Rolling footballers gather penalties from Moss

King Power Stadium

King Power Stadium. Photo by Ungry Young Man

Imagine you had never seen a game of football before, and then you tuned in to Leicester v West Ham yesterday. You would be left feeling a little confused about the rules. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life and I was left utterly baffled by the performance of referee Jon Moss.

The job of refereeing is a hugely difficult one but Mr Moss gathered no credit as he attempted to assess the bodies rolling around him. Firstly, the Vardy red card: did he dive? He certainly took steps to ensure that the defender couldn’t avoid making contact with him and he knew that contact would knock him from his feet (more tax avoidance than tax evasion on the moral continuum).

I wouldn’t call it a dive and the sending off was very harsh.

Next, the penalty awarded to West Ham; Reid falls following a gentle tug from Leicester’s Morgan. A foul? Probably yes on the strictest interpretation of the law but how can Moss penalise that incident when every single corner in the game had produced at least as much if not worse.

The pushing and pulling and general nonsense that accompanies every corner these days should be stamped out but it has to be done by all referees awarding around four penalties per game in the first few weeks of the season. Choosing one incident at random as Moss did is a recipe for chaos and sure enough, he brought about a chaotic climax to the game.

A few minutes later at the other end, Huth goes sprawling in the box after very clearly having his jump impeded. Moss has a look and decides there’s nothing to see here. The rest of us can see a referee that has considerably less grip on the game than Ogbonna had on Huth.

Leicester continue a frenetic scramble for an equaliser and in the very last minute of added time, Schlupp runs into Andy Carroll and, as virtually any man would after running into Andy Carroll, falls over. Moss points to the spot. I’d call it soft but that doesn’t really describe just how lacking in firmness the decision was: it was softer than a blancmange left in front of the fire for ninety minutes.

Moss had clearly reassessed some of his earlier decisions and reached the conclusion that he’d been unduly harsh on Leicester. Here he was restoring justice (and parity) with another incredible decision. Leicester fans left ecstatic and relieved. Bilic left with a rueful smile and a scratch of his head.

A defeat for Leicester could have been a hugely significant moment in the title race but a draw means that not too much momentum is lost. Tonight we’ll find out a lot about Spurs and how they’re dealing with the pressure. If they don’t win at Stoke, they are unlikely to be wearing Premier League winner’s medals next month.

Liverpool’s players still have the chance to claim a medal this season after their remarkable comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League. Yesterday’s 2-1 win away at Bournemouth was even more significant however.

Klopp fielded a young, inexperienced, and experimental team and yet they managed a more comfortable and convincing victory than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool’s first eleven is strong (albeit still in need of strengthening) but there’s doubt as to the depth of the squad. Perhaps some of that doubt is exaggerated.

Money needs to be spent to turn Liverpool into title contenders and Klopp is the right man to spend it. This Premier League season has been thrillingly unpredictable; just imagine what next season might be like with Liverpool resurgent under Klopp, Guardiola arriving at City, and the prospect of Mourinho at Man United.

Talking of resurgence, Rangers made a statement yesterday by beating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden. The fallen Glasgow giants have completed their rise through the leagues and will return to the top division in Scotland next season after easily winning the Championship.

The hotly debated topic in Scottish football right now is how strong a force Rangers will be upon their return to the SPFL. Hearts have shown that the transition between the two leagues is not particularly onerous for a club with some resources. Celtic will start next season as title favourites but they can expect their old rivals to be genuine challengers.

Will Ronny Deila still be in charge of Celtic when the next Old Firm match is played? I doubt it. The Norwegian’s reign has been distinctly underwhelming and while he’s won the expected league titles (and is likely to do so again this year) his side’s failings in cups and in Europe have put him under severe pressure.

Celtic are on a decline brought about by consistently selling their best players and replacing them with lesser quality. It’s arguable the extent to which that is by necessity but the effect is dispiriting for supporters. It also means that any decent player at the club only expects to be there for a year or two before seeking greater riches and profile elsewhere.

It’s been a similar scenario of late at my dearly beloved Dundee United (with most of our better players ending up at Celtic). We lost the other cup semi final to Hibs and all we have to contemplate now is our impending relegation.

My first blog post of this year heralded forthcoming doom at Tannadice and so it’s coming to pass. I was a teenager at Tannadice the last time we were relegated, in 1995, and it was a sad, sad day. I took my son to his first ever football match there earlier this season and that too was a rather sad day – a dire 1-0 loss to Hearts.

But we football fans never lose heart for long and we’ll be back next season. Supporting a football club is like a marriage, it has to be for better or worse. Surely for we suffering Dundee United fans, things can only get better.


We’re doomed (my team that is), happy new year

Tannadice and Dens

Tannadice and Dens. Photo by: Brook

Happy New Year readers. 2016 hasn’t started quite as well for me in a footballing sense as 2015 did. On the 1st of January 2015 I was at Tannadice to watch Dundee United triumph over Dundee in the derby, 6-2.  It was a victory that even prompted some optimistic talk of us joining Aberdeen in a ‘new firm’ bid to challenge Celtic for the title.

Sadly it turned out to be the sort of optimism that is so often found in those activating gym memberships at this time of year; it had mostly evaporated by the end of January (by which time three of our best players had moved to Celtic).

I was not in Scotland this festive season and thus I wasn’t at Dens to watch us lose the New Year derby 2-1, a result that leaves us floundering at the bottom of the league – 11 points behind Kilmarnock who occupy the position above us. If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in football.

In that period, the manager has been sacked and there’s been a major overhaul of the squad, not exactly for the better. It’s been a bit like an episode of 60 Minute Makeover in reverse. You don’t need to be as serial a pessimist as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army to nevertheless reach the conclusion that we appear to be doomed. Captain Mainwaring couldn’t save us now.

Considerably more hope is invested in Jurgen Klopp saving Liverpool. So far, the German has made a good if slightly inconsistent start. West Ham v Liverpool was the first game that I watched in 2016 and it didn’t bring much cheer for a Liverpool fan. West Ham won 2-0 and did so comfortably.

In press reports of the game I read that Klopp was angry at his side’s failure to give their all. One newspaper quoted him saying that they had only given “95%” while another suggested that he had said “90%.” If there’s only 5-10% more to be had from that side then I’m afraid we’re back in Private Fraser territory. I would say it was a 70% performance at best.

Somebody should really check Lucas’s passport because it looks increasingly implausible to me that he can actually be Brazilian. I’m almost certain that if you picked a random guy of the Copacabana they would display greater skill than our number 21.

Then there’s Clyne: a half-hearted sort of a full-back. He doesn’t mind going forward (although he shows only a moderate talent for it) but he’s bit less sure of things when called upon to perform defensive duties – a not altogether uncommon occurrence for a defender. In this aspect of the game he’s something of a liability, seemingly regarding it as all a bit inconvenient.

He was out-jumped for both West Ham goals. Well, I say out-jumped, that’s actually a rather generous description of his efforts (well, I say ‘efforts’) to disengage his feet from the pitch. I think on one of the two occasions in question he got high enough that a slow motion camera would have been able to capture at least half of one of his studs.

I once played for a manager who bemoaned such instances with the phrase: “couldn’t get a Sunday Post under you there.” The insertion of a Sunday Post beneath one’s feet would not require a very spectacular, salmon-like jump.

One Liverpool player who could not be accused of lacking effort in his performance was Benteke. Sadly most of that effort was entirely ineffectual. Klopp has demanded more of his young striker in recent weeks and Christian ran around looking as lost as your average KL taxi driver (for those of you who haven’t been in a KL taxi, that’s generally quite lost).

The overall performance had all the huffing and puffing that we’ve already come to expect from a Klopp side but nothing appeared very much at risk of being blown down.

Much of the fallout from the game has focused on the spate of hamstring injuries that the squad has suffered; an occurrence that Sam Allardyce suggested was due to Klopp’s preferred high intensity playing style. Klopp’s response was something along the lines of: “pull the other one Sam.”

The fortunes of Liverpool and Dundee United are certainly pulling in different directions. There’s no question that Liverpool are improving under Klopp and there is a lot to be excited about at Anfield in 2016.

Dundee United on the other hand, are on a run of results comparable to that of Donald Trump’s barber. 2016 is looking like a relegation year for us but we football supporters are required to make the same resolution ever year: we’ll support you ever more.

My son’s first football match

Tannadice 1It’s a special day for a father, taking your son to his first game. For me that day came last month. Dundee United (my team) were playing Hearts at Tannadice Park.

It was also the first game in charge for former player, and club legend, Mixu Patelainen. He’d been installed as manager about a week before following a rather calamitous start to the season that saw us admiring the rest of the league from the very bottom of it. The only way is up then Toma my son. Unless we get relegated of course (as I write this more than a month later we remain bottom of the league).

We set off in hope though as all supporters must; me, Toma, my Dad and my brother. Toma’s initial confusion concerned the fact that Messi wouldn’t be playing. The Argentinean superstar is the only footballer he knows and thus he was mystified as to why we would go to see a game that wouldn’t feature him. Cost cutting measures in recent seasons at Tannadice have put Messi a little beyond our budget.

Before going into the ground we collected our tickets at the club shop. Here I’d hoped to buy a souvenir of the day but Toma was distinctly unimpressed with the offerings on display.

On then to the stadium and that childlike thrill that’s never lost of entering the stand and setting eyes on the pitch. Toma was quite excited at this point although it’s debatable whether that was from the sense of occasion or the gigantic bag of Skittles he was now clutching.

The game kicked off and it was quickly apparent that our league position was not a false one. Three successive passes was the most we managed in the opening ten minutes. In the sixteenth minute we conceded a penalty – largely the result of playing a centre half at full back. Hearts scored, 1-0. Toma glanced anxiously at the dejected faces of his Dad, Granda, and Uncle. Welcome aboard son.

Shortly afterwards my Dad got a brief touch on the ball as it was blasted into the stand; probably the closest I’ve come to being hit by the ball in almost thirty years of going to watch football. That may in fact have been the most exciting moment of the first half for us.

After about half an hour Toma asked: “why is everyone so angry?” My Dad took this one. “They’re not angry Champ, just very excited.” I would describe some of those around us as apoplectic with excitement.

They had reason to be. It was a dismal performance and a dire game.

For some strange reason it was being played with a yellow ball despite the fact that it was a dry, bright and pleasant autumn day in Dundee. I’m something of a traditionalist and for me, football should be played at 3,o,clock on a Saturday afternoon, with a white ball, by players wearing black boots. As it was a Sunday lunchtime game, none of these criteria were being met.

The crowd was growing increasingly agitated. The wisdom of crowds is a much debated phenomenon but I’ve never seen much evidence of it at football grounds. I’m consistently amazed that people can watch so much football and seemingly have so little appreciation of its subtleties.

“This is torture” someone bellowed in anguish from behind us. He was neither lying nor kidding.

At half time Toma had another question: “is it finished now?” Sadly not, another 45 minutes to go. There’s only so much consolation you can expect from a half time pie or burger.

Still we were only a goal down and it’s a game of two halves and all that. Unfortunately the second half bore an uncanny resemblance to the first.

At around 70 minutes, something I’d feared – Toma turned to me and said “Daddy, I heard somebody say a bad word.” A collective intake of breath. “They said idiot.” And exhale. “Yes son, that was very naughty of them.” He had been offered the opportunity of a rather extensive expansion of his vocabulary but fortunately seems not to have understood much Dundonian.

We were simply awful and so, it has to be said, was the referee. A failure to take 10 steps in counting out the distance of the wall for a free kick was one of many howlers that contributed to his plummeting popularity in our stand.

I had run my first marathon exactly a week before and the longer the match went on the more fondly I recalled that experience. My Dad recalled that it had been twenty years since he was last at a football game. It may well be that long until he returns. My brother, always the most optimistic of supporters, described it as the worst game he’d ever seen.

Quite an introduction then young Toma. How was it? I asked as the final whistle blew. “Bad Daddy, it was bad.”

As we made our way out of the ground I heard a woman say: “minging that.” For those of you less familiar with the Scottish version of the English language, minging means ‘foul-smelling’ or, more broadly, ‘very bad or unpleasant.’

Another word that Toma didn’t understand but he’d understood that the game was exactly that. Back in the car I promised him that one day I’d take him to see Messi.

Tannadice 2

There are only four teams for me


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



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-



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-



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: 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.

Don’t be that Dad

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

You know the one. Probably wearing a tracksuit, often with his initials on it. Quite likely that he’s got his football boots on. He used to be a contender. He could’ve made it were it not for that knee injury (it’s almost always a knee injury), some run of bad luck, or the lack of appreciation for talent on the part of those scouts who came to watch him in his youth.

His dream of becoming a footballer died a long time ago but he has a son now so the dream is reborn. The son will live it, fulfil it, and in so doing, will fulfil them both.

The father prowls the touchline, offering the benefit of his ‘wisdom’ to junior whether junior wants it or not and never seems quite satisfied with what he sees. Every game is a must win; glory and honour are always on the line. Junior misses a chance and father turns away in disgust, muttering under his breath. You know, that Dad.

Dreams, you see, they die harder second time round.

Let me be honest, that was my dream too. I wanted to be a footballer from as early as I can remember. It’s not an unusual dream for a Scottish youngster. How close did I come? Well, I suppose I was somewhere near the contender category. I trained with a few professional clubs in my teens. I was good, not exceptional, but I was good. So are a lot of others.

If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman when you’re growing up then you’ll certainly encounter some competition but nothing like that of the boy who wants to be a footballer. The odds of making it are somewhere in the region of those being offered for Bournemouth winning the Premier League next season. Banking on your son becoming a professional footballer is not a sensible pension plan.

When I was 21, I went to America and spent a summer coaching ‘soccer’ at an American summer camp (one of those strange American traditions whereby parents pack their kids off for eight weeks and visit them once for a few hours after about four of the eight weeks). The kids were great; very keen and some of them were quite talented. Every week or so there were tournaments held against other camps in the area (I was based in upstate New York) and the ‘coaching’ that I witnessed at these tournaments appalled me. It was, sadly, mainly from British coaches.

These guys were of a similar age to me (all of us failed footballers or else we wouldn’t have been there) and most of them cared only about one thing: winning. It was a pathetic and pitiful sight. They would scream at their players, some of them as young as seven or eight years old, offering nothing of insight and always just selected their biggest players to improve their chances of victory. Sometimes they won but none of their players became much better at football as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fiercely competitive guy and I hate to lose. I also loathe the trends in school sports of everyone gets a medal and not keeping score. You can’t fool kids, they know who is winning and losing, they know who is good and who is not. The point is that when you’re coaching kids, teaching them to become better footballers, you have to focus on improving their skills and their understanding of the game even if that comes at the expense of the result.

Many of my fellow coaches in America took a different view. It was all about them. They celebrated victory like they’d just won the Champions League. Their very manliness seemed to depend on taking home the trophy – the upstate New York Summer Camp Cup or whatever on earth it was we were contesting. I can only imagine that it wasn’t just the meagre size of their trophy collections that these guys were trying to compensate for.

Like me, many of these men probably now have children and I hope at least some of them have changed their ways.

When I returned to Scotland following my US experience I decided to take my coaching qualifications. There’s no doubt that the quality of football that Scotland produces today is not what it once was and yet, curiously, the reputation of coaching in the country remains excellent. Even Mourinho spent some time learning his trade at Largs.

I was certainly impressed by the standard of the courses and got a lot out of them; everything from how to plan a session to very small details such as always make sure you address the players with the sun in your eyes rather than theirs so that they can concentrate more easily. Regular followers of Scottish football may be surprised to learn that the emphasis is indeed on skill development. There was no session on ‘lumping it up the park.’

This raises an interesting question. Kids today, especially those connected with bigger clubs, are getting more organised coaching by (generally) better qualified coaches than previous generations so why is their skill level apparently worse? I think there are at least two potential aspects to this.

One is the much commented upon decline of what we might call ‘street football’ by which I mean kids just getting together and playing games among themselves without adult supervision or interference. Without, in other words, any formal coaching.

Modern life has essentially displaced street football in many areas so despite more time spent in formal coaching sessions it’s possible that many kids actually spend less time in contact with the ball than they used to. Learning via street football is a process of trial and error with more emphasis on what you can do with the ball (showing off frankly) rather than learning the discipline of playing in a particular system for example.

The second aspect is that I’m not sure that skill levels have dropped quite as sharply as we tend to assume (I’m talking primarily in a Scottish and to a lesser extent English context here). Go and watch a top level club in Scotland train and you’ll see plenty of skill on display. Go to a match at the weekend and you’ll often be forgiven for wondering where all that skill went.

One place it went in my view is through the trap door marked fear. The stakes have been raised in the modern game and the golden rule for a footballer is ‘don’t make a mistake.’ Mistakes sometimes lead to defeats, to the wrath of the manager, teammates, and supporters, to the prospect of losing your place in the team, ultimately to the prospect of being moved on and probably down the divisions.

Much of what we marvel at in football involves risk, primarily the risk of making a mistake, giving the ball away, looking foolish. We heap scorn on those who make mistakes. Why are we surprised then that we create a risk averse culture in which getting rid of the ball quickly (and almost anywhere) is deemed preferable to taking a touch and trying to create something?

Perhaps those risks are just something that pros have to live with. It’s their living after all and they need to make decisions to protect a career that is often both fragile and fickle. It’s a different story with children though. Let them express themselves. There’s no sadder sight in the game than watching a child kick the ball away in fear. If you are the cause of that fear, hang your head in shame.

With my newly acquired coaching qualifications, I volunteered to help coach at a primary school in Edinburgh. It was a very rewarding experience and I was pleased to discover that the vast majority of the parents supported my philosophy of trying to develop the skills of the boys without focusing too much on results. Although of course, guess what? As their skills develop, eventually, results improve quite a lot as a consequence.

There is a growing recognition in the game of the need to control the touchline antics of some parents. It’s very frustrating as a coach to have ten or more other wannabe coaches imparting their own, usually contradictory, tips during a game. In some places, silent touchline schemes have been put in place and I think that’s mostly a good idea.

I was lucky to have two very supportive parents and the points made here apply equally to Mums as well as Dads. My own mother in fact was always a more animated figure on the touchline than my father. “Tackle” was her constant refrain. She had a simple method of judging my performances: I had played well in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of my kit. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but it apparently wasn’t next to a career in football.

Since we know that most kids won’t become footballers let us at least make the game fun for them. Let us help them develop a sense of love and wonder about it. I firmly believe that football (and indeed sport in general) has much to teach: sacrifice, dedication, teamwork, appreciation of beauty (watch Messi dribble and tell me that isn’t the case), courage, respect, fairness and many other admirable qualities.

I have a son who is almost five. He is an utterly wonderful little boy. He goes to football coaching classes here in Malaysia (check out for anyone who’s interested) and he really enjoys it. Alas, the early indications are that he is far from the most naturally talented little footballer in the world.

Would I like him to be? Of course I would. I would burst with pride to see him become a professional footballer. I’ve dreamed that dream. But the chances are he won’t. He’ll probably never play for Barcelona or Real Madrid. He probably won’t play for Dundee United either. But I hope he keeps playing the game, loving it and learning something from it. He’ll never feel any pressure from me to achieve the dream that eluded me.

And the funny thing is you can never tell. Judging young talent at almost anything is very difficult and football is no exception. I remember well the most talented player in my age group in the whole of Scotland when I was fifteen, sixteen. If ever a kid was going to make it, he was the one. Outrageously talented and dedicated to his craft, he was the star of the Scotland U/16 team at the time.

He did make it; sort of. He became a professional footballer. In fact he became a pro at my beloved Dundee United. He burst on to the scene as the bright young thing, but then? A long slow decline. In total he made only around 50 appearances in the top flight in Scotland before gradually drifting down through the lower leagues and he was the most talented player I ever played with or against.

On Saturday I’ll take my little boy back to his football class. I’ll watch with interest but I’ll keep my mouth shut save for some words of encouragement when he comes off for a water break. If he’s having fun I’ll be quite happy enough.

He’s not even five years old yet. Who knows what he wants to be when he grows up? He’s expressed an interest in being a lion dancer (google it if you’re unsure) among many other things. He has his own dreams to dream. I’ve made peace with mine. I’m not going to be that Dad.

The return of the Old Firm

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith

‘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.

Dundee derby delight

Brothers United

Brothers United

Happy New Year all. This is my first post of 2015 and I hope and intend that it marks the start of a productive blogging year. 2015 got off to a very happy start for me when my brother and I went to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (I’m the handsome one pictured above).

We nearly didn’t make it though. My brother was tasked with getting us tickets and as December wore on he kept insisting that yes ‘today, I’ll definitely sort it out.’ When the day of his ‘sorting it’ finally arrived the match had already sold out. He texted me in panic: ‘em, I’ve been a bit of a plonker about the derby tickets, they’re now sold out. I’ve enquired about hospitality tickets and sent a pleading email.’

A plonker indeed. In his defence, his wife had just given birth to their first child (my beautiful nephew) a few weeks before so he did have one or two other things to concern himself with. His email to the Dundee United ticket office informed them that both he and I used to be season ticket holders but having both moved away from Scotland we now very rarely get to games. He also informed them that I was travelling all the way from Malaysia.

20 minutes later his phone rang. It was the ticket office offering him two tickets that had been returned. Merry Christmas and relief all round.

With tickets secured we arrived at Tannadice at 11.30 am on New Year’s Day to pick them up ahead of the 12.15 pm kick-off. It was a wet and windy day in Dundee but mercifully not quite as cold as we’d been expecting. In the days before there had been some tentative discussion of investing in long johns but in the end they remained unpurchased as we manfully opted to do without them. Asked how I would ward off the cold, I suggested that I’d pursue a regime of vigorous rubbing as required.

Such a regime turned out not to be needed as we basked in the warmth of a great performance by our side in a quite remarkable game. No sooner had we sat down than we were back on our feet to celebrate the opening goal as Stuart Armstrong gave us the lead after about 40 seconds. He didn’t know too much about it, the ball deflecting in off his back from an Erskine volley. Dundee’s goalkeeper, Schenk, was making his debut and his first task was to pick the ball out of the net.

After scoring so early United then sat back and became rather complacent. Dundee recovered well and by 10 or 15 minutes into the game they had become the more dominant of the two sides. Much of their attacking threat was being carried by Harkins a man of some considerable skill and some equally considerable heft. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a professional footballer look so unathletic. The question of ‘who ate all the pies’ went unasked since the answer was so obvious.

Dundee deservedly equalised on 24 minutes when Stewart curled a magnificent free kick into the top corner. We United fans, who had hitherto been in excellent voice, fell rather quiet. The equaliser had also upset our pre-match predictions: I had predicted that we would win 2-0; my brother, almost always more confident than me in such matters, had gone for 3-0.

It took a mere three minutes for us to find our voices again however as Mackay-Steven restored our lead with a dipping curling effort from out wide on the right. At the time I wasn’t sure if he had meant to shoot or was just aiming a cross towards the far post and I’m not much clearer after watching the highlights of the match and seeing several replays of the goal. I’m sure he’ll claim he meant it and I’m not going to argue.

Four minutes later it was 3-1 as Erskine cut inside from the right and finished low into the far corner. All our attacks were coming down our right wing at this stage and Dundee’s left back, Dyer, was living up to his name. I was amazed that his manager didn’t invite him to take an early bath at half-time.

There was still time for another goal before half-time and again it came from the same area as Mackay-Steven ran on to a great through ball from Armstrong before applying a cool finish. Schenk in the Dundee goal picked the ball out of his net for the fourth time in the first half of his debut for the club. Happy New Year!

I suspect it was a slightly different message that Dundee manager Paul Hartley had for his players at the interval. The early stages of the second half were more even and it wasn’t until the 64th minute that we scored again: Fojut rose highest to nod home from a corner. This was the cue for many Dundee fans to make their exit. “Why on earth are you still here?” (or words to that effect) we politely enquired of those that remained.

It was a question they were probably asking themselves by the 83rd minute when young Charlie Telfer casually stroked in a 6th for us. Those Dundee fans that did remain to the bitter end were at least rewarded with a 90th minute consolation, cleverly converted by Tankulic.

The ref took pity on the visitors and played just a minute of stoppage time before blowing the final whistle. We rejoiced and silently thanked whoever it was who had returned their tickets. It doesn’t get much better than being there for a 6-2 derby victory to start the new year. Paul Hartley trudged off dejectedly while United boss Jackie McNamara strolled down the touchline beaming and offered a pumped fist above his head as he disappeared down the tunnel.

Hartley and McNamara were two of the most composed and elegant Scottish players from the mid-1990s until they both retired about four years ago. Now as young bosses managing in the top flight (Hartley is 38 and McNamara is 41) they are instilling similar qualities in their teams. Both sides tried to play decent football in what were quite difficult weather conditions and succeeded to a commendable extent.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom surrounding Scottish football at the moment and some of it is understandable but I came away from Tannadice feeling positive about the future. The game in Scotland is in good hands with the likes of Hartley and McNamara (and of course Gordon Strachan with the national team) and hopefully there’s a lot to look forward to in the rest of 2015.