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.