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Season off to a poor start











It doesn't take long for the shine to wear off a brand new season, does it? Around eleven days in fact. The new campaign opened under a shadow cast by the death of Gordon Smith, one of the few to whom that much-abused epithet 'all-time great' could be justly applied. A triple championship winner with Hibs, Hearts and Dundee, it is as a member of the Easter Road club's 'Famous Five' forward line that Smith's memory will forever be associated.

In less than a fortnight since his passing we witnessed Scotland's heaviest home defeat in over 30 years, a Rangers player suspended in Europe for kicking an opponent in the head, Celtic assuming top spot in the League courtesy of some dubious refereeing decisions, the SPL recording its lowest ever attendance, one boss resigning after accusations of brawling with a supporter while another's family suffered abuse by supporters of his old club and the once-proud 'Scotsport' is now as awful as any TV offering which bears the names 'Baddiel' and/or 'Skinner.'

Welcome to Scottish football 2004-05!

To the national team first. There really isn't much to add to the thousands of words of excoriation heaped upon Berti Vogts' head in the aftermath of the 3-0 loss to Hungary at Hampden. Yes, some key players - Christian Dailly, Jackie McNamara, Paul Dickov - were missing, but most of the starting line-up will be on duty come the World Cup qualifiers. True, a fresh air challenge saw the Hungarians steal an unlikely and unmerited half-time penalty lead. And no, no one could have foreseen the defensive calamity which befell Steven Pressley and David Marshall and resulted in Hungary's third goal. Shades of Willie Donnachie and Jim Blyth against Wales in 1978.

But once we went behind Scotland were simply woeful. In fact the only crumbs of comfort on the night came not from Hampden but from Reykjavik and elsewhere as our chief World Cup rivals all struggled. Italy's catastrophic 2-0 loss in Iceland will give hope that the group may not be a dogfight for second place after all. Slovenia and Norway both failed to win at home, drawing with Serbia & Montenegro and Belgium respectively. In fact, on a night of friendlies across Europe it was the so-called 'minnows' in Scotland's group who produced the best results with Moldova beating Georgia at home and - ominously - Belarus winning in Turkey, a result which demands renewed respect for the men from Minsk.

As for Rangers and Alex Rae's suspension, the reaction from Ibrox is truly astonishing. Conspiracy theories flying everywhere, suggestions that an incident has been blown out of proportion by 'Celtic-minded' sections of the press, Alex McLeish proclaiming his player's 'innocence.' If they could take off the blue-tinted specs for a moment, maybe Rangers could see what happened the way the rest of the world saw it. A man was lying on the ground. Rae booted him in the head. End of story.

No amount of guff about 'trying to play the ball' or the prone Russian 'shielding the ball' will wash. The only way Rae was trying to 'play the ball' was if he thought it had grown ears, a nose and a mouth. He deserves to be banned and Rangers do themselves and Scottish football a disservice by continuing to protest and appeal. McLeish has lost a lot of respect and is diminished in many eyes by his actions in defence of the indefensible.

After two games Celtic were the only side with maximum points, courtesy of Messrs Hartson, Thompson and McCurry. McCurry? Is that some new signing no one knew about? Or a fresh-faced kid coming up through the ranks? No, Mike McCurry was the referee at the Kilmarnock - Celtic fixture at Rugby Park.

He came into the fixture with 'previous.' McCurry was the referee who ruled out a perfectly good Kris Boyd strike with the score at 0-0 the last time these teams met at Rugby Park. On that occasion Celtic went on to win 1-0 and clinch the title. This time they were under severe pressure from a Killie side that twice took the lead inside the opening half hour till the referee again came to Celtic's rescue. According to McCurry use of the elbow on opponents is perfectly legal in certain circumstances. These being if you are ginger, balding and Welsh.

John Hartson took full advantage of McCurry's laxity when scoring both his goals in Celtic's eventual 4-2 victory. Chris Sutton too was guilty of an infringement in the move which led up to David Lilley's handball. Lilley's offence led to him receiving his marching orders. Celtic scored from the resultant free kick and a game which had produced superb football for 45 minutes fizzled out into a damp squib of a second half.

Thanks, Mike. Yes, we are aware this column has been known to show perhaps a slight smidgeon of partiality towards a certain blue-and-white striped Ayrshire team but when 50/50 calls go 90/10 in one side's favour it really is hard to take.

Meanwhile Inverness Caledonian Thistle played their first 'home' game at Pittodrie in front of a paltry 1,972 fans - the lowest since the SPL's formation. ICT officials claimed season ticket holders weren't counted in the total (why not?) and that the gate was nearer 3,000. Even so, this was for their first match on a beautiful summer's day in August. How many for a bitter winter's evening in February? Clydebank's old Premier Division record low of 430 may be under threat before the season is over.

Kenny 'Basher' Brannigan jumped from his position as head coach at Queen's Park before he was pushed, following altercations with both a player and a supporter (the father of another player) during the Spiders game at Elgin. Brannigan once nutted a former team-mate three minutes into a match during his playing days and was sacked afterwards. What was that about leopards and spots?

Jimmy Calderwood's woes are of a different variety. The Aberdeen boss unwittingly demonstrated how far his club has fallen by excitedly greeting a home 0-0 draw with Rangers as if they had won the Champions League. This, remember, is Aberdeen, the team Alex Ferguson once criticised for playing badly even though they had just won the Scottish Cup days after claiming the European Cup-Winners Cup!

The Pittodrie gaffer has been the subject of attack by Dunfermline supporters, angry at the way in which he left East End Park. Calderwood claims he isn't bothered personally but is annoyed that other members of his family have suffered abuse from Pars fans.

Those same supporters should have been celebrating a return to Europe after 35 seasons but their match in Iceland turned out to be a nightmare experience with long delays for chartered flights and a woeful performance on the pitch. Dunfermline were 2-0 down to Hafnarfjordur and it could easily have been four or five before somehow hauling themselves back into the match and escaping with a 2-2 draw.

It's another indication of how low our stock is that many reacted to this result as if it were some kind of triumph. And complaints that Dunfermline players were affected by flight delays are truly pathetic. The Icelandic players were all part-timers who had gone out and done a hard day's work before turning out for their team!

And finally to 'Scotsport.' What in heaven's name do the producers think they are doing? “O Tempora! O Mores!” as Cicero famously said. Or to put it in the words of a great philosopher more familiar to Scots - Angus Og - “Ochone, ochone!”

The best that can be said about the programme's new format is that it's a poor man's Tam Cowan. With one essential ingredient missing - Tam Cowan.

The show that paved the way for outside sports broadcasting in Scotland and made a star out of Arthur Montford and his sports jackets now relies on nano-seconds of two-day old footage and Graeme Spiers playing the piano. Still, Spiersy, when not being Elton John, is at least articulate, unlike the following week's Bill 'the voice of a football' Leckie.

But as evidence that evolution may indeed be going into reverse we leave you with this. At one time 'Scotsport' entertained its audience with Bob Crampsey's extemporaneous and entertaining accounts of great games and days gone by. Now it relies on a presenter whose claim to fame is that he is the brother of one of those grossly egotistical non-entities from a Channel 4 'reality' show, doing 'road tests' of referees whistles or keepers playing 'keepie-uppie.'

As Arthur himself might say, “what a stramash!”




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