Thursday, 30 September 2010

There's No Substitute...

If you look at the back page of the programme for this Saturday's Hearts v Rangers game, you will see the squad names for both Hearts and Rangers. Hearts have more than thirty names in their squad and I suspect the team from Govan will have a similar number. While only eleven players can start the game for each team there will be the usual plethora of players kicking their heels on the substitutes’ bench, eagerly waiting for their disappointment at not starting the game to subside and seize their chance to come on at some point in the game.

Once upon a time, there were no substitutes. That’s right young ‘uns - none. By the time I started understanding football in the mid 1970s they were such an established part of the game there were emerging players soon to be known to all as Super Sub, and the idea that football had once been just eleven against eleven was consigned to the history books.

Initially, substitutes were used only in the event that injury required a player to leave the field and not return. A popular theory is this evolved as a result pop superstar Elton John’s uncle, Roy Dwight who broke his leg whilst playing for Nottingham Forest after just half an hour of the 1959 FA Cup Final. Forest were ahead at the time and clung on to their lead but the consensus of opinion was that such a showcase game had been spoiled and that such a scenario should not be allowed to happen again. Initially there was just one substitution allowed but it wasn’t long before managers began replacing players for tactical reasons.

Here’s a question to ask your mates in the pub tonight - who was the first tactical substitute in Scottish football? It was a young Archie Gemmill who replaced Jim Clunie for St. Mirren in a Scottish League Cup tie against Clyde in August 1966. It’s an education reading this blog...

More than four decades on substitutes aren’t just part of the game - they’re now an essential element. How many times do you see a team in an important away match snatch the lead with a breakaway goal and then replace the goalscorer with a strapping, no-nonsense defender who couldn’t trap a bag of cement but will kick a nifty centre forward into the middle of next week? Of course, there’s the other side of the coin where a team finds themselves 4-2 down at the end of ninety minutes with just injury time to play. The team in front - let’s call them Hibernian - are already counting their win bonuses when a diminutive substitute - let’s call him Graham Weir - scores twice in four additional minutes to rescue a point from a game in which his team had been apparently dead and buried. There are ‘super subs’ and there are ‘superlative subs!’ (it’s hard to believe nearly eight years have passed since that memorable New Year Edinburgh derby)

Twenty years ago, Celtic had a striker called Dariusz Dziekanowski. On one occasion, the Pole was replaced by Joe Miller only for Miller himself to be substituted not long after, giving rise to the wisecracking comment that Celtic had two Polish strikers - Dziekanowski and Joe Milleronandoffski…

Substitutes being substituted doesn’t happen very often although I do recall when Tommy McLean was Hearts manager the former Rangers winger putting on Tommy Harrison during a league cup defeat to St. Johnstone at Tynecastle - only to haul the youngster off after about ten minutes for no apparent reason (no Polish players for Hearts then so the gag doesn’t work quite as well…) Hearts lost that tie 4-2 after being two goals ahead at half-time so perhaps panic had set in…

These days clubs have sizeable squads and the days of winning a league championship with a squad of fourteen players - as Dundee United did in 1983 - have long gone. Substitutions can be crucial with the aim of adding fresh impetus to a game. You only have to look at Hearts opening game of the season against St. Johnstone in August to see how the introduction of new strikers Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliott gave the team and the home support a huge lift as Hearts strove for the win.

While some people of my generation can take issue with the ever-changing face of football, this is one rule change that has been for the betterment of the game over the last four decades - although there was one occasion that was the obvious exception. If only Dundee hadn’t brought on Albert Kidd against Hearts in May 1986.…

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Heart of Midlothian 0 Motherwell 2

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 25 September 2010 - Tynecastle

After the disappointment of the CIS Insurance Cup defeat to Falkirk in midweek, this was an opportunity for Hearts to make amends to their hard-pressed fans by consolidating third place in the SPL. However, it was an opportunity missed as Hearts struggled to make any in-roads on a resolute Motherwell defence and Craig Brown's side left Gorgie with a thoroughly deserved victory.

The first half was decent enough and Hearts probably edged it without really troubling Randolph in the Motherwell goal. In fact it was the visitors who came closest to scoring when Murphy hit the post shortly before half-time. While Kevin Kyle made his presence felt as usual young David Templeton was earmarked by Motherwell as the main danger and was marked accordingly.

With Hearts struggling to make the breakthrough, Jim Jefferies made a double substitution early in the second half when he replaced Calum Elliot with Stephen Elliott and the struggling Templeton with the prodigal son Rudi Skacel but the pair were barely on the field when Motherwell took the lead. Humphrey had time and space to feed Blackman who steered the ball past Kello to open the scoring. Alarmingly, the Hearts heads appeared to go down at this point and Motherwell took charge of the game.

The pace of Humphrey troubled Hearts all afternoon and with the home side pressing for an equaliser, it was Motherwell who looked the more dangerous and likelier side to score. They did just this with twenty minutes left when Humphrey squared the ball to Sutton who slotted home to double the visitors lead - and end the game as a contest.

Hearts struggled with the pace of the Motherwell attack all afternoon and there's no doubt Craig Brown's team were worthy winners. In the end Hearts ran out of ideas and simply lumped the ball forward to Kyle - with no success. Well keeper Randolph could have sat next to me in the Wheatfield Stand for all he had to do - the fact Hearts had just one shot on target all afternoon (as opposed to Motherwell's eleven) spoke volumes.

Rudi Skacel did little on his brief return and for the home side only Jason Thomson and Adrian Mrowiec mustered passmarks. Rangers visit Tynecastle next weekend. As The Stranglers used to sing 'Something Better Change'...

Friday, 24 September 2010

Jim Bett

In the summer of 1994, Hearts were going through another transitional period. Sandy Clark was appointed manager after a successful spell as youth coach and many of Hearts exciting youngsters such as Alan Johnston, Gary Locke and Kevin Thomas were making the breakthrough to the first team under Clark’s tutelage. However, Clark was mindful of the need to recruit an experienced head or two to guide the youngsters and in May 1994, he signed former Rangers and Aberdeen player Jim Bett.

Bett, a stylish midfield player who could pass the ball with aplomb, had begun his career with Airdrieonians before moving to Icelandic side Valur FC in 1978. After a brief spell with Belgian side Lokeren, he joined Rangers in 1980.

His period at Ibrox coincided with a relatively barren spell for The Gers as Aberdeen and Dundee United were dominating Scottish football at that time. Bett did win a Scottish Cup and League Cup while in Glasgow as well as making the first of his twenty-five appearances for Scotland in 1982. A year later, he returned to Lokeren before Alex Ferguson splashed out £300,000 to take him to Aberdeen in 1985. His spell at Pittodrie was the most productive of his career and he spent nine years in the Granite City, again winning the Scottish and League Cups. In 1994, he spent a brief spell at KR Reykjavik in Iceland before Sandy Clark arranged a deal to take him to Tynecastle.

Bett opted to finish the Icelandic season before coming to Edinburgh and made his Hearts debut in a 1-0 win over Partick Thistle in October. He was an important member of the Hearts team that struggled somewhat during season 1994/95 and his penalty against Celtic that secured a 1-1 draw in Glasgow in January was crucial as Hearts battled against relegation.

Bett left Tynecastle at the end of that season to join Dundee United before retiring from playing in 1996. Bett’s association with Iceland was strengthened when he married an Icelandic girl and his two sons - who both had brief spells at Aberdeen - were born in the country and have indeed represented Iceland at Under 19 level.

Today Jim Bett still lives in Iceland and is now a coach at the club he signed for more than thirty years ago - Valur FC.

Friday, 17 September 2010

At the End of the Day

It was one of the first football clichés I can recall and goes back to the 1970s. ‘As sick as a parrot’. There are many different explanations as to the origins of this particular cliché date although my favourite dates back almost a century. Tottenham Hotspur went on an overseas tour in 1908 and the captain of the ship they sailed on presented them with a parrot as a gift. The bird sat happily in the confines of White Hart Lane in North London. However, controversy arose in 1919 when Spurs arch rivals Arsenal were admitted to the First Division - at Spurs expense. The day the decision was announced the parrot died (I won’t make the obvious Monty Python gag…)

Clichés are so ingrained in football these days it’s little surprise that players and managers will trot them out ad finitum. In my more idle moments I have wondered when they were first spoken and who by. I’ve often heard it said after a particularly physical game that ‘no quarter was asked’. What does that mean exactly? How does that fit with another well-worn cliché ‘a game of two halves’? I’ve never quite understood what it meant. I can fathom its use in other scenarios. I had an argument with my local sweetshop owner the other day when I accused him of falling short with the number of liquorice allsorts he put in my bag. His response of ‘well there was no quarter asked’ was understandable if somewhat irritating. However, what it means in a football sense is less clear.

Then there’s the 'stonewall' penalty. I heard ESPN summariser Craig Burley say the other week after a player was hauled down and the referee waved play on that ‘for me, it was a stonewaller’. Burley is far from alone in using this phrase but it does make me wonder what it means in a football context. That said, my favourite Burley moment was when Newcastle United demolished Aston Villa 6-0 a few weeks ago. At 0-0, Villa’s John Carew blasted his penalty into the upper tier of the Gallowgate Stand of St. James Park inducing Burley to opine ‘he hit the ball too well….’

One that I havent heard for a while - educated foot - as in "he's spraying the ball around the park with his educated left foot" Now there are two inexplicable clichés in the same sentence. Can you spray a solid, spherical object? And in what context can your left foot be educated? Did it go to St. Andrew’s University while the rest of your body hopped around the streets with a sweeping brush?

ITV’s Champions League coverage includes summaries from the former Liverpool defender Jim Beglin. The Irishman talks a good game but he does tend to use the phrase "that was meat and drink for the goalkeeper" whenever a cross ball is easily collected. I half expect Manchester United’s Edwin van de Sar to catch the ball, produce a napkin from his shorts and start tucking in to the match ball…ITV used to have former United and West Bromwich Albion manager Ron Atkinson as a summariser until he courted controversy with a racist comment. Atkinson is given the credit - or should that be blame - for first coining the phrase ‘early doors’ as in ‘United will look to keep things tight early doors’. Many people use that term now and we all know what it means but I do wonder how on earth Atkinson thought it made any sense.

There are clichés in all walks of public life. How many politicians do you hear saying ‘the fact of the matter is’? (usually when they’re trying desperately to think of an answer to a probing question) However, they seem more prevalent in football and it’s not just players and officials. Newspaper reporters will often refer to a manager ‘losing the dressing room’ or the more successful ones as ‘supremo' while the transfer window always 'slams shut' at the end of August and January.

At the end of the day, cliches are part and parcel of football. It’s a big ask for me not to write this article without resorting to cliché mode and, to be fair, I set my stall out early doors. Although, I have to say, as I wrote this whilst consuming copious amounts of brandy this there’s a fair chance ‘I’ll be feeling that one in the morning…’

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Return of the Great One

The people of Scotland's capital city were expectant. It was his first time back here for several few years. A man worshipped by many flew in to Edinburgh Airport today to the adulation of thousands across Edinburgh and beyond. It was a day of great joy.

Welcome back Rudi Skacel.....

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Nation Unto Nation

A few weeks ago, I was watching the BBC’s excellent Match of the Day programme late on a Saturday night in the company of my good friend Jack Daniels. After the brief highlights of Everton’s game the topic turned to whether the Goodison midfielder Mikel Arteta should be considered for England. I damn near choked on my Tennessee whisky when I heard the smirking Gary Lineker bring it up in conversation - surely, Arteta is as Spanish as paella. At the time of the broadcast there was speculation the former Rangers player qualified for playing for any of the home countries as he had been resident in the United Kingdom for more than five years and as he hadn’t represented Spain yet, it was widely believed he could pull on the three lions of England in the not too distant future. However, FIFA weren’t slow in amending their original rule and have now decreed that a player can only play for a country if he has been educated for a minimum of five years under the age of 18 “in the territory of the relevant association”.

FIFA come in for a lot of criticism but this time they’ve seen some sense at least. Surely merely being resident in a country shouldn’t entitle you to represent that country at sport? However, it got me thinking about other players who have gone down this road – pre the new FIFA ruling.

The former Chelsea player Deco was born in Brazil but opted to play for Portugal. Fair enough, there are historical ties between Portugal and Brazil so that’s not completely a surprise. The ex Arsenal player Eduardo was also born in Brazil and brought up in Rio de Janeiro but opted for Croatian nationality in 2002 and has represented that country ever since. However, if you think this is a relatively recent trait, then you would be mistaken.

More than forty years ago, the most famous footballer in the world was Alfredo di Stefano. Born to a family of Italian immigrants in the capital of Argentina - Buenos Aires - di Stefano played six times for Argentina - missing the World Cup in neighbouring Uruguay in 1950 as the Argentines refused to participate. He then played for Colombia before acquiring Spanish citizenship in 1956. Di Stefano was part of the legendary Real Madrid team who won the European Cup six years in succession and he went on to play for his adopted country more than thirty times.

In recent years, there has been a measure of controversy about players having tenuous links with the countries they represent, most notably the Republic of Ireland. Scotland, it has to be said, hasn’t been slow to get in on the act. Recently, manager Craig Levein has been sounding out the possibility of Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll pulling on the dark blue jersey. "I've heard I'm wanted by Scotland but I'm obviously doing well with the England Under-21s at the moment and I will see what is happening there," Carroll was quoted as saying, speaking as if it were his contract at St. James Park that was about to come to an end. Carroll, who has a Scottish grandmother added “I would be lying if I said that the Scotland thing wasn't in the back of my mind. It's nice to know I'm wanted. But England is where I am from, it is my country and that is who I want to play for really”. Hmm. England is my country and that’s who I want to play for. That will go down well with the Tartan Army if Carroll is ignored by Fabio Capello and trots out at Hampden wearing dark blue…

I have to say I belong to the old school when it comes to playing for one’s country. I’ve never been comfortable with players representing Scotland because they’ve suddenly discovered a long lost granny in Wick. However, other countries do it so the Scots are merely following suit. Indeed, Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen could have played for Denmark as his grandfather came from there. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between having a family link to a country and having the right to play international sport just because you’ve lived there for a few years. In my view, this makes a mockery of what used to be an honour of playing for your country.

This isn’t being racist, nationalistic or jingoistic. We live in a multi-cultural society where respect for all creeds is the foundation of an equal and fair society. It’s just that when it comes to watching our country I want to see players who are Scottish or have a family link to our nation. Somewhat belatedly – but correctly - the suits at FIFA appear to have had second thoughts about what defines ‘international’ competition…

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Stephen Elliott

If he can reproduce this in a Hearts shirt I'll be delighted! The look on Graeme Souness' face is priceless...