Socrates MacSporran

Socrates MacSporran
No I am not Chick Young, but I can remember when Scottish football was good

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Winning Meaningless Games - A Scottish Speciality

WHEN Scotland beat England 3-2 at Wembley, 50-years ago, I wasn't there – I was playing rugby back in Scotland, but, I was aware of the game – naturally, we Scots were all aware. Back then the annual encounter with England was the only one that mattered.

Sure, I relished Jim Baxter's bit of keepy-uppy. I laughed at the thought of the gallus Fifer inviting Bobby Moore to: “Come and try to take the ba' off me fat boy”. While the thought of the slim one and wee Billy Bremner ganging-up on Allan Ball and dubbing him: “Jimmy Clitheroe” (a popular North of England comedian of the time) as they nutmegged him, still makes me laugh.

The fact that wee Ballie bore his tormentors no ill-will and was great company whenever he met Scots thereafter, speaks volumes for the man.

Any way, as all the Scottish football writers who were not even alive when the game was played were bigging it up, I was thinking – don't you know our football history.

Had we not blown a one-goal lead against Poland at Hampden, we would have qualified for the 1966 World Cup finals. Back then, we had the players capable of going a long way in that competition – we blew it. The 1967 Wembley game was pay-back, but, that one was a no-win for England.

All they had to do was draw and they would have been Home International Champions, we simpy HAD to win it to take the title. Also the game was a European Championship qualifier, unlike the 1928 game – the Wembley Wizards – this one mattered. We won, we were in pole position to qualify for the 1968 European Championship quarter-finals, but, we blew it.

We lost to Northern Ireland, or rather, George Best virtually beat us on his own, then we could only draw 1-1 at Hampden with an experimental England team. These results meant, England and not us qualified, thereby rendering the Wembley result meaningless.

This, of course, is par for the course in Scottish football – we have made stupid ways of losing games or missing-out on big tournaments an art form. He's tae us, wha's like us!!

ONCE again, our referees are under pressure after the weekend's Premiership games. And, needless to say, poor old Willie Collum is front and centre, after his decision to allow that Motherwell “ghost goal” against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

I only saw the goal on Sunday's highlights programme. Of course it wasn't a goal, the ball never crossed the line. But, I would be loath to criticise Catastrophe Collum – he got no help from his assistant, who should have been in position to tell him it wasn't a goal.

But, that decision paled into insignificance when compared to the ridiculous penalty which was awarded to Ross County against Celtic.

Alex Schalk's ridiculous dive must be severely punished, there was clearly no contact and the referee and his assistants were conned. Still a bad decision to give, however.

Then, the old heid-case Scott Brown emerged, with a petulant retaliatory foul on Liam Boyce and a deserved red card. Just when you think Broon is finally growing-up, he reverts to type.

And, while we are discussing silly boys who never grow-up, well done Neil Lennon, for getting Hibs back to the top flight, He will make an interesting league even more interesting next season.

FINALLY, Scottish football lost one of its favourite characters at the weekend, with the death of former St Johnstone staff stalwart Aggie Moffat. Wee Aggie had her 15 minutes of fame when she got stuck into Graeme Souness back in 1991. But, for 27-years, she had quietly, resolutely and doggedly served St Johnstone as tea lady, laundress, cleaner and surrogate mother to the players and staff.

Every Scottish club has its own Aggie Moffat, these women are some of the backbones of the game, and when one stalwart, such as Aggie, dies, the game is poorer for her loss.

THIS post began with a look back at a great Scottish win. We go full circle by finishing with another. Eighty years ago, on17 April, 1937, a still-standing European attendance record, which seems unlikely to ever be beaten was set, when 149,407 fans crammed into Hampden to see Scotland beat England 3-1. This one, like the 1967 win, was meaningless – Wales had already won the Home Internationals, but, that didn't greatly bother the Scots.

After an indifferent first half, in which Freddie Steel put England ahead, and Jerry Dawson made some big saves, Scotland got going after the break. Debutant Frank O'Donnell of Preston North End equalised, before two late Bob McPhail goals saw Scotland home to win the first all-ticket match in Scottish football history.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Well Done Celtic - East Ayrshire Is In Mourning

DOWN here, at the arsehole end of God's county of Ayrshire, our in-built tribalism, whereby somebody from the net village, perhaps a mere mile away, is automatically not to be trusted and a figure of suspicion, we merely name oor village team whenever some worldly sophisticate from Glasgow or its surrounding areas asks us: “whit team dae ye support?”

It is too-easy to reply: “Craigmark Burntonians”, “Muirkirk Juniors”, or Lugar Boswell Thistle” - Auchinleck Talbot they will certainly have heard of, perhaps Cumnock Juniors or Glenafton Athletic too, but, naming an obscure Ayrshire junior side doesn't half play with their heads, inevitably bringing forth the supplementary question: “Aye, but, whit team dae ye really support?” The perception there being, you have to be aligned to one or other half of that seminal pairing – The Bigot Brothers.

Even saying: “Kilmarnock”, does not cut the mustard, within a 10/15 mile radius of George Square, you have to follow on or other of the Big Two.

Well, if a choice had to be made, down in this part of the world, orange is the colour – we have an awful lot of supposed junior fans who happen to have sashes in their bedroom drawers, and a Rangers scarf somewhere in a cupboard. After all, as I tell everyone, my old school, Cumnock Academy's school song is: “The Sash”.

So, it is fair to say, there was an air of despondency hanging over the local watering holes on Sunday evening, as the troops reviewed Celtic's emphatic League Championship success..

It was deserved, the Hoops have been the class act in the SPFL this season and it would be churlish in the extreme not to congratulate them on a first-class job, well done.

However, it has to be said, anything other than a Celtic win would have been a major surprise. They held all the aces, but, to be fair, Brendan Rodgers played his cards well.

Now, the task in hand for BR and his men is twofold – to complete a domestic Treble, which would set them out as an outstanding Celtic squad and, if possible, to go through the domestic season unbeaten.

Now, that would be a fitting way to mark the Golden Jubilee of the Lisbon Lions, and their remarkable winning of the European Cup back in 1967. I have no doubts, BR and his coaching staff will be aiming for these two cherries on top of the cake, and, why not.

However, it might be better for the club, that they, now the league has been won, used the remaining games to perhaps blood some of their prodigiously-talented kids, give the fringe players greater exposure to first-team football and maybe experiment with personnel and formations.

If the desire to post that unbeaten season and in some way put the 2017 squad on the step below the Lions in the Parkhead Pantheon, then, BR will continue to put out what he thinks is his strongest team every match. But, any team is only as strong as its weakest link, so, there might be a case for ringing the changes and giving some of the fringe guys more game time.

Meanwhile, back here in the boondocks, as the Rangers fans curse and moan, they have to face the reality – the Ibrox squad includes few players who are: “Rangers class”; their manager is still unproven in the mud and glaur of the Scottish game, while their boardroom seems to be splitting into factions, as the reality bites – they are being led by a Glib and Shameless Liar, who is extremely toxic.

Rangers are not in a good place, and the future is anything but bright.

Elsewhere, Aberdeen are still to convince as being able to bridge the gap between Celtic and themselves in second place, Hearts are still struggling to come to terms with Ian Cathro's coaching ethos and there is little to choose between the also-rans, none of whom looks like breaking out of the pack to join the challenging group below Celtic

Scottish football, for all Celtic's dominance, is not in a good place right now.

I AM an unashamed fan of 'Off The Ball', Scotland's most petty and ill-informed, but nevertheless, most-entertaining football programme.

Stuart and Tam came up with an interesting wee question on Saturday – who should Scotland play in this additional friendly Wee Gordon Strachan wants to slot-in before we get our erses kicked by England in June?

The punters, as ever, came up with some good suggestions – I like the idea they should play Aberdeen, at Pittodrie, as it was the only way any Aberdeen players would get on the park in a Scotland game. The suggestion they play the Scotland Women's team is a non-starter. OK, some years back, the Australian Wome played the Australian Under-15 boys team, and were thrashed 7-0, not a good precedent. Mind you, I still fancy, this being Scotland, oor lassies would gie oor big girls' blouses a game.

My suggestion is, the return of an old favourite – the Home Scots v Anglo-Scots clash. This used to be, back in the days of black and white TV and before then, a hardy annual. However, some time in the early 1960s, it vanished from the calendar.

Given a lot of Tartan Army foot soldiers are of the opinion, WGS is fixated by players who strut their stuff in the English Championship, to the detriment of home-based Scots, this just might clarify the position. Strachan picks and manages the Anglo-Scots squad, someone else looks after the Home Scots – it's a straight head-to-head, played somewhere other than Hampden, low-cost tickets, proceeds to charity – win-win.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, the Home Scots might put a good few goals on the high-priced Anglos, and the smelly stuff hits the fan (not the fans). It would be fun, and different.

A LOT of hot air has been expelled about Richard Foster and Danny Swanson's coming together at Hamilton on Saturday. Not a new tale, think Hogg v Levein all those years ago. I also remember one bout of hand bags in an Ayrshire League game, some years ago, involving a lawyer and an accountant, who happened to be team mates. Now, had their professional bodies ever heard about it, that might have had severe consequences, talk about unprofessional conduct.

If I remember the build-up to the fall-out properly, it concerned which of them should have been marking the Glenafton Athletic centre forward when he scored with a header from a corner. That centre forward was one Alan Rough – who says he never got on the end of a cross!!

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Tartan Army - A Law Unto Themselves

MY OLD mate Bill Leckie always maintains the time he was most proud of the oft-maligned (by the Scottish Press) Tartan Army was at Wembley in 1996. You remember back then: football was coming home and all that. Sure, England beat us; Gazza scored a fantastic goal, Yuri Geller caused Gary McAllister to miss a penalty and, as a side show, the Metroplitan Police went into overkill mode to prevent bother.

At the end of the game, the Tartan Army were held back to let the bulk of the England fans disperse, before being released – the TA then marched out, singing: “We're shite, but we know we are”. Leckie was then working in London, and at the game enjoying corporate hostility, but, he says, he was so-proud of the TA, showing the England fans how to lose with dignity, it was, after all, only a game.

Today, the TA is in the dock again. The forces of the Unca Guid are decrying them, for booing Chris Martin onto the park against Slovenia, at Hampden on Sunday night. Now, I do not agree with home fans booing one of their own – it might be ok to amend that old Glasgow Empire shout of “Awe naw – there's two o' them”, which allegedly greeted Bernie Winters (minus Schnawrbits) ambling onstage to join brother Mike, to: “Awe naw, no him”; but, booing Martin on – not done chaps. Still, Chris had the last laugh with his late winner.

I digress, somewhat, however. I am, as I have oft said, loathe to “diss” Gordon Strachan for his overall performance as Scotland boss. The fact is, we could have a management/coaching team of Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, and Scotland would still be shite – because, we don't have enough players of international class.

Let's be honest here; when England were World Champions back in 1966, the only one of their team who was better than his opposite number in the Scotland team was Gordon Banks. Sure, you could make a case for Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton being good enough to be in the Scotland squad, but, only Banksie would be a guaranteed starter.

Today, you could make a case for both Craig Gordon and David Marshall being a better goalkeeper than Joe Hart, but, neither Scot is as-far ahead of Hart as Banks was of his Scottish rivals for any combined team. We have too-many journeymen artisans vying for places which should go to artists.

And, for as long as we continue with the present out-dated and broken system in Scottish football, we will not be getting back to qualifying for the big finals.

So, Strachan is being asked to make bricks without straw, I wouldn't like to be him, but, that said, I do not always agree with the players he picks.

THE above was written but not published, because a humungous dose of “Man 'Flu” intervened, but, I have doggedly got out of bed, and, as I was saying:

THE commitment of Scottish footballers is apparently this week's top topic. Big Malky Mackay has had a go, suggesting today's young players don't seem to want IT – whatever it is, badly enough. I suppose the best example of what drives a young Scottish player was provided,many years ago, by Shuggie Burns, the former Rangers, Kilmarnock, Ayr United etc and Scotland Under-21 player.

Shuggie, now running an excellent wee pub on Prestwick Main Street, came up with what I have repeatedly told big Kenny MacDonald is the best quote he has never used in his series of top Scottish football quotations. One night, during his time at Kilmrnock, Shuggie said to a group of us hacks: “To a 17-year-old from Larkhall, getting into the Rangers first team is like having Miss world for your first ride”. That's it, the ultimate motivation for a Scottish boy footballer in one sentence.

When I worked at the Paisley Daily Express, I was down at Love Street every day. The Buddies, back then had a very good youth development programme. Everyone got his chance, often sooner rather than later. During part of my time there, the players had access to the new state-of-the-art gym inside the new stand, and, a manager in Tom Hendrie who knew how to make us of these facilities.

But, a lot of the players merely stood around and did very little – the young players who did put the work in, the likes of Chris Iwelumo, Martin Baker, Shuggie Murray, Steven McGarry, Simon Lappin and Sergei Baltacha got success, moves to bigger clubs and, although Baltacha's body eventually betrayed his talent, they benefitted from the work they put in. I would even say “Basher” Lavety benefitted from his short spell under Hendrie, mind you Basher's bothers – and I still love the guy to bits – were self-inflicted and inside his heid. Some of the others, every bit, if not more-talented, who didn't put-in the work, vanished without trace.

Saints also acquire a couple of former Rangers youngsters who thought, ten minutes off the bench in a pre-season friendly had made them: “A Rangers player”, Their attitude stunk to high heaven, a form of entitlement which had me shaking my head in wonder.

That was more than a decade ago, but, some of these young kids, with potentially a great career ahead of them, were simply not equipped to grasp the chance they were being given. Malky Mackay's complaints are nothing new.

On an associate subject, I notice the new Rangers' management team have cut down the days-off and are demanding a wee bit more commitment up at Auchenhowie. Not before time. I have long said, if our top footballers were exposed to the preparatory regime demanded by Glasgow Warriors, they would go on strike. Warriors are Scotland's best professional sports club, and this in part is due to the amount of sheer hard work they put in on a daily basis.

I HAD to laugh at reports this morning, of big Jim Duffy offering Neil Lennon: “A square go”, during last night's period of unpleasantness during the Hibs v Morton game. I would buy tickets for that, indeed, 9while I don't) so many people in Scotland appear to dislike wee Neil, if such a bout was to come to pass, they could probably sell-out Murrayfield, just to watch Big Jim sort him out.

Funny thing, though, how many unseemly touchline squabbles in Scotland in recent years appear to have as a common component, Neil Lennon. And him such a wee, quiet soul in civilian life.

I see we are again likely to have colour clash issues surrounding the Scotland v England clash at Hampden at the end of the season.

Whenever I hear of such controversies, I recall a tale “Kaiser” Bill McMurtrie, long-time Glasgow Herald rugby correspondent used to tell, concerning the Borders Schools Seven-a-side tournament. The final one year came down to Langholm Academy A v Langholm Academy B. Both sides, of course, were playing in the school's and the toon's scarlet strips.

To the organisers, it was obvious, one side would have to change for the final, but, neither septet would budge. “But, we'll not be able to tell you apart”, said the organising teacher.

Aye sur, but, we'll ken wha's play fur whit team”, was the reply. Neither side changed and the game went ahead.

Now, surely, the England players will know who are their team mates at Hampden – the Scots certainly will, as will the fans. So, tell FIFA to stuff their colour clash rubbish.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Heartfelt Rant

YOU will, I hope, never find me jumping gladly onto any media-driven bandwagon demanding the sacking of Scotland’s Team Manager or Head Coach. Long years watching from the side lines have taught me, the Scotland manager's job is, like its England equivalent – The Impossible Job.

It doesn't matter who we appoint, the system will always beat them. Scottish football is broken, and, there is no desire within the game up here to fix that system. Until it is, we will continue to stumble along, winning a few games, losing more and, sadly, I have to believe, we will not be qualifying for the big shows – the World Cup or European Championship finals – any time soon.

I had a wee think back this morning; the first Scotland international I can recall ever actually reading about was the 4-2 loss to England, on 3 April, 1954. Now, this was the 232nd full Scotland international, the first in which we had a Team Manager in place – Andy Beattie. The team was still picked by the SFA Selection Committee, however – some jobs were too-important to be left to the professionals. The match was both a Home International Championship decider and a World Cup Qualifier. England and Scotland had already qualified for the 1954 World Cup finals, this match merely sorted-out which team finished top of the qualifying group, in actuality the Home Internationals that season.

Anyway, Scotland finished a distant second, and, true to form, the selectors panicked – only Bobby Evans, Bobby Johnstone, Allan Brown and Willie Ormond of the Hampden XI survived for the next international, a friendly against Norway, one month later. Five new caps were drafted-in, just one month and three warm-up games before Scotland’s debut on football's biggest stage.

That debut came against Austria, in Zurich, on 16 June, 1954. The SFA had decided: “Switzerland, that's in the Alps, snow and skiing, we had better have thick, winter-weight strips”. They also decided, that while FIFA required them to name a 22-man squad, only 13 would travel, and of these, only one, Fred Martin, would be a goalkeeper.

They landed in Switzerland, to find temperatures in the high seventies. They didn't provide matching training gear for the players, who had to bring their own. The team which started against Austria had a total of 52 caps between them, Allan Brown, winning his 13th cap, was the only one whose caps total was in double figures.

Bobby Evans, the most-capped player in the 13-man squad, didn't play, while regular Scotland captain George Young, Sammy Cox, who had led the side against England and Willie Waddell, the three Rangers players who were then Scotland regulars weren't there – Rangers had a North American Tour going on at the same time, and would not release their Scotland players.

It was a shambles. And, to complete the clusterfuck, Manager Beattie resigned between the Austrian match and the second game, against World Champions Uruguay, which, as every Scot interested in football knows, finished 7-0 to the South Americans. Scotland were home before the post cards.

Things will change” the Tartan Army were told. Aye Right. Four years later they again had a Team Manager, Sir Matt Busby. Like Beattie he was part-time, the selectors still picked the sides. Sadly, Busby, still recuperating from the injuries he received in the Munich Air Crash in February, 1958, was unable to travel, leaving trainer Dawson Walker of Clyde in charge.

As in 1954, we were on our way home early, after drawing with Yugoslavia and losing narrowly to both Paraguay and France. We failed to qualify for the 1962, 1966 and 1970 finals, before setting-off on a good run. We qualified for the Finals in 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990, but, although unbeaten in West Germany in 1974, we never got past the preliminary group stages.

We failed to qualify in 1994, before reaching the finals in France in 1998; since when, zilch, no qualifying success has come out way.

We have qualified for just 9 of the 17 World Cups we have entered – a 53% pass rate. We have then son a mere 4 of the 20 matches we have played in those 9 final tournaments – a 20% success rate. However, Our World Cup qualifying record is a lot better than our European Championships one. Here we have qualified a mere twice from 13 attempts – a 15% pass rate. In the six games in the Euro' finals we have won just twice, drawn once and lost the other three games – a 33% winning rate.

Overall, we have qualified for 37% of the international competitions we have entered, winning just 23% of the matches in those finals. So, we don't really DO international competitions. Our expectations should not be high when it comes to competing on the biggest stages.

BUT – and I know this game was not a competitive one, but a FRIENDLY. However, regardless of the status of the match, surely we can expect to beat CANADA. Come-on, Scots and Canadians have a lot in common, we were the leading European nation when it came to colonising that wonderful country. Our shinty was the inspiration for Canada's national sport – ice hockey, while they, like Scotland, love curling. But, football – gie's a brek!!

And, as I understand it, the Canucks didn't send a full squad to take us on at Easter Road on Wednesday night. They are ranked 117th in the world, we are 67th, not great I accept, but, 50 places above the Canadians. Drawing at home to the Canadians was the equivalent of some Highland or Lowland League team getting a draw against Celtic at Parkhead.

We should perhaps congratulate all those broadcasting companies, who opted-out of broadcasting Wednesday night's match live; just as we can understand why the vast bulk of the Tartan Army passed on the game, while acknowledging the support of those 9000-plus masochists who chose to attend. But, when it gets to the stage where guys like me, who have been following Scotland for all those years didn't give a shit about the game – it's time we had real, serious, meaningful change to Scottish football.

If things don't change, we are only going one place – down the stank.

Again I say, with heavy heart:

We're awe doomed – doomed Ah tell Ye”!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Carnival Is Over - For Now

WELL, thankfully that's over. We have had the “No Longer the Old Firm” game, it finished as a draw and, while we will no doubt be subjected to lengthy complaints from the Celtic Family, that their favourites were refereed out of the victory which they feel is theirs by right, over the ghosts of Rangers past, the fact is, Celtic's run of wins has been halted, although, they remain on-course to go through the domestic season unbeaten.

Now, as the carnival packs up until the next one, the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, can we perhaps examine some of the continuing problems besetting Scottish football?

If we accept it is a case of when, not if, Celtic win the 2016-17 League campaign, because, in terms of management, finances and squad depth, they are in a class of their own in Scotland, and that none of the rest will get close to them any time soon – where can we find something to enthuse about in our top division?

Well, with five of the clubs in mid-table within six points, or two wins, of each other, we can argue with justification, that ours is a highly-competitive top league. The fact the quality is not good is, however, undeniable. We are in a hole, with no way out of that hole being obvious.

There is a lot of shite being written about “Project Brave”, the plan to produce better, home-grown players in the future. However, even if – which I doubt, the stumble-bums who are supposed to run our game from Hampden will allow or facilitate – Project Brave works, we will not see positive results for some years yet.

Scottish football's dog has too-small a head, too skinny a body and too-long a tail to ever be any good. We need to work through an improvement programme which will pay off. But, again, I don't see the wit or willingness at Hampden to make this happen.

The same problems, by the way, beset Scottish rugby, but, that game, like Scottish football, suffers from the curse of aye-beenism: “Ye canna dae that son, it's aye been done this wey”, will continue to stifle change and improvement.

I WISH the new Rangers' Manager/Head Coach or whatever, Pedro Caixinha all the luck in the world in his new job – and, by God he will need it.

He has joined a loss-making club, without a credit line at a bank; a club being kept going by soft loans from directors and fans, with a Chairman who, quite frankly is toxic, has been described as “A glib and shameless liar” by a learned South African judge and has zero credibility. His every move will be subjected to critical examination by all branches of the Scottish football media, to an extent he has surely never experienced before. Also, a lot of the “fans with lap tops” who will be watching him, have their own agenda to work.

He will be assailed on all sides by advice from former players and managers, all determined to be controversial and to keep their noses in the media trough. Caixinha has no previous experience of working in British, far-less Scottish football. I don't see anyone around Murray Park (or whatever it is called these days) on a daily basis able to offer guidance and advice of a way through the minefield which is Scottish football.

The sensible thing would, I believe, have been to have appointed a Director of Football first – if, as we are led to believe, that is the road Rangers are going down, then appoint a Head Coach. But, this Rangers board has consistently failed to do the sensible thing.

The players put in a good shift at Celtic Park today, but, the truth cannot be avoided, few are what we have long called: “Rangers Class”. If Rangers are to mount a meaningful challenge to Celtic's dominance of domestic football, the players who are there will have to show hitherto undemonstrated levels of ability and application.

Even then, serious recruiting will need to be done over the summer, and, we have to question if funds are there for this process to be successful.

At least if, this week, he can get “the stenographers” (tm. Phil Mac Giolla Bhain) on-board and on-message, he will have a honeymoon period, but: forrit tho Ah canna see, Ah guess and fear”.

THIS blog has never hidden its love for Junior football, so might I draw your attention to a monumental happening at the weekend? The mighty Glenafton Athletic, my own village team, has gone top of the West of Scotland Superleague. This has resulted in a spate of nose bleeds in the village.

However, the Glen have been playing really well this season, which is a tribute to the efforts of manager Craig McEwan and his players. The natives are happy with progress this season.

On Saturday, the Glen will be in Scottish Junior Cup action, entertaining Sauchie at Loch Park in the quarter-finals. I shall return to the four ties later in the week, but, there are some belters in there.