Friday, 24 August 2007

More than a game

Gordon Strachan reckons his latest misconduct charge is about societal rather than football issues, and it's hard to disagree
By Bernard Thompson

From bad boy to moral crusader; from discipline case to victim of injustice, Gordon Strachan's route to popular heroism has been unconventional, imaginative and, of course, very individualistic.

Just a few days ago, Celtic fans were still divided as to the merits of one of the finest managers of his generation, football officials were unsheathing their pencils and some sections of the media were expressing a mixture of impatience and disdain.

Such a short while ago, we would hardly have guessed that Strachan, a man with more fatal put-downs than a vet during a foot-and-mouth outbreak, secretly felt that "to be truthful, I like to be liked". If he had been in any way troubled about his popular standing, there was scant evidence of that in his adoption of a diplomatic approach that would make John Bolton look like Nicholas Parsons, employing the sort of pejorative language that would shame Simon Cowell.

Spitting contempt at one manifestation of phone-in culture, he was quoted in a Scottish newspaper saying: "What you should ask is who is posing the question? Not an intelligent person, that's for sure. It's someone who's sitting with his tracksuit on, his devil dug at his side and a can of Kestrel in his hand, maybe coked up to his eyeballs, shouting down the phone. I'm not answering to that. I'm not answering a question from Mr Ned."

Though he qualified his statement - by adding "thankfully that doesn't reflect on most Celtic fans ... when I meet people they're always pleasant" - and later reminded people that he once assisted Adrian Chiles with his phone-in programme on Five Live, he fully merited some of the criticism he received. It is one thing to caricature "unreasonable" football fans as boors but nobody is asked to undergo an IQ test before shelling out £50 on a club tracksuit top.

Besides, to suggest that the unintelligent, the uneducated or simply the underclass of Britain has a lesser right to express an opinion on the game they support through attendance and television subscriptions is simply offensive. But Strachan is on unassailable high ground when he points to the sheer hypocrisy of fans who believe that buying a ticket entitles them to exhibit the sort of behaviour that normally attracts ASBOs only to go crying to the police if there is even a slight response to their provocation.

"Fans should have a responsibility to behave themselves when kids are about. I find it horrific that they can shout all kinds of abuse and then look for the police to complain if somebody smiles back at them from the Celtic bench. It's a mad, mad world and I couldn't get my head round what was happening on Sunday ."

Strachan was referring to what appeared to be an absurd haranguing from an Aberdeen steward, a dressing-down to which he quite properly objected. But there's nothing like a whiff of persecution to rally the Celtic support and the fact that he was sent to the stand for a third time in his Celtic career for, he insists, defending his colleagues from an unreasonable attack has prompted a sudden burst of unconditional love. If his latest misconduct charge is causing him any anxiety, there is the unanticipated plus side that Strachan vs the Establishment is just the sort of battle Celtic fans love.

The manager himself is playing down any notion of a fractious relationship with the authorities, insisting that he expects the testimony of Sunday's referee and fourth official to be sympathetic. However, depending on the outcome of a separate pending appeal - after, in what looked to be an act of unpardonable pettiness, he was sent from the dug-out on the day his team was to be presented with the SPL trophy, apparently without explanation from referee Stuart Dougal - he could face an upcoming ban totalling 10 matches.

The two incidents combined now present the SFA with a headache. Dismissing both charges - and Strachan is adamant that he has done nothing wrong in either instance and Celtic are sure to defend him with their now customary robust legal counsel - could lead to the impression that he had been victimised by referees.

Strachan has often spoken out against "yob culture" and told the Celtic View: "It is not an argument with officials, the SFA, coaches, with players, the opposition. It is a moral argument that is outwith football." If more managers felt as strongly, fewer players might feel inclined to spend Saturday nights drinking and fighting.

If Strachan has learned anything from this experience, it will have been from the example of his assistant Tommy Burns who faced the media at the weekend with his boss reportedly too upset to speak. Burns, who as Celtic player, manager and coach has endured every type of insult that the most vindictive fan has in his arsenal, reliably faces the most sensitive situations with a quiet dignity that seems to enhance his personal stature but insisted: "The abuse that we've had to take in the last few games has been shocking."

In the past, some Celtic fans have been guilty of that type of behaviour, such as when some of them abused the memory of Davie Cooper in song, while the recent phenomenon of some Rangers fans trying to implicate Jock Stein in a child-abuse scandal is also beneath contempt.

Yet while the supporters of clubs outside the Old Firm often revel in a certain smugness that scrutiny seems to centre on only two clubs, perhaps football should wake up to the nature of some of the "banter" from other fans. Isn't time to kick yobbism out of football?

Friday, 17 August 2007

The only problem with Barry Ferguson is he's better than his team-mates

Barry Ferguson has had his problems, but the Rangers skipper is not a trouble-maker, just an outstanding player, writes Bernard Thompson


Paul Le Guen and Barry FergusonWhat's in an armband? Nothing, according to former Rangers manager Paul Le Guen;
everything, if you ask the player he stripped of the Token, or Walter Smith, who restored it to its rightful owner just days after returning to Ibrox. Even by the standards of Barry Ferguson MBE's turbulent career, the eight months since Le Guen attempted to sell him have been remarkable.

It is normally indicative of impending doom for any footballer when he is publicly reminded that "no player is bigger than the club". In Ferguson's case, however, it was obvious that a massive institution would be critically diminished by his exit.

But, "the trouble with Barry Ferguson", despite the claims of a leading Scottish football writer in his book on Le Guen's tribulations at Ibrox, was not so much that he failed to follow on-field orders - in fact, Ferguson's performances indicated that his instincts were more finely tuned than his manager's instructions. Nor that he supposedly had some grand plan to unseat the man whose appointment had been lauded by fans, the media and the player himself, though having spent the summer running a marathon across the sands of the Sahara, the Frenchman could be forgiven for wondering why players just had to drink alcohol at a Christmas party.

No, there was and is a real problem with Ferguson: he was then, as now, the one exceptionally gifted player in the Rangers ranks - and also a far better bet for the future than the Frenchman who had taken the club to third place in the SPL and 17 points behind Celtic.

And that's only part of it. If ever there was a player primed to be Rangers royalty, it was Barry Ferguson. As a star-struck 10-year-old, he was taken into the inner sanctum of Ibrox by his older brother Derek, who was later ousted by Graeme Souness due to his reputation as a hell-raiser. Barry has had his own flirtations with disaster, the most infamous being the Battle of Bothwell, when he found himself in an idiotic street-fight with Celtic fans after getting sent off in an Old Firm game. Then, many expected him to go the way of his sibling and other talented prodigies who lost their way, like Charlie Miller or Sandy Robertson. But an ultimatum from Dick Advocaat, who recognised a genuine talent, was enough to direct the player on to a more sensible path. He matured as a man and a footballer and became the club's youngest ever captain.

It was an extraordinary vote of confidence from Advocaat, who discarded the fans' cult hero Jörg Albertz because of his technical deficiencies and sold Rino Gattuso following the Italian's refusal to convert to a full-back role. Though the latter decision was football's equivalent of rejecting the Beatles, Ferguson's continued rise in stature indicated a level of ability that one of Europe's most demanding managers would comfortably support.

Ferguson's reputation has been unfairly sullied in the eyes of some onlookers. An inauspicious move to Blackburn, marred by serious injuries, prompted some Ibrox die-hards to question his loyalty - which is akin to querying the aristocratic credentials of the Prince of Wales.

A few even accused him of "crawling back" when he returned, the player citing his and his wife's desire to be closer to their families. In truth, both moves suited Rangers better than Ferguson - the sale helping to balance the books, the return bringing reassurance to a team that had been unable to replace him.

Ironically, given the fact that he was accused of failing to fulfil an attacking role for Le Guen, he is now showing long-forgotten ability to raid into opposition penalty boxes and has three goals from two league games.

This re-emergence is partially due to necessity - Rangers having failed to sign Paul Hartley or Scott Brown; and partially thanks to reasonable support from his team-mates. With Kevin Thomson in midfield and the assured combination of Carlos Cuellar and David Weir in central defence, Ferguson can now afford to move into positions that would have been calamitous in a team that trained without tackling and contained lightweights like Karl Svensson, Jérémy Clément and Libor Sionko.

But Ferguson is now also enjoying one of the few periods in recent years when he hasn't been playing through an injury or even delaying surgery for the good of the cause.

In modern football, he is a fashion disaster. He is the bad-boy who grew up. He articulates his intelligence on the field rather than the post-match tunnel or studio. You won't find him advertising shampoo or shaving gel and he has a wife and family, rather than a Wag. He is also driven by the out-moded desire to "play for the jersey" at a club he desperately loves.

He may be no Gerrard or Lampard, and southern critics will refer back - simplistically and forever - to his time at Ewood Park and sneer that he's just a big fish in a small pond. That suits Smith, because it's no exaggeration to say that all Rangers' current hopes rest on the shoulders - and hips and knees and ankles - of one of Britain's truly talented midfielders who simply believes that to captain his favourite club and country is the highest achievement to which he can aspire.

There is a classic Ferguson pose: with the ball at his feet, arms outstretched, urging team-mates, who never seem to be quite as quick of mind as him, to make offensive runs. If Rangers are to have any real success, he'll have to drag them up to his wavelength. He's capable of it.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Don't expect the Bhoys to sink

Celtic will still be very much the team to beat when the SPL season kicks off tomorrow, argues Bernard Thompson
Recently, the Scottish Football Association repeated its warning to all SPL clubs that sectarianism and racism will lead to them being docked points.

Fans of teams other than Rangers and Celtic are chilled about the whole thing, believing that new sanctions will only be used against the two most powerful clubs in the land. But smaller clubs with cheaper lawyers have been made examples of before, it may yet happen again.

Celtic will win the league, of course, because frankly to predict anything other than a victory for the best squad in Scotland by far would just be plain silly.

More to the point is whether the Bhoys can again progress beyond the Champions League group stages (and they will have to beat Spartak Moscow to even qualify) and even maybe win a game away from home on the way.

After a season that owed much to Artur Boruc and Shunsuke Nakamura, both of whom are attracting interest from other clubs, new arrival Scott Brown should set the standard for other precocious talents such as Aiden McGeady and Derek Riordan. Gordon Strachan would like also to think that his six strikers (plus maybe Steven Naismith) could muster a decent goal tally instead of waiting for midfielders and central defenders to show them how.

At Rangers, much is expected of a squad full of new signings, if not exactly obvious match-winning stars. Pick of the new arrivals looks to be Carlos Cuellar in defence while Barry Ferguson remains clearly the club's best player by a country mile and, barring mishap, Kris Boyd will again be Rangers' and Scotland's top scorer. Lee McCulloch, Alan Hutton and Charlie Adam will undoubtedly be effective at SPL level but the club looks ill-prepared for a Champions League qualifying campaign.

Neither Hearts, Hibernian nor Aberdeen look to be strong enough to threaten the established order but all three should cause some sleepless nights in Glasgow. Theirs is a tale of three managers.

At Hearts, Anatoly Korobochka starts the season as favourite for the sack purely because of Vladimir Romanov's record of dispensing with personnel. But what has frustrated the Jambos most is their team's ability to play any Scottish side off the park only for off-the-field disruption to ruin their ambitions. There is no reason to expect change.

Meanwhile at Easter Road, John Collins faces a fight to establish his credibility as a manager after Hibs' players undermined him last season. He could also use some of the £9m accrued from transfers since the turn of the year, funds which have largely gone to stabilising the club's finances and paying for a new training centre. Hibs' biggest challenge will be to maintain their record of developing talented players having lost their youth academy director John Park to Celtic last season.

At Aberdeen, Jimmy Calderwood is tasked with extending an enviable record: six continuous seasons of improvement (four of them with Dunfermline). But after a third place finish last year, the Dons look to have hit their ceiling as far as the league is concerned, and would settle for a modest Uefa Cup run. But, after watching Hearts and Hibs win cups over the previous two seasons, Aberdeen fans are entitled to feel it could be their turn. They must overcome the loss of Russell Anderson to Sunderland but the experience and versatility of Jackie MacNamara should provide significant options.

The unfurling of the first division flag in Gretna's first-ever SPL match will be bittersweet, given that the club's proudest moment will take place without Rowan Alexander in charge. Ill-health forced Alexander to resign from his position as manager during the summer, having led Gretna through the lower leagues and to a Scottish Cup final place in 2006. New coach Davie Irons can only hope for the sort of early-season momentum that ultimately saved St Mirren last season and might just keep Gretna one place above the Saints to survive another year.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Keeping up with the neighbours leaves Smith craving moonbeams and miracles

All Walter Smith is now asked to do with Rangers is deliver the success of 1997 with the finances of 2007. Bernard Thompson explains why that's easier said than done
By Bernard Thompson

What a difference a decade makes. You gain experience but also age, some ambitions are realised
while other hopes are surrendered; you move onwards and upwards or decline. All are things for
Moonbeam-provider & miracle-worker: Murray and Smith
Walter Smith to ponder on Saturday.

On August 4 1997, Rangers unfurled another championship flag, kicking off what they hoped would be the club's 10th - and Smith's seventh - consecutive Scottish league title. Around £15m had been spent in the close season.

The chairman Sir David Murray insisted that for every £5 the impoverished Celtic spent, Rangers would splash out a tenner. They had just negotiated one Champions League qualifying round and seen off a string of helpless or hapless Celtic managers - Liam Brady, Lou Macari and Tommy Burns - with Wim Jansen barely threatening to disturb the peace in Smith's blue heaven.

He could scarcely have imagined then that, long before the end of that season, he would be redefined as yesterday's man. It must have been even more unthinkable that 10 years on he would be looked upon as the last hope for tomorrow. How did it come to this?

Like all well-balanced Scots, Rangers fans have nursed a chip on each shoulder. Matching Celtic's nine-in-a-row record of Scottish league titles salved the wound on one side. The problem persisted on the other - they had never seriously threatened to match their rivals' 1967 European Cup victory (a Cup Winners' Cup in 1972 hardly compensating).

It is only possible to begin to understand how Smith and Rangers came to be where they are now - trophyless for two seasons and with modest funds to remedy the problem - by appreciating the recklessness of their obsession with matching Celtic's achievement. As far back as 1989, the then newly-appointed chief executive Alan Montgomery had declared that "Rangers must win the European Cup". It was a typical example of defiance overriding realism.

But Smith's failure to make a major impact in Europe - the finest moment probably being the home-and-away defeat of Leeds United in 1992, later missing out on a Champions League final place by one point - led to the clamour for something new.

Like Dick Advocaat, for example.

"Believe me when I tell you that we are going for it this time - we want to be successful in Europe, and the money we are raising now will take us there," Murray boasted of a team that, by then, contained Arthur Numan, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Michael Mols. "This is the last part of the jigsaw for me ..."

The puzzle was that lavish expenditure delivered two league titles and some exciting European performances, notably eliminating a formidable Parma from the Champions League in 1999, but little else to show for financial crisis.

The arrival of Martin O'Neill having prompted Rangers to move swiftly on, Alex McLeish was asked to keep pace with Celtic while replacing high earners with radically cheaper alternatives. His record - two cups within six months of his appointment, a domestic treble in his first full season, a second title in 2005 and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League - set the context for a rueful but masterfully understated parting comment: "I'm sure those people who look at the facts will say that during a period of downsizing, I was reasonably successful."

But it must also be said that his tenure also coincided with Rangers' worst-ever run of competitive results and a record string of Old Firm defeats. He was pushed out by popular demand.

Turning to Paul Le Guen was bold, imaginative and seemingly unrealistic but demonstrative of a degree of audacity that Murray has often matched with persuasiveness to great effect. Le Guen described Murray's overtures as having "such force, such charisma and enthusiasm, that it gave it an extra dimension ... He's the kind of guy who can't leave you indifferent." Even more typical of Murray was his display of hubris in heralding a "moonbeam of success".

One brief, unmitigated disaster later, Rangers were returning to the man who self-evidently could not win the trophy they most covet.

Why Smith should have taken on the job when his reputation was at its highest after a short but successful period as coach of Scotland could easily be said to defy understanding. For sure, he must have found it irksome to see the fate that befell Rangers after his talents were considered inadequate for a club with European issues. Could he have felt he had something to prove, given that no manager since the legendary Bill Struth had brought more league titles to Ibrox? Sometimes in football logic, self-interest and common sense count for little compared to the innate sense that a club is in the blood of some individuals.

These days Sir David Murray doesn't even try to pretend he could double Celtic's spending, having lost out on Derek Riordan, Paul Hartley, Scott MacDonald and Scott Brown in the past 18 months. Murray's recent insistence that the club could have afforded the £4.4m transfer fee that took Brown from Hibs, but not his salary and add-on fees, is an indication that Smith faces the managerial challenge of his career. Last Monday the club announced that its debt has risen to £16.5m.

In the past Rangers have invested their finances with the shrewdness of a gambler on tilt. But contrasting the money wasted over the years with the more prudent acquisitions provides a lesson and Smith's best hope: the price ticket isn't always the best guide to quality, even if it is fun to be flash in front of the neighbours.

Smith once squandered £4m on Sebastián Rozental but gave an unknown Rino Gattuso his first big chance. The £12m Advocaat spent on Tore André Flo was outshone by his nurturing the talent of Barry Ferguson. McLeish, with little money to waste, landed Kris Boyd: to the purist, hardly even a footballer; to the statistician, an outrageously prolific goalscorer.

Now, as they prepare for the second leg of a vital Champions League qualifier with FC Zeta - after a first leg that, despite the 2-0 win, ranks among the club's worst European performances - the bombast is muted and Murray's summation of the club's fortunes drably pragmatic: "If we are in the Champions League we make £5m, if not we lose £5m." He is also now talking publicly of selling up.

And all Smith is now asked to do is deliver the success of 1997 with the finances of 2007. So Roy Carroll, Carlos Cuellar, Lee McCulloch and Jean-Claude Darcheville will be tasked with emulating the achievements of Andy Goram, Richard Gough, Brian Laudrup and Mark Hately. In other words, Smith must deliver a miracle - or at least a moonbeam.