Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The South African's Are Coming...

One of the big problems with having a huge sporting summer is that it cam be easy to miss certain significant events.  The Tour de France, The Open and this summer’s international Cricket schedule already look to be part of a background dominated by Euro 2012, Andy Murray’s exploits at Wimbledon and the impending Olympics - not to mention the black hole that is Scottish football caused by the collapsing star that was Rangers.  Which is a shame as England take on South Africa in their biggest test series since…  well last years test series against India.  Quite why this crucial series is only a three test series is beyond anyone.  Why the series starts at The Oval (rather than being reserved for it's traditional series closer) can be put squarely at the Olympic Archery being held at Lords.

Graeme Smith on his way to his series clinching 154* at Edgebaston in 2008
England are aiming to hold on to their number one test status which they gained with that 4-0 series whitewash over India. South Africa as always are perennial challengers to the number one ranking, and are now in prime position to take over that spot with a repeat of their 2-1 series win four years ago.  Unlike India though, South Africa do have a potent pace attack and will be a better all round side than India.

Like India, South Africa have a very strong Batting line up.  Leading from the front will be Graeme Smith, on his third tour of England and looking to keep his unbeaten record after the series win four years ago and a 2-2 draw 9 years ago in his first tour here both as a player and as a captain.  He scored two double ton’s here 9 years ago and his 154* at Edgebaston four years ago clinched South Africa’s first test series win in England since 1965.  Opening with Smith should be Alviro Pieterson.  Batting at three will be Hashim Amla who currently averages 46.98 with the bat, while coming in at four should be the highly experienced Jacques Kallis.

Kallis is on his fourth, and probably final, tour of England.  He averages 56.78 with the bat.  Yet he has a poor average in England and only has one hundred to his name in England (132 in the Old Trafford Test of 1998).  Also part of the South African line up will be AB De Villiers, who after the untimely retirement of Mark Boucher will be taking over wicketkeeping duties.  The fact that Smith, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers are currently ranked in the top ten batsmen list tells you of the task awaiting England.  However, it is South Africa’s pace attack which England should be wary of as the tourists have brought their best attack since their 1998 tour.

Dale Steyn is currently rated the best bowler according to those Test rankings, while first change bowler Morne Morkel is at number ten.  Yet the most dangerous of South Africa’s bowlers could be Vernon Philander.  In seven tests, he has taken 51 test wickets (the second fastest to the 50 wicket mark).  Rather than pace, his forte is more very accurate line and length bowling with a knack of sharp seam movement either way.

You would think that South Africa start as firm favorites to win this series.  In truth, it will be very nip and tuck between the two sides.  South Africa start as marginal favorites, only because England have not hit the heights of 2011 just yet.  They will have to as this is a series that may well be decided by one session in one of the three tests, starting at The Oval tomorrow, a ground where South Africa have never won.  It could be that close.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Failing The Richard Scudamore Test

Yesterday, the Scottish Football League voted to accept Servco (Scotland)’s application for Newco Rangers to play in their league next season.  Crucially, the SFL voted that Newco Rangers, like any other new applicant, start in the Third Division – very much against the wishes of the SPL, their chief executive Neil Doncaster and the chief executive of the SFA Stuart Regan.

As I have previously posted, placing Newco Rangers in the Third Divison is not only the best way forward out of this situation for Scottish Football (and also for Newco Rangers – as to be fair to them many of the fans of “old” Rangers realise) but the only credible option available.  The strange thing in all this though is that while the clubs in the SPL voted to refuse Newco Rangers entry, and the SFL voted to treat Newco Rangers as a normal applicant in a dignified fashion, the heads of our game have behaved in an unedifying fashion that at times may have verged on bullying.  In short Neil Doncaster and Stuart Regan have lost their credibility.

The arguments put forward from Doncaster and Regan are that sponsors will walk away from the game if Newco Rangers were to start their new life in the Third Division.  The contract for broadcasting the SPL is up next year and the thought is that BSkyB would not be interested in showing the SPL without “their” quota of Old Firm games.  It’s this doomsday scenario which prompted the season ticket meeting at Greenhill Road where the board of St Mirren outlined why in the whole they supported bending the rules and hoped that Newco Rangers were allowed to skip two divisions to start in the tier below the SPL – or as it was put this was “the least worst option”.  This brings us to the title of this post.

Richard Scudamore as you may well know is the combatative Chief Executive of the English Premier League.  You might be annoyed at him for describing Manchester City’s championship win not as an exiting moment or by esposing some other football fan cliché but as a shining example of “inward investment to our game”.  But he does go and bat for his organisation, and then some.  He managed to see off Blair’s (half hearted – remember this was the late Tony Banks baby) attempts to set up a regulator for football and has managed to negotiate an increase for the next set of television rights.  Say what you like about his achievements and his perennial appearances on television defending sometimes the indefensible, but at least he defends his organisation.  Can you say the same about Regan and Doncaster?

Regan & Doncaster have, since HMRC confirmed what many people knew already and dismissed Green’s CVA proposals, bent over backwards for the corporate sponsors and have constantly put the case for them.  What they have never done is what Scudamore does with aplomb, and go and bat for their members and put the case that essentially things have changed and that they should continue to back a clean version of Scottish Football.  Rather than talk up the game, Regan & Doncaster have constantly talked down the game.  Whether the sponsors will now take flight is another matter & we will see if this is the case.  Interestingly enough with all the (justified) ire directed at Regan & Doncaster, there has been no talk of fan boycotts should there be a mass exodus of sponsors from the Scottish game.

Whether yesterday’s actions now draw a line under the implosion at Ibrox, or this is only the first chapter remains to be seen.  We may even get a hint of what is to come on Monday when the SPL meet to discuss the identity of “Club 12” – with maybe Doncaster and Regan poised to push for discuss SPL 2.  It is now clear that you can include the careers of Stuart Regan and Neil Doncaster to the list of casualties in this episode, given that there were calls for a vote of no confidence in Regan at yesterday’s meeting.  When the dust settles on this crisis and people in Scottish football have retained their clear heads, Doncaster and Regan should announce their intention to leave their posts, any other outcome will exacerbate this crisis.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A High Stakes Game Of Poker

While the “nation” has been involved with Euro 2012, the tennis and the upcoming Olympics, the Rangers situation rumbles on with yesterday’s vote only really confirming Newco Rangers non retention in the SPL – a situation that has evolved over the past couple of weeks.

Where this vote leaves Scottish football remains to be seen.  On Tuesday night, I and another 400 odd St Mirren fans gathered at Greenhill Road to hear the pre-vote thoughts from our Chairman, Stewart Gilmour.  What was discussed was starkly brutal as Gilmour essentially painted a bleak picture for Scottish Football as a picture was painted of the outcome for Scottish Football if Newco Rangers were to be asked to start off at the bottom of the Third division, Gilmour believes that while St Mirren are at their healthiest financial position in 20 years that the club would still be at risk of Administration alongside 5 or 6 other SPL clubs.  The root cause of this bleak picture was outlined as corporate sponsors and broadcasting companies taking flight from the Scottish game.

As Gilmour was speaking about losses in revenue of between £600,000 and £1.1 million (from last season) should Rangers be put into the lowest professional level and about season tickets being 300 down from last season (I suspect that the general economy has a part to play here, the Rangers situation may not be as big a factor), the thought entered my head that this is essentially a very large game of poker, with the future of Scottish Football at stake.

The contenders are thus: the fans (who watch the game week in and week out, who put the squeeze on their clubs in the first place) the SPL teams (who spoke yesterday), the SPL “management” (Neil Doncaster and his staff, who have only succeeded in representing the concerns of his corporate clients and not the clubs), The SFL, the SFA, the broadcasters and the corporate sponsors. Oh, and Newco Rangers.  All have their opinions on the best way forwards and all have their vested interests.

The biggest irony is that the majority of fans (even the Rangers fans) are in agreement, that Newco Rangers should start in Division three.  The roadblock to reform, so to speak, is the administrators, the sponsors and the broadcasters.

As I said at the start of this post, today only confirms what had been on the cards for some time.  The future of Newco Rangers – if it has a future – remains to be seen.  Crucially, that future is becoming more and more tied to the future of Scottish Football.  This game has a long time to go yet.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The History Makers

14th European Championship Final: Olympic Stadium, Kiev; Spain 4 Italy 0

Spain were supposed to be boring, they were supposed to be dull and simply content to pass sides to death (not my criticism, I’ve always thought that they were frustrating).  Tonight though they dispelled all of those myths by comprehensively blowing away Italy.  In doing so they created history by becoming the first side to successfully retain the European Championships, and they have also become the first side to win three straight major championships. 

After all of the speculation, Italy went with the 4-1-3-2 formation that got them to the final, while Spain went with the 4-6 formation that they deployed in almost all of their matches (the group game against Ireland excepted).  There were two differences in Spain’s make up that affected their performance.  Firstly they seemed to be intent on getting forward a lot more quickly, and secondly it seemed to me that David Silva took up the “false 9” position – which Silva fitted better into that position better than Fabregas.

Ramos & Xavi Hernandez had both had shots in the first 10 minutes, but it wasn’t long after that Spain scored their first goal.  An Iniesta through ball found Fabregas on the Italian left, who’s cross/volley was headed in by David Silva.  Que the fight back from Italy as they had a free kick and a corner against Spain, but missed both chances.  Despite being on the end of a hiding, had Italy equalised or pulled a goal back after Spain went 2 up, it could have been a different story.

It was however Spain that got the second goal.   Bringing the ball out of defence, Jordi Alba passed the ball to Xavi, who returned the ball to Alba further up the pitch.  With lots of space to play with, Alba steered the ball past Buffon for the second goal, and the goal that put Italy behind the eight ball.

The second half started with both sides looking for the next goal. Italy had the best chance as the substitute Di Natale is put in on goal but shoots straight at Casillas.  However the moment that ensured that there would be no Italian fightback though was not the third Spanish goal, but an injury to the Italian substitute Motta moments after he came on as Italy’s third substitute.

What this did herald though was a stepping up of Spain’s tiki-taka which had the effect of wearing down Italy – Italy flagged badly in the last 15 minutes as the effect of playing with 10 men took it’s toll.  It was here where Spain got their third and fourth goals.  The third goal came with 7 minutes left as Xavi’s through ball found Spain’s second substitute Fernando Torres who rolled the ball past Buffon, Torres becoming the first player to score in successive European Championship finals.  With two minutes to go, Busquets through ball found Torres who squared the ball to the third Spain substitute Juan Mata who put the ball past Buffon for Spain’s fourth.

There is an argument to be made that Spain’s performance tonight was the best performance in International football this century. This performance, put together without a single forward player was built on the dominance that their 4-6 formation provides in midfield areas.  As intimated earlier, it was helpful for Spain tonight that Silva ventured into the forward area’s as he fit’s the “false 9” position better than Fabregas did – Fabregas had a good match in the wide area’s.  Euro 2012 was a good tournament, which went some way to confirming Spain as the best international side of this century so far, as the sides who we thought were making steps towards the standard of Spain began to show signs of going backwards.