Monday, 30 October 2000

Are Rangers on the road to ruin?

by Bernard Thompson

Irish Times online edition

In the Scottish tabloids, one of the most recognisable images of
the past decade has been the Celtic crest with a crack across its middle.
Accompanying the words, "Celtic in Crisis", the graphic has been so commonly
used that it has become a visual cliché. But, with Celtic currently riding
high at the top of the Scottish Premier League, the abysmal form of their
city rivals has seen the Rangers club badge come under scrutiny.

Dick Advocaat says the word "crisis" is not applicable in football. He may
be right but the performances of his team in recent months has done nothing
to generate positive hyperbole. "The table doesn't lie" allegedly, and if
that often used remark is a truism, then Rangers have profound problems.
They currently lie fourth in the table, thirteen points behind Celtic, who
have played one game more. However, as Advocaat has already commented,
"Playing like this, you lose every game".

His team have done nothing to disprove his forecast. The most vehement
condemnation of players that most observers can recall, after losing to St
Johnstone, did nothing to motivate his squad to achieve better things.
Defeats by Sturm Graz and Kilmarnock followed, leaving the Ibrox side's
season on the brink of collapse. The 3-0 loss at home to Kilmarnock marked
Rangers' third consecutive league defeat; something which last occurred 11
years ago.

And, frankly, there are not the faintest signs of recovery. Various analysts
point to different aspects of the club's current troubles as the most
significant. Perhaps the best conclusion to be drawn is that that very
disagreement indicates a malaise that is as broad-ranging as it is deep.

Advocaat can legitimately point to serious injury problems that would test
the abilities of any coach. In the short time that he was fit, Michael Mols
looked capable of showing himself to be one of the most talented forwards in
British football. However, problems with his knee have ruled him out for
several more weeks at the very least.

In his absence, it is apparent that Rangers do not have a replacement who
can be considered to be remotely comparable to the Dutchman, a fact to which
the solitary goal in the last seven matches testifies.

Injuries have also limited the contribution of Jorg Albertz and Giovanni Van
Bronckhurst. Albertz is not a favourite of his boss, yet his long-range
goals have been invaluable on countless occasions.

Van Bronckhurst, on the other hand, is very much the man to make Rangers
tick. Clearly the best midfielder in Scotland, his current groin injury
looks certain to limit his powers for the forseeable future.

These are just three of a clutch of injuries that can be used in the defence
of the Head Coach. Yet there lingers a suspicion that too much of Rangers'
success depended on the presence of these three players. The performances of
the other squad members barely justifies the enormous salaries they have
been collecting.

This has lead to much speculation with regard to the question of their being
unable or, perhaps, unwilling. There are emerging claims of factionalism
within the dressing room, strengthened by Advocaat's assertion that he knows
what the problems are but is reluctant to articulate them.

It is alleged that some of the non-Dutch players resent Advocaat's apparent
readiness to back his countrymen regardless of the relative performances of
their teammates. Albertz, the French goalkeeper, Charbonnier, Scots striker
Billy Dodds, and the Australian defender Tony Vidmar, are just a few who
could justly feel aggrieved that they have been seen as expendable amid some
performers who have played like journeymen but are paid like superstars.
Then, of course, there is captain Lorenzo Amoruso who Advocaat strongly
supported last season, but who he clearly now wishes to be rid of. That has
been made impossible by the loss of Craig Moore and the hopelessly inept
form of Bert Konterman, signed as Amoruso's replacement. This pair are the
central unit of a defence that is little short of chaotic and which was
ruthlessly exposed in the 6-2 defeat by Celtic.

An unhappy dressing room is not new to Avocaat. He had even worse problems
when coaching the Netherlands in 1994. However, his track record of five
trophies in two years entitles him to have a certain degree of faith shown
in him, even if some of his signings have been questionable.

What might be more significant though, is whether or not Rangers can provide
the means to allow him to undertake the major task of repairing a team.
The much vaunted signing of a world-class striker has never materialised and
the abandonment of attempts to sign John Hartson and Raul Tamudo has been
viewed with suspicion in some quarters.

And a retiring Director of the club, Hugh Adam, recently expressed fears
that David Murray is leading the club into financial danger. If Adam is
right, there may not be quite the amount of money that Murray (known to
supporters as "The Mint") would like the public to believe.

All may be revealed soon as matters are set to come to a head over the next
two weeks. If Rangers lose to Monaco and finish bottom of their Champions League group,
they will be deprived of the chance to earn the European revenue that even a
UEFA Cup place would allow them.

Furthermore, if they do not begin to reduce the ten point gap between
themselves and Hibernian, they are also in danger of losing sight of
Scotland's second qualifying place in the Champions League.

Added to this is a game on Tuesday against Dundee United in the CIS
Insurance Cup. Two months ago, Advocaat and the Rangers fans would
cheerfully have exited this tournament rather than be distracted from their
greater pursuits. But in the current circumstances, defeat against the team
that has failed to win a League match in six months would not bear
contemplation.

All of these problems raise huge question marks over the future of Advocaat
himself.

Dismissing him is not an option but, faced with an end to Rangers' Champions
League adventure, and without the means to improve the side, there is a real
possibility he will leave.

That would give Murray the problem of finding a coach who was willing to
take on a large Dutch contingent in an unhappy dressing room and with
limited funds to make his own mark.

Few candidates would have the ability to succeed. So, somehow, Rangers must
immediately convert a run of surrendering form to a winning streak which
will take them beyond the Old Firm match at the end of this month.
If they succeed it will be one of the most dramatic reversals in the history
of Scottish football. If they fail, the consequences may be felt years into
the future.

Theoretically, they have the ability to salvage this season. But the clock
is ticking loudly.

Monday, 16 October 2000

Sad end to glorious story

By Bernard Thompson
Published in Irish Times online edition

In Scottish football, the term "great man" is jealously guarded. Busby, Shankly and Stein are acknowledged as men who performed the supernatural in the days of the true working class hero.

Try to add Alex Ferguson to the list and all manner of arguments begin. So, if the manager of the English and former European Champions must struggle to establish his credentials, then it is no surprise that Ferguson's Scots contemporary, Jim McLean, has become a target for disdain.

When Ferguson was challenging the supremacy of the Old Firm, McLean was in charge of a Dundee United side that seemed equally able to rock the foundations of the Scottish game. Between them, the east coast sides, were given the title of "The New Firm" in recognition of the belief that their tilt at the established order would be lasting.

Ferguson's successes are legendary but, with a League Championship, two League Cup successes, a UEFA Cup Final and a European Cup semi-final, McLean's achievements could stand comparison with any recent Scottish club manager. On Saturday, his 29 years with his beloved club came to an end in the most bitter of circumstances.

After a fans' protest outside the ground, McLean faced the television cameras to insist that he would not be driven from a team that he had supported before many of the cat-callers were born.

However, when questioned about the role of his brother, at the club, and the future of manager, Alex Smith, McLean, rashly, raised his fists to the reporter and later announced his intention to sever all links with United, in a public apology. His demise marked a sad end to the career of one of Scottish football's few truly remarkable figures.
When McLean took over United, they were an insignificant club, with no appreciable history of success. Established as Dundee Hibernians in 1910, they were known as the second club in Scotland's fourth city and of negligible importance. It was purely through McLean's understanding of football - an appropriate attribution of the word "genius" - that the Tayside club came to challenge, and often overwhelm, the established powers of Rangers and Celtic.

United, not only won the League in 1983, they went on to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, losing out to AS Roma in a bitter encounter.

They also lost a UEFA Cup Final to IFK Gothenburg, in 1987 (having beaten Barcelona and Borussia Moenchengladbach on the way) denying McLean's team the sort of glory enjoyed by Aberdeen but establishing the Tangerines as a team of genuine quality.

Such success would not be long-lasting. The introduction of Graeme Souness, at Ibrox, with a bank balance to match his personality, saw the establishment of a dominance in Scotland that was Royal Blue. However, the success that McLean had provided was never acknowledged as being unsustainable by the relatively small body of United fans. Over the years, they grew increasingly frustrated - as did McLean - by the team's inability to emulate their greatest successes.

The pressure increased until McLean finally agreed to give up the job of manager and take charge of the club's administration, in his new role of Chairman, in 1993. However, the failure of the club to prosper under new leadership was as inevitable as the ability of the Old Firm to use their financial power and massive Scottish audience to ensure that future challenges to their dominance would remain the stuff of fantasy. For United, relegation followed, as did promotion, but the hoped for re-establishment of a third power in Scottish league football would not materialise.

The result was a challenge to the boardroom, through a campaign in the media. "United for Change" was the name of a movement, led by the Scottish politician, Lord Watson, and backed by some businessmen and naïve fans. Their promise was to deliver the impossible with a plan that was without realistic specifics. McLean resisted, his board supported him, and it appeared that the threat had been fended off.

However, one of the worst League records of modern times was more than the supporters could bear. Dundee United have failed to win a match since April of this year and their last home win was in 1999. Saturday's 4-0 home defeat by Hearts saw the inevitable protests outside the ground and McLean agreed to defend his position on television.

Unfortunately, the relatively benign questioning became too much for him and he struck out at the BBC's interviewer. Although remorseful, he immediately realised that his position was untenable and intimated his intention to resign.

McLean understands that his moment of anger required a self-inflicted punishment. But what must seem unfair is the extent to which his contribution to football has gone unrecognised. While acknowledged for his team's achievements, his observations on the game went largely unheeded. At the peak of his success, he insisted that his players would be paid bonuses on their entertainment value rather than simply their results.

He was describing football as a product long before the new breed of polished executives had turned their attentions from Rugby Union to the proletarian game of soccer. And, as architect of one of Britain's most successful youth policies, he preached about the need to protect young players as well as the danger of financially greater powers poaching the fruits of years of coaching labour from "provider" clubs.

In many ways, McLean was ahead of his time but his visionary statements went largely unheeded. Had he possessed the panache of so many modern, highly educated executives, the international reputation of an established coach, or just the credibility of an Old Firm manager (he once refused the job of managing Rangers), he might have been regarded as a football luminary.

As things stand, his association with Scottish football and Dundee United has ended in ignominy. His actions, on Saturday, may have been unforgivable but it is certain that, between the victim and the perpetrator, it is McLean's pain that will be more acute - and long-lasting.