Not-so Jolly Roger

Roger Mitchell's catalogue of errors. Jim McLean's column in the Daily Record. The 'Groundhoppers' descend on Cornwall.


Roger and out?

Roger Mitchell may be less the name of the SPL’s Chief Executive than a statement as to what some of its clubs would like to do to him. Over the past few months Mitchell has been the man in charge while the SPL has lurched from farce to disaster and back again. To be fair, not all of the tragedy that the SPL has become can be laid at Mitchell’s door. But he is certainly responsible for more than his fair share of misfortunes.

To begin with there was Mitchell’s arrogant attitude towards the national team. Hardly helpful at a time when Scotland are desperately trying to rebuild. Then came the Partick Thistle ‘dope-smoking’ faux pas. So far so bad. But in trying to explain why there were no SPL fixtures on the Saturday of the Easter holiday weekend, Mitchell excelled himself.

The bold Roger explained that last year the SFA had used the weekend for the Scottish Cup so he assumed the same thing would happen this year. Consequently, there were no SPL games. Astonishing. The SPL operate out of the 6th floor at Hampden Park. The SFA can be located on Floor Six of the same building and, for good measure, you can find the Scottish Football League on Floor VI. We won’t go into this ludicrous situation of having three governing bodies here, but it does strike the casual observer that the opportunities for one branch of Scottish football to speak to another aren’t exactly hampered by geography.

What Mitchell didn’t say when challenged over the lost weekend was that the SPL need to have a free weekend to allow clubs to make arrangements for the post-split fixtures. Even so, the SFA, as the senior body and UEFA and FIFA affiliate, take precedence – just as the FA does in England. So when it became known that they were playing the Cup semis on the weekend of 23rd/24th March, (i.e. last July) there was ample time to re-arrange the SPL fixture list.

This would also have been fairer. As it stood, the Old Firm played and won their League games in midweek prior to the last pre-split fixtures. This meant that Hearts knew their top six place was guaranteed and that Dunfermline were aware that a victory over Dundee put them into the top half. Had the Old Firm’s games against Motherwell and Kilmarnock also taken place that Saturday, there would have been the prospect of the title being decided as well as three clubs fighting for two top six places. A much better scenario than what was served up. Can anyone imagine Hearts going down 3-1 at home to St Johnstone in such circumstances? Thought not.

In some ways Mitchell has been lucky. All teams are supposed to go into that final pre-split match without any unfair advantages. Imagine that Motherwell’s midweek defeat against Celtic meant that they would be relegated if both Dunfermline and Dundee needed a point for survival in their game on the Saturday? Or if a Hearts V St Johnstone draw put both sides into the top six and squeezed out Killie in the process? What ructions then?

Or if, as in a more normal season, there had been four SPL sides in the cup semis. What a farce that would have been with four midweek games before important cup ties and only two fixtures left for what is meant to be a showpiece Saturday.

Mitchell’s lame attempt to pass the buck to the SFA won’t wash. There is no excuse for not providing a full card for what would have been one of the best attended weeks of the season. And trying to say that the blank Saturday helped the others doesn’t ring true either. The entire SFL card attracted just over 22,500 spectators. Only three clubs recorded gates significantly above their average. Two- QOS and Brechin – could have expected big rises anyway, given their League positions. Only St Mirren, with 500 more fans than normal, benefited from an SPL-free weekend. Partick Thistle, top of the 1st Division, fresh from a cup semi-final and with Glasgow all to themselves, actually drew about 300 fewer spectators than usual. SPL fans just wont watch other clubs in any significant numbers. Sad, but true.

Now Mitchell faces up to his biggest challenge yet. His own position may even be on the line as the farce called SPL TV nears its denouement. Only two options seem to be available. Either the Old Firm gobble up all the cash, leaving the rest to battle over scraps in games which few will be able to see. Or it’s back to SKY with tails between legs, where the Old Firm will gobble up all the cash etc.

I never thought these words would ever flow from my trusty laptop, but for what its worth, here they are: None of this would ever have happened under Jim Farry.

Hopping Mad?

After the recent doom and gloom surrounding the game – spectator violence, clubs in danger of folding, collapsed TV deals, Scotland getting humped in Paris – its good to take some time out to reflect on the more appealing side of football. Even if it means digressing from purely Scottish soccer for a moment.

Normally, when a club prepares for an influx of visitors twice the size of its average home gate, it does so with a sense of trepidation. Happily that was not the case in West Cornwall on Good Friday 2002. Penzance AFC usually play in front of around 150 fans – the sort of crowd that even East Stirling would consider poor. But the gate for their fixture against Bodmin Town was swollen to 479, thanks to around 300 ‘groundhoppers.’

This is a strange breed of supporter. The groundhopper starts off by visiting all the league grounds in England. Then he (and over 95% of ‘hoppers are male) will collect Scottish grounds, then maybe Irish grounds before starting out to go through the English non-league pyramid.

So by the time these visitors descended on Cornwall they must already have visited several hundred football grounds. For the South Western League lies seven levels below the Football League. And surely only the most dedicated will spend their entire Bank Holiday weekend adding nine of the most obscure and isolated grounds in the UK to their list. Truly, these are football’s trainspotters. As this writer was recently described as “an anorak’s anorak” in the Sunday Herald, I can assure the ‘hoppers I am not insulting them by using this term.

For there was something wonderful about this occasion. Accents from all over the British Isles. Hearts centenary shirts sitting next to Sheffield United tops. Lilting Irish accents being responded to in broad cockney. And one lone figure, resplendent in a Scotland tammy circa 1955 comparing the local pasty favourably with the Forfar bridie.

The one thing they all had in common was a love of the game for the game’s sake. No hero worship of £100,000 per week prima donnas. For, strangely enough, amidst the shirts of many colours on display it was the big boys who were missing. Macclesfield were there but not Man U. Aldershot not Arsenal. And of Scotland’s Ugly Sisters, not a shirt in sight. There are plenty of them in this part of the world and they will descend on the pubs in their droves on Cup Final day. But to ask them to part with £2-50 on a sun-kissed afternoon to watch a decent game of football that didn’t involve tribal chants and centuries-old violence, well, that’s asking rather a lot.

For the record the home team won 3-0 despite having a man sent off. And the friendly army of groundhoppers departed as peacefully as they arrived, happy with what they had seen, and eager to hit the next small town on their weekend trail. Mad? They may well be. But it’s the kind of madness I’d love to see repeated every weekend.

Coming (Mc) Clean

McLean in his playing days

For close on 40 years now, Jim McLean has been involved in Scottish football. Firstly as a player, thoughtful, skilful, intelligent, sometimes unappreciated on the terracings, often lauded by the game’s connoisseurs. Then he was a manager. Along with Alex Ferguson he took on, and beat, the big two. A League title, two League Cups, six (unsuccessful) Scottish Cup Finals. All with a team which had never played in a major Final or finished higher than 5th in the table before McLean took over.

Latterly there was McLean the Chairman. Widely perceived as arrogant and tyrannical, forcing players to sign ridiculously long contracts on pitiful wages. What looked like the final chapter in his long career appeared to come to an ignominious end with a well-aimed right hook on a BBC reporter.

But now there is a fourth manifestation of McLean, appropriately enough as a member of the fourth estate. McLean has recently embarked on a career as a columnist in the Daily Record on Fridays. Now we all know the kind of thing – the “packs a punch” headlines which merely trail banal observations on the game, either from ex-players unwilling to damage old friends by revealing their inadequacies (Murdo McLeod) or failed managers who seem to think that they can still do a better job than the men currently in charge (Mark Hateley). All of it ghost-written. All of it pap. None of it fit even to wrap up a fish supper
But McLean is different. Whether it’s his own stuff or filtered through a Record journo is immaterial. At last someone is prepared to tell it like it really is. Maybe its because Jim has no need to be beholden to anyone anymore. Perhaps he just likes getting his own back. Who cares? Let’s just enjoy him while we can. For it can’t be long before the Record’s lawyers start looking at his articles more closely. It may just be a matter of time before he is quietly shunted aside for the paper to deliver the ‘big-name’ banalities it does so well.

For anyone unfamiliar with his writings over the past few weeks, go out and get the Record on a Friday. If you can’t do that then log on to the Record and take it from there.

McLean’s first column attacked those professional leeches – the agents. Not the general criticisms of them as a breed that we are all familiar with. He actually named names. Gordon Smith, Bill McMurdo, Raymond Sparkes. He cited their indiscretions, their greed. He quoted circumstances. McLean is a man the agents can’t touch anymore and he let them know it.

Similarly, in his latest column (Friday April 5th) he lays into the Old Firm. Here’s a few choice quotes:

“For years they've been killing the competition by buying up the best players and taking the lion's share of TV money.”

“The Old Firm are helped by weak refereeing. They will get more important decisions going in their favour over the course of a season than other clubs.”

“If they shared the money around equally then other clubs would have a better chance of putting out teams capable of giving them a decent game.”

“They've got to make up their minds if they want to be big fish in Scotland or small fish elsewhere - if anyone will ever take them. If they're still part of Scottish football they should start acting like it.”

Now while most non-Old Firm fans will regard these statements as simply self-evident truths, no one can deny that it is anything other than unusual to read such refreshing honesty in the Scottish press. Nor that they carry more weight coming, as they do, from someone who has spent a lifetime progressing through all levels of the game.

Jim McLean: A Scottish legend. Enjoy him while you can. Before the lawyers have him muzzled.



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