Saturday, 17 December 2011

It's SPOTY Time All Over Again...

Next Thursday sees the BBC’s now annual smug-fest round-up of the Sporting year.  Except that this year should be slightly less of a smug-fest than usual because of the controversial list of nominees for Sports Personality of The Year.

When the list was announced at the end of November, there was immediate controversy as there were no sportswomen on the list – with the BBC receiving the most brickbats.  While the Beeb were undeserving of criticism about the makeup of the list, they should have been criticised much more for the make up of the electorate.  They’ve only chosen to canvas The Herald over The Scotsman and the Daily Record, yet have canvassed both the daily and the Sunday editions of The Telegraph, The Times, The Star The Daily/Sunday Mail and the Guardian/Observer. 

However the worst transgression was inviting the views of those well known dedicated “sports” magazines “Zoo” and “Nuts”.  Perhaps mindful of this, the votes cast by those magazines show a modicum of knowledge of sport outside the sphere of Football – with the vote for Judd Trump being maybe the one least justifiable.  At least they didn’t disgrace themselves…  unlike the Manchester Evening News who voted for those fine British sportsmen Dimitar Berbatov, Yaya Toure and Patrick Viera.

For my money, I’m not really surprised at there not being any women nominated.  Most of the sportswomen who garnered votes will have won championships without very much exposure, but will be looking for better performances come Olympic year next year when the exposure will be there.  However there are sportsmen who I am surprised that have made the final 10.  Amir Khan won the WBA Light Welterweight championship this year, but surely there are tougher opponents in Khan’s division as exemplified by his defeat to Lamont Peterson.  Both Andy Murray and Luke Donald have had excellent years, but both have Slam/Major sized holes in their locker.  As for Alastair Cook, I suspect that his nomination is more for his Ashes exploits last winter than his form during the summer, where apart from his 294 against India at Edgbaston, he didn’t make a century.  Andrew Strauss hasn’t hit a century since the first Ashes test at the Gabba last November, but he makes this list because of his captaincy of the best test cricket team in the world.

By the looks of things there are three frontrunners for this prize.  Mark Cavendish was nominated a couple of years ago after winning 6 stages of the Tour de France.  He only won four this year… but won the Green Jersey for the first time.  Cavendish also became the World Road Racing Champion, the first Brit to win it since 1965.  Cavendish’s strongest opponents for the prize come in the shape of two Northern Irish golfers.

Rory McIlroy made last years Ryder Cup team, but this year he truly arrived in the world of Golf.  Four shots ahead going into the last day of the Masters, McIlroy struggled before folding at the 10th on his way to an 80, finishing 10 shots behind Charl Schwartzel.  At the next major, the US Open, McIlroy put himself into a similar position, this time sealing the deal to become the youngest US Open Champion in 88 years, and the youngest major winner since Tiger Woods stormed to the Masters title in 1997.  If the rise of McIlroy is the story of future promise and the emergence of a new sports star, the story of countryman Daren Clarke is one of emotion and triumph against the odds.  Having been a mainstay of the European Ryder Cup team since the mid 90’s, many thought Clarke would never win a major – his best chance came at Troon in 1997 when Justin Leonard came through and beat both Clarke and Parnevik to the title.  Clarke’s first Indian summer came when his performances were key to Europe retaining the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, months after the death of his wife Heather from Breast Cancer.  His second came this year when he landed the biggest Golfing Major of the lot – The Open Championship.

Both Dai Green and Mo Farrah would have expected to have been in the running had the three sportsmen mentioned above not had excellent years, and had their World Championship’s winning performance been broadcast on the BBC – not a sleight on Channel 4 who did an excellent job of broadcasting the World Championships meet in Daegu (as well as give an overdue promotion to TV for the former 5Live commentator John Rawling), more that the BBC would have been promoting their case slightly harder had they held the rights to the World Athletics Championships.  In truth, the contest will be between Cavendish, McIlroy and Clarke, with possibly Clarke winning – with the Golfing constituencies love of Clarke’s emotional back story pulling him through.  This year there will be no Tony McCoy (above) style left field winners.

Friday, 2 December 2011

"Gentlemen" And "Players" - Cricket At The Crossroads

In amongst the tributes to the England All-rounder Basil D’Olivera, there was the re-telling of one of the most shameful chapters in English cricket.  The behind the scenes campaign (by the South African authorities) for the MCC (as the England touring party were called at that time) to tour South Africa was bad enough, without the MCC’s own version of twisting in the wind.  That D’Olivera came out of that episode and played a further 5 years for England is a testament to his fortitude.

As a sort of coincidence, there is a book out at the moment which deals with English Cricket from 1967 to 1977 and looks into the huge controversies that rocked English Cricket during this period.  Yes, English Cricket in crisis.  There was me thinking that English Cricket was (at least until relatively recently) in perpetual crisis.  “Cricket At The Crossroads” by Guy Fraser Sampson tells the story of this period.  As well as detailing how England played during this period – a time when between January 1970 and February 1973, England would (it has been retrospectively calculated) be the worlds best test team.  The book focuses on the three big crises to hit English Cricket during this period, the (it is alleged) class motivated sacking of Brian Close as England captain, the afore mentioned D’Olivera affair and the rise of World Series Cricket – or as some other wag put it Kerry Packer’s Flying Circus.

The book starts off by explaining the world of 1960’s English cricket, where there were the players and there were the gentlemen.  And more often than not, the gentlemen more often than not were from an English Public School background.  As Fred Trueman put it, quoted in the book from his own biography “As It Was” -  “Those charged with running the game and selecting England teams…  were former schoolboys who went to Oxford or Cambridge…  They looked down on the pros and considered an amateur with a cricket blue from Oxford or Cambridge a much superior choice when it came to selecting the England teams”.

It was in this atmosphere that the “pro” Brian Close was appointed England captain, succeeding the “gentleman” Colin Cowdrey at the end of the West Indies 1966 tour.  Fraser-Sampson makes the case that the appointment was a temporary one making the point that “the England selectors found themselves in the position of having selected as captain someone whom they had already discarded as a player, and finding that he had the knack of winning matches”.  One of the hallmarks of this book is the logical and almost clinical manner that Fraser-Sampson makes his arguments and dispenses the revelations.

A case in point is with the sacking of Close.  Close had been involved in a couple of incidents during a County Championship match at Edgbaston, just before the selection meeting to decide the touring party for the 1967/68 series in the West Indies.  The incidents, alleged time wasting and a bit of a heated debate with a spectator, were small beer compared to the events in the lives of today’s sportsmen.  Yet as Fraser-Sampson points out, Close was picked as captain for the tour before the Edgbaston incident was brought up.  At this point, the selection committee backed away from Close, and backed an alternative candidate… one Colin Cowdry.  Of course the conflicts of interest at play in this decision never made the light of day at the time.  However Sampson does an excellent job in exposing them and the humbug surrounding English Cricket at that time.  The past, as is pointed out in this book, is another country.

If there are a few people who emerge from this episode with their reputations intact, then Sampson ensures that save the late D’Olivera, no one emerges with their reputation intact from the next episode.  Sampson not only details the vested interests at play, but also the foul play indulged by BOSS – the South African Security Police – at the behest of the South African government. All of whom had different motives for ensuring that D’Olivera was not picked to tour South Africa for the 1968/69 test series.  When D’Olivera was picked for the tour, not as a first pick but as a reserve and then making the tour party following the injury to Tom Cartwright, the tour was called off by South Africa.  The picture painted by Sampson is one of ineptitude mixed with vested interests, all cocooned within the old boy’s network.
England beat Australia at the Oval thanks to Basil D'Oliveira's 158 (top right)

This air of, what an England captain of another sport would describe as “57 old farts”, permeates this book.  It was the past, it leads to botched fudged decisions.  Like the fudged decision on D’Olivera – one which led indirectly to South Africa’s exclusion from Test Cricket.  Yet as the book details, there were people not prepared to put up with this attitude for much longer.  The surprise battleground was the 1970/1 Ashes tour.  Having replaced the injured Cowdrey at the start of the 1969 season, Illingworth had – with the same chagrin of the selectors as was displayed during Close’s tenor – obtained the knack of winning matches.  By the time of that Ashes tour, England were the best cricketing side in the world, so the MCC attempted to undermine that by appointing a team manager from the same school tie mould as Cowdrey, Smith and most of the selectors.

Sampson’s journal of how the Team Manager David Clark and Captain Ray Illingworth’s relationship deteriorated over the course of this tour again shows the clash between the old order and the new ways of doing things.  One of the key reasons that the tour was a success was the willingness of Illingworth to stand up for his players, D’Olivera would not have made the tour for Illingworth, while his man management skills did not go down well with people who thought of themselves as Illingworth’s superiors.  By the end of the tour, the “Gentlemen” were marginalised while the “Players” celebrated regaining the Ashes.  Ironically enough, Cowdrey had such a miserable tour, his dropped catches enabled several players – chiefly Ian Chappell – to make scores and keep their places.  Chappel would be particularly grateful as he would be installed as Australian captain by the end of the mammoth 7 test series.

If the first 2 thirds of the book is full of excellent articles and is well researched, then the last third is a slight disappointment.  Most of this third is taken up with narratives on England’s test matches from the end of the 1970/1 Ashes series up to the 1977 Ashes.  That’s not to take anything away from those narratives, but there does feel as if there is a lull – at least until the TCCB bungled again by sacking Illingworth and replacing him with another “Gentleman” in the shape of Mike Deness.

In fact the book does not really pick up again until the 1974/5 Ashes series comes into view.  With the TCCB making all the mistakes they made with Cowdrey again, and with the knowledge Samson has provided, the carnage inflicted by Australia is really like the sporting equivalent of “Lions lead by donkeys” – a critique of the British army from the First World War.  Yet unfortunately there is a slightly disapproving tone towards Chappell’s Australian side.  Most of this tone is directed towards the Australian pace pair of Lillee and Thompson – essentially because Sampson believes that the Australian pace-men to be the harbingers of the West Indies pace men (like Michael Holding and Andy Roberts who were already in the West Indies team, and latterly the likes of Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh & Curtley Ambrose – who were all “decedents” of the West Indies 1960’s attack of Charlie Griffiths and Wes Hall) that would dominate the next 20 years of Test Cricket.

Surprisingly enough, the last scandal to feature in this book I feel didn’t really receive the attention it should have.  The rise of World Series Cricket revolutionised the game.  Coloured clothing for limited over internationals, day/night games, drop in pitches (which was an additional aid to the rise of the fast bowlers) and protective clothing were all innovations that came from this period.  The biggest change was towards proper remuneration for cricket professionals.  The part World Series Cricket played here was the issue that eventually ended the Gentlemen & Players culture.  While Sampson was thorough about how World Series Cricket came about, that essentially it was an act of revenge by Kerry Packer for not getting the broadcast rights for Test Cricket, the ACB awarded them to the public broadcaster ABC, and also recommended to the TCCB that the rights to the 1977 Ashes series should be awarded to ABC as well.  Sampson was not so thorough about the innovations or about how compromise came about after such an acrimonious dispute, which came to court when players sued the TCCB for restraint of trade.

In 1979, when Cricket began to come to terms with the split and people were tentatively looking at ways to heal the split, the world was ready for the next paradigm shift in attitudes.  Yet despite being in the middle of the end-game of the left-wing post war consensus – a culture was ending within cricket.  The old order of Gentlemen and Players had been comprehensively routed at the player level.  However it would take another decade or so before this mindset would be gone from the highest level of the game in England.  What this book does well is that it tells the story of the end of the world of “Gentlemen” and “Players”, and the beginning of the professional era of English Cricket.  It does a very good job of showing how this old mindset contributed to the major crises that gripped English Cricket from 1967 to 1977. 

In spite of Sampson’s attempts to paint a picture of the mid 1960’s social and economic climate, which struck a clumsy and stridently Anglo-centric viewpoint, this book successfully tells the story of English Crickets painful transition from the time of “Gentlemen” and “Players” and explains in depth the myriad of vested interests and school tie links which would be on the run at the end of this book.  “Cricket at the Crossroads” is an interesting and well researched book that is detailed about this turbulent period in the history of English Cricket.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Rain In Spain

So Scotland rather predictably lost out to Spain last night while simultaneously the Czech Republic booked their playoff place with a fortuitous 4-1 win.  Had Lithuania been given a penalty just before the Czech’s scored their third, things might have been different.  At the end, Scotland came up short in another group that they should have escaped from.
David Silva Scores the goal that ended Scotland's hopes

As predicted from the outset, Scotland were vying with the Czechs for that second place, and it was those two ties where the playoff place was decided.  For many Scottish fans, the tie in Prague was all about Levein’s 4-6 formation, imagine the lack of ambition in not playing a striker.  In reality, this was a close game not helped by the Scottish defence’s tendency to hoof the ball forward to the Czech defence.  If it was the inability to hold on to possession that was Scotland’s only failing on the night, that might have been forgivable.  The bigger crime was Scotland’s awful defending at the goal as the defender Hubnik was given the freedom of Prague to do whatever he wanted… which was to put the ball in the back of the net.

That game was Levein’s early problems in a microcosm.  Struggling to get his team to gel while still trying to figure out his best formation, Levein’s Scotland struggled to retain possession and to do anything useful with it.  It is symptomatic of the period that in the next game, against Spain, Levein played 4-2-3-1.  It wasn’t until the Carling Cup matches and the early season friendly with Hungary that the 4-5-1 formation, with a midfielder dropping into a defensive position, developed.  Then, the return match with the Czechs was upon us.

In truth, Scotland did not perform.  Yet found themselves 1-0 and 2-1 up.  Had they not sat back, then maybe the Czechs would have left Hampden with nothing.  But as soon as Scotland went ahead, the Czechs seemed to pin Scotland back with relative ease.  The Czechs still showed better technique than Scotland, but there is no way that this side are as good as some of the Czech sides of the past.  An opportunity lost then.

While Levein is an almost certainty to be at the helm of the Scotland national team come the first World Cup qualifier, there is a growing backlash.  4-6 and those early sluggish performances have sparked criticisms, with callers to “Your Call” on Tuesday night calling for Levein’s head.  So far those calls are in the minority.  There is however three things to bear in mind.  The first is that at the moment there isn’t really an obvious successor to Levein. 

Callers named Souness as someone they would like to see at the helm.  The thing is, Souness hasn’t really been a successful manager since leaving Rangers in April 1991.  He won the English Cup with Liverpool in ’92, and memorably won the Turkish Cup with Galatasaray in 1996 and… well that’s it really.  Secondly, Scotland is still very much a work in progress.  Lastly there is a record of Scottish Managers failing to get the country to the European Championships but succeeding with qualifying for the World Cup.  Stein and Roxburgh failed to qualify for any of the European Championships in the 1980’s.  Stein then took us to the World Cup in 1982, and before his untimely death got us almost to the 1986 tournament.  Roxburgh failed to get us to Euro 88, before taking us to Italia 90.

I think that Levein is still the best person for the job, even if it has taken him a bit of time to get to grips with the job.  But it is looking more and more as if his whole career rests on what happens during the WorldCup qualifiers.  No pressure then.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Almost There?

European Championships, Qualifying Group I: Rheinpark Stadion, Vaduz; Liechtenstein 0, Scotland 1

Scotland’s unnecessarily hard fought win in Vaduz has, coupled with the Czech Republic’s 2-0 loss on Friday night to Spain, seen them creep past the Czech Republic into second place.  All Scotland need to do to keep a hold on the play off place is to get a better result in Spain than the Czech Republic gain in Lithuania.  Easy!

The win was unnecessarily hard fought because Scotland really should have been home and hosed by half time, with Naismith missing three chances.  Naismith’s first chance came on 11 minutes when he headed an Adam free kick wide.  Ten minutes later, Naismith headed a cross weakly into the ground, which fell into the hands of the Liechtenstein goalkeeper, four minutes after that Naismith rounded the goalkeeper but put into the side netting.  Just past the half hour, Scotland got the goal they deserved.  Bardsley put a high hanging cross into the box and Craig Mackail Smith (above) put a looping header past keeper Jehle.  It was the first time in the game that the forward actually got on the end of a cross, or was supplied with service.

The second half pretty much followed the same pattern, Scotland retaining possession and probing, with Liechtenstein content to put 10 men behind the ball.  Both Naismith & Berra had chances at the end, but both were kept out by good saves by Jehle.  Don’t know about you, but a 1-0 win felt like a below par score and not really representative of Scotland’s dominance – but completely representative of chances created.

Scotland’s last date in this Euro 2012 campaign is of course that game in Alicante on Tuesday, with the Czech Republic’s tie in Lithuania taking place simultaneously.  In short a very difficult task awaits against the World Champions and defending European Champions, knowing Scotland we’ll either win 1-0 or lose 4-0.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Rugby World Cup Proper Starts Here

40 games down and 8 to go in what has been at times a dramatic World Cup tournament. Not quite the vintage of 2007, or 1995, but there are those 8 games and there have been big fallers. Most notably Scotland, who did show some signs of a revival but couldn’t defend at key moments. Rather like four years ago, there are some interesting ties. 

Ireland V Wales; Wellington: Saturday 6pm (6am BST)
Ireland beating Australia 15-6
First up is the clash of the two form teams. Ireland topped Group C, by beating Australia in the second week and by thrashing Italy last week. Wales should have, could have beaten the defending champions, South Africa, in week one. That loss though has a silver lining in this winnable quarter final (as opposed to Australia).This really could be the tie of the round. 

The head to heads in this competition are not a great indicator neither. Wales won the first World Cup encounter in Auckland during the inaugural tournament, Ireland won the last World Cup encounter at Johannesburg in 1995 to set up a Quarter final with France. With this possibly being the last hurrah for Driscoll, O’Gara and one or two others I think Ireland may do it. 

England V France; Auckland; Saturday 8:30pm (8:30am BST)
For the third World Cup in a row, England play France in the knock out stages. France are in disarray after their shock defeat to Tonga, where a last minute try saw them get the bonus point that gets them here. The Six Nations Champions are struggling for form, having seen them get here via a second half fight back against Scotland. 

History suggests an England win. England has only lost one World Cup meeting to France, the 3rd/4th place playoff in 1995. France lost the Quarter Final in 1991 (in Paris), and two semi finals (2003 and 2007). England will win again, and play possibly Ireland next Saturday. 

South Africa V Australia; Wellington: Sunday 6pm (6am BST)
Truth be told, this tie may well be as close as the Wales/Ireland tie. South Africa should have lost to Wales and struggled to beat Samoa, while Australia put away Italy but lost to Ireland. Both sides look as if they need to find their best 15 (and some form) fast. 

With a win apiece in their previous World Cup meetings (South Africa winning the opening game of the 1995 tournament, Australia winning a tense Semi final in 1999), this tie looks too close to call. I think Australia will somehow bag a result and face New Zealand in the second semi final. 

The key moment of this World Cup?
New Zealand V Argentina; Auckland: Sunday 8:30pm (8:30am BST)
New Zealand has gone through this tournament with ease, and should win this tie. Yet, it’s normally at this point the nerves start for the All Blacks. As if to ratchet up the tension further, the All Blacks have lost their virtuoso Fly-half Dan Carter (right) to injury. 

I think New Zealand will win, like they did in 1987 in their only other World Cup meeting. There’s plenty of time for the All Black hex to strike against Australia next week.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Czech-mate for Levein?

European Championships, Qualifying Group 1: Hampden; Scotland 2, Czech Republic 2

In yesterday’s must win game, Scotland contrived to throw away 1-0 and 2-1 advantages to draw 2-2 against opponents who themselves should have been 2 up inside the first 15 minutes.  However this has been obscured by two controversial penalty decisions, which we will come to later.

The Czechs started the brighter and should have been two up.  Firstly Jiracek crossed to Baros who put the ball over the bar.  Then Rajnoch headed over the bar from a Rosicky free kick.  Before long Scotland got back into the game, enjoying a bit of possession without actually doing anything useful with the possession.  Until half time, the pattern was Scotland holding on to possession but struggling to get at the Czech defence, punctuated by moments of Czech counter-punching where they were able to get at the Scotland back line with ease.  Going forward from one of these counter punches, Scotland got the first goal.  Fletcher drove forwards towards the box and then slipped the ball to Miller at an angle to goal.  His shot went under goalkeeper Lastuvka’s legs and into the corner.

Scotland had a golden opportunity to take a grip on the game, squeeze the Czech’s out of mid-field and then push for the second goal.  What happened is that the Czech’s then hung in there, put on a second striker and then began to dominate the game.  Baros sliced shot within second’s of the re-start was a shot across the bow’s, one that Scotland did not heed.  When the Czech’s equalised, Scotland had been hanging back and defending grimly for about 7 or 8 minutes.  Holding onto the ball, a cross came into the box and the ball was turned into goal via Plasil’s mid-riff.  Scotland now had 13 minutes to get a winner.

Within 4 minutes Scotland had a second.  Miller dispossessed one of the Czech’s who made his way into the box, and then returned the favour to the free Fletcher who side-footed home.  Again Scotland decided to defend what they had and surrendered the midfield, rather than keep hold of the midfield, and they got their “reward” by conceding a penalty with two minutes to go.  Rezek ran into the box and “fell” over some invisible part of Danny Wilson, some part only visible to Rezak and the referee Blom.  It was a dubious decision on first viewing, and only looked worse with each replay.  Kadlec scored the penalty.

Yet Scotland had one last chance to get an undeserved win, but blew it.  Berra picked up the ball, made his way into the box and fell over the Czech defender.  Yet, now referee Blom pulled out the book for simulation.

Truth is, Scotland were the masters of their own downfall.  They won hard fought advantages and were far too content to give away those advantages.  Had Scotland retained the miniscule control of mid-field that they had when they were leading, the Czechs would not have been able to camp themselves inside the Scotland third.  Scotland can still finish second and take the play-off place, but the Czech’s are now 6 points clear having played a game more than Scotland – their next game is at home to Spain.  While Scotland face Lithuania on Tuesday in what is now a must win game for both Scotland and Levein.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Back On The Road To Kiev

Scotland begin the second half of their Euro 2012 campaign with the visit of their closest challengers for the playoff spot, The Czech Republic.  The Czech Republic have only played here once in a competitive match, a Euro 2000 qualifier in March 1999 that saw them win 2-1 (below) at Parkhead.  Scotland currently sit in 4th place in the table, 5 points behind the Czech Republic but with a game in hand.  A win for Scotland really is a must.

Bearing in mind the controversy surrounding the away tie in Prague, 4-6 and all that.  Levein has announced a team that looks like the favoured 4-5-1 formation.  McGregor is in goal with a back four of Hutton, Caldwell, Berra and Bardsley.  However Levein has retained the three man central midfield tactic that has served Scotland so well since the Craig Brown years.  Making up the midfield trio are Fletcher, Adam & Brown.  I suspect that Morrison and Naismith will start on the flanks, however the inclusion of Naismith gives a flexibility, which Scotland could switch to a 4-4-1-1 (with Morrison playing in midfield and Naismith as the “second” striker behind Miller).

Whatever formation Levein uses today, Scotland will have to retain possession an awful lot better than they did lastOctober.  If the Czech’s are able to settle into a pattern and retain possession better than Scotland, then Scotland will be in trouble.  Remember, it was not the 4-6 formation that sunk Scotland, but the inability to retain possession.

If Scotland go with the 4-5-1 formation, it will give them the best chance to disrupt the Czech’s passing rhythm, retain possession and to create chances to win.  If they do that then Scotland can win to keep us going to Lithuania on Tuesday.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Groundhog Day

Unlike Bill Murray, I didn’t wake up to “I Got You Babe” this morning but it does feel as if Scottish Football is having its own Groundhog Day with the elimination of both half’s of the Old Firm and Hearts at the preliminary stage, that’s the preliminary stage ladies and gentlemen, of the UEFA Cup…  sorry Europa League.

If you heard the so called pundits though, you would have thought that we had hit rock bottom.  The problem is that we hit rock bottom a while ago, we are just bumping along the bottom.  I remember the week Rangers were eliminated by AEK Athens and Aberdeen were knocked out by the giants of European Football, Skonto Riga, while since 2004, this is the fourth season that every Scottish team has been eliminated before the end of August.  These results will keep happening until things change.

If we take the synopsis of no money, no talent, no infrastructure, tactically na├»ve, game riddled with self interest with them (the OF) and everyone else at loggerheads as being an accurate description, then what do we do?  In terms of money, a serious rethink needs to be made about how to market Scottish Football, both in terms of how it is broadcast as well as admission prices.  Average SPL prices are about £20, which is among the highest in Europe.  A ticket to see the current Bundersliga champions Borrusia Dortmund will set you back £10.

The galling thing is that there is talent here in Scotland, which unfortunately is overlooked for cheap experienced foreign players.  Celtic had three Scottish players in their team, while Rangers fielded four with another two on the bench.  If you think back to the teams that have fielded young talent, it is because they have been forced to.  Motherwell when they went into administration in 2002 were forced to blood young players, including James McFadden & Stephen Pearson.  Yet throwing young players into the white heat of Scottish Football is something that we should be doing and yet we are not. 

We have talent in spite of the wretched infrastructure we have and in spite of the fact that our football is essentially a part time pursuit.  One of the most astute observations Craig Brown has ever made is that every town in Norway has an indoor sports centre, we only have on equivalent (in the south side of Glasgow).  Tactically naivety, well what do you expect with essentially two rookie managers in charge of Scotland’s two biggest teams.

This brings us to the self interest.  You can write a book about the rank self interest at the heart of Scottish Football, the smugness eminating from the Old Firm at the demise of Setanta, the campaign by the Chief Executive of the SPL for a ten team league, down to the SFL’s ramrod refusal to discuss a pyramid system with the Juniors and non league teams.  The biggest symbol of self interest is the fact that we have three governing bodies, why?  There are bigger things at stake here.

I would like to think that the only way now is up, unfortunately the current precedent is that the powers that be will continue to stick their heads in the sand, while the sack McCoist/Lennon/The Board chants grow louder.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Swift Kick In The Co-Efficients

On the surface, this week’s results in Europe might look to be the same old same old poor results for Scottish teams.  Yet with the exception of the Hearts result, things are not all lost.

Hearts were always going to have a difficult task against Tottenham, who have been there or thereabouts in Europe and in the “Champions League” places.  They had to play well, which is precisely what they didn’t do.  Spurs were only too happy to take their gifts, which have pretty much put them into the first round proper.  Part of me thinks that this result was always likely especially given the aftermath of the sacking of Jim Jeffries two games in.  It’s not that Sergio is a bad manager, it’s too early in his time at Tynecastle to make that kind of judgement.  It’s just that in his 4th match in charge, a game of this magnitude has come too quickly in his tenor.

For both half’s of the Old Firm, they may have had bad results but are not out of things yet.  Celtic’s draw at home to Sion is not a great result. However there is the added bonus of not having conceded an away goal.  A score draw will be enough to see Celtic through.  On the other hand, Rangers loss is leavened by the away goal they scored in Maribor.  Rangers should be good enough to put the tie away at Ibrox, with a 1-0 win good enough to see them through.

All of our sides suffered poor results that will affect the Scottish co-efficient, the ranking system that determines the amount of teams eligible to play in European competitions.  However once again, it’s the Old Firm in the best position to reverse some of the damage inflicted by the other teams.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

England: The Best In The World?

England took a 3-0 lead in the test series against India today, a lead that ensures that England replace India at the top of the ICC Test Rankings table.  India have been top since December 2009 when, ironically, South Africa’s failure to beat England at home allowed India to over take them with series wins in Sri Lanka & Bangladesh.
Sreesanth c Pietersen b Bresnan 5, England win.

In truth this has been a disappointing series so far, India’s batsmen have succumbed to England’s pace attack while their bowling attack has been stretched by injuries.  England’s batsmen have been happy to capitalise on India’s woes.  Dravid apart, India’s vaunted batting line up has struggled with England’s mastery of…  er…  English conditions and making the most of swing friendly conditions.

England’s next aim will be to consolidate their position at the top, a position they last held in the 1950’s from regaining the Ashes in 1951 to succumbing to Richie Bennaud’s Australia side in the 1958-59 Ashes series.  Any team wishing to follow in the footsteps of the West Indies teams of the 1980’s and the Australia sides from the mid 1990’s onwards has to do two things, they have to beat their immediate rivals and win in the sub-continent.

For England, the next 12 months give’s them an indication of how long their stay at the top will be.  They are scheduled to play Pakistan (in the UAE & Dubai) and Sri Lanka away during the winter.  While these will be tough challenges in dry, flat conditions conducive to spin, completely different from the humid, damp swing & seam friendly conditions here.  After that will be a much tougher challenge.  Should India lose at the Oval next week, they will slip to third, their place taken by South Africa who happen to be touring England next year.

Of course, by the time South Africa visit these shores next Summer England might have consolidated their place at the top no matter what happens as both India and South Africa have tricky series coming up.  Both Australia and Sri Lanka come to South Africa over the winter, while India also face Australia who will be desperate to rebuild under Michael Clarke.

England has reached the top of Test cricket’s rankings.  However we are a very long way from finding out if this side is a flash in the pan or the newest team to join the pantheon that includes the great West Indies, Australian and England sides of the past that dominated cricket in their time.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Ghost's Of World Cups Past

Scotland V Croatia: 1 September 2001
While England had a horrible draw full of banana-skins & France got drawn with the defending Champions Spain, Scotland’s World Cup draw was full of the ghosts of World Cup’s past.

Scotland have been drawn against Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia & Wales.  All of whom Scotland have played prominent qualifiers against.  Both Croatia & Belgium finished ahead of Scotland during the qualifiers for the 2002 tournament.  Yet the results that hurt Scotland during that qualification process did not come from top seeds Croatia (1-1 in Zagreb in October 2000, and 0-0 at Hampden in September 2001), but from Belgium (who came from 2 down to draw 2-2 at Hampden in March 2001 - see below, and won 2-0 in Brussels in September 2001).

Serbia will be a tough side, having been to last years World Cup – they beat Germany but lost out to Ghana for a place in the last 16.  As Yugoslavia, they topped Scotland’s group in qualifying for Italia 90, drawing 1-1 at Hampden but winning 3-1 in Zagreb (ironically enough now the capital of Croatia).
Completing the 3 former Yugoslav nations in the group is Macedonia, who Scotland had trouble getting points from in the last qualifying group.  Macedonia’s win in the first game of qualifying for South Africa 2010 put Scotland in a hole that the eventually found that they could not escape from, even after a 2-0 win in the fixture at Hampden. One would hope that Craig Levine will have the nous not to agree to the away fixture being played at the height of Macedonian summer with a 3pm kick off.

All of which brings us to the most poignant member of Scotland’s group.   Scotland have played Wales twice in qualifying rounds.  In the qualifyers for the 1978 World Cup, Scotland beat Wales 1-0 at Hampden before wining 2-0 at Anfield (Jordan’s handball and all that).  Wales revenge came in the qualifiers for the 1986 tournament when they became the second team to win a World Cup qualifier at Hampden.  The return game at Ninian Park saw Scotland get an equaliser 10 minutes from time to take a play-off place.  The 1-1 draw was overshadowed by the collapse & subsequent death of the Scotland manager Jock Stein.

If Scotland’s draw is full of the ghosts of World Cup’s past, there was an element of that with England’s draw.  Both of the Euro 2012 hosts have been drawn with England, with most attention being on Poland and their famous world cup meetings in 1973 & in 1986.  Ukraine will also cause problems for England, as they did during qualifying for the last World Cup.  They avoided France, but got Montenegro an opponent in the current Euro 2012 qualifying round.  Moldova & San Marino complete the line up there.

Undoubtedly the headline part of the draw was the pairing of France & Spain in group I, with Belarus, Georgia & Finland making up the numbers from that group.  Bear in mind that only the group winners automatically qualify.  The runners up play off against each other for the final four places.  The first qualifying matches will be played from September 2012.

For the home nations, the route to Brazil 2014 has been set, none of the draw’s can be described as easy.  They are tricky, but not impossible.  Just remember those ghosts.

Friday, 22 July 2011

SPL 2011/12: The Earliest Start To A Season Yet...

9 weeks after the Scottish Cup Final brought the curtain down on season 2010/11, the madness is about to descend once again as the curtain is about to go up on Season 2011/12.  A season one hopes will finish with the national team taking part in the finals of the European Championships in Poland & Ukraine.

Way before that though, the domestic season begins with Rangers unfurling the league championship flag before taking on Hearts at Saturday lunchtime.  New season, same old rubbish scheduling of matches by television companies.

Rangers have had the most interesting close season.  A new owner in the shape of Craig Whyte, who has wasted no time in trying to dispose of the old Rangers board, and a new manager in the shape of their former striker Ally McCoist.  While we haven’t seen the revolving door that accompanied the first days of Graeme Souness, Dick Advocaat or Paul Le Guen’s appointments, McCoist has set about making some changes.  The Spanish winger Ortiz has been brought in as has Hearts Lee Wallace, while McCoist is hoping to bring back Carlos Cuellar.  However key to McCoists bit to emulate Souness, Smith & Advocaat in winning the Championship in their first season in charge may well be the new contracts signed by McGregor & Davis.

Celtic’s close season could have been interesting, had the players supposedly agitating for improved terms not been placated.  As it is Celtic start on Sunday at Easter Road with essentially the same squad that came close to the Championship, but won the Scottish Cup.  Defenders Wilson (from Nottingham Forrest) and Matthews (Cardiff) were pre contract signings made in January, while the only close season signing to date is the midfielder Wanyama, they have lost Forster – his loan spell coming to an end.  With a years experience together in the bank and Neil Lennon actually turning out to be a surprise package as Celtic manager, I think Celtic will win the league by between 4 – 7 points.

Hearts should be favourites for third, they have added to their third place squad, John Sutton & Taouill have come west from Motherwell & Kilmarnock respectively, while options at the back have also been added with the acquisition of Hamill & Granger.  Dundee United have lost key men, and may still lose prised forward David Goodwillie before the transfer deadline.  They should be good enough to finish in the top 6 but not usurp Hearts for 3rd, even though they were not good enough to stay in Europe until the season stared properly.  I suspect that Hibernian & Aberdeen will make up the top six, Brown’s experience will help Aberdeen to go in the right direction, while Hibernian may well be boyed by the return of old boys O’Connor & Sproule.  So far so last season.

The tightest battle over the past few seasons has been the battle against the drop.  Last season however, Hamilton had an appalling season, finishing 7 points behind St Mirren.  Danny Lennon has taken the hint and reshaped his attacking options.  Paul McGowan is now a permanent player at St Mirren & has been joined by Nigel Hasselbaink & Steven Thompson, joining his boyhood heroes from Burnley.  Those three, plus the additions of Teale, Tesselaar & Carey, who impressed on loan at St Mirren during the second half of the 2009/10 season should mean that St Mirren finish out of trouble, so long as defensive options are strengthened. 

So who will go down?  Dunfermline are the favourites, though they have added experience in the shape of John Potter & Paul Gallacher from St Mirren.  They start on that coveted Monday night slot against St Mirren,  probably harbouring thoughts about their relegation from this league in May 2007.  Motherwell maybe look vulnerable as Stuart McCall begins his first full season in charge at Fir Park.  Inverness might suffer from second season syndrome, while St Johnstone will need to gel quickly.  Kilmarnock will need to arrest the poor finish to last season.  These teams have their own achillies heel, but have that quality that will keep them up, experience.  I think Dunfermline will finish between 5 - 9 points behind Motherwell.

By the end of last season, Scottish football was in the dock.  No one particularly covered themselves in glory, not Celtic, not Rangers and certainly not any of the fans who rose to the bait provided by Neil Lennon, pantomime villain (compared to…  oh take your pick of any of the board members of the Old Firm).  This season, those guilty parties need to show that lessons have been learned & that we can move on.  More than most, Scottish Football needs to turn the corner, and garner positive headlines rather than continue as the sick footballer of Europe.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Shooting For The Top

England’s 1-0 series win last month saw them consolidate their 3rd place in the Test rankings.  Starting on Thursday England will be up against the current top dogs in Test cricket.  India, for their faults, have a formidable batting line up, and will be the most formidable line up England have faced on home soil since the 2001 Ashes series.

31 July 2007: Dravid & Ganguly celebrate winning the 2nd Test at Trent Bridge
While India will be without the force of nature that is Virender Sehwag (missing untill possibly the third test), the Indian batting line up will still only consist of honorary Scotsman Rahul Dravid (12,314 test runs at an average of 52.40), Sachin Tendulkar (14,692 runs @ 56.94) and VVS Laxman (8,146 runs @ 47.36).  Tendulkar holds the record for most career Test runs, while Dravid needs 49 runs to move into second place (Laxman sits at 19 in the all time list, between Geoffrey Boycott & David Gower).  Oh and for all three, this may well be their last hurrah on English soil, a last chance then for the threesome to get themselves on the Lords Honours board.

Unlike Sri Lanka, India do have pace bowlers who have experience of English conditions.  Zaheer Khan & Sreesanth both played 4 years ago, when India’s win at Trent Bridge (above) was enough to win them the series (Khan took 4/59 and 5/75 in that victory).  Providing the spin options for India will be Harbhajan Singh, the right handed off-spinner who has taken 404 test wickets (just outside the top 10 on the all time list of test bowlers).  With all of that talent, India really should be comfortably wearing the mantle taken from Australia in the winter of 2008.

Yet India are still vulnerable away from home.  Their series win in the West Indies was not as dominant as you would expect.  Perhaps their eye has been on this tour and this test series.  England though are at the heels of India.

A series win for England will see them overtake South Africa as number 2 in the world, however a series win by two clear tests will see England dethrone India and see them occupy a position they have not been in since 1959, the best Test team in the world.  With the number 1 position to play for, and on the occasion of the 2000th Test match, this test series looks like being the most eagerly awaited test series since last winter’s Ashes series.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Botham's Ashes - 30 Years On

This summer sees the thirtieth anniversary of not just one of the most memorable test series of all time, but one of the key sporting moments of the post war years.  The 1981 Ashes series from the outset looked to be a close contest, but the reverses suffered by Australia in this series haunted them until the Mark Taylor/Steve Waugh lead teams became the best team in the cricketing world in 1995.

Australia started slight underdogs, entirely down to their inexperienced batting line up.  Greg Chappell was missing, his younger brother Trevor would play during this series.  Captaining the side would be Kim Hughes, three years before Brisbane & all that.  Graham Yallop was the other experienced batsman, while Alan Border was playing in his first Ashes tour (after making his debut during the 5-1 home defeat in 1978/79).  Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee were still there, Lillee was backed up by the inexperienced duo of Geoff Lawson & Terry Alderman, with Rodney Hogg making up the pace attack.  England had blooded lots of promising players during the Packer years, in particular Gooch, Gower, Gatting & Botham.  Botham started this series captaining the England side.

Trent Bridge hosted the First Test, a test that started badly for the favourites.  Australia skittled England out for 185, with the debutant Alderman taking 4 for 68, his away swingers immediately finding a home in English conditions.  England countered, by bowling Australia out for 179.  Border top scored with 63, with Dilley & Willis taking 3 wickets each.  Given the chance to set a tough target for Australia, England were then skittled out for 125, Lillie & Alderman taking 5 wickets each.  Australia won by 4 wickets, on what was the first time that play took place on a Sunday during a test match.

The Lords test was notable for two things.  Lawson’s 7 for 81 in England’s first innings, and Botham’s pair.  Botham was now under pressure, the headline in London’s Evening Standard said Botham Must Go.  After that test, he did.  Taking over was Mike Brearley, who Botham replaced the year previously.  His first Test back in charge would be the Third Test, taking place at Headingley, which would start thirty years ago tomorrow.

Things did not start well for the new regime.  Australia batted first and made 401 for 9 before declaring just before the end of the second day.  Opener John Dyson top scored with 102 (the first century of the series), the captain Hughes made 89.  Botham took 6 for 95.  England crumbled to 174 in their first innings, with Botham top scoring with 50, Dennis Lillee took 4 for 49.  The follow on was enforced, with England finishing day three on 7 for 1, losing Gooch for a duck.  At this point the scoreboard flashed up the latest odds, with an England win quoted at 500/1.  Lillee and Marsh took the bet, not knowing what would happen after the rest day.

England checked out of their hotels on the Monday morning thinking that they would go 2-0 down at some point.  Australia were certainly intent on making inroads, and did just that reducing England to 135 for 7.  With Botham & Dilley at the crease, both batsmen began to slash and to play shots.  At first it was to frustrate the Australian’s, to go down with a fight.  Both batsmen then began to mount a substantial partnership, as the 200 approached.  When they passed 227, Australia knew they had to bat again.  Dilley was out for 56, but the game had changed in the 80 minutes that both men were at the crease.  England were effectively 25 for 8.  Botham was still there and carried on apace, as steadily one of the great sporting moments was unfolding.  Just before reaching his century, Botham hit a shot over Alderman into the Football ground end, prompting the legendary piece of commentary from Richie Bennaud “Don't even bother looking for that. It's gone into the confectionery stall… and out again.”  By the end of day four, England led by 124 runs and maybe had something to play with depending on how long Botham stuck around.

England only put on a further 5 runs before being bowled out, setting Australia the relatively easy target of 130.  Botham nabbed the early wicket of Wood, but Australia then settled down, proceeding to 56.  Willis had been bowling from the Football stand end for 5 overs, and then Brearley switched Willis to the Kirkstall Lane end.  When Willis got Chappel to a rearing delivery, suddenly Australia started to collapse.  Hughes, Yallop, Border & Dyson fell in quick succession, while Marsh stuck around for a bit.  Bright & Lillee put on 35 before Willis broke through again.  Willis took 8 for 43 as England completed a remarkable turnaround to win by 18 runs.  The first time since 1895 that a side won after following on.
If England had though that they had turned the corner, they got a rude awakening during the next test, which took place at Edgebaston.  England were skittled out for 189, with Alderman taking 5/42.  A stand of 51 form Hughes & Yallop helped Australia to a first innings lead of 69.  Ray Bright’s 5/68 helped to restrict England to 219, which gave Australia a target of 151.  In short England found themselves in a similar hole to the one they found themselves in at Headingley.  Australia seemed to cope better advancing to 87/3 and then to 105/4 before disaster struck.  Border was caught off his gloves off Emburey just before Botham was given a spell bowling from the pavilion end.  Botham’s pitched up deliveries brought about another Australian collapse, as Botham took 5 wickets for 1 run in this spell (right) to win the match for England by 29 runs.

Australia were now behind in a series that they controlled for all bar 3 sessions.  It got much worse for them in the Fifth test at Old Trafford.  Batting first, England posted 231, with Chris Tavare top scoring with 69, which took 4 hours and 47 minutes to compile.  Lillee & Alderman took 4 wickets apiece.  In response England reduced Australia to 130, Willis taking 4/63.  England took a first innings lead of 101, but squandered that position as England lost 3 quick wickets on the third morning.  When Brearley went at 105 for 5, England were effectively at 206 for 5 and in a bit of trouble.  Enter Botham again, who once again took the fight to the Australian bowlers.  He smashed 6 sixes and 13 fours as he struck 118 in 123 minutes.  The sixth wicket stand of 149 between Botham and Tavare took England to a lead in excess of 350.  England were bowled out for 404, setting Australia 506 to win.  Australia showed fight, but were eventually bowled out for 404 half an hour into the final session of day five. Yallop made 114 in just under 3 hours, while Border top scored while struggling with a broken finger, making 123 in 7 hours.  England had retained the Ashes.

The sixth and final test at the Oval could have given Australia a consolation victory.  Batting first, Australia posted 352, Border scoring 106 not out.  In reply, a 115 run partnership between Boycott (137) and Gatting (53) helped England to 314, conceding a 38 run deficit to Australia.  Lillee taking 7/89.  Second time around Australia set a target of 383, declaring on 344/9 before the start of day five.  The debutante Dirk Wellham top scored on 103.  Mike Hendrick & Botham shared 4 wickets apiece.  England clung on to get to 261 for 7 before the close of play.  Gatting top scored with 56, while Brearley’s dismissal on 51 was the last time on English soil that the combination of c Marsh b Lilley  appeared on scoreboards.

It is interesting to note that the commercialisation of the sport is still in its infancy here, and that this series is sandwiched between the Packer years (which affected Australian cricket) and the rebel tours of South Africa (which would affect English Cricket the following year and Australian Cricket later on in the decade).  As I said above Australia were now a team in decline, though this did not appear visible until the West Indies visited Australia in the winter of 1984/5, England fared slightly better though they too suffered at the hands of a rampant West Indies team (who inflicted 5-0 “Blackwashes” in 1984 and in 1985/6).  This series showed two sides moving in opposite directions and because of the sporting theatre will live long in the memory.