Monday, 31 December 2012

Sporting Picks of 2012, Part 1 - February 14th

Rangers Enter Administration
Craig Whyte Announces that Rangers have gone into administration

Rangers Football Club has entered administration - meaning it has been docked 10 points, effectively ending its Scottish Premier League challenge.  The club appointed London firm Duff and Phelps as administrators at 14:50.  The move followed an unsuccessful legal bid by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at the Court of Session in Edinburgh to appoint its own administrator.

HMRC lodged its petition over alleged non-payment of about £9m in PAYE and VAT following Craig Whyte's takeover.  Mr Whyte confirmed on Monday that the club had filed legal papers to appoint administrators. He insisted Rangers would "come out stronger" and "always be here".  It was initially thought that the club had 10 days to make a decision on whether to proceed, but the HMRC action on Tuesday changed the dynamic of the situation.”

This story was by far and away the biggest football story in this country, with repercussions that will be felt for the next few years.  For people outside of Scotland, it will be astonishing to think that the Rangers story kept Euro 2012, Wimbledon and the build up to the London Olympics off the back pages of almost all of the Scottish newspapers.

Rangers had been in financial trouble over the course of the last decade.  What had put them on to the road to liquidation has been an investigation by HMRC into the administration by Rangers of Employee Benefit Trusts (or EBT’s) that they had set up for their players towards the end of the 1990’s.

The impending tax case and the financial woes was the issues that saw the majority share holder David Murray decide to sell his stake.  By the spring of 2011 there looked to be two contenders for Murray’s share.  Dave King was a South African born businessman who had long had an interest in Rangers – he also had form in tax avoidance having been wanted by the South African authorities for such a charge.  The person who won was Craig Whyte, a Scottish businessman who had, to put it mildly, an extraordinarily chequered history. 

He had been disqualified as a company director for seven years, while most of the companies he had been involved with had gone into administration.  In short, Craig Whyte was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the ideal candidate to take over Rangers.  Had any of this been exposed by the Scottish media, in particular the red top tabloids, then Whyte would not have received the hero’s welcome that he got on the last day of the 2010/11 season when he had all but taken ownership of the Scottish Champions.  Yet while these stories had been circulating – mostly in Private Eye – at the time, they did not reach the mainstream Scottish Media until Mark Daly’s investigation was broadcast by BBC Scotland in October 2011 – five months after Whyte’s takeover.

Other little facts that failed to reach the mainstream media until it was too late was Whyte’s failure to pay either PAYE or NI to HMRC and the theory that Rangers were trading insolvent.  When Rangers filed the papers to go into administration, many people didn’t see what happened next when it came.  Essentially due to the ineptitude of the Scottish press to report the facts.

Rangers limped on to the end of the season.  The close season though was filled with the fall-out from Rangers administration and subsequent liquidation, with the question of where the newly constituted Rangers would play dominating the Scottish Sports media (keeping Euro 2012, Wimbledon & the build up to the Olympics off the back pages).  The SFA & SPL hierarchy wanted (for commercial reasons) New-co Rangers to begin life as an SPL member.  The supporters (initially of Aberdeen, Hearts & Hibernian) wanted Rangers to receive the treatment that they believed that, given the same set of circumstances befalling their clubs, their clubs would receive.  When those supporters began to talk of boycotts and non renewal of season tickets, the SPL clubs took notice and blocked New-co Rangers application to join the SPL.  One suspects that the corporate sponsors that were supposedly planning on pulling out of Scottish Football took note of the new found supporter-power and changed their plans.

Likewise, when the re-constituted Rangers submitted their application for entry to the SFL, despite the despicable pressure put on them by the SPL & SFA hierarchy (remember, for purely “commercial reasons), the clubs voted to admit Newco Rangers to the bottom rung of the SFL.  Six months on, parts of the Scottish footballing landscape are still the same.  There are lots of differences thought, mostly in the contrasting reputations of the governing bodies, the Scottish sports media, Rangers themselves and the fans.

Rangers, now owned by Yorkshire businessman Charles Green, have started in the Third Division and are only now living up to the tag of favourites for the Third Division crown.  To the surprise of many tax experts HMRC lost the “big” tax case against Rangers, many of the same tax experts believe that HMRC will appeal this decision in the New Year.  Both the SPL & the SFL have kept with the Murdoch shilling by striking reduced Television deals with BSkyB (and with ESPN) – so much for talking up Scottish Football.  Meanwhile both the SPL & The SFL have unveiled their own vision for the future structure of league football in Scotland.  The SFL see a top league of 16, while the SPL see two leagues with invites for SPL2 to go out (hands up who thinks Newco Rangers will get an invite?).

The implosion of Rangers did not come out of the blue, so to speak.  The ramifications of the decisions made this summer will probably be still reverberating around the game when Rangers return to the SPL.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Introducing This Years Sporting Picks

So with 2012 almost at an end, it’s nearly time to say goodbye to a truly vintage sporting year.  Before we do though there is the (almost) annual sporting picks posts.

Last years picks included Barcelona’s European Cup triumph at Wembley, the high point of Novak Djokavic’s incredible year, the deciding stage of Le Tour De France, England’s demoralising defeat of India in the Trent Bridge test and at that point the lowest ebb of Scottish Football

This years picks has been difficult to choose, but I have somehow managed to pick five moments.  There is staggeringly only one from this years Olympics, however there was a separate moments of the Olympics post that i compiled at the time.   However there are two moments of sporting history related to victorious Olympians.  The last two moments are from Football, including the biggest football story of the year, one shamefully glossed over during the BBC’s “Sports Personality…” programme.

So before those posts are published, may I wish you a happy new year..

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Olympic SPOTY... If You Please!

Sunday sees the annual BBC smug-fest that is Sport’s Personality of the Year.  Unlike in previous years, where there was a problem with the quality of sporting achievements by British Sportsmen & women, this year sees a high standard of contenders for this award.  Most of the contenders were Olympic Champions, the Olympics being the one bright point in the BBC’s year given the continued decline of their Football coverage and the perceived decline in other broadcasting standards.
2011 Sports Personality winner Mark Cavendish flanked by Darren Clarke & Mo Farrah

So, there are no footballers because of England’s failure to get beyond the quarter finals of the European Championships while there is just the one Golfer – Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy – nominated.  There are no professional boxers nominated, while the first female Olympic Champion in boxing – Nicola Adams – is nominated.  You could quibble about the exemption of the likes of Alistair Brownlee, Victoria Pendleton or Greg Rutherford but honestly who would you leave out.  The question is, who will win the award that has tendril like taken over the old “Sports Review of the Year”?

Of the twelve, there are probably four contenders slightly ahead of the rest.  Jessica Ennis has been here before, this time however she is nominated as the Olympic Champion at the Heptathlon.  Having come close when she added the European Championship to her World Championship gold medal, she will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mary Peters, who won the equivalent event at the Munich Olympics and then became Sports Personality of the year in 1972.

Having also been previously nominated, Mo Farrah was nominated last year for his heroics in winning the 5,000m at the World Championships in Dageu.  Farrah “doubled up” for the Olympics, going for gold in both the 5,000m and the 10,000m.  He won both, becoming only the 7th man to become Olympic champion at both the 5,000m and the 10,000m (Lassie Viren managed the feat twice – in Munich in 1972 and again four years later in Montreal).  Farrah also became the first Brit to win Olympic gold at those events. While these two contenders represent sports that had been in the doldrums recently, the next two contenders represent sports that have had their best year.  For British Cycling and British Tennis, 2012 will go down as their Annus Mirabilis.

The spearhead of British Tennis’ great year has been Andy Murray.  When he was nominated in 2009 and 2011, there were slam sized holes in his CV.  This year the knocking at the door became louder and louder until the door opened at Flushing Meadow’s.  His performance against Djokavic in the Australian Open semi final hinted that Murray was going in the right direction – it took Djokavic just under 5 hours to defeat Murray.  After defeat in the Quarters at Roland Garros, Murray’s season then took off at Wimbledon.  It wasn’t just that Murray became the first Brit to reach the final since 1938 that generated momentum, but that until Federer snatched the second set to level at 1-1 Murray was on top.

Murray’s season then went from strength to strength.  He won Gold at the Olympics, beating both Djokovic and Federer on the way and also picked up a Silver in the mixed doubles partnering Laura Robson.  His high point though was his US Open triumph in September – the first British Slam winner in 35 years and the first male Slam winner in 76 years – reversing the result when he faced Djokavic in Australia.

The last of the main contenders won Olympic gold after their historic victory.   Bradley Wiggins had previously won three Olympic gold’s, but before the Olympics began took part in Le Tour de France.  Justifying the tag of favourite, he finished 3 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of compatriot and team-mate Chris Froome in the annual jaunt across France, becoming the first Brit to win Le Tour.  As an encore, Wiggins won gold in the Olympic Time trial.

Ennis, Farrah, Murray and Wiggins to my mind are the four front runners.  That’s not to say that they are the only contenders, the Golf constituency could easily rally behind McIlroy and see him home – miffed at the exclusion of the Ryder Cup hero Ian Polter, while the status of Ellie Simmonds – at times the face of the Paralympic Games – could enhance her popularity.   I however suspect that Wiggins will prevail out of that group of four, following in the pedals of Tommy Simpson, Chris Hoy and Mark Cavendish as Sports Personality winners from the world of Cycling.  If only the BBC extended their awards-fest to Villain of the year, then I would confidently predict that award would be won jointly by Craig Whyte, David Murray, Stuart Regan and Neil Doncaster.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Danny Lennon's St Mirren: Where Has It Gone Wrong?

It’s quite strange to note that out of about 150-odd posts, there are only six about St Mirren.  The first was four years ago and about the position of our manager at that point – Gus MacPherson.  Ironically four years on, it his successor – Danny Lennon – who is the subject of the ire of the St Mirren supporters.  This will be perplexing in particular to those people on the outside who saw the fine football we produced last season.  So where did the six defeats in a row come from?

In truth even when St Mirren were playing well but being profligate with our chances, St Mirren were still too light at the back.  Darren McGregor missed most of last season with a knee injury, and is missing this season with another knee injury, in theory while we were bringing in the likes of Thompson, Hasslebank, Teale etc, we should have been looking at our defensive areas as well and brought in another central defender.

Danny Lennon tries out his Cloughie impersination on Gary Teale with little effect

The failure to provide adequate cover at the back was not a huge issue last season, but Lennon’s change in formation for this season has seen this issue come to the fore alongside another issue with Lennon’s recruitment policy – the failure to bring in another defensive midfielder to replace Stephen Thompson.

Last season St Mirren mostly deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, occasionally venturing into a 4-1-4-1 formation and also deploying a 4-3-3 formation at times (like the Scottish Cup tie at Hearts).  The split midfield consisted of Thompson & Goodwin acting as the more defensive midfielders while 3 of Hasslebank/McGowan/McLean/Teale or Carey (with the addition of Dougie Imrie from the January transfer “Window”) took up attacking positions in advance of Thompson & Goodwin but playing just behind the forward (mostly Steven Thompson).  This formation took St Mirren to 8th but instead of last season being the foundation to better things, St Mirren has instead regressed.

St Mirren lost Hasslebank, Tesselar and Stephen Thompson during last summer, but brought in the defender Dummett (on loan), the young midfielder Robertson and forwards Parkin & Guy.  The idea of playing two up front has obviously been foremost in Lennon’s mind as this season St Mirren have mostly played a variation of 4-4-2 (with the exception of the 5-0 hammering by Celtic that saw St Mirren play a 3-5-2 formation).  The problem with the formation deployed this season is that the 4-1-3-2 formation has not provided enough stability at the back, or provided St Mirren with enough grip in midfield.  The loss through injury of Paul McGowan has meant a loss in creativity for St Mirren, but the loss of grip in midfield has been a major cause of St Mirren’s decline this season.

In the last home match, against Aberdeen, St Mirren had problems in passing the ball into central midfield areas (both McLean & Robertson had a serious off day), this resulted in St Mirren giving the ball away in key area’s.  Aberdeen’s first two goals came from misplaced passes into central midfield areas.  Aberdeen’s well organised pressing meant that St Mirren only really had any joy down the flank’s – from which they were able to have the better of the first half.  In the second half, Aberdeen simply pressed home their advantage while completely nullifying any effectiveness that the St Mirren midfield might have had.

So, how do Danny Lennon & St Mirren take things forward?  I think that Lennon needs to change to a formation that will provide defensive stability, much like the formation Lennon had last season (which provided the platform for much of the attacking football from last season).  He might go back to 3-5-2, but after the horrors of the Celtic game much work will have to be done to make a back three work.  That and i'm not that sure that Lennon knows how to make 3-5-2 work.  The other option being discussed in less and less hushed tones is the replacement of Lennon.

We are still a bit off of that course of action happening.  However that outcome may well come a bit closer to happening if Dundee win on Saturday at Greenhill Road to overtake St Mirren & push them into the relegation spot.  If it’s not crucial for the board, then Saturday’s home match with Dundee will probably act as a tipping point for the fans. 

In this respect, Saturday’s match is a must win match for Lennon who will need something to see him to the January window.  Defeat could well be the beginning of the end for Lennon.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Playing With Spin

While one pair of heavyweights do battle in Australia over the crown of Test Crickets best team, another pair of contenders for the crown begin their battle from Thursday.  While South Africa and Australia slug it out to be number one, India and England are attempting to get back on track after being deposed as number one.  In India’s case there is the additional incentive of revenge after England’s 4-0 series win last year ended India’s time at the top of the tree.

Gatting cuts during England's sucessful 1984/5 test series win in India

The strange thing is that both sides are at a transitional phase.  India has seen the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman since that crushing series defeat.  Dravid’s replacement is Cheteshwar Pujara, who has already scored a test hundred in his 5 tests, with Virat Kholi in place as Laxman’s replacement.  Kholi has already scored two test hundreds in his ten tests.  Still there though to guide these promising players is the little master Sachin Tendulkar, only on 15,533 test runs (at an average of 55.08) with 51 test hundreds to his name.  Virender Shewag will be opening once more, while the dangerous all rounder Yuvraj Singh returns to the squad after successfully fighting a rare form of cancer.

Also returning to the India squad is Harbhajan Singh, who will be key in spearheading India’s spin attack.  Yadav & the old warhorse Zaheer Khan will be the new ball bowlers, however it will be the spin bowling of Singh, Ashwin and the left arm spin of Ojha who will be key against opponents with a perceived weakness for spin bowling.

England also have team building issues of their own.  The retirement of Andrew Strauss opens up a vacancy at the top of the England order, with Nick Compton the likely favourite for that position.  There is still a position in the middle order up for grabs, with Johnny Bairstow favourite to retain the position he occupied in the latter part of the South Africa series, while they have injury problems with their fast bowlers.  Steven Finn is a doubt for the first test while Stuart Broad is returning from injury.  On the upside, Pieterson is back though one wonders how long he will stay in the right frame of mind for the test series.

It has been said before, but key to England’s chances of pulling off an unlikely win in India will be how their batsmen handle the conditions, particularly the spin friendly conditions.  One of the reasons that England lost top spot in the test rankings was their poor record against Pakistan and Sri Lanka last winter, yet here we are in a country where England’s record is not good.  Since the war, England have come away from India with series wins twice (3-1 in 1976/7 and 2-1 in 1984/5).  In that last series win, England posted first innings scores in excess of 400 three times.

Of course England could surprise us all and show a degree of adaptability which was hidden in Sri Lanka and in Abu Dhabi earlier on this year – as they did when they surprisingly drew in India in 2005/6.  I suspect however that this will not be the case, which is why India remain favourites to win this series

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

On Gardening Leave…

While the debate over who should become the manager of the Scotland national team has been rumbling on for the best part of 3 weeks, the SFA finally got around to a decision which, in it’s delivery, asks serious questions of those in charge of our game.

Regan & Ogilvie announce the removal of Levein as Scotland Manager
The first thing to say is that the SFA have at least made the right decision.  Levein’s predication for using tactical solutions ill fitting of the players available has been a big factor in every reverse.  Levein’s inability to pick a side capable of holding on to the ball was the biggest contributory factor in his downfall though.  We might have players available better than those available under messers Burley, McLeish, Smith & Voghts but they still give the ball away far too often – the nadir being that first half against Belgium.  He was the best available option at the time for the SFA, but if things are not working out decisions have to be made.

That the SFA made the right decision is only part of the story though.  The main story though has been the shocking shoddy processes behind the decision.  Indeed it should be pointed out that technically, Levein has not been sacked.  He has been relieved of his position as Scotland Manager and put on “gardening leave”. It should also be pointed out that no meetings on the subject were scheduled until last Friday, when discussions rumbled on throughout the weekend until concluding yesterday when Levein finally learned of his fate.  Sure Levein was on holiday, but even so soundings and initial discussions could have taken place.  Certainly the way the news leaked out, rummors on the twittersphere around Lunchtime yesterday followed by the BBC breaking the news around about half past 4.  Even the admission that Levein had planned to see out this campaign before quitting seemed to have backfired on the SFA, with Regan admitting that one of the reasons for his decision was Levein's plans after this qualifying cycle.

While one would hope that the SFA find some employment for Levein while he is still under their employ, attention should now turn to who Craig Levein’s sucessor should be.  On that score, there is near consensus with the name of Gordon Strachan cropping up time and time again.

Strachan is possibly at the optimum age for an International coach.  His time at Celtic was by common consensus a success, building expertly on (while creating his own template) the Martin O’Neill years.  Three successive Scottish Championships, one Scottish Cup and two League Cups were won by Strachan at Celtic – though arguably his biggest achievement was taking Celtic into the knock out stages of the European Cup two seasons in a row.  True he didn’t exactly set the heather alight at Coventry, Southampton or at Middlesborough.  He did keep Coventry and Southampton in the English Premier League though – an achievement beyond his immediate successors at both clubs.  He also took Southampton to their first English FA Cup final since 1976 – losing 1-0 to Arsenal in 2003.

Of the other main contenders, Walter Smith has done the job before (with some degree of success) but may well have to overcome resistance from the Tartan Army.  Joe Jordan has a patchy managerial career but has had a renaissance recently as ‘Arry Redknapp’s assistant at Tottenham, while Owen Coyle was sucessful at Burnley but took Bolton down from the English Premier League.  However there are two interesting, if slightly leftfield, names being mentioned.

Rob who write’s the “Left Back in the Changing Room” blog mentioned Rafa Benitez – “he's available, he's used to dealing with incompetent superiors, he's used to dealing with high pressure, he's a fine cup manager (which is what Scotland needs if you think about it) and he seems to understand youth development (as the current crop of LFC youngsters attests).”  Craig Brown, no stranger to the Scotland job himself mentioned the current under 21 coach, Billy Stark “It wouldn't surprise me, although I think it would surprise most of the media, if Billy managed to impress enough to be offered the job…  I was the Under-21 coach and they gave me the job, just as Billy Stark's the Under-21 coach, and I had four qualifying campaigns and managed to get out of the group on three of them”.

Stark’s name is interesting, he is the kind of candidate that the SFA might have considered several years ago.  With tickets to sell though, there is only one name that captivates the Tartan Army.  The question though is if firstly the SFA share the Tartan Army’s ideas on the next Scotland Manager and secondly if the SFA and Strachan can strike a deal.  Unless there are reasons, Strachan is the only name in town.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Levein's Own Jump The Shark Moment

Last week might not actually be Levein’s jump the shark moment, a lot of the tartan army would pinpoint the 4-6 Czech Republic qualifier for that moment.  However it now seems as if there is a groundswell of opinion that sees someone else taking charge of the Scotland national team, possibly in time to face Luxembourg next month.

Well, at least it's not that annoying double finger gesture...
As I have said before, I think that the criticisms made of Levein by the Tartan Army don’t really stack up.  Levein was said to be too negative and tactically inept.  In truth, Levein was at times too clever, and other times unable to pick the correct players to fit the chosen formation.  That 4-6 formation for example was designed to flood the midfield and create opportunities by pulling the Czech’s forward, but fell down because of Scotland’s inability to hold on to the ball (Remember as well that Spain won the European Championships playing a variation of 4-6). 

During the first two games of this campaign, Levein went with a 4-1-4-1 formation.  This did not work because Scotland kept on giving the ball away.  Away to Wales, Levein went with a 4-3-2-1 formation (4-5-1 with the wide midfielders pushed up), which was by general consensus an attacking formation.  That fell apart in the second half because Scotland could not keep the ball after Brown was forced off.  This brings us to the Belgium game and giving the ball away about 20 times in the first half…  alone.  Anyone spot a pattern here?

The other hallmark of Levein’s time in charge is the amount of times that Scotland have somehow gained an advantage that is thrown away by the players retreating into a sort of defensive mode.  Again, against the Czech Republic (this time in the Hampden tie), Scotland found themselves 1-0 and 2-1 up  but surrendered control of the game as soon as a lead was established.  Scotland should have created something against the Serb’s, who lets not forget were poor in that Hampden international.  While last Friday Scotland were 1-0 up at half time in Cardiff before disappearing for all but five minutes of the second half.  Had we built on our advantage against the Czech’s, we would have been at Euro’s in the summer, while  the five points dropped against Serbia and Wales would have seen us only three points behind Croatia and Belgium rather than the current 8.

In short, while Levein has certainly made mistakes but Scotland are where they are partly because the players have not performed.  However I think that Levein should go for two reasons.  Firstly, his biggest mistake is persevering with 4-1-4-1 which as I pointed out in this post is a hindrance to Scotland performing. Scotland’s best performances over the past 20 years have been because we have had three central midfielders, while our best performance under Levein came in the Spain match at Hampden when we played 4-2-3-1.  Leven persisted with his formation until the margin of error was too big.

Secondly, I feel that this group of Scotland players needs fresh eyes.  A new manager might look at this crop of players and come up with different tactics and different formations than Levein… tactics that may well work better than Levein’s tactics.  Any new manager might even stop the practice of putting square pegs into round holes.  The last reason why Levein should go is a simple one, tactical genius Billy Dodds thinks that Levein should stay.

Unusually, there is near agreement among the Tartan Army about the preferred successor to Levein.  Step forward one Gordon Strachan.  Strachan has played for Scotland, making 50 appearances from 1980 to 1992.  The hallmark of his managerial career has been a pragmatic nature, which has seen him keep Coventry up, keep Southampton up while taking them to the 2003 English FA Cup final and win three Championships at Celtic, including the double in 2006/7.  Strachan also took Celtic to the last 16 of the European Cup two seasons in a row – falling to AC Milan and Barcelona.

It should be pointed out that there is no race at this moment, Levein has not yet been eased from his position.  Yet there is still a race for this position with candidates.  Strachan seems to be the clear favourite among the fans, but there are other candidates.  Walter Smith & Alex McLeish have been touted in some quarters.  Both have done the job in the past with a degree of success (McLeish was even 90 minutes away from taking us to Euro 2008), yet both left in difficult circumstances.

If the SFA were true to form, they would procrastinate until the new year until bagging Levein.  However Stewart Regan is under pressure, and I suspect that clubs annoyed at Regan’s handling of the collapse of Rangers will be using the current state of the Scottish National team to put pressure on Regan.  I don’t know when, but I do think that Levein is a goner as Scotland manager.  Whoever does take over needs to be either a miracle worker, or have a very very good plan.

Monday, 15 October 2012


Not only an assessment of where Scotland are in relation to the current World Cup campaign, but also many of the Tartan Army’s verdict of Craig Levein after the awful defeat to Wales on Friday.

There are two things that stick out for me.  Firstly - and not for the first time - we find ourselves with an advantage in a must win game and then throw it away by sitting back and letting the opposition come at us.  We did it twice against the Czech Republic at Hampden last year, while on Friday we went missing pretty much for most of the second half.  We roused ourselves and produced a five minute spell culminating in the goal that never was, but apart from that we were not at the races in the second half.

The second thing is that while Scotland suffered at the hands of the match officials - chopping off a perfectly good goal and awarding a penalty from a dive - the sense of outrage just wasn’t there.  There was no sense that we were robbed probably in truth because Wales were good value for their win.  Rather worryingly, Scotland’s performance dropped off markedly after the injury induced substitution of Scott Brown at half time.  Also rather worryingly, Scotland continued to give the ball away in key positions.

The third poor performance in a row has seen calls for Levein to be replaced.  Personally, I am yet to be convinced that all of Scotland’s ills will be solved with the removal of Levein.  On Friday, he changed from his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation and played with a much more attacking 4-3-2-1 formation and still couldn’t get a performance from the players.  It is worth pointing out that Saturday saw the fifth anniversary of the 3-1 win over Ukraine that saw us three points away from qualifying for Euro 2008 - we went on to lose to Georgia and Italy to miss out by a point.  Since that game Scotland have been managed by three men (Alex Mcleish, George Burley and now Levein) and won 6 competitive matches (Iceland (twice), Macedonia, Liechtenstein (twice) and Lithuania).  Clearly the results do not bear out that we have the best set of players eligible to play for the national team since the early 1990’s.

Rather irritatingly for those people who want to speculate about Levein’s position, there is another qualifier on the way.  Unfortunately for Levein, this one is against the group leaders - and one of the promising sides in European football - Belgium.  Bossed by Marc Wilmot’s, a UEFA Cup winner at Schalke 04 in 1997 and featured in both qualifiers in 2001, Belgium seem to be in the midst of their own golden generation.  Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen are well known to English Premier League audiences, while Hazzard, Dembele & Mirallas have moved to English Premier League clubs during the summer. 

The star of Belgium’s 3-0 win in Belgrade on Saturday though is not a house hold name in England yet, De Bruyne has been loaned out from Chelsea to Werder Bremen.  They will have to go some to match the achievements of the previous “golden generation” of Belgian football - when they were runners up to West Germany in the European Championships of 1980, beat Argentina in the opening match of the ‘82 World Cup, and went all the way to the Semi-finals four years later in Mexico - Argentina gaining some sort of revenge in that match.

If the quality of the opposition was not bad news for Scotland, there is our record in Brussels to look at…  then again, maybe not.  Scotland have never won in Belgium - a record that includes qualifiers for three successive European Championships (2-0 in November 1979, 3-2 in December 1982 & 4-1 in April 1987) as well as that 2-0 loss in September 2001 (pictured above) that saw Scotland fail to reach the World Cup 2002.  All of which makes a Scotland win unlikely.

The odds are on the autopsy on Scotland’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign beginning at some point tomorrow night.  Whether that goes hand in hand with a search for a new Scotland manager remains to be seen - and I suspect if the worst happens tomorrow it won’t be until the end of the week before there is any news to report on that front.  Whatever happens, there are a lot of reputations waiting to be salvaged with a win tomorrow night…  starting with the players.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Crunch Time For Levein

The next week sees the next block of matches on the road to World Cup 2014.  While England can count on 3 points with an easy win over San Marino, Ireland face a huge match in Germany.  The most intriguing fixture sees Scotland play Wales in a competitive match for the first time since the famous 1-1 draw at Ninian Park that saw Scotland reach the play-offs in their attempt to reach Mexico ’86.  The draw was immediately overshadowed by the death of the Scotland manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack just before the end of the match.

Dalgleish scores during Scotland's last World Cup win V Wales, October 1977
Prior to that campaign, Scotland had fond memories against Wales.  One of Scotland’s most famous qualifiying ties was a 2-0 win against Wales in October 1977 (right) – a tie that the Welsh FA chose in their wisdom to play at Anfield.  The tie was nip and tuck until with 12 minutes to go, a penalty was awarded against Wales when the ball was adjudged to have been punched by the Welsh defender David Jones (it was Joe Jordan who had punched the ball).  Masson (who at that point had a very good record in converting penalties) scored.  With five minutes to go a Buchan cross found Dalgleish who headed home to send Scotland into the World Cup finals – prompting the famous piece of commentary from Arthur Montford - “Argentina… here we come…

Wales managed to get some sort of revenge during the qualifying rounds for Mexico 1986.  In March 1985, they became the second team (the first in twenty years) to win a world cup match at Hampden, Ian Rush’s goal just before half time checked Scotland’s progress in this tournament after two early home wins against Iceland & Spain.  By the time that return match came around a draw would have seen Scotland into a play-off (on goal difference), a win would have seen Scotland with a chance of direct qualification depending on the result of Spain’s last match (a home game with Iceland).

Scotland fell behind very early on to a Mark Hughes goal, but managed to equalise with another penalty, taken by Davie Cooper.  At the final whistle, any joy was muted as the players suspected that something had happened.

Since that tie, Scotland has faced Wales in frendlies only.  Yet, Wales have developed a reputation of being the team that end’s the tenor of Scotland managers.  This first emerged when Scotland faced Wales at the Millenium Stadium in early 2004.  Both sides had lost out in the playoffs for Euro 2004, but Wales hammered Scotland 4-0.  From that point Berti Vogts time as Scotland manager was all but up.  Levein himself will be aware of this, especially as his predecessor George Burley also saw himself disposed of after a defeat in Wales, this time the SFA waited only 48 hours after a 3-0 loss at Friday’s venue – The Cardiff City Stadium – to sever Burley’s time as Scotland manager.

The start that Scotland have made in this group – 2 home draws – has put the pressure on Levein to pick up at least four points from the two away games against Wales and Belgium (which follows next Tuesday).  The Wales tie will be the easier of the two, but that is not to underestimate this side despite the fact that they have lost in their two outings in this group so far (2-1 at home to Belgium and 6-1 away in Serbia) and that they will be missing Craig Bellamy for this double header.  Wales midfield is their best part of the team, with Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsay playing alongside Liverpool’s summer signing Joe Allen, while they can also call on Tottenham’s Gareth Bale on the left.  There are also familiar faces there in the shape of Celtic’s Adam Matthews and Joe Ledley, while Aberdeen’s Jason Brown is also in this squad.

In sharp contrast to last time out, Levein’s squad has the feel of returning faces – with the exception of the banned Stephen Naismith.  Scott Brown and Darren Fletcher both return, with Brown seemingly only fit for one of the games.  Whichever match Brown plays, both will add a grip to the Scotland midfield that was sorely missing in the previous two matches – assuming of course that Levein plays with three central midfielders.  Also returning is Sunderland’s £12 million striker Stephen Fletcher.

Fletcher had fallen out with Levein at the start of the Nation’s Cup matches last spring.  However it has taken until Scotland’s flat performances against Serbia and Macedonia last month for both sides to thrash out their differences.  With Rhodes out injured, Fletcher’s chances of playing look good – depending on Levein’s decision on Miller of course.  As I have pointed out previously, the key to Levein getting desirable results out of these two games depends on whether he sticks with his 4-1-4-1 formation.  The inclusion of Commons even gives Levein the option of going into both games with a genuine winger.

Scotland needs at least 4 points from this double header to pull themselves back into the pack.  3 points from Wales is an absolute must, while a point is needed from this group’s form side Belgium.  The problem is that anything other than 3 points on Friday means that Scotland will be all but out after 3 games.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Best Comeback Since...

Europe’s dramatic comeback in last weekend’s Ryder Cup has has the sporting commentariat reaching for the superlatives.  One of them was the claim that this was one of the biggest comebacks in sporting history.  Big claim.

Luke Donald tee's off as that fightback is about to start...

In truth, Europe’s fightback was always a distinct possibility, given that the European golfers had not performed to their own high standards during the Foursomes & Fourballs.  What was a surprise was how much certain members of the US team crumbled, in the same way that the European golfers crumbled in 1999 at the infamous Brookline Ryder Cup.

So, if the “Miracle of Medenah” is not the most remarkable comeback in sport, then what is?  Liverpool’s own Miracle in Istanbul is often touted as one of the great fightbacks, often overshadowing one from Manchester United’s back catalogue.  In the European Cup semi final in 1999 they had drawn 1-1 in the home leg against Juventus.  At the Stadio Dele Alpe Juventus went 2-0 up very early on in the second leg and were looking to be in the ominous form that they were in when they won this competition three years earlier.  Manchester Utd clawed their way back into the game and nabbed a vital away goal through a Roy Keane header.  This broke the Juventus spell as the began to fade out of the game as Manchester Utd took more of a grip, levelling the game with a Yorke goal 11 minutes before half time and then going on to get a winner with 6 minutes left through Cole.

The Autumn of 1999 saw another, much more improbable fightback when France came from 24-10 to beat New Zealand 43-31 and reach the Fourth Rugby World Cup final.  New Zealand were heavy favourites for this tournament, including most of the side that lost to South Africa in 1995, including Lomu and Mertens, as well as new find Christian Cullen.  However France turned things around early in the second half to not only beat New Zealand but also sowed some seeds of doubt in the minds of New Zealand rugby players – it was a hex that was only banished with last years win.

Snooker has seen two monumental comebacks that should be considered.  Stephen Hendry’s comeback from 14-8 down to win 18-14 in the 1992 World Championships is considered one of the great comebacks, but overshadows another.  People forget that in the famous “Black Ball final” of 1985, Steve Davis whitewashed Denis Taylor in the afternoon session on the first day 8-0 before Taylor took 7 out of the 8 frames in the evening session.

The granddaddy of comebacks has to be the Rumble In The Jungle, the legendary boxing fight between George Foreman & Muhammed Ali that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire in October 1974.  Ali had come back from his ban and lost to Joe Frazer in 1971.  Frazer then lost to George Foreman, who then demolished Ken Norton.  Ali and Foreman agreed to the fight, with Foreman the strong favourite.  As early as the second round, Alli resorted to his “rope a dope” tactics – designed to tire Foreman.  To the watching media, this looked like madness, but as the fight entered the fourth round Foreman began to look tired.  Ali pounced in the eighth round to set the seal on a remarkable comeback.

Europe’s comeback last week was not in the same league because the Ryder Cup was generally though to be nip and tuck anyway, and that Europe could not possibly have played as badly again as they had done over the first two days.  That’s not to take anything away from a huge achievement, especially on enemy territory.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In Defence Of Levein (Well Sort Of...)

The fall out from Scotland’s second successive home draw in World Cup qualifying has seen Levein under pressure from fans and the press alike.  While there are serious problems with Levein’s Scotland side, a lot of the criticisms seem wide of the mark.

The main criticism of the Scotland team is that it is far too negative in playing one up front.  Of course the best teams on the planet play with more than one forward, yes?  Well, no actually.  Italy got to the final of Euro 2012 playing two forwards but they were the exception, not the rule.  Portugal, Germany & the Netherlands all played with one up front, however they also deployed wingers that pushed up when their sides were on the attack.  Brazil also played this formation at the last World Cup, whether they stick with one up front for their home world cup remains to be seen.

I think that Levein’s ideas on tactics suffer because they fall down in the gap between the chalkboard and the pitch – they fall down in the execution rather than the formulation.  The biggest example of this was the deployment of the 4-6 formation in the away tie in the Czech Republic.  The basis to making 4-6 work was retaining enough possession to free runners from midfield.  What happened was that Scotland haemorrhaged possession from the off (though it should be pointed out that the Czech Republic goal came from poor defending).

This brings us to Levein’s favoured formation for Scotland – 4-1-4-1.  On paper this has the potential to be an attacking formation with four attacking midfielders playing behind the sole forward with a single holding midfielder.  The problem is that Levein has never quite got the correct mix in midfield, and has used a recycled defender (in Gary Caldwell) as the holding midfielder in the first two qualifiers.  Ideally, the holding midfielder should be a defensive player, but also should be able to pass the ball.  Because Levein hasn’t quite got the mix right, Scotland at times look disjointed up front. Clearly, Levein is missing Darren Fletcher more than we thought, as he would be the ideal person to fit into that holding midfielder role.

It is this lack of grip in midfield that is undermining Scotland.  From Craig Brown and his favoured 3-5-2 formation on to Alex McLeish and his 4-5-1 formation, Scotland fielded sides with 3 central midfielders.  This gave Scotland at least a toe hold in matches.  When George Burley deployed three central midfielders – normally in a 4-3-3 – he tended to get results (particularly in wins against Iceland and Macedonia). 

When Burley shifted to his favoured 4-4-2, Scotland lost grip in the middle of the park and lost.  If Levein is to get this campaign back on track, he must think about his formation.  Maybe in this respect the best way forward is the 4-2-3-1 formation beloved of many of the world’s top sides.  After all, when we deployed that formation we gave Spain an almighty fright.  That however is not Levein’s biggest problem.  His main problem is at the back, and this one is of his own making.

Levein’s favoured defensive pairing is Christophe Berra and Andy Webster.  Unfortunately, both players are too similar to each other.  Ideally either Berra or Webster would be playing, with Caldwell slotting in.

One area where Levein has caused himself problems is with that striker spot.  Levein has exiled the new Sunderland forward Stephen Fletcher and has not really given an in depth explanation for the decision.  The original decision stems from Fletcher’s decision to make himself unavailable to play for Scotland prior to last years Carling Cup tie against Northern Ireland.  Yet, Levein seems to be losing the PR war.

Had Kenny Miller been on form last Saturday, this issue would not have come up.  However Miller seemed to be off the pace in both matches and reinforcements were brought on too late to affect both matches.  While Jordan Rhodes seems to be the current fan’s favourite, the bad handling of the Fletcher situation means that there are some Scotland fans that see Fletcher as a sort of Prince across the water.

The criticism of Levein is justified, but not the reasons for the criticisms.  Levein’s Scotland is not set up to be negative or conservative.  However, Levein must recognise that his 4-1-4-1 formation is not working and that he needs to sort his defence out. Next month Scotland face trips to Wales and Belgium.  If Levein makes the same mistakes in those matches, then we will be left to fight for nothing but pride.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Art Of Missed Opportunities

World Cup - European Qualifying Group A: Hampden; Scotland 0, Serbia 0

Did I say that a point against Serbia would be par?

To be honest, I though that Serbia would show an awful lot more, would be dangerous in their movement and look dangerous going forward.  Instead, while they weren’t quite awful, this was a game that Scotland could have won and should have won.  Serbia were comfortable in possession, but save for a couple of shots on target did not look very dangerous.  Indeed, at this early stage, it looks unlikely that they will be involved in the shakeup at the conclusion of this group. 

So, if Serbia were disappointing then what does that say about a Scotland side that spurned several clear opportunities to nab a win.

In the first 15 minutes of the match, Scotland won 6 corners against Serbia but could not fashion any chances from those set pieces, while Serbia responded with just the one chance – a free kick from Kolarov that was put around the post by McGregor.  The first sign that things were not going to go Scotland’s way came on 23 minutes when a Snodgrass cross went uncontested, with Miller off the pace.  Had Miller gambled at that point, it would have been a gift horse.  Instead Scotland fluffed a very good chance to take the initiative.

In the meantime Kenny Miller was having one of those nightmare matches that everything he touched turned to rubbish.  He failed to gamble at that chance midway through the first half, while just before the break, Adam sent him though on goal.  Instead of passing to players in a better position, Miller went for goal.

While I thought that Serbia would be technically excellent on the ball, what I wasn’t quite expecting was that Serbia would indulge in so many niggling foul challenges.  Nastasic was the first to pick up a booking with an awful challenge on Hutton, while a couple of the other Serbian defenders were intent on intimidating the Scotland attack.  Yet Scotland topped the crime count, Hutton picking up a booking for showing studs during a slide tackle while Snodgrass picked up a booking for a push on Kolarov.

While the pattern of this match continued, Serbia settled into a counter punching role – holding possession before launching short sharp attacks.  Scotland did create three very good chances during this half though.  With 10 minutes gone, Berra put a cross across goal, only to see Miller slow on the uptake at the back post.  Mid way through the match, Caldwell put the ball through to Naismith, who’s cross-shot went just wide of the post (pictured above), while just at the end of the match the substitute Forrest shot straight at the goalkeeper Stojkovic.  That last chance had come just after Serbia’s best opportunity of the match, Tadic was put through and almost chipped McGregor but for a great save.

The match finished in a chorus of Booing. To be honest, I don’t think that was harsh at all.  At the end of qualifying, this might look like a very good point, but on today’s evidence Scotland did not take the opportunities presented to them.  While I don’t think Levein made any selection mistakes, Levein was slow in making necessary substitutions.  Miller should have been hooked by the hour mark at the latest (it was obvious he had faded badly in the second half), while the double substitution took place far too late to have any effect.

With the first round of matches now complete, both Scotland & Serbia now find themselves two points behind both Croatia and Belgium.  Both those side meet in Brussels on Tuesday while Serbia host Wales and Scotland host Macedonia.  That tie with Macedonia looks more vital, not for Scotland’s chances of qualifying but for Scotland’s chances of just staying in the pack.  Anything less than a win will probably see Scotland all but out of the qualifying shake up, even at this early stage. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Road To Brazil Starts Here...

There have been World Cup qualifiers in other parts of the globe, for example the marathon single qualifying group for South American teams began last Autumn (with Chile currently top of the table), but for European teams, the road to Brazil begins at the end of this week with qualifiers on Friday and Saturday.

Scotland start their last sucessful World Cup campaign in Austria, August 1996
On Friday, both of the Irish teams and England face at best tricky matches with parts of the old Soviet Union.  Ireland begin in Kazakhstan at teatime on Friday with a match that is a must win for them.  Northern Ireland face the Russians in Moscow in what will be an incredibly difficult match for them, Russia will still be smarting form their surprise early exit from the European Championships.  In sharp contrast, England face Moldova in what should be a repeat of the outcome from their meeting in September 1996, the 3-0 win then kicked off their campaign to qualify for France ‘98.

Qualifying group A also begins on Friday, though Scotland’s first match does not take place until Saturday.  By which time Wales will have started and found out if Belgium really are as ominous as they appear.  Wales will be hoping that home advantage will be a help.  Kicking off this group will be Croatia and Macedonia, half an hour before Wales & Belgium begin their match.

While this will be the first time Scotland will have played Serbia, Scotland have faced Yugoslavia on a number of occasions.  Scotland’s 1-1 draw in the 1974 World Cup saw Scotland eliminated undefeated from that tournament.  The most recent meetings though came during qualifying for Italia 90, a 1-1 draw at Hampden in October 1988 was followed 11 months later with a 3-1 win for Yugoslavia in Zagreb.

Serbia’s new coach is the controversial former Red Star, Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter defender Sinisa Mihaijovic – this will be his competitive debut in charge of Serbia.  While Serbia failed to reach the finals of the European Championships, they are aiming for 3 World Cup final’s in a row.  They will have to unearth a forward, as lack of goals was their downfall with regard to qualifying for the Euro’s.

That’s not to say that Serbia are not very good.  Like most of the former Yugoslavian countries, Serbia will be very good on the ball.  They played with a 4-5-1 formation against Ireland last month, so may go with that formation once again.  Partizan’s winger Tomic is being touted as the key man, while another player to watch will be Red Star’s Lazovic.  It remains to be seen if the loss (to retirement) of Dejan Stankovic will be felt. 

One area that suffered a loss that won’t be so keenly felt is at the back.  Manchester United’s Vidic also retired, but his place will be taken by either Subutic from Dortmund or Maksmimovic.  Chelsea’s Ivanovic captain’s the side from the Right back position while holding the left back berth will be another familiar face in the shape of Manchester City’s Kolarov.

With a home tie with Macedonia hard on the heels of this tie and ties with Belgium and Wales on the horizon, it will be desirable to get off to a good start.  I think that 4 points out of 6 is probably par and that 6 points would only give us some room for manoeuvre.  It’s worth being reminded as well that while 6 out of 6 is desirable, it won’t give us a huge advantage.  The last time Scotland won their opening two qualifiers was when we beat Latvia and San Marino…  on our way to finishing behind Belgium and Croatia during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.