Pink with embarrassment

russia-world-cup

World Cup Russia 2018, photo by Nazionale Calcio http://www.flickr.com

It was, I suppose, inevitable. Ever since the day that Scotland’s shocking pink away strip was unveiled, it was only a matter of time before they put in a performance wearing it that would leave their faces the same colour.

That performance came last night in Slovakia, which came on the back of a similarly dismal showing against Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday.

I didn’t see either game; I was flying during the first one and the second was (mercifully perhaps) not shown here in Malaysia. But the results tell their own story and unfortunately it’s a familiar horror story for we Scotland fans.

The World Cup in Russia looks a long way away from here.

It’s never ever a pleasure to call for a manager’s sacking and on this occasion it is made all the harder by the fact that I am a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Upon taking the job he made some real progress of the sort that we have not seen with the national side since Craig Brown’s time in charge.

The problem now is that the progress has not simply stalled, it is being slowly but surely reversed.

Strachan’s decision making has become increasingly bizarre. Chris Martin, good honest pro that he is, cannot be considered an international class central forward. Leigh Griffiths almost certainly is yet the Scotland boss has shown an almost comic reluctance to play him.

As ever, we lack creativity. Young Burke looks like he possesses some but he was omitted from last night’s debacle altogether. Answers on a postcard please (or in the comments below).

In the post-match press conference, Strachan looked crestfallen and lost. His renowned wit was almost entirely absent. Reporters were still probably thinking “whit?” rather than wit following the analysis the manager produced in the aftermath of the Lithuania game.

He suggested his side had been “unlucky”, that the draw may come to be seen as “a good point in the end” and that “Chris Martin was outstanding upfront.” So outstanding that he was promptly dropped for the next game.

It’s understandable that managers defend and protect their players in public. But it’s insulting to supporters to do so in a way that completely mischaracterises the game that they have just watched. Most supporters are nowhere near as knowledgeable about the game as their confidently expressed opinions would suggest, but neither are they fools.

A manager that starts to treat them as such – however inadvertently or noble the intent – will soon lose their confidence. Strachan has now lost that confidence among large sections of the Scottish support and, more worryingly, perhaps also among sections of the squad.

There was the usual rousing talk from the players pre-match, followed by the customary damp squib during it. They have let down another manager and can probably already start making summer holiday plans for the summer of 2018.

I hope some of them choose Russia. They should go to watch, to learn, and to think what might have been.

Of course that assumes that we don’t qualify and the crazy thing is, despite all the doom and gloom of today, the campaign is not beyond salvaging. The only correct observation that Strachan made after the Lithuania game was that it’s a ‘strange group.’

England, lamentable again last night, remain every bit as much strangers to their potential as we are to major international tournaments. Next month at Wembley should be interesting.

Will Strachan still be in charge for that game? I suspect he probably will. Even though I think his time should be up, there’s not exactly a plethora of excellent candidates waiting in the wings.

Strachan has recovered from Slovakian humiliation before but Wembley, for all of England’s glaring deficiencies, is still not the ideal place to check in for rehab.

The clash of the auld enemies will no doubt reproduce all the old blood and thunder but both nations are in desperate search of new answers. After Big Sam’s little mishap and short reign, Gareth has stepped in and been unable to halt England’s southerly slide. He will likely welcome the visit of the northerly neighbours.

The Tartan Army will travel brave of heart and full of bladder. The pink strip can be left behind in Slovakia, but the fear is that those supporters will only leave Wembley feeling even more blue.

Advertisements

Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

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.

Mibbes aye, mibbes naw

 

yes no

Photo by Tim Parker, http://www.flickr.com

On Thursday the people of Scotland will be asked one simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Well, I say the ‘people of Scotland’ – I consider myself part of that people; I was born there, lived there for 30 of the 33 years since my birth, and my two children were born there but I don’t get a vote as I moved overseas (to Malaysia) just over two years ago.

By the time Scotland lined up against the recently crowned world champions at the Westfalenstadion stadium in Dortmund on the evening of Sunday 7 September, the nation was in state of excitement, bewilderment, and agitation which had little to do with Gordon Strachan’s team selection. That morning, an opinion poll on the referendum had put the Yes campaign ahead for the first time: 51% – 49%.

A campaign that had lasted for almost two years, involved all manner of technical, emotional and not infrequently preposterous arguments was clearly coming down to mibbes aye, mibbes naw. For readers of this blog who are not Scottish, roughly translated that means maybe yes, maybe no. It makes me think we could have dispensed with the debates between Salmond and Darling and just asked a few questions of Kenny Dalglish instead.

Even without a vote I proved my commitment to the Scottish cause by getting up at 2.40am for the Scotland – Germany game. As I assessed the Scottish line-up and tried to figure out how the midfield would operate, a very observant and politically astute friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that only one of Scotland’s starting 11 lives and plays in Scotland and thus is eligible to vote in the referendum. If things really are as close as they appear then Scotland’s future could be decided by Charlie Mulgrew.

In the opening 10 minutes it didn’t appear as though things would be very close between Scotland and Germany. I found myself wondering how many it would be – touches of the ball for the Scots that is. For much of the first half Neuer looked more comfortable on the ball than most of our players. He seemed to be playing the game closer to the half way line than his goal line.

After 18 minutes Germany took the lead that their dominance merited as Muller rose to nod a cross back across Marshall and into the far corner. The Scotland goalkeeper, who otherwise had a very good game, seemed at fault to me either in terms of his initial positioning or in being slightly flat-footed.

Going behind actually seemed to settle Scotland down and they produced a more assured display for the rest of the half, gradually growing in confidence. By half time they had done just enough to ensure that I wasn’t regretting my early rise.

I’m not entirely sure what was added to the Scotland team’s half time oranges but they came out in the second half a transformed side. Conviction had replaced hesitancy, confidence had elbowed doubt aside, and the various parts of the side formed a much more cohesive collective whole.

After a very positive opening ten minutes of the second half, Strachan made a bold double substitution. Darren Fletcher and Barry Bannan came off to be replaced by James McArthur and Steven Fletcher (two more English-based Scots without a vote on Thursday).

Darren Fletcher had played reasonably well and it’s wonderful to see him back after his long battle with illness. His status in the Scotland team is overly exalted however in my opinion and seems mostly to be based on the fact that he plays for Manchester United. He’s worth his place, and I don’t even much dispute his claim to the captaincy, but he broke through at a time when the national side was in a bad, bad way and his performances have tended to be quite good rather than really great.

McArthur and Fletcher added even more purpose and urgency to a Scottish performance that was improving by the minute. German manager Lowe may have been getting hot under the collar or perhaps was just not entirely happy with the look of his chosen shirt and jumper combination but whatever the issue was, his assistant was called upon to adjust the collar at the back.

With sartorial order restored Lowe could return his attention to the game just in time to witness a superb Scottish equaliser. The move started deep in our own half before the ball was played up to Steven Fletcher on the half way line. He controlled the ball instantly and swivelled as he did so to release a perfectly weighted pass in behind the German right back. Anya raced onto the through ball, steadied himself, and with clinical composure, slipped the ball past Neuer.

1-1 and the match was suddenly as close as the referendum. It really looked as though either side could win it. Scotland’s goal came after 65 minutes and hope was swelling to expectation among the tartan army. Less than five minutes later though it was Muller time again and the Germans were back in the lead.

It was, in truth, a terrible goal to concede. A less than dangerous ball into the box from a corner gave the Scottish defence two straightforward opportunities to clear. Both were met with what we call a ‘sclaff.’ Muller gratefully blasted the ball into the roof of the net from about four yards out.

It would have been understandable if that blow had floored Scotland. But Strachan has fashioned a side in his own image – tough, tenacious, full of energy and prepared to take risks to try and create chances. The Scots refused to take a step back and continued to put Germany under pressure.

Right to the very end it looked as though a point could still be salvaged and it wouldn’t have been undeserved. What was undeserved was the red card shown to Mulgrew in injury time for kicking the ball away as he fired off a shot just after the referee had blown his whistle for a foul.

It was one of several strange decisions by the ref including his final one which was to blow for full time just as Scotland had won a corner. A 2-1 defeat to the world champions was far from a disgrace though and the performance was hugely encouraging.

It was written up in the media as a typically brave performance and it was, but it was brave in the way that Strachan defines the term. I remember once reading a column he wrote in which he said bravery in football  is not about flying into tackles and running yourself into the ground; it’s about showing for the ball, being prepared to receive it in tight situations and being prepared to risk making a mistake in order to create something. The manager can be proud that his side was brave in all of those latter senses.

By the time we welcome Georgia to Ibrox on the 11th of October the referendum will be done and dusted. Charlie Mulgrew will have had his opportunity to vote. It’s a hugely important question but I can’t help thinking that a more important question is: will we make it to France in 2016?

Happy birthday Match of the Day

 

match-of-the-day

Match of the Day studio. Photo by Alexander Baxevanis, http://www.flickr.com

So Match of the Day is 50. It is quite simply a British institution. Especially for those of us who grew up without the saturation coverage of football on TV that exists today. It’s a coming of age moment in the UK to finally be allowed to stay up to watch Match of the Day. I don’t actually remember how old I was when that moment happened for me but I do remember the feeling that an important milestone in life had been reached.

A lot has changed since the programme made its debut in 1964 and not just in football. In 1964, Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons, the Forth Road Bridge opened, The Sun newspaper went into circulation, and the Beatles had a Christmas number one with I Feel Fine. The world record transfer fee at the time was £250,000, paid by Roma to Mantova for Angelo Sormani (no, I’ve never heard of him either). The British transfer record was the £115,000 paid by Manchester United to Torino for the services of Dennis Law.

Apparently, a season ticket to watch Law at Manchester United could be purchased for around £10 – many Manchester United fans probably feel that would be a reasonable price to watch their side for a season now given the level of performance they’ve been producing over the past year or so.

The legendary Law was voted European footballer of the year in 1964 and remains the only Scot to have been awarded the Ballon D’Or. Dalglish finished second in the voting in 1983, losing out to Platini. It’s not altogether clear why Scott Nisbet was overlooked in 1993, a player about whom Walter Smith said: “every pass is an adventure.”

Match of the Day’s first adventure came at Anfield on 22 August 1964. Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 and 20,000 viewers tuned in. Those were the days of football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and of an average weekly wage in English football’s top division that was less than £40. Today, games are played almost every day of the week and absolutely average players earn £40,000 per week. Those things are made possible, and to some extent necessitated, by the fact that football has grown rich thanks to TV.

Most ‘matches of the weekend’ no longer take place at 3pm on a Saturday (in fact increasingly rarely on a Saturday at all) and so Saturday night highlights are not always the highlight that they once were. Broadcasting football has become a fiercely competitive business and to mark Match of the Day’s 50th year, BBC bosses have given instructions to pundits to be more opinionated and animated. They did this after signing Phil Neville as a pundit which is a bit like a manager saying his side needs to score more goals and then announcing the signing of a couple of centre halves.

Mark Cole, head of football at the BBC (that sounds like a great job by the way and an impressive business card) said recently: “anyone on that panel of punditry should have played top-flight football and that’s our position.” So does that mean that Mourinho and Wenger need not apply?

It’s well accepted that great players don’t necessarily make great managers and most footballers who currently offer their animated, or otherwise, opinions are not really very good pundits (Shearer barely became animated when he scored far less when dissecting the finer tactical details of Stoke versus West Ham). If anybody can remember anything remotely enlightening courtesy of Mark Lawrenson then answers on a postcard please or preferably in the comments section below.

Such has been the poor overall quality that Hansen came to be seen as something of a sage despite most of his contributions amounting to little more than correctly labelling terrible defending as “terrible.” He also famously and wrongly proclaimed that “you can’t win anything with kids” which wasn’t true about the Manchester United side he was referring to or indeed the Dundee Sunday Boys League where my own (modest) skills were honed.

Without doubt the best pundit in the business is another man whose skills first flourished in Dundee: Gordon Strachan. What makes Strachan the perfect pundit? Well, for a start, he’s genuinely insightful. He has a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of the game, especially its tactical variances and subtleties. He tells it like it is but without going over the top. He can judge a player, team or manager harshly yet still sympathetically. Listening to Strachan I generally learn something and that is almost never the case with any of the other pundits currently occupying their comfy sofas.

Oh, and Strachan is also witty; hilarious in fact. He brings humour to his analysis and this quality has been most apparent in his post-match interviews as a manager. He was once asked: “So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?” His reply: “What areas? Mainly that big green one out there.”

One reporter seeking a post-match comment asked him: “Gordon, can we have a quick word please?” Strachan said: “velocity” and walked off. That’s just brilliant. I would love to go to the pub with Strachan after a game and discuss it over a pint or two. How many other pundits would you say the same of?

There’s a gap in the market for a football show that has the feel of intelligent people discussing the game in a way that can be both serious and light-hearted. Sky’s Soccer Saturday does the pub-like banter pretty well but falls rather short on insight despite having a truly great presenter in Jeff Stelling.

One of the interesting developments of recent years is that sources of really intelligent analysis have emerged from outside the game. The best example of this is Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking (www.zonalmarking.net) was ‘inspired by the standard of punditry on British television,’ that is to say how ‘terrible’ it is and Cox’s correct assumption that he could do much better. The huge popularity of the site, and the fact that he now writes for many other publications, indicates that thousands of football fans want the type of analysis offered by Zonal Marking.

Instead of providing that analysis most football shows have decided that the answer lies in massively increased use of technical gadgetry (Match of the Day is actually an honourable exception to this for the most part). What this seems to involve is a couple of confused looking blokes standing in front of something that resembles a gigantic iPad and getting carried away with placing circles around players, drawing arrows, and highlighting random sections of the pitch.

Usually, after an inordinate amount of knob twiddling and freeze framing, the pundits will conclude with something like: “so yeah, Rooney’s taken a touch and smashed it into the net.” Well, thanks lads, I’d spotted that all by myself when you first played the video of the goal at normal speed and unadorned by your creative markings.

So if the BBC is looking for advice on the next 50 years of Match of the Day (they haven’t asked incidentally but that’s never stopped me dispensing advice in the past) I would suggest: forget technology, hire Gordon Strachan, and look for real intelligence rather than just top-flight football experience in your pundits. Otherwise, there’s a risk of Match of the Day suffering the same fate as another BBC show that launched in 1964 – Top of the Pops.