Why Fletcher’s misfortune could be a wake-up call for Scottish football

Unfortunate – Scotland Captain Darren Fletcher

By David Andrews

Are there greater powers at work in Scottish football? The recent news that Scotland’s talisman and model professional Darren Fletcher has been struck down with a serious stomach bug, forcing him to take some time out of the game, has come at a time when Scotland has already been brought to its knees and is now lying spread-eagle face down on the ground, wondering where it all went wrong.

It would seem that the powers that be in that great boardroom in the sky have it in for this founding nation of the “beautiful game”. From fines to unpaid tax bills and wages and bullets to corrupt disciplinary procedures, the visible signs of a downward trend are obvious. Ex-politicians have been brought in to advise, wicket keepers appointed to keep the peace, all to no avail. Now it seems even our captain is the target of some misfortune from on high.

But who can blame the footballing gods for striking us down? If football was a religion and not just a direct substitution for one, as some would have us believe, there would be an inquisition and not just another investigation or review. A group of Europeans from Zürich would have landed on our shores, dressed in black robes with the FIFA logos emblazoned on their galeros, marching on all the shrines of football. Promptly they would round up the key instigators within the established rungs of Scottish football and subject them to all manner of interrogation before replacing them with their own cronies. After successive torture methods and years of imprisonment, the inquisitors would gather the followers of football together and proclaim “you are all guilty”. The criminals responsible for perpetrating all of the vile acts against Scottish football in recent times are the collective institution itself.

It is clear to see from the issues, controversy and debacle after debacle that all of Scottish football’s problems are self-inflicted. All stakeholders in the Scottish game have a joint responsibly to a greater or lesser degree. The alleged corruption within refereeing was a product of a flawed disciplinary procedure and complacent practices from an old guard of referees and an association unwilling to update its practices. The Rangers vs. Inland Revenue bout stemmed from mismanagement and a belief that Rangers Football Club was an untouchable icon of Scottish society. The actions of a mindless few, who tarnished the game throughout the 2010/11 season, were also a product of the society in which we live, operating at the extreme end of a sliding scale from 90-minute bigotry to serious offences that go far beyond rivalry and banter.

In more general terms, the falling attendances and revenues have long been an indicator of an overpriced and unsound product. Countless people speak about how the Old Firm can “charge whatever they like” for a derby ticket. However, surely the converse is true? Supply and demand? Scottish football is currently damaged goods and requires some significant price restructuring to encourage interest. Perhaps there should be a sign outside all stadiums: “broken, in need of repair –entrance half price”.

The SFA seem to be powerless to deal with issues in the game and have been overlooked by UEFA in imposing fines on both sides of the Old Firm. These teams play in a league governed by the SFA and should be disciplined for breaches in its code of conduct by the SFA. Instead, the SFA ignore it and UEFA have to intervene, undermining the strength and independence of Scottish football and its governing association.

Within the national team there have been several key events. Former captain Barry Ferguson and current favoured goalkeeper Alan McGregor both disgraced themselves with an all-night drinking session at the Cameron House Hotel and subsequently did themselves no favours by reacting and gesturing to the media and, by proxy, the fans. Aiden McGeady was also snatched from beneath the nose of the Scotland youth system.

Almost all up and coming Scotland players seem to be destined to veer off of the straight and narrow at some point in their careers. McFadden, O’Conner, Riordan and now Bannan – at what point will young players realise that the reason they are no longer reaching the height of previous Scots is that there are players out there who will outstrip them on every level both personally and professionally. They will train harder, get up earlier, study more, sacrifice more, drink less, cause less trouble and keep constraints on their ego. The players currently waiting in the wings have to realise that this is the “modern game” and success is rewarded only after large amounts of sacrifice.

As an all-round product, a day out at the football should inspire us and coax us out of our comfortable living rooms into a passionate theatre of entertainment. The Scottish game has much to offer, but is sadly marred in so many areas that no single change or revamp would yield any significant outcome.

The ‘unlucky’ footballing nation of European and indeed International football tag is an unenviable one to bequeath Scotland. From numerous national teams throughout the years being glorious failures in qualifying and at major finals, to Celtic’s hard-fought but ultimately worthless point away to Udinese last night, a common theme is apparent. Perhaps it could be suggested that the rectification of the aforementioned root-cause problems of Scottish football could potentially alleviate the ‘unlucky’ tag in years to come.

The only way forward is for the individuals who have watched over Scottish football as it staggered towards its current lowly state to take account of their actions, stand up and move aside for transition to a more modern and fresh thinking approach.

The loss of Darren Fletcher does not affect the Scottish the domestic game; it is just another injury to add to insult on the downturn of Scottish football. It is not only a loss for a match squad; it is a loss for the game. Darren Fletcher is a model professional and a teetotaller for a start. He’s a player who young footballers should be inspired by and someone who, if all else fails, Scotland can look to for confidence that one day we will become a strong footballing nation again.

We can but hope, on a personal and sporting level, that Darren makes a speedy recovery to regain his position as a leading light in Scottish football at a time of such unmitigated darkness.


Bills, Thrills & Bellyaches

Introducing Hitthebyline.com’s first guest contributor, Celtic fan Felix O’Neill. In his first piece, Mr O’Neill discusses the seemingly never-ending political and legal wrangles that the Glasgow giants seem to be engulfed by, and how the fighting off the field may be detracting from the potential fighting spirit shown on it…..

Bills, Thrills & Bellyaches

by Felix O’Neill

On the day after the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill’ became a reality, I find myself exhausted with some of the internet bluster being spouted by a section of the Celtic diaspora. We can argue for the rest of this season and beyond about the nonsensical reasons behind regurgitating an anti-sectarian bill already in existence, who is right & who is wrong, what songs are political, sectarian or simply just offensive and indeed how the authorities intend to go about enforcing law. A law itself that is about as robust as Craig Whyte’s financial guarantees for Rangers existence beyond the Hogmanay bells.

As someone who stood on the Jungle and sang songs from the Rebel repertoire in my youth, it would be hypocritical of me to demand the guy sitting next to me to zip-it, however now with the new legislative implications and recent UEFA fine, it is clear that there are consequences for chanting these songs in a sporting arena. With that in mind, I don’t think it is unreasonable for those who want to sing these songs to confine it to a private Celtic supporter pub/club/bus. That is if you care about upholding the uniqueness & moral fibre of Celtic Football Club and if you yourself want to avoid porridge.

Last season there was good reason to fight for justice on a number of fronts as we tackled institutional bias from the Footballing Association, partial referees, and, the unfair treatment of our manager. This culminated in a joyous celebration of supporter unity at Hampden Park where we lifted the Scottish Cup. The days and months since has seen the development of a worrying trend.

My plea is towards a minority of Celtic bloggers/supporter associations who in my view have undertaken self-promoted roles as social media agitators and have corralled sections of the Celtic support into adapting myopic positions that sit uncomfortably with the ethos of the club. Opinion and debate is one thing, but I would argue that the dogmatic positioning of some Celtic bloggers and associations, on a variety of Celtic related issues, helps foster a notion of us as the perpetually afflicted and constantly taking the moral high ground. Unfortunately, once it has filtered through social media, into the pubs and stadiums , the fall out is a section of the support who feel aggrieved without properly weighing up both sides of the argument.

The concern for me is that we very quickly find ourselves in a vicious circle whereby the energy of the Celtic support is pre-dominantly invested on administrative/legislative/internal club battles away from the pitch and we lose sight of the real battle on the pitch to help the 11 men in the Hoops over the finishing line and into first place. I have no doubts that the shenanigans of last season were instrumental in us finishing as runners up in the SPL. My biggest fear is that we take our eye off the ball again with this season’s side show and invest time and energy in defending the right to sing songs/stories from across the sea that have an increasingly distant link to the emergent Celtic story. By all means we should acknowledge and celebrate our proud Irish heritage and all the other components that make up the unique Celtic DNA, however, let us have perspective and concentrate on the team on the park so that our club can flourish in May.

Why Rudolf could be the ideal Christmas present for Rangers

When the news broke that Steven Naismith would be out for the rest of the season, the Ibrox faithful became fully aware that the equilibrium of reliable quality and stalwart position holders had been significantly disrupted, so much so that what once looked like a confident stroll towards the title, now would be transformed into a more familiar dogfight.

Gers fans, the media, and even the manager have held their hands up to say that the squad is threadbare; but less would concede to my view, that the team relies entirely on 4 top-class players.

To my mind, Alan McGregor in goal, dogged midfielder Steven Davis, cultured striker Nikica Jelavic, and the aforementioned Naismith were the galvanized spine that took games by the scruff of the neck and led Rangers to a formidable lead in the title race. Rangers, as well as Celtic, are held by constraints that no longer allow them the luxury of being able to afford the absence of a player of the quality of Naismith.

It’s no coincidence that Rangers’ dip in form came has come at a time when Naismith has been sidelined.

In the four games Rangers have played since the Scotland international damaged his cruciate ligaments, the Glasgow giants have secured a win over Aberdeen by virtue of a Jelavic penalty kick, a win over Dundee United with the help of an own-goal & penalty, a 0-0 draw at Ibrox against St Johnstone, and a 1-0 defeat away to Kilmarnock.

Conversely, before the injury, Rangers hadn’t lost a league match this season, and had drawn just twice in the league since this campaign began in July.

If Rangers are to recapture that championship winning formula, a stop-gap of equal ability for Naismith must be acquired in January, and I believe that replacement could be found at another cash-strapped SPL club, Paulo Sergio’s Hearts.

Rudolf (Rudi) Skacel, in my opinion, is capable of bringing much more festive cheer to the blue end of Glasgow than his scarlet-nosed quadruped namesake ever has.

Firstly, Ally McCoist will have no money to spend in January with the HMRC tax case looming over Ibrox like an ominous dark cloud, so a big money signing to ease the woe of the supporters isn’t going to happen.

Sticking with the cash-strapped theme, this also affects the wage budget, so any free transfers would most likely need to come from the SPL. Hearts in particular will be dying to shed some excess flab from an already bloated wage structure, and it just so happens Skacel’s contract will be due to expire in January.
Surely the Czech international would jump at the chance to get his hands on some silverware and play in front of a 50,000 crowd? The move would also represent one of Rangers very few viable alternatives to replace a player like Naismith.

Rangers would need to act fast, as Skacel is believed to be in talks with infamous Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov about extending his contract, although nothing has been finalised.

Skacel, at 32-years old has bags of experience, and is the current top-scorer at the Gorgie club. He’s played in the English Championship, as well as top flight football in Greece, Germany, Czech Republic, France, and has played in the Champions League. There are few players with such a CV could be attracted to Rangers to fill this Naismith-shaped hole behind Jelavic.

His prowess in front of goal is in no doubt with 31 goals for Hearts in his two stints at the club; despite not playing in a traditional striker’s role.

Of course this piece is entirely speculative, but the need for a Naismith replacement must be top of Ally McCoist’s Christmas list. Failure to insert a proven attacking-midfielder into the Rangers side could be just enough to give fierce rivals Celtic the edge in what looks set to be another nail-biting title race.

How ironic on this occasion that for once, this Christmas, Rudolf, rather than Santa could be the main focal point of the holiday season. However, whether Craig Whyte can make this Rudolf a ‘blue-nose’ with the monetary appeasing equivalent of the usual Christmas eve carrots could prove to be the biggest stumbling block of all.

The Bernabéu’s only Braveheart

Whilst walking through the opulent marble-clad trophy room and hall of fame in Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu; you’d be forgiven for being over-awed by the sheer number of honours amassed, and the full A-Z list of world class players who’ve graced that famous white jersey in the club’s 109-year history.

From the modern day superstars like Ronaldo, Kaka, Ozil, Casillas and Ramos, to the greats from years gone by like Raul, Zidane, Beckham, Schuster, Di Stefano and the hundreds more on show, you really feel as though you’ve arrived at the epicenter of football. Galactico after galactico, superstar after superstar, world-beater after world-beater, they’re all there, laid out in order of nationality.

Brazilians, Argentineans, Italians, Englishmen and Spaniards galore, but intertwined within this display of justifiably glorified wizards of the game, you’ll see a solitary Scotsman.

Despite being a so-called ‘wee nation’ in terms of football, Scotland has produced its fair share of players who wouldn’t have looked out of place plying their trade with Real Madrid. Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law, Jimmy Johnstone, Jim Baxter, Davie Cooper, Bobby Murdoch, Gordon Strachan, John Greig and Billy McNeill to name but a few were good enough to rub shoulders with the greats of Madrid, but none of these men have claimed this honorable place in the Bernabéu for all eternity. Step forward Mr John Fox Watson; Real Madrid’s only Braveheart.

John Fox Watson – standing proud on the wall of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu trophy room

Watson’s name won’t be one that springs to mind when the grand history of Madrid’s greatest achievers comes to be written, but rest assured, his place in the history of the club remains as a unique and significant one, both as a Scot, and a Brit.

Born in Hamilton in 1917, Watson’s early footballing experience was about as far away from the Bernabéu as you could possibly imagine, as he dawned the not so famous jerseys of Scottish junior clubs Waterthistle and Douglas Juniors before WWII.

The Scotsman signed for Bury just before the war, but failed to make a first team appearance. However, between 1946-1948, the centre-half spent arguably his most successful career period at Fulham, turning out for them 71 times and finding the back of the net twice.

Then came Watson’s fleeting moment of glory. In December of 1948, he joined Madrid as a player coach (at a relatively young 31 years old), turning out on just one occasion for the supremely successful club. The match in question was a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Celta Vigo, but he’ll be forever etched in history as the first (and only) Scot ever to play for the Spanish giants, as well as being the first British player ever to play for them.

This paved the way for the likes of Laurie Cunningham, Jonathan Woodgate, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, and David Beckham to make the trip to Madrid.

Watson’s time at the club coincided with something of a rebirth for Los Blancos. Months before he moved from Fulham, Madrid opened their stadium ‘New Chamartin’, which was latterly renamed to the way we now know it, in tribute to the president who propelled the club to be a major force in Spain and across Europe, Santiago Bernabéu.

Bernabéu set out to rebuild the stadium and training facilities that had been destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, as well as embarking upon a bold new transfer policy of procuring world-class players from abroad, most notably attracting the great Alfredo Di Stefano in 1953.

Real then charged on to become the most successful football club in the world, cruising past top-class opposition with style and poise, attracting a colossal global fan base and brand synonymous with success. In the days after Watson, the team have won the European Cup/UEFA Champions League on 9 separate occasions, won La Liga 29 times, lifted la Copa Del Rey 9 times, and were awarded the prestigious  ‘FIFA  Club of the century’ accolade by the game’s governing body, as well as numerous other trophies.

The Scotsman returned to Britain in 1949 to play for Crystal Palace for two years, turning out 61 times before joining non-league Canterbury City in the twilight years of his career.

Watson took little in terms of finance or professional glory from his time in the Spanish capital, but nobody could ever deny this man his place in history as the one and only Scot who turned out for the great Real Madrid.

Short-term offers: a symptom of Celtic’s non-existent scouting system

Football fans across the country know that the transfer window is open season for lazy red top journalists, but this year Celtic have given these journos an even easier time of it than usual. The generic, “Celts swoop for (insert a randomly overpaid and disinterested English Premiership player of your choice)” headlines have of course been present as you’d expect. However, this year they’ve been coupled with an equally mundane and utterly frivolous genre of headline.

The summer of 2011 seems to be the season of “Hoops run the rule over (insert your own bizarre trialist who we won’t sign)”. Despite being in desperate need of a seasoned goalkeeper, attacking midfielder who goes beyond the play, and a prolific goalscorer, none of the above have been identified. The fans are left in the dark with the meaningless charade of pulling in players, who I can only assume have came from touting agents, for a few days training at Lennoxtown.

To name but a few, the Parkhead faithful have had their hopes dashed by trial spells from Cameroon striker Mo Idrissou, Katlego Mphela, Milos Lacny and Stipe Pletikosa. The question you must ask is why Lennon feels the need to take a player on trial in the first place. Does he have no faith in the findings of the scouting system? Or worse yet, is there no scouting system in place at all?

As mentioned above, the recent trialists in particular smack to me of agents touting for business as our naïve manager takes the bait in the hope of striking it lucky with at least one. This is a dangerous game to play. Celtic can’t hand any more power to devious agents, and continue to allow an air of uncertainty in the transfer market creep into an already shakily pegged Neil Lennon’s management tenure.

In a bizarre way I can identify with Stijn Stijnen, the Belgian goalkeeper who rejected the chance to go to Celtic on trial. Why should an experience goalkeeper with an aptitude for playing in big games have to endure a patronising week of training at Lennoxtown? If Celtic are interested, then sign him; if not, then let him go.

Sadly this saga doesn’t stop at trials. The capture of Fraser Forster on loan, and this never-ending pursuit of peripheral English Premier League players on loan is tiresome and impertinent to the cause. Put simply, Celtic have failed to identify a decent goalkeeper since Arthur Boruc parted ways with the club. Last season, on the recommendation of Lennon’s old pals Paul Lambert and Alan Thompson, we took
Forster on loan. Now, 12 months on, we’re no nearer finding a replacement, and have papered over the cracks by re-signing Newcastle’s third choice keeper on another year long deal. Next year we’ll have the same issue again. Why not address it now rather than next season? The same can be said of the EPL players we’re constantly linked with. Supposing Celtic signed Bellamy on loan again, what have you solved? In a year’s time you’ll be short of a striker, and will have blown a huge hole in the wage budget, without any transfer fee coming in for the player to soften the blow.

Celtic’s transfer policy must follow that of all other ‘big’ European clubs in ‘small’ leagues. Ditch this mindless pursuit of big names, ditch the loan deals, and ditch the trialist nonsense. Establish a decent scouting system to coincide with our formidable youth system. The likes of Kayal, Izaguire and Hooper are perfect examples of how the club should operate. Bring in under 25-year olds with talent and fire in their belly, get 2,3 or 4 seasons out of them, and sell them on for a considerable profit before reinvesting this in more players of the same ilk.

Perhaps this outlook could be viewed by some as pessimistic, but Celtic can’t compete financially, but can trade on the reputable name of the club. Celtic must operate the same way as Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht, Brondby, Rosenborg, and about a million other big teams who play in smaller leagues with crippling financial constraints. If this lesson isn’t learned soon, Celtic could find themselves with further humiliations in Europe, and in the unenviable position of having lost 4 SPL titles on the spin, to a lackluster, threadbare, and ultimately skint Rangers side.
Take heed, and send in the scouts.

Europa League – Ones to watch

So Celtic face another season without Champions League football. Moments of European glory have been few and far between for the Hoops in recent years, culminating in last season’s somewhat embarrassing failure even to reach the group stages of the Europa League. Perhaps the Parkhead faithful became a little too acclimatised and expectant of the club to replicate the Euro glory nights against the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Porto in the Champions League, and of course the terrific run that took Martin O’Neill’s side to Seville.

The dynamic of European football appears to be changing, particularly in the competition Celtic will contest this season, the Europa League. The current format allows for so called ‘smaller’ clubs to progress much further than they would in the old Uefa Cup. Clever management and an undoubted element of luck has seen the likes of Fulham get to a major European final by virtue of this competition.

Amongst the favorites for the cup this season will be Sevilla, AS Roma, Spurs, PSV and of course the 15 teams who’ll drop out from Champions League. However, to overlook the lesser known teams and sleeping giants of Europe who’ll participate in the cup could result in Celtic’s 2011/2012 European campaign being over quicker than you can say Artmedia Bratislava.

Here is a brief overview of just a handful of these so-called ‘wee teams’ – coming to a Europa League Cup Final near you?

FC Sochaux-Montbéliard (France)

Founded by Jean-Pierre Peugeot, a prominent member of the Peugeot family, this French side have certainly not been playing in second gear over the past few seasons. Playing at home in a modest 20,000 stadium, the side have seen something of a resurgence since being promoted from Ligue 2 in 2001. Sochaux went on to win the Coupe de la Ligue in 2004 and the Coupe de France in 2007. Like most teams in France, their youth system is formidable. A focus on rearing their own talent, or ultimately selling players on for highly inflated transfer fees appears to be at the core of the Sochaux philosophy. It would seem that the focus on youth is bearing fruit, given that the club have been successful in the Coupe Gambardella (France’s domestic under-19 trophy) winning the cup in 2007, and coming in as runner up last season.

Ligue 1 is arguably the most competitive league in Europe, and the standard of play across the board is excellent. The true extent of this is clear to see when, like last season, we see teams like AS Monaco and RC Lens being relegated. Sochaux finished a very respectable 5th in Ligue 1 last season, finishing just two points off PSG and a lucrative Champions League place.

This French side play a fast, free-flowing style of football that generally sees them score plenty of goals and look dangerous for long spells during matches. Defensive frailties are abundantly clear at times, but with their attacking mentality, they do make for enjoyable football and are well worth watching in this year’s competition. Young Nigerian forward Ideye Brown is their main threat. He’s pacey, powerful and has an eye for goal – finding the next 15 times in Ligue 1 last season. Malian winger Modibo Maiga too knows how to punish teams, possessing wicked pace and a decent final ball. He also managed 15 league goals last season and will no doubt give Sochaux’s Europa League opposition cause for concern.

US Città di Palermo (Italy)
Palermo icon 

Indeed Palermo don’t spring to mind as giants of the Italian game, but since returning to Serie A in 2004, they’ve comfortably held their own against the division’s heavyweights. They’ve earned a Europa League spot in each of the previous three seasons, although admittedly they’ve only qualified this year as a result of reaching the Coppa Italia final, and losing to Inter who’d already secured a Champions League spot. Last season they managed to finish 8th in the league, just two points behind Juventus.

With a core unit of rugged and disciplined Italian players, they don’t always make for the most entertaining of encounters, but rarely will you see them lose by more than the odd goal. Due to their traditional links with Sicily and the surrounding region, Palermo are command one of the largest away supports in Italy.

Although not especially technically gifted, Palermo would prove to be an intimidating away tie, and would most certainly make life difficult for the home side in their travels. The Italians are more than capable of frustrating the opposition for long spells of the game and have been known to punish big teams along the way.

By a considerable distance, their stand out player is one Javier Pastore, a 22-year old Argentine attacking midfield powerhouse. Capped for the national side on 8 occasions (despite having to jostle with the likes of Leo Messi for a place), he attacks with pace and can play the defense splitting pass. He’s attracted the attention of Manchester United, Chelsea,  Porto and AC Milan as a potential star of the future at the very highest level. Definitely one to watch.

HNK Hajduk Split (Croatia)

Once a giant of European football, Croatian outfit Hajduk Split fell into obscurity after a sustained spell punching against European heavyweights throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The club has been subject to as much turmoil as their native country over the past few decades. Originally a ‘working man’s club’ devised by a group of students in Prague, the club has changed stadium several times, and been adversely affected and lucidly change identity in some ways during the days of ‘Yugoslavia’.

During their glory days, they reached the European Cup quarter-finals on a handful of occasions, and the Uefa Cup semi-final in 1984.

In recent years they’ve established themselves again, not as the giants they once were, but as a technically gifted, easy on the eye, football side. Still well short of their fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb, they’ve played second fiddle to them in the Croatian First League for the last four seasons. In the eyes of UEFA they are still ‘minnows’ – ranked at 185th in Europe (compared to Celtic’s 54th). However, experience tells us that these figures mean nothing, particularly when trips to Croatia are concerned. Memories of a well-past-it Robert Prosinecki running Craig Burley ragged for Croatia Zagreb are painful reminders of that.

Today’s team are made up almost entirely of Croatian players, such is the club’s philosophy on rearing their own players. Hajduk’s most impressive player would have to be Srdjan Andrić in my opinion. Andrić is currently the club captain, and operates as a ferocious ball winner in the centre of midfield. At 31 he’s no spring chicken, but nonetheless, a midfield battle between him and the likes of Beram Kayal would be intriguing.

FC Karpaty Lviv (Ukraine)

Such is the injection of cash into football from that part of Europe, to dismiss a club like Karpaty Lviv could have perilous consequences. A young club established only 4 years previous to Celtic winning the European Cup, Karpaty Lviv too play in green and white (stripes); they are named after the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, but domestically have never scaled the heights that their mountainous name suggest.

Perennially a mid-table club in Ukraine, they’ve had a modicum of success lately by finishing 5th in Ukraine’s top flight in each of the last two seasons, while also qualifying for the Europa League in the process. Not the type of team to blow Celtic away with skill, or batter us with physical prowess, but a trip to Ukraine by any measure would be less than desirable in the middle of a season.

The only real threat that I’ve seen comes from their pacey Brazillian striker William Batista. His impressive form was one of the main reasons that Karpaty’s decent league finish. Not known as an out and out goalscorer, or a lavishly silky player (despite his national stereotype), quick off the mark and can run defenders ragged.

On paper Celtic should have no trouble with this Ukrainian outfit; but on paper Celtic should have done considerably better in Europe than they have since the days of Larsson and Sutton. A trip to Ukraine would be best avoided, both for the good of the domestic campaign, and to avoid an Eastern European spanner being thrown in the works.
FC Sion (Switzerland)

Perhaps lessons were learned about trips to Switzerland when Hakin and Murat Yakin embarrassed the club in Basel, and when Neuchâtel Xamax FC put five past a lackluster hoops team what seems like an age ago. Given the emergence of FC Sion in recent years, those tapes from our previous Swiss encounters could be well worth a viewing, should we draw this team in the Europa League this season.

A small club in stature, they’ve spent most of their 102-year history in the shadow of the likes of FC Zurich, FC Basel and BSC Young Boys. That was of course until last season. Sion finished 4th in the Swiss Super League, narrowly missing out on 3rd place on the last day of the season. They lifted the Swiss Cup just a few months ago, firmly putting the club back on the map.

Recurring financial problems took the club to the brink of bankruptcy in 2002. This course of events saw the club relegated and even denied a professional license in 2003. The road to recovery has been a slow one, but their recent silverware capture resounded all over Europe, as the club fired a warning flare to anyone who thinks they’re in for an easy time of it against them in the Europa League this year.

Playing at home in a modest 16,500 seater stadium, they adopt an attractive style of play, with very few high balls and some rapid midfield passing exchanges. This Swiss media have even touted the club as having an outside chance of winning the league (which equates to a club like Kilmarnock having SPL title aspirations).

The focal point of the team seems to be Serbian forward Dragan Mrđa. The towering striker only joined the club from Vojvodina last season, where he scored 35 times in 56 appearances.  The Serb has continued this rich vein of form into his career in Switzerland, finding the net 8 times in 18 appearances.

Again, with the roar of the Parkhead crowd, Celtic would most likely get a result, but away from home historically is where our problems lie.  Only time will tell if Neil Lennon’s men will get the chance to exercise the Swiss demons from Basel and Neuchâtel Xamax.

Why an Easter Sunday Old Firm Derby will be the biggest mistake in Scottish Football yet

In my weaker moments this season I’ve pitied the decision makers at the SFA and SPL. The big-wigs at Hampden have been scarcely away from the media spotlight since the SPL campaign began in August. The Scottish national team have had their difficulties, Hampden Park has looked like a potato-field, the referees have gone on strike, “Dougie-Dougie” is on gardening leave indefinitely, Hugh Dallas cleared his desk, and Neil Lennon has had more disciplinary hearings than Fernando Torres has shots on target in a Chelsea shirt.

Just as my conscience began to favour George Peat and his band of merry-men, out comes the news that the Old Firm will lock horns on Easter Sunday. There’s so much wrong with this decision I don’t know where to start, but the ethical implications are as good a place as any I suppose.

First and foremost, Scotland is predominantly a Christian country, be it protestant or catholic. Easter Sunday is the biggest feast day on the Christian calendar. Everyone up and down the country will be munching away at their Easter Eggs, with the children enjoying some time off school. So why then choose that particular day to stain with the toils and tribulations that an Old Firm Derby brings.

Instead of families spending time together unwinding and enjoying a trouble-free day, the draw of this match will attract many to the match, but exponentially more to alcohol. Families the length and breadth of Scotland will be denied a day of quality time together, in favour exposure to hatred and violence in some cases.

Admittedly the supporters aren’t having a gun put to their head to go to the game or to the pub to participate in the potential time-bomb that is Old Firm Sunday, but the SFA must realise that football is a form of escapism for many people. A significant volume of the population adore football and would watch the match if it was played on the moon, but why force this dilemma upon people and ultimately contribute to the detriment of what should be a time for the family?

Perhaps the SFA/SPL have had their hand forced though, I mean it’s not as though there are other options for when the match could be played. Oh wait, hang on. There are several options for when the match could be played.

The decision makers appear terrified to allow even a mathematical possibility for the SPL title to be decided by an Old Firm Derby, but everyone who can fathom out how to read the league table and recent results can see that the title will most likely go down to the final match of the season, or not far before it.

Why not spare Easter Sunday and play the game as the second or third fixture of the split? Whichever way you look at it, the match will have a strong bearing on the final resting place of the SPL title this season, so what exactly are they trying to prevent? Even supposing we concede to their perverse lust to have the Glasgow giants meet in the first fixture of the split, why must it be Sunday? What happened to all this talk of playing these matches on a Monday night?

Or better yet, here’s a barmy notion, how about we play football at 3pm on a Saturday? As a matter of fact, I genuinely can’t remember the last Old Firm Derby played at that time. Perhaps the frivolous chopping and changing from the SFA will go full circle and we can return some day to the most fundamental of settings for a game of football.

The ugly scenes from Old Firm Derbies this season came to a head when Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon understandably came to a powder-puff clash for mere seconds during Celtic’s victory in February. Despite this, the opportunity for more conflict and media scrutiny has been laid before Celtic and Rangers with this Sunday fixture. A less alcohol fuelled crowd, and less media focus would be on the game if it was in midweek.

Even the slightest scuffle could be blown out of proportion again, with Alex Salmond having to toddle off the election campaign trail to hold another shambolic and unnecessary summit. I’m beyond flummoxed at how the SFA could allow the bad vibes from the previous few fixtures to build up a head of steam, continuing into another Old Firm derby so close to the previous ones.

The ‘on the pitch’ troubles at these games are blown entirely out of proportion. Alcohol is the problem, and the real trouble kicks-off by those in the pubs, not in the stands. It’s debateable that Craig Brown’s scuffle at the weekend was more severe than anything Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist did; but slapping an ‘Old Firm Chaos’ headline on it was always going to result in touchline bans for the managers in question. I’d be extremely surprised if Brown receives more than a slap on the wrist for his fisticuffs, but if he was in the Celtic or Rangers dugout, we’d have seen a different result.

If there was any kind of positive reasoning to play this match on Easter Sunday, I’d like to hear it. I can think of no benefits at all. The offices and blazers at Hampden are shaking in fear at the prospect of an Old Firm title decider, but even supposing the most unlikely of events was to unfurl and we were to be faced with such a scenario, could it be any worse than the Old Firm aftermaths we’ve seen this season?

I fear that Scottish football is slipping into an abyss of bureaucracy, whereby the sport no longer fits into people’s daily lives, but people’s daily lives are forced to adhere to the schedules of the sport. The sacrifice of Easter Sunday to an Old Firm Derby is scandalous on several levels, I only hope that the SFA and SPL has the moral compass to realise their mistake, before Santa Claus is the next victim of the sinister fixture planners, and the kids wake-up on Christmas morning to find their parents en route to Celtic Park or Ibrox.

One night in Budapest

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Pat Connelly
You'll never walk alone: Connelly holds a Celtic scarf across Hollywood's golden couple

In a week where the world mourns the loss of the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor, Hitthebyline.com looks back on a bizarre night in Budapest when she touched the hearts of a few hundred travelling Celtic fans.

It was the 8th of November, 1972 and the Hoops had just crashed out of Europe at the hands of Upjest Dozsa. A 3-0 hammering by the Hungarian outfit put paid to any hopes of repeating the heroics of the Lisbon Lions in 1967. A merry band of Celtic fans made the journey over, led by Pat Connelly – the first ever Head of the Celtic Supporters Club.

The Parkhead faithful were buoyant as their heroes had led 2-1 from the first leg, but their hope had turned to despair when Upjest turned on the style at home. Licking their wounds, the fans returned to a surprise that they’ll never forget.

Hollywood icon Richard Burton too had made the trip to Hungary, but for altogether different reasons. Burton was busy filming one of his many successful films, ‘Bluebeard’, with his lovely wife in tow.While the Celtic fans looked to drown their sorrows in the hotel lobby, awaiting a sombre journey home, their mood was transformed by the presence of Burton and his radiant wife, Liz Taylor. The defeat was soon consigned to the back of those fans minds as Burton and Taylor shared jokes and drinks with the humble Glaswegians.

The friendly couple were as untouchable as royalty, yet took the time out to unwind with their awestruck fellow hotel lodgers. The generous Burton even went as far as to keep the beer flowing, putting £2,000 (worth almost £21,000 in today’s money) behind the bar. Burton and Taylor even took the time to pose for a photo with the elated fans. An even greater honour was bequeathed to Connelly, as he escorted the kind-hearted Taylor back to her room for the evening and into the arms of a resting Burton.

As Elizabeth Taylor is held in the thoughts of the world this week, the memories of her will differ from fan to fan. Some will have films like National Velvet and The Taming of the Shrew coming to mind. Others will remember her dazzling good looks, and friendship with Michael Jackson, but for a few hundred fortunate Celtic fans, the memory of an unforgettable night in Budapest will forever be endeared to their hearts.

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