Forster or Hart? Roy decides…

Does Roy Have the Hart to Pick Forster?

By Johnny Connelly 

Image

Manchester City and England’s no.1, Joe Hart, added to his CV of calamity at the weekend by dropping another high profile clanger to gift Chelsea a late winner in the English Premier League.

All the while, Celtic’s man between the sticks continues to cruise through matches at a domestic level, and attract plaudits from all over Europe, most recently for his heroics against AC Milan, Barcelona, and Ajax.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for starters, Forster still seems to be about as far away from an England cap as ever.

The question is why? Surely it’s not a simple case of ignorance towards a top athlete because of the league he’s playing in?

Roy Hodgson’s England side have been uninspiring, although admittedly still churning out results in the qualifiers. Lapses in concentration from Joe Hart have historically put England under pressure, and given his current form, is it wise to trust a shaky pair of hands going into Rio 2014?

Who could forget his blunder against Scotland just a few months ago? His fumble against Southampton back in February? His corner flap to give Cardiff their first win over City in August? Or his misjudgement against Bayern Munich earlier in the month?

Any notion of replacing Hart was unthinkable last season, but suddenly the recurring errors have led to more than a few whispers of a less than guaranteed no 1 England jersey and on club form even Manuel Pellegrini is fighting to come up with excuses for Hart in the City goal.

In terms of realistic options for England, they have but three. John Ruddy, Ben Foster, or Fraser Forster. Three top goalkeepers, that much is clear, but for some reason Forster feels furthest away from the no.1 jersey.

There’s only so many times Forster can come up trumps in Champions League games, only to be fed lines like “we’re impressed with Fraser, and are watching his development.” Soon a time will come when the England manager has to come off the fence and make a call on his ability.

To choose Forster above any of the other potential suitors for the England no.1 jersey would be a brave decision. Elements of the English media and support believe their league to be the best in the world, so much so that to opt for a ‘keeper playing in Scotland would seemingly verge on an insult.

Forster has a proven big game mentality, and at just 25 years of age, has a good decade of top level football in him. Neil Lennon backs his goalkeeper to the hilt, and openly admits, “it’ll be impossible to keep the player here when he’s performing like that”.

Spanish star Xavi has also spoken of his admiration for the 6ft 7inch goalkeeper. The Barca talisman said: ‘I can’t say that I watch him every week – but when we have played Celtic he has shown that he is a world-class goalkeeper.

‘From what I have seen he has everything to succeed at a club like Barcelona – and with his Champions League performances for Celtic I am sure there will be more than one big club interested in him.’

All interest now turns to England’s upcoming friendlies with Chilie and Germany in November. The squad will be confirmed in the next few days, and given the non-competitive nature of the fixtures, Hodgson will never have a better chance to call-up or feature Forster, with little or nothing at stake.

Brave decisions by managers can be the difference between success and failure. Will Hodgson be brave enough to rise above the false stigma of the Scottish game to select Forster? We’ll find out soon…

 

Catch Up With The Football Show – SPFL Live Commentary – 02/11/13

Image

Missed the football yesterday? Catch up with all the action on Peter & Roughie’s Football Show. Peter Martin, Alan Rough, and Gordon Duncan provide live commentary from Celtic’s clash with Dundee United. Live updates also included from every match in the SPFL, including updates from yours truly as Terry Butcher’s Inverness Caley Thistle took on a resurgent Killie in the Highlands… 

Listen here.

Fletch Appeal

Strach saves the day, and Fletch could take us above and beyond

by Johnny Connelly

Image

If ever the influence of a single man was to be illustrated in the modern game of football, you’d need to go a fair distance to find a better example than the exhilarating start Gordon Strachan has made to the Scotland national squad. 

A matter of months ago, Strachan took over a Scotland side that was unquestionably on the ropes, with an apathetic support and a team verging on the dreaded ‘pot 5’ seeding position. Now, with a modest number of personnel changes, Scotland are resurgent, thanks to that insatiable, nippy belief Strachan has injected into the squad. 

In our last four competitive matches, we’ve won three (two of which were against the top seed in the group), and narrowly lost one. Strachan’s injection of belief into an ailing squad has shown just exactly what one man can do. This leads us to wonder, how much farther could we go with a top English Premiership striker firing on all cylinders. Enter, Steven Fletcher.

The big target man is now just days away from making his domestic return for Sunderland, and what a shot in the arm for Strachan’s men he’ll be if he stays injury free, and on top form for the national side. 

It’s forever been a complaint of the long suffering Tartan Army that we don’t have a world class striker (with the physical stature of Fletcher at least). The former Hibee’s Scotland career has been stunted due to disagreements with former managers, and long-term injuries, but we’re now ready to forget about all that, and get behind him, as he could be the man to fire us to Euro 2016. 

Throughout Fletcher’s career, he’s always been a goalscorer, and since his move to England, his rate has improved gradually, despite playing against increasingly difficult opposition.

Hibs – 156 apps, 43 goals (Goal every 3.6 games)

Burnley – 35 apps, 8 goals (Goal every 4.3 games)

Wolves – 61 apps, 22 goals (Goal every 2.7 games)

Sunderland – 31 apps, 12 goals (Goal every 2.5 games)

Scotland fans will be hoping and praying that this trend continues and transfers over to International level. 

His physical prowess and intelligence to read the game in that position will fill a void for Scotland that’s been there for over a generation. The introduction of that type of player gives us a threat in the air from set pieces, someone who can hold the ball up well, and someone who can bring other players into the game. 

The absence of that type of player has forced us to play pacey players as lone strikers, without any real physical dimension to our attacking play in the last third. Even against Croatia on Tuesday night, Strachan played a 5ft 10in Steven Naismith as something of a target man. Naismith, to give him his due, did incredibly well (as you’d expect with such a tenacious attitude to his play), but his talents in the side would ideally be utilised elsewhere. 

With Fletcher as the target man striker, players like Naismith, Jordan Rhodes and Shaun Maloney would ultimately feel the benefit. His ability to hold the ball up, and feed into a smaller, pacey striker/winger, could be the key to forging a successful striking partnership (something else we’ve lacked for a significant number of years).

At only 26, Fletcher’s best years are ahead of him. He’ll hopefully be coming to the peak of his powers for the next qualification campaign. He’s looking better all the time scoring more and more goals, and learning from experience in one of the best leagues in the world. He could be the key to our qualification hopes.

There’s much in the way of patience and hard work to follow for Scotland. It’ll be almost a year before we play another competitive match, but we all know, for Gordon Strachan, there’s no such thing as a Friendly. 

The fiery Scot will have his players pumped up to play USA in November, and whoever comes along before the Euro 2016 campaign kicks off. The Tartan Army will be in strong voice, the enthusiasm is brewing once more, and we could have a star striker to make all the difference.

Over to you Fletch.

 

Stand By Your Man

Why Saints Were Right To Have Faith In Danny Lennon

by Johnny Connelly

(as seen on PLZSoccer.com) – 09/10/13

Image

You could almost hear a faint knelling of a funeral bell, as the Grim Reaper sharpened his scythe and turned his damning gaze towards the managerial career of one, Danny Lennon at St Mirren just a few weeks ago.

The buzzards were circling; such is the intense nature of football in this country. A run of half a dozen poor results at the start of the season ensured that Danny Lennon was the red hot candidate to be the first manager in the SPFL to be sacked this season.

It was unanimous, there was no debate to be had. St Mirren were playing poorly, in rut you could say, and with Lennon at the helm, they were on the brink of being pulled into a relegation battle with crisis-stricken Hearts.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the Buddies picked up a spirited draw against Aberdeen, and a huge victory in a must-win fixture against Hearts. All of a sudden, the clouds from above St Mirren Park, and the football world begins to remember that (all things considered), Danny Lennon has done an excellent job as manager of the Paisley club.

St Mirren in recent years has been a club that budgets to finish 11th in the Scottish top flight. Under Lennon, the club have invested in a new stadium, achieved their highest league finish, and won their first major trophy in 26 years when they got their hands on the League Cup this year.  

By all accounts, that’s about as good as Danny Lennon could be expected to do, given the resources available to him. 

Prior to the Hearts game, if Lennon had been relieved of his duties, it’d have been far from the biggest shock in our game over the last few years. It would have been a foolish decision, as just a handful of matches can change everything. 

St Mirren may well get relegated this season, and on the other hand, they may well finish in the top six. It’s just too early to make any kind of concrete prediction of that magnitude. We’re just 9 games into a league season, and unless there’s a readymade Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho willing to take over, it makes little or no sense to light the blue-touch paper and instigate the uproar that ensues when a club sacks their manager. 

When Lennon was flying below the radar of scrutiny way back in August, Pat Fenlon was the man that bore the brunt of the sacking speculation. Yes, Hibs had a shocking start to the season, and yes, yet another Easter Road sacking wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of imagination, but just look at what can happen with a bit of time and support.

Fenlon’s men imploded to record a 9-0 aggregate defeat to Malmo, but now look at them. They are the form side in the SPFL, sitting in 5th place, just five points behind Inverness Caley Thistle in 2nd place, and they’ve lost just one of their last seven matches. 

The real scrutiny in football nowadays should be happening at the appointment stage, not after a club has committed to a long term deal with a new manager. The gaffer who currently finds his head nearest the guillotine is Kilmarnock’s Allan Johnstone, and perhaps rightly so.  Killie haven’t won a competitive match since 11th May, so the pressure on the management is understandable, and the patience placed in them won’t be inexhaustible. 

As much as there can be a right time to part company with a manager in some circumstances, the virtue of patience has historically been proven to pay more dividends than any knee-jerk sackings.

Can you imagine what would currently stand for the global institution that is Manchester United if they’d given Fergie the bullet after 6 months?  The biggest club in the world may never have reached their potential!

Conversely, the perils of knee-jerk sackings are all too apparent, especially in English football. The recent Paolo Di Canio debacle highlights this perfectly. Sunderland have hired and fired managers all too eagerly in recent times. Di Canio’s appointment came but a day after Martin O’Neill was relieved of his duties. The Sunderland board withstood criticism from all corners of their fan base for the original appointment, only to fire the manager after just 13 matches in charge.

St Mirren have done the right thing in backing Danny Lennon for the time being, and I sincerely hope the correct level of patience and faith is extended to all SPFL managers this season. Hibs, Hearts,  and Killie (amongst others) have experienced a turbulent few years, purely because they’ve gone through a drove of managers in that time. Hibs have had 4 managers in 5 years, Hearts have had 4 in 3 years, and Killie have had 3 in 3 years. 

Now, more than ever, a bit of patience, and dare I say it, common sense is required.

Make the right appointment, trust your judgement, and back your club to the hilt.

Scott Brown: A Worthy Celtic Captain?

by Johnny Connelly

Back in 2007, then Scotland Under-21 coach Rainer Bonhof warned that Scott Brown, despite his obvious talent, “needs to be calmed to avoid disciplinary problems”.

Almost seven years on, the German’s words seem to have gone unheeded.

On the one hand, Scott Brown displays all the qualities of a world-beater. He’s 110% committed, is full of pace, tackles hard, will run all night for his team, has an infectious personality, and presents a considerable attacking threat.

Sadly, there’s more.  There’s a seemingly unshakeable petulance too. So severe is this negative aspect of Brown’s play that it’s undermining his ability, so much so that some Hoops fans are beginning to wonder if the dynamic midfielder is even fit to wear the captain’s armband.

Image
Moment of madness: Brown kicks out at Neymar

Frustration, disappointment and anger resonated around Celtic Park in midweek when Scott Brown, in a moment of madness, foolishly swiped at Neymar, resulting in a straight red card, and the disintegration of any hopes Celtic had of taking any points from the Catalan giants.

Until that point, in keeping with Brown’s Jekyll and Hyde behaviour, the Scotsman was one of the best Celts on the park. His tireless running and positional discipline made life difficult for Barca. Celtic were always facing the improbable, but when Brown lashed out, the improbable became impossible.

Given the importance of the Barcelona match, surely a failing on the part of the captain in this way should set alarm bells ringing in Neil Lennon’s head. The role of captain at any club is a great honour, and is usually bestowed upon only those with the utmost levels of integrity and ability to lead the team on all fronts. Can you imagine the likes of Paul McStay, Tom Boyd, or Danny McGrain kicking out at Neymar in such a prestigious match? It just wouldn’t have happened.

This, when added to Brown’s back catalogue of petulant bookings and repeatedly taking the bait when befaced with a confrontational scenario surely makes his tenure as captain questionable. Impressive performances and a gutsy swagger will get you far, but there’s more to it when it comes to being handed the captain’s armband at a big club.

Lennon must know in his heart of hearts that Brown’s behaviour is unacceptable. Barca match aside, Brown’s name has been thrown in to match reports in Europe for negative aspects in Celtic’s two other big European games so far this season. Another petulant foul against Shahktar Karagandy, and a clumsy, off the ball incident against AC Milan (leading to the deciding goal), add to and underline the question marks around Brown’s professionalism.

It is understandable that Lennon doesn’t criticise his players in a brazen manner, but from his comments about the Brown incident, it seems as though he genuinely believes the player’s actions were justifiable.

The likes of Giorgios Samaras could fill in nicely as captain, and is debatably a better candidate. It’s clear that Celtic can’t afford a liability in the Champions League. They may get away with silly fouls and sloppy play against SPFL opposition, given the gulf in class between Celtic and the rest of the pack; but in the Champions League, Neil Lennon’s men are invariably the underdog, and would be punished for handing the opposition any ill-gotten advantage.

Brown is a terrific player, but how long are the fans and the manager expected to put up with reckless behaviour? The Hoops captain isn’t a budding, raw, rough around the edges project anymore. He’s a grown man, he’s the captain of Celtic, and Scotland.

Now’s the time to start acting like a captain.

Qatar Sticks In Your Throat

Why We Should Just Say No, to a Winter World Cup

By Johnny Connelly

Image

Paradise Found? – An artist’s impression of one of the Qatar stadiums

There’s a very good reason why Nat King Cole’s famous ‘Christmas Song’ starts: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”, and not “Neymar blazing over an open goal” – The World Cup is a summer event, and should be kept as far away from the festive season as T in the Park, Scottish Cup Final day, and 99’ cones at Ayr beach currently are.

Eyebrows were raised across the globe when Qatar was selected as the preferred bidder for the 2022 World Cup, especially over the likes of Australia, but this latest suggestion to shift the tournament to a November/December affair is a bridge too far, (in my eyes at least). 

I fully understand that it could be troublesome to host a tournament in the height of summer in a country where the temperature at this time can frequently exceed 40 degrees, but the notion of it being warm in Qatar isn’t a new phenomenon. This begs the question, why even select Qatar as the hosts in the first place?

FIFA’s approach to the World Cup is abundantly clear. They’ve bought into this utopian idea to move the world’s premier football tournament to every far flung corner of the planet.

I’m all for raising the profile of the game in countries that aren’t steeped in the game. For example, the USA have never looked back since hosting the tournament in 1994, but their situation differs from that of Qatar’s in terms of infrastructure and cultural readiness for what is essentially a heavily westernised event.

FIFA’s motto, “For the game, for the world”, seems as though it couldn’t be further from reality. Given how inaccessible Qatar is to western tourists for this type of event, the average punter would have better luck going to the World Cup if it were hosted on the moon. 

The disruption it’ll cause to domestic football would be at best bizarre, and at worst, catastrophic. The sheer logistics of working in a winter shutdown of two months or more across the biggest leagues in the world would decimate the rhythm of the traditional season, and could open a can of worms in terms of inviting the questioning of all our football traditions.

 Traditions are what make our game ‘beautiful’, and when you start to challenge things like having the World Cup as a summer event with a carnival atmosphere, you’re toying with the very building blocks of the tournament itself.

Football purists will point you towards the likes of Espana ’82, Mexico ’86, and France ’98 to name but a few instances of how the World Cup should be hosted. The shambolic decision to award the tournament to a nation, then latterly question if it’s even possible for them to host it within the usual parameters really tears the Hollywood shine off what should be the biggest event in the world.

We can only hope that lessons are learned, and common sense prevails to allow the World Cup to retain its usual summer timeslot. Questions will be raised about the World Cup in Qatar in the lead up to, during, and after the tournament itself.

The hope is that in the future, the focus will once again return to bringing the games to the people, creating a carnival atmosphere, and facilitating a multicultural celebration of the beautiful game for all to enjoy – Tartan Army included of course!

Scouting for Scots

Anya shines in Skopje, but could we unearth further hidden gems?

By Johnny Connelly

Image

Football has this funny habit of throwing up moments of brilliance, surprise, and shock when you least expect it. Just when you think you’ve sussed out how a team will play or line-up, up pops one of the game’s little surprises to catch you off guard.

Just a few weeks ago, the name ‘Ikechi Anya’ was completely alien to the Tartan Army. Now, plucked from the international abyss, the Watford attacking fullback looks to be amongst Scotland’s hottest properties.

After an impressive half hour cameo against Belgium, and an awe inspiring 90 mins in Macedonia, the Tartan Army are buzzing with excitement about the surprise package that is, Ikechi Anya.

Given that we’re a few days on from the match in Skopje, the dust has settled somewhat. We’re still on a high from Anya’s outstanding performance and wonderful goal, but the question has been whispered among fans, how on earth did we not notice this guy until now?

Despite not having a surname like Wallace or McDougal, Ikechi Anya is as Scottish as Irn Bru, and the guy on the Scott’s Porridge Oats box. Anya was born in Glasgow and bred in Glasgow (albeit to a Nigerian father and Romanian mother). He’s Scottish, and has a wealth of experience playing at a decent level in Spain, almost cracking the Sevilla and Celta Vigo first teams, yet nobody thought to even consider him in a dark blue shirt.

He’s been a real top performer for Gianfranco Zola’s Watford team. With his electric pace, dogged determination, and newly discovered composure when it comes to finishing, Anya looks as though he’ll go from strength to strength, both domestically and internationally. His discovery is a huge benefit to our national side, but our failure to discover him until the age of 25 should send alarm bells ringing through the current player identification setup.

If he could slip through the net and under our radar, how many others are out there?

We’re no strangers to making the most of the options presented through things like the Grandparent eligibility ruling. The likes of Neil Sullivan, Don Hutchison, Nigel Quashie, and Kris Commons (to name but a few) all made the grade as Scottish internationalists in recent times, despite not being technically Scottish.

With the Scotland side being somewhat rejuvenated under Strachan, players are enjoying being a part of the international setup. Hopefully this puts an end to players pulling out of squads, masking their apathy to play with dubious ‘injuries’.

Barry Bannan was quoted in the PLZ Soccer ‘Boot Room’ saying: “There’s a great buzz about the Scotland camp. Everyone wants to be involved and play for Scotland.” Perhaps this buzz will help us unearth some eligible players like Anya, that we may have previously overlooked.

As much as the purists of international football hate it, the Grandparent rule has become part and parcel of the modern game. Even the heavyweights of the world utilise it to the Nth degree. Take Germany for example. As much as their style of play is a joy to behold, they’re far from a starting XI of pure blood Germans.

  • Miroslav Klose – Polish
  • Lukas Podolski – Polish
  • Sami Khedira – Half Tunisian
  • Mesut Ozil – Turkish
  • Cacau – Brazilian
  • Jerome Boateng – Half Ghanaian

The stereotypical German efficiency seems to go beyond their endeavours on the park, and into their identification of eligible players for their national side, earmarking the best ones from a young age. We should be doing the same.

It’s a bonus to the purist when the player, like in Anya’s case, turns out to be born and bred in Scotland, but there’s no shame in going further afield, and using the rules to your advantage, as the Germans and many other top sides have done in recent years.

The alien concept of having to send out scouts to identify players eligible to play for Scotland may well be the right road to go down. Scotland has never been a nation resplendent with special players, so the addition of another one or two players like Anya could make all the difference. What lurks in the English Championship? Or further afield across Europe? The discovery of a Scottish grandparent for an uncapped player could make all the difference, especially when we get to add the likes of Steven Fletcher back to the squad, and can harness the developing skills of younger players like James Forrest.

It’s a no brainer; players want to play in successful teams. Success breeds success, and there’s a real feeling that Scotland can go places with Gordon Strachan at the helm. There’s only one place the Tartan Army would like to go, and that’s France again in 2016.

It’d be quite fitting for the long-suffering Scotland supporters to make their return to the big-time in France, for Euro 2016. By then it’ll have been 18 years since they last made the trip to France for a major finals.

Maybe now is the time; Lord knows it’s been long enough, and a little help from the right scouts could go a long way.

Bring on the English! – After Brave Scots Lose At Wembley, The Tartan Army Want A Rematch!

by Johnny Connelly

Scotland players applaud the crowd after a 3-2 defeat against England at Wembley
So near, yet so far. Scots have come a long way in a short time…

12 years, 8 months, and 29 days had elapsed since Scotland last took to the field against our auldest of enemies on the football field; but when the players lined up, the national anthems boomed out, and the kick-off finally arrived, the excitement and passion around the match was so overwhelming that it was hard to imagine how the sides had ever been kept apart.

An explosion of energy right from the word go was a welcome change for the long-suffering Tartan Army. Gordon Strachan’s side, psychologically charged by the deafening noise from the 30,000 travelling supporters, the players lay siege to the England side, battling far harder than we’ve been used to seeing in recent years. It was always going to be an uphill battle, and nobody in the football world gave Scotland a hope against the highly ranked England, yet the Scots managed to take the lead on two occasions, before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat.

Both the euphoria of putting the ball past Joe Hart twice; and the agony of watching Ricky Lambert’s bullet header crash into the top corner leaves the Scotland fans with a gaping hole to fill, a hole that can only be filled by the promise of another chance to take on England again in the near future.

The powers that be surely must see the light and put this fixture back into the diaries of both FAs on a regular basis.

The positives we can draw from having an annual or bi-annual match against England are too great to ignore.  Speaking on Peter & Roughie’s Football Showlast week, former Scotland ‘keeper Alan Rough stressed the importance of the annual Scotland v England fixture back in his day: “It gave the players something to aim for. Everyone wanted to play in that game.”

Roughie’s point is an excellent one. In a time where we’ve seen players ‘retiring’ from international football, withdrawing from the squad with debatable injuries, and at times showing apathy towards the prospect their own involvement in the Scotland setup, a focal point such as the prospect of getting a crack at England on a regular basis could be enough to get them interested in Scotland again.

Scotland lost the talents of Kris Boyd, Barry Ferguson, Kris Commons, and Steven Fletcher (albeit temporarily) prematurely for a variety of reasons. The disappointment of not reaching major finals may have led some players to feel as though representing Scotland in lower profile matches and friendlies is somewhat meaningless. With no focal point to aim for, it’s understandable to see how this mentality could creep in. The psychology of a player can be a difficult thing to unravel. We’ve seen it 100 times before in the domestic side of the game: players will continue to fight hard and produce top performances in league matches that would be otherwise meaningless, if the club still have a cup final scheduled to take part in later in the season.

A match against England every year or two could be our cup final.

It’s nothing short of scandalous that England and Scotland have been kept apart for so long, and it’s a minor miracle that they’ve never drawn each other in the qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships. Celtic captain Scott Brown donned the captain’s armband for his country against England, but had he been injured or unavailable, a player like Brown may never have played against his country’s greatest rivals. Brown was just 14 when Scotland played England in 1999, surely it’s only right that the best players we produce get to showcase their skills in what is the biggest grudge match possible for the country? Can you imagine Manchester United never playing Manchester City again? Or Barcelona and Real Madrid waiting 14 years for another ‘El Classico’? Everyone in football would be worse off for it.

As much as almost 13 years is a long time to wait to face England; our wait to reach the finals of a major tournament has been longer still. France 98’ is but a distant memory, Gordon Strachan and everyone at the SFA has a responsibility to do everything in their power to give us the best chance possible of reaching a major finals within the next few attempts. England always qualify, it’s just the way it is. A regular match against them could help our campaign, as it’d serve as a barometer and progress marker, year on year (or every two years).

Our road back to reaching the finals of major tournaments will be a long one, so measuring our progress in a tangible manner is key. England’s performance in major finals is fairly stagnant, and as such serves well as a way of measuring how far away we are from being good enough to qualify.

The timing of these matches could aid us too. World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns can be long and arduous. Those big 6 month gaps between competitive matches for Scotland can’t be conducive to forming and maintaining a cohesive unit, capable of challenging for qualification. There’s only so much you can learn from the likes of the recent friendly against Luxembourg. When compared to the heated nature of our 3-2 defeat to England, it’s plain to see that as a team, we benefit more from the experience of being pitted against our neighbours.

Away from our immediate qualification and progress goals, current manager Gordon Strachan made a great point about the financial benefits that could be harnessed from a regular Scotland v England fixture. It’s no secret that developing young players, and getting things right for both Scottish and English players from an early age is an expensive task in this day and age. It’s for this reason that Strachan suggested ploughing all the benefits from the annual or bi-annual match directly back into the grass roots of UK football. Wednesday night’s match attracted around 90,000 to Wembley stadium, before we even look at the TV money involved, we’re talking about gross revenue of £3,150,000 from ticket sales alone. This match could easily raise around £10m for grass roots football, and that’s money that our game could put to very good use.

It remains to be seen whether or not the powers that be will bow to the snowballing pressure from fans both north and south of the border to make the match a regular occurrence, but even if we don’t get the action we’re looking for, we’ve come a long way under Strachan. The team look passionate about playing for their country, and the fans are beginning to believe that we can take on anyone, regardless of stature. Strachan’s infectious attitude and personality is under the skin of the nation.

Just a few months ago we wouldn’t have wanted a regular shot at England for fear of the skelping that could ensue. Now, after our victory in Croatia, and a spirited performance at Wembley, Scotland’s lion is well and truly rampant once more.

Bring on the English.

 

Firepower lacking as Celts scrape through

The emotion of relief was etched across Neil Lennon’s face as the full time whistle resonated around the Borås Arena, sealing Celtic’s safe arrival in the Champions League playoff round. A scrappy 0-0 in Sweden was enough to cement a 1-0 aggregate for Celtic over Swedish champions, Elfsborg. 

Celtic have started the season well on paper and are on course to reach the Champions League group stage as planned, but despite this, unconvincing victories have led sections of the Parkhead faithful to become concerned at the depth of Lennon’s squad, particularly in the attacking areas.

The Glasgow giants cruised past part-timers Cliftonville as expected, narrowly defeated Ross County on the opening day of the season, and secured the narrowest of aggregate wins over Elfsborg, a side that currently languish in 4thplace in the Swedish top flight. Yes, Celtic are winning, but whether or not they can continue to successfully pursue a place in the Champions League group stage with the current crop of forwards is in serious doubt.

During the 0-0 draw with Elfsborg, Celtic recorded just two shots on target. The isolated figure of Georgios Samaras, despite now being something of a fan favourite, looked ineffective. His 69th minute replacement, Anthony Stokes, was similarly foiled by the resolute Elfsborg defence. In a familiar way to all the other games so far this season, heads turned to Kris Commons to provide something special on his own, and on this occasion, he failed. On occasions like this in the past, all too often Neil Lennon’s men were bailed out by their prolific striker, Gary Hooper. Hooper scored goals in all competitions, and was as much of a threat to the likes of Barca and Spartak, as he was to Dundee and St Mirren.

The Englishman found the net 31 times last season for Celtic, and his £5.5m switch to Norwich has left Lennon with a significant spot in his team to fill.

Hooper’s departure sits nicely with the club’s overall, buy cheap, develop, and sell on policy, but only if another viable developing replacement is in place at the time.  

Celtic have done brilliantly to get £5.5m for Hooper, £12m for Victor Wanyama, and now reportedly £2.5m for Kelvin Wilson, but when these departures come without active replacements, the club’s business strategy comes under threat. In layman’s terms the club’s business strategy, by virtue of the absence of the type of money bequeathed to the English Premiership clubs, appears to hinge on the repeated delivery of these three goals: 

  • Reach the Champions League group stages every year (i.e win the league and qualifiers)
  • Keep the fans interested with an entertaining product for the majority of the year
  • Continue to be shrewd in the transfer market, develop players and sell on for profit

Without replacing these big players, particularly in attacking positions, the first and second goals become exponentially more difficult. True, given the absence of Rangers in the Scottish Premiership, a shift in transfer policy can be expected to some extent, but with the resources available at Celtic, a gulf of chiasmic proportions should still be apparent between them and the rest of the country’s top flight. 

Image
Lennon speaks to the BBC moments after qualifying for the Champions League Playoff


The Champions League playoff will be the toughest set of matches of the season so far for Celtic, and without a striker with the ability to score 30 goals a season in the squad, Celtic could well flounder. 

Historically, Celtic have always seemed to come up trumps when it comes to obtaining forwards capable of scoring goals  (in a similar way to how Rangers often seem to have relative ease in procuring a top-drawer goalkeeper, season after season). Not always a 53 goal a season Henrik Larsson; in the past we’ve seen the likes of Scott McDonald rattling in 31 in a season. Sometimes the big ticket signing isn’t required, it’s just a case of spotting a potential goal scorer.  

Hooper apart, this seems to be a skill that’s eluded Neil Lennon during his time in the Celtic dugout. The Northern Irishman has signed up several forwards, and for a variety of reasons, most of whom haven’t illuminated the league with their goal tally. The endeavour of Samaras is admirable, but he isn’t a natural goal scorer. 

Lennon has gone on record as saying he doesn’t think Anthony Stokes is “Champions League material”, and the likes of Tony Watt, despite his heroics against Barcelona last season, still has much to learn before he could be considered to be the finished article.

You’d also forgive the fans for being slightly apprehensive about Lennon’s choice of transfer targets to fill Hooper’s boots. It’s early days yet, but Amido Balde looks as though he hasn’t impressed his manager. He looks to be little more than a cumbersome bench-warmer. There’s no question over his fitness, so it would appear as though he’s deemed as third or fourth choice striker at the moment based on training ground performances. 

Parallels could be drawn with Balde’s situation, and other strikers that Lennon snapped-up; Miku, Lassad, Mo Bangura, Pawel Brozek, and Darryl Murphy to name but a few. 

The Hoops boss’ record for procuring quality goal scorers appears to be questionable at best when you see the list of failures above. The countdown to the transfer window slamming shut is well and truly on, and the names of two strikers appear to be cropping up in the rumour mill over and over again: Kevin Doyle of Wolves, and Alfreð Finnbogason of Heerenveen. Doyle looks like the far more likely signing, given his willingness to join, and Wolves’ willingness to sell. The Irishman, despite being a tireless worker, is far from a goal scorer. His record of 27 goals in 135 games (around 0.2 goals per game) is hardly awe inspiring, even when compared to Celtic’s other strikers. 

The likes of Samaras outperforms him in a Celtic shirt, scoring 48 goals in 156 games (0.31 goals per game). Stokes too boasts a better record, finding the net 33 times in 82 appearances (0.4 goals per game), and even the much maligned Harold Brattbakk’s Celtic record compares favourably to Doyle’s, as he scored 12 in 44 (0.27 goals per game). 

Herenveen’s Icelandic striker Alfreð Finnbogason looks as though he could be an ideal replacement for Hooper. He’s just 24 years old, so resell value becomes a factor, and scored 28 goals in 33 games last season (0.84 goals per game). He managed to find the net twice in Herenveen’s opening Eredivise match at the weekend too, but a hefty touted price tag of £7m puts him well out of Celtic’s price range, if the transfer policy of recent seasons is anything to go by.  

Lennon’s next move had better be a good one. A healthy compromise, somewhere between a Doyle and Finnbogason could be enough to do the business in the Champions League and win favour with the Celtic fans, but the clock is ticking, and you can be sure that all top European clubs will be sniffing around for a 30-goal a season striker. Now, more than ever, the lack of a cerebral, ruthless striker at Celtic Park is apparent. Perhaps the urgency and importance of the situation will bring clarity to the Celtic boss and help him find the player he needs. 

The fans can only wait and hope. Over to you, Neil.

The SPFL – Fan Fuelled Evolution

by Johnny Connelly

(As hosted on http://www.plzsoccer.com/news)

It’s been a long, long time coming, but we’ve successfully reformed the structure of our professional football league format in this country. It’s all kicking off this week, and not a minute too soon.

That arduous, seemingly never-ending string of weeks where we find ourselves with a gaping football hole to fill is almost at an end. We kid ourselves that pre-season friendlies, and even old Youtube clips of bygone years will anesthetise us throughout the summer, but the truth is, nothing but the real McCoy will do. In Scotland, the fans need football; but more importantly, the football needs fans.

This interdependency has never been more apparent than it is now. The dark cloud of doom that lurked over Rangers throughout the Craig Whyte/Charles Green/liquidation saga served as a stark warning that all clubs can fall victim to the perils of the business aspects of the modern game. Yet, at the other end of that turmoil, we saw glimpses of the finest element of our game, the unwavering and unquestioning support of the fans.

Clubs in our country have been plagued by problems of their own, but we’re fighting through it together as football fans. The news this week that Dunfermline’s long standing threat of liquidation could be at an end is huge shot in the arm for our wavering game. The fact that the CVA came from ‘Pars United’, an ordinary group of Dunfermline supporters, further enhances the remarkability of this particular happy ending.

Image

The New Way – Neil Doncaster showcases the new SPFL logo at Hampden

As we prepare to embark upon the new dawn that is the SPFL, it becomes apparent that fan power is more important than ever. Last season was resplendent with hints that the fans will have the final say when it comes to football in this country.

Last season we saw something of a siege mentality at Ibrox, as Rangers fans flocked to support the team in their darkest hour. Attendance records were challenged, and dare I say it, the much maligned Glasgow club seem to be through the worst of their troubles, all thanks to the fans.

Similarly, Dunfermline looked doomed just weeks ago, probably more so than Rangers, but the collective presence of likeminded fans have all but saved their club, albeit through the means of a CVA and by virtue of an empathetic set of creditors.

The SPFL’s big focus now should be channelling energy into finding a solution for Hearts. They too will sink or swim based on the actions of their fans. The effort and commitment so far from the Hearts fans has been overwhelming, and if they could somehow meet the desired monetary amounts to satisfy the creditors, we’d be witnessing a miraculous escape for one of our country’s most revered clubs.

Clubs defying the odds to survive thanks to fan power are perhaps somewhat sensationalised examples of what the common punter can achieve in the world of football. We can however, step back and see that the fans have the power to make the new SPFL a success, despite the apparent downgrading of our domestic game since the days of Larsson, Laudrup, De Boer, and Sutton.

As fans, we’ve faced debacles like the Setanta deal and uncertainties galore, yet here we are, on the brink of another glorious season. Excitement is cascading across the country in anticipation of the big kick off. Yes, there’ll be more problems, and yes, it’s far from the polished product that our neighbours across the border take in every weekend, but it can still be glorious in its own inimitable way.

Small steps are being taken in the right direction all the time. It’s looking positive for the start of the season, as there’s no clearer indication of support than a rise in season ticket sales. 7 of the 12 SPFL Premiership clubs have reported increases in season ticket sales so far, and another 3 SPFL Premiership clubs say their sales are on a par with last season.

Even without the presence of Rangers in our top division, the clubs do have something to attract their fans this season. Celtic, Motherwell and St Johnstone have a taste of European football. They’ll be looking to maximise their involvement this term, and ensure they get to participate again next time around.

Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will strive to continue their meteoric rise, challenging for 2nd place in the Premiership this season perhaps? Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen will seek to right the wrongs of last season and finish in a position that befits their club stature; while St Mirren, Kilmarnock, and the new boys Partick Thistle will be well aware they’ve been touted to go down, so they’ll have fire in their bellies, and a will to escape the drop.

The road back to the big time for Scottish football is a long one, we may never get back to where we were, but football in this country is a labour of love. We’ll forever indulge in nostalgia, we’ll forever exaggerate the glory days, and we’ll forever dream of a product better than the one we current showcase.

Our excitement for football is insatiable, there’s nothing quite like those start of the season butterflies. This time around, we’ll take the bad news with a pinch of salt and remember that football is for enjoying.

It may not be perfect, but it’s our league, and we love it.