Monday, 8 January 2001

A New Year's whiff of scandal

                                                                                                                              By Bernard Thompson

Irish Times online edition
Well, there was no top league football last week but there were enough allegations, speculations,
Foul play?: The mystery referee
terminations and humiliations to occupy the attentions of the avid Scottish football fan.

First came the curious case of the "Top Ref" who condemned Rangers for their disciplinary record. The unnamed official claimed, in a newspaper, that the Ibrox club's conduct this season has left something to be desired after a flurry of red cards and a few controversial incidents such as Fernando Ricksen's notorious "straightening out" of an Aberdeen player's unmentionables.

The referee went on to speculate that Rangers should follow the example of Scottish football's blue-eyed boys, Celtic, and stop mobbing referees. He even went so far as to suggest that Celtic's 12-point lead is attributable to their being all round bloody good sports.

All this praise of Celtic really is now becoming a bit gut-wrenching - it's just not what they are used to. Next, the team will be taking the field with apples, scones, flowers and any other presents usually associated with teachers' pets.

The story became more intriguing with the suggestion that the criticisms came from none other than Scotland's top whistler, Hugh Dallas. Like any decent referee, Dallas is disliked by most fans but he is also hated by a large number of Celtic supporters to the point of insanity. Apparently he is clearly biased against the club and this goes back to the claim that he had applied for the job as Celtic's General Manager to be pipped by the unfortunate Jock Brown.

That lead to leaked murmurings at boardroom level that the snub might affect his impartiality. Fans tend not to need much reason to foam at the mouth, of course, and the bad feeling escalated until, in 1999, he was struck on the head by a coin in the most bad-tempered Old Firm match of recent times. On the same evening, his home was attacked by a member of the Celtic lunatic fringe.

This season, Dallas disallowed a Celtic goal that was shown to be a good three feet over the line and although he was said to have been shocked by the television pictures and, haplessness of his assistant, there was little benefit of doubt being offered from the green and whites.

Needless to say, the comments attributed to him have infuriated Dick Advocaat who has labelled the officially unidentified referee "a coward". The Rangers boss is also reportedly considering a move for Dennis Wise, so it is fair to say that he is unrepentant about any of his players' transgressions. Of course, it is unthinkable that Dallas might engineer such a public fall-out with Rangers but it might go some way to appeasing the more rabid of his sworn enemies amongst Celtic fans.

Relations also became strained between George O'Boyle and the entire football world. If the attitude of Sammy McIlroy is typical, then O'Boyle has kicked his last ball in anger after St Johnston terminated his and Kevin Thomas's contracts following allegations of drug taking.

McIlroy said last week that, at 33 and having suffered serious injury problems, O'Boyle's career was as good as over. As yet, there has been no evidence against the players offered publicly, other than eye-witness testimony. However, after such a serious accusation, O'Boyle would appear to be damned by his own silence on the matter.

To be honest, I tend to be of the "sitting on my moral high-horse" attitude, when it comes to drugs. We all have weaknesses, of course. I am told that I have been seen drunk but I have no memory of the occasions so I hesitate to own up. But footballers filling their noses with illegal substances come just below fox-hunters in my list of people that I would sentence to ten years listening to "There's a Bridle Hanging on the Wall."

That said, my sympathy for His Royal Highness, Prince Charles of Wales, after falling off his horse while chasing one of the little red animals is beyond question.

When players' careers are ended through injury, it is sad but when they are victims of their own stupidity the tragedy is less deserving of sympathy. O'Boyle has been a good player in his time but I find it difficult not to contrast his downfall with the efforts of Michael Mols as he strives to recover his form following an unfortunate injury. I can't help feeling that a model professional like Mols must look at the likes of O'Boyle, and his apparent contemptuous attitude to his career, with a degree of disdain.

So there will be no O'Boyle when St Johnstone play Dunfermline, in the third round of the Scottish Cup. Saturday's heroes were Buckie Thistle from the Highland League, who knocked out Hamilton Academical. They have a convenient draw with Ross County, meaning that they don't have too far to travel. Of the rest, Celtic visit Stranraer, which I would not wish on anyone. Rangers entertain Brechin City to prompt more reminiscences about Inverness Caledonian Thistle defeat of Celtic last year and the Bronze Age victory of Berwick Rangers over their Glasgow namesakes - which is annually recalled.

It is unlikely that Lorenzo Amoruso will play, however, as is wanted by both West Ham and Fulham, with the latter ready to pay more cash. Scottish football can scarcely afford to lose an entertainer like Lorenzo, although Rangers believe that they can as they hope to welcome Craig Moore back to the team sooner, rather than later.

Never mind, no doubt Amoruso is preparing a "My Rangers Hell" exclusive to a tabloid newspaper that will keep us amused for weeks to come. We may never see another Amoruso and hopefully, there will be no more George O'Boyles.

Friday, 5 January 2001

Drug allegations cast shadow over O'Boyle's future

By Bernard Thompson

Published in Irish Times online edition

The future of Northern Ireland international, George O'Boyle is in doubt after accusations that he and St Johnstone teammate, Kevin Thomas, snorted cocaine on a Christmas night out.

Other players were also present on the night although it is understood that the allegations relate only to O'Boyle, 33, and 25-year-old Thomas.

It is understood the pair were reported to the club by a member of the public who was concerned at their behaviour. As yet, no drugs test has been carried out and no criminal action is expected.

The Irish TimesA spokesman for Tayside Police said: 'We have not been formally informed of the incident… We are aware St Johnstone are considering disciplinary action against two members of staff following an allegation of them having misused an illegal drug.'

The pair have been suspended by the club, although both are expected to fight any moves to terminate their contracts and are taking legal advice.

A press conference, scheduled for yesterday was cancelled after both players refused to attend, claiming that they had not been given due notice.

SPL Chief Executive Roger Mitchell, said, "We have not been informed of the latest incident but we are aware of it. The SPL must remain neutral as far as specific players are concerned because they have a right of appeal.

But in general terms, we deplore everything to do with illegal drug taking." Mitchell went on to say that there is a possibility of drugs tests in Scotland increasing after the success of such measures in Italy.

Wednesday, 3 January 2001

On hold for the bleak midwinter

 By Bernard Thompson

Tartan Special

Published in the Irish Times new media edition
At this happy time of year, all of the things that the Scots are famous for come together. Kilts, shortbread, whisky without an "e" and getting screaming drunk find harmony in the traditional festivities. Scotland is the only nation on earth that has a New Year, apparently, and everyone goes out on "Hogmanay" just waiting for the accordion thrill that signals the time to salivate on the cheeks of complete strangers. Then they play football.

Sadly, the collective headache of a people has put an end to the New Year's Day fixture list but the appetite is merely stronger on the following day. However, no team has rejoiced in the changing of the calendar more than Dundee United. Only days ago, all connected with the club were seething loudly at the unsportsmanlike behaviour of Hibernian players.

Apparently, some Hibees thought that the injury that felled Jim Lauchlan, as the game wound up, was a little too convenient. With the match at 0-0, there were suggestions that Lauchlan had nothing that could not be cured by hearing the final whistle. So, rather than return the ball to a United player, it was sent upfield where a corner and then a penalty ensued.

The result was a last gasp winner for Hibs to leave angry Dundonians asking where the referee found the extra three minutes of play. All this is very frustrating of course, unless you happen to be a neutral  - when it is little short of hilarious. Not so funny was the reaction of United's goalkeeper Alan Combe, who is alleged to have attempted to headbutt the fourth official.

Still, you can now dust off your "auspicious sign" clich├ęs, for the first match of 2001 brought unheard of joy to Tannadice. Their distress against Hibernian was forgotten about with a home win over Motherwell. It took Utd nearly ten months to win at their own ground in 2000 so there is at least some room for optimism in the City of Discovery.

It was a less happy start for Kilmarnock. With his famed eloquence, their manager Bobby Williamson, described his team's 6-0 defeat against Celtic as "the worst experience I've experienced" in football. From Killie, it was as shoddy an exhibition as has been seen since Paul McCartney displayed his paintings and when Williamson heaved Ally McCoist on at 5-0, the merciless home crowd's day was complete.

Larsson scored four as he continues to search for his best form. Sutton scored another couple to make the Celts' fans feel like world-beaters. That they are not but Scot-thumpers they most certainly are.

As far as the Celts go, though, the big story of the week has been the undignified exit of Allan MacDonald. MacDonald was supposed to be Celtic's answer to David Murray. There were, though, a few differences.

For instance, Murray owns most of Rangers whereas MacDonald was merely a boardroom figurehead. However, MacDonald left with generous parting shots at almost all of the people who supported him throughout his period of tenure.

He claimed that Celtic had already planned to sell Henrik Larsson, before his arrival, and that only MacDonald's intervention secured the future of the superstar who notched his 100th goal for the club on Tuesday. This has angered the shakers and movers at Celtic, not least Dermot Desmond who is singled out for special criticism.

MacDonald also claimed that Desmond preferred Joe Kinnear to Martin O'Neill as the Celtic manager. However, one figure from Celtic Park (the legendary "insider") disclosed to me that the allegations relating to Henrik Larsson were hotly disputed.

He responded that "Joe Kinnear was much closer to getting the Celtic job than even he probably realises" but that "Desmond was never against O'Neill". In relation to Henrik Larsson, he went on, "as far as the board were concerned, it was Allan who seemed to think that selling Henrik was a good idea because it would bolster the accounts from the start. The board felt compelled to back him in anything he did as he was a new appointment, but they also supported him when he was persuaded that the fans would not tolerate selling Henrik."

He went on that Desmond and the board view MacDonald's recent comments as "a betrayal as they feel that they supported Allan to the final full stop." If that is so, they have moved swiftly to deliver a "Not welcome" message to the former Chief Executive. "The word went out that Allan is effectively persona non grata at Celtic Park."

"They know that they can't really bar him but they want to make him aware that he is unwelcome." To that end, "MacDonald's Executive Club status is now void" and even his entry to the car park at the ground was to be "subject to negotiation." Of course, this is fairly standard fare when a major figure leaves Celtic.

MacDonald, for all his accusations, was a failure at Celtic and he seems to be unable to accept that as he attempts to maintain a reputation that will assure his continued success in the business world. Regardless of his jibes against Desmond, it does seem that it was the former Chief Executive who made many of the bad decisions at Celtic Park.

Now, the club even refuses to credit MacDonald with the appointment of Martin O'Neill, which they say was instigated by a "non-executive Director" which suggests that MacDonald was even less successful than his record suggests. When that record includes appointing John Barnes, you have a fair bit of explaining to do.

Anyway, enough of Celtic. The other Glasgow team defeated St Mirren, partly thanks to two goals from £12m Wonder-Norse, Tore Andre Flo. The 3-1 victory came as something of a relief to Dick Advocaat but St Mirren were in no condition to give the Ibrox club any pre-winter break blues.

Yes, the action now ceases so that the players can recharge their batteries, in preparation for the final push for glory. In other words, the Scots male must now revert to accordion-playing until the footy returns. It will sound awful for a few weeks but the result at New Year is magnificent.