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.

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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.

McInnes Means Business as Dons Release 11 Players

By Johnny Connelly
(As seen on PLZ Soccer – 18/05/2013)


Right at home – McInnes has settled in at Aberdeen

As the world begins to come to terms with the imminent departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from our game, his successful and adventurous spell at Aberdeen was highlighted, and feels like a lifetime ago. Fergie’s propulsion of the club and the players of the day to the status of European heroes is but a distant memory for the long suffering Dons fans, given the club’s dismal league performances in recent seasons.

Aberdeen have finished the last 3 seasons in 9th place in the SPL, a record not befitting one of the biggest and best supported clubs in the country. Despite a positive start to this season under wily old Craig Brown, the club could yet make that a 4th successive 9th place finish, if things go pear shaped against Hearts on the last day of the season.

This just won’t do. Given the history and support of this club, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have been up there alongside their under-resourced SPL counterparts, Motherwell and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, breathing down Celtic’s neck at the summit of the SPL.

It looks as though things have become worryingly stagnant and predictable at Aberdeen. Constantly finishing 9th overall, and match by match, they seem to only pick up points by stifling the opposition in the middle of the park, effectively choking the game. On 8 occasions this season, Aberdeen have drawn 0-0. This stat, above all else, signifies the need for change at the club.

Fair play to Derek McInnes, he’s identified that a major overhaul is needed alter the club’s fortunes, or at least bring a bit of variety of their results on the field. The ex-Rangers player will quite rightly take no blame for the dull performances this season, as he’s only just in the door, and will need time to make the wholesale changes required.

It seems as though the Dons have tried everything over the last few years. I honestly thought Craig Brown had cracked it when he complimented his young Aberdeen side with battle-hardened SPL players like Gavin Rae, Niall McGinn, and Russell Anderson. For whatever reason, perhaps the Brown’s advancing years, this didn’t transpire.

McInnes has started positively, and should be commended for his bravery in his decision to release 11 players from his current squad.

Players released:

  • Rory Fallon
  • Mitch Megginson
  • Rob Milsom
  • Gary Naismith
  • Isaac Osbounre
  • Gavin Rae
  • Dan Twardzik
  • Scott MacAulay
  • Zach Szemis
  • Stuart Close
  • Jamie Hamilton

The Dons manager told his club’s website: “It’s one of the least enjoyable aspects of the job to tell players that they won’t be staying and I would like to thank all of them for their contribution to this football club.”

He continued:  “Each of them are excellent professionals and we wish them all the very best in their future careers.”

A shrewd bit of media handling there by McInnes, but the real hard work for him starts now. The Aberdeen squad isn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, so he’ll need to make some major moves in the transfer window.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out the Niall McGinn will remain a pivotal part of the Aberdeen setup after leading their scoring charts with a scintillating 21 goals to his name. Josh Magennis has also recently signed a contract extension, so it looks as though McInnes is relatively pleased with his attacking options.

Given the lack of funds readily available, McInnes will be required to be shrewd with free transfers and loan deals to transform this Aberdeen team.  He may well come to call upon his experience and connections from south of the border, having both played and managed at a decent level there, with a view to securing a few undiscovered gems that could improve his side.

As the likes of McGinn have shown, the difference a couple of players can make is remarkable.  1 or 2 decent signings could make the difference for them in the SPL.  The fact is that their recent seasons in the SPL haven’t been good enough, and the club should really be challenging in the domestic cups, year in, year out. The support the club have is amazing, they deserve more than what they’re currently being subjected to.

Derek McInnes is a talented manager, so there must be a quiet sense of optimism surrounding the Dons for the upcoming season. However, if he joins the long list of managers who’ve failed at Pittodrie, many will start to wonder if the problems stem from the management team, or whether they run much deeper at Aberdeen FC.

 

How Not to Run a Football Club – Lessons Scottish Football can learn from Chelsea, Man City & QPR

By Johnny Connelly

These days it seems to be something of a rare occasion when the farcical nature of the beautiful game supersedes that of our own football north of the border. But this, my friends, is one of those times.

The seemingly never-ending chronicles of the Rangers tax-case appear to be finally put to bed, Celtic are just 1 win away from reaching the last 16 of the Champions League, Hearts live on to fight another day, our ‘dysfunctional’ & widely discredited league format is expected to change, and the national side have parted company with their most unenthusiastic and least successful manager in history. Yup, things are looking up in Scotland.

Many more significant successes could be thrown in too, such as Craig Brown transforming Aberdeen, and Terry Butcher working wonders within the constraints of crippling financial resources. But let’s take this moment to poke fun at the complete and utter shambles that some of the ‘bigger’ clubs in the ‘best league in the world’ have embroiled themselves in.

We all know, and we’ve known for some time, that the unsustainable nature of spending south of the border puts football institutions that have existed for well over 100 years in danger. Danger they wouldn’t have faced otherwise.  It’s abundantly clear that Premiership clubs have two primary income sources. The first is the comically over-inflated TV deals from Sky; and the second is the cash in hand payouts from the band of billionaires who’ve taken over these clubs to fill their egotistical void for an elaborate human, emotional, and living plaything.

The second of these income sources currently is what sets the clubs apart in terms of silverware (by in large, as a rule of thumb). The clubs with the biggest money men have had the advantage when competing for honours in recent years, but what a hollow existence for a football fan. To watch your team, strewn with passionate journeymen, battling bravely against relegation one second; to then be catapulted towards competing for the title and signing the most expensive players in the world, just as soon as the money man sees fit to turn on his magic money-tap.

Both of these income streams are not secure. What happens when Sky get bored of the big money payouts? When they don’t feel the product they’re being given is worthy of the hefty price they’re paying? Or when they themselves come across financial difficulty in years to come thanks to the ever-developing world of digital entertainment?

The money man issue is less secure still. At least Sky & EPSN’s involvement is based on a tangible Return on Investment. Like a spoiled child that knows they can get anything they want, a time will inevitably come when boredom sets in. The brat will want a new toy, and the deluded football fans will be left pondering how on earth their beloved team will ever clear debts of hundreds of millions of pounds, and pay the remainder of their top stars’ £120k per week contract.

It genuinely baffles me how most Premiership football fans feel any connection at all with the product their team is putting out for them to support on a Saturday. This week has been a classic example for them.

Look at Chelsea. By hook or by crook, Roberto Di Matteo led them to win the Champions League. They weren’t the best team in Europe; they weren’t even the best team in England. But he did it, and he did it with camaraderie and a likeability factor – something that hasn’t been seen at Stamford Bridge since the days of Gianluca Vialli or Claudio Ranieri’s tenure.

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Di Matteo – Good, but not good enough

Roman Abramovic arrived and transformed a middle of the road, semi-likeable club into a glory-hunting, unmitigated machine of imperialistic endeavour. Chelsea started spending Abramovic’s millions, signing players who’d never have touched the club with a bargepole previously, and accepting nothing less than 100% success. Mourinho came and went, followed by Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Ray Wilkins, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas, and of course, Roberto Di Matteo. Now, the club have taken on another big name manager, Rafa Benitez. They’ll spend yet more money chasing the impossible dreams of a disengaged Russian billionaire, he’ll fail, and then the cycle will continue all over again. What a horrible existence for a football fan to endure, regardless of the standard of the product on the pitch.

Man City are finding themselves being pulled down the same road of despair. Without going into too much detail, the current owner, billionaire Sheik Mansour, propelled a club that typically finished between 10th-16th in the Premiership, into a club that signs players for in excess of £30m, and pays players like Toure around £250k per week!  It’s almost unbelievable, yet it’s what is being put to the average football fan as ‘the way the game is headed’. People forget that Mark Hughes was ousted in bizarre and immoral circumstances as City manager. Now, after the owner has spent over £1bn on the club, it’s Hughes’ successor, the once untouchable Roberto Mancini who is hanging by a thread. Mancini to his credit delivered City’s first ever Premiership title; but has floundered in Europe, and now looks as though he could go the way of the Dodo, (or as we mentioned above, the Roberto).

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Hanging by a thread – Mancini could be next for the chop

QPR too parted company with their manager this week, and again it was Mark Hughes who was the victim. Hughes was correctly sacked after failing to secure a Premiership win 4 months into the campaign, but the nature of his departure was despicable. Hughes was sacked, and his successor named all the space of 24-hours. What a cold and pre-meditated way to run a business, especially a football club. But before anyone begins to feel a modicum of sympathy for Hughes, let us remember that his appointment at Loftus Road to replace Neil Warnock was conducted in a similarly horrible manner.  When ‘loveable’ cockney rouge and purveyor of many a brown envelope bung deal, ‘Arry Redknapp’s phone rang about the QPR job, he must have been elated. How this man hasn’t been convicted for his abundantly clear dodgy dealings is beyond me, but for him to be appointed another Premiership job with a fortune to spend on players in January is almost laughable.

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Sacked – Mark Hughes was shown the door after no wins in 4 months

Surely nobody has forgotten that this man drove Portsmouth to the brink of obliteration? But has everyone forgotten his failure at Southampton? The man took over Saints on December 8th  2004, picking up just 12 points from 16 games. He relegated the club without a whimper, finishing bottom of the English Premier League. Watch this space for yet more comical spending and ‘unproven’ allegations of irregular financial conduct this season on ‘Arry’s watch. Of the 3 aforementioned exorbitantly spending clubs, QPR concerns me the most, as it’s the one that would stand the least chance of survival if and when the money men catch the next train out of town.

The irony is, stability at these clubs isn’t an impossibility. The correct application of corporate branding, developing your own talent, living within your means, and having a clever man pulling the strings is all that’s required to succeed on all fronts in England.

Look at Manchester United. Despite the challenges of having to battle against these big spenders, being taken over by the Glazers, and the huge changes in the game over the last 20 years, Fergie has ensured that his team are successful.

Sir Alex has outlasted 5 British Prime Ministers, 5 American Presidents, 10 Liverpool managers, 18 Chelsea managers, and 19 Man City managers, while picking up 37 trophies  along the way.

To hark back briefly to Chelsea as a comparison, during the Abramovic era, the London club spent more money (approx £90m) hiring and firing mangers, than Man Utd have spent on players (Net transfer spend). Everton too show themselves to have a successful model. Davie Moyes receives plaudits year on year, not least for his current team that plays exciting and endearing football. The Merseyside club’s attention to financial detail is in stark contrast to that of Chelsea, having spent less money on players in their entire Premiership existence, than the European champs have spent hiring and firing gaffers in the last 8 years. Wenger’s Arsenal are another great example of how it can be done, but the pressure is certainly mounting on the Frenchman to adopt the seemingly trendy, reckless approach to spending.  I hope for the Gunners’ sake, they keep their faith in the Arsene’s approach.

We could analyse the dichotomy between the spending styles until the cows come home, but as I initially stated, it’s clear that the Chelsea, Man City and QPR approach isn’t a morally objective one, and leaves those clubs with a finite lifespan.

North of the border, we’ve suffered in silence. Never really having the power to compete for their players (with the exception of the O’Neill years at Celtic, and the Advocaat years at Rangers) in modern times, but we’re certainly on the right track. Whether they like it or not, Rangers have been forced to start from scratch, and they’ll do anything to avoid a repeat of the strategy that led to the club being liquidated. In the coming years, they’ll adopt the same approach as Celtic, which is proving as successful as could be hoped for. Don’t count on TV money, as it could disappear tomorrow. Count on a good scouting and youth system that allows you to sell players on for exponentially more than it cost to acquire/produce them. Count on a clever global and European marketing strategy to expand your brand and tap into new revenue streams. And finally, focus on keeping the product entertaining for the fans. If the fans can buy into what your club is trying to achieve, then a prosperous future is secured.

At this point in time, Scotland has an exciting league setup. Every team in the top flight is taking points off everyone else. The honours are very much up for grabs, and the relegation battle will likely go to the wire. This, together with the ongoing work to restructure the league to be more commercially viable, Celtic’s impressive form against Europe’s elite, and the opportunity to appoint a new Scotland manager with fresh ideas, puts Scottish football in a very good position indeed.

So let the English media poke fun at the SPL and the national side if they wish. We’ve identified the problems and are working to fix them. All this, while our friends on the other side of the border sit blissfully unaware of the ticking time bomb that is their current league setup; as they pompously preach about the ‘best league in the world’, truly believing theirs is an infallible football industry. How wrong they are.