Friday, 14 September 2007

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone

Sanctimonious Scots should get their own house in order before attempting to lead campaigns condemning Johnny Foreigner's cheating
By Bernard Thompson
Saulius Mikoliunas
Now that the international heroics are out of the way, Scottish football fans can devote their energies to what they have been itching for since Saturday: the baiting of Saulius Mikoliunas.

Rangers fans are the first invited to join the media-led campaign to harangue the Lithuanian who dared to dive at Hampden against the country that is giving him a home and a livelihood.

To be fair, Mikoliunas is a hard player to love, which makes him perfect for Hearts just now. Undoubtedly talented, occasionally interested, prone to sly kicks off the ball, but always ready to bleat to referees at the slightest provocation, he has up to now been more often booed by his own fans at Tynecastle than by those of opposition teams.

But nothing rallies the Gorgie faithful more passionately than the Weegie media or the SFA criticising any aspect of their brilliantly run club. So just a few weeks after some Hearts fans had pencilled in this weekend to demonstrate against the regime of another Lithuanian, owner Vladimir Romanov, contempt for outsiders has prompted them to close ranks. The prevailing feeling is that Miko "may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch".

If the reasoning of Hearts fans - that everyone based in Glasgow is out to destroy a club already living on borrowed players as well as time - is flawed, they have some justification in asking why their 23-year-old winger is attracting such special attention. Granted, the penalty he won could have been catastrophic for Scotland's Euro 2008 campaign; but it wasn't.

And if players like Craig Gordon or Jay McEveley could claim that the venom they directed at Mikoliunas was uttered in the heat of battle, the SFA Chief Executive Gordon Smith has no such excuses. Smith is undoubtedly intelligent and his experience as a player, assistant coach and agent appeared to make him the ideal choice to replace the unpopular David Taylor.

But more crucial to his appointment was his media background - it was thought he could be relied upon to avoid the sort of idiotic remark that precipitated the demise of former SFA president John McBeth, who famously argued that "by and large, the four British countries know what fair play is and when we are stepping out of line. But, as soon as you hit Africa, it's a slightly different kettle of fish. They're poor nations and want to grab what they can. I presume the Caribbean is much the same - they just come at it in a different way."

When Smith gave his own reaction to Mikogate, there were echoes of that insular sentiment that had embarrassed Scotland so badly: "It could be that he reverted to what is acceptable in Lithuania because he was playing for his national side, even though it's unacceptable here," he said. "I don't think the referee helped the situation, either, possibly because he comes from a country where that sort of behaviour isn't so frowned upon." He then went on to insist that Scotland - and presumably Smith - should lead the world in eradicating simulation, name-dropping Franz Beckenbauer and Dino Zoff along the way.

Smith, of course, did plan to tackle the issue in Scotland before discovering that retrospective punishments based on television evidence would breach Fifa regulations. But he is naive to believe that, having made such crass judgements on the values of Lithuania and Slovenia respectively, he could be trusted to lead any such international movement. The fact that his comments came after a match in which Garry O'Connor also dived didn't help. They also came on the back of an apology for the Tartan Army's disrespect for the Lithuanian national anthem, which only added to the surreal air of farce that would have made the Marx Brothers proud.

Smith has merely demonstrated precisely why Scotland is in no position to lead any campaign on fair play: while Scots - or the British as a whole - delude ourselves that we are inherently more trustworthy than other nationals by dint of our birth, we will never show ourselves capable of objectivity. For example, when France last visited Hampden (before beating the world's best team was commonplace), Uefa found that Scotland were slow in returning the ball to the field after Gary Caldwell's goal.

Standing next to Alex McLeish on Saturday was Roy Aitken, the model hard-but-fair pro, but one who was also guilty of outrageous opportunism while winning the Scottish Cup for Celtic at that very stadium. His predecessor in the dug-out, Ally McCoist, was far too beloved of the Scottish media to ever be accused of "going down easily" while playing for Rangers, although fans of every other team were less reticent. But suggesting that Scottish players are as guilty of underhand tactics as those "on the continent" is viewed as a kind of treason.

The irony is that many of the same fans who booed Mikoliunas on Saturday, and who will continue to do so over the next few weeks, will happily list Maradona's Hand of God goal among their all-time sporting highlights. So the Lithuanian might well be justified in shrugging off the righteous indignation of his adopted country. "If Hearts fans want me to apologise I will, but not to Scotland fans," he said. It is a response that, probably temporarily, has endeared him to his club's faithful, a surprising number of whom chose to support Lithuania rather than their own national team.

But then he comes from a nation of heroes, sportsmen, geniuses, villains and cheats - a bit like Scotland.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Scotland poised to embrace new heroes

This could be the week in which Scotland's new golden generation starts to shine

By Bernard Thompson

Alex McLeish knows exactly what he must do over the coming week: get three points from the games against Lithuania and France.

Anything less and he will be in the stocks for killing an admirable qualifying campaign, albeit one that has been based in no small part on one gloriously lucky win.

Four points or more and Scotland's third-most-capped player should get a Hall of Fame all to himself.

For other managers, the upcoming brace of internationals will present problems in terms of spreading resources - but not for Eck, whose chances of taking even a point from Parc des Princes on Wednesday are commonly understood to be on a par with the prospect of caging a Cottingley Fairy. There, his team will disregard such side issues as energy conservation or potential suspension and, if they want to, play good, old-fashioned, run-themselves-ragged, kick-everything-that-moves football.

Just when Scots were comfortable with the tag of perennial underdogs, a status that had alleviated managers like Walter Smith from the burden of expectation, Marcello Lippi had to go and open his big mouth about Scotland being "the fastest emerging country in Europe". So that's it - all of a sudden, beating the Lithuanians should be a doddle (especially as, unlike Scotland, they're overburdened with Hearts players).

Such tasks have broken men before but McLeish is refreshingly honest, straightforward and, dare one say it, Scottish in his approach: "The fact is, we have no choice but to go after them... we know we have to play at a good tempo and show aggressiveness from the start to get our supporters roused into the excited backing that is such a great help on these occasions."

Attack is precisely what this Scotland team is made for, even if the country's most expensive player will be standing in his own box for 90 minutes. But if the half-dozen players who will matter most on Saturday have commanded around the same amount as one Craig Gordon in transfer fees, that doesn't reflect their relative merits. In the enforced absence of Barry Ferguson, Scotland fans can expect to witness the first showing of the midfield pairing on which the nation's future aspirations will be founded.

Often disregarded in England (not least by the man who paid £9m for Gordon), Darren Fletcher has established himself as a reliable force for his country. In the recent friendly with South Africa, for example, he played the sort of deceptive pass to Kris Boyd that would have had the pundits cooing had he been representing one of the game's great powers.

Next to him, almost certainly in the centre, will be Scott Brown. Standing between Brown and an ascent to worldwide - even UK-wide - recognition are two demons: unthinkable catastrophe or paying too much heed to the hyperbole of his admirers. Nevertheless, it is not merely his talent, energy and self-belief that make Brown stand out among his contemporaries, but the sharpness of his offensive instincts, his ability to launch an attack within a nanosecond of having won the ball.

They will support a forward line that has no superstars but carries the sort of possibilities for variation that Steve McClaren might envy. Garry O'Connor will presumably start with Boyd, whose abilities will continue to divide observers even if he outlasts Stanley Matthews. Boyd does have shortcomings but they are unlikely to ever be displayed in his statistics for club or country .

While Scotland must be confident of a win on Saturday, it will be a surprise if Craig Beattie and Shaun Maloney do not also feature at some, perhaps crucial, point. Ungainly and injury-prone, Beattie nevertheless combines reasonable strength with a short burst of pace that takes him behind defenders and an eye for goal that, at present, seems to mark him out as a deputy to O'Connor in McLeish's plan.

Maloney, who in the absence of Kenny Miller is almost certain to feature as a substitute, has also been too familiar with the treatment table, a fact that has inhibited his progress. But for all-round skill and vision he is the most gifted Scottish forward and capable of playing as a forward, attacking midfielder or in the pocket, while also the country's best striker of the ball.

Scots national teams don't often respond well to optimism, the most memorable performances usually marrying endeavour, commitment and a whole lot of resentment. So, lest we get carried away, it is best to remember that the chances of being in a qualifying position in November are slim.

But what must give McLeish real hope is that almost all of his most important players are 25 or under and should be at their peak in the period leading up to 2010. It is, if you like, Scotland's golden generation, albeit perhaps only a nine-carat one. On Saturday, we should see the best of them. And next week in Paris? Mr Gordon, the stage will then be yours.