August 28, 2010

My apologies for the delayed blog, once again I’ve spent my weekend commentating (and I will be commentating again on the Cruz Azul v Tigres match tonight, too) so I have not had an opportunity to dissect Thursday night’s atrocity. Before I start, I’m sure some of you didn’t get to see the game thanks to it not being available on TV, so here is the YouTube highlights clip.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Truth be told, not much at all. It was a woefully inept performance, and the great promise from the previous week’s comfortable victory had disappeared after 20 minutes. I don’t know about you, but after the second penalty had been given, I knew that only one side were going through.

But then there are the goals themselves. The first one was a naive challenge from Hooiveld, a guy who seems to have a mouth as wide as the Clyde, and he gave the referee a question to answer after just 12 minutes. (I’m sick of hearing about Hooiveld’s opinions in the press, declaring that he wants to be ‘our leader’ and the like, when he is frankly ordinary on the field. Here’s a hint, Jos, if you want to be skipper EARN it. Show us some leadership on the park instead of the press conference.)

The second penalty was even worse. There’s an infamous saying when learning the game of football of “if in doubt, kick it out”. I’m not sure what the Polish, or indeed, the Korean version of that saying is, but I’d suggest that Lenny looks it up pronto. Both Zaluska and Cha had an opportunity to put the ball out of play for a throw in, yet instead they manage to give the ball away and a silly penalty is the result.

Then after the second half kicks off, Lennon’s words surely ringing in the players’ ears, and the phrase “keep it tight” was surely that very message, we concede another ridiculous goal. Why could none of our defenders get a challenge in, or at the very least bring the winger down on the half-way line before he can get to the edge of our box? OK it’s cynical, but why not? Italian sides have done it since the dawn of time. At 3-0 the game is done, and the fourth doesn’t even need talking about.

So we have no European adventure, either in the cash-rich Champions League or the consolation prize of the Europa League.  Now I’ve heard many fans try and be bullish about this, claiming that our defeats will make us stronger over the course of the season, and that without the distraction of European football the squad will become more focused on the league title. What utter tripe.

The effect of this defeat will not be felt this season, but next, and the year after that. No, I’m not talking about the financial side of the defeat, but about the club’s reputation around Europe. Celtic is still a massive name, but that only gets you so far. Players of quality will not sign unless they feel the move can benefit their career, sometimes financially, but also on the field. Will a move to Celtic right now help anybody’s international prospects? Of course not, you’d be better off in the English Championship. The lack of European football this season will make players think not just twice, but three times or more about a move to Parkhead. Why move to a club that cannot give you that platform of Europe to play on?

However, the problem is not just limited to Celtic. Motherwell, Dundee United and Hibs are all out of Europe before September as well, and as much as it pains me to say this, Scottish football is a joke. Although it is becoming more competitive, this is simply because the standards of both Celtic and Rangers have slipped beyond recognition. Changes need to be made now from the SFA, the SPL and the SFL (having one football body would be a good start.)

We also need to move the time of the season. One of the reasons so many clubs struggle in these early preliminary rounds is because they are still rusty from pre-season. Clubs in Scandanavia and Russia start their seasons early because of the weather, but if the Scottish season began in May then late June or early July European games would see all of our clubs in full swing of the domestic campaign, and as such, rustiness is no longer an issue.

Sure, there are possible problems to this (the transfer window for one, and the possibility of a 12 month season if one of our clubs is lucky enough to make a European final again, and of course, the World Cup) but it has to be worth investigating, especially now there is only one Champions League spot up for grabs, and it could take THREE qualifying rounds.  This can hopefully lead to a couple of sides sneaking into the European arena again. This in turn will see a return of prestige, and more importantly, cash to the Scottish game.

This really isn’t a new idea, and that I accept, but without urgent changes the Scottish league will become as prestigious of that in Wales. Dark days then for the game north of the border, and it’s time for fans to make their voices heard.

A complete revolution is the only answer.

So the issue of the final Champions League spot has once again raised it’s head today. The Premier League are said to be considering the option of introducing a play-off to decide who gets the fourth slot, and with it, the millions of pounds that qualification provides. And it would seem from early reports that it has the backing of 16 clubs. I’ll bet it has!

Surprise, surprise, the four who are against the proposal are the so-called ‘big 4’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Now, I’m no supporter of these clubs, and have been crying out for a change in the status quo, so I’m quite vociferously behind any side who can break this stranglehold. However, despite my original excitement at the prospect, I’m not convinced I’m behind the idea.

Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but this feels very much like a money-making scheme, and I’m sure Sky will have pound-signs in their eyes at the prospect. Whilst the idea provides additional excitement, and stops games from being a non-entity in the middle of the table, I’m not convinced it’s for the good of the game.

A friend of mine has already suggested that this is a slippery slope, and to a degree I agree with him. After all, if this is a success what comes next? A relegation play-off? Maybe a Super League-esque Grand Final to decide who wins the Championship?

And what about in international years? This means that at the end of the season, the players from 4 clubs have further risks of getting injured, which ultimately does not benefit the national game. Imagine in a World Cup year, just a few weeks before the tournament begins, Steven Gerrard breaks his leg? Or Wayne Rooney? Particularly as the Play-Off involves 4 sides, there will be at least three more matches (going by the basis of a two-legged semi final, with home and away fixtures and a one-off final match at Wembley) that’s a lot of risk to take with players.

However, I have a proposal which both shakes up the Premier League and is only one extra match. Now I’ve long supported the idea of the FA Cup winners getting the final spot, which will completely revolutionise the competition. Indeed, this idea has the backing of many, including Platini and former England striker Gary Lineker. However, I’d suggest the Premier League are less than keen.

Despite that, a play-off between the Cup winners and the fourth-placed team would be my proposal. I’d like to see this as a one-off match, played at Wembley or Old Trafford, and thus reducing the risk of injury to players. This way, it would ensure that sides field a full-strength 11 and breathe a new lease of life into the FA Cup. And at the same time, would provide an opportunity to shake up the status quo.

Who knows, it may even provide some of the smaller clubs with a European adventure, and gradually erode the stranglehold the ‘Sky Four’ have on the English game.

As always, I’d appreciate your feedback.

Scottish failures: A retort

November 6, 2009

Now then, my good friend Mr Mantle has recently posted a direct response to my latest blog about Scottish football on the European scene.

He makes some good points, it must be said. Scottish football is dying a death, and the squeeze the Old Firm have had on Scottish trophies does it no favours at all.  However, arguably the decline of the Old Firm has breathed some life into the game north of the border.

After all, the league is now genuinely competitive for the first time in a generation. Both Celtic and Rangers have deteriorated to such an extent that a trip to Motherwell is now tricky, not to mention a visit to Tynecastle or Easter Road. Last season, both clubs dropped points no fewer than 26 times between them. This is more or less unheard of in seasons gone by.

There are, of course, pros and cons to this. The biggest pro of all is that the league has some excitement, and both Celtic and Rangers have lost that aura of invincibility that they had previously had over the rest of the league. However, this is not because the rest of the league has improved, but because the Old Firm have declined drastically even since Martin O’Neill’s time in the Parkhead hotseat.

The figures are there to prove this. In Martin O’Neill’s first year, Celtic spent £18m on Sutton, Lennon and Hartson, and another £3 million on Alan Thompson. This kind of investment is now unheard of, and Celtic even struggle to compete with English Championship sides in the transfer market. Indeed, the latest TV deal means that Celtic earn roughly £3 million a year through Sky and ESPN. Compare this to Hull City’s £15 million and you’ll see where the problem lies.

However, Ross does have a point. The lack of prestige in the Scottish league makes it monumentally difficult to attract quality continental and home based players, partly because they don’t fancy a trip to St Mirren on a cold Tuesday evening, especially when their wage packet is significantly smaller than it would be in England.

A few years ago, the Old Firm were able to punch above their weight and compete on the European scene. Indeed, since 2003 both clubs have made the UEFA Cup Final, and qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League 3 times between them. However, this is not enough. Both clubs need a change of ethos, concentrating on youngsters and bringing the best coaches available to Glasgow.

Without this, the Old Firm will swim in a sea of mediocrity, on a slow journey to their death. The catch 22 is the more the two clubs decline, the better the SPL will become. On the flip side, Scotland will lose the automatic Champions League spot it currently enjoys, and yet more clubs will be thrown to the wolves.

What is needed is further investment, into clubs individually and Scottish football in general. However, one area where Ross and I do agree is an emergency Old Firm move is inevitable.

The question over whether they’ll survive the ambulance journey is open to debate.

Ah, the romance of the Cup. Now the Shrewsbury match is out the way, our attentions turn to Bradford City on Friday night, and our dreams to a Wembley appearance in May. The FA Cup is a competition revered throughout the world, a competition synonymous with upsets and excitement. Or so it used to be.

Of course, at the lower end of the football spectrum it still is. This weekend is one of the big dates in the calendar for many non-league sides and their managers, who get to pit-their-wits against league opposition in the First Round proper. However, in the Premier League, most clubs would swap an FA Cup win for fourth in the league. For me, this is one of the great tragedies of the English game.

Most kids of my generation had the dream of playing at Wembley, and walking up those steps to lift the Cup for your team. Oh the joy. However, those dreams now would be shattered by some sweaty businessman in a suit.

Now I understand why a side would want to finish fourth, and that the Champions League would mean so much to players and supporters alike. However, as a player, when your career finishes, can you show your fourth place finish off to your kids? Do you get a medal for finishing fourth? Of course not.

And then there’s the supporters. We have already seen the League Cup become an insignificance in the eyes of players, managers and supporters, with thousands of empty seats at grounds all over England, and star players being left at home in the warm. Arsene Wenger fields a completely different team for the competition, proof that the cup is of no importance to him. And it is this ‘field the reserves’ attitude that makes supporters stay at home.

But where did cup competitions go so wrong in England? Well, for me it started when the third-placed team qualified for the Champions League, and also when Manchester United refused to enter the FA Cup in 2000. At least when the team who finished second qualified for the Champions League, they were fighting for the title so the European spot was a reasonable commiseration prize. Now, we have clubs who DELIBERATELY set out to come third and fourth! I wonder how many fans of Tottenham for example, would give up a fourth place finish for the FA Cup this year? Not too many I’d imagine, and I’d be certain none would for the League Cup.

So how do we bring back the magic of the cup, I hear you ask? For me, the answer is simple. Stop rewarding a club for coming fourth. Instead, ask for permission from UEFA to insert the Cup Winners into the Champions League. Instantly, we have a competition the whole country want to win again, full of drama, upsets and excitement. And most importantly, played in front of packed stadiums.

And the team who comes fourth get what they deserve. Nothing.

Oh how the sport’s governing bodies get on my nerves. First, we see UEFA backing down to the big clubs in the diving furore, and now it’s FIFA’s turn.

All the way through the World Cup qualifying, we were told that the draw to the play offs would be unseeded, an old fashioned winner-takes-all draw with no benefits to anybody. Now, FIFA notice that Portugal, France and Russia have missed out on first place in their groups so they move the goalposts.

What happens? The Irish get the most difficult available task of course: the French. Obviously, Ireland could have drawn France anyway but there was an air of inevitability about the draw being made from the moment Sepp Blatter made his seeding announcement.

There were two arguments given by FIFA as to why they took this decision. The first is a footballing reason. Blatter claimed a World Cup could not be the same without the ‘big guns’ of World football. Maybe not, but if the ‘big guns’ aren’t good enough to qualify that’s just hard cheese isn’t it? It’s not like the goal posts are moved so that Northern Ireland, Wales or the Faroes have a better chance, why should things change for Portugal?

The second idea is that it was a purely commercial decision. This theory seems to think that for some reason, sponsors will pull out without the likes of Ronaldo and co in the competition. Yeah right. This is the biggest tournament in the world’s most popular game. If one sponsor wants to pull out, let them. There will be about 20 others willing to take their place.

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni was quick in his condemnation for Blatter’s idea, urging him to reassess his priorities or face the ‘death of football’. Ireland keeper Given also criticised the plan, calling it ‘disgusting’. In a withering attack, Given raged at the timing of Blatter’s announcement, coming with just two games remaining in the qualifying stage.

“There are people high up in delegations, and maybe their countries need a hand to qualify. The rules should be laid out clearly before any ball is kicked and then there’s no dark cloud or whatever. It’s ridiculous how they can make a decision now when some of the big-name nations are maybe struggling to qualify. It’s totally unfair on the smaller nations. It’s pretty disgusting, to be honest. To change it at this stage is beyond belief. It’s crazy and I don’t know how they have got away with it or how the smaller nations like ourselves haven’t put up a bigger fight. All the nations should try to kick up a fuss, not just us, because I don’t believe it’s right.”

And of course, he’s right. For too long now have football draws favoured big nations, and big clubs. The Champions League, the greatest club tournament on Earth, is now also the most boring tournament on Earth as the last 8 (or even the last 4) is painfully predictable.

It’s time for a shake up. If you weren’t good enough to qualify for a major competition by winning your group, then the back door should be closed until you unlock it yourself. And for the sake of the game, Blatter must be made to see this. He’s announced he’s running for a fourth term in 2011, but federations should refuse to nominate him until he understands this fundamental error in his leadership.

And as for the Champions League, all seedings should be thrown out the window, along with country protection. Can you imagine a group featuring Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona? Now THAT’S European football.

As always, your comments are greatly appreciated.

We often hear about the lack of funds in the Scottish game, and how this has left the SPL in the financial wilderness. Just this summer, the TV revenue invested in Scotland has roughly halved when Setanta went the way of the Titanic, and the difference in class was there for all to see when Arsenal spanked us all over the park in the qualifier. But is money the be-all-and-end-all?

Arsene Wenger was lucky to be able to rest two of his stars last Wednesday, in Andrei Arshavin and Robin Van Persie. Yet even without this pair, and the likes of Nasri, Rosicky and Fabregas, it was a stroll for the Gunners.

After a little glance at the BBC 606 site, I see that most Arsenal fans think their side wasn’t particularly expensive, coming in at a combined total of about £33m. Celtic, on the other hand fielded pretty much their strongest side, with the exception of million pound midfielder Barry Robson. Celtic’s full-strength side had a value of about £17m, or the price of Arshavin. You see where I’m going here don’t you? Just so you can see my figures, I’ve included the teams below, and the values I believe were paid. (If I’ve got anybody a million or so off, I apologise, but keep looking at the bigger picture)

Almunia- 1.5m
Sagna- £6m
Gallas- free
Vermaelen – £10m
Clichy- 250k
Song- 2m
Diaby- 3m
Denilson- 2m
Eboue- 200k
Eduardo- 8m
Bendtner- free


Boruc- 1m
Hinkel- 1.5
Caldwell- free
Loovens- 2.5
Fox- 1mil
McGeady-home grown
Maloney-home grown

Overall- 16.95m

So that’s it eh? Celtic fans should just accept that European progress is now impossible and forget completely about the Champions League? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

Surely the answer here is our scouting network. If clubs like PSV can make the Semi finals, as they did in 2005, then why can’t we? PSV spend pretty much nothing on transfers, but sell players players on to the bigger leagues and then reinvest the profits. If we use PSV as an example, here’s a list of their players over the last few years, most of whom were signed for nothing or almost nothing….

Ronaldo (the original one, the one with a minge on his head, not the ‘winker’), Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Arjen Robben, Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Mateja Kezman.

Compare that with some recent Celtic players and you’ll see my point. Surely a club of Celtic’s stature should have a scouting network that can uncover some similar gems? And if not, somebody needs to be sacked.

PSV aren’t alone. While Arsenal were struggling to make ‘marquee signings’, they were able to sign the likes of Adebayor for £3m, and sell him for £25m!

Now I accept my philosophy would make us a selling club, but it’s only by adopting this attitude that we’ll be able to generate the kind of money and with that, any chance of any real European success. Controversial, yes, but sadly, I think it’s essential.