my club (or country).

I genuinely believe that the acceptance of women into high profile, technical roles, within the men’s game could be of great benefit to all concerned.

I would be very interested to get some further opinions on this matter? Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you think the male and female games are better off without any crossover? Either way would love to know your thoughts either on the comments section or via twitter.

The Fight Against Racism Lacks Punch

The Fight Against Racism Lacks Punch

During one of my frequent visits to one of the many websites dealing in transfer rumours and speculation (in my defence it’s the close season and I’m bored) I began to wonder, what was the most outlandish rumour that I’d come across during this, the silliest of silly seasons? A few came to mind, Eto’o to Spurs, Thiago Alcantara to Bolton, there are of course many, many more. However one rumour, through its sheer implausibility, stood out amongst all others. Emmanuel Adebayor was reported to be a transfer target for Russian giants Zenit St Petersburgh. On the face of it this is a move that would make sense, Zenit, backed by the Russian oil giant Gazprom, are one of the few clubs in Europe with the means to provide a financial package that would appeal to both the former Togolese captain and his current club, Manchester City. A spell at Zenit would also give Adebayor the chance to add to his medal collection, something the player has said is key to any future move. The reason this potential transfer is so unlikely though has nothing to do with football, the problem is the colour of Adebayors skin.

During Dick Advocaat’s successful spell in charge of Zenit he claimed that he would like to sign a black player but that it was not possible. The clubs most fanatical supporters (the Ultras) would not accept it. This group of supporters have a huge influence over the policies of their club, to a level beyond anything we have ever witnessed in this country. I should point out that Zenit say that Advocaats quotes were misrepresented and current manager Luciano Spalletti claims he is free to sign whomever he wishes, irrespective of race, meanwhile, the Zenit line-up remains exclusively white.

Awareness in this country, of the overt racism of many involved in Russian football, has increased recently, this can mainly be attributed to the reporting of a couple of high profile incidents. The move of the half Nigerian, half Russian striker Peter Odemwinge to West Brom, from Locomotive Moscow was celebrated by the Locomotive Ultras with a banner thanking the English club, accompanied by the image of a banana. Incidentally come the end of the season it was the baggies fans who had cause to thank their Locomotive counterparts, after a sparkling debut campaign from Odemwingie helped West Brom to the (relatively) dizzy heights of a mid-table finish. They say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and the look of incredulity, mixed with rage, on the face of the great Brazilian Roberto Carlos as he was racially abused for the second time during his stint at Anzhi Makhachkala, illustrates the horrifying nature of the racism problem which blights Russian football far more eloquently than the range of my vocabulary permits. The site of one of the most iconic footballers of his generation, an utter tank of a man, so visibly affected by the words and actions of these pathetic cowards is one of the most upsetting I have seen in football.

The Russian Football Union has handed out fines to some of those involved, it has also promised tougher sanctions for anyone found guilty of racially aggravated crimes. However a financial penalty of roughly £30,000 is of no real consequence to the oligarchs who provide the financial muscle of clubs such as Zenit. And the chances of these proposed further sanctions including something potentially effective, such as a points deduction are slim. Herein lies a large part of the problem when it comes to dealing with the racists, individual national associations, all throughout football, are unwilling to enforce the kind of punishments that would dissuade the continuation of such behaviour. The large clubs, in all countries, hold too much sway within the corridors of power of their respective associations. The ramifications of enforcing a level of punishment actually relative to the crime of racism are too great for any organisation that relies on the co-operation of its member clubs, for its day to day operations.  It’s much easier to hand out token fines, and release “plans of action”, which are in practical terms only one step up from attempting to sweep the problem under the carpet.

Logically as football fans we should look to our governing body to lead the fight against racism. FIFA, however say they are not willing to interfere with the disciplinary processes of national associations. This by the way is the same FIFA who are happy to interfere with a countries tax laws to suit their needs when they bring their World Cup roadshow swinging into town! Anyway would you trust FIFA to administer the appropriate sanctions? The £40,000 and £15,000 fines handed out to Spain and Croatia respectively, after racist abuse of English players suggests not. To entrust FIFA with a task as vital to the wellbeing of our game as eradicating racism, would be to desecrate the wonderful work (not to mention the personal sacrifice) of many individuals and institutions involved in this field over the years. FIFA claim to abhor racism, yet through their paltry fines and the awarding of the World Cup to Russia, without any genuine guarantees regarding the eradication of the racist behaviour already discussed, their words are not matched by their actions.
To my mind the only way to ensure the application of appropriate sanctions is the formation of an international body, independent of FIFA, with the remit of monitoring all forms of discriminatory behaviour in football, and the means to enforce a punishment they see fit. For example, if a clubs support is found guilty of racist chanting, this new body could then impose a fine on that club, equal to their average home gate receipt or a set percentage of their turnover/wage bill. This would ensure that the sanctions meted out are much closer to being equally punitive, regardless of the financial clout of the club. There would also be the option of closing stadiums, hefty points deductions and the ability to withdraw licenses required to take part in non-domestic competitions.
This is the level of punishment that I believe necessary to at least begin to eradicate the cancer of racism from our game. Only a truly independent body, made up of people with experience of the campaign against racism, and respected figures from the world of football, working without the limitations of national boundaries, can be trusted to impose these long overdue sanctions.
Racism is still a relevant problem in football, and unless we begin to think outside the box in terms of tackling it, we will be guilty of allowing this affliction to fester indefinitely, therefore doing irreparable damage to the game we all love so much.
Would really like your feedback on this. Do you think we can rid football of racism? Is the idea of an independent body workable? Leave a comment at the bottom of this page or get in contact via twitter, I’d love to hear from you. 

Can Football Break its Gay Taboo?

Can football break its gay taboo?

In a previous article I discussed footballs role in breaking the stigma surrounding depression. The response to this was absolutely fantastic, with people from all walks of life contacting me through twitter to give me their opinions and share their experiences. It reinforced my genuine belief that football, despite its many ills, can still be a force for good and one of the most powerful tools we have in breaking down the barriers that are still prevalent in our society. During discussion of my article on twitter however, one issue continued to raise its head. Can the footballing world ever accept homosexuality?
In the 1970’s and 80’s racism was rife in British football. Players such as Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and Garth Crooks (amongst many, many others) were regularly subjected to torrents of vile abuse emanating from the terraces. Racism seemed to be ingrained in the psyche of a large percentage of the match going support. Fast forward to today though and huge progress has been made. I am not claiming for a minute that football has eradicated racism entirely, but imagine the reaction of the supporters you sit amongst if you tried to start a monkey chant at your next home game. I am of course writing this in the context of British football, recent events in Russia involving Peter Odemwinge and Roberto Carlos have shown that racism still thrives and may be on the rise in many footballing cultures. Racism became unacceptable in a society where it was previously the norm, will homophobia ever achieve the same level of revulsion that racism now attracts?
The reasons for the retreat of racism are many and varied, great credit must go to clubs, associations and charities who helped to educate people and alter their perceptions. Something that is often overlooked though is that the talent, commitment and ability of these black players eventually won over the fans. The colour of their skin became less and less relevant as players such as the aforementioned Regis wrote their name into club legend with their displays on the park.
Would supporters come to accept a gay player if he scored a hat-trick in the local derby, or cup final? I happen to genuinely believe they would. There is though one rather obvious problem with this theory, for there to be a ‘gay’ hat-trick hero there first of all must be a gay player. In this country we have had one openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu could not even rely on the support of his brother John (also a professional footballer) and tragically committed suicide eight years after announcing he was gay. The rampant homophobia of certain fans can be illustrated by the horrifying ditty ‘he’s gay, he’s dead, he’s hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu’ still occasionally heard when Ipswich visit Fashanu’s old team Norwich.  John Fashanu has since expressed his regret about the way he dealt with the situation, it should not have taken the suicide of his sibling for him to come to realise that he was in the wrong.
We do have some evidence that there are gay players currently plying their trade at the top level of British football. The publicist Max Clifford has claimed he advised two Premier League stars to keep their sexuality a secret. These individuals should of course be able to be open about their sexuality just as they would in any civilised society, however it is hard to argue with Clifford when he claims that football is “in the dark ages” and “steeped in homophobia”. Whatever you think of Max Clifford he has made a career of judging how the general public will react when confronted with a front page splash, and then spinning that story to the benefit of whoever is signing his cheque that week (I do not think much of Mr Clifford as you may be able to tell!). And he has effectively judged the story of a gay footballer as “unspinnable”.
The name Anton Hysen may not mean anything to the majority of you, but recently he has become the only openly gay player in world football. By all accounts the reaction amongst players and fans to his ‘coming out’ has been if not wholly positive then at least not wholly negative either. No disrespect to the young Swede but he does not have the footballing ability to become the poster boy that gay football requires, he will never score in the Champions League or in a World Cup, he does not have the talent to break down footballs last remaining prejudice. However, Hysen who plays in the Swedish fourth tier, does have a higher profile than would normally be afforded a player of similar ability. His father Glenn is a former Swedish international and previously plied his trade at Liverpool, his brother Tobias has also played for the national side, in short he is part of a Swedish footballing dynasty. The fact he is a Hysen has not only raised his profile but has to some extent made the fact he is a gay footballer more acceptable. Hysen has no intention of becoming the face of gay football and of course he should be under no obligation to do so, he is after all just a normal young man looking to go about his life the same as everyone else. I genuinely hope, and to an extent believe, the case of Anton Hysen is a small step in the right direction. I am however aware that I may be being overly optimistic.
There have been a few positive signs from the wider sporting world. The most obvious of these being the ex Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, whose announcement that he was gay has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. His status as a national hero was already cemented, his sexuality has not diminished his fine achievements on the pitch and he has largely been supported in his decision to come out (the Independent newspaper put him joint first in its annual pink list). Unfortunately the thought that despite its macho image, the average rugby supporter is a more tolerant beast than their equivalent football fan remains a relevant one.
It does seem doubtful that we will see a player appear in both World Soccer and Attitude in the near future. It’s not just the level of abuse that would inevitably rain down from supporters on matchdays but maybe more crucially the lack of support from their peers. The Fashanu tragedy may have played out in the 90s but have attitudes really changed since then? The excellent secret footballer column in the Guardian and the player column in 442 magazine have laid bare the ruthlessness that can exist in a Premier League dressing room, especially with regards to sex. It is not an environment that encourages tolerance and understanding. The English FA attempted to produce an anti-homophobia video but was unable to find anyone from the footballing world to front it. The fear of ostracism was too great.
Football needs one brave individual to stand up, someone whose talent will be more noteworthy than their sexual preference, someone whose value to the team was so great that it overcame the homophobia of his team-mates.  That is surely the only way the most ingrained of all prejudices can begin to be eroded, education can play its part but on its own is not enough. In a world where players have been the victims of homophobic abuse because they have admitted to reading the Guardian or occasionally attending the theatre, that individual would need to be prepared to sacrifice his quality of life for the greater good of a society that would offer him no thanks in return.
Incidentally if that player is out there and holds any ambition to represent his nation in the World Cup he’d better hide his sexuality until after 2022, as FIFA have decided the best place to hold footballs showpiece event in that year is Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal. Well done FIFA.
This is without doubt an incredibly complex issue with no obvious solution and no easy answers, but it is an issue that for the good of the game needs to be properly debated. I would really appreciate any comments you may have, either on here or via my twitter account which you can access from the about the author section of this site. Thanks.