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.

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The return of the Old Firm

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith www.flickr.com

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith
http://www.flickr.com

‘Was that it?’ seems to sum up much of the reaction to the first Old Firm game in almost three years. Scottish football’s showpiece fixture returned with more of a whimper than a bang as Celtic brushed Rangers aside 2-0 in the semi final of the League Cup.

I didn’t see the game. On the day I checked the schedules of the sports channels here in Malaysia to see if it was being shown but it wasn’t. The game understandably generated lots of hype and coverage back in Scotland but perhaps the rest of the world has ceased to care very much, if it ever really did.

I didn’t miss much of a game by all accounts. Rangers apparently failed to muster a single shot on target and goals from Griffiths and Commons secured a very comfortable victory for Celtic. Scott Brown rather cheekily suggested afterwards that goalkeeper Craig Gordon “came out and caught a few crosses just because he was getting bored.”

The Hampden pitch came in for scathing criticism from all sides. Perhaps Ally McCoist should have been called in to tend to it since he’s on gardening leave. His successor, Kenny McDowall, resigned less than a month after stepping up from being McCoist’s assistant and is now serving his 12-month notice period. I suspect another Scottish garden will be receiving more attention soon.

I’ll be honest that from overseas it’s been rather difficult to keep track of the sorry saga of Rangers in recent years although I’m not sure it’s that much easier in Scotland. The revolving cast of characters battling for control of the club resembles some sort of tawdry reality TV show which occasionally features someone you might once have heard of.

Until this week, I was only confused about who was in charge in the boardroom but since McDowall suggested that he is expected to select the players recently loaned from Newcastle, it’s rather muddied the waters of who’s in charge in the dugout.

Rangers these days are a bit like a nervous bride the night before the wedding, checking off the list: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Many fans of other clubs have revelled in Rangers plight but I’m not one of them. The Glasgow giants have fallen a long way and they have been shockingly mismanaged at board level. Staff have been made redundant and supporters have seen their side demoted to the lowest tier of Scottish football, from which they are currently scrambling their way back up.

Of course Scottish football hasn’t collapsed in the absence of Rangers and Old Firm derbies in the top flight as some of the most pessimistic doom mongers were predicting. The New Firm – Aberdeen and my team Dundee United – have enjoyed something of a revival, putting themselves in a healthier financial position than they’ve been in for a long time and developing a string of very promising youngsters.

These two sides contested the other semi final and United will provide the opponents for Celtic in next month’s final (many congratulations to Jackie McNamara and the boys).

There’s no question though that Celtic and Rangers are the biggest clubs in Scotland and overall, the stronger they are, the stronger the game in Scotland is. It’s great to have a more competitive top flight and to have a genuine title challenge emerge from somewhere outside Glasgow (well, from Partick Thistle is ok) would be hugely invigorating for Scottish football. I’d love to say that Dundee United will do so this season but I doubt it and while I think Aberdeen have a bit more of a chance I’ll still be surprised if they remain on the tails of Celtic at Easter.

We don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next Old Firm game. Both sides are still in the Scottish Cup so another cup tie this season could happen. Rangers are unlikely to gain automatic promotion to the Premiership but I do fancy them to scrape back in via the play-off. If they do make it, the evidence of last weekend suggests that they still have a long way to go before they can consider themselves as firm as old.

Physical education on the couch

Photo by: Dekuwa www.flickr.com

Photo by: Dekuwa
http://www.flickr.com

In further proof that the world has gone mad (or at least is hurtling in that direction at an alarming rate) it’s been reported that a meeting of the Scottish Association of Teachers of Physical Education (SATPE) has just discussed the idea of video games, such as Football Manager, being introduced to PE classes in North-east schools (see the original story here: http://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/local/football-manager-could-become-part-of-pe-homework-at-schools-1.701679).

The proposal was put forward by Len Almond, former foundation director of the British Heart Foundation National Centre, who was quoted saying: “Games such as Football Manager are a very good way to get people to understand football and the role it has in our society.”

That may or may not be true Len, but why should physical education classes be concerned with children understanding football’s role in society? I would have thought that maybe playing some football might be an endeavour a little closer to the core purpose of PE.

In praise of using Football Manager in lessons, Mr Almond says: “You’re planning, directing and making decisions and if that helps a young person understand the game, that is very good.” Very good except for the fact that it’s not really helping them understand how to actually play football, on a pitch rather than a screen.

The important thing, Len assures us, is that “we have got to attract young people to sport and physical education.” On this point he and I are in complete agreement but I’m still struggling to understand how playing Football Manager at PE does that. Of course, it might make attending PE class more attractive to some kids but then presumably so would offering free doughnuts. As far as I’m aware, the free doughnuts idea is not official policy of SATPE.

There’s no doubt that for many children (and indeed a lot of adults) playing computer games is a far more pleasurable experience than playing sports. I played a fair amount of Football Manager when I was young and so I appreciate how compelling and addictive it can be but I spent a lot more time outside playing football and other sports.

Most children are naturally inclined to run around. Give them some half-decent facilities (and I know that’s a challenge in many areas but it doesn’t need to be the latest generation artificial pitch), an enthusiastic, and preferably knowledgeable, teacher, a ball/racquet/hockey stick and away you go.

We all know the huge problems of childhood obesity in the UK and many other countries. The causes are many and complex and there’s no single or simple solution. Physical education should be taken seriously as part of the school curriculum and sadly that doesn’t always appear to be the case. Introducing Football Manager or other computer games to PE classes would only serve to make them a joke and not a very funny one.

The makers of the game were laughing though. Last night they tweeted: ‘Football Manager as #homework? Children all over the world currently asking their parents to move to Aberdeen.’ Except perhaps those children who would still prefer their physical education to involve playing some sport.