Saturday, 25 December 2010

A personal Winter break

Well, happy Christmas and New Year, one and all!  2010 has ended with yet another enforced football Winter break. Dumbarton supporters have not seen their team in action since 20 November, the Boxing Day match is off, and I wouldn't hold my breath over 2 or 8 January, frankly. We'll see. I say 'we', but actually I mean 'you', since part of my beginning to 2011 will be spent in Ghana. A Winter break of my very own - and one that's set to be sweltering.

The Ghanaians gained the hearts of many at the last World Cup, and though it isn't any formal part of my visit I intend to follow up any football leads that present themselves during my brief sojourn in West Africa. See you at the next game thereafter. Whenever that may be. (There will also be much to be done in 2011 as far as the Sonstrust is concerned, and I'm honoured to have been elected to the Trust board to assist with that.)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The future of Scottish football

These are my initial comments on Sonstrust site regarding the proposed reconstruction of the SPL, and of Scottish Football as a whole:

A sinking feeling?
Regarding the the SPL1 clubs’ reserve sides joining the lower leagues: the policing and admin costs would offset the gains, which I suspect would be short-term in relation to attendance. Old Firm fans are not even interested in watching their A sides play ‘diddy’ teams at home in the Cup, and the idea that their ‘local’ supporters would turn out to see B or Affiliate teams (which is it to be, by the way?) play ‘minnows’ on a routine basis is extremely fanciful. The sofa and TV football would still have more appeal.

The cultural gulf between higher and lower league supporter mentalities is considerable, and we ignore it at our peril. That’s aside from the degradation resulting to SFL clubs and leagues being used as the optional training ground of the wealthy. It might mean that even winning your own league would become out-of-reach.

As for regionalisation – this is being proposed mainly, it seems, to create a ‘drawbridge’ between the small teams and SPL1 & 2 ‘big boys’. The SPL plan is thin enough as it stands (as a number of existing SPL clubs clearly recognise), so in order to sidestep the difficult-to-combat argument that the ‘brand’ is actually being diluted (with the only real aim to increase revenues for the richest from more televised OF clashes), a cachet of false exclusivity is being generated by proposing the quarantining and de-sizing of the ‘minor’ clubs.

In effect, however, what is being proposed is reducing Scottish football to 20 professional teams, and then terminating the national game at that point. Regional leagues with uneven set-ups, part-time or amateur sides mostly stranded for ever (unless a bored sugar daddy comes along) and a concomitant continuing decline in standards (young, truly promising players will not see this as a fruitful nurturing ground!) will have no soul or purpose. That means a further decline in overall attendance. The writing is on the wall if we take this path.

Regionalisation is therefore a recipe for turning clubs like Dumbarton into juniors in all but name, and it has certainly not been developed by asking the key question, “How do we raise the flag, spirits, standards, and viability of Scottish football as a whole ?” That, along with the corrosive impact of the wholesale dominance of the OF, is another central concern that Henry McLeish, perhaps constrained by political and financial interests ‘down the corridor’, has not taken as central to his enquiry. But ignoring the big issues and making money for the few is not actually being ‘realistic’ (as will be claimed), it is avoiding inconvenient truths.

I have some nascent ideas about what a credible structural / financial alternative might look like, but I’ll mull more on those and listen to what others have to say  before going further – except to observe that the “it isn’t travel costs but wage costs which are too high” remark is spot on. And that a regulatory framework (based on sustainability criteria) to ensure that club directors and investors do not suddenly lose all business sense and strategic acumen when they get their hands on ‘football product’ is absolutely vital. Oh, and a minimum 25% democratic community ownership is also crucial.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Get yer tips out for the lads!

Yeah, I know, a dead dodgy allusion -- but it got your attention, and it's offered in a definitely anti-sexist spirit, dripping with seasonal irony!  Anyway, the truth is, too many of the people who run Scottish football are (old) lads... and they definitely need your tips, whatever your genes or gender. To be specific, the Sonstrust (Dumbarton's democratic provident society, part of the fine Supporters' Direct, which has a stake in running the club) is wanting to canvass as wide a range of supporter opinion as possible about the 'reconstruction' plans. Then the idea is to get people involved in calling those involved in influencing outcomes in response to the McLeish Report (specifically DFC, the SFA and the SFL) to account and to dialogue. There’s never been a more important time for fans to stand together, to make a thoughtful and passionate response, and to ensure that changes to the future of our game benefit the many and not just the few. Click the 'comment button' at the end of this short article. If you're not a Dumbarton fan (astonishingly, there are such odd creatures out there, I realise...) then the SD questionnaire could be just the place for you to contribute. Indeed, it's already starting to be noticed.

Supporters Direct survey on Scottish Football

With major proposals in the offing for a major reconstruction of Scottish football (on which more anon), Supporters Direct are asking supporters to complete a quick - but important - questionnaire on the major issues. These include plans to 'regionalise' the lower leagues (effectively end the national game below SPL level) and shoe-horn in B teams from the big clubs. Fans are being asked to take the time (5-10 minutes tops) to complete this survey online. By filling out the questionnaire yourself, and encouraging as many others as you can to do the same, you can help make it as representative as possible of supporter opinion in Scottish football. There's more on the Scottish Football Association's McLeish report here, by the way.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Reconstruct this?

This article is slightly adapted from one published on the Sonstrust website as Whose 'Reconstruction'

Former Scottish Football Association chief executive Gordon Smith was straightforward about SPL Reconstruction proposals on STV’s Sports Centre last week.

It’s primarily about money rather than football, and how many times a small range of teams get to the play the Old Firm, he agreed.

In this particular discussion, the existence of senior football below the level of the mooted SPL 1 and 2 did not even get mentioned – but most fans of SFL sides being consigned by default to ‘regionalisation’ seem only too aware of the potential dangers these plans hold for us.

While the detail of the McLeish Report part two is absorbed and we wait for more information to be released by the SPL (supposedly on 20 December *), the implications of all this for clubs like Dumbarton was bound to be a hot topic at the Sonstrust AGM. And they were, I'm told. I was stuck in a transport jam.

On one interpretation of what’s going on, this is an attempt by those in the higher echelons (not least the Old Firm) effectively to reduce the senior game in this country to just 20 clubs.
But whatever gets said publicly at this stage, nothing is set in stone. So whatever the political machinations behind the scenes, it’s vital that supporters of lower league clubs make their voices heard in the coming weeks.

* Update: The meeting has been postponed to the New Year, supposedly due to the weather – though the emerging disagreement witin the existing SPL can’t have helped either. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Another Euro night car crash from ITV

As half-time approaches, Arsenal's Champions League group stage encounter with Partizan Belgrade is proving less than compelling. Which is a pity, because on their day (or evening) the Gunners are one of the most attractive sides on the planet to watch. The occasion is not helped by the fact that I'm having to view it on ITV, whose coverage is proving as lamentable as ever. One moment it drips with condescension or dismissal towards the 'foreigners'. The next it offers another wobbly footed cliche, banal 'insight', or minor piece of misinformation. "He's probably going to get that treated... Oh, he's back on the pitch."

Robin Van Persie's penalty to give the home side the lead was very soft, but they should have enough to see them through, even if Partizan are not quite the supreme mugs ITV clearly thinks them to be. The best moment so far has been the commentary team's 'Alan Partridge blip' with the nickname of Parizan's supporters (read: ultras). Grobari means 'Gravediggers' they rightly inform us, before speculating vaguely that this might have "something to do with their black uniforms". Then, with perhaps the faintest warning echoes of Balkan politics (and maybe the recent history of regional football hooliganism) sinking in, they add: "er, hopefully nothing more sinister."  No, of course not, boys.

Meanwhile, anchor Adrian Chiles' attempt to explain the fairly simple maths of Group H produces amused consternation in the studio and further bafflement in the gantry. For the record, Arsenal need to beat Belgrade in this, their final match, to guarantee progress. Shakhtar Donetsk will top the group if they avoid defeat to Braga, who are also seeking a place in the next round. Arsenal can still go through if they draw or lose to Partizan Belgrade but only if Braga do not improve on that result. The Gunners can also still top the group if they win and Donetsk lose to Braga. Seemples....

The second half resumes. "What could possibly go wrong?" asks Peter Drury of Jim Beglin. Or possibly the other way round ... it's all becoming a horrid blur. Well, for one thing, lads, Partizan could score. Oh look, they have! Who'd have thunk it, what with them being vastly, ridiculously, unfathomably inferior and all that? Ah well, "that's football". Now the Gunners could be sunk by a single goal in one of two other games. (Oh good, they've figured that. Things are looking up.)

Theo Walcott scores on 72 minutes and Samir Nasri makes it 3-1 on 76. "Huge relief" and "it's all right on the night" (especially for the commentators). Arsenal will now progress in the European big boys' competition. The affable Chiles will try to throw a bit more humour at his colleagues' weapons-grade cluelessness. The rest of us will survive to return to another TV channel, thankfully. Job done.

Image (c) and courtesy of Sabotage Times: "We can't concentrate. Why should you?"

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Newcastle's sackload of shame

Hughton: betrayed by midgets
Do Newcastle deserve Chris Hughton as their manager, I asked back on 28 October? It hasn't taken long to find out that, as we suspected, they don't. To their credit, the fans have rallied in disgust against his sacking yesterday. So have some of the players. Not that this will change anything. Owner Mike Ashley and his cohorts have no shame, no morals to speak of, and no sense either, it appears.

The BBC's Phil McNulty has summed up the whole sorry saga in a biting and well-argued piece. His first two sentences encapsulate the situation perfectly: "Chris Hughton has brought dignity, stability and a respectable Premier League placing to Newcastle United - so it should be no surprise that his reward from owner Mike Ashley is the sack. It sums up the twisted, madcap logic of a club that seems only comfortable with chaos and a hierarchy that has a vastly inflated sense of Newcastle's standing in the game."

Hopefully, Hughton will soon be back in work with a club that merits him. As for NUFC's current rulers, few outside their side's own support will now weep if they pay for another despicable act (remember how they treated Bobby Robson?) in points and places. Far better, however, would be if fan power could emerge to mount a coherent challenge to Ashley & Co, claiming the club back for decency and genuine football pride. That would be a much better outcome than being appeased and bought off with another fatuous "name" appointment. Which is what Ashley is gambling on.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Forget England: it's reform of FIFA that matters

Who's really celebrating?
There is an unpleasant smell of opportunism and sour grapes (some would say rank hypocrisy) about 'Team England' suddenly getting the FIFA reform bug after their humiliation - not mere defeat - in the process to secure the venues for the World Cup in 2018 (plausibly, Russia) and 2022 (wholly implausibly, Qatar).  England 2018 boss Andy Anson calls for Fifa reform, declared the Beeb boldly. FA chief executive Alex Horne wants Fifa reform, announced the Guardian (with a bit of modesty and perspective, unlike the trumpeting tabloids).

Hang on, though. Aren't these the very same people who, with their political and business friends in tow, were - until the announcement of their undoing by a clearly delighted Sepp Blatter - busily attacking BBC 'Panorama' and the Sunday Times for exposing FIFA's (how shall we put this gently?) "alleged lack of probity"? The same people sucking up shamelessly and fruitlessly to the likes of Jack Warner? Yes, indeed. One minute anti-corruption reporting was 'unpatriotic', the next we're all on the side of the angels. Well, when it comes to voting reform to enable 'us' to have a chance of winning, anyway. As usual, David Conn is dead right. Ethical blindness has been the problem for some time.

The shambles of the FA and the dangerously dire state of international body, not to mention the money-grabbing values of Premier League, form a sad indictment of those who have come to run the modern game of football from the very top. Root and branch change is needed. In the case of FIFA the issue is not corruption allegations against individuals alone (important though those are), but the whole rotten, unaccountable edifice - including its capacity to bully recipients of its Big Prize into re-writing national laws, abrogating human rights and creating mini tax havens for the duration of a World Cup. This kind of thing is beyond reprehensible. The problem is that, with the exception of some very determined journalists, there is no natural or organisable grassroots constituency for change, of the kind that challenged the oligarchs at Liverpool, for instance.

But investigation and then radical restructuring of FIFA still matters. That big issue should not be allowed to go away, or to become the self-justificatory tool of a failed bid.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Welcome to the winter break

So here we go again. Postponements of postponements, lost revenues for those who can afford it least, fixture pile-ups, wasted journeys, twiddling thumbs, and misery for all involved. Yet the 'traditionalists' will tell us that all this is far better than the horror of 'summer football' (that is, a March-October season for the lower leagues in Scotland, akin to what appears to be working quite well in Ireland and elsewhere). I confess, I just don't get it anymore. The issue isn't whether we have a winter break. We get one every year, in case you hadn't noticed! The only difference is that under the current denial-based set-up, we get it on the worst possible terms with little predictability or control. Madness.

In the old days (a.k.a. the '70s), I quite enjoyed watching matchstick men chasing an orange bauble around a snowbound pitch. But we now live in a risk-averse (and, more to the point, litigious) world where even a playable pitch is not enough if there is ice on the streets around the stadium. With a heroic effort, three dozen volunteers working all night and a highly cooperative local authority, Alloa Athletic performed wonders with their plastic pitch to put on the only football match in Scotland, against Peterhead, on Saturday. But national attention and the 600 who turned up aside, it isn't a credible strategy for facing up to worsening winters. Bring on reform... and, I suppose, the flying pigs.

Picture: Brechin's ground covered in snow, minus the planned match with Dumbarton on 4 December. The fixture has been replanned for the 14th. If it goes ahead, I won't be there because of work commitments. But I wouldn't be holding my breath anyway. Image courtesy of DFC.