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.

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.

Scotland 1-0 Ireland – 1 goal, 3 points and a very early start

Photo by: Duncan Hull www.flickr.com

Photo by: Duncan Hull
http://www.flickr.com

The decision to get up at 3.40 am to watch a football match on TV is not one that I take lightly. Not so long ago I would have taken some convincing that getting up at that time would be worth the effort (trust me, as I write this some 18 hours later it was an effort) to watch Scotland but that was before Gordon Strachan was appointed manager.

The match against Ireland at Celtic Park was the most important of Strachan’s reign so far. The way we played in winning 1-0 was a complete and utter testament to the manager and his methods. Afterwards, he described the game as “mesmerising” and compared it to “one of those big heavyweight boxing matches.”

It was certainly physical; not altogether surprising with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane in the other corner. O’Neill’s sides have never shirked the physical side of the game and Keane has never shirked a perceived slight in an empty room. Keane got a stern talking to from the ref midway through the second half and delivered one of his trademark stares which look as though they could knock a man to the floor.

Plenty of men were on the floor at various points of this contest but it was far from a dirty match. It was full blooded, committed and tense. The referee deserves a lot of credit for handling it firmly without being overly fussy.

Strachan admitted that “as a spectacle of pure football, it wasn’t that great,” which is a fair assessment but a slightly modest one in terms of the extent to which his side tried to play with some attacking flair. The Irish seemed more interested in trying to frustrate those efforts and overall I thought they were quite poor.

A point would have been a much better result for the Irish than the Scots. By about 70 minutes my pre-match confidence of victory was beginning to ebb a little. My brother however, a man of more optimistic disposition than I, was resolute: “yep” was his one word answer to my “still confident?” question.

And yep, a couple of minutes later we were ahead. What a goal it was. Maloney took a short corner, exchanging a one-two with Anya, and then slipped the ball to Brown inside the box. Maloney made an arcing run to the edge of the box and Brown returned the ball to him with a delicate back-heel. Maloney curled a delightful shot into the far corner.

Cue delirious scenes in the stands, on the touchline and in my living room. One of the more difficult aspects of watching a game at home so early in the morning is trying not to wake the rest of the household up if something exciting happens. I leapt from the couch fists pumping and just managed to suppress the cheer in my throat before it emerged to shatter the pre-dawn tranquillity.

Strachan credited the goal to his assistant Stuart McCall who apparently had concocted the set-piece routine on the training ground. It was an absolutely brilliant goal and one that gave Scotland the win that they deserved.

The group remains wide open. Germany have made a slightly underwhelming start but I still expect them to top it when all is said and done. Scotland, Ireland and Poland all remain heavyweight contenders in a group that looks as though it will go the distance.

The Irish qualified for the last European Championships in 2012, held at a time when the country was in the grip of austerity measures that many blamed on German leader Angela Merkel. The picture at the top of this post was the response to that by one group of fans and the quote has been a favourite of mine since the first time I saw it.

I returned to bed at 6 am this morning, exhausted but very happy. Scotland had given me the performance and the points which I felt my commitment merited.

 

I end this post on a sad and sombre note. In preparing to write it I discovered the news that a fan who attended the game died when he fell in a stairwell as he was leaving the stadium. He was just 20 years old. The title of this blog reflects a desire to celebrate football and all that it means to those of us that love it but also to keep the game in perspective. A tragic incident like this certainly does put it in perspective and our thoughts and prayers are with the young man’s family and friends at this difficult time.

The great ticket robbery?

 

arsenal-supporters

Arsenal supporters. Photo by jpellgen, http://www.flickr.com

The BBC recently announced the results of their annual ‘Price of Football’ study and there was plenty to chew on in the findings. Not least in the revelation that Manchester United would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover just a week of Falcao’s wages. Coincidentally, a colossal number of pies appear to be what Harry Redknapp thinks Adel Taarabt is spending his wages on.

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the price of watching football in the UK was found to be steep and rising. The study notes that ‘the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.’ The Football Supporters’ Federation called the increases “completely unacceptable” but it seems that many fans do accept them – Premier League attendances are on the increase.

Remarkably, ‘Charlton’s £150 season ticket is the cheapest in England’s top four divisions. However, Barcelona charge around £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.’ I’ve seen Barcelona at the Nou Camp twice and it’s a thrilling experience (although it must be said that the catering facilities for example are quite awful). I think I paid about €20 in 2010 for a La Liga game against Malaga and about €27 a year later for a league match against Real Zaragoza. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Charlton at the Valley but I imagine it’s a slightly different experience to the Nou Camp.

The report generated some interesting responses. Most interesting of all was the solution that Sunderland came up with. Just a few days after the report was published they played so badly at Southampton that they lost 8-0 and the goalkeeper offered to refund the costs incurred by their fans.

I’ve definitely been to games where I’ve felt as though I’ve deserved some sort of compensation for my attendance – the Berti Vogts era as Scotland boss springs to mind here. It’s surprising that lawyers haven’t cottoned on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream and launched adverts along the lines of: “were you traumatised at the game today? Did the manager make ill-advised substitutions that had a direct and negative effect on your health? Call today for a no win/no fee consultation.”

In midweek, Danny Baker (well worth a follow on Twitter by the way if you’re into that sort of thing @prodnose) questioned why Chelsea fans had bothered to pay expensive prices to see their team demolish Maribor 6-0 in the Champions League. His point wasn’t so much about the prices as about what he sees as the devaluation of the tournament caused by over-expansion. In Baker’s view, a near full-house at Stamford Bridge for such a game represents a triumph of branding by UEFA.

The Champions League is indeed a branding masterclass but it can also be considered a genuinely premium product. While there were some very large victories in the tournament this week due to a huge gulf in resources and quality between opponents, it was not true in all cases. Bayern Munich beat Roma 7-1 and I think most people would consider that a clash between two big European clubs and very much worthy of the Champions League setting.

Roma happen to be my favourite Italian team and I’ve seen them live twice. The first time was in 2009. Roma happened to be playing Juventus the weekend that my wife and I were visiting the eternal city (this, I must confess, was not entirely a coincidence). We arrived in the city late on a Saturday evening, the night before the game and all the ticket offices were shut as was the club shop.

The next day, my wife’s priority, quite rightly and naturally, was sightseeing but mine was to obtain a ticket. By midday, and with several hours of sightseeing already completed, we arrived at the Roma store where match day tickets could be purchased. I waited patiently in a ticket queue that was comprised mostly of tourists. When I got to the front I said: “uno ticket for today’s calcio, grazie.” I like to use a bit of the local lingo where possible.

The Italian woman selling the tickets looked at me and smiled. In that moment I presumed that she was a) impressed by my use of Italian, b) charmed by my Scottish accent, or c) a combination thereof. Looking back I think the smile probably arose from option d) “I know you really want to see this game and thus you’re going to accept the ticket price I’m about to quote you.”

€110.

For a moment I was speechless, in both Italian and English. I turned, crestfallen, to my wife. “I know,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a ticket.” Her reply astonished me. “Yes, you can. I know you really want to see this game.” She and the Italian woman smiled at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.”

With a slightly trembling hand I offered up my credit card. Still smiling, the Italian woman explained that the only tickets left were in the most expensive part of the stadium. Later, inside the stadium I judged by the empty seats in other areas that this may have been a lie. I left the official Roma store with a slightly dazed sensation and clutching what felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

Roma lost 3-1 and never offered a refund.

photo 1 (1)

That is the most I’ve ever paid for a ticket. Many European clubs have a steeply tiered pricing system with very expensive tickets at one end and very affordable ones at the other. Of course only the biggest clubs with the best players can operate those sorts of pricing policies, other clubs have to be more creative and make more of an effort.

Living abroad, I very rarely get to see my home town team Dundee United these days. The last time I was at Tannadice was on New Year’s Day this year when my brother and I went to see United versus Aberdeen. I paid £25 for the ticket. Scotland in January is generally very wet and very cold.

So it was for the Aberdeen game. We shivered through a 2-1 defeat with the pie and tea providing only a brief respite from the cold and ran back to the car through torrential rain. Happy New Year! In my view £25 is too much to pay for the quality that’s currently being offered in Scotland’s top flight and I wouldn’t be inclined to pay it regularly. I say that despite the fact that my club are currently doing an excellent job of bringing through exciting young players and adopting an entertaining style of play.

photo 2 (1)

To be fair though to United and many other Scottish clubs, they are making some effort to contain prices and improve the experience for fans. United offer some good discounts for kids and seem to do a good job of engaging with season ticket holders. They’ve also started doing some reciprocal deals with other clubs for specific matches to lower prices for away fans.

When I lived in Scotland I was a regular at Hampden for Scotland games. Sadly following Scotland has mostly involved heartache for my entire adult life – I was 17 the last time we qualified for a major championship. The team’s recent resurgence under Gordon Strachan has offered the greatest hope in the entire period since.

It was therefore hugely disappointing that the recent European Championship qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox was played against a backdrop of so many empty seats. The cheapest ticket for the game was £35 and 17,000 empty seats was a stark illustration of how badly the SFA have misjudged the pricing policy for these games. The cheapest tickets for next month’s friendly against England are priced at £50. I think the motivation for staging that game is pretty obvious.

The tartan army have reacted quite furiously to all of this. Online petitions have been launched and t-shirts with the slogan Shafting Fans Always are apparently selling well (people are obviously prepared to pay money to protest at how much money they’re being asked to spend). Recent years have seen quite a lot of progress in supporters taking a stand and getting together to represent themselves.

A lot of clubs have responded, at least to an extent, and given fans more of a role in how they are run. Germany is rightly held up as a model in this regard but there is hope in the UK with the work being done by organisations such as Supporters Direct (http://www.supporters-direct.org/)

Just as the influence of workers has weakened with the erosion of trade union power so the influence of fans has been diluted at many clubs for whom ticket revenue makes up a much smaller proportion of overall revenue than it once did. Football supporters are among the most loyal groups of people anywhere, far more loyal than the average employee or customer is to any particular company.

That loyalty is not without limits though. Any club or football association that continually takes fans for granted will eventually pay a heavy price, when those supporters stop doing so.

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?