Saturday, 26 May 2012

Why Demotion For Rangers Would Be Best For All.

One of the keenest debates around Scottish Football in recent weeks has been the decision on how to punish Rangers for their lack of financial integrity.  Yet it appears that despite the crimes perpetrated, the SPL is leaning towards some light touch regulation of its own.  Should Rangers become a new-co, there are several very good reasons why the only credible course of action available to the SPL and the SFA is instant demotion to the Scottish Third Division.
Whitehouse & Clark from Rangers administrators Duff & Phelps

1) Retention of Newco-Rangers in the SPL will send the message that cheats win: Anyone who has followed this story will be well aware that the charges of “financial doping” have been well and truly been proven, even this week the Rangers Tax Case blog fingers the transfer of Christian Nerlinger as being the first contract where the EBT is mismanaged.  So should we follow the example of our friends across the continent and take tough measures, bearing in mind that the financial fair play measures are due to be brought in by UEFA over the next couple of years.  Or should we follow the example of the English FA, who have not exactly been rushing to charge club owners as unfit and proper people to run football clubs and have stood back while the EPL have praised Manchester City for running up huge losses – or in EPL speak “being a shining example of inward investment”.  The revolving door of unfit owners of Portsmouth FC is further testament to the FA’s lasiz faire stance with .

2) This is the quickest punishment:  Should the footballing authorities decide to demote Rangers, punishment will be swift and instant.  Rangers will start the season and have to adapt to their circumstances.  The alternatives seem designed to show that something is being done, but will impact for seasons to come.  For example, the proposal to dock Rangers 10 points per season for the next three seasons. There are also proposals to fine Rangers or to inflict some sort of entrance fee on them.  All of these so called “punishments” are due to drag on for years.  No, sorry but the punishment for Rangers should be swift and not cast a shadow over Scottish Football for years to come.

3) Relegation is the norm on the continent: On the continent when a side goes into administration, they are relegated down a division.  This happens in France (where clubs are audited by a body affiliated to the French Ligue 1, any offenders suffer “points relegations” for financial irregularities) and in Italy (where new-co Fiorentina were sent down to Sieire C).  Neil Doncaster’s point that this does not happen in the UK should be viewed alongside the fact that both the FA and the SFA are rather remiss in cracking down on unfit an improper people to run football clubs in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

4) The Football authorities will need to act for the sake of their credibility:  Should New-co Rangers escape with a fine and the above points deduction, then both the SPL and the SFA will see their credibility disappear into a hole.  The question will then be asked if the SFA and SPL are fit and proper people to run Scottish football.

Of course it’s not just the footballing authorities that will need to think very carefully about what to do with Rangers.  There are rumblings about a fan boycott by supporters of non old firm fans against Scottish football as a whole, especially if the SPL vote to retain Newco Rangers within the SPL.  Kilmarnock fans are particularaly unhappy about the comments by their chairman, while season ticket sales at Aberdeen are supposedly down.
5) Relegation will be good for New-Co Rangers:  One of the great misnomers is that Newco Rangers will recover quicker by staying in the SPL, and that any punishments that are “too heavy”, to quote Neil Doncaster (right), will put off any investors.  Rubbish.  What will be best for Newco Rangers will be starting from the bottom.

Firstly, any relegation will remove a great deal of the stench of favouritism and quite frankly the venom and rancour towards Newco Rangers in an instant.  Secondly, Newco Rangers will not be in a position to challenge for championships come the first day of next season anyway.  It makes much more sense for Newco Rangers to re-build the foundations of the club while making their way through the divisions.  It is of course entirely feasible that Newco Rangers could generate additional media exposure and as a result income from their quest to get through the divisions.  As for investors, quite frankly the country as a whole is still in the economic myre and will be for the forseable future.  That will have a bigger bearing on Investors than whether Newco Rangers are facing fixtures next year against Arbroath, Peterhead and Queens Park.

6) We will see the end of the BSkyB/ESPN Television deal:  Neil Doncaster is already on record as saying that the BSkyB part of the deal essentially is predicated in there being four Old Firm matches a season.  So apart from the money will we miss the disparaging weekend lunchtime kickoffs, the highlights days after games have taken place and just generally being BSkyB’s bitch.  Well, I’m not so sure that we will miss the deal, in fact I suspect that quite a few football fans will be glad to see the back of this deal.

Of course, the main reason why Newco Rangers look to be kept into the SPL will be money.  That is the calculation that the chairmen of the SPL Clubs need to make, money or credibility.  It’s a sad world where credibility starts second favourite to money.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The End Of The Cycle

57th European Cup Final, Allianz Arena - Munich; Bayern Munich 1, Chelsea 1 (Chelsea win 4-3 on Penalties)

In the run up to this match, there were competing omens at play.  One omen went that the circumstances of this match resembled the 1975 European Cup Final where an English team that started the season with a new manager intent on re-shaping an aging squad sees an managerial change mid season and somehow manages to get to European football’s showpiece event.  we all forgot about the other omen staring us in the face – that the last time a team played a European Cup final in their home stadium they lost out to an English team on penalties.  Oh and the one about Bayern always losing European finals that they dominated, like they did in 1982, 1987 and 1999.

What is almost certain about that game though is that Liverpool did not win against all the odds and despite being very much on the back foot for most of the game, and they did not send a suspended captain up to collect the trophy – the collection of the trophy by Terry was highly inappropriate especially given he changed into full kit.  Chelsea spent much of the first half penned into their own box, while Bayern created chance after chance.  Most of which fell to Mario Gomez, who missed three chances – two in particular should have been goals.  Just before the 20 minute mark, Muller found Gomez who took one too many touches in the box when he should have shot, on 35 minutes a Gomez volley went wide of the target while just before half time Gomez ran on to a Muller flick and blasted the ball over the top.  Bayern at this point were playing 4-2-4 with Robben and Ribbery playing in advanced wide positions and Muller slightly off of Gomez.  Chelsea’s intended formation was 4-2-3-1, but this too changed as the game went on to 4-4-1-1.

In the second half, the game opened up slightly, but the pattern still remained with Bayern dominating.  Bayern did manage to get the ball into the back of the net during the first 10 minutes of the second half.  A low cut back from Muller found Robben, his shot was deflected and found Ribbary who put the ball into the back of the net before being flagged offside.  Such was Bayern’s dominance that it took Chelsea until the last quarter of the game to create their first chance.  It looked more and more like one goal would settle it.  The winner looked like it had come on the 83rd minute.

With 10 minutes to go, Kroos put a cross in that Chelsea had difficulty in dealing with.  Minutes later Kroos put in another cross which Muller headed into the turf and into the net (left), it was vaguely reminiscent of another European Cup final goal scored in Munich.  Both sides then made substitutions that would have a bearing on the remainder of the game, Bayern brought on Daniel van Buyten for the goalscorer Muller in a clear defensive move while Chelsea brought on Torres.  With three minutes left, Bayern’s worst nightmare began as Chelsea’s first corner brought their goal – Drogba evaded his marker to bullet a header past Neuer.  Bayern then began to look nervous and tired as the ghosts of 1987 and 1999 began to circle, however they did manage to reach extra time.

In Extra Time, Bayern had two chances to win.  Firstly, Drogba brought down Ribery to concede a penalty.  Robben’s penalty was saved by Cech, then in the second period a Lahm pass found the second substitute Olic who elected to cross into Buyten rather than shoot himself.  That was it, and the match went to penalties.  Must be a win for Bayern Munich considering how good German teams are at penalties, right?  Well, no.

Chelsea recovered from missing their first penalty to win 4-3.  The key penalty takers being Olic and Schweinsteiger – who stuttered with his run up and hit the post (right) – for Bayern while Drogba scored the decisive penalty.  So Chelsea became the 23rd team to win the European Cup, the first new team to win since Borrusia Dortmund down the road at the Olympiastadion 15 years ago.  Unusually for a European Cup winning team, this victory does not go to a team with a glittering future or in the middle of a trophy glut but to an experienced side that will break up in the next couple of years.

Bayern Munich will face questions of their own, like how on earth they lost that match.  For Chelsea, the questions will revolve around the identity of their new coach and of the rebuilding job that will be required to replace Terry, Lampard and Drogba.  It’s one thing for Di Matteo to re-shape an existing squad to make them more compact and harder to beat (which countless sides have done with much success in Europe and in Cup matches in England) but it’s another to re-build this Chelsea side.  However, as last hurrah’s for great teams go, this one will probably take some beating.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Hearts Are Broken...

127th Scottish Cup Final, Hampden; Hibernian 1, Heart of Midlothian 5

The 2012 Scottish Cup final will go down as one of the most one sided Scottish Cup Finals of all time as Hearts ran out 5-1 winners over their Edinburgh rivals.  The Hearts win was built on a complete and total dominance of the midfield area, a dominance that was cemented once Kujabi was sent off right at the start of the second half for a tug on Suso.  Hearts converted the resulting penalty and scored a fourth within moments to cement their 8th Scottish Cup win, their third in 14 years.

The first quarter of an hour of the game was very nervy as both sides settled into the game.  Both sides were playing 4-4-2.  Hearts were showing signs of exerting some dominance of midfield, and took full advantage in the 14th minute.  Hearts first corner was poorly cleared and fell to Ryan Elliott, his shot was defected into the box where there were two unmarked Hearts players waiting.  Closest to the ball was the former Falkirk skipper Darren Barr, who stabbed the ball past Brown.

All of a sudden Hearts were now dominating the midfield and the game.  They had created a couple of half chances, but did manage to double their lead on 26 minutes.  Andrew Driver picked up possession on the Hibs right, he passed the ball into Skatcel who’s deflected shot flew past Brown.  At this point you were beginning to think that Hib’s really had to do something or else they were going to really subside.  More so when moments after Hib’s missed their best chance so far (through O’Connor), Hearts could have gone 3-0 up.  Suso Santana's shot was cleared off the line by McPake.  Just before half time, Hib’s dramatically got back into it as a Soares cross was turned in by the Hib’s captain McPake.

At half time the speculation was that Hib’s had come back into the game, yet the game was over within five minutes of the re-start.  Santana was running into the box, tracked by Kujabi when Kujabi tugged Suso’s shirt outside the box, Santana also fell over just inside the box (there may have been contact between the two – replay’s show that this was minimal but did happen).  Referee Thompson made the correct decision to give Kujabi his second booking, which meant a sending off.  However it was a rank decision to give the penalty, which Granger scored to make it 3-1.  However, it does not excuse the poor decision by Kujabi to pull Suso back, his choice to pull Suso’s jersey back handed a rampant Hearts an even bigger advantage.  However, even if Thompson had not given the penalty, Hearts were still very much in the pound seat for this game, as the balance that had looked to be tipping back in Hib’s favour just before the break decisively came back into Heart’s favour.

Barr score's Hearts opening goal in 14 minutes
Within moments of the penalty Hearts extended their lead to 4-1 as a Skatcel shot was headed in by Ryan McGowan.  The fifth arrived with 15 minutes to go when Skatcel again smashed a shot past Brown, but by that time the party was well and truly under way at the Mount Florida end, while at the Kings Park end Hibernian fans took their cue to leave early.

So congratulations to Hearts then, it was a thoroughly professional ruthless performance against a team that, save for the 10 minutes before half time, just did not turn up.  Hearts now move ahead of Aberdeen in the all time Scottish Cup winners list (two behind Queens Park) with their eighth win.  Hibernian remain the Scottish Cup’s bridesmaid as their wait for a Scottish Cup win extends to 111 years.  Hibs might not be quite Hearts bunny in this competition just yet, but this heavy defeat will take a very long time to get over.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Impossible Final

Bayern Munich's last European Cup win in Milan, 2001
Saturday doesn’t just see the first Scottish Cup Final contested by Edinburgh’s top two since the 19th century.  Saturday night sees Bayern Munich attempt to become the first team to win a European trophy on their home patch since Feyenoord beat Borrussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup 10 years ago.  Of course, this is the European Cup, so things are a little rarefied.  Munich are only the fourth team to reach a European Cup final that is played on their home ground (Real Madrid in 1957, Inter Milan in 1965 and AS Roma in 1984 are the others).  Standing in their way is the improbable shape of Chelsea.  Because of their respective semi final victims being both halves of El Classico, this is the most improbable final pairing for many a year.

In some respects, Bayern Munich are the favourites.  Having lost out two years ago to Mourinio’s Inter Milan side, this side will constitute most of the team that lost out then.  Notably Frank Ribbery will be available, as he was banned two years ago.  They also have the experienced Jupp Heynckes in charge (for the third time).  Heynckes will be aiming to emulate a former Bayern manager Ottmar Hitzfield (as well as Ernst Happel and Jose Mourinio) in winning the European Cup with two different teams.

Yet what will be key will be how both teams adapt to their missing players.  Bayern have Gustavo, Alaba and Badstubber suspended after picking up bookings in the semi final win over Real Madrid.  All are players who take up defensive positions.  Van Buyten may well be pressed into service, while Phillip Lamm may well be shuffled around the Bayern back line.  Chelsea appear to be worse off though – they will be missing the Skipper Terry, Ivanovic, Ramires and Meireles.  It will be the defensive positions that will be hardest to fill as both Luis and Cahill are racing to be fit.  Meanwhile one of the possible replacements for Meireles, Florien Malouda is also struggling to be fit after a pulled hamstring.
Terry's miss depriving Chelsea of European Cup Glory in 2008

That Chelsea has reached this stage of the tournament is something akin to a miracle.  In January and February, they were listless and directionless as the senior players fell out with their manager Andreas Villas Boas (Who?).  From the moment he was sacked, and former midfielder Roberto Di Mateo was installed as the caretaker manager, Chelsea became that bit more difficult to beat.  They did miss out on the top four of the English Premier league, but they did pick up their sixth English FA Cup in 15 years and went on a European Cup run, disposing of the highly rated Napoli, followed by Benfica before their staggering toppling of Barcelona – a win that puts an end to the claim that this Barcelona side were the best football team ever.

The consensus seems to be that with essentially the second string defences playing for both sides, that it will be an open game.  Certainly the only time these sides have met (in the quarter finals in 2004/5) it finished 6-5 on aggregate.  I’m not so sure about that, Chelsea under Di Mateo are not set up to be open.  While both sides play 4-2-3-1, Bayern’s attacking 4 is much more advanced than Chelsea’s, though there is the suggestion that Bayern will be forced to change formation.  If Bayern adapt quickly, then I suspect that they will win comfortably.  Whatever happens, this may well be the last hurrah for this Chelsea side.  They will be hoping to go out on a high.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Salt & Sauce Final

Hearts last Scottish Cup win in 2006
For most rivalries in football, there are always one or two high profile meetings with your biggest rivals.  Fans in Liverpool will always remember the trilogy of cup finals between Liverpool & Everton in the mid 80’s, Fans in London will not just remember the trilogy of FA Cup semi finals between Tottenham and Arsenal, but both the FA Cup final (of 2002) and the European Cup Quarter Final (in 2004) between Arsenal & Chelsea.  Up here, the biggest rivalry outside of the Old Firm (who seems to contest domestic finals once every couple of years or so) get their day in the sun on Saturday when Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian contest the 127th Scottish Cup Final.

What has added to the occasion is that the last Edinburgh derby in a national final took place in 1896 – which was played at Logie Green, the home of Edinburgh’s third team – St Bernards.  It hasn’t been as long as that since both sides came to Hampden, both teams met at the semi final stage of this competition six years ago with Hearts winning 4-0 on their way to their seventh Scottish Cup win.  From that day, there will be only three survivors (all of whom have moved around and come back to the clubs they played for) – Andy Webster and Rudi Skacel for Hearts and Ivan Sproule for Hibs.

Hearts have of course been here before, they are bidding for their third Scottish Cup win in 14 years, and their eighth in total.  Coming on top of their historic win against Celtic – their first win over one of the Old Firm at Hampden in the Scottish Cup since their win over Celtic won them the Scottish Cup in 1956, Hearts go into this match as favourites.  Hib’s have been fighting relegation for most of this season, yet much will depend on how much of their 110 year burden their manager Pat Fenlon can keep from the players.  Yet in Hibs favour seems to be that Fenlon appears to know his team this far out.  Hearts have a couple of doubts, mostly surrounding whether the matchwinner from the semi final, craig Beattie, is fit enough to start.
Hearts beat Hibernian 4-0 in the semi final of 2006

Since Hearts & Dundee United lifted the Scottish Cup in the 1990’s, Hib’s are now Scottish Football’s bridesmaids.  Since their last victory, they have lost 8 finals in differing fashions.  Both Airdrieonians (in 1924) & Clyde (in 1958, skippered by Harry Haddock) won their only Scottish Cups against Hib’s, while Celtic plundered four of their Scottish Cup wins against Hib’s (4-1 after a replay in 1914, 1-0 in 1923, 6-1 in 1972 and 3-0 in 2001 – Hibs last Scottish Cup final appearance).  The closest Hib’s came to Scottish Cup glory though came in 1979 when Hib’s contested the longest Scottish Cup final of all time.  Two 0-0 draws was followed by a second replay that went into extra time before finishing up at 3-2 to Rangers.

Saturday has all the ingredients for something special to happen, it also has the ingredients that things could boil over.  In the last cup final to be played at 3pm on a Saturday (hopefully for a couple of years at least), I hope that Saturday will be one to remember.  As for a prediction, am I alone in having a sneaky feeling for the Hibbies to win 1-0 or 2-1?

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Curious Case of Mr Hodgson and Mr Redknapp

The English FA pulled something of a rabbit out of the hat this week with the appointment of Roy Hodgson as the England Manager.  Yet, if the Anglocentric press were to be believed, this was a deeply unpopular move that flies in the face of footballing logic.  Of course the relationship that “the people’s favourite” (© every London based newspaper) ‘Arry Redknapp has with these publications has nothing to do with their views.

Yet, most of Fleet Street’s finest seem to have forgotten that Hodgson has something no other England manager has gone into the job with, International experience.  His three years with the Switzerland national side saw them qualify for the World Cup in the USA, toping a group containing Italy, Portugal and Scotland.  Under his guidance Switzerland also qualified for Euro ’96 before resigning to take up a managerial role with Inter Milan.  Ironically enough, had he stayed his Switzerland side’s opening game in Euro 96 would have been against England.

I think that the English FA went for Hodgson because of that experience, and because he has a record of building teams around systems and formations, one of the methods that international managers use to build teams that do well in international tournaments.  Yet his sides are not quite as attractive or as attacking as the current Tottenham side.  It might be true that Redknapp has, rather like one of his predecessors at Tottenham Terry Venables, a good cordial relationship with sports writers (he has a column in The S*n), but Redknapp is one of the few English coaches in English football that tries to get his teams to play football “the right way”.   Yet in a pragmatic kind of a way, because of the vagaries of International football where you have to make do, Redknapps approach might not have come off.

Unwittingly though, what this appointment has shown is the divide between the sports writers and those that watch the game.  Most of “Fleet Street” have been angry at this appointment – with claims that the cheep option has been taken.  What has really got on the nerves of many fans though is the way that Redknapp has been described as “The Nation’s Choice”.  Us Scot’s are well aware of the phenomenon of the “National” newspapers only committing 3 square centimetres to Scottish stories – in a post devolution UK as well – so to see the self same newspapers cover themselves in hubris is somewhat amusing. As many fans pointed out, he might play football the right way but West Ham and Portsmouth are still recovering from Redknapps addiction to spending sprees.

I always thought that Redknapp was the far too obvious candidate, that someone like Hodgson would emerge.  Yet the most shocking aspect is not his appointment but the realisation that the English press are not prepared to forgive for “their man” not being appointed.  At the very least Hodgson deserves a honeymoon period.  If anyone is looking for an example of why so many Scottish people support Anyone But England in football tournaments, The English Press have this week supplied yet another example why this is the case.