Thursday, 25 March 2010

Tony Mowbray: Our Part In His Downfall

Scottish Premier League: St Mirren 4, Celtic 0, Greenhill Road

So you’re a team that has dominated a national cup final against one of the country’s biggest teams, and saw them reduced to 10 men, then 9 men, and then against all of your rising expectation you see the nine men floor your team with a stunning counter attacking goal which owes as much to top class technique as to your defenders being out of position.  you see your team lose.  Then 3 days later the other biggest team in your country come to visit.  If you’d have mentioned that the result would be 4-0 you would have though that Celtic would have over-run a dispirited St Mirren side, and you would have heard the faint sound of the SPL trap door beginning to open.

The thing to say about St Mirren’s instantly legendary win over Celtic is how utterly insane the whole thing was.  This was supposed to be the second best team in Scotland.  St Mirren spent the first 20 odd minutes feeling themselves into the game, a bit like someone the day after a hard night out feeling their way into the day.  We were all tense, because we were expecting an absolute hiding from Celtic, regardless of the fact that this was not Celtic in one of their less mighty incarnations.  Samaras had a shot saved early on by Gallacher, and Keane also had an excellent opportunity to put Celtic one up.  Had either shot gone in, Celtic probably would have found their wind and won by a hatful.  as it was Celtic in the first 25 minutes played like a team in desperate need of a spark, holding on to possession but not really doing anything with it.

The game changed 7 minutes before half time, when a couple of half clearence/half headers saw the ball fall to Andy Dorman just outside the box.  Normally he needs no invitation to score, that this was only his third of the season is proof as to how much this has not been a great season for Dorman.  Celtic were still a threat, Keane had a chance to equalise within minutes of the re-start.  Then St Mirren got their second when Dargo played a couple of one-two’s with Mehmet, which carved a hole in Celtic’s defence for Steven Thompson to score.

The damaging goal though was the third goal.  Thompson headed the ball through to Dorman who was in space and nabbed his fourth of the season.  At this point the confidence drained from Celtic, their team, their fans and very possibly their manager.  Thomson’s second of the night was really the icing on the cake as St Mirren registered their first league win over Celtic since April 1990, and their first home league win over Celtic since September 1989, and their heaviest win over Celtic since 1959. For the St Mirren fans it was the perfect tonic, though it was tempting fate for the St Mirren fans to sing “You’re getting sacked in the morning” as they have a history of sacking managers after wins against Celtic.  St Mirren now have to build on that win, with another result against Aberdeen on Saturday.

For Celtic, the story doesn’t end there.  With the League championship all but gone and only really the Scottish Cup left to play for, Celtic decided to dispense with their Management team of Mowbray, Venus and Grant.  Truth be told, the loss at St Mirren probably was the last straw for Mowbray.  If your manager insists in the press that a game is an important game and your opponents are not to be taken lightly and the players then proceed to play expecting St Mirren to fall apart like a house of cards, it’s clear that Mowbray and his management team had no discipline over the players.  Sure Celtic dominated the first half hour of the first half, but there was no real urgency.  After St Mirren got their first, the confidence started to trickle away.

Now the main question is where do Celtic go from here?  Neil Lennon has been installed as caretaker manager, which is a sensible move.   After all, Celtic cannot afford another panic appointment.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Mother of All Sucker-punches!

Co-operative Insurance Cup Final – St Mirren 0, Rangers 1 – Hampden

Of all the things I listed in my previous post about things to do to beat Rangers, I did leave out keep the back door locked.  Well, you would think that you don’t need to tell a team to keep the defence well manned.  I also assumed that the St Mirren players had the brains to keep the pressure on Rangers, rather than waste possession and perform fancy dan moves which give away said possession.  After all, the great sports teams are the ones who when they have their foot on your throat…  keep it there.

The match itself was a remarkable match, and not just for the fact it was won by a side reduced to 9 men.  Rangers have been streaking away with the Scottish Championship, yet for the first half they looked decidedly second best.  St Mirren’s 5 man mid-field overran Rangers.  St Mirren’s loan star Carey saw a lot of the ball, but unfortunately his delivery was poor, with crosses being constantly over hit.  One would think that certainly Celtic, but Rangers Scottish Cup replay opponents Dundee United might be taking notes.

Mehmet had a run at goal earlier on which was cleared.  Just before half time Steven Thompson had a shot cleared off the line by Alexander, while from the resulting corner Barron had a shot come off the bar.  Mehmet also had a shot saved by Alexander before the sides retreated for some respite.

Rangers started the stronger side in the second half, partly down to Rangers re-shaping their side to match St Mirren’s 3-5-2 formation.  But St Mirren still had chances, Mehmet had a shot which Alexander held on-to by his fingertips.  With 10 minutes gone in the second half, Rangers were reduced to 10 men.  Rangers broke up the field after Brady was tripped by Kevin Thompson, who then barged his way into Potter.  While Miller and Mair were indulging in some handbags at 40 paces, the ball broke back to Steven Thomson, who as soon as he had passed the ball on was caught with a high and wild tackle from behind from his near namesake Kevin.  The other near namesake on the pitch, referee Craig Thomson had no option but to send Kevin Thomson off.

Higdon had an excellent chance to open the scoring, but pulled his shot wide.  He was right in front of goal, and should have scored.  This bizarrely was the last chance St Mirren got as they were shortly to have a 2 man advantage.  A ball forward by Brady saw substitute Craig Dargo goal side of Rangers defender Danny Wilson, who pulled Dargo back.  It was a clear goal scoring opportunity, so Wilson had to go.  It was the foul which would go on to win the game for Rangers.

At this point St Mirren let the situation go to their heads.  Rather than keep the ball and tire Rangers out, St Mirren kept on playing it into the box.  Rangers were now decamped in their own box, keeping things tight and minimising St Mirren’s opportunities.  With seven minutes to go a mistimed piece of trickery gave Rangers the ball and finally some momentum to go forward.  Weir found Rangers substitute Naismith on the right and in space, who crucially had 2 players inside and out of position St Mirren defenders. His cross found the first player on the inside, Kenny Miller, who was goal side of his defender.  His header found the far corner of Gallacher’s goal, Rangers had produced the mother of all sucker-punches.

For Rangers, it’s yet another trophy to polish.  This win will be a masive boost going into the Scottish Cup replay on Wednesday, and on to the Championship, which is only 6 wins away for Rangers now.  For St Mirren, the ramifications might be more ongoing.  Gus MacPherson has a good record as St Mirren manager, but it is a major blight that most of his teams are incredibly profligate in front of the white sticks.  Even back when the Saints won the Scottish League Championship/First Division, St Mirren were hammering sides 0-0.  The four goals we plundered at Ross County just before Christmas that season being our biggest win.  The inability to score is worrying at the best of times, to be so in a major cup final while being 2 points off the bottom of your league is even more so, which is one of the reasons why there are so many Gus-o-phobes among the St Mirren support.
MacPherson has been tipped for better things than St Mirren for some time now.  It’s time to start showing the substance.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A First Smell Of The Brasso

Sunday sees the staging of the 64th Scottish Football League Cup, or to give it the sponsors moniker – the Co-operative Insurance Cup Final.  In the Blue corner are Rangers, who have won this trophy a record 25 times and are making their 33rd final appearance.  In the Black and White corner are St Mirren, making their first appearance at this stage of the competition since 1956, when they lost to Aberdeen 2-1.

The difference in the fortunes of both teams are stark, and carry on into current form.  Rangers are currently the runaway leaders of the Scottish Premier league, and need a further 18 points to retain that championship.  They are in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup final, but have a tricky re-play to negotiate.  St Mirren are on something of a poor run, and could be a point off the bottom of the SPL come kick off on Sunday if results today do not go their way.  With the smell of fresh Brasso filling their nostrils, Rangers will be odds on favourites to win.

Yet, upsets do happen.  So what must St Mirren do to upset the applecart.  Firstly they should keep with the 3-5-2 formation which they have been playing since the semi-final win over Hearts.  This has, defensive errors notwithstanding, made them a more solid team.  It has also strangled the life out of teams playing 2 in the centre of mid-field.  Of course, Rangers might go for a 4-3-3 formation with Miller, Boyd and Novo up front, but Smith is perhaps a bit to conservative for that.  Secondly, Gus must start with Craig Dargo.  Dargo has pace, he can upset Rangers rearguard and before joining the Bud’s, Dargo had a reputation as a goal-getter.  The surprising thin about Rangers back line this season, considering how far ahead of Celtic they are is how slow their defenders are, and not just pace wise.  In the League game between the two in January, I was staggered at how many loose balls they did not pick up.  Dargo’s speed and quickness of thought might be able to pick up on these.

The other thing Gus might do is to play the loan player Graham Carey from the start.  When he has played, he has been deployed as a left wing-back and has been solid.  Where he has excelled is in his delivery from out wide.  His crossing has been excellent, and has the potential to cause mayhem in the Rangers Box.  If McPherson does not start with Carey, he should play Robb there.  With Robb, the problems would come from his running and committing other players to the tackle.

St Mirren had a better record than most teams in the SPL against Rangers, their 1-1 draw at Ibrox in the first season back in the SPL essentially saw Paul Le Guen off the Ibrox premises, while St Mirren won their last meeting at Love Street in October 2008.  They also drew their 5th Round Scottish cup tie last month before going down to a late late goal from Kris Boyd.  Rangers though have won every league meeting since then.  Rangers also won their last meeting at Hampden, Last seasons Scottish Cup Semi-Final (pictured).
However the stats don’t lie.  This is the cup trophy Rangers have a very impressive record with.  As the Scottish football blog points out, Rangers have only lost twice in finals to non old firm teams (Dundee in 1951/2 and Aberdeen in 1989/90).  Alas I suspect that Rangers will win and take the first step to an unlikely treble, by winning 2-1.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

20 Years On: Scotland 13 England 7

While this fixture in recent years has been overshadowed by events in Cardiff and Dublin, there is still something about the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland V England.  Monday sees the 30th anniversary of Englands 18-30 win at Murrayfield which saw them win their first Grand Slam since 1957, having won their first Championship outright since 1963 four weeks earlier.

However the most famous Calcutta Cup match occurred 20 years ago on Wednesday when Scotland and England met with the Grand Slam at stake for both sides.  England were overwhelming favourites having swept aside Ireland 23-0, France 7-26 and Wales 34-6, scoring 10 tries in the process.  England had Gusscott & Carling in the centre while on the wing they had Rory Underwood.  The mostly English based press had England not so much as favourites, but more or less said that all England had to do was turn up and they would win.

Scotland on the other hand had crept though the contest unnoticed and without a great deal of fanfare.  Staring in the second week of the contest, Scotland beat Ireland 10-13.  This was followed up by a convincing 21-0 win over France.  Scotland’s game during England’s week of was a 9-13 win against Wales.  Once Scotland won at the Arms Park, it was game on for the championship decider.  If Scotland were looking for omens, the Calcutta Cup match would be held 6 years to the day since Scotland clinched their previous Grand Slam.  If the press were to be believed, it was all Scotland had to clutch at.

In Scotland there was an element of animosity towards the England Rugby team.  This was fanned partially by the English based media’s firm belief that England were certainties to win the Grand Slam.  This was also a very political time as well, with an unpopular Conservative Government, who had made themselves even more unpopular with the implementation of their new funding system for Local government.  The Community Charge had been unveiled and implemented in Scotland a full year ahead of the rest of the country, as a scheme to bring the voters back on board it was a disaster.  In the Tabloids, and in particular the Daily Retard, the England Rugby team were re-cast as Team Thatcher.  A further twist was that i think this was the first season that Flower Of Scotland was adopted as the national anthem played before Rugby matches.  After this game, “Flower…” grew in popularity and supplanted “Scotland The Brave” as the Scotland Football teams anthem of choice within a couple of years.

From memory, this was a tight game.  England only managed to break through once as Guscott went over for the only try of the first half, which Hodgkinson could not convert.  Scotland won and converted their 3 penalties (pictured, top) to eke out a 9-4 half time lead.  Scotland got their chance to score at the start of the second half.  from the first scrum of that half, the ball found it’s way to Scott Hastings out wide.  His kick on was chased by his brother Gavin and winger Stanger, ahead of a couple of England backs.  Stanger got to the ball first and touched down for the try. Scotland were now 13-4 ahead, the question was could they hold on?
England did lay siege on the Scotland back line in the latter stages of the game, but could only claw back 3 points, from the boot of Hodgkinson.  In the end it was a famous victory, and for those who had not seen Scotland over the course of this championship a huge upset, as Scotland claimed only their third, and to date their most recent, Grand Slam.

The team though that took the most out of the defeat was surprisingly England.  Hurt by the defeat and surprised at how overconfident they had become, England over the next year and a half withdrew and started playing what was dubbed “10 man rugby”.  Essentially this was rugby which used the power of the scrum to physically ground down your opponent, where kicking for position was paramount.  England used this tactic as the launchpad to dominate the 5 Nations Championship’s in the first half of the 1990’s.  The eventually won the Grand Slam the following year, and reached the World Cup final in the Autumn of 1991, gaining a sort of revenge by beating Scotland 9-6 at the semi final stage at the same venue.  They retained their Grand Slam in 1992, the first time this had been done by England since the 1920’s.  For England it was well and truly lesson learned.