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.