Thursday, 8 February 2001

Back to the drawing board for Advocaat

 By Bernard Thompson

Published in the Irish Times, Thursday February 8, 2001

Those who have experienced Old Firm games understand that matches between Celtic and Rangers have unlimited potential to captivate, bewilder or appal.

Perhaps it is the aggressive nature of the city of Glasgow or the political and religious undertones of the rivalry that is apparently able to transmit itself to outsiders from all nations and cause them to abandon the lessons of experience and good sense.

It may be that the suspicion that "foreigners" cannot find it in themselves to care about the mere defence of "the colours" over-motivates the players on show until they resort to making decisions based on desperation and anger. Whatever the powers at play, last night's CIS Cup semi-final match was an example of how the entities involved have the capacity to hack notches in the totem of football history, irrespective of the personnel involved.

The Irish TimesThe match last night was expected to be little more than an enthusiastic warm-up for the more significant league encounter at Celtic Park on Sunday. What developed before the eyes of 52,000 supporters and millions of television viewers was one of the classic encounters of competitiveness and incident with both parties sacrificing the finer points of the game in determination that their will would prevail. In that, Celtic's victory was far more complete than the 3-1 scoreline.

The comment preceding the match fooled few. Dick Advocaat praised Henrik Larsson to an extent that was as gaudy as it was lavish. If he had hoped to emulate Bob Paisley in persuading his opponents' star player to believe in, rather than prove, his greatness his failure was complete. In the circumstances, Larsson's untouchable professionalism only confirmed the accuracy of the critiques offered by Advocaat and his young captain, Barry Ferguson. It was players such as Larsson who Kipling would have addressed as "a man, my son".

As for Martin O'Neill, he discussed the merits of fielding a weakened side with a detached confidence. If the injury problems that had prompted Advocaat to remind the world that he had only 15 fully fit players occurred to O'Neill, he managed to flit past the subject with virginal innocence. O'Neill would like his opponents to think of him as a naïve journeyman, content to take the hard knocks as part of a learning experience. He is nothing of the sort.

He may have abandoned the study of law to pursue a career in football but in the even more intellectually sophisticated field of interpersonal psychology, he is worthy of an honorary doctorate. There is a distinct impression from O'Neill that he could point a gun to your head and still persuade you to underestimate him. That particular analogy seems especially relevant to Dick Advocaat just now.

The victory that will be recorded in the record books belies a set of statistics that are far more significant than the imbalance of goals. More telling are the figures that will add to the disciplinary tallies. Against three yellow and one red card to Celtic players are eight bookings and two sendings off for Rangers yet there are Scottish teams that traverse the rules with more vigour and planning than they. But, as in their league match with Hearts, when Claudio Reyna and Arthur Numan were dismissed, Rangers demonstrated all of the symptoms of industrial stress to the point of breakdown.

After Celtic's opening threatened to overwhelm their opponents in an easy checkmate, Rangers seized on the opportunities of gifted possession to merit their goal if not the penalty that facilitated it. This was their chance to strike at the heart of Celtic's success this season - their belief. However, after the break, it was clear that O'Neill had been prolific with the hypodermic that has infused his team with a conviction that a protecting light shines upon them. Their resilience soon prompted a reaction of frantic despair among the Blues.

To his credit, Barry Ferguson, who was the chief offender in the first Rangers abomination on the occasion of the earlier Celtic Park encounter, has received the captaincy of his club and transformed himself from a potentially excellent player to a leader with the makings of greatness. But no monumental captain of the past could have reined in such panic in older men as was witnessed last night, when even the impeccable Michael Mols was prompted to aberrant behaviour.

The contrast with Celtic's ranks could scarcely be more stark. New to the experience, Neil Lennon nipped the heels of transgressing Rangers like a prize sheepdog relishing the work while the once vilified Ramon Vega portrayed a confidence that his gigolo looks would befit on yet another date. There was no self-doubt in Celtic.

Now all eyes turn to Celtic Park on Sunday. Rangers could win and the erratic Old Firm history gives them some succour. But for Dick Advocaat, who is proud of a record that has never seen him sacked, the prospect is daunting. He must force his players to employ a cold application that has evaded them on the key occasions this season. And he must find a way to freeze the trigger finger of Martin O'Neill. 

Monday, 5 February 2001

More predictable than Davie White

By Bernard Thompson
 Published in The Irish Times New Media edition

Tartan Special
At last, the season is hotting up. The biggest week so far in the Scottish season lies ahead with the keenly anticipated Old Firm double header.

On Wednesday, the national stadium (aka the third-best ground in Glasgow) hosts the semi-final of the CIS Cup while Celtic Park is the venue for Sunday's crucial league match. Fans on both sides are indulging in hedonistic dreams of crushing the enemy, like a boot heel on an upturned beetle, twice in five days.

There is also the matter of the other CIS semi-final between St Mirren and Kilmarnock. My infallible Old Firm predictions will come at the end of this week's round-up.

If hostility will consume Glasgow in the latter part of this week, old-fashioned enmity was the order of the evening on Wednesday, when Aberdeen assailed Ibrox.

Two red cards maintained an acceptable aggro count for the preservers of anger. That was par for the course but the rejuvenated Tugay Kerimoglu, who scored the game's only goal for Rangers, further fanned the flames with public accusations of vile abuse.

Unbeknown to most, Tugay's mother died three months ago and he alleged that an unseen Dons player directed an obscene taunt relating to the matter. Equally offended are the Aberdeen players, who made convincing claims of ignorance of his bereavement.

Still, it sets things up for another bloodletting when the two sides next meet.

Indeed, Tugay has suddenly been launched to prominence, thanks to Rangers' injuries. He scored a scorcher against Dunfermline, with Michael Mols adding another. The match was Scotland's first pay-per-view encounter and the debate over whether such TV deals will kill or cure the Scottish game rages on.

Opponents of the scheme claimed divine intervention when thick fog in Perthshire caused Celtic's match with St Johnstone to be postponed minutes before the scheduled kick-off. That game was to have pioneered the television experiment but the plain grey screens made for a disappointing spectacle.

The postponement of the match also meant that Stillian Petrov could not serve his full suspension before the Old Firm league match.

Normal service for Celtic was resumed with a 3-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle yesterday. The game itself was typical of Celtic's season in that Henrik Larsson supplied all of the goals yet again. The victory was not without cost, however, as Joos Valgaeren was stretchered off with a serious ankle injury.

Better news for Martin O'Neill came with Eyal Berkovic's decision to consider a loan move to Blackburn Rovers. With the imminent departure of Berkovic and the releasing of Daniel Prodan by Rangers, the musty scent of dead wood is gradually being lifted from Glasgow.

Possibly the worst signing in the history of Scottish football, Prodan failed to kick a ball for Rangers since arriving for £2.2 million sterling in 1998.

At Hibernian, much jollity accompanied Alex McLeish's decision to extend his contract until 2003. McLeish's success with Hibs has made him hot property and he had been linked with a clutch of major jobs in the past few months.

His sanity was openly questioned in 1998, when he left Motherwell for a Hibs side that was certain to be relegated. However, his reinvention of the Edinburgh club makes his the best managerial performance of the season so far. The securing of McLeish has also persuaded the iconic Franck Sauzee to extend his stay at Easter Road, where he believes that he may be manager some day.

Away from domestic football, there was excitement at the prospect of Scotland being a potential host of the World Club Championships. FIFA General Secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen believes that the country would be ideal because of its small number of quality grounds and undisputed passion for the game.

Certainly, the enthusiasm for the tournament would outstrip that of the Brazilian debacle in which the locals refused to attend matches that did not involve their clubs. On the other hand, the teams from the host nation would probably not be regarded as the hottest favourites to make the final.

But now, to save you watching, I can tell you of the outcome of the two Old Firm clashes. I believe that the neutral venue will favour Rangers in the semi-final of the CIS Cup and that they will beat Celtic to provide the first real test for Martin O'Neill.

In the League match, I have become less convinced that Celtic will win but I stand by my conviction, chiefly because of home advantage. Even with the possible return of Giovanni Van Bronckhurst to Rangers and the probable loss of Celtic's Joos Valgaeren, I will take Celtic to deal the death blow to Rangers' championship challenge with a narrow victory in an angry game.

In doing so, I should offer one small caveat - in the form of a Scottish football fable. For part of Jock Stein's time as manager of Celtic, his counterpart at Rangers was Davie White. On the eve of a clash between the sides, both managers were asked for a prediction.

The first to speak was White, who tipped his side to secure a two-goal victory. Undaunted, Stein refused to speculate, warning that "only an idiot would ever try to predict the outcome of an Old Firm game."

If that is the case, in pre-empting two of them, I must be at least twice as clever as Davie White... I think.