Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

Fearless and Focussed – Strachan’s Scots Go Down Fighting in Dortmund

A closer look at how Scotland fared against the World Champions

By Johnny Connelly

As Thomas Muller’s looping header sailed over the head of David Marshall and nestled into the back of the net after just 18 minutes at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, The Tartan Army could have been forgiven for thinking a hiding was about to ensue.

What happened next was truly remarkable. A wounded Scotland side were galvanised. Facing a German World Cup-winning side who steamrollered past everything in their path in Brazil, the Scots matched their opponents, and delivered a performance that made Joachim Lowe’s side work much harder than they’d ever have anticipated. A stunning equaliser from Ikechi Anya set the cat among the pigeons, and at one point Scotland even looked as though they’d go on to win the match. The pressure finally told, with 20 minutes left on the clock, as golden boot winner Thomas Muller bundles home the winner.

There’s no disputing that collectively, the Scotland team’s effort was herculean; but where in particular did Strachan’s men shine? Where could they improve? And where were they simply not good enough? – Hitthebyline takes a closer look…

The Goalkeeper

David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring

David Marshall at full stretch, as Muller opens the scoring

 

With the likes of Allan McGregor, Matt Gilks, and Craig Gordon breathing down his neck, David Marshall should draw confidence from the fact that Gordon Strachan has once again handed him the no.1 jersey. Sadly for Scotland, this confidence seems in short supply. Marshall has come a long way since he was given a baptism of fire, being thrown on at half time as a young boy for Celtic against Barcelona. He’s cut his teeth for many years in the English Championship, and won many plaudits as he kept Cardiff in with a fighting chance of staving off relegation from the English Premiership last year. Despite coming such a long way, Marshall still shows a worrying lack of confidence and fails to command his area adequately.

He was always going to have a busy night against the world champions, but he did himself no favours after being beaten by a looping header early on that caught him flat-footed. A string of world-class saves followed from Marshall, in the first half, and the second. As much as this undoubtedly redeemed his early mistake, it must frustrate the manager, knowing that his goalkeeper is so close to having the whole package.

Marshall rarely looked troubled by anything the Germans had to throw at him in terms of shot stopping, and could do little to prevent their 2nd goal. However, the former Celtic ‘keeper looked shaky from cross balls, and seemed to be happiest when his defence were organising themselves, rather than when he was forced to reprimand them at any time.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Football is a cruel game. Marshall made one mistake against the world champions, but was made to pay for it. A lesser goalkeeper would have conceded 3 or 4 on the night. The only person Marshall needs to convince that he’s a world class goalkeeper is himself.
If Marshall can convince himself he’s a world class goalkeeper, he’ll be an asset to this campaign. If not, then someone else will receive the no.1 jersey, sooner rather than later.

The Defence

All Hans on deck - Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany

All Hans on deck – Grant Hanley had his work cut out for him against Germany

 

Attacking line-ups don’t come any more formidable than that of Germany. André Schürrle, Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Müller tormented the Scots back 4. Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Grant Hanley and Steven Whittaker faced the most formidable of opponents, but in most respects, did as well as could be expected. Collectively, they fought hard, held shape, kept their cool, and threw themselves infront of shots and crosses from the first whistle until the last.

Strachan clearly values pace in his side, particularly on the flanks. This is probably why we’ve seen so much of Alan Hutton, and on Sunday night’s form, he looks like the correct choice. Never a player with a great deal of finesse, but Hutton’s ability to get from box to box at pace is invaluable to the team. He rarely looked out of place from start to finish.

Martin and Whittaker did well, without doing anything spectacular. A disciplined performance will be what was asked of them, and very few people would argue that they didn’t deliver that. Grant Hanley seems to be a player that divides the Tartan Army. For the most part, a hard-working, no-nonsense defender, but at times his lapses in concentration seem to lead him into trouble. Hanley’s tendency to give away needless fouls or be caught out of position has costed Scotland in the past, and continued to cause problems against Germany.

Hitthebyline Rating – 7/10: The central defensive partnership for Scotland has been a pain point for many years, and it doesn’t quite look as though it’s been cracked just yet. Strachan has his side well-drilled, but if there’s one area of the field the side could do with strengthening, it’s in the centre of defence.In terms of the performance against the Germans, there’s not much to complain about. The work rate was correct throughout, and the discipline was good for the most part.

 

The Midfield

Anya slots past Neuer

Anya slots past Neuer

 

If Scotland were going to contest the game well against Germany, a strong midfield performance was required. This was delivered overall, but the diversity in performance standard was more apparent in midfield, than in any other area of the park. Ikechi Anya, James Morrison, Charlie Mulgrew, Darren Fletcher, and Barry Bannan lined up in an unusual midfield 5.

It hasn’t taken Ikechi Anya long to establish himself as a firm fans favourite. With only a handful of caps to his name, he’s already bagged a few goals, and never fails to get the fans up off their seats. In that respect, It was business as usual for Anya against Germany. The Watford wing-back was the standout Scot on the field. He covered every blade of grass for the full 90 minutes; battling hard against the German attackers, passing & moving well, skipping past German defenders, and running more than half the length of the park to slot home a well-earned equaliser. Anya’s passion, skill, energy and pace are unparalleled in the Scotland squad. Whether Scotland qualify for Euro 2016 or not could be in no small part, down to the form of Ikechi Anya.

James Morrison spent much of the game chasing shadows. He is unquestionably a dogged, hard-working midfielder, but looked a little over-awed by the occasion at times. Instances of slack-passing and poor decision making were peppered throughout his performance, but Morrison remained resolute, and continued to work hard.

Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew looked out of sorts from the first whistle to the last. I’m not sure what’s happened to the experienced dead-ball specialist over the summer, but for whatever reason, the player’s form has dropped drastically. Mulgrew looked sluggish, and couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. His distribution wasn’t up to its usual standard, and moments of frustration crept in, which ultimately led to a yellow, then red card. Not a good night for Charlie.

The return of a natural leader like Fletcher buoyed the support, and this definitely had an effect on the team. The Manchester United man looked a cut above the rest. He was composed, fearless in the challenge, and sprayed passes around with ease. Fitness still seems to be an issue for Fletcher, as he was subbed off for James McArthur in the second half, but the fans will have seen enough to unanimously agree that Fletcher will be one of the first names on the team sheet for the foreseeable future.

Busy doing nothing would be a fair summary of Barry Bannan’s evening. Always running? Yes, but never any end product. Bannan has unquestionable talent, but for some reason, the Scotland fans have yet to see the best of it. At just 24, there is hope that he’ll mature into a big game player for his country, but if his first 18 caps are anything to go by, this maturity could be some way off. The Crystal Palace midfielder succeeded in making a nuisance of himself against the Germans. An abundance of pace serves him well, but a tendency to be caught in two minds seems to crop up more often than Gordon Strachan would like. Another so-so performance by Bannan saw him hooked for Wigan’s Shaun Maloney. Strachan does seem to have faith in the player, but there will come a time when he’ll look for this faith to be repaid.

Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10: Stunning performances from Anya and Fletcher were juxtaposed with Mulgrew’s miserable showing. Bannan and Morrison had decent enough games, but could have done so much more. Scotland have plenty options in midfield, with McArthur and Maloney pushing for a starting place, as well as the likes of Scott Brown and James Forrest on the road to recovery.The players Strachan has at his disposal in this area of the field have experience at the very highest level, and could be hugely significant for the Euro 2016 campaign.

 

The Forwards

On the run - Naismith chases a wayward pass

On the run – Naismith chases a wayward pass

…or, forward, as the case was against Germany. Everton’s white-hot Steven Naismith had the unenviable task of being the lone striker against a usually water-tight Germany defence. The ex-Kilmarnock and Rangers frontman didn’t disappoint. Naismith has slotted in seamlessly to replace the tireless runner that was Kenny Miller. His work ethic was exactly what was required to cause problems against Germany, and the striker was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet in the second half after snatching at a few chances. Naismith has developed well over the past few seasons, and with a little more exposure in the English Premier League, should continue to improve. Strachan made the decision to switch Naismith for another English Premier League-based Scot, in Steven Fletcher. Fletcher lived up to his exorbitant price tag, making an immediate impact to slot a beautifully weighted pass through to Anya for the equaliser. Fletcher’s physical edge boosted Scotland’s attacking options. The big striker fought hard in the air, and held the ball up well for supporting midfielders, but could do little to reverse the fate of Strachan’s men on the night.


Hitthebyline Rating – 8/10:
Both Naismith and Fletcher were terrific. They battled hard against superior opposition, and were unlucky to come away on the losing side. With Naismith’s terrier like pressing of the ball, and Fletcher’s physical, yet intelligent play being at the disposal of Scotland, the real shame was that both players didn’t get the chance to play together against the Germans.  Scotland have very little else to call upon in the striking department beyond these two players but their commitment and ability will serve their country well on the quest towards Euro 2016 qualification, and beyond.

Why Celts Shouldn’t Be So Keane on Roy

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By Johnny Connelly

So Neil Lennon’s reign at Celtic is already a distant memory, and with the Champions League qualifiers just weeks away, the Parkhead faithful nervously await the announcement to unveil his successor.

Several names have been batted around – Owen Coyle, Henrik Larsson, David Moyes, Malky Mackay, and Michael Laudrup to name a few. There seems to be no obvious choice lying in wait to take over from Lennon. It looks like even the bookies are somewhat in the dark on this one, but if their current favourite, Roy Keane ends up landing the job, I fear that the Celtic board may have made a grave error.

There have been few more fiery and controversial characters in British football than Roy Keane over the past 20 years. Undoubtedly a world-beater of a player at his peak; but the Irishman became a figure of ridicule throughout the twilight of his playing days, and arguably more so into his management career.

Celtic pride themselves on cultural acceptance, sportsmanship, and a positive moral flamboyancy from the support. Does Keane fit the mould to carry on these traditions? His well-documented instances of emotional spontaneous combustion would indicate that he doesn’t.

Amongst other things, Keane walked out on his country during the World Cup, walked out on Manchester United after a disagreement with the man who made him, and ended Alf Inge Haaland’s career with a tackle that can only be described as savage.

Do Celtic really want a man who condones this thuggish behaviour to be calling the shots at the club?

I’ll give Keane his due. During his first season as manager at Sunderland as manager, he did well. He took the club from 2nd bottom in the Championship, to end up winning the league, all in one season. Just as things were looking good for the current Republic of Ireland Assistant, he continued on a phenomenal spending spree from the previous season, assembling a huge squad in a less than frugal manner.

His splurges at Sunderland included:

  • £8m on Anton Ferdinand
  • £9m on Craig Gordon
  • £6m on Kenwyne Jones
  • £5.5m on Kieran Richardson
  • £2.5m on El-Hadji Diouf
  • £4m on Andy Reed
  • £4.5m on George McCartney
  • £5m on Michael Chopra

In total, he spent over £75m in just over two seasons, adding 39 players to the Sunderland roster. How would a manager that spends so recklessly cope with stringent budget of around £5/6m per season at Celtic, bearing in mind that a £3m outlay on a player that doesn’t turn out to be a first team regular is considered as a catastrophe?

Keane’s demise at Sunderland came about thanks to a 7-1 skelping at the hands of Everton, a 4-1 trouncing by Bolton, a 2-2 draw with Northampton, and a run of five losses from six Premiership games. Keane managed to shoe-horn in a spat with the FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, (calling him “a clown”), a fall out with club chairman Niall Quinn, and a war of words with majority shareholder Ellis Short, before eventually resigning, leaving Sunderland languishing in 18th position in the Premiership.

The Irishman was out of the game for just two months before taking over as manager of Ipswich with a view to guiding them back to the Premiership. A series of weak signings, including Martin Fulop, Grant Leadbitter, David Healy, and Daryl Murphy scuppered any hopes of the Tractor Boys making it back to the big time. Keane’s side managed to draw an astounding 20 matches in the league, which saw them finish in 15th place. His next (and final) season saw things go from bad to worse. In a season where the club were expected to challenge for promotion, Keane guided them to a lowly 21st place, sitting behind the likes of Doncaster Rovers and Barnsley, before he was sacked in December of 2011.

Keane had been out in the managerial wilderness since then, before Martin O’Neill appointed him as Republic of Ireland’s Assistant Manager. In his only two experiences as a club manager, his record compares unfavourably against the likes of Steve Bruce, and Peter Reid at Sunderland (Premiership), as well as Joe Royle, and Jim Magilton at Ipswich.

He has no experience managing in Scotland. He has no experience managing in Europe. He has no experience working on a tight budget. When we factor in all these things, it’s hard to imagine how his name is in contention for any job, let alone the Celtic hotseat.

Who knows which way Celtic will turn as they seek Neil Lennon’s successor. They have plenty of options at their disposal, but if they want to continue a tradition of success, financial prudence, and universal appeal, then surely Roy shouldn’t be the bhoy for them.

Was David Moyes Doomed from Day 1?

By Johnny Connelly
David Moyes during his time at Manchester United

Moyes – Down and Out

 

Any last lingering doubts that David Moyes would continue as manager of Manchester United were quashed in one fell swoop, as the news broke this morning that the Scotsman would be relieved of his duties, just 10 months into a 6 year contract.

United fans were quietly confident when Moyes replaced the seemingly untouchable Sir Alex Ferguson less than a year ago. Since then, pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong; but to what extent can David Moyes be held directly responsible for what has been a catastrophic season?

There were several key factors that made this season the worst in Manchester United’s Premiership history, not least of all, the tired looking squad of players that David Moyes inherited. From back to front, the Manchester United squad of August 2013 was weak. Both De Gea and Lindegaard look unconvincing in big games, while the back 4 continued to rely on players like Evra, Vidic and Ferdinand, who are well past their peak. Their famous midfield, once boasting the likes of a youthful Giggs, Keane, Scholes and Beckham; fell from grace, turning to Cleverly, Young, Nani and an ageing Carrick. In the striking department, they now cling to a want-away Van Persie, a hot & cold Rooney, and a bang average Danny Welbeck.

To think that Sir Alex Ferguson guided that ailing squad to the Premiership title by a margin of 11 points isn’t so much impressive as it is miraculous. Had Fergie stayed on another season, would he be able to replicate this feat? I sincerely doubt it. United had been on the decline for several years, arguably since around 2009 when world-beaters like Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez opted for pastures new. Any big signings since then (such as Van Persie) seemed to come out of desperation rather than as part of any great master-plan.

David Moyes took the reins after around five years of chronic under-investment. His first summer transfer window needed to be a whirlwind of inbound activity. Perhaps around five or six world-class players on the right side of 30 were required to inject new life into United; but as we all know, it didn’t pan out that way. Leighton Baines, Cesc Fabregas, Mesut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski were all targeted, but Moyes’ United couldn’t table a bid enough close enough to wrestle these top players away from their respective clubs. Was this the fault of Moyes? Or did the Manchester United hierarchy believe that Moyes could continue to run Fergie’s threadbare squad on fumes?

On transfer deadline day, Moyes delved into the transfer market to panic buy Marouane Fellani. In what proved to be a sign of things to come, the transfer was an expensive disaster. Fellani had served Moyes well at Everton, but since his £27.5m switch to Old Trafford, he’s looked clumsy, cumbersome, and out of his depth. Moyes could argue that if he’d been allocated a proper war-chest to turn the club around, he could have secured some of his A-list targets; but I doubt there’s anything he could say to defend the procurement of his one-paced afro-headed Belgian midfielder.

With the first transfer window being written off as a failure in the eyes of the concerned fan-base, the next judge of Moyes’ credentials would be his choice in players to trust and invest in. Moyes came under fire throughout the first half of the season for not giving Shinji Kagawa a regular start, particularly when Van Persie picked up an injury. An ever-changing back four also seemed to lead to a lack of stability, so much so that the team’s form began to suffer. Perhaps the club’s main sellable asset, Wayne Rooney, was misfiring too. He struggled for fitness, made noises about leaving the club, and managed a haul of just 17 goals across the whole season (just 1 goal off his worst ever for United). Rooney could have been sold. It’d have been no surprise if he commanded a transfer fee of £30-40m, which could have been used to fund a bid to secure a striker on the way up.

Instead, Rooney was offered a new 5-year contract, on a reported wage of £300,000 per week. Rooney understandably signed the contract, but his form didn’t noticeably improve. Instead of a waning Rooney on £300,000 per week, would the club’s needs have been better served by securing three top players on around £100,000 per week? Was Moyes in control during the Rooney contract talks? It’s hard to tell.

One thing Moyes didn’t have (because let’s face it, only one man does), was the Fergie factor. Sir Alex’s uncanny ability to turn average players into world beaters, to upset the most astronomical of odds, and to make players fight for him with every fibre of their being is what makes him arguably the greatest football manager ever. Moyes was never going to live up to Ferguson’s legacy, but the manner in which he failed in terms of getting his players to fight for him verged on embarrassing.

For whatever reason, Manchester United’s big players didn’t fight for Moyes in the same manner as they fought for his predecessor. Anytime a United side under Sir Alex lost, they’d go down with a roar. Under Moyes, all too often this season, they’ve gone down with a whimper.

As the manager of such an illustrious club, Moyes must shoulder some of the blame for losing 11 times in the league, but Gary Neville poignantly defended him today when he referred back to his own playing days.

Neville said: “When I think back to any time we lost a match at United, never once did I come off and think (about Sir Alex) ‘You lost us that one boss’.”

True enough, matches are won and lost with players, not managers. United’s sluggish squad can have few complaints about finishing behind Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal; but they should be asking serious questions of themselves when it comes to some of the losses they suffered against ‘lesser’ clubs.

With all due respect to these clubs, should Everton (home and away), Stoke, Sunderland, Swansea, Spurs, Newcastle, and West Brom all be recording fairly straightforward wins over the Champions of England? Manchester United are stronger than all of these sides on paper, but they’ve all beaten United this year. Either the manager has been wildly inept with his tactics, the players in red shirts were failing to give 100% for the team, or a combination of both.

The romantic notion of Manchester United staying true to the legacy of their most successful manager by allowing him to select another fiery Scottish manager as his replacement hasn’t panned out as planned, but in retrospect, it’s possible that Moyes’ sacking could be a mistake.

The United hierarchy gained many a plaudit for choosing Moyes over a big name foreigner, and were also praised for repeatedly defending Moyes’ disastrous run of results by alluding to the fact the club were going through a reconstructive period. Where now for that patience from the board?

It was only a year or so ago that Brendan Rodgers was being touted for the sack, now look at the transformation in his Liverpool side. The older Red Devils fans will remember Sir Alex’s woeful first season. Fergie’s neck was saved by a late goal to win the F.A Cup, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Would it have taken something as frivolous as an F.A Cup win to save Moyes? Could he have gone on to rack up 20 years or so of glory? We’ll never know now.

During his farewell speech Sir Alex famously addressed the fans, saying: “Your job now is to back our new manager…”

10 months on, it turns out that the fans, the players, and the hierarchy have all disobeyed Fergie’s instructions.

Today not only signals the end of David Moyes’ woeful time in the Old Trafford dugout; but it also signals the end of Manchester United’s long reign as the shining light of football clubs in Europe. The end of Moyes’ tenure will forever be pinpointed as the landmark moment when United steered away from the moralistic crusade of legacy building; and conformed to the hollow pursuit of financial gain through unscrupulous performances in bloated competitions where the wishes of the fans ebb ever further away from the ethos of the club.

Tim Lovejoy: Football Cretin

By Johnny Connelly

While wading through tedious online football news feeds today in search for some subject matter that differentiated even slightly from the big question, ‘who will Woy take to Bwazil?’, I stumbled across a much needed and brutally honest shot in the arm from the When Saturday Comes archives.

As an avid reader of football books, particularly those recommended by WSC, my eye was drawn to this latest offering, salvaged beautifully from the back catalogue of the popular off-the-wall football magazine’s review section.

My eyebrows raised in disbelief when the book in question for this review was an autobiography (of sorts) from smarmy former Soccer AM host, Tim Lovejoy. 

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Yes, that classic paperback that all football hipsters just couldn’t do without, ‘Lovejoy on football’. My heart sank for a brief moment, had WSC sold its soul to the devil? Endorsing something straight from the quill of a patterless John Terry-lover come cooking show host is tantamount to a golden handshake with Lucifer himself in the eyes of any football fan with even half a brain.

Thankfully, the true nature and purpose of the book review sets in early on. Phew.

Without spoiling the full review, critic Taylor Parkes hits the nail on the head when he describes these bound sheets of drivel as: part witless musing, and one more triumph for the crass stupidity rapidly replacing culture in this country. Hopelessly banal and nauseatingly self-assured, smirkingly unfunny, it’s a £300 T-shirt, a piss-you-off ringtone, a YouTube clip of someone drinking their mate’s vomit.”

I doubt even if Shakespeare had been around today, (and happened to share a fondness for the beautiful game), he’d have found a more encapsulating and accurate few lines of prose to portray the sheer piffle that Lovejoy puts across when discussing football, or anything else for that matter.

The delightfully savage review, in all its glory can be read here.

If you’re looking for the perfect birthday or Christmas present for that thicko football fan you so unfortunately have to endure through family or work commitments on a regular basis, then look no further. 

For The Love of Ledley

Hoops fans should shed no tears over the departed Welshman

By Johnny Connelly

Joe Ledley in his Celtic days

Here today, gone tomorrow. Ledley sought pastures new

In the modern day soap opera that is football in this country, fans have learned the hard way that everything that comes out the mouths of players and managers should be taken with a pinch of salt.

One day a player can be your hero; the next, he’s the enemy. Football by its very nature is a fickle beast. There’s an element of showmanship and bravado from players and managers around transfer window time, that’s a given. When I read Joe Ledley’s parting comments about his ‘beloved’ Celtic, I did begin to wonder if he managed to articulate them with a straight face.

After a tedious potential contract extension saga, Ledley packed his bags, leaving the Champions League behind, opting instead for a relegation dogfight at Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace.

The Welshman was quoted as saying he, “didn’t’ want to leave”, before subsequently doing so. Players come, and players go, but are the supporters in this country perhaps guilty of naivety when it comes to choosing their heroes?

When it comes to the affections of the fans, Ledley was debatably the most popular player in the squad. In years gone by, a hero at a big club was defined by sublime ability and unwavering loyalty. Does Ledley fit this mould?

The likes of Paul McStay and Lubo Moravcik stayed at the Parkhead club until the end of their playing days. Italian giants Fiorentina moved for Artur Boruc, and it took the lure of Barca to prize a tearful Henrik Larsson from Parkhead. Celtic fans seem only too happy when a player moves on for a bigger opportunity; but perhaps some of them should grudgingly admit that to lose a player like Ledley to a smallish English Premiership club like Crystal Palace does leave something of a bad taste in their mouths.

Don’t get me wrong, Ledley was a terrific talent. A dogged, professional midfielder who rarely looked out of place at the highest level; but he was also reportedly the highest paid player in the squad (alongside Scott Brown), so he was well looked after, and enjoyed the adoration of the fans.

The new Palace signing seems to have been a likeable, honest character who wouldn’t say a bad word about Celtic or anyone at the club. That said, it sadly looks as though Ledley’s raison d’être is to make as much money as possible in his career, rather than chase silverware.

It’s clear that Ledley ran down his contract at Cardiff to secure a big wage at Celtic, and ran down his contract at Celtic to better position himself for a move to Crystal Palace.

Playing for Celtic seems to be something that leaves a lasting effect on players. On his official twitter account, Ledley posted: “Thank you so much to all the fans for being so supportive throughout my time at Celtic. A truly amazing club”, and referred to the Parkhead faithful in a passionate sign off, tweeting: “Best Fans ever, will miss you all!”

Days into his move down south, he delved a little deeper about the move. He said: “It was a good deal for Celtic because they got some money, and it was a good deal for me too.”

Given the phenomenal sums of money that are thrown at top players these days, it’s hard to judge them. These guys are people too, they’re not made of stone, and it takes a lot to turn down an increase of several thousand pounds per week (and a rather juicy signing on fee).

Although players like Ledley shouldn’t be emotionally crucified for chasing money instead of trophies; they shouldn’t be held in the same high regard as the real heroes of yesteryear either. Ledley gave a good account of himself at Celtic, but was paid handsomely for it, and is in no way irreplaceable. His dignified and professional approach to his on the field exerts will ensure his lasting memory at Celtic Park is a positive one, but as far as hero status is concerned, he’ll always be left short.

In every crisis, there is opportunity, and with every big player that’s left a big club in Scotland, scope for an even greater player to fill his boots is created.

Shed no tears Hoops fans. A top earner has left, and the next chapter of your glorious club is ready to be written.

Killie’s Prodigal Son Could Seal Top 6 Finish

By Johnny Connelly

Alexei Eremenko

Alexei Eremenko – The key man?

As the eyes and ears of Scottish football fans turned towards Parkhead in expectance of an injection of excitement to the transfer window in this Scotland; the attention turned to the Ayrshire coast as Finnish international Alexei Eremenko secured an unexpected switch back to Kilmarnock.

Killie’s talisman playmaker of the 2010-2011 season joined Allan Johnstone’s men until the end of the season, and his technical ability has sparked hopes of a top six finish, as well as a bit more excitement in general at Rugby Park.

First time around, it was then manager Mixu Paatelainen who used his homeland contacts to procure Eremenko on loan from Metalist Kharkiv. The midfield dynamo wasted little time in making his mark, scoring the winner on his debut against St Mirren with a tantalising free kick.

After the match, Eremenko said: “ I made some good passes at the start of the game which gave me confidence. It was an okay performance from me, but I can even play much better than this.”

He wasn’t kidding. Eremenko went on to light up what was then the SPL, carving out a place in Scottish football folklore as potentially the most gifted player to grace a Kilmarnock shirt in 20 years.  He scored a handful of goals that season, and transformed Killie’s attacking play with his ability to split defences with precision passes.

His skills drew crowds and plaudits, so much so that both Celtic and Rangers made enquiries about acquiring the player’s services. A big money move to Rubin Kazan ensued, but he failed to hold down a place in the team, presumably as a result of the options available thanks to the club’s vast wealth.

Eremenko’s record for the Finland national team (59 caps and 14 goals) also proves that the silky flair player can perform at the highest level, and now has invaluable experience that would benefit any club in Scotland.

Killie currently sit 8th in the SPFL. They’ve had an inconsistent season so far, and are widely considered as safe from relegation, but with Kris Boyd having netted 15 times so far, the introduction of an attacking playmaker like Eremenko could push him up over the 20 goal mark, and move Killie into the top half of the table.

With any luck Eremenko’s return will bring about an increase in crowds at Rugby Park, but at the very least, his sublime skills will improve the profile of our league overall.

During his last loan spell, Eremenko helped guide the Ayrshire club to a comfortable 5th placed finish in the SPL. There’s a bit of work to do to replicate that feat again, but it’s far from impossible. Allan Johnstone’s men are edging away from the pack at the foot of the table as each week passes, and now find themselves just 9 points behind a wayward Dundee United who haven’t won any of their last 6 matches in the SPFL.

As Eremenko parted ways with Killie last time around, he made a promise to return. He is certainly a man of his word. This week he also said: “I don’t think I played against Kris (Boyd) when he was at Rangers the last time I was here. But I watched Saturday’s game with Inverness and I think I can make him score even more goals.”

Everyone at Kilmarnock will be hoping that he continues to be a man of his word, as this partnership with Boyd could make the difference between them finishing in the top and bottom 6 come May.

With just 8 games remaining before the split, the clock is ticking for Killie and Eremenko.

Extending An Olive Branch to Jorge Cadete

Is it time to kick-start a support network for ex-Celts?

by Celtic fan, Kes Devaal

Thanks to the boom & bust world we live in, all too frequently we’re hearing of people from all walks of life falling on financial hard times. At the tail end of last week, we learned that even former Celtic superstars aren’t exempt from this peril.

Jorge Cadete scores for Celtic

He puts the ball in the netty – Jorge Cadete at his peak

When the news broke that Jorge Cadete is now flat broke, moved back in with his parents, and living on benefits, I felt saddened.

As a Celtic fan, I remember Cadete’s playing days fondly, but I was shocked to see an element of the Hoops’ support reacted bitterly towards his misfortune. Comments on blogs and social media sites showed that there is a contingent of Celtic supporters that feel the manner in which Cadete left the club in some way justifies the player’s hardship now.

This is not the Celtic way, and I’m beginning to think that the club (both fans and officials) should look to create a support network for ex-players.

It was the late, great, Tommy Burns who brought Jorge Cadete to Celtic, back in the mid 90’s. Burns inherited a wounded Celtic who were limp competition to a dominant high spending Rangers side. The fans suffered through the disappointment and turbulence of the Brady and Macari years, but Burns injected hope and excitement back into Celtic with a flamboyant style of play, and by attracting players with the boisterous dynamism of Jorge Cadete.

The fact that this period yielded limited silverware seemed almost insignificant at the time, as our beloved Celtic were back, scoring goals, playing lucid, attacking football, and for the first time since the late 80’s, challenging a stellar Rangers side.

Cadete arrived at Celtic with a CV that failed to fill Hoops fans with optimism. The Sporting Lisbon striker was on loan at Brescia, and managed just a single goal for them in a calendar year, before Burns made the move to bring him to Celtic. He hand’t kicked a ball in 5 months, yet his debut against Aberdeen was unforgettable…

The Portuguese international came off the bench to net the fifth in a demolition of Aberdeen at Celtic Park, and went on to net 34 times in 44 appearances the following season. Cadete was easily the most exciting Celtic striker since the days of Brian McClair and Charlie Nicholas. Complete with iconic spaghetti haircut and unmistakeable celebration, and goals-a-plenty, Cadete soon became a hero.

I appreciate that the nature of Cadete’s departure at the time left many Celtic fans feeling a bit raw and generally let down, so it’s understandable that some might want to stay detached from his unfortunate circumstances. I also appreciate that it’s a players responsibility to manage their money responsibly during their career. That said, it has made me ponder about what clubs can do, in particular, Celtic.

Wouldn’t it fit perfectly within the ethos of Celtic to put in place a structured support scheme to guide and support former players who’re in danger of falling on hard times?

By this I don’t mean writing cheques to further line their pockets, but investment advice, emotional support and an ongoing relationship with the club that could mutually benefit Celtic, the fans, and the former player.

The subsequent years since Cadete’s time at the club have been joyous for the most part. The magic of players like Cadete and managers like Burns played a huge part in the evolution of the club, a part that we must never forget.

Without question there have been thousands of Celtic fans down the generations who’ve carried the charitable/goodwill torch for the club with unconditional service. There are too many legitimate examples of this to mention, and that in the main remains intact. My concern is that there is a growing undercurrent of the Celtic support being selective.

In my opinion I sense there is a ‘pick & choose’ mantra amongst the Celtic diaspora of which ex Celts receive our support . Celtic Football Club, and the fans are relentless in broadcasting our proud all inclusive charitable ethos.

The mixed response to Jorge Cadete’s sad news however conflicts with that notion. There is a long list of ex-Celts whose careers at Paradise have maybe ended awkwardly, or where they have been a shade economical in engineering a sharp exit down London Road for more money elsewhere. Yet for reasons that remain unclear, these individuals seem immune to any criticism or hard feelings from the support.

Without sounding like some idealistic moral crusader,  I believe these servants to the club deserve a support mechanism. Making initial support, training, and professional advice available for them would show the football world that we genuinely are what the morally rich club that we say we are.

The relationship between the fans and the players we take on as heroes is a true loyal bond that stays with us for the entirety of our existence.

If Celtic truly are up there with Barca to be considered as “Més que un club” (More than a club), then perhaps we should start to prove it with gestures such as this one, showing undeniable and unconditional compassionate support.

Transfer Embargo Breaking Hearts

It’s time to let the Jambos sign players again

By Johnny Connelly

As the crippled Edinburgh club continue to battle against the odds on what feels like oh so many fronts, a glimmer of hope has emerged for their beleaguered fan base, as the SPFL board ponder a plea from Hearts’ administrators to allow them to sign players again.
Gary Locke’s side sit 20 points adrift at the bottom of Scotland’s elite division with just 16 games to go. They are fighting tooth and nail in every match, but when you look at the threadbare and inexperienced shell of a playing squad they have at their disposal, it’s clear that the club (and particularly the fans) have been punished in a draconian manner.

Tynecastle Stadium

A club in crisis – Hearts are amid their toughest fight yet

Unless the SPFL revoke this transfer embargo, Scotland will almost certainly lose one of its biggest clubs via relegation to the Championship. What a sorry state of affairs for this SPFL season if the status quo remains in place. We’re only halfway through January, and you could safely assume Celtic will run away with the title, and Hearts will fall foul of relegation. Unless something outrageous happens, the second half of our currently sponsorless Premiership is in danger of being a damp squib.

Understandably, rules and protocols are there to be followed; but with the evolution of our game, they’re arguably there to be challenged and improved upon too. Barely a season goes past without a handful of proposals at least being discussed. Everything from summer football to disciplinary procedures is up for discussion, and we’ll continue to fashion our game into an improved product over time.

There are always exceptions to any rule, and given the bizarre circumstances surrounding the downfall of Hearts, it’s clear that an exception for their transfer embargo should be considered.

Punishing a club for going into administration is understandable. It promotes financial prudence, and makes an example of clubs who’ve been reckless with things like inflated transfer fees, and bloated wage bills.

Hearts went into administration in June 2013, but the club’s finances have been questionable for years, all thanks to the disastrous tenure of Vladimir Romanov. If administration is supposed to be a punishment for a club, then I’d argue that Hearts (staff, players, and fans) have been receiving something of a punishment of sorts for the most part ever since Romanov seized control of the Gorgie club back in 2004.

Despite a spattering of highlights and a positive start in the early days, the Romanov era will long be remembered as one of the most catastrophic and farcical saga’s that any club in Scotland has ever had to endure.

Since going into administration, Hearts have had to unceremoniously part with the lion’s share of their first team squad. The fans have been asked to put their hands in their pockets time after time to keep the club’s hand to mouth existence going, and they’ve done so without question.

They continue to be called upon financially, turning up in good numbers and in strong voice to support their club its hour of need. Gary Locke is currently struggling to get enough bodies together to fill his starting 11 and subs bench. Just a few free transfers in January (perhaps  the likes of Rudi Skacel or Andrew Driver) could make all the difference, and could give the Jambos a sporting chance of surviving in the Premiership.

Yes, the fans have been punished by way of administration, but they’ve been suffering all along since 2004. Sporting integrity and common sense in this case show that the rules need looked at again, as Hearts’ punishment doesn’t befit their crimes.

Celts in Europe – Was it really so awful?

by Johnny Connelly

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As a dejected Celtic side trudged off after a 6-1 skelping against the majestic Barcelona, Hoops fans voiced their anger and frustration at what many of them judged to be an inferior and lacklustre performance by their heroes.

Now that the dust has settled, was it really so awful? Both in terms of the performance on the night, and the effort given in the Champions League overall?

True enough, Barcelona demolished Celtic. Not since 1965 have Celtic conceded six goals in a single match; but on the night, what could have been done to stop the rampant Catalan side?

Twitter, Facebook, and football phone-in frequenters were aghast at Neil Lennon’s team selection, (after the match of course). What a fine thing hindsight is. The most frequent questions asked circulated around the omission of Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, and Anthony Stokes.

I’m sorry, but does anyone really believe that  the inclusion of any of these players would have reigned-in the likes of Xavi and hat-trick-hero Neymar? Celtic were played off the park, in every area of the park. Surely there’s no permutation of Neil Lennon’s current Celtic squad that could’ve changed the outcome of the game? The fact is, when Barca set the heather alight, the best teams in the world struggle restrain them.

If we’re truly honest, Celtic have rode their luck against Barcelona pretty much every time they’ve come up against them in modern history, even when they’ve managed to beat them. Particularly in the last handful of fixtures between the clubs, Barca have had the lion’s share of chances and territorial possession.  Brave, resilient performances from Celtic have helped keep these matches tight, with any defeats being inflicted by the odd goal, but given the gulf between the sides and the control held by the Spanish giants, a heavy drubbing was always a possibility.

The expectation of Celtic fans is for their team to play well, contest every game, and win in style when it’s humanly possible. To achieve what they have in recent times in the Champions League is formidable. As much as this season’s Champions League campaign could be viewed as disappointing, Celtic have in no way been humiliated, when compared with the other  teams that finished bottom of their group in the competition.

Marseille, Copenhagen, Anderlecht, CSKA Moscow, and Real Sociedad for example all finished 4th. Nobody would dispute that these sides are major European entities, so there’s no shame in suffering a similar fate to them.

Although Celtic have previously reached the knockout stages, to do so this year seems to require major financial clout. When we compare Celtic’s first team wage budget to some of the sides that topped their groups, we begin to understand the David v Goliath nature of the task they face.

Celtic pay just over £300,000 every week on wages to their squad. This is by no means miserly, but Borussia Dortmund (top of Group F), pay almost three times as much. Chelsea pay more than six times more than Celtic in terms of wages, and Barcelona pay an astonishing, 11 times more than Celtic.

Perhaps a shift in mentality from the fans is required. Sadly, Celtic can’t be the world-beaters they were in the 60’s and 70’s. Since then it’s been a rollercoaster ride. For every triumph against Man Utd, Juventus, and Barcelona; there’s been an implosion against Neuchatel Xamax, Wacker Innsbruck, or Artmedia Bratislava.

Celtic are operating well on and off the field at the moment. A few key signings could give them the edge and excitement they long for. Ok, they won’t win the Champions League anytime soon, but 99% of clubs in Europe are in that same boat.

Crack a smile Hoops fans; your team are cruising to another league title, competing in Europe every year, and living within their means. There’ll be ups and downs; good times and bad. Sit back, and enjoy the ride.

A matter of faith for Neil Lennon

Do Pukki and Balde just need games?
 
By Johnny Connelly

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As Celtic crashed out of European football this week, much was made of their sloppy defending on the night; but the real issue throughout the campaign has been the lack of firepower in the final third.
 
Just two goals in their five group games is a worrying stat. That worrying stat becomes an alarming stat when you then remember that one of those goals was a penalty, and the other was a deflection. Whichever way you look at it, Celtic’s attacking presence has been sub-par for the Champions League.
 
After losing Gary Hooper in the summer, Neil Lennon knew he needed to sign at least one striker. He secured two, Teemu Pukki, and Amido Balde. 
 
Neither player has had a great run of games. They’ve both looked off the pace, and bereft of a killer instinct in the penalty box. This is undeniable, but would a significant run of games in the first team have changed things? 
 
The pressure to succeed at big clubs is huge, and Celtic are no different, but players are only human. It must be difficult coming in from a foreign league and being expected to start rattling in the goals. Admittedly, some players can do it, but others struggle. 
 
One example of a Celt that took a bit of time to settle rolls of the tongue, John Hartson. The big Welshman came to Celtic with a top pedigree, but he too looked out of sorts at the beginning of his Celtic career. Remarkably, it took Hartson 11 games in a Celtic jersey before he found the back of the neck. He then went on to become a legend and a hero for the Parkhead club.
 
Hartson started each of these 11 games, and his then manager, Martin O’Neill, put faith in the signing he made in order to succeed. 
 
To directly compare Pukki & Balde to a class act like Hartson verges on unfair, but perhaps the issue of faith in your signings does ring true. 
 
Since signing back in August, Pukki has started 9 from 16 games, and Balde has started just 2 from 18 games. From that you could assume that Balde has some way to go before he’s a first team regular, but even Pukki, with significantly more appearances, didn’t get a run of games longer than 4 games, and most of the games he missed have come in the Champions League (the very place he was signed to make a difference in).
 
Instead, Lennon has opted for the likes of Georgios Samaras, who despite his tenacious attitude, is a left-winger rather than a striker; and Anthony Stokes, who struggles at the highest level. 
 
The Celtic boss seems frustrated with his options, and he’s clearly unimpressed by his summer signings in that department. 

After the 3-0 home defeat to AC Milan, he said: “We’ve competed again tonight but just that quality at the top end of the pitch has caught up with us.”

 
“When the squad’s not as big as some other squads it does tend to bite you.
 
“If we’re going to look to the future and continue to play in the Champions League, we have to improve with the squad we have now and we have to improve on recruitment as well for next year.”
 
Celtic can’t go and sign a £10m-£15m, it would make no financial sense, so to try and make the most of a £2m-£3m player is the trick. 
There are alternatives. Putting faith in youth, or in domestic signings (would the likes of Billy McKay or Nadir Ciftci really do any worse for Neil Lennon than any of his current crop?) are always options. 
Only Lennon will know how he truly feels about the likes of Pukki and Balde. Only he will know in his mind whether he feels any merit in giving them a run of games to prove themselves, or whether they’ll be consigned to the room 101 of Celtic signings.