Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

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.

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.