Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Art of the Comeback

We’re only a few short weeks into 2012 but this year has already been labelled the year of the comeback. It was just a week old when Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson pulled off a major surprise - a trait the Glaswegian is prone to now and again - by naming the previously retired Paul Scholes as a substitute for his team’s FA Cup clash with neighbours Manchester City. The reason given for the 37 year old’s return was the lengthening injury list at Old Trafford but there’s no doubt the sly old fox that is Fergie was trying to outwit City boss Roberto Mancini and his money-laden side. United won 3-2 although this was more to do with the controversial sending off of City’s Vincent Kompany than the presence of Scholes, who appeared in the second half but then gave away possession that led to City’s second goal as they threatened an unlikely comeback from 3-0 down.
A day later, there was another comeback from a player that illustrated the sometimes fickle nature of football. Thierry Henry spent eight glorious years at Arsenal and has become a legendary figure in the red and white part of north London. His departure in 2007 to Barcelona left many Gooners fans devastated and his 174 goals in 254 appearances for the Gunners meant he would always be remembered as an Arsenal great. In 2010, Henry left Barcelona to end his glittering career in the United States with New York Red Bulls. When the transfer window opened in January, the possibility opened for Henry to move on loan back to English football - and there was only going to be one club where the Frenchman would head. And so Henry signed an eight-week deal at the club he loves and was a substitute in Arsenal’s FA Cup tie against Leeds United. Those who believe that things are written in the stars will tell you it was inevitable that Henry, wearing the number 12 shirt, would come and score the only goal of the game - his 12th goal in 12 appearances against Leeds United - 12 minutes from the end of Arsenal’s first home game of 2012...

What surprised me more than Henry’s re-appearance in an Arsenal shirt was that the vilification the Frenchman received a little over two years ago - when he handled the ball before crossing for William Gallas to score France’s winner against the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup play-off - was largely forgotten. Despite calls for him to be banned, at the time of the incident, from the World Cup Finals, Henry was once again the hero, the man who epitomised everything that is good about football…

Hearts, of course, have had their own comeback kings over the years. Fans were devastated in 1988 when the legend that was striker John Robertson swapped Tynecastle for Tyneside in a deal worth £750,000. However, his brief time at Newcastle United didn’t work out and Robbo returned home eight months later for the same fee that took him south in the first place. The wee man’s return to Gorgie saw him resume the mantle of ‘Hammer of the Hibees’ - his first goal second time around at Tynecastle was a late winner against Hibs - and he would go on to become Hearts record league goalscorer.

More recently, Rudi Skacel returned to Hearts after a four-year hiatus. The man who scored Hearts goal in their Scottish Cup triumph over Gretna at Hampden in 2006 left for Southampton soon after but the Czech Republic’s time south of the border wasn’t quite as fruitful as his time in Scotland’s capital city. After spells with Hertha Berlin, Slavia Prague and Larissa in Greece, Skacel returned to Tynecastle in September 2010, much to the delight of his adoring fans.

At present, it isn’t clear if Skacel will still be at Tynecastle beyond his contract, which is due to end on 31 January. While the midfield player extraordinaire spoke about his desire to remain with Hearts until the summer, we all know things can change quickly and dramatically in football. Skacel’s performance against St. Mirren at Tynecastle on 14 January when he bagged a hat-trick as ten man Hearts performed a minor miracle by winning 5-2 was the stuff of legend - the fact the team were 2-1 and a man down meant the result was a fantastic comeback in itself.

All of which just goes to show you can never say never. If Rudi does leave the building, does anyone have Drew Busby’s phone number? Now that would be a comeback!

Twitter @Mike1874

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Heart of Midlothian 5 St. Mirren 2

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Saturday 14 January 2012 - Tynecastle

Occasionally, you just can't apply logic to football. Take today at Tynecastle. Hearts haven't scored too many goals whilst playing towards the Roseburn Stand this season - I'm sure it's something to do with me sitting in Section G - but today, Marius Zaliukas headed home the opening goal after just 52 seconds and we waited for the goal rush. The feast of goals did duly arrive - but only after Zaliukas got sent off after 10 minutes after bringing down McGowan who took the resultant penalty kick to level the scores. Six minutes later, it looked all over when Thompson put the visitors ahead with a header. Not so for this Hearts team...

Five minutes later Rudi Skacel showed why he is a legend in Gorgie when he thumped home an unstoppable effort from fully 30 yards to level the score. Hearts still faced an uphill task being a man short but the interval arrived with the scores still level.

Inevitably, St. Mirren had the bulk of possession but Hearts defended heroically. With 25 minutes left, Skacel collected a lay-off from John Sutton and the Czech Republic star made room before firing an effort past Samson. Hearts ahead, against the odds, and Tynecastle rocked.

Four minutes later, there were real concerns the roof would come off the Wheatfield Stand when that man Skacel completed his hat-trick. Ian Black showed his competitiveness by winning the ball and when he found Skacel, Rudi did not fail. Remarkably, Hearts were now 4-2 ahead.

St. Mirren, fearing an unlikely defeat, poured men forward and another goal arrived in stoppage time. Saints were penalised for a pass-back and from the free-kick, Ian Black set up John Sutton to blast the ball home. Astonishingly, the final score was Hearts 5 St. Mirren 2.

There has been much talk in recent weeks about Hearts players walking out, refusing to play and looking for a move as quickly as possible in the January transfer window. The BBC have linked Rudi Skacel with a move to Crawley Town and quote Marian Kello as 'looking forward to leaving'. What Kello actually told the Hearts website was that he was looking to stay at Tynecastle but if the club saw fit to sell him it would be a wrench to leave. Skacel, meanwhile, knew nothing about a move to Crawley and said he hoped he could stay in Gorgie until the summer.

Added to a quite stunning display against the odds this afternoon, this surely dispels the nonsense that morale among the players at Tynecastle is at rock-bottom. Today, Hearts showed what they are capable of.

Top man: Who else but the legend that is Rudi Skacel?

A Touch of the Blarney

Earlier this week, I read a story that the owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Steve Morgan, had ‘vowed to keep faith’ with his manager Mick McCarthy. Morgan was quoted as saying ‘you don’t get stability by chopping and changing your manager’. Wolves are sitting in 16th place in the Barclays FA Premiership, just a point off the relegation places. A wry smile passed my lips as I read the story - and I’m sure McCarthy’s heart must have sunk as he read he was being given the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’. Don't be surprised if, before long, the affable Yorkshireman leaves Molineux 'by mutual consent' and Morgan’s ‘keep the faith’ message will be another example of don’t believe everything you read.

Some football owners and managers can be like politicians when it comes to speaking to the media - but football fans have learnt over the years to take such statements with a large pinch of salt. On the same day Wolves were publicly backing their manager, Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp was playing down his team’s chances of winning the league title for the first time in more than half a century - despite another impressive display in beating Everton 2-0 at White Hart Lane. That result saw Spurs move into joint second place in the league, level on points with champions Manchester United but with an inferior goal difference with both clubs three points behind league leaders Manchester City. ‘The pressure is on Manchester City’ opined Old ‘Arry. ‘They are expected to be there and win. We are just hanging in there at the moment’. Now, I’m a great admirer of Redknapp and the style of football he has his teams playing. However, his attempts at taking the pressure off his players, whilst admirable, invoked bouts of sniggering from those observers who looked at the league table and saw the chase for the league title develop into a three horse race. Yes, Manchester City have spent millions to build their team - far too many millions some might say - but they have still to convince many people they are the finished article, as was proved by their elimination from the UEFA Champions League. Their Manchester neighbours have struggled since their blistering start to the season - their 8-2 hammering of Arsenal in August now seems light years away - and their lengthy injury list shows no signs of abating. Spurs have played consistently well all season - their performance against Hearts at Tynecastle in the Europa League back in August was one of the best I’ve seen from a visiting side to Gorgie in over forty years - and, in my view, are certainly capable of challenging Manchester City. They are at least the equal of Manchester United.

While the above stories were mildly amusing, the story that caused me to spill my pint of Belhaven Best came closer to home. The new Hibernian manager, Pat Fenlon, gave an interview to The Herald. The Glasgow based newspaper carried the following quote from the Dubliner as Hibs fans tried to recover from the pain of yet another defeat in the Edinburgh derby

'I just felt that there seemed to be an acceptance that if Hearts turned up they were going to win the match. That irked me and it's something I want to change, this idea that we're not as good as them. I don't believe that. Supporters and the club have to start to stand up to people. This is a big club. We've got to be much stronger mentally. We're as big a club as they are, if not bigger.’

Now Fenlon may have taken the Hibs job with his eyes firmly closed and he is desperately trying to get the Hibs fans  - both of them - on his side. However, that last sentence was taking things just a tad too far. Perhaps someone ought to show the former Bohemians manager the records of the two clubs. No matter how you look at it - whether it be leagues and cups won, number of international players, size of attendances - the famous Heart of Midlothian outdo their Edinburgh neighbours every time. Always have done and always will. In my view, Fenlon’s statement made him look a tad foolish and while, understandably, he might not know a great deal about Scottish football and may well have been in indulging with a touch of the Irish blarney, I suspect even some Hibbies must have cringed at his ‘we’re bigger than them’ utterance. Or perhaps Fenlon  - who played against Hearts in the UEFA Cup in 1988 as a teenager with St. Patrick's Athletic - thinks a crowd of 7,000 at the Two Stands Too Many Stadium makes Hibs a 'big' club. His Wikipedia entry says his nickname is 'Nutsy'. It's not difficult to understand why!

However, spin is what it’s all about these days. Selling the product as the marketing people might say. Even if it means leaving credibility behind!

Twitter @Mike1874

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Marketing Genius

The draw for the 5th round of the Scottish Cup takes place on Monday afternoon at 2.30pm. Another piece of marketing genius by the SFA. As was the above photograph of Peterhead manager Jim McInally getting his hands on the trophy before his team were beaten by Celtic. Nice shot of William Hill's rivals behind him...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Heart of Midlothian 1 Auchinleck Talbot 0

William Hill Scottish Cup 4th Round, Saturday 7 January 2012 - Tynecastle

When the draw for the fourth round of the William Hill sponsored Scottish Cup paired Hearts with junior side Auchinleck Talbot, the inevitable cliches leapt from sports hacks around the country. Hearts potential banana skin, Hearts will give them the respect they deserve, Talbot's cup final, biggest game in Talbot's history, la de dah...

Auchinleck are the best junior side in Scotland and they would give most Second and Third Division teams - and probably most in the First Division - a run for their money. Given Hearts shyness in front of goal for much of this season, it was inevitable The Bot would do likewise to the Maroons this afternoon - and they did.

Hearts were camped in the non-league side's half for the majority of the game but a much changed home team from the the one that gubbed Hibs five days ago struggled to make the breakthrough. After 20 minutes, Hearts were awarded a penalty when Novikovas was brought down and young debutant Fraser Mullan grabbed the ball with high hopes of reversing Hearts recent fortunes from the penalty spot. He missed but one couldn't fault his courage at wanting to take the spot kick in the first place.

Talbot occasionally threatened on the break but Hearts were dominant throughout without looking like scoring. The embarrassment of an uncomfortable replay in Ayrshire beckoned until eight minutes from the end when Talbot's otherwise heroic goalkeeper Andy Leishman fumbled the ball allowing young Gordon Smith to net the winner for an increasingly desperate home side. The visitors deserved a replay and might well have got one if Pope's late strike had not been ruled out for offside - a questionable decision.

The plaudits go to Auchinleck Talbot and their magnificent support. Clubs like them should be give their chance in the Scottish League - their presence would breathe new life into an increasingly mundane competition.

Top man: Not many Hearts players passed muster but Talbot's keeper Andy Leishman was quite superb.

Junior Choice

One of the more welcome advents in Scottish football in recent years has been the introduction of junior clubs into the Scottish Cup. The likes of Irvine Meadow, Linlithgow Rose and Pollok have all acquitted themselves well in the national cup competition, as have today’s visitors to Tynecastle, Auchinleck Talbot. There may be those who snide that the participation of such clubs in the Scottish Cup devalues the competition, particularly as the juniors have their own national competition, of which Auchinleck Talbot are the holders. Personally, I think that’s a ludicrous view and if anyone doubted the value the juniors bring to the game, they only have to look the Roseburn Stand here at Tynecastle this afternoon to think differently. The atmosphere created from those from Ayrshire undoubtedly made this afternoon a special occasion.

The Scottish Football Association are to be applauded for amending the rules of the Scottish Cup to allow ambitious junior clubs such as Talbot the opportunity to prove themselves. It’s a pity the Scottish League doesn’t share this widening of horizons. What Scottish football needs, in my humble opinion, is a pyramid system, as happens in England, where non-league clubs are given the opportunity to have their ambition rewarded. Such a system has long been spoken about north of the border but, as yet, nothing has come to fruition. Which must be a huge source of frustration for clubs such as Auchinleck Talbot, Pollok, Tayport and, in the Lothians, Linlithgow Rose and Newtongrange Star. A look through the history books will tell you that many a top player has progressed from Newtongrange Star to Heart of Midlothian; Freddie Glidden, Willie Bauld, Dave Mackay, Alex Young, Bobby Prentice and Walter Kidd among others have all graced the Star colours before heading to Tynecastle. One of the most famous players who plied his trade with Auchinleck Talbot was goalkeeper Hugh Sproat, who moved from Talbot to play with Ayr United in the Premier Division in the 1970s. My abiding memory of the moustached custodian was his outstanding performance for the Honest Men when they defeated Hearts 2-1 at Tynecastle in April 1977 - a result that all but confirmed Hearts relegation for the first time in their history.

As we saw from the size of the travelling support at Tynecastle this afternoon, Auchinleck Talbot has one of the largest supports in junior football. Now, with respect to the likes of East Stirlingshire - whose games I attend regularly when Hearts are not in action - Montrose and Elgin City, these clubs attract little more than 300 fans to their home games. Talbot’s average home attendance this season is around the 700 mark and,at one point, there was talk of nearly ten times that figure coming to Tynecastle this afternoon - although, in the end, it was someway short of that.

Now there’s no one more of a football traditionalist than I. And I certainly don’t want to see our established clubs go out of existence. However, there’s little doubt some clubs struggle away year in year out in the Irn Bru Third Division without being under serious threat of losing their league place and happily playing in front of three men and a dog on occasion. What I would suggest to the powers that be is that a play-off system is introduced, as there is in England. Clearly, there would need to be preliminary rounds before the team at the bottom of the basement league faced their potential replacements in a two-legged play-off - the junior game in Scotland has a strong presence not only in Ayrshire, Glasgow and the Lothians but in Tayside and, as Culter proved against Partick Thistle in the last round of the William Hill Scottish Cup, Aberdeen. However, this hurdle could be easily overcome. Moreover, think of the interest generated in Ayrshire if Auchinleck Talbot or, dare I say it, Cumnock played against the likes of East Stirlingshire for a place in the Scottish League. It took several long years for Highland clubs such as Inverness Caledonian, Ross County, Peterhead and Elgin to gain admittance to the Scottish League. Caley Thistle, as they became, are now an established SPL club while their neighbours Ross County look likely to join them in the top flight next season.

The ambition of these clubs has been rewarded and rightly so. Ambition is usually rewarded in any line of business. It’s time for Scotland’s leading junior clubs to get their chance.

Twitter @Mike1874

Monday, 2 January 2012

Hibernian 1 Heart of Midlothian 3

                                                     BBC Scotland photo

Clydesdale Bank SPL, Monday 2 January 2012 - The Two Stands Too Many Stadium

The 'Hearts in Crisis' headlines are never far away from the newspapers and now we've reached January and the opening of the transfer window, there are spurious stories about players queueing up to leave Tynecastle, heartily fed up (if you'll excuse the pun) of not getting paid on time. Eggert Jonsson has already gone, Ryan Stevenson refuses to go back and likes of Andrew Driver and Rudi Skacel are likely to be among the others taking their leave. However, amidst such turmoil, there is one constant in Scottish football - Hearts domination of the Edinburgh derby.

This latest victory at Easter Road took Hearts unbeaten run in the capital derby to nine games and the only disappointment for the goading visiting fans was that the winning margin wasn't greater. A ten minute spell at the beginning of the second half apart, Hearts dominated the game. After 15 minutes, the mercurial David Templeton skipped past home defender Hanlon, cut inside the Hibs penalty box before firing in a low effort that smacked off the post with Hibs keeper Stack rooted to the spot. 'Temps' had another effort shortly afterwards that flew over the crossbar before Mehdi Taouil diverted Stephen Elliott's cross wide of goal - and injured himself in the process, going off to be replaced by Andrew Driver.

Just on half-time, Hearts should have gone ahead. Elliott pounced on a defensive error and raced into the Hibs penalty box. Home keeper Stack bundled him off the ball. Penalty roared the Hearts supporters behind the opposite goal - and it was. We waited for referee Calum Murray to show the Hibs custodian a red card for denying Elliott a clear goalscoring opportunity. The official duly reached into his pocket - and flashed a yellow card. A mystifying decision which puzzled Hearts players and supporters alike - an emotion that turned to despair when Ian Black missed the subsequent penalty kick, his weak effort saved by Stack who, by now, should have been in the bath. It was Hearts third penalty miss in four weeks.

Hibs began the second half the more dangerous team - briefly -  but it was Hearts who took the lead after 57 minutes. Andy Webster's header looked to be going in but Ryan McGowan made sure although there was a hint of offside over Elliott's positioning - not that we were complaining. However, Hearts fans joy was short-lived. Less than a minute later, Marius Zaliukas turned Galbraith's cross past a helpless Marian Kello and the home team were level. Hibs fancied their chances now but it was Hearts who regained the lead with eight minutes left when substitute John Sutton controlled the ball well to set up Andy Webster who stroked the ball past Stack from just inside the penalty box with all the skill of an experienced striker. Bedlam in the away end.

Minutes later, Andrew Driver really should have ended the game when he was clean through on goal but the Englishman took too much time on the ball at the edge of the penalty box and the danger was averted. However, in injury time, Hearts broke away again and Sutton delivered a cross for fellow substitute Rudi Skacel to drive the ball past Stack to end the scoring at 3-1 to Edinburgh's finest.

It was a fine performance from Hearts, even allowing for the poor quality of the opposition. Had the Maroons taken all their chances it may well have been 6-1 - which really would have been a spectacular start to the New Year.

If some of the Hearts players are about to take their leave as has been widely reported, it was a fine way to take their leave.

Top man: Ian Black - despite his penalty miss, the midfield man was in top form.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Standing Up to be Counted

There has been some talk recently about the possibility of the return of standing areas to top flight football in Scotland. Celtic are exploring the feasibility of turning part of their impressive stadium into a standing area and Rangers are also believed to be considering a similar proposal for Ibrox. The idea, it seems, has been mooted from supporters and the fact some of their views are at least being considered is welcome - I can remember a time when the views of the fans wasn’t even part of the agenda of some clubs’ board meetings, far less being treated as a serious proposal. Even the SPL Chief Executive, Neil Doncaster, has been quoted as saying the return of standing areas to SPL clubs is ‘something he would like to see explored’. I have to say I agree with him.

Tynecastle Stadium today is an impressive, all-seated amphitheatre generating an atmosphere that few clubs can better. However, it could be argued that transforming the old lady from the crumbling terracings of two decades ago to the stadium we have now has bucked the trend somewhat when it comes to creating an atmospheric arena. Celtic and Rangers may have larger attendances than anyone else in Scotland and, indeed, most of the United Kingdom, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the atmosphere at Celtic Park and Ibrox is always fervent. This is reflected in the Celtic Supporters’ Trust proposing the safe standing area in the first place.

With all-seated stadia came the penchant of fans purchasing season tickets - the cost of which rocketed a decade and a half ago in order to finance redevelopment. Fans have now become accustomed to sitting in the same part of the stadium every home game and this had bred a familiarity that is comforting in many ways - fans know where they’re heading to and have mostly familiar faces around them - but can also result in a more passive approach, particularly if the opposition is one of the smaller clubs with a travelling support in their dozens rather than hundreds, thus falling short of creating anything like a decent atmosphere.

Those of us who were Tynecastle patrons pre Wheatfield Stand will recall the comparative ease of going to watch Hearts play. A few pints in The Diggers before the game before heading to the game ten minutes before kick-off, standing in the old shed or on the open terracing behind the goal. It was mostly cash at the gate in those days, which meant you could decide pretty much up until kick-off if you fancied going to see the Maroons that day. Today, there is the added task of going to the ticket office to buy a ticket on the day which some may think is an added inconvenience.

We live in a different age now and Hearts have a significant number of season ticket holders. Smart card technology means they can have cup-ties and friendly games added to their card simply by picking up the telephone or clicking a mouse on their computer. Which is fine for those fans who can afford to purchase a season ticket. A safe standing area would a least give those fans who cannot afford to pay up front for their football - and in these recession hit times these will be increasing in number this year - the opportunity to head to a game if they had the opportunity or finance to do so. Presumably, the cost of standing at the game would be reduced accordingly - clubs could hardly charge the same amount to fans choosing to stand for 90 minutes as they would for those who have a seat. Now, I’m no expert but if the cost of standing would be, let’s say 75 per cent of a seated supporter, this might encourage fans to head to the game at an affordable price.

If Hearts were to consider a safe standing area, it would probably be in the enclosure at the front of the old main stand. This area isn’t always full but I can envisage a return to standing in this area and it being well populated most home games. One might argue the revenue from admission to this area might drop as a result of decreased admission charges - but I would argue there would be increased numbers as more and more fans would be attracted to this part of the stadium. Moreover, more people in this part of Tynecastle would mean more people buying food, match day programmes, half-time draw tickets and visits to the club shop.

No one wants to return to the dark days of the 1980s when unsafe terracings cost lives at places like Hillsborough in Sheffield. Standing at football can be safe if it is kept under close observation and control - most of us who made the post Christmas trek to Pittodrie last week ago didn’t bother sitting down in the Artic conditions and there were no incidents (although the fact most of us were too busy fighting hypothermia was possibly a factor!) Anything that can attract more people to the game must surely be considered. It’s time for Scottish football to, literally, stand up and be counted.

Twitter @Mike1874