Saturday, 5 December 2009


With the press reaction to England’s World Cup draw, you would have though that they were nailed on to be at least finalists (due to be played at the Soccer City Stadium Johannesburg, pictured) in next years tournament. Admittedly this is a kind draw for England, its not as hard as say group D (Germany, Australia, Serbia & Ghana) or Group G (Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast & Portugal), but an easy draw?

England’s first opponents will be the USA, who themselves will see this a a good group to escape from. The quality of American football has risen out of all recognition since they made their first finals appearance in Italia 90 for 40 years. It’s also only 8 years ago since they pushed Germany for a semi-finals place. They have familiar faces plying their trade here and in mainland Europe, Tim Howard at Everton, and closer to home DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu at Rangers. The USA will probably end up vying for qualification with England, and as well as stories of their previous World Cup meeting being brought up, a 1-0 win for the US in the 1950 tournament, we will have the merry go round of Beckham facing some of his colleagues from LA Galaxy.

That’s not to say that the other two sides will be pushovers. Algeria were the standard bearers for African Football in the 1982 & 86 World Cups, this will be their first appearance since then. I would suspect that Algeria will be a tidy, technically good team, and a danger to anyone who wishes to underestimate them. In England’s favour, this will be the first in a pair of games played at sea level. A game England should win, with should being the operative word.

England’s last group game will be against Slovenia, who will be playing in their second World Cup (having lost all three games in 2002). Again England should beat Slovenia. But then again Slovenia is here by beating Russia on away goals, and by finishing ahead of the Czech Republic in the qualifying groups. They appear to be an archetypal “Banana-skin” team, a side England should beat if they approach the game properly.

Should England qualify from that group, they have been paired with Group D in the Second round. Should they finish top, they will face the runners up from Group D, seeded to be either Serbia (the country formerly known as Yugoslavia) or Ghana. Serbia bested France in Qualifying and have a tradition of producing technically gifted sides, while Ghana were the only African side to qualify for the knock out stages in Germany. They will be bolstered by having Inter Milan’s Muntari and Chelsea’s Essien in their midfield. If they get past them, England will be seeded to face a possible quarter final against France or Greece, with a possible semi final against the winners of the Netherlands/Brazil seeded quarter Final.

However if England finish second in their group, they will probably face the Germans in the Second Round. In the unlikely event of them getting past the Germans in a knock out game (England’s last victory over the Germans in a knock out match was, yep, that game), along comes another of England’s bogey teams Argentina. Should they get through that one (and yes, the last time England beat Argentina in a knock out game was during that tournament as well), England will be seeded to face either Italy or Spain.

Yes England have a kind draw, the problem is that other groups have not so kind draws so the path outlined above could easily change. To say that it’s an easy draw is still wide of the mark though.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

SPOTY Time Is Here Again...

Once again the BBC has announced the shortlist for their flagship sports review show, no longer called Sports Review of The Year. It’s an interesting list full of semi-obscure faces that are at least champions or have won something this year. Yet there isn’t really a stand out obvious winner.

The BBC will of course push for Jenson Button to win. They paid out a lot of (questionable) money to capture the rights to Formula 1. In the first season of that contract, long time favourite of the British motorsport press Button won his second Grand Prix. Then kept on winning… and winning until his team suffered a mid season slump, by which time it was probably a question of when he would win the Championship rather than if. Button will get a lot of press, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.

Andy Murray will do well, but he isn’t the cast iron certainty he would be if he filled that Slam sized hole in his trophy cabinet. The Heavyweight boxer David Haye might do well, especially as he has been promoting himself recently in the mainstream media, with appearances on Jonathan Ross. However if Lewis Hamilton’s tax affairs was an issue for some last year, surely Haye’s tax affairs should be an issue this time around. Ryan Giggs will pick up votes from Manyoo fans, if no-one else. Cavendish, Daley and Tweddle will struggle for votes outside fans of their own sports.

Outside of Button, there are a couple of candidates who might win, especially as Athletics provides more than its fair share of Sports Personality… winners. Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon at this years World Championships, the first British athlete to win a major Heptathlon since Denise Lewis became Olympic champion in Sydney. Phillips Idowo also struck gold at this year’s World Championships, finally coming out of the shadows of Triple Jumping great Jonathan Edwards. However Button’s main challenger may well be Englands Cricket captain Andrew Strauss.

This time last year, Strauss was preparing to head off to the West Indies as part of a squad led by Coach Peter Moores and captain Kevin Pieterson. Then with days before the tour departed Moores and Pieterson had a spectacular falling out. Moores left his post and Pieterson quit as England captain. Strauss was given the job as England captain. It looked to be a short term affair as England inexplicably lost by an innings at Sabina Park, and continued to lack a cutting edge on the flat pitches across the West Indies. But the reason Strauss is here is because he survived to take England into the Ashes, as things turned out a victorious Ashes series. Strauss’ himself made a vital contribution to the series, he was the leading run scorer of the series, with 474 runs at 52.66, he made 1 century (his 161 helped set up victory at Lords) and 3 50’s.

I think Button will win, Strauss may well finish second. Either Ennis or Idowo might make it into the top three. Haye might well make it into the top three as well. But I suspect that the public relations push for Button will be too strong.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Wanted: Miracle Worker. Apply Within

So history repeats itself, but with more speed. 5 years ago Berti Voght’s jump the shark moment arrived with a 4-0 hammering in Cardiff. Six months later the SFA bagged Voght’s after an insipid start to the following World Cup campaign. Saturday saw George Burley’s own jump the shark moment, again a heavy (3-0) defeat in Cardiff saw Burley over the edge. This time around the SFA waited 49 hours after the defeat to give George the silver bullet.

What seems to have brought matters to a head is the Tartan Army’s exasperation coming to the fore on Saturday. When Scotland went 3-0 down (after 35 minutes), the fans started calling for his head, and for the head of the SFA board. About 500 fans also left the match, straight after the second goal.

What has gone wrong with the reign of Burley has been poured over in various pieces and blogs since the loss to the Netherlands in September. But what seems to have condemned Burley to his fate is his choice of two hopelessly out of form central defenders (Caldwell & McManus) in Cardiff, when a wiser manager would have dropped them, citing the need to experiment (as was the case in midfield).

Already the Sports Journalists have turned their attention to the identity of the next Scotland Manager. In this annis horriblis for Scottish Football, the right choice needs to be made, as I think a lot of people are close to loosing their interest in football. Season ticket holders, Pay-TV subscribers, even people who turn to the back pages first – all people ready to turn their back on the game. That’s a lot of pounds Scottish Football needs to keep coming in. The 500 odd fans that left after 35 minutes of the game on Saturday is just the tip of the iceberg. Both Parkhead and Ibrox have had European Games where their stadiums have been substantially less than full, and the practice of leaving early has been seen on more than one occasion this season at Greenhill Road. In recession Britain, people are realising that Football does not represent value for money. What confidence should we have in “the product” (I will be going for a shower after typing that phrase) when the Old Firm clearly don’t have confidence in the SPL.

I digress. Already Graeme Souness’ name has already cropped up for the job, as has that of the Dundee United manager, and immediate bookies favourite, Craig Levin. Walter Smith’s name has already been mentioned in dispatches by those who fancy a repeat of his salvage job in 2005-2006. Oh and Billy Davies has also been mentioned in some quarters too. The only name missing seems to be that of the almost mythical Stewart Baxter. The most interesting, and left field name to have been mentioned was that of Jim Jeffries, the former Hearts and Bradford manager currently at Kilmarnock. Jeffries believes in playing good football, and has won trophies, The Scottish Cup in 1998, the season his Hearts team pushed the Old Firm into the last weeks of the season for the Championship itself.

Whoever gets it, and there are pros and cons to all of the names mentioned above, this has to be the first step towards the improvement of Scottish Football.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Into The Lions Den

With some considerable irony, England jetted off to tour South Africa at the weekend. England might have won the Ashes, but as Australia fell off the top of Test Crickets ranking’s it was those South African’s who displaced them. This will not guarantee then a warm welcome though as England participate in the itinerary of 2 Twenty20 internationals and 5 one-dayers before the test series starts on 16th December at Centurion.

The contrast from 5 years ago could not be more stark, as England start as clear second favourites. When England last toured South Africa 5 years ago, they had won series against the West Indies (home and away) and New Zealand at home winning 10 tests out of 11. After winning 2-1, with wins in
Port Elizabeth and Johanasburg, England would go on to beat Bangladesh and Australia in that series.

This time around, South Africa start as favourites, having won the
Basil D’Olivera Trophy in England 18 months ago. They went on to beat Australia in Australia before being undone slightly by Australia at home. They have 2 batsmen in the shape of captain Graeme Smith (above - saluting his 154 not out which clinched the 2008 series at Edgebaston) and Jacques Kallis in the top 10 rankings. Crucially they have 3 bowlers in the top 10 rankings, the slow bowler Paul Harris and the paceman Makhaya Ntini are behind the current number 1 bowler in the world Dale Steyn.

England go into this series with an Andrew Flintoff sized hole in their team, with Stuart Broad looking the likely person to fill those Freddie sized boots. Kevin Pieterson should be back from injury just in time to play in his home country in a test series for the first time. Bizarrely both Andrew Strauss (who was player of the series 5 years ago - 656 runs @ 72.88) and James Anderson (who played in the win at the Wanderers) are the only survivors from that test win (Pieterson, Collingwood and Bell were in the squad and played in the one-day internationals). More worryingly perhaps is the lack of experience of hard wickets throughout the bowling. Anderson was in South Africa 5 years ago, and I think Plunkett might have toured Australia in 2006/7. Apart from that, the bowlers look too reliant on trying to find swing, which is difficult in dry hard conditions.

To sum up, South Africa will win this series, probably by 2-1.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Problem With Scottish Football...

Saturday’s win by Hamilton Accies not only stopped St Mirren’s winning momentum, but once again flagged up St Mirren’s inability to be able to break down defensive teams, or teams which adopt ultra defensive tactics. The Accies tactics provided the starting point of one of those oh so familiar heated debates about the state of Scottish football.

According to several people around me, Scottish football has gone to the dogs because of foreign footballers rolling about the pitch, and being allowed to by our spineless referees. The focus of these fan’s ire was both Paixio and their forward Antoine-Curier, it was Curier’s involvement with the sending off of Lee Mair which set some fans off.

McGinn fluffed a pass and it fell to Curier who before he got on to the ball was dragged back by Mair. It was a sending off because a) Mair was the last man and b) he had his hands all over Curier. Yet there were fans who though Curier had dived. What really disgusted the fans though was the sight of 5 Hamilton players running to congratulate Curier for getting Mair sent off. It was at this point the fans started saying that Scottish football has really gone to the dogs and that they had never seen that happen before “in this country”. Tosh, utter tosh…

Hamilton’s victory was not just based on three very poor defensive errors, but was based on tactical nous and the ability to change the mentality of the team you are playing. It’s this mental toughness which is severely lacking in Scottish Football. Of course a lack of technique is the main factor behind the current slump in Scottish football, but like most sports its not about how good you are, it’s about how good you are upstairs. Yesterday, St Mirren were unable to block out Hamilton’s mind games, and as a result let frustration get the better of them, but hey the tale of Scottish Football is chock full of exactly the same story. The question is when will we learn.

From Zaire in 1974 to our recent games against Macedonia, Scottish teams have been unable to beat with some comfort, teams who tend to play defensive formations, and have seriously struggled against sides who dabble in the black arts of gamesmanship. If we are to look at the bringing up of young players who are able to have technique on the ball, surely we should look at helping those players to be able to cope mentally with the game as well.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Re-Cycling The Old Arguments

So with depressing regularity the spectre of the Old Firm leaving Scottish Football appears, quickly followed by the embarrassing result in the European arena which normally puts talk of a divorce in Scottish football to bed. This time the talk hasn’t really gone away, but has been buried by bad news so to speak, replaced by that other staple of Scottish Football journalists – why is Scottish Football so rubbish.

Firstly to the divorce some commentators feel is necessary to further the Scottish game. Should the Old Firm splt from Scottish Football, make no mistake that this would be as much of a disaster as a UK team participating in the 2012 London Olympics.

Sepp Blatter has already won 2 elections on the back of giving more power to the smaller confederations, which is why we have the Confederations Cup and the fledgling Club Championship. The main prize for Blatter’s backers would be the break-up of the International Council which guarantees either a member of the FA, the SFA, the FAW or the Northern Irish FA a seat at the top table, and the amalgamation of the members into the one organisation and one country. Somehow the debt that FIFA owes to the International Council does not count in the eyes of Blatter acolytes. Which is why the late David Will amongst others were campaigning against a single UK team at the Olympics, it was believed that this would bring about a UK team for all UEFA and FIFA competitions.

But if the Old Firm leave, that would make the league more competitive is the other argument for the departure of the gruesome twosome. That might be true, but the standard of play would still be rubbish. Also who would broadcast a league shorn of its current main attractions. Its shockingly bad just now, with BSkyB & ESPN scheduling games for lunchtimes and Monday nights. What kick-off times will supporters expect post Old Firm.

Rangers and Celtic’s desire to break out of the SPL risks opening this issue up again. Much as I am not keen on listening to the nice songs about genocide and terrorism which comes from the mouths of Old Firm fans, they are still Scottish teams and need to stay here.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Cult Of Paddy McCourt

Scottish Premier League, St Mirren Stadium: St Mirren 0, Celtic 2

Ever since he arrived at Celtic Park last season, there has been a certain mystique surrounding Paddy McCourt. Whether it was the supposed ability of the player, or just that his signing represented a perceived bygone age where players who went to the Old Firm very much as a work in progress rather than the modern trend of being more or less the finished article when that move is made. Whatever reason, McCourt to Celtic fans represented something of a throwback to how Celtic used to operate. To non Old Firm fans, McCourt was a flop waiting to happen.

However since the current injury problems to Aiden McGeady, McCourt has found himself in the Celtic first team and has won new fans, particularly in the media. Wednesday saw him start against Falkirk in the League Cup, he was described as exiting by Radio Scotland’s Richard Gordon. Today saw him make his first League start away to St Mirren, searching for their first league win over Celtic since winning home and away during the 1989/90 season, and to me on today’s performance he seems a bit lackadaisical, but has the talent. He still has some way to go to remotely deserve the plaudits going his way though.

With his first touch, he shuffled forward and put in a lazy cross which went nowhere. However a worrying trend did start to appear in the opening minutes, the St Mirren defence were not getting their tackles in. This was to cost them dear when in the 27th minute. McCourt went on a mazy run going past 5 statues and scoring Celtic’s opener. Commentators have been quick to claim that this was a fantastic goal, when there were at least 5 bit’s of comic cuts defending which means this goal wasn’t as good as claimed. That’s not to take anything away from McCourt, but any resistance from the St Mirren defence would have kept Celtic out.

A couple of minutes later, McCourt nearly repeated his trick, but this time one of the St Mirren defenders managed to intercept the ball. St Mirren had to get to half time, and this was underlined by Garry Brady’s unforgivable gift to Celtic at a free kick… in a prime attacking position on the right side of Celtic’s box. From this position, he rolled the ball to a Celtic player, which started an unsuccessful raid on St Mirren’s goal.

The second half was much more even, and frankly boring. The St Mirren fans made their own entertainment by either trying to out sing the family friendly sectairian songs coming from the St James’ end, or by singing about ESPN’s match summariser, Craig Burley. There were a couple of incidents to puncture the trudge that was the second half, St Mirren broke upfield with about 15 minutes left, Dorman ran into Celtics box from the right and cut back to Dargo, who’s shot was blocked, while both Potter & Killen were booked when Killen tried to take the ball off of Potter at a St Mirren throw, though in all honesty it was a spot of handbags at 20 paces.

Celtic scored with about 10 minutes left with a bending shot which beat Gallagher all ends up. I suspect that this was a missed opportunity for St Mirren though. Celtic’s manager Tony Mowbray was correct in his assertion that Celtic did not play particularly well, and had St Mirren not been so soft in midfield, Celtic would not have been so comfortable in the latter stages of this game.

However when people remember this game, they will talk of McCourt’s goal, which has unleashed an element of hype and expectation. How he handles the kind of hype which surrounds new talent breaking through in any of the Old Firm will be key to his continued development as a player. In the meantime, rather than make rash predictions, we should sit back and just watch this space.

Update 23:59 - The St Mirren songs about Craig Burley were apparently prompted by a comment made on air - "Those St Mirren fans have paid to bait the Celtic fans & should spend more time supporting their team....". Prehaps those Celtic fans should stop singing songs in celebration of their own outdated and unwanted version of Jihad then.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Out Of The World Cup, But Keeping George

Having been eliminated from the World Cup last week, the knives were out big style, but yesterday the SFA indicated that they will be keeping George Burley as Scotland manager through the qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championship.

I happen to think that it’s a bit of a surprise given George Peats comments before the Macedonia game. However, there is logic behind the decision. Scotland played some exiting football during the campaign, twice against Iceland and at home to Macedonia and apparently against the Netherlands at home (I say apparently as I missed the game as I was sick). George, unlike Walter Smith or Alex McLeish, also was willing to change his tactics.

However, there were three games which essentially cost Scotland dearly in their quest to at least make the playoffs. Scotland started so far off the pace against Macedonia, not helped by the fact that there was no acclimatisation time, the match kicked off at 3pm local time still in the middle of a hot Balkans summer. Scotland seemed to run out of energy early on. With hindsight, playing 4-4-2 was maybe too much of a gamble in that heat.

Scotland recovered admirably to win 2-1 in Rejkiavijk, playing 4-3-3 for the first hour. Next up though was Norway, which would be as critical as their meeting 4 years previously. This game hinged on a substitution and a miss. Burley, pressing for a win, decided to put on one of the Championship’s (Division 1 in old money) top scorers, Chris Iwelomu, rather than Scotlands champion at scoring against the not so good teams, Kris Boyd. Within minutes Iwelomu had a chance but missed in the moment which will surely define his career. The next day, in a display of breathtaking petulance, Boyd announced that he would not play for Scotland again while Burley was manager. This was probably the first sign that not all the players were behind Burley. The Scotland camp was not really helped by the attitude of the red tops, who smelled blood.

Boozegate came after Scotland demonstrated how not to defend set pieces against the Dutch, and the Scotland hierarchy made their first off-pitch blunder. After umming and ahhing about what to do, the Rangers 2 were banned and dropped, then restored to the bench against Iceland, where they let everyone know what they thought of proceedings. Completely forgotten in the furore was how good Scotland played without Barry Ferguson.

The final nail in Scotland’s campaign came in Oslo about 5 weeks ago as Scotland struggled with Norway’s physical route one tactics. When Gary Caldwell went down the tunnel after being sent off. Scotland’s qualification hopes went with him. Caldwell’s replacements in the Scotland defence struggled as John Carew pulled, pushed and generally ran riot against a set of players suddenly unsure how to play him. That’s without mentioning the parallels with the first Macedonia game, both games were early season games which featured undercooked and under-prepared Scotland players.

George Burley has made mistakes during the campaign, but so have the SFA hierarchy in the shape of Peat and Smith. They gave the go ahead for Scotlands fixtures, which included the early season fixtures in Macedonia and Norway which cost Scotland 6 points. It would have made more sense to swap the Macedonia tie with the Iceland tie, thus making conditions in the evening that bit easier. Finishing with the Netherlands at home is something of a boob too.

I’m not really sure if the SFA have done the right thing in extending Burley’s reign as Scotland coach, but I don’t subscribe to the view that he’s been a disaster either. There are three things he does need to do for the next campaign. He needs to sort out the defence. Most of Scotland’s goals conceded seem to come either from crosses or “second phase balls” – balls coming off defenders or other players and falling to other players. He needs to stop Scotlands forwards from being so profligate in front of goal. Against Iceland and Macedonia at Hampden we really should have won more heavily than 2-1 and 2-0, and by all accounts we had enough chances to beat the Dutch, and that’s before we come to Iwelomu’s miss against Norway. Lastly, we need to think about the scheduling of our matches. Craig Brown used to be a master at this, always starting away to a middle ranking team, get the top seed at home first, and always finish with a winnable game at home.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Road To Madrid & Hamburg

With great relief, the two remaining European competitions get underway this week with Scottish participation after one of the most bloody and depressing close seasons ever. Starting with 6 teams, only the Old Firm remain in the first round proper. Falkirk were dumped by Vaduz, Motherwell lost heavily to Steua Bucharest, Aberdeen were undone by Sigma Olomouc and Hearts were taken apart, only to rally, against Dynamo Zagreb. Celtic lost out to a poor Arsenal team, but will start in the revamped UEFA Cup.

First up, on Wednesday, will be Rangers, amazingly playing their first European game this season. For the third time this decade, they open up their European Cup/Champions League campaign against VFB Stuttgart, though this time they play away first. On previous occasions Rangers have lost narrowly on their visits to the former Nekarstadion, they lost 1-0 in November 2003 and 3-2 in November 2007. A result for Rangers will be key, especially in such a winnable group. There is no Manchester United or Barcelona like there was in 2003 and 2007. Sevilla are the seeds in this group, and are likely to be more beatable than the previous seeds.

Having lost to Arsenal, Celtic has found themselves in a tough group. Before ties against Hamburg and a grudge match against Rapid Vienna, Celtic face Hapoel Tel Aviv on Thursday. They last played them 10 years ago and won 3-0 on aggregate in the old UEFA Cup, but then came Lyon and Larson’s leg-break… By the looks of things Celtic should win on Thursday, however as we have seen Scottish Football has had a stinker of a season. Our co-efficient has dived quicker than New Labour’s poll ratings.

While the English sides will go into this week with confidence, and Real Madrid will go into this week with a little verve, our sides will be rather more pragmatic about their chances. Hopefully we’ll see 2 wins out of 2, I suspect the best Rangers will get is a draw and Celtic will get a tight win.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Hanging On...

World Cup Qualifying Group 9, Hampden: Scotland 2 Macedonia 0

Well, they’re not out of it, but they are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Scotland struggled for large parts of the first half but wound up dominating and could really have piled on the goals, but for some poor choices in the final third.

Macedonia started brightly, were tidy in possession and could have scored, through Lazio’s Pandev and Naumoski. Gordon made crucial saves each time. The turning point of the match happened just before half time when one too many of the Macedonians went down injured. At the drop ball, Scott Brown heavily struck the ball out of play off of one of the Macedonia players, forcing a corner. At this point, the Macedonian’s and the Referee Wolfgang Stark loose the plot. The game had been threatening to do this, there was a large confab about 20 minutes in, but the majority of the Macedonians wanted at Brown (pictured). In the aftermath, James McFadden was, rather mystifyingly booked, which rules him out of the game against the Netherlands.

Scotland started the second half by changing from a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, and looked the more solid team for it. Scotland were creating chances when the goal came, Miller had missed a chance moments earlier, while McFadden went past 2 defenders then contrived not to score. The goal came from some good Scotland possession down their left which culminated in a cross from Steven Fletcher, and of all the people to score it had to be Scott Brown with the deftest of headers to deflect the ball to the far side. Scotland then dominated the match particularly down the left as Whittaker has a couple of chances, McFadden had a chance too, cutting in from the right to put past the post.

Macedonia had a couple of counter-punches before they gave the ball away for the second goal. Under pressure from a Scotland defender, the ball broke to McFadden who ran half the length of the Hampden pitch before rounding the keeper and scoring his first competitive Scotland goal since scoring against Ukraine nearly 2 years ago.

This leaves Scotland in the box seat to claim second place in the group, tomorrow Macedonia and Norway go head to head in a winner takes at least third place tie. Scotland however have a much more difficult task in that they have to beat the Netherlands’ just to have a chance of making it to the playoffs.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Just Like Lord's

Fifth Test, The Oval: England 332 & 373-9d beat Australia 160 & 348 by 197 runs & win the series 2-1

So in this series of twists and turns, England managed to pull off a huge win to take the series 2-1. Much like at Lords, England posted a modest target first up, many people thought England were at least 25 runs under par when they were bowled out just after the start of the second day. However like at Lords, Australia were destroyed in the Friday Afternoon Session, skittling Australia out for 160 (left).

This time the chief architect was Stuart Broad who continued the form shown in the Headingly test. When he got his chance he went on to take 4 wickets for 8 runs in 3.3 overs. His final analysis for the innings was 5 for 37. I was at a wedding at the time, before the wedding I thought that England would be lucky if Australia were about 270-290 for 6 at the close especially after the start provided by the openers Katich and Watson. I checked my phone when we were on the coach and saw that England had taken 3 quick wickets and thought the match had come back to parity. When I checked again (when we got to the hotel for the reception) Australia were 8 down. Aggers comment was spot on when he tweeted “Tell you what… I reckon they’re coming home

Watching the highlights on Channel 5 a couple of days later, it was striking and a object lesson to the rest of the England seamers, how often Broad put the ball in the right places, on a good length making the batsman play and letting the ball swing. This had been Siddle and Hilfenhaus tactics all season long and had brought them dividends (Hilfenhaus took 22 wickets @ 27.45, Siddle took 20 wickets @ 30.80, Johnson also took 20 wickets but @32.55) particularly in restricting the England batsmen all summer. Broad’s session where he took 5 wickets saw him stake his claim to be the heir apparent to Flintoff.

Australia could have still got into the game, but couldn’t part Strauss and debutant Trott. They came together on 39 for 3 (England lead of 172) and put together a stand of 117 which effectively sealed the series win. After that the only wobbles came with Ponting and Hussey’s 127 run stand on the fourth day.

The statistics say that Australia dominated this series, 6 Australian batsmen made 100’s, though Strauss top scored with 474 runs (his high score of 161 at Lords is also the series highest score), while Hilfenhaus, Siddle and Johnson topped Broad in terms of taking wickets. However the Ashes were lost because this Australia side have not been ruthless enough, and have not bowled well enough. They were utterly devastating at Headingley but for most of the series the England batsmen seemed to be the architects of their own downfall. Poor shot selection seemed to be the doing of a lot of the English batsmen. The English bowlers produced 3 good quality spells of bowling (at Lords, Edgbaston on the second day and here at the Oval), and dominated the series from getting out of Cardiff with a draw to the first morning at Headingly. England deserved to win the series.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Diving In

Five days after the event, the Eduardo dive is still something of a talking point. Depending on which side of the border you sit on, there is a slightly different angle to this story.

In England the story is being perpetuated as “evil foreigners bringing their cheating ways to our precious game” or something like that, with the book being urged to be thrown at Eduardo. I happen to think that the book should be thrown at Eduardo and anyone else who cheats, however this attitude is at least 10 years too late. The clampdown really should have started in 1990 when Argentina cheated their way to a World Cup final and were stopped by West Germany, no strangers to the dark arts themselves.

Not that it’s only foreigners who cheat. Here in Scotland, some of the coverage has been a tad unsympathetic towards Celtic as fans of other teams remember Celtic players (and Old Firm players generally)who dived. Older fans will remember John McDonald of Rangers who was rather quick to go down. More recently Nakamura fell over and got a free kick at Love Street. So with Wednesday still fresh in the memory, was today really a good day then for McGeady to dive against Hibernian? Over to you Gorden Smith...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Season Does Start Here!

After one of the most traumatic and dispiriting close seasons in Scottish football history, the Scottish Championship starts today in a climate of economic collapse. It is a symbol if this that the Champions Rangers have so far not added to their squad, despite the “Champions League” millions coming their way. On the plus side for Rangers they retain Walter Smith as manager, who has won 8 championships in total for his team. Rangers though have seen 5 players leave the club.

On the other hand Celtic had their most turbulent close season since Martin O’Neil’s appointment, when they lost Gordon Strachan within 24 hours of losing the Championship. Strachan’s successor was identified as Tony Mowbray. However a protracted period of negotiations ensued, which eat into valuable preparation time. Celtic have actually managed to bring some players in, Landry N'Guemo, Marc-Antoine Fortune and Danny Fox being the summer signings while Lukasz Zaluska signed on freedom of contract in January. Celtic though have lost Nakamura from last year. Celtic’s chances of overtaking Rangers depend on how quickly they can pull together as a team, and whether they are mentally tough enough. In this respect, I would make Rangers slight favourites to retain the league championship, very possibly on the last afternoon of the season again.

Elsewhere it’s a case of the more things change, the more things stay the same. Aberdeen replaced Calderwood with Motherwell’s Mark McGee, who’s attempts at teambuilding have so far proved less successful than his work at Fir Park, the 8-1 European aggregate defeat at the hands of Sigma Olomic at the will have been a hige psychological blow. Motherwell appointed former Stockport manager Jim Gannon, and suffered their own European humiliation at the hands of Steua Bucharest. HIbs saw Pattelinen leave and replaced him with Falkirk’s John Hughes, who took a couple of his Cup finalists with him. Falkirk brought in rookie manager, and former player Eddie May. Their European nightmare came at the hands of Luxembourg’s very own FC Vaduz. The combination of rookie manager and former player is not a good combination for a new manager. This probably makes Falkirk favourites for the drop, but in truth they will probably fight it out with Hamilton and Kilmarnock, with promoted St Johnstone, St Mirren and Motherwell just being too good to go down, but not by much.

Not that very much of this will be seen by the general public. The demise of Setanta has seen the rights for the SPL split between BSkyB and newcomers ESPN. BSkyB appear to have already decided to show Scottish football in the graveyard slot of Saturday lunchtime. Highlights will be shown on the BBC on Monday nights, 50 hours after the action has taken place. One of the stated aims of the SPL was to “improve the product”. Can someone tell me how a product is being improved by being priced out of reach of most people, and being shown at insane hours?

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Norway 4, Scotland 0

"Scotland's World Cup dream was left on a knife edge after they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a desperate, Egil Olsen-inspired Norway. Gary Caldwell was sent off after 33 minutes and John Arne Riise scored with the resulting sublime free-kick. Morten Gamst Pedersen drove in the second on the stroke of half-time. Erik Huseklepp turned in the third and Pedersen added a fourth as coach Olsen's Norway revived their chances of reaching the play-offs from Group Nine.

Defeat means Scotland will probably now need to win their two remaining matches, at home to Macedonia and group winners Netherlands, to make those matches as one of the best-placed runners-up

It has to be said that this was a very bad night, and it all turned on Caldwell’s sending off on 33 minutes. Referee Hamar had made a couple of dodgy decisions before the incident, but the sending off was simply the wrong decision. Caldwell and Carew were involved in a tusstle for the ball, and Carew lost out. Caldwell wasn’t involved in any shenanigans that Carew didn’t do. Nope it was a bad mistake and it cost Scotland dear.

That’s not to blame the referee for everything that went wrong. It did however expose the bad decision making in the Scotland camp. Rather than re-arrange things for 5 minutes to figure out who to take off to plug the hole in the defence, Burley swapped Berra for Ross McCormack, who looked more effective than Commons. That’s not to mention Graham Alexander. Scotland’s defence couldn’t handle the physical nature of Carew, strange considering the physical nature of Scottish Football, and just looked more and more fragile as the game went on. The second goal saw no real challenges on any of the Norway players, while the Scotland players failed to pick up Huseklepp for the third. It doesn’t help that Scotland looked undercooked, which goes back to the concerns about the timing of the game, coming before the start of the domestic season in Scotland, but half way through the Norwegen season.

What this result does do is bring forward the autopsy on Scotland’s World Cup campaign, with the first 5 or 6 callers to BBC Scotland’s “Your Call” programme calling for Burley to go. Sunny Jim Traynor has just said that he thinks Burley is in denial. Read into that what you will. The 5 or 6 callers did rather spoil their argument by calling for Souness to be installed as Scotland Manager, not because of some sort of tactical nous, but because he has balls. It appears that Scotland fans are already looking beyond Burley

Scotland were hard done by with the sending off of Caldwell. But they failed to make the necessary adjustments, both tactically and mentally, and paid a heavy price for it. Scotland are not out of the World Cup, but progressing out of the group is now a very very difficult task. I think that Burley has to beat Macedonia and The Netherlands next month to give Scotland that slim chance of reaching the play-offs, or his time as Scotland coach will come to an end.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Fourth Test, Headingley: Australia 445 beat England 102 & 263 by an innings and 80 runs

As momentum shifts go, this was as unexpected and unforeseen as is possible as Australia’s pace attack found form… and then some. By exposing the technical deficiancies in the England middle order, the Australian bowlers made it doubtful that Ian Bell or Ravi Bhopara would be picked for the 5th Test a week on Thursday.

The technical deficiencies also extended to the England pace bowlers, who bowled too short and gave too many easy shots to the Australian batsmen. England were in a hole very quickly on day one, finding at 71 for 5 at Lunch. Very quickly they were bowled out for 102. Having only seen the highlights, I suspect that technical deficiencies played a part in the batting collapse, with Bell and Bhopara the main culprits. But I suspect that there is a lack of patience here as well. Its no error that Cook prospered, abet briefly, on the first morning. Strauss looked, well, distracted. Hardly surprising as he had lost Flintoff to injury, and had looked like loosing Prior to injury during the warm-up.

Despite only getting 3 wickets in the match, the inclusion on Stuart Clark in the Australian test team seems to have invigorated the other bowlers. Peter Siddle took five wickets in the first innings, however the real bonus was the return to form of Mitchell Johnson. Johnson had so far wilted under the pressure of being the next great Australian spearhead bowler. His 5 for 69 included 3 wickets on Saturday evening (above, getting the wicket of Alistair Cook late on Day 2) which blew away the England middle order. In sharp contrast, England bowled too short. Broad and (to a certain extent) Onions seemed to be the only bowlers who were prepared to bowl line and length balls, and let the ball swing.

Going into the last test, the series is tied at 1-1. Previous results at the Oval are irrelevant, but for the record Australia have only won there 3 times since the Second World War (1948, 1972 and 2001). England seem to have all the selection problems. It is likely that Anderson will be fit, and will be joined by Flintoff, for his last Test. This however leaves the question of what to do with the middle order. The saving grace for Bell and Bhopara is that there really isn’t an obvious replacement for either of them. Personally, I would maybe look to swap Bhopara and Bell, Bhopara is not a Test Number 3, while maybe a change in position would do Bell some good. Australia hold most of the aces, and a momentum they had before, and lost. England must hope that they lose it again.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Season Kinda Starts Here

It has been a very strange and somewhat staggered start to the season. Motherwell, Aberdeen and Falkirk have been eliminated from Europe already, while Celtic have got through a tough European qualifier. We have also seen the start of the League Cup with two SPL sides taking part in the first round last weekend, and on Wednesday we will see Scotland play in a key World Cup qualifier. All of this before the start of the domestic Season (the lower leagues kicked off yesterday).

We will look at the club game in more detail before Saturday. However Wednesday sees Scotland’s earliest international ever when they take on Norway in Oslo. Its not that Scotland have never played internationals in August before, they even played a key European Championships qualifier against Greece in August (in 1995, bizarrely the first game in Athens took place the weekend before Christmas 1994). However I can’t remember a Scotland International taking place before the start of the domestic season. For this reason, this game will be a difficult match.

P GD Pts
Netherlands 7 +14 21
Scotland 5 -2 7
Macedonia 6 -3 7
Iceland 7 -6 4
Norway 5 -3 3

Scotland do have a good record in Oslo. They are unbeaten there in World Cup qualifying, having won there in September 1988 and September 2005, both times by 2-1, their last defeat in Norway was a 4-3 loss in 1964. This does not disguise the fact that this is a crucial match for both teams, as you can see from the group table above. A loss for Norway will effectively eliminate them from the race for second. A win for Scotland will put points between themselves and Macedonia. Bearing in mind that their last two games are home ties next month against Macedonia and Netherlands. 9 points in the last 3 games is a must, even to get into the minefield of the playoffs.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

What If...

Third Test, Edgbaston: Australia 263 & 375-5 drew with England 376

The biggest question to be posed at the end of this test was what if the rain hadn’t come, how would have panned out. Of course its all ifs and buts, which ignore the interesting shift which occurred in this match.

Before the match, England were on top, and Australia were in apparent disarray. However Australia look to be now working their way back into this series. Their bowling this test is an improvement on Lords, though Johnson is still perhaps leaking too many runs for Australia’s liking. HIlfenhaus though has been excellent, extracting swing. The session either side of lunch on the fourth day put a check on England’s scoring, at one point it was doubtful that England would overhaul the 263 Australia posted.

What is clear is that this is now an incredibly close contest, inconceivable 3 months ago when Australia demolished South Africa. Tomorrow the series moves on to the 4th Test, which will be held in Leeds. Headingley of course has a strong place in Ashes history, from Bradman’s 334 in 1930, 1981 and all that through to Mark Butchers match winning 173 not out in the last Ashes test played at Headingley, in 2001. Weather permitting, another chapter waits.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Longest Record...

Second Test, Lords: England 425 & 311-6 dec beat Australia 215 & 406 by 115 runs

For all that Ricky Ponting is a fantastic batsman, and the biggest risk to Sachin Tendulkar’s reign as test crickets most successful run’s scorer. He has garnered some unwanted records as Australia’s captain. The first Australian captain in 18 years to relinquish the Ashes, the first Australian captain to lose a test series at home in a similar period and he missed captaining Australia (in 2004) to their first series win in India since 1969/70 through injury, only to lose heavily when he did captain Australia when they toured there last autumn. The latest mark on Ponting’s captaincy came on Monday when his team became the first Australian test side to lose an Ashes test at Lords for the first time in 75 years.

The reasons for Australia’s defeat are familiar ones, as they were trotted out when they inexplicably drew in Cardiff. Bowlers taking longer to adapt to “English” conditions seems to be the chief reason, another reason could be that Australia are actually a bit light in the seam/swing bowler department. This is a more likely reason for Australia’s predicament. Witness the strong start England made, the 196 run 1st wicket stand being the platform which Australia could not overcome.

Not to take anything away from Strauss and Cook, but they did cash in from some poor bowling. Mitchell Johnson has been particularly disappointing on this tour, given that he was the fast bowling star of Australia’s series win in South Africa in the spring. Considering he was touted as Australia’s new main strike bowler, he looks to be the main candidate to make way for Brett Lee once he returns from injury. All of which makes the exclusion of England’s destroyer 30 months ago, Stuart Clark, all the more baffling.

England though were fantastic, though 425 somehow doesn’t do justice to their batting performance. Pieterson was in hindsight struggling with injury and Bhopara needs runs quickly as he looks to be struggling in the number 3 position. There are still too many poor shots made by the England batsmen to say that England are on their way to another Ashes series win. How they replace Pieterson will be key to how they get on.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Starting As The Last One Ended...

First Test, Sophia Gardens: England 435 & 252-9 drew with Australia 674-6 declared
So England escaped with a draw in the first test of the 2009 Ashes Series, despite only winning at best 4 out of the 15 sessions. In fact from day one England were in varying degrees of trouble. And it all stems from the poor batting display on day one.

Apart from Collingwood in the second innings, and Prior and Flintoff, who were dismissed by good deliveries by Siddle late on in the first day, none of the recognised batsmen did themselves any justice. Its more annoying that most of the batsmen got themselves in, and promptly got themselves out. The worst culprit here was Kevin Pieterson.

The guy is a talented batsman, but there are times where his concentration is not really test standard. Thursday was one of those moments where had he kept his head, then England would have been in a much better position and KP would have had another Ashes hundred. Instead he went at a wide delivery from Hauritz, and holed out to Katich. The form of the recognised batsmen, who could only muster 435 first time around on a flat slow pitch, is clearly the most worrying aspect fro the England camp. They were given a showing up by the tail-enders, who added 106 runs first time around and took England from 70 for 5 in the second innings. The form of the bowlers could be slightly excused by the slow flat nature of the pitch, but not that much. England’s bowlers need to sharpen up before Thursdays Second Test as well.

Not that England have all the problems. Despite the efforts of Clarke, North and Haddin in making the Australian middle order look at its most stable since the retirement of Steve Waugh, there must be real concern at their inability to kill a game off from 70 for 5. The sign’s were there on the second morning, when England went from 336/7 to 435. Australia missed Brett Lee, and possibly made a blunder in not picking Stuart Clarke, Metronome 2 as the BBC website text commentators took to calling him during the 2006/07 Ashes series. Ponting struggled at times to juggle his misfiring bowlers. Mitchell Johnson looked wayward, not what we were expecting from the man who took an 8 for 61 (in Perth) against South Africa and 33 wickets in the return series in the past year. Then again the last bowler to be singularly unimpressive on his Ashes bow in England would have been Glen McGrath, who went on to take 8 wickets after his thrashing at Edgbaston.

So its still game on as we head to Lords for the second test, starting on Thursday. England have recalled Harmison, possibly to cover an injured Flintoff. Should Harmison play, it would be a return to the stage where he arguably last performed in an England shirt – when he took 5 wickets on the first day of the 2005 Ashes series. It would also be a huge blow to a side who have not won against Australia at Lords for 75 years. History is against England on Thursday.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Some Thoughts About Wimbledon

1) Cherish Federer, His time at the top of his game may be over…

Federer might have just won his 15th Grand Slam event, however there were cracks appearing in Federer’s game. He was only able to break Roddick in the final once, four hours into the final when Roddick was starting to tire.

Until the final, Federer had been imperious, dispatching players who were thought to be tests, notably Karlovic. However both Djockavic and Murray, both players who have been troublesome in recent years, were knocked out. This years championships also saw injury keep Rafael Nadal out. Once Nadal comes back, I suspect we will see less and less of the old imperious Federer. The new guard of Nadal, Murray & Djockavic look ready to take over.

2) Andy Roddick is Back!

The other big story of the All England Championships was the revival in the fortunes of the one time World number one and great white hope for American Tennis, Andy Roddick. When Roddick first emerged, his main weapon was his huge serve. However, as time went on, that serve became more and more Roddicks only weapon.

Roddicks re-emergence as a player can be attributed to Larry Stefanki becoming his coach. Certainly Roddick has not returned better than he did at points in the semi-final and final. That he lost Wimbledon can only really be attributed to the tough matches he came through from the Quarter Finals onwards. He beat Lleyton Hewett in a tough five setter on the Wednesday, followed by another tough semi against Andy Murray. At the end of the final, it was clear that Roddick had very little left in the tank.

3) Murray’s time will come.

At the end of the Semi-final, Murray was out-though and tired as Roddick powered his way to his third Wimbledon final. However, even in defeat, there were positive signs for the Murray camp. Obviously there was disappointment, however he balanced that by stating that he wouldn’t let his exit at Wimbledon ruin his year, and that his next target was the US Open, which starts at the end of next Month. For team Murray, the road to Flushing Meadow started at about 7 o’clock last Friday evening.

4) The Womans Game is in the Doldrums.

With the exception of the Williams sisters, there is not one outstanding woman tennis player. Even more of an indicator of how poor the woman’s game is the fact that the number one seed, Dinara Safina, does not have a single Slam to her name. Her humiliation at the hands of Venus Williams in the semi-final was a reminder of the true quality of the Woman’s game. A shame really as it came straight after one of the best semi finals ever seen at Wimbledon, Serena’s win over Dementieva.

Watching some matches, it appears that baseline tennis dominates the game, with little deviation from this gameplan. A little variety in the tactics employed could do wonders for the game.

5) Please stop the grunting.

It is offputting. It was bad enough with just the shriek’s at serves, but the continued grunting is, quite simply, a deterrent to people tuning in to watch Tennis. My fiancĂ©e won’t watch if there is grunting, how many people are there like her. The worst offender at the moment is Serena Williams, who sounds like a drunken fight on any given Saturday night. It is not pleasant and not called for.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Setanta: The Last Rite's

It seems that Setanta has been on death row for weeks now, and this is the third re-write of this particular posting, but today the lights finally went out on a company which had only really entered the public consciousness when they won the right to televise the SPL in 2004.

Friday saw the announcement that they had defaulted on their £30 million payment to the Premier League, which lead to the cancellation of the current contract to show 46 league games, and the contract to show 23 league games which was due to start the following term. This news was followed by the announcement that prospective backers were pulling out of a financing package. That was followed on Monday by the news that the SPL would be pulling out of their contract and seeking a new television partner. To add insult to injury, the English Premiership wasted no time in announcing that ESPN would be taking over the remainder of Setanta’s contracts.

TwoHundredPercent has been blogging on the impact that the sinking of Setanta would have on the former Conference, and in many respects the impact there would be much worse than the impact felt in the EssPeeEll (© Bill Leckie 1999). Scottish Football hasn’t really been flush with cash since the first implosion of TV rights fees in 2002, which led to Motherwell going into administration and Clydebank and Airdrieonians going to the wall (only for a reborn Airdrie United taking Clydebank’s place in the League, ironically Gretna were admitted to the Scottish League at this point too). There was a feeling that Scottish Football had left those days behind when the new contract with Setanta was announced just weeks ago, a contract supposedly worth £125 million starting in 2010, and one which according to the Sunday Herald the Old Firm & Aberdeen were against signing. It now looks as if the SPL will go with the option favoured by those three teams, and take the Murdoch shilling once more, even if the offer is substantially less than the original offer.

Theoretically, Scottish football should be in a better position to weather any possible drop in revenues. However there are rumours that there could be 3 SPL clubs in trouble should Setanta go belly up. Kilmarnock are said to be heavily in debt, Falkirk were said to be in a bad position should they have gone down, while it is not clear who the other team could be. Outside of the Old Firm, who has big debts which are “serviceable” thanks to continued participation in european competition, the only teams closest to financial safety are Hibernian (thanks to the sales of promising players), newly promoted St Johnstone and St Mirren (thanks to tax dodgers Tesco). Everyone else will feel the squeeze, which would be exasperated by the poor economic situation.

Many of the “business correspondents” will point to Setanta having a business model which was doomed to failure, especially in poor economic times. This is one of the reasons why pay per view won’t really take off in the same way that it does in the USA. However, one of the key reasons must be the elephant in the room in the shape of BSkyB. Anyone entering the market for broadcasting sport in the UK must have deep pockets, and it is no coincidence that the collapse of Setanta, and earlier on this decade ITV Digital, came after both paid huge money for sports rights (ITV digital shelled out about £330 million for Football league rights, while Setanta paid part of the £425 million for FA Cup and England’s home games) in an attempt to challenge BSkyB’s dominance of the sports market.

Of course, with all the comparison’s with the English Football League’s ill fated broadcast marriage with ITV Digital flying about, with forecasts of a similar meltdown in store for the SPL, there is one similarity. Both the English Football League and the SPL felt that they had to go with small, untried sports broadcasters due to the monopoly which exists within pay-tv sportscasters, shown in the “poor” offer’s submitted for both sets of rights.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Ausies Are Coming!

"There's one thing on my cricketing resume that hasn't been achieved yet and that's being captain of a winning Ashes series in England. That's something very dear to my heart."

With those words Ricky Ponting announced his intent to lead Australia to victory in this summers Ashes series. The ruthless efficiency which was the hallmark of their 5-0 whitewash 30 months ago looks to be in evidence as the Australian’s squad to defend the ashes was announced in the week.

The squad that was picked includes several form players, instrumental in the series win in South Africa. Chief among these, among the batsmen were Marcus North (Centurion in the 1st Test) and Phillip Hughes (A century in each innings of the 2nd Test). Hughes likely opening partner is Simon Katich. Four years ago Katich, like the rest of the Australian middle order, struggled under a barrage of reverse swing. His comeback after the retirement of Justin Langer, and the injury problems of Phil Jaques, is all the more remarkable in that light.

The Australian middle order is likely to be made up of the tried and trusted, starting with the skipper, looking for the 40 runs to take him past 11000 career test runs, followed by Mike Hussey and Michael Clarke. They need to be. Australia have left out Andrew Symons from the squad, while wicket keeper Brad Haddin is no Adam Gilchrist. Whether Haddin is even in the Ian Healy mould remains to be seen. For so long the Australian middle order was the powerhouse of their batting display, with Pointing, the Waugh twins, Allan Border, David Boon and the Chappell brothers all attaining legendary status occupying those berths in the past. Yet this was the biggest failure for Australia 4 years ago, with only one century coming from that area of the batting line up (Ponting’s 162 at Old Trafford, though Clarke made 93 in the victory at Lords). This area Australia needs to get right.

Symon’s exclusion from the squad has seen the door open for 2 relatively unknown all-rounder’s. Shane Watson was much hyped before the last Ashes series as Australia’s version of Flintoff. In 8 tests, 257 runs at 19.76 and 14 wickets at 36 runs is not good form. His “back-up” Andrew McDonald’s figures are not that much better.

There is strong competition for the bowling bearths. Brett Lee and Stuart Clark are back, but are not certainties to get back into the test team. The performance of both Peter Siddle and particularly Mitchell Johnson on South African soil puts the experienced pair under pressure, with Andrew Hilfenhaus also in contention for a test place. It is likely that Australia will start the majority of the 5 tests with 4 seamers.

The largest hole to be filled from the 5-0 ashes team is in the spinners department. Having said that Shane Warne was more than just a leg spinner, the majority of wickets that he picked up in the last years of his career were earned by his nous, and his experience and ability to deliver the perfect delivery. This time around, Australia have picked just off spinner Nathan Hauritz, though if required both Michael Clarke and Simon Katich could provide slow bowling options. Either option is likely to take the 20+ wickets Warne normally hovered up in an Ashes series. This puts pressure straight away on the quick’s to get the wickets.

This is not the legendary Australian side of 1993 or 2001. But it is not unlike the side which toured England twenty years ago with a mix of experience and hungry inexperience. Ponting’s quote is a statement of intent, the question is though. Is England ready?

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Rangers 1 Falkirk 0

Rangers won the 124th Scottish Cup final with a strike from Nacho Novo (below) just after Half time. His strike, a powerful, dipping shot at an angle from out side of the box, was one of the great Hampden goals and lit up a mostly tactical game. This cup win makes it an 18th League and Cup double, and Walter Smith’s 3rd double in his two terms as Rangers manager.

The score however masks the contribution Falkirk made to this game. Falkirk’s possession, and the extra man in midfield, caused serious problems for Rangers. So much so that Falkirk dominated the first half. They created 3 clear cut chances in the first half, however their failure to convert possession into goals cost them dear today.

Firstly Burton O’Brien had a shot from outside of the box go over. With 16 minutes gone Neil McCann, going for his 6th winners medal wriggled free of a challenge and hit the bar with a shot, his next chance was closer. 4 minutes later a cross from Barr probably came at McCann a bit too quickly, and he put the shot wide.

Rangers had to make changes, their central midfield pairing of Barry Ferguson and Lee McCulloch were being over-run. They did finish the half strongly by forcing a series of corners. For the second half, Rangers brought off Kris Boyd, and brought on Novo, and went to a 3-5-2. The difference was immediate as Rangers got their spectacular winner in the 28th second of the second half. Rangers then dominated the next 20 minutes as they then kept the ball. Lafferty was almost in for the second 5 minutes later, but Falkirk kept them out.

It was Falkirk’s time to make changes, and they brought on Higdon, Finnigan and Stewart. This pushed Rangers back into their box, as the chances started to come for Falkirk. Finnigan had a goal disallowed for offside, while with 8 minutes to go, a Lovell shot narrowly hit the post. Rangers were only just still on their feet when the final whistle went.

For Rangers, this was their 33rd Scottish Cup win. They are now one behind Celtic’s record. They can now afford to put this season behind them, with a sense of satisfaction. After last week’s championship win, Rangers go straight into the group stages of the European Cup, manager-less Celtic have to try and get in through the problematic preliminary rounds. There may be some issues still surrounding the Booze-gate 2, and this story might come to a conclusion during the close season. But by and large, this has been a good season for Rangers.

For Falkirk, the game was their season in a microcosm. They played good football, but like several of the teams at the bottom of the SPL, lacked the ability to convert good possession into goals. Their manager John Hughes was under incredible pressure for much of the season, part of the bi-product of there not being an outstandingly bad team in the SPL this season. Hughes has, somewhat unwisely, never hidden his desire to go far in management. After staying up, Hughes maybe contemplating a change in job. After all, after the departure of Mixu Paatelinen from Hibernian last night, there are now 3 vacancies in the upper reaches of the Scottish football hierarchy

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Not So Magic Roundabout

With the 2008/09 Scottish Premier League not even cold, the managerial merry go round started in earnest with the exit of 2 of its high profile managers in Jimmy Calderwood and Gordon Strachan. In their posts, their fortunes differed greatly, but there was always the undercurrent of unpopularity amongst the fans.

Calderwood was the first to leave his position, hours after his Aberdeen team had clinched European Football for the first time in 2 seasons. Calderwood had kept Aberdeen in the top half of the SPL for most of his time at Aberdeen. His best results were guiding Aberdeen to the last 32 of the UEFA Cup last season. However what infuriated Aberdeen fans was not the lack of silverware but the continued failure to generate cup runs. They have been knocked out of cups by Partick Thistle and Queens Park, and lost a cup semi final to Queen Of The South, after knocking out Celtic in a replay at Parkhead. Calderwood’s other cup semi in his time at Aberdeen resulted in a thumping 4-1 reverse at the hands of Dundee United. The last straw for many, including some of the Aberdeen board, would have been the loss on penalties in the quarter finals to Dunfermline.

Hours after their 2-1 win against Hibs, Calderwood and his backroom staff of Jimmy Nichol and Sandy Clark were bagged. For Calderwood, this might be his last big job in Scottish football. For Aberdeen, this is a chance to change direction. The most obvious candidate for the job is Motherwell’s Mark McGee. However, there are others who may be after the Motherwell boss.

Strachan left his position just over 24 hours after Celtic lost their first championship since 2005. Strachan won 3 Scottish Championships in a row, 2 League Cups and a Scottish Cup (in 2007). He also took Celtic to the last 16 of the European Cup 2 seasons on the trot (being eliminated by AC Milan and Barcelona respectively). Yet despite the glittering CV, the Celtic fans couldn’t wait to see the back of Strachan. Maybe it was his position as a prominent member of Alex Ferguson’s Old Firm smashing Aberdeen side a quarter of a century ago, or maybe his personality rubbed the fans up the wrong way. Either way (and it can’t possibly be because he wasn’t “Celtic minded” enough) it’s an attitude which mystifies.

For Strachan, a position with one of the Premierships middle teams awaits. Celtic on the other hand are at a crossroads. The handover from Martin O’Neil to Strachan was pretty flawless, despite the appointment being seen as an imaginative and left field decision. In order to pick up the momentum again from their rivals across Glasgow, they must make the right decision. Problem is, apart from the decision making process being in the public domain for the first time since John Barnes was bagged nearly a decade ago, there is not really an obvious candidate.

Mark McGee (him again) is Strachan’s choice as successor, while some of the newspapers have mentioned the West Brom and former Hibs manager Tony Mowbray. The former St Johnstone manager Owen Coyle ruled himself out of the running straight away. Then again if you’ve just taken your team into England’s top flight for the first time since 1976…

For both teams, who is picked to coach them next is the most crucial decision they will have taken for years. For Aberdeen, it could mean a change in direction. For Celtic it is likely to mean the breakup of Strachan’s team. Nakamura might be the first to go (he is likely to return to Japan), while this might be the summer where Boric wins that big move to one of Europe’s aristocracy. Whether this means the end of this period of 6 titles in 9 seasons remains to be seen.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Barcelona 2 Manchester United 0

The English Premiership is reputedly the best in the world, with their champions Manchester United supposedly at the pinnacle of their powers. Barcelona were missing most of their defence, and according to the BBC’s Alan Green were handicapped by having a clown in the shape of Valdes in goal. With such a set of overwhelming circumstances against them, how the hell did Barcelona win the 54th European Cup final?

It didn’t look good for them in the first 10 minutes when United absolutely pummelled the Barcelona defence. Cristiano Ronaldo had 5 shots on goal alone in that period. However the key moment arrived just 10 minutes in when Iniesta, making his first run at the United defence, passed to the Cameroon forward Samuel Eto’o, who danced around Vidic and struck a powerful shot. Van Der Sar could only parry it into the ground and into the net. From then on Barcelona took a firm grip on the game, and the writing was on the wall for Manchester United.

Barcelona won by playing what used to be called “continental” football, ie measured passing and possession football. It was this which killed the Manchester United game plan more than anything, as United struggled to mount any momentum. The midfield three of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta were fantastic as their possession and passing became the platform of the Barcelona performance. Xavi and Iniesta built on the plaudits they received when they were in the midfield during Spains European Championship win last year. Yet Barcelona didn’t really press home their advantage until the second half, when they created a flurry of chances with Henry, Eto’o and Messi all coming close. With 20 minutes left Barcelona won the game with a second goal.

Xavi on the Barcelona right put in an absolute peach of a cross, quite possibly the best cross of the season, and Lionel Messi headed the ball into the net (right), it was a strange header, slow but gave Van Der Sar no chance. That as they say was that.

Yep, Manchester United didn’t really turn up (first 10 minutes apart), and were quite obviously missing Darren Fletcher. However, there are not many teams who would have been able to have coped with the fluid multi-tempo passing. This type of team just simply does not exist in the harem-scarem world of the English Premiership.

Barcelona’s victory represented a return to the values of possession football, something which is non existent in this country. More than that, it represented two fingers at the dominance, and the playing style of the English Premiership.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Final Straight...

With 2 games to go in the SPL, everything is still to play for, but the question has to be asked if this has turned out to be a decisive night at the bottom of the SPL.

After the Old Firm game at the weekend, Rangers went top for the first time this year. However tonight’s draw with Hib’s has seen them fall back into second place on goal difference. Truth be told, it was a good point for Hib’s, they deprived Rangers of space behind their defence. They enjoyed a huge slice of luck when Rangers were deprived a goal, the officials were possibly unsighted. With 2 games only goal difference separates the two teams.

However not all the drama was confined to the top of the SPL. St Mirren fell to the bottom of the league after their 2-1 loss at Kilmarnock. Since the cup semi-final, St Mirren have shipped 7 goals in 3 games, with the majority of them coming from poor marking at crosses/set pieces. St Mirren have also suffered a dramatic loss of form at precisely the wrong time of the season. Inverness changed manager at the start of the year and have got the new manager bounce. Kilmarnock and Falkirk have also found form, Kilmarnock in the shape of Berti Vogt’s discovery Kevin Kyle.

St Mirren are odds on to go down, very possibly on Saturday at Falkirk, but the thing that might save them is the same complacency which crept around Greenhill Road since the 2-0 win at Fir Park 4 weeks ago. At the moment, it’s not looking good for the Bud’s.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Smell Of Money

With depressing regularity, once again Scottish Football will be feeling the pinch with the news about Setanta’s attempt to re-negotiate it’s new deal for exclusive live coverage of the SPL… followed closely by the next episode in the will they won’t they saga about the Old Firm moving to the English Premiership.

Firstly, Setanta appear to have come to the conclusion that like the rest of the country, it has slightly overreached itself. Not the most surprising piece of news, considering it has been trying to re-negotiate its contract with the English FA over the rights to England games and the FA Cup. It does however seem as if that Scottish football is in constant financial trouble, it was only last week that Clyde managed to negotiate it’s arrears with North Lanarkshire Council. This does not help the situation, but at least there is no hyper inflation of players value's like there is in England.

It is this hyper inflation which has exasperated the differences between the SPL and the EP, and it is fear of this bubble bursting a la the mortgage market in this country which has led to Phil Gartside, the Bolton Wanderers chairman making suggestions about re-organising the EP.

His proposals include a second tier for the Premiership, with a slimmed down 18 team top league. More worryingly his proposals also include inviting the Old Firm to join the league in the “lower” tier. It cannot be understated how much damage to the unique culture of British football would be caused if this proposal were to happen. This would essentially mean the beginning of the end of the English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh national sides competing at UEFA and FIFA events.

It would be tempting for the Old Firm to join, they would get a cut of the television riches, which would mean better players. This ignores the fact that the Old Firm have been here before, and squandered their riches on duff foreign footballers, which contributed to the squeezing of Scottish talent from about 1993 to the first implosion of TV revenues in 2002.

However, I hope that they won’t go. Some of their fans have given this a luke warm response, perhaps they understand that this would be as big a threat, if not a bigger threat to the Scotland national team as a UK team in the 2012 Olympics, perhaps they realise that despite what the Desmond’s and the Murray’s think, money isn’t everything, or perhaps they see that the real winners won’t be the ordinary football fan.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The End...

There were moments on Wednesday evening where a blog called “The End…” would have been about George Burley’s time as Scotland Manager. Instead, this is about the reaction to the antics of “The Rangers 2”.

First to the game itself. Despite dominating possession in large parts of the game, Scotland were fortunate to win against Iceland. This is purely down to the fact that Iceland, whenever they got forward, looked as if they could produce that key final pass at any time. Scotland, despite actually looking sharp in possession, didn’t really get behind the Iceland defence until just before they got the first goal. Scotland’s second came after Iceland equalised, and was a fantastic piece of opportunism. Scotland though have to sort out their defence, for many years the bedrock of the Roxborough/Brown years. They hung on at the end of the game, but this is the second game where they were ropey at crosses (having given away goals against the Netherlands on Saturday).

All this though have been knocked into a cocked hat by the actions of the Rangers 2. For the benefit of those coming late to the party, after the Netherlands game the Scotland manager gave dispensation for some of the players to have a couple of drinks. There were apparently 5 players who stayed up for most of the night, these included the captain Barry Ferguson and the goalkeeper on Saturday, Alan McGregor. Those 2 apparently were still in the hotel bar at breakfast time, and apparently well into the morning.

Bearing in mind that these are supposed to be sportsmen, who’s bodies are supposed to be temple’s. This is not good behaviour, and a shocking example to your peers and other players. The Rangers 2 should have been told to leave the Scotland camp there and then. The problem is that there is a clique of Scotland players who have been spinning against Burley, and there are Journalists in the Scotland press corp who don’t particularly rate Burley, which I think he knows and sometimes affects his judgement. At the time of Burley’s appointment, I thought he was the best man shortlisted. I still think that. I don’t think that he should have kept them in the squad, far less name them on the sub’s bench. Apparently, a section of the Scotland squad lobbied the manager to try and keep them in the squad, this really should have been rejected. But this is another indication of how powerful the players feel that they have become.

Bizarrely the next twist provides the catalyst for what happened yesterday. The Rangers 2 were photographed sticking two fingers up. To who is not really clear, but it was a deeply petulant and childish act. This appears to have roused the powers that be into acting. Rangers have all but sacked the pair, stripping Fergusson of the captaincy, and dropping the pair from the squad to face Falkirk tomorrow. It is unlikely that they will return to face the mighty St Mirren come Wednesday. The SFA then issued its own sanctions, a lifetime ban from the International team.

As I am typing this, many of the contributers to the BBC’s Sportsound programme have made the error of seeing the incidents as separate. If you look at it that way, then the sanctions handed to the pair are over the top, especially the ban’s handed out for flicking the V’s. However, these incidents are interlinked, and the sanctions are appropriate. The Rangers 2 were reacting against the situation, and the public ire of the Tartan Army. I do wonder how different things would have turned out if Ferguson & McGregor had been sent home on Monday.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Netherlands 3 Scotland 0

The Netherlands took a big stride towards World Cup qualification with their win last night. The strange thing about the game was that though they did play very well, the 3 goals all came from defensive mistakes from the Scotland back line. That was after Kenny Miller really should have tested Stekenburg in the first 10 minutes.

Now before anyone criticises Burley for any tactical mistakes, a look at the list of missing players should put to bed any doubts surrounding Burley. Alan Hutton’s lack of match practice probably helped Graeme Alexander make the starting line up for this game. This game is not one which he will remember with any fondness. Time and again he was exposed and found wanting in the face of Arjen Robben’s pace and trickery. This however is no excuse for his failure to track Huntelaar for the first Dutch goal. Caldwell also seemed distracted by this as he also lost his marker for a second, making it look as if the Dutch were queuing up to score.

The Netherlands were dominating at this point, and a repeat hiding looked to be on the cards. But just as Scotland looked to have weathered the storm pre-half time, they gave away the second goal, a rare Robin Van Persie header. Never has the phrase “schoolboy defending” really been more apt as Van Persie had time for the run up.

Scotland held it together much more successfully in the second half, and put the Dutch under some pressure. Caldwell scored with about 15 minutes to go from a corner, but this was chalked off. Presumably there was pushing in the box, with either of the Fletchers being deemed the culprit. The incidents were part of the normal jostling that goes on in the penalty box at corners, so it is something of a mystery that the goal was chalked off. Had the goal stood, then Scotland would have been back in the game. As it was the Dutch went up the park to put the game beyond doubt with Huntelaar going through and being brought down by Berra. Kuyt converted the penalty, and that was really that.

At this point we could go into reasons why we lost, but the truth is rather obvious. Bearing in mind that the current crop of Scottish players are just not as technically gifted as their Dutch counterparts, that is possibly a discussion point for another time as to why a country only 3 times the size of Scotland can produce so many great players while we struggle. We did look rather threadbare in areas, particularity down the right, with Graeme Alexander being exposed to Robben. Hutton, when he came on, was a little short of match practice and looked it. Naysmith & Teale fared a bit better with Kuyt on the other flank.

Scotland must now pick themselves up for the visit of Iceland on Wednesday. We are half-way through our qualifying programme, with only 4 points to show for it. The only upside is that our hardest games, away to the Dutch and Macedonia, are behind us. With only one tie to be played away, we should be looking to consolidate a good second place finish. Just need to work a bit on defending at crosses first.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Englsh Football V Europe Again...

The European Cup returns to action this week with the start of the knockout phase. With both of the Old Firm taking their usual seat on the sidelines at this point, the action is left to English football’s leading lights. The draw has given us some interesting ties.

Tomorrow both Arsenal and Manchester United are in action against Italian sides. Arsenal are at home to Roma, a tough tie for Arsenal. I would not be surprised to see them exit the competition at this point. Manchester United face the champions of Italy, Inter Milan. 12 months ago, Inter were out thought by Liverpool. This year, they come into the knockout stages in a commanding position in Serie A, having beaten city rivals AC Milan a week or so ago. Of course Inter are now being coached by one Jose Mouriniho. His main target is European glory, something which has evaded Inter in this competition since 1965. This tie is perhaps the closes to call, but again I would not be surprised to see Inter triumph. On top of Mouriniho having previous here, knocking United out at this stage 5 years ago while with Porto, the defending champions have failed to make it past this stage for the past 4 years, Porto, Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan have all fallen at this stage.

On Wednesday, the England V Italy vibe continues when Claudio Ranieri takes his Juventus side to Chelsea. Before the removal of Scolari, Juventus looked like they might win this one. However with the abeit temporary appointment of Guus Hiddink, Chelsea will pull together and win.

This leaves us with the tie which pits 9 times winners Real Madrid against 5 timers Liverpool. Their only European meeting was in the final 28 years ago, with Liverpool winning 1-0 in Paris. Reading interviews of some of the now coaches, who took part in the match (Camachio and Del Bosque) it still rankles. When the draw was made, Liverpool were clear favourites. Real Madrid were in disarray, while Liverpool were riding high at the top of the Premiership. Now Real have gone under a run under their new coach Ramos (sacked in October from Tottenham) and are making La Liga not as much of a foregone conclusion it was weeks ago. Liverpool have lost form, and were deposed from the top of the Premiership a couple of weeks ago. Their 1-1 home draw to Manchester City at the weekend may have marked the end of the championship chase, they are now 7 points behind Manchester United. This is an intriguing tie, and one which may go a long way to deciding silverware other than the European Cup come May.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Reviewing The List

Fighting Talk had never been the kind of programme where new items of news had been broken to me, but having been away in Birmingham last week, I had missed a lot of news. I didn’t know that Craig Brewster had been bagged as Inverness boss until I got home. Similarly on Saturday morning, I was listening to Fighting Talk when I found out that there was to be a review to sports Crown Jewels, the reserved list of sports events to be only televised on council telly.

I am in favour of the list, I feel that it promotes sports which normally wouldn’t receive much exposure, even if 4 of the events are footballing ones (the World Cup, European Championships and the FA and Scottish Cup finals). I wasn’t aware that Test Cricket was taken off the list 10 years ago, which explains why it has disappeared off our screens, and I was unaware that the 6 Nations is not on the list either. That this tournament has remained on our screens say’s more about the organising committee, who rejected the advances of BSkyB’s millions 10 years ago, and their ethos of promoting their sport to the masses. The same goes for The Open Championship, which again I was surprised is not on the list.

Being away, I am not aware of whether this sparked a debate about Scotland games. The televising of the Scottish (footballing) national side became something of a political cause celebre last year, when Setanta acquired the rights to Scotland’s away World Cup qualifiers, which meant that none of Scotland’s World Cup qualifiers would be shown live, and when the BBC acquired the rights to Formula 1, which had Scottish football fans wondering where the money for this had come from as the Beeb had pleaded poverty earlier.

This review will cover 3 area’s. It will look at the principle of having a list, it will look at its content and the criteria determining which events may be listed. I feel that a list is vital to preserve those moments where we remembered where we were when great sporting events happened for future generations. Events which gave us joy, and crucially inspired the next generation of British sportsmen and women.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Sporting Pick's of 2008: Part 5 - December 21st – South Africa (281 & 414/4) beat Australia (375 & 319) by 6 wickets

South Africa completed the second-highest successful run chase in Test history as they made 414-4 to beat Australia in the first Test in Perth.

The tourists began the final day on 227-3, with Jacques Kallis (57) and AB de Villiers at the crease. Mitchell Johnson removed Kallis - his 11th wicket of the match - at 303-4. But de Villiers made a sparkling 106 not out, adding 111 for the fifth wicket with debutant JP Duminy (50 not out) as the Proteas cruised home.
The all-time record Test run chase was West Indies' 418-7 against Australia in Antigua in 2003.

& December 30th – South Africa (459 & 183/1) beat Australia (394 & 247) by 9 wickets.
South Africa won a first Test series in Australia with a nine-wicket triumph at the MCG, becoming the first team in 16 years to beat the Aussies on home soil. Resuming on 30-0 in search of 183, they needed 42 more overs, Graeme Smith firing 10 fours in a commanding 75.
Neil McKenzie made an unbeaten 59 and Hashim Amla (30) hit the winning runs.
South Africa can inflict a first home whitewash on Australia and move top of the world rankings by winning the final Test in Sydney, starting on Saturday (3rd January).

Far be it for this to turn into some sort of obituary for the great Australia Test cricket team (one Australian newspaper has already mocked up a thomestone for Australian cricket already, see below), but South Africa’s series win in Australia has been the sporting result of the year. Yet when the Saffer’s pitched up at Lords for the start of their test series in England, they looked out of sorts. England racked up 500+ and enforced the follow-on. South Africa then ground out a draw, and then won at Headingley and Edgbaston to take the series. However their achievement in winning in Australia is on another level entirely. The last side to do that was the West Indies side of 1992/3 who scraped a win 2 and a half years before being dethroned as test cricket’s finest by Australia themselves.

For Australia however, this represents the end of an era. The aura of invincibility has gone. While there are mitigating circumstances, the loss of Jaques, Watson, Lee, Symonds and Stuart Clarke through injury have been crucial. What this has shown is that the conveyor belt of talent which Australia had in the 1990’s is somewhat dry at the moment. Australia have had almost 3 years to try and fix the problems with their middle order, when Martyn, Michael Clarke and Katich were blown away by England’s mastery of reverse swing in 2005. The Australian middle order was always the core of the Australian batting line up, with the Waugh twins, Border and even Ricky Ponting (before his ‘promotion’ to No#3 at the start of the 2001 Ashes) being its key performers. What has proved irreplaceable though has been the utter genius of Shane Warne, both with the ball and his ability to read a game.

Overall, Australia’s inability to fill the shoes of Warne & McGrath has been their downfall. In the first test Australia had dominated for 3 days, manoeuvring themselves into setting the Saffers an imposing target of 414 to win, with 5 full sessions to spare. While South Africa deserve the plaudits for winning with 6 wickets to spare, it must have come as a blow to Australia to find themselves unable to successfully defend 414 runs. Its not that the Australians had any warning, South Africa’s win at Edgebaston was the highest successful run chase on that ground (278). Smith, unlike that day in Edgebaston, only set down foundations with his fourth day 108, with De Villiers 106 not out closing out the game.

For the Second Test, Australia only dominated for a day and a half, collapsing once Ponting made his century on day 1, and building key lower order partnerships through part of day 2, before reducing South Africa to 198/7 by the end of day 2. Day 3 brought the unlikely partnership which put Australia behind the 8 ball. Australia’s inability to knock over South Africa’s number 9, Dale Steyn, saw them concede 180 runs for the 9th wicket. When Australia were skittled out for 247 about half an hour before the close of day four, the Australians must have realised the game was up, even if the target was a defendable 183.

While this signifies the end of an era, with the return rubber due next month. This doesn’t necessary follow that South Africa are the king’s of Test Cricket, Australia are still clinging on, while India have a good argument for that accolade. This era of the 5 day game will be a more uncertain one.