Today’s empires, tomorrow’s ashes.

A rare weekend off left me free, free to do whatever I wanted, and I wanted to go and see Motherwell. So cheap train tickets and a tinnie in my friend’s flat beforehand, off we went to Pittodrie. I do my best not to be downbeat about Scottish football, as it is an attitude which seems prevalent and I don’t agree with it. In many ways however, today outlined some of the very worst aspects of the game for me, can’t say I’m deeply into conspiracy theories either, but more to that later.

Upon arriving, we had to wait to be frisked and again at the turnstile, as a ‘Well fan and his young son baulked at the £40 requested for the two of them to sit in a crumbling, cold stand. £23 with a £17 concession is a ridiculous price to watch Scottish football. Still, we made our way inside and headed closer to the front of the stand in order to be part of the Motherwell singing section who have added so much to the atmosphere at games this season. As at Tannadice, they were informed their flags and snare drum were not permitted within the stadium, but no matter. Motherwell fans have been in good voice this season and proved this once again as the game kicked off. Michael Higdon kicked things off with a front post header from another powerfully hit free-kick whipped across the face of goal by Tom Hateley. Aberdeen responded almost immediately with a Scott Vernon header.

The next half hour or so of the game is difficult to analyse really, as I spent most of it staring at hi-vis jackets. BBC Live Text reported it as:

1524: We’re hearing there’s been a bit of trouble in the Motherwell section of the support at Pittodrie. The police are there in numbers…

Motherwell’s singing section had been standing, singing and generating an atmosphere. Soon after the Aberdeen goal, the stewards moved in towards the group and began to remove members of the group. This proved to be a flash point and the following half an hour saw more fans removed and a collection of ugly scenes between the Stewards and Motherwell fans. Fans were dragged up the stairs towards the top of the stands and one younger member was pulled by the chest and neck to the front of the stand and pulled out. A few fans reacted and a Steward was pushed over. As the Stewards began hauling teenagers out, the atmosphere changed dramatically and became poisonously confrontational. Fans whipped out their phones in order to capture what was going on and a few appeared to be removed for doing so. The police became involved and attempted to calm the situation with the Stewards eventually retreating. The behaviour from the Stewards was similar to Tannadice earlier in the season, where they appeared to be getting in the face of Motherwell fans and provoking a reaction.

With the exception of one swift removal at the beginning of the second half, it passed without incident. The singing section regrouped in the same position as they had done previously, not infringing on anyone else’s view and amazingly managed to stand for 45 minutes, sing and celebrate Omar Daley’s first goal in claret and amber without throwing themselves to the ground.

My main bone of contention with all of this is the double standards which pervade this debate. There were Aberdeen fans in the section alongside the away fans today and at the back of the Dick Donald stand who remained unseated for the 90 minutes. When a Police officer was asked about this, he informed us that it was the ‘singing section’. I’ve been at numerous games with Old Firm fans as well as Scotland games where large sections of the crowd are on their feet for the entire game. In no way do I consider it unreasonable for fans to stand at the football, but consistency here would clear the muddy waters somewhat. The rules appear to apply to groups of teenage Motherwell fans, Dunfermline fans or St. Johnstone fans (simply from my experiences) but for large groups, there is no point bothering, so why make a fuss? In addition to this, I wholeheartedly object to being filmed at the football. I’ve covered several Hearts and Dundee United games where the special Policing football unit have been out in force, holding their camera up and getting a nice shot of my hairy face. I’ve nothing to hide, but as we saw today, again, double standards where authorities are fully entitled to film fans but fans filming authorities is unacceptable? The ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ argument works both ways.

The past few months has seen a lot said about the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at the Football bill and a mobilisation against it. This has very much been on a club by club basis, with Rangers, Celtic and this week, Motherwell fan groups expressing their distaste. As I said previously, I’m not really into conspiracy theories or 2+2=5ery, but I’ve been in the away end at Pittodrie with Hearts, Dundee United, Motherwell, Hibernian, Falkirk and St. Johnstone (I think that is all of them?) and today was far and away the most confrontational the Stewards have been. This bill seems to be going through, whether fans are consulted or not. MSPs are telling us that the Police and Stewards will be able to apply the legislation responsibly and with common sense but certainly today, Motherwell fans saw very little of this and I fail to see how adding more powers will improve this. I very much get the feeling that once again, due to the numbers involved in Old Firm supports and the rest of the SPL, no difference will be made, and once again fans of smaller teams will suffer.

We need a dialogue between the clubs, fans and the authorities, one which is not motivated by political point scoring or fundamentalist fans. One which has the match day experience at the heart of it and one which is run by people who are capable of making the connection between fans through the gate, fans enjoying themselves and returning, more money for the clubs, a better product on the pitch and a better product to sell on the television. Fan groups should be encouraged, and Police and Stewards need to stop looking at groups of teenagers as hooligans. This all feels like the thin end of the wedge to me, and at a time where Scottish football should be welcoming any and all positive action around games, pulling teenagers out left right and centre from games for the crime of standing up is madness.

As the Motherwell fans sang out this afternoon, ‘Heavy hands – Empty stands’

http://www.facebook.com/heavyhandsemptystands

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fans-Against-Criminalisation/159607327462384

True Believers

So away from the crushing disappointment of International football, the SPL is back in business. I doubt I’m the only one that is delighted by this, but given that Scotland will be flying out to Cyprus next month for a friendly, theres another frustrating evening in the offing.

I once again returned to McDiarmid park on the 15th to see St Johnstone take on Terry Butcher’s Caley Thistle. Watching the 208 steadily fill up before the game  (including a classic Dundonian wedding party far more interested in the turgid fare served up by Manchester United at Anfield than leaving for the service), there was an air of optimism around the Saints fans. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there had been some murmuring from the Saints fans about their toothless frontline. McInnes moved to bring in former Dundee United and Brighton hitman Fran Sandaza and paired him with the on-loan Cillian Sheridan, forming the ‘SAS’ partnership, which has produced goals and most importantly of all, results.

Before, during and after the game, there was debate about Derek McInnes and his worth to the club. During the Caley game, there seemed to be an acceptance that he was to be leaving for Bristol City, with little in the way of tears being shed. Instead, there was more of an appreciation for the job he has done, and a desire to get as much compensation while his stock is high. McInnes has done a good job for St Johnstone, there have been mistake and there have been low points, but in the main, he returned them to the SPL, kept them there and has taken them to League and Scottish cup semi-finals. On the face of it, it is a deal in which everyone benefits. Bristol City get a solid and competent manager with a good level of experience, St Johnstone have a good squad and above all, Geoff Brown will have received a sizeable wedge of cash for McInnes’ services.

The game itself was a foregone conclusion after 12 minutes. St Johnstone came racing out from the kick-off and Sandaza nipped in to make the net ripple after some nice skill. Given that Inverness looked unlikely to score at any point during the game, scoring two would have been remarkable. Saints finally put the game to bed just after the hour as Dave Mackay lashed the ball past Esson. In the end, a comfortable victory from Saints.

With McInnes leaving St Johnstone on the 19th, their trip to Tannadice on Saturday saw Alec Cleland and Jody Morris taking the reins on an interim basis. No big changes for Saints, with the exception of Cillian Sheridan dropping out. He was replaced by the Canadian, Marcus Haber, after 20 minutes against Caley and was still struggling for fitness.

The game itself was a competitive affair, if a little low on quality. Morris marshalled the St Johnstone midfield, Frazer Wright and Garry Kenneth were solid in their respective defenses and Dalla Valle looked neat and tidy up front for United, but was ultimately wasteful. The Fulham loanee spurned United’s best chance by pushing a header wide of Enckelman’s goal. Haber and Sandaza haven’t quite clicked together in the same way as the SAS, with Haber seemingly less willing to put in some of the graft that Sheridan is. The introduction of Carl Finnigan had Saints stretching the United back-line, but the main action which saw out the game was a vicious looking challenge from Keith Watson on Liam Craig and an embarrassingly poor attempt at a dive from Sandaza.

My main feeling at Tannadice on Saturday was one of frustration, as yet again, the Tannadice stewards seemed to be going over the top with their policing of the game. I had gone along to Dundee United – Motherwell a few weeks previously and sat in the bottom tier of the away stand as I did this Saturday. As is to be expected, through the concession gate came the teenage fans who are intent on making some noise, standing up and having a good time with their friends. The stewards responded by insisting that everyone must sit down and proceeded to pull a couple of fans out of the crowd and eject them from the ground. This was very similar to the treatment of Motherwell fans on my previous visit, with the members of the Motherwell singing section making their feelings clear:

Heavy Hands - Empty Stands

The singing section has added hugely to the atmosphere of Motherwell’s games, both home and away, and the decision to turn away over 60 fans from the gate on the basis that they ‘could cause trouble’ is astonishing. As a group they were praised after their showing at Dunfermline and the League Cup game at Fir Park against Hibs had them singing, drumming and flag waving for over two hours. Charging someone £20 to come in only to bark at them when they turn around to see what the commotion is about is unsustainable, no other customer experience in the world is like this. I understand that Police and stewards have a duty to provide a safe environment at games and that no-one wants a return to the era of football casuals and scrapping on terraces, but fan groups have changed.  For me, this is a culture which should be encouraged on all fronts. More information and thought on this is available here, at Fritz A. Grandold’s Celtic blog.

At a time where the Scottish game needs all of the positive press and experiences that it can muster, having fans chucked out left, right and center for the crime of attempting to enjoy themselves is mind-boggling.

Excuses be damned.

Well, that was a bit of a shambles in the end, wasn’t it? 8 games played and we’re left with a table that makes fairly grim reading:

1 Spain Spain 8 8 0 0 26 6 20 24
2 Czech Republic Czech Republic 8 4 1 3 12 8 4 13
3 Scotland Scotland 8 3 2 3 9 10 -1 11
4 Lithuania Lithuania 8 1 2 5 4 13 -9 5
5 Liechtenstein Liechtenstein 8 1 1 6 3 17 -14 4

Three wins, two draws, three defeats and a goal difference of minus one. Above all and most frustrating once again, third place, outside the play offs. I’m not entering the debate about penalties given or not given at Hampden as we got exactly what we deserved against the Czech Republic for dropping deeper and inviting them onto us. We’ve known throughout the campaign that the weakest part of the team is at centre-half, making the choice to try and see the game out even more bizarre.

At the end of that game we saw the Czech fans and players celebrating like they had already qualified. From that point onwards, we knew that they had as well. My major gripe with this campaign has been the toothless displays at Hampden. Throughout the campaign I’ve been banging on about the need to win at home. If we win our home games and pick up a single result on the road against one of the lower ranked teams, we’ll get to the playoffs. Discounting the Spain games for everyone, as no-one ever looked close to taking points from them, this again would be true.

As a bit of a comparison, Berti Voghts’ campaign in 2004 saw some dreadful results away from home. We scraped a draw against the Faroese part-timers in Toftir and lost to the Lithuanians in Kaunas. Crucially though, we beat the Faroe Islands, Lithuania and Iceland at Hampden, as well as a creditable draw against the Germans.

World cup qualifying in 2006 saw us drop eight points at home (discounting pot 1 team Italy) losing against Belarus and Norway as well as a terrible draw against Slovenia (To this day, the worst game I’ve ever seen.) The exhausting Euro 2008 qualifying saw us drop three points to the Italians in a game we could have won. George Burley’s World Cup 2010 qualification campaign saw us drop two points to Norway at Hampden in a game we should definitely have won.

                                                               Yeah. Two points.

Which brings us up to date. The talk of ‘improvement’ and ‘club atmosphere’ from Levein is great. The seven months between Levein taking over and the friendly against Sweden were great. We beat the Czechs at Hampden with a competent performance, he was saying all the right things. 

Is Levein benefitting more from a good crop of Scotland players coming of age though? Voghts had virtually nothing to work with and Burley never seemed to sit quite right with the players or the media. Thus far, Levein has alienated a player who many consider as Scotland’s best striking option in Steven Fletcher, scraped into the last game of a qualifying campaign with a hint of a chance, hasn’t won a game that matters by more than a single goal and given us one memorable performance in a game we eventually lost.

The talk of ‘improvement’ grates a bit just now as well, as the result simply do not reflect this. Lithuania have given us a good comparison for this, as in this campaign we fought out a scrappy 0-0 draw in Kaunas and bumbled through to a 1-0 victory at Hampden. In the same games under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish in the Euro 2008 qualifiers we won 2-1 away and 3-1 at home.

There are a lot of questions to be answered before the 2014 World Cup qualifying group kicks off. A group featuring Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Macedonia and Wales could easily go either way and see us qualify or finish bottom of the group. Levein must learn from his slow start in this campaign, four points from the first four games (including that 97th winner from McManus) would almost certainly see us cut adrift. Starting as we mean to go on is vital.

Coat of Arms

Okay, cards on the table early here: I like St Johnstone. I’ve spent a fair chunk of the past couple of years at McDiarmid park doing commentary. Perth’s proximity to Dundee means its one of the simplest places for me to get to for 3pm on a Saturday and by the same token, means I can be back home and eating sooner rather than later. Add to that the 208 is one of those tremendously bizarre pubs that seems to live for Saturdays between 11am and 2:50pm. It is like a rabbit warren, with corridors heading off in various directions and a look that makes it feel like you’re visiting a pub in someone’s front room. I once stumbled into one of the rooms off of the main corridor and found a room packed out with four or five year old Motherwell shirts, shorts, socks, jackets, training gear, the whole lot. It was like getting lost in the Dalai Lama’s wardrobe. 

I have also seen some terrific games of football there as well, particularly Motherwell coming from behind twice to grab a point on the opening day of the 2009/10 season (Another reason to love the opening day), with a ‘Hollywood comes to Perth’ moment from Ross Forbes.

 

I absolutely mean you, Super Saint, when I say ‘things aren’t quite right.’

That said, things aren’t quite right along Crieff Road at the moment. Derek McInnes is coming under pressure from parts of the ground for the lacklustre performances on the park. Since returning to the SPL in 2009, Saints have never looked in any danger of returning to the 1st division and have had some fine cup runs, ending up in the League Cup and Scottish Cup semi-finals in successive years. This is all very positive on paper, and Chairman Geoff Brown appears to squeeze every penny available in order to run the club properly.

The club is in a solid position, there are competent players on the pitch, the ground is well appointed but the play on the pitch is amongst the least inspiring in the league. The club went almost three months without scoring at the end of last season and on this season’s showing, it looks a trend likely to continue.

Saints came out as they have done the past few times I’ve been, and raced around for the first ten or fifteen minutes, creating several chances but struggling to find any sort of clinical edge. A lot of work and some nice passing, but no end product. Paul Gallacher in the Pars goal made some decent stops, but the attacks eventually petered out. As is often the way, this was punished after half an hour, as Dunfermline’s Andy Kirk stabbed the ball past Enckelman from close range. Saints even failed to convert a penalty in the second half, as new signing and former Arab, Francisco Sandaza showed the first true bit of quality in the final third for St Johnstone, wriggled free of his marker only to be clipped by John Potter, sending him sprawling.

Sandaza was adamant that he wanted the penalty, only for McInnes to pass responsibility to Liam Craig. Craig for me, has been one of St Johnstone’s poorest performers over the past year, and while he clearly is working hard and giving his all every week, his delivery and execution over that time has been abysmal. Not to take anything way from Paul Gallacher, it was a good save, but Craig should have done better.

On a more positive note, starting the SPL a month early has been terrific. The pitches are running flat and true, and teams are keen to get the ball down and knock it around. Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St. Mirren particularly are showing us how it is possible and that the Scottish leagues do have some quality in them. Once again, this leaves me wondering why on earth we don’t have more 3G pitches?

So that was the first big weekend of the summer.

Scottish football has returned and I couldn’t be more delighted.

Quite aside from the fact that it finally gives fans on football message boards something to talk about that isn’t the endless and pointless conjecture about Craig Thomson’s internet usage or analysing every statement that comes out of their club to the Nth degree, I love the start of the season. Dropping into Fir Park for the friendly against Leeds was good, but its only a friendly, and winning or losing doesn’t matter. All respect to the Leeds fans that made the trip, hearing ‘Marching on together’ and seeing guys like Howson and Snodgrass at Fir Park, was exciting.

You’ll also note the lesser-spotted Fir Park Grass.

Unfortunately, I missed the first weekend of the season on holiday in France, which I’ll admit, was an oversight. Lesson learned though, getting home and watching the highlights to find that Stevie Hammell and Keith Lasley are joint top scorers, and Motherwell are sitting at the top of the league, I won’t be going on holiday again. Oh, and Lasley pinging it into the postage stamp from the edge of the box? They knew I wasn’t there, I’m sure of it.

Anyway, paranoid delusions aside, I made my way to Paisley for my first competitive game of the season. St Mirren have had a good pre-season, picking up former Scotland internationalists, Gary Teale and, Stephen Thompson, Dutch full-back Jeroen Tesselar, former Celtic players Paul McGowan and Graham Carey and Hamilton’s Nigel Hasselbaink. Aberdeen haven’t had quite the same turn-around. Fraser Fyvie is returning from injury and Craig Brown has signed up stoppers Kari Arnason and Youl Mawene and keepers Jason Brown and David Gonzalez.

As I said, I love the start of the season. Heading to games in July in shorts and t-shirt, pubs in Paisley embracing European cafe culture by sticking some of Asda’s finest patio furniture outside by the cigarette bins and a stand full of teenagers and men, all twitching as they’ve managed to escape shopping with their parents/girlfriends/wives for a Saturday afternoon. The pitches are lush and conducive to a game of football and every game seems to matter more. It’s the start of the season, everything is possible and every good result proves that this could be the season! Your new signing is everything you hoped he was. Your new strip really does look great. It certainly beats piling on five or six layers and hiking boots to walk through the snow to Pittodrie in December when you’re fifteen points adrift of the top and the bottom.

As for the game, St Mirren came racing out of the traps and only so poor finishing saw the game at 0-0 at half-time.Aberdeenstruggled to get the ball out of their own half for much of it and Hasselbaink and Thompson passed up fine chances from corners. With the St Mirren attack pushing so high up the pitch and closing downAberdeenat every opportunity, they were rushed off the ball and were unable to form any kind of rhythm in the game. The second half was more of the same, with McGowan and Teale in midfield running the show. McGowan’s close control and six-pence turning circle regularly showing up Aberdeen’s midfield and Teale popping on the left, the right and then through the middle making him hard to pin down. All of this was coupled with the work-rate of Hasselbaink and Thompson and the calm and competitive play of Goodwin. Hasselbaink finally got his reward in the second half after some nightmarish defending fromAberdeensaw three defenders drift away from him to put him clean through on Gonzalez.

It was a tough result to take for the large Aberdeen support, but given the chances that each side created, St Mirren should’ve been far more comfortable winners.

Thursday night took me to Tynecastle for Hearts – Paksi in the Europa League. Despite what turned out to be a fairly hairy journey toEdinburgh (dismantling wind-screen wipers at the side of the A90), there was an exciting air of expectation around Gorgie. The stability of Hearts has been shaken in the past week, with the sacking of Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown. Now begins the era of Paolo Sergio. It was a decision that appeared to come completely from left-field, but I get the feeling that things have not been quite right on the Good-Ship Gorgie for a while. Vladimir Romanov’s apparent meddling last year included dropping Captain Marius Zaliukas and goalkeeper star Marian Kello at points last year. Romanov also appeared to have a different take on the Craig Thomson affair and has subsequently shipped him out to FBK Kaunas. Add to that the fact that Hearts have only actually won one game in fifteen attempts, and the decision, while still surprising, is not remarkable (For Hearts, at least!). 

 The Wheatfield offers a fine view.

Having watched the first leg, I was confident Hearts would progress, but the ball is round, after all, so an early Hearts goal would settle plenty of nerves. Despite having the lion’s share of possession in the first half hour, the majority of that was knocked around the back four and midfield two of Black and Mrowiec. The breakthrough came from Danny Grainger’s corner in the end, with Ryan Stevenson getting up highest and directing the ball past the hapless Paksi keeper. From then on, Hearts didn’t look back, with Stevenson adding a second on the stroke of half-time. The second half saw the withdrawal of Zaliukas, with Hamill brought into midfield and Mrowiec pushed to centre-half. For me, this made all the difference for Hearts. Hamill showed composure on the ball and gave Black another body in midfield to knock the ball around with. Hearts finished the tie off with a cleverly worked goal on fifty minutes with Sutton laying up a shot for Driver to bury, before Templeton stung the keepers hands enough to parry it directly onto Skacel’s toe for a fourth.

Paksi bagged a goal before the end, but Hearts went through comfortably and have drawn Tottenham Hotspur in the playoff round. Paolo Sergio graciously praised Jim Jeffries after the match; “Nobody changes everything within two days, there is a lot of Mr Jefferies in this game today, I want to dedicate this win to Mr Jefferies. This win is for him too. Our qualification is through his work.” Which will go a long way to smoothing his passage with the Scottish Press. I would imagine that if he were to beat Spurs, or at the very least, put up a contest at home, his passage would be smoothed considerably more.

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