Champions League Seeding System – A Force For The Status Quo

So Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side have beaten the odds, jumped the hurdles, and dodged every pitfall trap on the way to the Champions League group stage.

While bloated entities like the English Premiership enjoy five spaces in this season’s Champions League (some of which require no prior qualifiers), the ‘smaller’ leagues in Europe, of which the Scottish Premiership is deemed to be, need to endure a farcically long-winded qualification schedule.

Let’s recap. As early as July 14th, Celtic’s campaign began. They were pitted against Linfield of Northern Ireland and overcame them in style, despite most other clubs up and down the country having barely started their pre-season. Next up, the sleeping giant of Rosenborg. Historically Norway’s elite club, and Champions League regulars. Up until 2002, they were the most consistent qualifying team for the group stages, having managed to get there eight seasons on the bounce. They’ve recorded wins over Borussia Dortmund (away) and Real Madrid in the not too distant past, but now also must endure an arduous qualifying process. Celtic overcame Rosenborg on this occasion, and were then handed a final qualification tie against Astana of Kazakhstan, who were also swept aside. No mean feat, but what happens next?

How can it be that a club like Celtic have to work through six matches, early in the season, against other champions of their respective leagues, culminating in a 6,500 mile round trip to Kazakhstan; while a club like Tottenham Hotspur (who didn’t win their league) sail straight through to the group stages?

You’d think that after having battled through the qualification process, all clubs who reach the group stages would be on a level playing field. But you’d be wrong. Thanks to the seeding system, the majority of the teams who find themselves in Pot 4 for the group stages will be nothing more than also rans as a result of being drawn (by design) against far superior teams.

Put simply, the seeding system, no matter how you tinker with it, makes no sense at all. Take this year’s proposed pots for example. Pot 1 includes clubs like Spartak Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk; while Pot 2 includes the likes of Barcelona, PSG, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester United. Are we really saying that a club like Spartak Moscow should be carrying a bigger billing than a club like Barcelona? The obvious comeback to that line of argument is that both Spartak Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk are champions, while Barcelona and Dortmund are not; but the inconsistency there is woefully transparent. If being the champions of your nation carries more clout for Spartak and Shakhtar, then why do we still find teams like Celtic, Feyenoord, and Maribor (who are all champions) in Pot 4?

Switzerland Soccer Champions League Draw

Last season, the Europa League was a better tournament to watch than the Champions League (beyond the group stages at least). Clubs like Ajax, St Ettiene, and Manchester United brought a freshness to the viewing audience, while the Champions League was nauseatingly predictable. The same clubs getting to the same stage in the same tournament, year after year.

The ramifications of this are three fold. First off, the commercial viability of it will diminish over time. Apathy kicks in, and people become fed up with the repetition. Yes there will always be barrel loads of cash in the Champions League, but what happens if the viewing figures start to dip? How do you explain that to a Heineken or Gazprom who are ready to sign a seven figure sponsorship deal?

The next consequence is that the same handful of teams will keep qualifying from the group stage, and will keep winning the tournament. Again, not good for the neutral, the sponsors, or anyone who has anything to do with clubs who find themselves in Pot 3 or 4. Can you really imagine anyone beyond Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or PSG winning the Champions League in the near future? Are the top clubs in Pot 1 and 2 because they do well in this competition? Or do they do well in the competition because they are consistently in Pot 1 and 2?

By consistently putting these clubs in Pot 1 and 2, you’re effectively guaranteeing them a larger financial boost every year as they have a far greater chance of going beyond the group stages. This financial boost allows them to strengthen more than the lesser teams in the competition, which in turn gives them even more of an edge competitively, and perpetuates them reaching the latter stages, and continuing to benefit financially. This cycle is unbreakable while the seeding system remains in place.

The final consequence comes by virtue of the above, and is that the gap between the elite clubs, and those in Pot 4 will continue to widen. Celtic’s qualification this season will net them in the region of £30m, which is huge for a club in Scotland. However, by way of having to negotiate six matches to get there, there’s no guarantee for club’s like Celtic that they’ll reach this stage in the competition every year. Bagging yourself £30m every other season is great, but how does it stack up against the elite? Across prize money and the market pool value, Real Madrid and Juventus earned upwards of £90m from last year’s competition. Anyone reaching the quarter finals can expect to take home double the amount that Celtic picked up for qualifying. If a club can bank on at least £60m from the competition alone, year on year, it puts them light years ahead of the also rans, and plays a major factor in attracting big name signings, lucrative sponsorships, and increased media/broadcasting coverage. The top end clubs are sailing off into the distance, and will be out of sight if things don’t change.

So what’s the solution? Easy. Get rid of the seeding system. We, as the Champions League audience, have been conditioned to accept the seeding system. We accept it because it’s how things have always been, but if the Champions League is to be a force for good, this outdated approach to fixture arrangement needs to go. A fully unrestricted, open draw would breathe new life into the competition, and put all 32 clubs on an even financial footing over time.

This season, for example, we could see a group with Chelsea, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid thrown in together. Potentially two giants of European football would crash out early. Conversely, you could also see a group of Celtic, Sporting Lisbon, Maribor and Basel. For once, two of the ‘smaller’ clubs in this example would reach the latter stages of the tournament. A club like Maribor could end up earning £60m+, which would transform the competition in the long run. Your traditional Pot 4 teams would have the financial muscle after a few seasons to compete for the signatures of the very best players. Instead of three or four clubs being in with a chance of winning the big cup, we could be talking about 10 or 12.

Unquestionably, European football is worse off for the absence of sleeping giants like Ajax, Celtic, Liverpool, AC Milan, and Hajduk Split in prominent positions, challenging for European silverware. By breaking the financial and structural stranglehold, the resurgence of these types of club would be facilitated, all in the name of fairness. Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen clubs like Manchester City actually doing a two-for-one promotions on Champions League tickets; while Champions League tickets for Celtic Park are like gold dust. What does that tell you about the stature of these clubs in real terms? With no detriment to the tournament itself, every season would be fresh, and the clubs who find themselves rewarded would be the ones who are run most efficiently.

Success breeds success, both on and off the pitch. A few seasons of good performances in the Champions League would do wonders for the domestic leagues of countries like Scotland, Belgium, Norway,  Denmark, and Sweden. Moderate success in UEFA’s flagship competition has a knock-on financial effect on the domestic scene as a whole. Ultimately, smaller leagues would become a more attractive proposition for top stars, broadcasters, and sponsors. European football turned on its head, and all with something as simple as scrapping an outdated and inequitable system.


FIFA Light The Poppy Powder Keg

How Football’s Governing Body Got More Than They Bargained For

by Johnny Connelly


In the immediate aftermath of FIFA flexing their muscles on their long-held stance against ‘political’ slogans or logos being displayed on football shirts, the irony of getting angry about the use of the poppy in the sport remains lost on some.

The seemingly straightforward decision to either allow, or block the use of the poppy on football shirts in the upcoming England vs Scotland match has lit a powder keg in terms of emotional response from both sides of the argument. The question is, have FIFA made the correct call, and will there ever be a clear line of segregation between politics and football in the UK?

The emblem, intended as a mark of respect for those lost in WWI, has evolved into a cause of much controversy in football and across the mainstream media, much to the dismay of those closest to the genuine issue it’s intended to highlight.

Without delving too much into both sides of the argument, we should all be in agreement as civilised adults that getting passionately angry either way completely undermines both sides of the argument. Finding yourself vexed about something that’s there to show respect, is ironically disrespectful; and being staunchly against it to the point of exasperation because you view yourself as a pacifist, is deeply hypocritical.

Contributions from those who cannot articulate a calm and reasoned argument for or against such things is unwelcome. That said, FIFA’s latest input is at best inconsistent, and at worst, frighteningly ignorant.

The governing body of the sport we all love have made their stance clear with regard to the clash with the auld enemy; but why stop there? One could be forgiven for assuming that FIFA haven’t bothered researching the issue at a domestic level in the UK, as they’ve stopped well short of taking a stance on it.

Whether you think the poppy is a political statement or not is besides the point. FIFA have deemed it as so within the confines for the upcoming England v Scotland match, but how can the same type of display and subject matter be ‘political’ for an international match, but not a domestic one?

Several English Premier Division clubs, as well as Rangers and Hearts in Scotland make no secret of their Armistice Day tributes, but other clubs stay well clear of the issue. It’s not for anyone to say definitively whether taking part or abstaining is morally correct. It’s respectful and correct to allow people to mark the day as they see fit, not to ram the issue down their throat.

What’s not correct is the muddled approach from FIFA, and the media witch hunt which has emanated from something that was originally intended to be mannerly and deferential. Theresa May’s announcement that non-poppy wearers should be “named and shamed” does nothing but fan the flames of hatred. With all the problems that we face in the UK today, surely the poppy debate should be put on the back burner in Westminster?

FIFA too aren’t free of blame here. Their scattergun approach to these types of displays is typical of the disarray that mires the organisation. Their flip-flopping on the Irish Easter Rising display bewildered many fans, and where does it stop? Pyrotechnic displays incur fines sometimes, but not others. Carrying Palestinian and Israeli flags also can incur punishment inconsistently. Then there’s issues like racist chanting, which still falls under the radar in some countries. No wonder there’s confusion over what is, and what is not acceptable.

It’s a multi-faceted issue. People will continue to be passionate about matters that not everyone will always agree with. Unless there’s strong governance over to which extent political and religious messaging can interfere with football, then we’ll forever be stuck on this perpetual merry-go-round, debating the same handful of issues as and when the mainstream media see fit.

What I can’t understand is why the issue of poppy display (and others like it) tends only to be contentious in football. Rugby, tennis, baseball, golf, basketball, athletics etc all seem to be free of this. There’s no one right answer, but football in Scotland and England seems to be as much about political messaging and antagonistic behaviour as it is about the sport itself.

A blanket acceptance, or outright ban feels like the only way to put the issue to bed, although the execution of either could invoke yet more negative feeling.

If people could make a unified effort to keep their political opinions to themselves for 90 minutes, maybe we could enjoy the sport a little more. Who knows, it may even help to turn the UK government’s focus not towards an atrocity from over 100 years ago, but to the issues which cripple us today; unemployment, privatisation, current global conflict, poverty, and inequality.

The Curious Case of Leicester City FC

…and what the rest of the Premiership can learn from them

by Johnny Connelly

Mahrez Vardy.jpg

Just weeks after miraculously avoiding the drop from the English Premiership, the footballing world snorted with derision as Leicester City appointed Claudio Ranieri as Nigel Pearson’s successor. Fresh off the back of presiding over the Greek national side’s worst qualifying campaign in modern football history, Ranieri took the reins, as armchair fans across the country united in their view that the Foxes would once again have a fight on their hands to avoid the drop.

Fast forward five months, and football fans have been left agog, as Ranieri is performing miracles. Leicester City are now the only side in Premiership history to be bottom of the league one Christmas, and top the next.

The man Jose Mourinho considered to be a “loser” at Chelsea (who’s the loser now Jose?) has continued to defy the odds this season, avoiding defeat in all but one fixture, having beaten Everton, Chelsea, Newcastle, Watford, and Crystal Palace to name but a few.

With the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league, Ranieri’s men sit at the summit of the table, but what is the Italian doing that’s so different to the rest of the pack?

To lift the lid on this, we must look as far back as Ranieri’s first few weeks at the club. After a positive string of results, the Serie A journeyman was asked about what he’s done to bring about the change in fortunes. His response was: “I’ve tried to change as little as possible.”


Put simply, Ranieri is riding the crest of a wave. The players and everyone at the club were on a high from the relegation battle triumph at the end of last season, so why rock the boat? There was harmony amongst the squad. With a consistent tactical approach and a bit of belief, he knew that success wouldn’t be far away.

Leicester’s fairly rigid 4-4-2 formation is something of a novelty now in the Premiership. Are the top clubs overcomplicating things? Underlapping fullbacks, False nines, trequartistas and gegenpressing are popular among the football hipster community; but is there more value in a simple formation, with clear instructions, complimented with a peppering of talent in the final third?

Some of the ‘bigger’ clubs in recent times can’t seem to get it right. Prior to his sacking, Mourinho tried everything at Chelsea: Playing without a recognised striker, playing a centre-half at right back, and even switching to 3 at the back. With every change he made, things got worse.

The revolving door at Manchester United has caused unrest there too. In just a few seasons they’ve switched from a well defined tactical approach via Sir Alex Ferguson, to a transitional

phase (which was given no time or support to bed in under Davie Moyes), and now onto a tedious possession-based game under Louis Van Gaal. How can any reasonable amount of success be expected here when there’s no consistency at the club? Van Gaal has spent over £250m in the summer, but still has players like Depay and Mata drifting in and out of the team, while the back four is currently made up of unknown entities such as Phil Jones, Paddy McNair, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.

Liverpool too continue to toil, despite the introduction of the ‘saviour’, Jurgen Klopp. The German has an infectious personality and is well liked in the game, but it’s clear the complex system he’s deploying will not work with the current squad of players. I suspect he’ll prevail in the long run (if given time), but a high pressing game with well-worn midfielders like James Milner and a striker as cumbersome as Christian Benteke just will not work. If the players can’t fit the system; devise a system that fits the players.

Leicester City’s simple tactical approach allows for two or three players to play a more expansive role. Enter Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. While the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United are suppressing creativity from players like Oscar, Hazard, Mata and Depay; Leicester are giving Vardy and Mahrez a free rein creatively, with dogged support across the field from the rest of the team. The results have been outstanding.

Vardy has smashed Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premiership scoring record, and Mahrez continues to drive through defences like a hot knife through butter. Other players in the side with less creative ability like Fuchs and Huth are given simple orders to follow in the game. The correct application of 90% durability and 10% creativity fused together is what’s given the Foxes a winning mentality.

Their approach to the 3-2 victory against Everton, and the 2-1 win over Chelsea illustrate this perfectly. On paper, Everton and Chelsea are stronger than Leicester, without question. The difference is that the Leicester side have clear defined roles, and the players know who they need to turn to for a moment of creative brilliance. Who do Chelsea turn to? Diego Costa has been in and out the side. Cesc Fabregas is sitting deep. Hazard’s confidence has taken a bashing. Then there’s Loic Remy, Ramadel Falcao, Oscar, Willian, Ramires, Matic and Pedro. How can a team who doesn’t even know who’ll be in the match day squad possibly have any collective creative reasoning on how they’ll win a football match? Very much a case of too many cooks, and a few too many egos.

Some people will point to the ever increasing pot of TV money which is giving the mid to bottom Premiership teams a bit of pulling power in the transfer market, but considering Leicester’s top two players cost a little over £2m in total, I hardly think we can point at financial muscle as any kind of indicator for success.

The real defining success for Leicester City this season has been their dismissal of the Champions League team glass ceiling. Ranieri has installed a real feel good factor. Where once Leicester would have parked the bus at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, the City of Manchester Stadium, and Anfield; they’re now having a go.

I firmly believe that this approach will inspire other sides to do likewise. Why go down without a fight when you can take the bull by the horns and potentially win the match?

Will Leicester City go on to win the Premiership? I certainly hope so, but if we’re being brutally honest, they have yet to climb the steepest part of the mountain. If Vardy and Mahrez stay at the club, and stay fit, the Foxes have a sporting chance. The whole country wants to see the league being turned on its head. Never before has one club received such overwhelming support from all corners of the UK. This in itself is a bigger success than Leicester could have hoped for. They’ve single handedly burst the repetitive bubble of the same handful of clubs challenging while the rest look on as spectators. For that reason alone, regardless of their final league position, this season is already a success for Leicester City.

Is the penny finally dropping for Ally?

McCoist looks as though he’s learned lessons from last year’s flops

The long suffering Rangers fans of the modern era will no doubt continue to have their club dragged through the dirt in the coming season as more and more details of the Craig Whyte & Charles Green cavalcade of misdemeanors and skulduggery come to the fore. Sadly these club issues will wrangle on, but the last few weeks have had a silver lining of sorts on the actual football side of things, as Ally McCoist has made some impressive signings straight off the bat since the controversial transfer embargo has been partially lifted.

Rangers Manager Ally McCoist
Stern of face – McCoist has his work cut out for him

The past and continued involvement of Charles Green and Craig Whyte is a matter for the courts, and is well out of the fans and McCoist’s hands, but it would appear that there are signs of life as the manager has wasted no time in pressing on with strengthening his squad for life in Division 2, with one eye clearly on shaping a team that could compete in Division 1 and the SPL.

Gers fans haven’t had much to smile about over the last few years, broadly speaking, but the latest 4 players to join Rangers should bring a smile to even the grumpiest of supporters.  Although Rangers cruised to the Scottish 3rd Division title, even the most devoted of fans grew weary of the performances (or lack of) being put in by some of last season’s signings. A distinct shift in signing policy was required; and it looks as though it’s being delivered.

The likes of Fran Sandaza and Ian Black were never going to be wise choices to slot into a Rangers side facing a gruesome fight in the Scottish 3rd Division – for very different reasons of course. Sandaza, although a gifted goal scorer, has never been the most energetic player. His lethargic style of play led to him being a divisive character at Dundee United, and generally unpopular during his short spell at Brighton. There’s no doubt that he can stick them away when given a decent supply; but when be faced with a muddy park, playing against hard-nosed joiners and labourers who’d like nothing better than to put you on your backside, his effectiveness soon diminishes.

Ian Black too has struggled to win over the Ibrox faithful. He succeeds where Sandaza fails in terms of endeavour, but his blatant lack of ability and over-reliance on a style of play that borders on thuggery leaves him well short in terms of credentials to hold down a place in the Rangers midfield.  Of course there have been glimpses of promise from the likes of Dean Shiels and David Templeton, but the overall style and standard of signing has been lacking from a long-term perspective.

McCoist has wasted no time in securing the services of 3 top SPL players and a 40-goal striker from Queen of the South. Jon Daly, Nicky Law, and Cammy Bell have been joined by Nicky Clark as Rangers look to take the 2nd Division by storm.

Jon Daly is no spring chicken at 30 years of age, but with a goal tally of 58 from 167 appearances for Dundee United available on a free transfer, McCoist would be a fool to turn him down. Again in stark difference to Sandaza, Daly can throw his weight about and isn’t afraid to mix it up when it comes to tackling hard. His vast experience in England’s lower divisions while playing with Stockport, Bury, Grimsby, and Hartlepool will be drawn upon again as this same grit and determination will be required to guide Rangers up through the divisions here in Scotland.

Cammy Bell was something of a surprise when you consider Rangers already have a quality keeper in Neil Alexander. Ongoing contract debates with Alexander, and a propensity to concede goals due to lapses in concentration last season have clearly lead his manager to look for alternatives. In Scotland’s lowest division, Alexander managed just 12 clean sheets in matches where Rangers picked up all 3 points. Cammy Bell has his best years ahead of him at just 26 years of age, and could easily hold on to the no.1 jersey when Rangers eventually return to the SPL. His impressive performances over the last 7 years for Killie even led to peripheral inclusion in the Scotland setup. Bell will be around for a while at Rangers if he plays his cards right, but will come under the same scrutiny as Alexander if he fails to hit the ground running.

The acquirement of Nicky Law’s signature caught everyone off guard. Law was at the heart of the Motherwell midfield this season as they punched above their weight to finish 2nd in the SPL.  He’s attracted attention from the Championship, and reports even linked him with SPL Champions Celtic, so a move to the Scottish 2nd Division, albeit with Rangers, was a surprise to everyone. At just 25, he too could remain as a first team pick for McCoist when the club get back to the big-time. He’s shown himself to be strong in the tackle, but with a decent engine to go box to box, and with the ability to split defences with a clever pass. Law has cut his teeth in England’s lower divisions, having spent time with Sheffield United, Yeovil, Bradford, and Rotherham. He’ll be one to watch for Rangers this season and beyond, if his performances last season were anything to go by.

Away from the SPL, Queen of the South striker Nicky Clark also joined the ranks at Ibrox this week. McCoist shattered the delusion that Rangers would simply be cherry picking players from the SPL, as he opted for Clark who shone in the 2nd Division and Ramsdens Cup last year. He rattled in 40 goals last season, and knows only too well the pressures of playing for Rangers if he’s been listening to his father, Sandy Clark. It’s fair to say he’s not proved himself at the highest level, but finding the net 40 times in a season at just 21-years of age makes him a hot prospect for the future. It’ll be interesting to see if he can replicate or better his tally this season, given the increase in pressure brought on by playing for a bigger club.

Given the way the last 3 years have gone, we know that there’ll be more twists and turns to come in this seemingly never-ending saga of ownership, debt, EBTs, title deeds, liquidation, and every other sensationalised story that’s landed at the gates of Ibrox in recent times, but credit must be given to McCoist on this occasion for competently dealing with the task at hand – strengthening his squad. The road back to the big-time for Rangers will be a long and arduous one, and if success is to be achieved, then McCoist will need to deliver the right type of performance from the right type of signing. The real pressure starts now, and his latest signings will be expected to explode into action next season.

Do the Tartan Army need a new leader to make it to Brazil in 2014?

by Johnny Connelly

So, just as the Scottish sporting media scratched their heads for a gap-bridging story to fill the void between the conclusion of the Olympics, and the inevitable ‘transfer window slamming shut’ gibberish, up pops Craig Levein to the aid of the journos with his bizarre inclusion of Ian Black in the Scotland squad.

The story has been all over the news; and rightly so.

The Tartan Army unanimously screwed up their faces, both in surprise and angst at the notion of Black pulling on the dark blue jersey on account of the Scotland boss’ recent comments about how difficult it’ll be to select Rangers players, given their newly confirmed status in Scotland’s 4th tier.

It’s been well documented, so I won’t labour the point, but Black shouldn’t be featuring in the Scotland setup at all. Not today; not ever.

I refuse to accept his thuggery on the football pitch as an acceptable way to play the ‘beautiful game’, and I know there are many more deserving individuals who could do more for the Scotland team if included at Black’s expense. To my mind, Craig Conway of Cardiff,  surprise Stoke signing Jamie Ness, and Scott Allan of West Brom spring to mind.

The point is, yet again Levein appears to have overlooked the obvious, made an error, and gone against the grain in a manner considered by some as odd; but by most as bewildering.

Selection in general has been a thorny issue for Levein. Throughout his time he’s thrown in his fair share of Englishmen in particular who’ve not quite set the heather alight. The likes of Phil Bardsley and Matt Gilks being selected while a then unstoppable Ross McCormack sat unnoticed is quite inexplicable.

Craig Levein - Should he stay or should he go?
Is Levein the right man to take the Scots to Brazil?

This feeling of doom and gloom ahead of a qualifying campaign is all too familiar, particularly under Levein. The former Dundee United boss’ CV is resplendent with entries that would cause concern to Scotland fans. Hit the byline asks the question, is it time for a change before we’re doomed to miss out on yet another major finals?

The Hampden faithful are still reeling from having to endure a 5-1 trouncing at the hands of the USA in our last outing, and the concern is that Levein’s results could be going from bad to worse at the worst possible time, just as we look to kick off our World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign.

His monotonous tone aside, I doubt Levein will ever shake off the demons and ridicule of the 4-6-0 incident against the Czech Republic in our last campaign. For those of you who needed reminding, Scotland faced a stern but not un-winnable task in Prague’s ‘Synot Tip Arena‘ as part of the Euro 2012 qualifiers. At least a point had to be earned to keep us in the running for a playoff place. Enter Levein and the infamous 4-6-0 formation. Scotland’s lion was more whimpering than rampant in a narrow 1-0 defeat, and unsurprisingly presented little or no danger to Peter Cech’s goal.

The Euro 2012 qualifying campaign stopped short of laughable, arriving more at ‘unconvincing‘ in my book. Indications of this would be our pair of slender wins by a solitary goal over footballing minnows Liechtenstein, one of which necessitated at 97th minute winner to see them off. To put this into context, Liechtenstein is a nation with a population so small, that it fits comfortably within Easter Road and Tynecastle. It’s just 61 square miles in area, and on the football front, they’ve won just 6 competitive matches, and have therefore never qualified for a major tournament. Perhaps a 3-0 or more could have been expected Craig?
The final insult (or irony) of the campaign was that it turned out to be the failure to secure a point in the ill-fated 4-6-0 game that ultimately cost us a playoff place. Had we managed even a 1-1, we’d have been the ones who played Montenegro in a bid to reach the finals.

To this day, Levein still defends his use of the 4-6-0 formation. After the failure in Prague, he said:

“Even Barcelona, with their 4-5-1, use just one striker. In fact, when they lose the ball, they go 4-6-0. They don’t even leave a striker up the park”.

Yes Craig, Barca do often dabble with a 4-6-0. However, Messrs Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and their pals do help make the formation a go-er. Unfortunately none of the Barca boys have Scottish grandparents. Just bad luck I suppose?

Legendary New York Yankees batter Lefty Gomez famously said, “I’d rather be lucky than good”, and perhaps he was on to something. Given the perennial Scottish task of having to punch above our weight, a bit of luck is needed from time to time. Lucky indeed for Levein that he’s been blessed with having the best Scottish striker since Euro 96‘ at his disposal, in Steven Fletcher.

Trust Levein to transform the positive into a negative, get embroiled in a silly spat over selection and make Fletcher as much use as a glass cricket bat.Yes, the Wolves striker with a £12m price tag on his head is unavailable to help us reach our first major finals in 18 years by virtue of a pointless argument based on the forward’s expectation of getting a game for his national side. Surely a clever manager would get his prized asset onside, and give our aforementioned whimpering lion a much needed shot in the arm to become rampant once more?

Embarrassing World Cup qualifying campaigns are becoming worryingly common for Scotland. This one could be our most difficult in a generation. Ok, so there’s no footballing heavyweights in there, but when the fixtures are looked at, where exactly does the average Scotland fan expect to pick up 3 points?

Serbia will be a daunting place to visit, and won’t roll over at Hampden. A newly resurgent Wales side are capable, as history proves, of giving us a hiding if we’re not careful. Croatia ooze class in every department, and will firmly expect to qualify. Belgium have taught us a lesson or two before, despite currently sitting a few places behind us in the world rankings. Last but not least, Macedonia. They’ve held Portugal to a respectable draw just a few months ago, and playing in their 30°C heat will be a less than attractive prospect to some (we are Scottish after all).

As always, we know we’ve got the players to deliver during this campaign, but do we have the correct man holding the reigns to inspire team spirit, cohesive play, and inject passion into our side again?

Only time will tell.

(Tell us what you think below. Should Levein stay, or should Levein go?)

How Old Media killed Rangers FC…and how New Media danced on its grave – PART II

PART II – How New Media danced on Rangers’ grave

By Mr Custard

Where was I? Oh that’s right, Old Media killed Rangers…

I was brought up with a newspaper coming through the letterbox every day in our house. We had a big family and it got passed about. We knew it was biased in places but we were intelligent enough to read between the lines and find the truth. I was a paper delivery boy for years too, I did the same round Joe Jordan did. I remember getting a bollocking for delivering the Evening Times Saturday night copy late because I had been at Pittodrie that day. When the internet came along it opened people’s eyes. It became quite clear the newspapers were feeding us lie after lie. Unsurprisingly, circulation numbers began to dwindle. Now I don’t miss them. On my commute to work I can pick up fresh news, with interactive moments from various sources. Right now I would never dream of picking up a ‘red top’. Why would I pay to read the jaundiced words of Traynor, Keevins and Hateley? Before this era they were the only show in town, empowered by their own ego and their words were given credence. Now? In this internet age (which they seemingly can’t understand) they have been shown up as dinosaurs, and their meal ticket has run oot.

Not only did the Old Media kill Rangers; they killed themselves.


Take the floor shiny New Media. New Media is people led, fan led. It sets the agenda and it runs with it. In this current ‘internet age’ someone can have a good idea and it can gather pace and spread like wildfire. If it strikes the right chord, it’ll run and run instantly. The best example of this is the well known Twitter account, “Rangers Tax Case”. It came into being due to Old Media not only ignoring the biggest sporting swindle to ever hit these islands, it denied, obfuscated, and deflected too. Ordinary people had concerns, a blog aired these concerns and very quickly, a light was sparked and everyone did some digging, shared information and made informed decisions.

For months and months the mainstream media ignored these new findings. Things that had been dug up about Craig Whyte not having ten bob and a packet of fags, the Ticketus scam, the crumbling steel empire of Murray, the proof of dual contracts. The mainstream media denied it all, paving the way for the illuminating light of New Media. This name in itself is misleading in the context of the old. New media is everyone connecting, sharing views and opinions and quickly realising that contributors were far more resourceful and intelligent than their antiquated predecessors. Obviously Celtic fans had the most reason to investigate but they were joined by fans of other teams and fans of fairness and justice who were similarly fed up by the open corruption and bored with the SPL cabal that hadn’t seen the league trophy leave Glasgow in over a quarter of a century.

Instead of buying a newspaper that was already redundant by the time it hit the newsstands, purveyors of New Media could read these articles immediately online, and within minutes form and dissipate this opinion to others, often hilariously. By use of Twitter articles can be easily aired, derided and parodied by fans of all teams. Rangers Tax Case led to Celtic tax case, Aberdeen tax case and St Mirren tax case… all with their own humorous contributions.

After year upon year of comedy reporting that had now been shown up for the joke that it was, the New Media fearlessly put the boot in, and what a wealth of material to choose from. Craig Whyte was openly lampooned which was like shooting fish in a barrel. The ‘Mr Custard’ debacle where Rangers Fighting Fund proceeds were transferred via Paypal to a clown was like something off Chucklevision. I’m purposely not naming names as would lead to cracking contributors being left out but in the midst of Old Media being dire, Joe Public was left to fill the void…and some humorous, well informed minds carried out this task. Each mention of “warchests” was derided. The comedy administrators Duff & Duffer equally got it for their shambolic dealings, as well had their long time conflicted interest in the case. Some clever peeps with too much time and too much Photoshop knowledge were given instant audience and infamy. Comedy “in denial” utterances from the “flat earth society” were also instantly shared with great glee. But amidst all the fun and joviality there was a serious and important message being shared.

From the old MSM claims of “nothing to see here” about the tax case (which bizarrely enough are now officially named as “the big tax case” and “the wee tax case” by all after being christened so on rangers tax case.) to “Craig Whyte is minted”…..we had Rangers in administration on Valentine’s Day, lying talk about being back out of admin for euro qualification, we had lying talk in the press about a CVA being do-able it quickly became clear that the only way to get near to the truth was New Media blogs, and twitter feeds from the footballing family.

Even now we are still being fed lies. Apparently Rangers didn’t get liquidated and are still in existence? Apparently the whole of Scottish football is going to hell in a handcart because “the peepul” aren’t there to scrape their knuckles across the landscape. So all SPL teams aren’t reporting record season ticket sales due to this cancer being cut out of the game?

I genuinely think this is a watershed moment for Scottish football. The schoolyard bully has been given a severe doing, the prefects who looked on have been similarly given a bloody nose. Scottish football has been given a shot in the arm due to new enthusiasm, lower league teams will see their exposure and coffers swell, SPL teams will have a better chance of silverware and there also seems to be a new found sense of “chumminess” between clubs over denying the passengers who wanted to keep the status quo and who served notice on their clubs guardians.

So here we are, Armageddon didn’t happen. Sky is still paying as it was, ticket sales are up and we’re all friends…the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!

Division 3 for Rangers; but it’s business as usual for Scottish Football

by Johnny Connelly

Charles Green reacts to the news the his Rangers Newco will be playing in the 4th tier of Scottish football

So the Rangers Newco’s first experience of domestic football in Scotland will be in Division 3. The final nail is in the coffin, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have been summoned, the 10 terrible plagues of Egypt will reign upon our game, and the universe will implode around teatime. Well, that’s pretty much what we’re being led to believe by shameless ‘red-top’ tabloid journos.

Give me a break. The seemingly eternal and bureaucratically orchestrated demise of Rangers FC as we knew it has come to an end. Surely this is something to rejoice over? We can actually start thinking about playing football again!

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Scottish media’s handling of the Rangers situation in recent weeks has been one last hurrah for lazy journalists who’ve been spoon fed their copy since the day the HMRC story broke. This “£16m cost” figure is as fictional and unfounded as Craig Whyte’s friendship with Prince Albert of Monaco.

Yes, the absence of Rangers in Scotland’s elite footballing division will have monetary ramifications, but to report only this aspect of the drastic change is an insult to football fans across Scotland.

To illustrate the point, I’ve picked up on two stories reported in the media today on the matter. The first, an understandably stunted and sensationalist piece in the Sunday Mail; while the second is an altogether more surprising angle, from the usually enlightening pen of Graham Spiers.

The Sunday Mail today claimed that 5 current SPL teams will go bust within a month as a result of the Rangers debacle. Sorry, but that’s just factually incorrect to the point that I feel embarrassed for Gordon Parks, who penned the piece. The suggestion was that St Mirren, along with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Motherwell, Dundee United and Kilmarnock will no longer be able to function. This constant scaremongering about such things does nothing for the game in this country. The game is constantly in motion, and will always face new difficulties. Yes, the current Sky & ESPN deals could be subject to a negative change, but doesn’t that ‘crisis’ sound a little familiar?

I seem to remember a similar media frenzy when the proverbial arse fell out of Setanta. Also, on a smaller scale, silly behavior ensued when the Scottish Cup was struggling to find a sponsor. Even in the untouchable land of English football, OnDigital’s meteoric rise, and cataclysmic fall had little or no impact on the day-to-day running of the game. Time has proved that the game always survives, and another option always presents itself.

The SPL clubs will survive too. The Scottish game isn’t exactly wealthy, and never has been. For this reason, the clubs in question have become accustomed to live within their means. A restricted income will simply result in restricted outgoings. It really is that simple.

In the second case I stumbled across today, the aforementioned Mr Spiers put across his usual erudite, punchy and enjoyable opinions on how things have transpired in the last few days. But I took umbrage, not to what he said, but to what he omitted.

A clear focus in his piece was that Peter Lawell, Neil Lennon, and Celtic as a whole will miss Rangers more than they’ve ever missed any aspect of professional football. Perhaps true in some respects. The Old Firm derby is amongst the most prestigious and exciting football encounters on the face of the Earth. Of course the thought of it not being a regular fixture for at least the next three years is somewhat harrowing for football fans, that’s a given, but Spiers failed to highlight the fact that Rangers are where they are by virtue of their own financial mis-management.

Rangers have suffered a fate no different from any other team in Scotland who ever have or ever will go through the liquidation process. There’s no conspiracy, and conversely, no exceptions to be made. Rules and regulations were broken by Rangers. They’ve been punished to the point where their club as they know it, no longer exists. The Rangers Newco begin life in the Irn-Bru Scottish 3rd Division, where they’ll have to claw their way up and rebuild their illustrious 140 history. The world loses one of it’s greatest football derbies, not as a result of an unjust punishment, but as a result of procedures being followed correctly in a structured national football league system.

What everyone seems to be missing is the huge, gaping avenue of opportunity that’s been thrust into focus as a result of the seismic shift in power within Scottish football. Our game has been on it’s knees for many years, this is no secret, nor is it a revelation. Poor crowds, with even poorer revenue streams have been the symptoms of this, but until now these have been portrayed as the illness.

There are so many unexplored options to boost the wavering stature of Scottish Football, and now is the time to throw our collective weight behind them and turn the game around. Expanding to a 14 or 16 team league, summer football, a foreign player quota, wage caps, Friday night football, reintroducing the Glasgow Cup, and TV finance restructuring are all options that instantly spring to mind, so why aren’t we exploring them?!

Let us also not forget the positive consequences of Rangers holding a place in Scotland’s lower leagues. As the Newco inevitably work their way up the divisions over the coming years, the clubs who are really in the financial doldrums can expect a monetary shot in the arm like they’ve never seen before. Each club in the 3rd division this season can guarantee 2 full houses against Ally McCoist’s men, with the added bonus of two trips to Ibrox too. The money this brings in, and the spectacle for the league itself is something that would be beyond the wildest dreams of clubs like Annan, East Stirling, Clyde, and Stranraer (to name but a few).

This redistribution of wealth, and media attention on our lower leagues can only bring good things. Prior to this odd turn of events, when would any of you have considered going to a Scottish third division game?

The ubiquitous notion that Scottish football is, ‘on its knees’ is being reported as though the troubles have come in the form of a bullet in the head; when it’s really more like a slow debilitating illness.

Now is the time to make football an enjoyable commodity once more. A brief and inadvertent break from the drudgery of the ‘Gers in Crisis’ news stories, and renewed passion behind restructuring Scottish football from top to bottom gives me hope for this season, and seasons beyond. The ultimate goal is to develop a football industry in Scotland where all aspects of society can support their team of choice at a reasonable cost, viewing a decent standard of play, with levels of hospitality and consumer amenities that are on a par with the elite divisions across Europe.

That’s the dream, and there’s no reason why it can’t become a reality.

Yes Rangers are down, but they will return. Cleansed, well structured, and most welcome in Scotland’s top division.

Next season will be a bizarre one. Perhaps the most bizarre yet, but the game goes on.

It always has, and it always will.

Have Rangers turned the corner after their Old Firm blues?

Hitthebyline introduces our latest contributor, Rangers fan Chris Mason. In his debut article for the site, Chris explores the optimistic notion that Rangers may well be back on the road to success after suffering a purple patch at the tail end of 2011.






Rangers Talisman – Nikica Jelavic


January is typically a depressing month, and this January is no exception, particularly for Rangers fans. After witnessing what seemed like an unassailable lead at the top of the SPL cut back due to an alarming loss of form, then losing top spot to Celtic in the festive Old Firm clash, there feels little to be cheery about. On top of this, there is the re-opening of the transfer window, where Rangers will be faced with the all too familiar daily speculation about the departure of our best players. Then there is the looming dark cloud that is the clubs ongoing tax battle with HMRC.

First let’s take a look the end of 2011. A poor run of results at the end of the year was difficult to take. So many key players seemed to be playing within themselves, in particular, the usually stellar Davis and Jelavic. Defeats to Kilmarnock and St Mirren were embarrassing, with the lack of fight and creativity difficult to understand. Narrow victories over Dunfermline and Caley Thistle at home did little to build confidence and the team went into the Old Firm game as underdogs. The game itself was stifled by the bad weather and although Rangers lost, the defeat was by virtue of the narrowest of margins, and I take comfort in the fact that there really isn’t too much between the two sides at the moment.

A negative start to this article I know, but let’s try and take a positive outlook for 2012. The club could badly do with a bit of optimism. After coming off a run of terrible results including an Old Firm defeat and losing top spot, there was anxiety at how the team would fare when the best of the rest in Motherwell came to visit Ibrox in the first fixture of the New Year. Things weren’t looking good when early in the match Kyle Lafferty pulled up with an injury and was substituted, leaving David Healy as the only striker on the park. However this turned into a blessing in disguise, as the team abandoned punting aimless long balls up field and actually played some impressive pass and move football, sweeping aside a lackluster Motherwell side 3-0 with an excellent team performance.

It was a confidence boosting result and Ally McCoist showed this was no time for messing about as he put out a strong side against Arbroath and the team eased into a 5th round tie at home against Dundee Utd. It was important to get back to winning ways, regardless of the quality of the opposition as too often Rangers have struggled against lesser teams this season. The winning trend continued of course as the Gers scraped past a formidable St Johnstone side at McDairmid Park, with Nikica Jelavic again proving how invaluable he is by netting a brace and ultimately securing the victory.

If the team can continue playing like this there is no reason why they cannot continue on this run of victories and put the pressure back on Celtic. However, consistency is the key to this.

That said, the nature of recent performances has been encouraging, with Lee Wallace and Sasa Papac developing a dangerous combination on the left wing and Allan McGregor proving again and again why he is easily the best keeper in the country. It’s also nice to see lifelong Gers fan David Healy getting a run in the team, a chance he hasn’t really had since joining the club. However, Sone Aluko deserves to be singled out for praise. He is a real creative spark for the team at the moment with Davis currently stuck in a rut. His enthusiasm to take on a man and beat him is refreshing, and he certainly gets the fan off of their seats. He was badly missed during his suspension and after making such a positive impact it is hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve a new two year contract.

The limitations of this positive aura around Rangers could of course be hampered by the club’s dealings in the transfer window. As usual, our prized assets have all been linked with moves away, but it is almost halfway through the month and so far the only concrete bid has been one for Mo Edu. Rightly or wrongly, many people would like to see this player leave the club, but the Rangers fans are united in support of the club’s plight to retain the services of the talisman Jelavic.

Undoubtedly he has the ability to play at a higher level, and deserves his chance to test his skills in a higher quality league, however it’s difficult to see the team winning the league without him. Hopefully the board realise what a negative message it would send out by selling him. The situation bears stark resemblance to the Kenny Miller fiasco this time last year. In that instance, McCoist’s men managed to do without the striker and go on to win the league, but given the threadbare nature of the attacking options available in reserve this time, it’d be a far more daunting task to repeat the process by allowing Jelavic to leave.

It would make more sense to keep him now, give Ally the best shot possible of winning the league, then let him go to Euro 2012 with Croatia and hopefully impress, adding a few million to his price tag before s  then looking to sell him. Sadly though, money talks, and a sizeable bid could see the Croat leave for pastures new before the end of the month, with little realistic hope of seeing any transfer fee received for Jelavic being reinvested into the team.

For the same reason, expect to see few arrivals this January, instead younger players like John Fleck and Kyle Hutton will be expected to step up and impress.

These obstacles alone would be trying enough for most modern day football clubs, but when you throw in the current HMRC tax case, the situation becomes all the more perilous.

It’s difficult to discuss this in any real detail, with cowboy blogger’s, continual whispers of administration and innuendo in the media the only real information to go on in the place of cold hard facts. To put it plain and simple, no one really knows what’s happening, how much the club could owe, and what outcome is likely to happen. It is an ongoing case, neither party will discuss the facts and so fans unfortunately are left to feed on scraps and half truths. It’s infuriating for supporters, given how serious a matter it is. I feel that all we can really do is sit back and wait for the judgement in the coming months. This is far from ideal, but there is nothing left to do but stay positive and focus on the team’s performance on the pitch, as has been standard for the past three or four years. This isn’t the “burying your head in the sand” attitude that plenty of Rangers fans have been accused of over this issue, I accept how serious the situation is, but with little real facts to go on what else can fans do other than get behind the team?

So, what to make of all this then? It’s hard to ignore the off field issues, transfer talk and general negativity surrounding the club, but we’ve been here before year after year and every time we have defied expectations and won the league. I’m trying to be as optimistic as possible for the year ahead for Rangers. If we can keep our best players at the club and maintain our recent league form then it will be a close title race. As for the bigger issues, all we can do is continue to support the team and deal with any further issues that may come our way.

Why Rangers must condemn Aluko’s comments

Sone Aluko Dive
The incident in question

As Rangers new signing Sone Aluko looks to kick-start his Rangers career after a despicable diving incident, the Nigerian international appears to have shot himself in the foot again. The forward was banned for three matches following a clear dive to win Rangers a penalty (and ultimately the match) against Dunfermline; and was handed an opportunity to the media today to come clean and condemn his deception of the game’s officials.

Instead of doing so, Aluko has brushed off the incident, and likened diving to other foul play or stoppages of play in the game (namely, offside decisions, handball incidents).

He said: “Everyone has had an opinion. There were seven-page spreads and every ex-pro had this and that to say.

“It was three weeks ago, let’s get on with it. It’s football, it happens.”

The correct thing to do would have been for Aluko to stop here. He’s committed a footballing felony, he’s served his punishment, and should now be free to press on with making a name for himself at the Ibrox club.

However, Aluko continued on, defiantly absolving himself from any wrong-doing.

Aluko said: “People have handballs, people are accused of diving. Those are football incidents and people like to talk, that’s what’s beautiful about the game.”

“Every player would be a cheat. If you get caught offside, that’s cheating, it’s not in the laws of the game. If you handball it that’s cheating. Who’s not a cheat in football?”

“I’m just going to carry on playing the way I do and everyone else will talk.”

“I’ll keep playing in the same way. I’m not going to change because there is a new panel or whatever.”

Perhaps the increased media spotlight that comes with the move from Aberdeen to Rangers, coupled with the player’s inexperience could be to blame for these ludicrous comments, but either way, the club must issue a statement to counter Aluko’s opinions.

Diving is in no way like being caught offside or touching the ball with your hand. If a player dives, they are trying to deceive the match officials to gain an advantage in the match. The case of the Rangers player is worse yet, as the simulation in question was the deciding factor in an SPL victory for the Glasgow club, providing three valuable points in a title race that is expected to go to the wire.
Does the average Old Firm fan or SPL neutral want to see the championship be decided in such a way? – Clearly not. In a time of proposed reform for the Scottish game, when every aspect of it is under the microscope for scrutiny, this kind of attitude to diving is not acceptable. On a global level, diving (or ‘simulation’ to give it it’s euphemistic FIFA title) is regarded as one of the biggest problems in the modern game.

Rangers, as with Celtic in the SPL, are huge clubs who’re leveled with the expectation to win with style, not by virtue of diving. Scottish football fans don’t want to pay to go and watch over-paid players diving to earn success in an unwholesome manner.

The baton of responsibility is now passed to the Rangers officials, and the manager Ally McCoist to quash this moment of madness from Aluko. The time is now for the club, and the SPL as a unit to take a firm and unequivocal stance on diving in the game.

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