FIFA Light The Poppy Powder Keg

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

by Johnny Connelly

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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.

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Why Celts Shouldn’t Be So Keane on Roy

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By Johnny Connelly

So Neil Lennon’s reign at Celtic is already a distant memory, and with the Champions League qualifiers just weeks away, the Parkhead faithful nervously await the announcement to unveil his successor.

Several names have been batted around – Owen Coyle, Henrik Larsson, David Moyes, Malky Mackay, and Michael Laudrup to name a few. There seems to be no obvious choice lying in wait to take over from Lennon. It looks like even the bookies are somewhat in the dark on this one, but if their current favourite, Roy Keane ends up landing the job, I fear that the Celtic board may have made a grave error.

There have been few more fiery and controversial characters in British football than Roy Keane over the past 20 years. Undoubtedly a world-beater of a player at his peak; but the Irishman became a figure of ridicule throughout the twilight of his playing days, and arguably more so into his management career.

Celtic pride themselves on cultural acceptance, sportsmanship, and a positive moral flamboyancy from the support. Does Keane fit the mould to carry on these traditions? His well-documented instances of emotional spontaneous combustion would indicate that he doesn’t.

Amongst other things, Keane walked out on his country during the World Cup, walked out on Manchester United after a disagreement with the man who made him, and ended Alf Inge Haaland’s career with a tackle that can only be described as savage.

Do Celtic really want a man who condones this thuggish behaviour to be calling the shots at the club?

I’ll give Keane his due. During his first season as manager at Sunderland as manager, he did well. He took the club from 2nd bottom in the Championship, to end up winning the league, all in one season. Just as things were looking good for the current Republic of Ireland Assistant, he continued on a phenomenal spending spree from the previous season, assembling a huge squad in a less than frugal manner.

His splurges at Sunderland included:

  • £8m on Anton Ferdinand
  • £9m on Craig Gordon
  • £6m on Kenwyne Jones
  • £5.5m on Kieran Richardson
  • £2.5m on El-Hadji Diouf
  • £4m on Andy Reed
  • £4.5m on George McCartney
  • £5m on Michael Chopra

In total, he spent over £75m in just over two seasons, adding 39 players to the Sunderland roster. How would a manager that spends so recklessly cope with stringent budget of around £5/6m per season at Celtic, bearing in mind that a £3m outlay on a player that doesn’t turn out to be a first team regular is considered as a catastrophe?

Keane’s demise at Sunderland came about thanks to a 7-1 skelping at the hands of Everton, a 4-1 trouncing by Bolton, a 2-2 draw with Northampton, and a run of five losses from six Premiership games. Keane managed to shoe-horn in a spat with the FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, (calling him “a clown”), a fall out with club chairman Niall Quinn, and a war of words with majority shareholder Ellis Short, before eventually resigning, leaving Sunderland languishing in 18th position in the Premiership.

The Irishman was out of the game for just two months before taking over as manager of Ipswich with a view to guiding them back to the Premiership. A series of weak signings, including Martin Fulop, Grant Leadbitter, David Healy, and Daryl Murphy scuppered any hopes of the Tractor Boys making it back to the big time. Keane’s side managed to draw an astounding 20 matches in the league, which saw them finish in 15th place. His next (and final) season saw things go from bad to worse. In a season where the club were expected to challenge for promotion, Keane guided them to a lowly 21st place, sitting behind the likes of Doncaster Rovers and Barnsley, before he was sacked in December of 2011.

Keane had been out in the managerial wilderness since then, before Martin O’Neill appointed him as Republic of Ireland’s Assistant Manager. In his only two experiences as a club manager, his record compares unfavourably against the likes of Steve Bruce, and Peter Reid at Sunderland (Premiership), as well as Joe Royle, and Jim Magilton at Ipswich.

He has no experience managing in Scotland. He has no experience managing in Europe. He has no experience working on a tight budget. When we factor in all these things, it’s hard to imagine how his name is in contention for any job, let alone the Celtic hotseat.

Who knows which way Celtic will turn as they seek Neil Lennon’s successor. They have plenty of options at their disposal, but if they want to continue a tradition of success, financial prudence, and universal appeal, then surely Roy shouldn’t be the bhoy for them.

For The Love of Ledley

Hoops fans should shed no tears over the departed Welshman

By Johnny Connelly

Joe Ledley in his Celtic days
Here today, gone tomorrow. Ledley sought pastures new

In the modern day soap opera that is football in this country, fans have learned the hard way that everything that comes out the mouths of players and managers should be taken with a pinch of salt.

One day a player can be your hero; the next, he’s the enemy. Football by its very nature is a fickle beast. There’s an element of showmanship and bravado from players and managers around transfer window time, that’s a given. When I read Joe Ledley’s parting comments about his ‘beloved’ Celtic, I did begin to wonder if he managed to articulate them with a straight face.

After a tedious potential contract extension saga, Ledley packed his bags, leaving the Champions League behind, opting instead for a relegation dogfight at Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace.

The Welshman was quoted as saying he, “didn’t’ want to leave”, before subsequently doing so. Players come, and players go, but are the supporters in this country perhaps guilty of naivety when it comes to choosing their heroes?

When it comes to the affections of the fans, Ledley was debatably the most popular player in the squad. In years gone by, a hero at a big club was defined by sublime ability and unwavering loyalty. Does Ledley fit this mould?

The likes of Paul McStay and Lubo Moravcik stayed at the Parkhead club until the end of their playing days. Italian giants Fiorentina moved for Artur Boruc, and it took the lure of Barca to prize a tearful Henrik Larsson from Parkhead. Celtic fans seem only too happy when a player moves on for a bigger opportunity; but perhaps some of them should grudgingly admit that to lose a player like Ledley to a smallish English Premiership club like Crystal Palace does leave something of a bad taste in their mouths.

Don’t get me wrong, Ledley was a terrific talent. A dogged, professional midfielder who rarely looked out of place at the highest level; but he was also reportedly the highest paid player in the squad (alongside Scott Brown), so he was well looked after, and enjoyed the adoration of the fans.

The new Palace signing seems to have been a likeable, honest character who wouldn’t say a bad word about Celtic or anyone at the club. That said, it sadly looks as though Ledley’s raison d’être is to make as much money as possible in his career, rather than chase silverware.

It’s clear that Ledley ran down his contract at Cardiff to secure a big wage at Celtic, and ran down his contract at Celtic to better position himself for a move to Crystal Palace.

Playing for Celtic seems to be something that leaves a lasting effect on players. On his official twitter account, Ledley posted: “Thank you so much to all the fans for being so supportive throughout my time at Celtic. A truly amazing club”, and referred to the Parkhead faithful in a passionate sign off, tweeting: “Best Fans ever, will miss you all!”

Days into his move down south, he delved a little deeper about the move. He said: “It was a good deal for Celtic because they got some money, and it was a good deal for me too.”

Given the phenomenal sums of money that are thrown at top players these days, it’s hard to judge them. These guys are people too, they’re not made of stone, and it takes a lot to turn down an increase of several thousand pounds per week (and a rather juicy signing on fee).

Although players like Ledley shouldn’t be emotionally crucified for chasing money instead of trophies; they shouldn’t be held in the same high regard as the real heroes of yesteryear either. Ledley gave a good account of himself at Celtic, but was paid handsomely for it, and is in no way irreplaceable. His dignified and professional approach to his on the field exerts will ensure his lasting memory at Celtic Park is a positive one, but as far as hero status is concerned, he’ll always be left short.

In every crisis, there is opportunity, and with every big player that’s left a big club in Scotland, scope for an even greater player to fill his boots is created.

Shed no tears Hoops fans. A top earner has left, and the next chapter of your glorious club is ready to be written.

Killie’s Prodigal Son Could Seal Top 6 Finish

By Johnny Connelly

Alexei Eremenko
Alexei Eremenko – The key man?

As the eyes and ears of Scottish football fans turned towards Parkhead in expectance of an injection of excitement to the transfer window in this Scotland; the attention turned to the Ayrshire coast as Finnish international Alexei Eremenko secured an unexpected switch back to Kilmarnock.

Killie’s talisman playmaker of the 2010-2011 season joined Allan Johnstone’s men until the end of the season, and his technical ability has sparked hopes of a top six finish, as well as a bit more excitement in general at Rugby Park.

First time around, it was then manager Mixu Paatelainen who used his homeland contacts to procure Eremenko on loan from Metalist Kharkiv. The midfield dynamo wasted little time in making his mark, scoring the winner on his debut against St Mirren with a tantalising free kick.

After the match, Eremenko said: “ I made some good passes at the start of the game which gave me confidence. It was an okay performance from me, but I can even play much better than this.”

He wasn’t kidding. Eremenko went on to light up what was then the SPL, carving out a place in Scottish football folklore as potentially the most gifted player to grace a Kilmarnock shirt in 20 years.  He scored a handful of goals that season, and transformed Killie’s attacking play with his ability to split defences with precision passes.

His skills drew crowds and plaudits, so much so that both Celtic and Rangers made enquiries about acquiring the player’s services. A big money move to Rubin Kazan ensued, but he failed to hold down a place in the team, presumably as a result of the options available thanks to the club’s vast wealth.

Eremenko’s record for the Finland national team (59 caps and 14 goals) also proves that the silky flair player can perform at the highest level, and now has invaluable experience that would benefit any club in Scotland.

Killie currently sit 8th in the SPFL. They’ve had an inconsistent season so far, and are widely considered as safe from relegation, but with Kris Boyd having netted 15 times so far, the introduction of an attacking playmaker like Eremenko could push him up over the 20 goal mark, and move Killie into the top half of the table.

With any luck Eremenko’s return will bring about an increase in crowds at Rugby Park, but at the very least, his sublime skills will improve the profile of our league overall.

During his last loan spell, Eremenko helped guide the Ayrshire club to a comfortable 5th placed finish in the SPL. There’s a bit of work to do to replicate that feat again, but it’s far from impossible. Allan Johnstone’s men are edging away from the pack at the foot of the table as each week passes, and now find themselves just 9 points behind a wayward Dundee United who haven’t won any of their last 6 matches in the SPFL.

As Eremenko parted ways with Killie last time around, he made a promise to return. He is certainly a man of his word. This week he also said: “I don’t think I played against Kris (Boyd) when he was at Rangers the last time I was here. But I watched Saturday’s game with Inverness and I think I can make him score even more goals.”

Everyone at Kilmarnock will be hoping that he continues to be a man of his word, as this partnership with Boyd could make the difference between them finishing in the top and bottom 6 come May.

With just 8 games remaining before the split, the clock is ticking for Killie and Eremenko.

Extending An Olive Branch to Jorge Cadete

Is it time to kick-start a support network for ex-Celts?

by Celtic fan, Kes Devaal

Thanks to the boom & bust world we live in, all too frequently we’re hearing of people from all walks of life falling on financial hard times. At the tail end of last week, we learned that even former Celtic superstars aren’t exempt from this peril.

Jorge Cadete scores for Celtic
He puts the ball in the netty – Jorge Cadete at his peak

When the news broke that Jorge Cadete is now flat broke, moved back in with his parents, and living on benefits, I felt saddened.

As a Celtic fan, I remember Cadete’s playing days fondly, but I was shocked to see an element of the Hoops’ support reacted bitterly towards his misfortune. Comments on blogs and social media sites showed that there is a contingent of Celtic supporters that feel the manner in which Cadete left the club in some way justifies the player’s hardship now.

This is not the Celtic way, and I’m beginning to think that the club (both fans and officials) should look to create a support network for ex-players.

It was the late, great, Tommy Burns who brought Jorge Cadete to Celtic, back in the mid 90’s. Burns inherited a wounded Celtic who were limp competition to a dominant high spending Rangers side. The fans suffered through the disappointment and turbulence of the Brady and Macari years, but Burns injected hope and excitement back into Celtic with a flamboyant style of play, and by attracting players with the boisterous dynamism of Jorge Cadete.

The fact that this period yielded limited silverware seemed almost insignificant at the time, as our beloved Celtic were back, scoring goals, playing lucid, attacking football, and for the first time since the late 80’s, challenging a stellar Rangers side.

Cadete arrived at Celtic with a CV that failed to fill Hoops fans with optimism. The Sporting Lisbon striker was on loan at Brescia, and managed just a single goal for them in a calendar year, before Burns made the move to bring him to Celtic. He hand’t kicked a ball in 5 months, yet his debut against Aberdeen was unforgettable…

The Portuguese international came off the bench to net the fifth in a demolition of Aberdeen at Celtic Park, and went on to net 34 times in 44 appearances the following season. Cadete was easily the most exciting Celtic striker since the days of Brian McClair and Charlie Nicholas. Complete with iconic spaghetti haircut and unmistakeable celebration, and goals-a-plenty, Cadete soon became a hero.

I appreciate that the nature of Cadete’s departure at the time left many Celtic fans feeling a bit raw and generally let down, so it’s understandable that some might want to stay detached from his unfortunate circumstances. I also appreciate that it’s a players responsibility to manage their money responsibly during their career. That said, it has made me ponder about what clubs can do, in particular, Celtic.

Wouldn’t it fit perfectly within the ethos of Celtic to put in place a structured support scheme to guide and support former players who’re in danger of falling on hard times?

By this I don’t mean writing cheques to further line their pockets, but investment advice, emotional support and an ongoing relationship with the club that could mutually benefit Celtic, the fans, and the former player.

The subsequent years since Cadete’s time at the club have been joyous for the most part. The magic of players like Cadete and managers like Burns played a huge part in the evolution of the club, a part that we must never forget.

Without question there have been thousands of Celtic fans down the generations who’ve carried the charitable/goodwill torch for the club with unconditional service. There are too many legitimate examples of this to mention, and that in the main remains intact. My concern is that there is a growing undercurrent of the Celtic support being selective.

In my opinion I sense there is a ‘pick & choose’ mantra amongst the Celtic diaspora of which ex Celts receive our support . Celtic Football Club, and the fans are relentless in broadcasting our proud all inclusive charitable ethos.

The mixed response to Jorge Cadete’s sad news however conflicts with that notion. There is a long list of ex-Celts whose careers at Paradise have maybe ended awkwardly, or where they have been a shade economical in engineering a sharp exit down London Road for more money elsewhere. Yet for reasons that remain unclear, these individuals seem immune to any criticism or hard feelings from the support.

Without sounding like some idealistic moral crusader,  I believe these servants to the club deserve a support mechanism. Making initial support, training, and professional advice available for them would show the football world that we genuinely are what the morally rich club that we say we are.

The relationship between the fans and the players we take on as heroes is a true loyal bond that stays with us for the entirety of our existence.

If Celtic truly are up there with Barca to be considered as “Més que un club” (More than a club), then perhaps we should start to prove it with gestures such as this one, showing undeniable and unconditional compassionate support.

Transfer Embargo Breaking Hearts

It’s time to let the Jambos sign players again

By Johnny Connelly

As the crippled Edinburgh club continue to battle against the odds on what feels like oh so many fronts, a glimmer of hope has emerged for their beleaguered fan base, as the SPFL board ponder a plea from Hearts’ administrators to allow them to sign players again.
Gary Locke’s side sit 20 points adrift at the bottom of Scotland’s elite division with just 16 games to go. They are fighting tooth and nail in every match, but when you look at the threadbare and inexperienced shell of a playing squad they have at their disposal, it’s clear that the club (and particularly the fans) have been punished in a draconian manner.

Tynecastle Stadium
A club in crisis – Hearts are amid their toughest fight yet

Unless the SPFL revoke this transfer embargo, Scotland will almost certainly lose one of its biggest clubs via relegation to the Championship. What a sorry state of affairs for this SPFL season if the status quo remains in place. We’re only halfway through January, and you could safely assume Celtic will run away with the title, and Hearts will fall foul of relegation. Unless something outrageous happens, the second half of our currently sponsorless Premiership is in danger of being a damp squib.

Understandably, rules and protocols are there to be followed; but with the evolution of our game, they’re arguably there to be challenged and improved upon too. Barely a season goes past without a handful of proposals at least being discussed. Everything from summer football to disciplinary procedures is up for discussion, and we’ll continue to fashion our game into an improved product over time.

There are always exceptions to any rule, and given the bizarre circumstances surrounding the downfall of Hearts, it’s clear that an exception for their transfer embargo should be considered.

Punishing a club for going into administration is understandable. It promotes financial prudence, and makes an example of clubs who’ve been reckless with things like inflated transfer fees, and bloated wage bills.

Hearts went into administration in June 2013, but the club’s finances have been questionable for years, all thanks to the disastrous tenure of Vladimir Romanov. If administration is supposed to be a punishment for a club, then I’d argue that Hearts (staff, players, and fans) have been receiving something of a punishment of sorts for the most part ever since Romanov seized control of the Gorgie club back in 2004.

Despite a spattering of highlights and a positive start in the early days, the Romanov era will long be remembered as one of the most catastrophic and farcical saga’s that any club in Scotland has ever had to endure.

Since going into administration, Hearts have had to unceremoniously part with the lion’s share of their first team squad. The fans have been asked to put their hands in their pockets time after time to keep the club’s hand to mouth existence going, and they’ve done so without question.

They continue to be called upon financially, turning up in good numbers and in strong voice to support their club its hour of need. Gary Locke is currently struggling to get enough bodies together to fill his starting 11 and subs bench. Just a few free transfers in January (perhaps  the likes of Rudi Skacel or Andrew Driver) could make all the difference, and could give the Jambos a sporting chance of surviving in the Premiership.

Yes, the fans have been punished by way of administration, but they’ve been suffering all along since 2004. Sporting integrity and common sense in this case show that the rules need looked at again, as Hearts’ punishment doesn’t befit their crimes.

A matter of faith for Neil Lennon

Do Pukki and Balde just need games?
 
By Johnny Connelly

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As Celtic crashed out of European football this week, much was made of their sloppy defending on the night; but the real issue throughout the campaign has been the lack of firepower in the final third.
 
Just two goals in their five group games is a worrying stat. That worrying stat becomes an alarming stat when you then remember that one of those goals was a penalty, and the other was a deflection. Whichever way you look at it, Celtic’s attacking presence has been sub-par for the Champions League.
 
After losing Gary Hooper in the summer, Neil Lennon knew he needed to sign at least one striker. He secured two, Teemu Pukki, and Amido Balde. 
 
Neither player has had a great run of games. They’ve both looked off the pace, and bereft of a killer instinct in the penalty box. This is undeniable, but would a significant run of games in the first team have changed things? 
 
The pressure to succeed at big clubs is huge, and Celtic are no different, but players are only human. It must be difficult coming in from a foreign league and being expected to start rattling in the goals. Admittedly, some players can do it, but others struggle. 
 
One example of a Celt that took a bit of time to settle rolls of the tongue, John Hartson. The big Welshman came to Celtic with a top pedigree, but he too looked out of sorts at the beginning of his Celtic career. Remarkably, it took Hartson 11 games in a Celtic jersey before he found the back of the neck. He then went on to become a legend and a hero for the Parkhead club.
 
Hartson started each of these 11 games, and his then manager, Martin O’Neill, put faith in the signing he made in order to succeed. 
 
To directly compare Pukki & Balde to a class act like Hartson verges on unfair, but perhaps the issue of faith in your signings does ring true. 
 
Since signing back in August, Pukki has started 9 from 16 games, and Balde has started just 2 from 18 games. From that you could assume that Balde has some way to go before he’s a first team regular, but even Pukki, with significantly more appearances, didn’t get a run of games longer than 4 games, and most of the games he missed have come in the Champions League (the very place he was signed to make a difference in).
 
Instead, Lennon has opted for the likes of Georgios Samaras, who despite his tenacious attitude, is a left-winger rather than a striker; and Anthony Stokes, who struggles at the highest level. 
 
The Celtic boss seems frustrated with his options, and he’s clearly unimpressed by his summer signings in that department. 

After the 3-0 home defeat to AC Milan, he said: “We’ve competed again tonight but just that quality at the top end of the pitch has caught up with us.”

 
“When the squad’s not as big as some other squads it does tend to bite you.
 
“If we’re going to look to the future and continue to play in the Champions League, we have to improve with the squad we have now and we have to improve on recruitment as well for next year.”
 
Celtic can’t go and sign a £10m-£15m, it would make no financial sense, so to try and make the most of a £2m-£3m player is the trick. 
There are alternatives. Putting faith in youth, or in domestic signings (would the likes of Billy McKay or Nadir Ciftci really do any worse for Neil Lennon than any of his current crop?) are always options. 
Only Lennon will know how he truly feels about the likes of Pukki and Balde. Only he will know in his mind whether he feels any merit in giving them a run of games to prove themselves, or whether they’ll be consigned to the room 101 of Celtic signings.