Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The 2008/09 Scottish Season Review

Take down the nets, pull up the corner flags; fetch the stray balls from off the roof of the main stand and switch off the floodlights for the last time, for another season of football in Scotland has come to a close. 

A long time ago, on another web site all about the beautiful game north o' the border, I put together a season preview wherein, using nothing more than a league table, a blindfold and a sharp
implement I predicted the outcome of the 2008/09 season in Scotland. Looking back on it now I wasn't that far out in some cases, completely off the chart in others, and prophetic in others.

As usual, one half of the Old Firm won the league. 

Rangers' final day victory over Dundee United brought to an end Celtic's three-year long dominance of the SPL title. For Rangers, it marks the end of a season in which Walter Smith really pulled the irons out of the fire following a truly dreadful start to the season. After going down 2-1 on aggregate to FBK Kaunas in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the (some say forced) sale of Carlos Cuellar to Aston Villa, Rangers could focus on the League, doing what they do every season, namely chase and harass Celtic all the way.
Along the way we had ‘Boyd-gate’ (where Scotland’s top scorer and Rangers striker Kris Boyd walked out on the Scottish national side), ‘booze-gate’ and subsequently ‘vicky-gate’, where keeper Allan McGregor and club captain Barry Ferguson where caught  in an after-hours drinking session and then caught giving the world’s press the two-fingered salute from the bench. Both players where banned from ever playing for Scotland again and both where dropped by Rangers for the rest of the season.
Rangers kept up the chase however, twice clawing back huge Celtic leads and getting the results when it mattered, while Celtic spluttered along. Though not the best Rangers side we’ve seen for a while, they’re certainly worthy winners.  There's been much talk and speculation about the future of Walter Smith with many expecting him (and wanting him, in some quarters) to move upstairs in favour of his assistant Ally McCoist. The temptation of one more season in charge, particularly now that there’s Champions League football to look forward too may keep McCoist out of the hot seat for a bit longer.  The revenue that Champions League football will bring will also secure the club’s finances, the state of which has been a matter of much debate during the season.
Celtic finished second and will no doubt look back on this season and wonder how they  managed to lose the league when, at two points during the campaign, they where so far ahead of the Ibrox side that imagining anything other than Strachan's fourth title in a row would be considered an act of sheer lunacy.
But lose it they did, not at Parkhead last Sunday, but at Tynecastle, Tannadice and Easter Road, where all those drawn games would go on to make all the difference. When it was announced on Monday afternoon that Strachan had resigned from his post at Parkhead, there were few surprised faces around the country. The cheeky, razor-sharp wit that had made Strachan so popular and quotable over the years had disappeared, the pressure of high expectation that life at the helm of the Old Firm sides brings with it giving way to cynicism, indifference and apathy, an apathy that was very much on display in the lacklustre way in which Celtic ended their season.

Early favourites for the job include: Celtic fan Owen Coyle, recently promoted to the EPL with Burnley, former Celtic player and Hibs manager Tony Mowbray, currently facing life in the English Championship with West Bromwich Albion and Dundee United manager Craig Levein. The most likely candidate though is Motherwell manager Mark McGhee, another former Celtic player with considerable, if not exactly outstanding, experience in both England and Scotland.

Hearts greatly improved on last seasons display. Proof, if it where needed, that too much intervention from an over-zealous owner can only lead to disaster. Vladimir Romanov, no doubt preoccupied with the credit crunch kept his nose out of first team affairs and allowed new coach Csaba Laszlo to run the team. Hearts finished 8th last season, but a solid if unspectacular campaign (not including that terrible defeat in the League Cup at Airdrie) saw them climb the table, securing third spot by some 6 points from fourth placed Aberdeen and a return to European football for the first time since 2006.

For Aberdeen, a Scottish Cup quarter final exit at the hands of Dunfermline (Jimmy Calderwood's old club) and a League Cup exit to Kilmarnock in the 3rd round ended a domestic cup campaign that saw the Dons struggle past the mighty Ayr and Alloa in previous rounds. Though Aberdeen qualified for Europe again for the second time in three seasons, it was that failure to win a domestic trophy that ultimately spelled the end for boss Jimmy Calderwood, a manager that delivered top half finishes in 4 of his 5 seasons, a record only bettered by Sir Alex.  Whoever follows on from Calderwood has a good place from which to start: a good side, possibly the best for some time, though a central defender might be handy if captain Scott Severin leaves; a backup to Jamie Langfield in goal might also be top of the list. And with the lure of European football next season and a new stadium in the planning stages, it may well be easier than normal to attract a top manager to Pittodrie. Mark McGhee was favourite to take over, that is, until Gordon Strachan resigned as Celtic manager. Other possible contenders include Eric Black, Plymouth manager Paul Sturrock and former Aberdeen player Dean Windass.

Dundee United and Hibs, the other two sides to make up the top half of the league split failed to improve on last season’s campaign. Aberdeen's win over Hibs, coupled with United's own defeat at home to Rangers meant that Craig Levein’s men would miss out on European football, pipped to the post once again by Aberdeen. Dundee United's suffered the loss of their influential and much loved chairman Eddie Thompson in October, a loss that was felt deeply around Dundee. Thompson had invested heavily in the side despite much initial success and was a ruthless chairman who sacked five managers in his time, but his dedication and love of Dundee United was never beyond doubt.

Hibernian's season started badly as they where knocked out of the InterToto Cup by Swedish side Elfsborg before the other teams in the SPL had even kicked a ball in anger.  Exit from the League Cup at the hands of Morton (on the day before city rivals Hearts where knocked out of the same competition by Airdrie, thus ending Edinburgh interest in the League Cup) soon followed, along with an inconsistent run of form that saw the Hibees win only 7 games before the New Year break. Together with Dundee United, Hibs drew the most games this season (14), but made the top half before the League split in April, where only 1 win (against Hearts), three defeats and a draw saw them back in 6th place, same as last season.

Motherwell, for whom the 2007/08 season was a resounding success given the tragedy and misfortune that befell the Lanarkshire club, managed to hang on to manager Mark McGhee, despite the temptation on offer in the shape of Heart of Midlothian FC. A last minute change-of-mind kept McGhee at Fir Park, but, as we predicted at the start of the season, he failed to live up to the standards set last season, when the Steelmen finished third. Early exit from Europe came courtesy of French mid-table side AS Nancy set up a season with little to play for. Knocked out of the Scottish Cup by St. Mirren and the League Cup by newly promoted Hamilton, Motherwell struggled about in the bottom half of the table for most of the season, but pulled it together towards the end to eventualy finish 7th. The good news for Motherwell is that they'll play in the Europe again next season on account of their finish in the Scottish Fair Play League. The bad news: they'll need a new manager as we expect McGhee to be busy at Parkhead come August.

images (1) Hamilton, last seasons promoted side did better than I expected.  Top of the table for the first two weeks of the season following wins over Dundee United and Caley Thistle, Billy Reid suddenly found himself at the opposite end of the league by week 10, a position they held for an uncomfortable period of time. And just as we where all stroking our beards saying "ah, we knew they wouldn't last the pace", the team embarked on a series of results that saw them climb back up to 8th, before finally settling on 9th place. Survival then achieved, if only late in the season, but mission accomplished, it's fair to say. Young starlet James McCarthy delivered the performances we all expected, prompting offers from far (Middlesboro) and not so far (Celtic).

We had high hopes for Kilmarnock, given their yo-yo tendencies. The Rugby Park outfit certainly started well, winning six of their first 10 games, but the inevitable mid-season slump hit around October sending Jim Jefferies into the lower half of the table, where they'd stay, and eventually finishing 8th. We had Jefferies as the first casualty of the season, but he held on and remains popular down in Ayrshire. 

St Mirren where my tip for the drop last season. In the end, I wasn't far off, a superior goal difference over relegated Caley being just enough to keep them up. Together with Falkirk, St. Mirren where the only side in the SPL not to get out of the bottom six. Gus McPherson should be rightly proud of that win against Rangers in October, a good Scottish Cup ran into the semi-finals and their brand new stadium, because apart from that there was little else to celebrate this season.

Falkirk, together with Aberdeen, where the only side whose final position we correctly predicted. John Hughes' side played lovely football all season, but all that glitters is not gold, and the Bairns spent most of the season in the bottom quarter of the table. However, all is not lost: Falkirk are in with a chance of silverware this season as this Saturday they take on Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Falkirk battled their way through Queen of the South (last years shock finalists), Hearts, Caley and Dunfermline to reach their day in the sun. And no matter what happens, Falkirk will play in the Europa League next season as their opponents Rangers have already qualified for the Champions League. So, Premier League survival, Cup finalists and European football - all in all not a bad season for John ‘Yogi’ Hughes.

Off the field
Our club side’s performances in European competitions was something best glossed over. The debate about whether or not the Famine Song - which had the Irish government complaining - is sectarian and/or racist continues on, but one thing is sadly very clear: bigotry and ignorance still exists in certain parts of the country.

This season has also seen the credit crunch hit Scottish Football. In April, reports in the press surfaced about troubled Irish broadcaster Setanta looking to renegotiate their deal with the SPL. Setanta had previously committed to a £125m deal to show live SPL football from 2010 onwards, but following a change in the terms of the contract with the English Premier League (which saw most of the revenue go to rivals Sky), Setanta wants to reduce the investment. For clubs like Celtic and Rangers, this reduction of income – should it come - wont make that much impact, but the likes of Motherwell, for whom the television deal amounts to a quarter of their income, the impact is potentially severe.

Financial problems also affected clubs in the lower divisions, with Livingston having trouble paying players, already relegated Clyde facing eviction from their stadium for unpaid rent, and Second Division sides Stranraer and Stirling Albion both in serious danger of folding under a mountain of debt and low attendances.

images (2) Over the course of the season, we also lost several great names from days that have passed. Bob Crampsey, broadcaster, Alfie Conn, Hearts legend and part of the 'Terrible Trio' along with Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh,  Jamie Dolan, who tragically died at the age of 39 whilst out jogging, the third former Motherwell player to have died at a relatively young age in recent times and Brooks Mileson, former owner and major funder of Gretna, the fairytale story of a small provincial club that went from rags to riches to bankruptcy and ultimately complete extinction.
And finally...
As I look back over the last year, it strikes me how little progress we seem to have made. Scottish football continues to struggle, both technically and financially. 

Domestically, our league continues to be a two horse race, with a chasing pack of teams that will never win the league as long as you and I live. Consider that Celtic and Rangers have won over 100 league titles between them, more than 5 times the combined total of league wins of every other team ever to play senior football in Scotland since 1894.

In Europe, our clubs showed their limitations. Motherwell, Hibs and plucky Scottish Cup runners-up Queen of the South all went out in their respective first round fixtures to insignificant European sides.  Celtic won one game in their Champions League campaign (at home, to Villareal) and lost the rest, meaning they didn’t' make it out of their group. But it was Rangers' embarrassing defeat to Lithuanian powerhouse FBK Kaunas that stands out from the mediocrity. The defeat, over two legs, was a failure of such epic proportions that launched the Ibrox club and, on a wider level Scottish football as a proposition, into crisis mode.

Our national side is struggling with World Cup qualification, having so far only won 1 of their qualifying games, and that against a poor Iceland side. When you look at the the make-up of our team that lost 3-0 to The Netherlands in March, only 2 of the that took the field, Alan Hutton and Darren Fletcher, play at the highest levels in English football. The balance was made up of Championship and (mainly) Old Firm players.

As a proposition, Scottish football is simply not attractive. Outside of the Old Firm, there is no competition, no lucrative Champions League football to get your teeth into, no filled stadiums, little in the way of television revenue, small transfer budgets and even lower salary levels. And neither Rangers nor Celtic, for all their success are top sides. It's not a popular opinion, but too many years as big fish in a very small pond have brought fame and riches, but little in the way of progress. This fact is highlighted by the fact that Owen Coyle, manager of the Burnley side that won promotion to the EPL on Monday and a Celtic man through and through, considers the danger of getting pumped every week in EPL preferable to coming north to Celtic and guaranteed silverware and European football every season.

These facts have not gone unnoticed. Henry McLeish, former First Minister of Scotland and former professional footballer with East Fife has called for a review of the game in Scotland, in which boards and fans are invited to play an active role to help create a "national conversation" for Scottish football that will address some of the challenges facing Scottish football today. We can only hope that something constructive and tangible comes from that review, because football in Scotland desperately needs changing.

Next week we'll look at the Scottish Football League and the Highland League, and round off our season review with our wish list for next season. Until then, see ye efter!

1 comment:

Chris O said...

Great work, Seb. Very comprehensive indeed! :)


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