Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Poison Chalice...

That phrase normally means that the position is generally thought to be an impossible job.  A job guaranteed to end in failure.  Thirty years ago, the managers position at Manchester United was thought to be the biggest poison chalice in the country, when David Sexton was sacked they couldn’t get their first choice (Laurie McMenemy) but wound up with West Brom's Ron Atkinson instead.  In the light of the sacking of David Moyes, it may well be again.

The Moyes era is already being painted as the reign of someone out of their depth, who didn’t have a clue what they were doing.  More than a cursory look at events will see that Moyes failures can be traced to the failure to prepare properly during last summers transfer window.  Ferguson’s side from last season while good enough to win the English Championship was still in need of surgery.  They have been arguably missing a dominant midfielder since Keane, while they haven’t replaced Paul Scholes either.  That’s before we get to the poor form shown by Vidic & Ferdinand this season, while the replacements for those two (Jones, Evans & Smalling) haven’t exactly set the heather on fire.

That’s not to say that Moyes hasn’t made mistakes.  His biggest was getting rid of Ferguson’s backroom staff – keeping Meulenstein & Phelan would have made the transition period easier.  Yet there is a logic to Moyes actions here.  Does the new man want so many of his predecessor’s men still around, especially with the old man “upstairs”?

The Radio 5 Live football commentator Mike Ingham did make the point in asking what Moyes task was?  Was it a long term rebuilding job (one which Moyes has been good at while at Everton) and if so why has he been sawn off?  Their Chief Executive Ed Woodward did make the point that Moyes got the job because they were looking for someone for the long term and not “a gun for hire”, so what has changed?  If it was the old perennial of “losing the dressing room”, again it comes back to the less than smooth transition period, which resulted in no momentum from the summer.  Unsurprisingly, Roy Keane pulled no punches in fingering the players, Moyes coaching staff and the directors in not supporting Moyes.

So who next for the poison chalice then?  The bookies favourite is the current Netherlands manager Louis Van Gaal.  He has the experience, reshaping Ajax to the extent that they won the UEFA Cup (in 1992) and the European Cup (in 1995), reshaping the Barcelona team, laying the foundations that eventually led to Guardiola’s double European Cup winning sides.  Van Gaal also laid the foundations for Guardiola at Bayern Munich, leading them to the European Cup final in 2010 before making way for Jupp Heynkes.  He has the qualifications, but he is a “gun for hire”.

Others in the race include the Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, the current Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti and his opponent across Madrid Diego Simeone.  Note that none of the names mentioned would be long term appointments or are any of the up and coming managers of the British game.  Has the perceived failure of Moyes meant that Manchester United have changed their policy and are now appointing “guns for hire”?

When Manchester United decided to sack Ron Atkinson in November 1986, they had a plan who they wanted as his replacement as they had already sounded out the Aberdeen Manager Alex Ferguson.  Today it is not apparent that there is a plan.  They may have sounded out people as far back as last month, but there does not look as if there is a clear succession plan.  Had Ferguson been sacked in 1990, the seeds had already been sown for Manchester United’s future success.  Moyes sacking deprives him of the opportunity to even plant the seeds.

Friday, 18 April 2014

After The Split

In the reorganisation of Scottish Football, one thing that stayed with the 12 team top league was the split.  This season with the championship race over and Hearts confirmed as the team dropping into the ridiculously named “Championship”, there seems to be nothing left to play for until the Scottish Cup Final in mid May.  Far from it.

McGowan & Hanlon tussle during Hibs 0-0 draw at Greenhill Road on November 23rd
With Celtic’s lap of honour around the top six sides, the other teams in the top six are essentially playing for places while Aberdeen and Motherwell are fighting for European places.  Aberdeen are in pole position to take the runners up spot ahead on Motherwell.  While both sides meet on the last day of the season – in what television hopes will be a shoot out for second place – the nature of the top six means that every fixture will be hard.

Most attention though will be on the fight to avoid the play-off place in the bottom six.  St Mirren’s unlikely (at half time at least – has any Saints fan seen a worse defensive display since the Coughlan era?) win against Motherwell shot them into the pack.  Partick Thistle now sit in the play-off place, but are only a point behind St Mirren and Ross County.  Even Seventh Place Hibernian are not safe.  They are four points ahead of Partick Thistle but are the anti-form team.  Hibernian’s last win came at home to Ross County on 15 February.  At that point Hib’s were 7th on 31 points, a point behind St Johnstone in sixth and 7 behind fifth Inverness.  Since then they have only picked up three points and fallen 14 points behind St Johnstone.

Looking at form, St Mirren’s game with Hibernian this weekend could well go a long way to determining who goes down.  The less than mighty Bud’s have only picked up 7 points in the last 10 games, Hibs have only picked up 6 out of 30.  A St Mirren win would put them level on points and put even more pressure on Hibernian.  However if Hibernian win, it could just be the turning point for Butcher and Hibs.  After this weekend the pressure on Hibernian does not stop, next for them will be Hearts next Sunday, they will be hoping to take Hibs with them into the “Championship” – with St Mirren away to Partick next Friday night. 

Form also dictates that Kilmarnock are probably best placed to stay out of trouble, and may well be out of the reckoning quickly.  I also think Ross County might have enough to get themselves clear as well, but it would not surprise me to see Partick, St Mirren and Hibernian still in danger come the final day.

My prediction at the start of the season was that Hib’s would occupy the playoff place.  What I didn’t foresee was that Hibs would be seventh going into the post split fixtures, with a chance of occupying that 11th position.  For people who say that the top flight of Scottish Football is missing Rangers.  The green shoots at the New Firm, the race to avoid the playoff place, the League Cup and the upcoming Scottish Cup Final is proof that there is more to Scottish Football than the one-upmanship of the forces of evil and darkness from Glasgow.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The One About Semi Final Weekend

In all the years that there has been the split in the top flight of Scottish Football, with the Scottish Cup Semi finals in between the split, there has not been such an intriguing set on semi final fixtures.  This weekend’s semi finals between Dundee United and Rangers, followed by Aberdeen against St Johnstone are the most interesting in years.  Arguably the last time the semi finals threw up such an interesting set of fixtures was in pre SPL times when Celtic played Rangers at neutral Parkhead and Falkirk played stuttering Hearts at Ibrox in 1998.

Saturday sees Dundee United take on Rangers at neutral Ibrox.  The announcement of the venues in advance has caused controversy – with Hampden out of use due to the upcoming Commonwealth Games.  This controversy intensified when Rangers beat Albion Rovers after a replay to reach their semi final.  Their opponents, Dundee United, have protested at the semi final being played at Ibrox to no avail.

I did think that Dundee Utd’s protests would backfire, that this would undermine their mentality and somehow enhance the intimatory factor Rangers fans will try to generate with reduced fans at their own stadium.  Except that if last weekend’s Ramsdens Cup final is anything to go by, Rangers reduced circumstances is matched by the comparatively poor play.  Since being forced to start at the bottom ring of the ladder, they have only won two cup ties against higher league opposition (a 2-0 win against Motherwell in last years League Cup & a 2-0 win against Falkirk in the third Round of this competition last December), while during that cup final they looked poor and rudderless against a side not anywhere near the top of the First Division.

Towards the end of last year, Dundee United looked like the best side in the country not playing in Green and White hoops.  That run came to an end on Boxing day with a mauling at the hands of St Mirren.  Since then, they’ve offered glimpses of that form – namely the 5-0 pre League Cup final shellacking of Inverness.  They maybe looked like going into this tie in a nervous manner – they lost 2-0 against the champions last week.  If they are nervous about Saturday, they shouldn’t be.  Rangers were awful last week and have not looked that great all season.  Dundee United should extend their winning streak against Rangers, going back quarter of a century.

Sunday’s quarter final is a repeat of the League Cup semi final when Aberdeen blew away St Johnsone 4-0 at Tynecastle in January.  Revenge for St Johnstone would be sweet and historic as they are aiming for their first Scottish Cup final.  This is their ninth appearance in the semi final stages, losing most recently in 2011 against Motherwell at Hampden.  Aberdeen on the other hand have won this trophy seven times, one behind Hearts.  Their most recent win though was in 1990, beating Celtic on penalties.  Since their last final in 2000, Aberdeen have had their own issues with semi finals.  They lost heavily to Celtic in 2011, but unexpectedly lost to Hibs in 2012 and more famously to Queen of The South in 2008.  Someone’s jinx is going to be broken.

If we go with the favourites, the Scottish Cup final on 17th May will be between Aberdeen & Dundee United.  I rather think that this weekend won’t be that straightforward.