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?)

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.

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.

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

Unfortunate – Scotland Captain Darren Fletcher

By David Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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