The Rise and Rise of David Marshall

Did an early exit from the Old Firm goldfish bowl help his development?

By Johnny Connelly

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Result apart, there were few positives to be taken from Scotland’s 1-0 away win against Norway earlier this week, but few could dispute the plaudits received by David Marshall for his heroics between the sticks. 

A string of terrific saves, and an overall competent performance secured a clean sheet for Strachan’s resurgent Scotland side, and has further cemented the general opinion that Marshall has become a top goalkeeper.

It’s a far cry from the shaky teenager that emerged in a Celtic jersey in 2004 in the most bizarre of circumstances in the Nou Camp. That night against Barcelona, presumably running on adrenaline, the young ‘keeper gave the performance of his life, and replicated the feat in the home leg to help Celtic knock-out the Catalan giants. 

Things at Celtic quickly went sour for Marshall. Conceding 5 against Artmedia Bratislava, and 4 against Motherwell in quick succession left then Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan, of the opinion that Marshall was surplus to requirements. 

How ironic now that Strachan is the man to thrust Marshall back into the limelight on the international scene. Marshall has now secured two consecutive clean sheets for Scotland, and has been at the heart of a robust Cardiff unit in the English Premiership.

The development in the keeper, who’s still just 28, is remarkable by comparison to his Celtic days.

I’m sure many football fans back in 2005 would’ve written Marshall off as a sub-standard keeper, but is that a failing of the pressures attached to being thrown into the Old Firm goldfish bowl at a young age? The pressure to perform without any modicum of weakness or nervousness for Celtic has proven to be the undoing of many players over the years. 

When Marshall was cast off to Norwich to carve out a career in England, few expected him to re-emerge as a contender for the Scotland jersey. 

Years of developing his game in the English Championship in his early 20’s was arguably the best thing for him. Playing for Norwich, in such a competitive league, where there was no expectation of a clean sheet every week, perhaps allowed Marshall to develop naturally, at his own pace, and fulfil the potential that Celtic identified in him as a lad. 

He’s now approaching 150 appearances for Cardiff, through the good times and the bad. He’d never have been allowed that development time at Celtic, so should Celtic be factoring in long term outbound loan deals when developing youngsters? The Marshall case backs this theory, and perhaps there are other examples too.

Charlie Mulgrew’s story echoes this idea. Mulgrew left Celtic as a rough-around the edges 20 year old who wasn’t good enough to hold down a first-team slot. To keep him in the squad for 4/5 years beyond this in the hope that he comes good would be folly, but look at how things have panned out. Mulgrew spent a handful of years playing first team football at Dundee United, Wolves, Southend and Aberdeen, before returning to Celtic as a completely different player. 

Just under 5 years of first-team football, cutting his teeth, has helped Mulgrew become an accomplished professional, worthy of being a Celtic and Scotland regular. 

There are so many examples of promising young former Old Firm players who disappeared off the radar, that a longer, or more complicated development period is surely something worth considering. 

Sometimes throwing a youngster in and expecting a hero to emerge is asking too much, even in the idealistic world of the Old Firm fan. As football grows and develops, we can expect approaches to player development to grow and develop too. Surely it’s worth reviewing this process to maximise the potential of players, both for the good of our game on the domestic, and international front?

Fletch Appeal

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

by Johnny Connelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you Fletch.

 

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

by Johnny Connelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the English.

 

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.