There are only four teams for me

Totti

Totti and I. Milan, December 2010. Doesn’t he look pleased to finally meet me?

I support 4 teams. That probably seems like a lot so let me explain. First, there is a hierarchy. In answer to the question, “who do you support?” my answer is Dundee United. It’s the team I grew up supporting – I was a season ticket holder in my teens – and they will always remain the teenage sweetheart of my footballing affections.

I also support Liverpool, as my English team. Most football supporters in Scotland have an English team that they follow. Liverpool are mine because my best friend at school had family in Liverpool and thus he supported them. We used to watch lots of Liverpool videos together. It is 25 years since Liverpool last won the league title so at least I’m not often accused of glory hunting.

My third team is Roma. Ever since I saw my first Serie A game on Channel 4’s Football Italia in 1992 (a 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio) it has been my favourite league. Back then, it was the best league in the world. That is no longer the case but I love it still. That love used to have a universal purity about it. I just loved Italian football in general and didn’t mind too much who won particular games. It was 2009 until I went to my first Seria A game – Roma v Juventus at the Stadio Olympico. I’ve been a Roma fan ever since.

Last, and in all honestly least (but do not mistake that for a lack of passion, I speak here in very much a relative sense) there’s Rijeka. My wife is Croatian and Rijeka, the third largest city in the country, is her hometown. It is thus my adopted hometown and that comes with a duty of care toward the football team.

As summer turns to autumn across Europe (or as one slightly less rainy season turns into a slightly more rainy season in Scotland) it feels like a reasonable time to assess the start that each of my teams have made to the new season.

Dundee United

2015 started very well for Dundee United but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to end that way. I was there on New Year’s Day to see us beat Dundee 6-2 in an extraordinary derby. A month later, the transfer window closed with two of our best players – Armstrong and Mackay-Steven – having escaped through it to Celtic. It’s been downhill faster than a bobsleigh race ever since.

After it emerged that boss Jackie McNamara receives bonuses related to transfer fees (but is not involved in transfer negotiations), his stock has fallen quite significantly among some sections of the support. A fairly miserable run of form hasn’t helped. We currently sit second bottom of the table with just a single win from eight league matches this season.

Only two players who started the derby on January 1st were in the starting line-up for last weekend’s 1-1 draw at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The current squad is barely recognisable to me. I’ll be in Scotland next month and am intending to take my son to his first ever football game. We’ll be going to Tannadice to watch Dundee United v Hearts. I rather fear that every time he asks me, “Dad, who’s that?” I will have to shrug my shoulders and say I don’t know.

He’s five years old and the only footballer he really knows and recognises is Messi. A few weeks ago he asked if Messi will be playing when we go to the stadium. Sadly not son, sadly not.

Dundee United: P8, W1, D2, L5, Pts5, League Position 11/12

Report Card: D

****

Liverpool

Things are not much better for my team south of the border. In fact, it’s pretty much all gone south at Anfield since Suarez left for the more southerly charms of Barcelona. I was happy to see him go such was the shame that he’d brought upon the club but it’s now very obvious that he absolutely carried that side to within a whisker of winning the league in 2013/14.

At the time, Brendan Rodgers got, and seemingly deserved, a lot of credit. Managers take plenty of flak when their team is losing so they surely warrant some praise and a little singing when they’re winning. Whatever trust there was in Rodgers though is evaporating fast around Anfield and personally, I have lost all trust in him and his methods.

Remarkably, it’s unclear how much influence the manager has over the signings that Liverpool make these days but it’s already evident that another summer of big spending is not likely to stave off another winter of discontent. Liverpool currently look miles away from being contenders for a Champions League place but rather less far away from League Two side Carlisle, who we scraped past in the Capital One Cup this week. On penalties.

I simply can’t see Rodgers turning things around sufficiently. Earlier in his reign, the possession philosophy that he espouses looked as though it could develop into something exciting. Indeed, it briefly did as Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling (ably supported by Gerrard) menaced defences with their skill, pace and speed of thought. Now though, it just appears ponderous and visiting defences can scarcely believe how easy an afternoon out they’ve been treated to at Anfield.

Talking of scarcely believable: Mark Lawrenson. On the 20th of September, Lawro wrote a column on the BBC website declaring that the 1-1 home draw with Norwich represented ‘fresh hope for new-look Reds.’ Really? Where he saw freshness, hope and something a bit different, I saw a stale, hopelessly inadequate performance that was eerily similar to many such performances in recent times.

Much of Lawrenson’s analysis seemed to be based on the fact that Liverpool had far more touches in the final third in their game against Norwich than they managed the previous week. That game was away at Manchester United. Thanks for picking up on such a subtle and unexpected phenomenon there Mark. He also provided a couple of diagrams to illustrate the point for anyone who’s a little bit slower than one of our centre halves.

Lawrenson is nothing if not a man of firm and unwavering opinions. He wrote another column yesterday. Now, apparently, “Liverpool have gone back to being a bit rudderless, characterless and seem to have lost their way.” No freshness, no hope, Mark? Not much else either.

“No rhyme, no reason, no pattern of play. Liverpool had 40-odd shots and most of them were from outside the box. Carlisle, middle of League Two, kept them at arm’s length. It was very samey. You are looking and thinking ‘what the hell is happening here?”. From “new-look” to “very samey” in just four days.

Much more of the same and it will be the dug-out that has a new look. Klopp is available and rumour has it he’s interested. Things definitely wouldn’t be too samey under the German.

Liverpool:  P6, W2, D2, L2, Pts8, League Position 13/12

Report Card: C-

****

Roma

And so to Rome. When in Rome … support Roma, as the saying goes. Or something like that. I visited the Italian capital in 2009 and I was delighted that my stay coincided with one of the biggest matches in Serie A – Roma v Juventus.

My ticket cost me €110 so it’s perhaps not surprising that I felt as though I was signing on for life as a Roma fan. At the club shop they assured me there was only one area of the ground that still had tickets available, and of course it was one of the most expensive areas. When the game kicked off with lots of empty seats in various other parts of the stadium, I had the feeling that I might have been taken for a bit of a Roman ride.

Roma lost 3-1 to Juventus that day and it seems as though they’ve been trying to catch up with the Old Lady of Italian football ever since (which turns out to be harder than that makes it sound).

Last season, Juventus did the league and cup double as well as reaching the final of the Champions League. Roma finished in second, 17 points behind the champions. Can they sustain a title challenge this time round?

The early signs are reasonably encouraging but that’s based more on the shaky start that Juve have made rather than anything particularly convincing from Roma. Last weekend summed up why Roma have come close but ultimately fallen short in recent years: too many draws, especially at home. Last weekend it was 2-2 against Sassuolo.

Totti scored one of the Roma goals; his 300th for the club. A week short of his 39th birthday, the Roma captain is a truly legendary figure. He only has one Serie A winner’s medal to his name (he’s finished runner up on eight occasions) and I hope that he claims a second one next May. That would possibly make him as happy as I was when I met him in Milan in 2010 when my wife and I ended up staying in the same hotel as the Roma squad (see picture above).

Roma:  P5, W2, D2, L1, Pts8, League Position 9/20

Report Card: B-

****

Rijeka

Next week I will be in Rijeka, enjoying some rest and recovery after running my first ever marathon (here in KL on October 4th, and for a very good cause: https://www.justgiving.com/Craig-Wilkie/). Sadly there’s no domestic football on while I’m there but there is an international fixture – Croatia v Bulgaria in the European Championship Qualifiers – so I might make it to that.

Rijeka’s stadium, Kantrida, is the most beautiful location that I’ve ever watched football in. Cut into a cliff on one side, with the shimmering Adriatic Sea on the other, it’s a glorious setting for the beautiful game. The football of course is not always quite as spectacular as the surroundings but the last couple of seasons have brought much to cheer for Rijeka fans, including two excellent runs in the group stage of the Europa League.

Last season a title charge looked a real possibility but Rijeka fell away slightly in the second half of the season following the sale of star striker Kramaric to Leicester. I expected him to take the Premier League by storm but so far he’s been a whole lot less than prominent. In fact, I’m almost certain that there are streakers who have spent more time on the pitch than Kramaric this season.

Dinamo Zagreb went on to win the league and finished the season unbeaten, the first time that’s ever happened in the Croatian top flight. Few would bet against Dinamo retaining the title and their 2-1 victory over Arsenal in the Champions League suggests they might even be a force in Europe as well this year.

Nevertheless, Rijeka are off to a reasonable start (despite exiting the Europa League in Aberdeen) and currently sit in second place, five points behind Dinamo but with a game in hand.

Rijeka:  P10, W4, D6, L0, Pts18, League Position 2/10

Report Card: B

****

All four of my teams drew last weekend; I didn’t get to feel the exhilaration of victory but at least I avoided the despondency of defeat. They all have winnable matches this weekend so I’m expecting three points to be collected somewhere.

Those then, are my teams. I’ll support you ever four.

Advertisements

Losing sleep over Liverpool

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul www.flickr.com

Old Trafford. Photo by: Paul
http://www.flickr.com

Why do I do it to myself? I’m still a little tired as I write this, mostly as a result of staying up until 2.30 am on Sunday morning to watch Manchester United v Liverpool. The Greater Manchester police force weren’t the only ones less than impressed at the chosen kick-off time.

I have to presume that the Liverpool players weren’t informed of my commitment in staying up late as they produced a dismal performance from early on. Gloating Manchester United fans should not get too carried away – the performance of your side was only marginally better.

In a blog post last November, I wrote that this fixture ‘is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs.’ It didn’t live up to that billing on Saturday. In fact, it came a lot closer to Gary Neville’s quip last year that watching the two sides these days resembled the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion.

Neville’s observation did not go down well with Van Gaal at the time, who promptly labelled the former Manchester United fullback an “ex-legend.” I wonder if the same now applies to Rio Ferdinand who described Van Gaal’s tactical approach as “not football I enjoy watching” due to it being “really slow going.” The first half was certainly slow going; it wasn’t just tiredness that kept me on the verge of nodding off.

It’s not just ex-Manchester United players that appear to have something of an issue with the current manager.  The build-up to the game was dominated by talk of a rebellion among senior players over training sessions that they deemed to be too structured and that were making them too robotic.

The first half did rather resemble one of those news clips where scientists from Japan unveil their latest life-size robot inventions and seek to demonstrate the dexterity of the machines by having them play football. Lovren, for instance, could certainly use a software upgrade and a bit of reprogramming to approximate the centre half that he was at Southampton.

Apparently some in the Manchester United squad are also unhappy at the amount of time they are required to spend in meetings for video analysis. They should spare a thought for their Liverpool counterparts today, because that video analysis session is not going to make for pleasant viewing.

I imagine the chief analyst gathering the squad together and saying: “we’ve just picked out the sections of the game where we believe a bit of improvement is needed lads. Just press play and I’ll see you in about 93 minutes to take any questions. There’s one small cut for Christian’s goal.”

Brendan Rodgers’ tactics deserve a bit of analysing for a start. Jamie Carragher said post-match: “I don’t understand this obsession with playing 4-3-3,” correctly pointing out that Liverpool have a lot of strikers but a severe lack of wide players. Carragher’s assessment was actually quite generous, Liverpool’s formation was 4-5-1 and Rodgers set his side up looking for a 0-0.

Liverpool also continued to employ Rodgers’ preferred method of playing the ball out from the back. The problem was that most of the time they played it out to a Manchester United player. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the manager’s desire to play possession football but the current way of doing so invites huge risks because the goalkeeper and centre backs are not comfortable enough on the ball to do it confidently or consistently.

At the other end, Liverpool lack directness and their build up play is too slow, the same issues that Rio Ferdinand identifies in the current Manchester United side. Little wonder then that the game was so ponderous for long periods.

Benteke was an isolated figure up front and despite scoring a spectacular goal, was never given much of an opportunity to put pressure on United’s defence. The creativity of Coutinho was hugely missed (he’s now Liverpool’s most influential player by far) and so of course was the drive of Gerrard.

It was revealed this week that Gerrard almost certainly would have remained at Anfield if he had been offered a coaching post. I find it absolutely astonishing that no such offer was made. In fact, back in November 2014, with Gerrard’s contract situation still unresolved, I wrote in a post that ‘I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role).’

In Gerrard’s words: “what would have kept me at Liverpool into this season was the chance of shadowing Brendan Rodgers and his staff as well as playing. Those ideas were only mentioned to me after I had announced I was leaving.” How many clubs would have lost a player of the former skipper’s status in such circumstances? Especially a club that was once famous for promoting from within the Anfield boot room.

I wonder what he made of Saturday’s performance. The match kicked off at 2.30 am LA time so Gerrard is likely to be a little tired as well if he tuned in. The man losing sleep this week though must surely be Brendan Rodgers.

Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.