Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 2)

This is the second part of our in depth discussion with former Scotland boss, Craig Brown. Enjoy!

BOTN: Let’s move on to something that has puzzled me for a while. As a Scot, I have fond memories of various qualification campaigns as well as a few major tournaments including Euro ‘96 and France ’98. But the disappointments also linger in my mind and in particular what seemed to be a worrying trend with Scotland losing late goals in crucial matches that would lead to our failure to progress. Poland’s late equalizer in 2015, Italy’s stoppage time winner in 2008 and of course against Serbia recently which luckily didn’t cost Scotland in the end. Tiredness plays a part, but it comes down to a lack of concentration and an awareness of how to see the game out. As a manager, how much can you work with the players to remain fully focused right up until the final whistle?

CB: There has been the suggestion that the Scotland team over the years has been susceptible to losing late goals. I feel that although it happened against Italy in 2008, Poland in 2015, England in 2017 and Serbia 2020, is an unfair allegation if levelled against my time with the national team. Tiredness, lack of concentration, and poor game management have been suggested as reasons for the perceived late in the game failure. My contention is that, when it occurred it has been primarily coincidental. The recent late goal in Belgrade by Serbia in the Euro ‘20 play-off adds fuel to those who are determined to be critical but to surely two decisive wins at the shoot-out stage should put paid to that assertion.

BOTN: Noting Scotland’s recent accomplishment, qualifying for next summer’s European Championships, how pleased are you to see Scotland qualify again and how do you rate the job that Steve Clarke and his team have done there?

CB: Having been involved in 4 successful qualifications, 2 as Assistant to Andy Roxburgh (Italy ‘90 and Sweden ‘92) and 2 as manager in my own right (England ‘96 and France ‘98), I believe that Steve Clarke’s achievement, because of the prevailing negative perception, was even more meritorious. The recent outpouring of emotion is not something I recall. In my 12-year period (86 – 98) to qualify for a major tournament was expected and greeted with quiet satisfaction in the changing room. Failure was deemed a disgrace.    

Recently, at the start of Steve’s tenure, there continued to be negative vibes and extremely pessimistic attitudes. That made it even more difficult to change the mentality, not only of the players but also of the supporters and the media. This he has done marvellously well and that, among other things, is very much to his credit. The ignominy of failure and the heartache of near misses can now be consigned to history. For ever, I trust!

Steve Clarke has steered Scotland to their first major international tournament in 22 years.

BOTN: Do you think that this is the turning point for Scotland now in terms of qualifying regularly for tournaments? Or is there further work needed in creating a succession line for young talent in Scotland?

CB: Without doubt this is a turning point for Scottish football. I’m a believer in the self-fulfilling prophecy so if we feel we’ll succeed we are even more likely to succeed. We have a proliferation now of young talented players and a tremendous work ethic. The excitement of the achievement in Serbia will live long in the memory of all Scotland fans as it signalled the countdown to return to join the elite of International football. The lure of involvement at this level will provide motivation enough to inspire the players to strive for regular participation in European and World Competition Finals.

BOTN: Scotland will play England during Euro 2020 at Wembley Stadium much like they did during Euro ’96 when you were on the sidelines as manager. That was really an incredible game despite the result, with Paul Gascoigne producing a moment of genius to break Scottish hearts. Watching that game then and now, I still feel that if Gary McAllister’s penalty had gone in, Scotland would have won that game and we would have qualified for the knock-out round. What are your memories of the games against England?

CB: As a Tartan Army supporter, I had been to many matches between the Auld Enemy as the importance of this fixture cannot be overestimated north of the border. However, my first direct experience as a member of staff was on 5th May 1988 at Wembley. One relatively minor incident in this encounter confirmed just how significant the occasion is for everyone, players included. It happened in the 74th minute when the then manager, Andy Roxburgh asked me to get Tommy Burns warmed up to replace Neil Simpson – an attacking midfield player for a sitting, defensive one as we were a goal behind. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the wonderful attitude of the late Tommy Burns as his grateful attitude not only exemplified his exemplary character but reinforced the impact a game against England always has. 

Before exchanging the mandatory handshake with his replaced colleague Tommy went over to the manager, put his two hands on Andy’s shoulder, looked into his eyes, and said, “Thank you Gaffer. You have given me my lifetime ambition – to play for my country against England at Wembley!” Such gratitude is not always the case as often players are more disposed to complain about non selection, but it did confirm, as if I didn’t know it, the importance attached to the England fixture.

The late Tommy Burns sitting on the Wembley turf pre kick off, 1988.

BOTN: Am I right I saying that you managed Scotland against England on a few occasions?

It was my privilege to be in charge of the Scotland team on three more occasions against ‘Them’ as many Scots rather unkindly refer to when meaning England. I’ve already mentioned the ‘Gazza match’ as I call it, in Euro ‘96. The other two games were the play-off matches for Euro 2000, the first being in Glasgow at Hampden. The desire for tickets was incredible for both matches and the hype was incredible. There is an erroneous perception that players and staff get unlimited supplies of free match tickets. To ensure that our players were happy and in no way were made to feel inferior I asked Colin Hendry to speak to his team colleague, Alan Shearer, at Blackburn Rovers to establish the England ticket allocation. When dealing with the squad request for complimentaries and tickets to buy the SFA thoughtfully acceded to my suggestion that we get a more generous allocation than our opponents. Psychologically I felt this dispelled any suggestion of inferiority. 

Unlike Scotland’s 2020 play-off this was a two-legged affair, with the first game at a packed Hampden Park. Had the Scottish Football League agreed to my request to postpone and reschedule the Rangers v Celtic match the week before because so many of our players were involved, the facial, broken jawbone, injury suffered by Paul Lambert in a strong challenge from Jorg Albertz wouldn’t have ruled out one of our best players, the one in fact who would have been designated to mark Paul Scholes, the scorer of both England goals. Because of his Champions League winning experience with Borussia Dortmund and his familiarity with the 3-5-2 system we employed he would have been invaluable had he been fit.

BOTN: I remember that Old firm game but i think it was more the other way. around with Lambert sliding in on Albertz and giving away the penalty. Irregardless perhaps if Lambert was playing, he would have been able to nullify the threat of Scholes like you said.

CB: Adhering to my old adage well known to the players that if you’re fighting the Indians you kill their chief, I asked Paul Ritchie to do ‘a close attention job’ on David Beckham. This he did very well but we were less successful with Scholes!  Unsurprisingly, after a defeat there are calls for the manager’s head. I recall that this was the case when Kevin Keegan resigned between double-header matches. I respect Kevin greatly and know he must have had his own reasons, but the thought of resigning never crossed my mind because I am a fighter and, particularly in adversity, gain strength to do what I think is right.

There was one particularly resourceful, but hurtful, piece of journalism and it came from Sky TV’s Pete Barraclough. Our team was staying overnight in the Marine Hotel, Troon and he asked me if I’d oblige with a one-to-one outside to give a different environment for the interview.  I declined and said that it would create a precedent and that he would have to speak to me during the allotted time in the hotel where I’d be seated in front of the sponsors’ backdrop.     

It was not often that I got the opportunity to see the result of my interviews in the evening but on this occasion, I saw Pete introduce his piece from the street just outside our hotel. He finished by saying, “And if Scotland don’t do much better at Wembley on Wednesday, it will be the end of the road for Craig.” At this juncture the camera left his head and shoulders shot and panned down to reveal that the name of the street was CRAIGEND ROAD. I must say I’m glad I didn’t accept the offer to conduct the interview in the street.

BOTN: You did get some redemption in the return leg though, winning it 1-0 thanks to Don Hutchison’s header.

We flew to London the next day and checked into our hotel on St Albans not far from the Arsenal Training Ground where, courtesy of Arsene Wenger, we were welcomed with open arms for our light training sessions. Manager Kevin, 2 goals up, announced his team in advance, something I never did because I always felt that “knowledge is power” and the least information available to the opponents the better. Kevin Gallacher’s injury and an earlier helpful piece of information from a manager colleague in Scotland prompted me to make a surprise selection up front.

Don Hutchison’s header gave Scotland victory in the second leg. (Goal build up begins at 0.40)

The late, great, Tommy Burns, was that man. I had asked Tommy, then manager of Kilmarnock, to take charge of Scotland ‘B’ team for a friendly game against Wales and afterwards requested advice on any player whom I should consider.  That’s why I played midfielder Don up front and, as he had done earlier in Germany where he scored the winning goal. The youngest player afield, Barry Ferguson, was outstanding in midfield and only a wonderful David Seaman save prevented Christian Dailly’s header taking us to extra time. Nevertheless, I have to admit that to beat both Germany (84m population) in Bremen and England (56m) at Wembley I consider my two best results in 50 unbeaten games of the 70 I was in charge of Scotland (5.5m).

BOTN: You have had spells as both a club manager as well as a national manager. It is often said that managing a national team is harder due to the limited time you have to work with the players in the run up to games. I would also assume that as a club manager you are constantly busy day in day out but as an international manager you will have periods of solitude between international games. Do you agree with this notion?

CB: Few would disagree that to manage one’s country is the pinnacle of any footballing career.  I’m honoured to be the longest serving Scotland manager with the national team and also have taken charge of more U21 matches than anyone else. In addition, I assisted Sir Alex Ferguson at the Mexico ‘86 World Cup and Andy Roxburgh in his 61 matches in charge of the senior national team. My 15-year stint with the Scottish FA also saw me take youth teams on occasion, the highlights being the FIFA World Cup Final in 1989 with the U16 team and the 1/4 Final of the FIFA U20 World Championship in 1987 in Chile and the semi-finals of the European Championship in 1992.

To have managed four excellent senior clubs has also been a great privilege……two league Championships in nine years with Clyde F C, two mid table Championship finishes with Preston North End F C, UEFA play-off round with Motherwell FC and relegation staved off, three cup semi-finals and two 13 game unbeaten runs with Aberdeen FC. In addition, I’ve served Fulham FC as International Representative and Derby County FC as football consultant.

Clyde manager Craig Brown with the Second Division trophy

BOTN: After leaving Scotland, as you just said you had spells at Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen before retiring from management in 2013 and becoming a non-executive Director at Aberdeen. That spell at Motherwell in particular was interesting as it was a return for you having been assistant there in the 70’s. You won back-to-back manager of the month awards and steered Motherwell to a top six finish yet only stayed a year before joining Aberdeen. What happened there and was there extra factors that persuaded you to leave and join Aberdeen?

CB: I have always had a great affection for neighbouring Lanarkshire Clubs, Hamilton and Motherwell but the fact that I was brought up in Hamilton meant that my early allegiance was to the Accies. However twice Motherwell have asked me to work for them in a coaching/ managerial capacity and on each occasion, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. On the first occasion in the mid ‘70s the league structure changed, and Willie McLean was the manager who offered me the job as assistant. From bottom of the 18-team league at Christmas we went on a fine run and got into the new top SPL in tenth position. Thereafter the Steelmen have consistently been a fine top team Club.

It was with considerable reluctance that the first time I left Motherwell where I was Number 2 was to become Manager at Clyde FC. The part-time role was more suitable there with part-time players, but I left the ‘Well with a heavy heart.

There came the surprise, emergency call 32 years later by which time I had finally, I thought, retired after my spell as Football Consultant at Derby County FC. The request to help out temporarily at Fir Park was irresistible and my colleague, Archie Knox, was equally pleased to join the club languishing a little in the lower echelons of the SPL.  We reintroduced some of the deposed senior players and propelled the team into Europe where, the following season, we reached the play-off stage.   

Knox (left) and Brown in the Aberdeen technical area

When we went to Pittodrie and comfortably won 3-0 an Aberdeen Director, Hugh Little, with whom I was friendly, asked in conversation, if I had signed a contract at Motherwell. I said that we had been offered a contract but had declined to commit and, in all honesty, it was absolutely nothing to do with the salary. There was a reference in the arrangement which clearly stated that I was to be in charge of the football operation with the exception of the U20 team, which was the sole responsibility of the youth coach, admittedly a superb exponent, Gordon Young. Anyone in the game would agree that my reluctance to agree to that was fully understandable. No revised document was forthcoming. Had there been one with the desired minor alteration, my loyalty is such that I’d never have considered an Aberdeen approach.

BOTN: What convinced you to make the switch?

My initial, impulsive, response to Aberdeen was to decline their approach but a ‘phone call from Sir Alex and another from Stewart Milne convinced me to meet the Aberdeen representatives, including Willie Miller, Director of Football, whom I knew. Archie Knox, too, extolled the virtues of AFC and my gut feeling, later to be confirmed, was that Stewart Milne was a great Chairman. I hadn’t too much of a decision to make because there was no renewed Motherwell attempt to make the minor alteration which would have made my contract offer suitably acceptable. So, having initially refused the invitation to meet, I soon had all the necessary arrangements made to accept the privilege of joining such a reputable Club with a tremendous support.      

The remit at Pittodrie was to save the Dons from relegation because they were anchored at the bottom of the league with 10 points from 16 games including a 0-9 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-5 at Tynecastle. This was accomplished and consolidation achieved but in spite of having impressive unbeaten runs and three semi-final appearances further progress proved difficult with the departure of five players to provide much needed income. The sale of Aluko, Maguire, Fyvie, Foster and Fraser and long-term injuries to Considine, Jack and Robertson didn’t help the cause but still in November of my second season we were one point behind league leaders, Celtic. I’m afraid that without income to enhance the playing staff mediocrity ensued, although when Archie and I retired we left a much-improved squad for the excellent incoming management team of Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty.

BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. What game that you were involved in stands out in your mind as a player and as a manager?

CB: The highest profile game in Scotland’s football history was generally acknowledged to be the opening game of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in Paris against the world champions, Brazil. I’ve already confirmed that my involvement as manager then was arguably the highlight of my protracted career. Incidentally, I feel that the eligibility rules for staff should be the same as that for players and that ‘foreigners’ shouldn’t be permitted in a back-room capacity. Having said that I contend that my successor with the Scotland team, Berti Vogts, was an inspired appointment. Any man who has won the World Cup as a player and the European Championship as a manager surely has an impeccable CV. It didn’t quite work out for Berti but the players at his disposal were, in my opinion, less good than their predecessors. Two other games in the memorable category are the victories in Germany and a England which I’ve already described.

Scotland line up to face Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup in France.

As a youth player my standard was very good but at the top level, following a succession of knee injuries, the word indifferent would be appropriate. The season when Dundee FC were champions of Scotland, I had a few ‘not bad’ performances. One of my better ones was in March 1962 at Celtic Park in Bobby Lennox’s first game when Billy McNeill was Celtic FC Man of the Match and I got the same accolade for Dundee FC. In the same game I made the mistake of talking to a fan who was berating me and complaining that it was a terrible game. When I said to him, “You’re the mug. You paid to get in.”  Quick as a flash he retorted, “But you’ll be payin’ next season!” The guy was nearly a prophet!!

BOTN: Which player gave you the most trouble as a manager?

CB: I’m fortunate I never had any serious problems with players. I that regard it’s easier with the international team as if there’s a disciplinary problem you leave the offending player out of the squad. At club level if he’s on contract you have to operate differently. I can’t remember fining a player for other than lateness and the fine income was halved between local charity and the Christmas night out.

Another interesting fact is that the big-name player is easier to control. Over the years people have said to me these millionaires must be hard to handle. My experience is the opposite. The bigger the star, the easier he is to deal with and there is no way you can please everyone so set, and insist on, the standards you want. I always remember the old Chinese proverb ……

If everyone thinks we’ll of you

It surely would be wise

To examine each facet of your life

And weed out compromise!

BOTN: If you could manage any team from the past, which team would it be and why?

CB: Without doubt the team I think any Scotsman would love to have managed is the first British team to win the European Cup. In 1967 Celtic beat Inter Milan in the final in Portugal resulting in the team affectionately being called the Lisbon Lions.  I played in that era, so I knew every one of the winning team – Simpson, Craig & Gemmill; Murdoch, McNeill & Clark; Johnstone, Wallace, Chalmers, Auld Lennox. Four extra players were in the squad – Gallagher, Hughes, McBride & O’Neill.  There was only a goalkeeping substitute permitted so John Fallon was on the bench.

Why the desire to manage that group?  Not only was every individual a player of quality who would have fitted into any ‘game plan’, each of the Lions was a really good person.  A look at the ability of each player would confirm that they could be moulded into any desired tactical formation, indeed into a variety if required within the same game. There were no prima donnas, and everyone knows that the legendary Manager, Jock Stein, wouldn’t have tolerated anyone who was inclined to get above his station.  Each and every one of that illustrious group had an unassuming manner and an inbuilt humility.

The European Cup winning Glasgow Celtic, also known as the Lisbon Lions.

An interesting fact is that all but one of the team, played in a grade of football in Scotland called Junior Football. This was a tough environment containing many men who had been reinstated from the senior level. Indeed, the man who scored the winning goal in the European final, Steve Chalmers, was aged 23 when he was signed by Celtic from Ashfield Juniors.

Another big attraction for me would be the lack of foreign players with their cultural and temperamental nuances. The entire Celtic team then, all on the same wage, incidentally, was from a 30-mile radius of Glasgow thus eliminating any translation issues and ensuring that the local humour was appropriate. Socially the players were friendly, and it’s well known that if that is the case they play better together as a team.  In short, knowing the favourable attitude of the receptive and modest group it would have been a privilege to work with the legendary Lisbon Lions.

BOTN: And which team currently?

CB: At the risk of being accused of contradicting myself I’ll admit that, hypothetically, the current team I’d love to manage is in complete contrast to the Lisbon Lions. It is full of expensive foreign signings. In the past Liverpool’s foreigners were from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Not now! Yes, there is Scotland Captain, Andy Robertson, a throwback to the Steve Nicol era, but almost the entire remainder of the squad comes from out with the UK. I confess, though, that such is the talent available, it would be a dream job to be in the shoes of Herr Jürgen Klopp!

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One on One with: Craig Brown (Part 1)

Thursday 13th November 2020 will be a date fondly remembered by most Scotland fans as it was the day that 22 years of hurt and disappointment came to an abrupt end. Having failed to qualify for any major international tournament since 1998, Scotland managed to beat Serbia in the final of the Nations League to secure their place at the European Championships next summer. The magnitude of this achievement and what it means to Scottish fans is hard to summarize. But if there was ever a man who could explain the significance of it, it would be the man who guided Scotland to its last major tournament, Mr. Craig Brown.

Brown managed Scotland for eight years, guiding them to both Euro 1996 in England and the 1998 World Cup in France where we played in the opening game against then holders Brazil. Those squads he built included Scottish icons like Colin Hendry, Gary McAllister, John Collins, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton, Paul Lambert and Ally McCoist and they sparked belief that not only would we qualify for tournaments but we would be able to compete as well. Under Brown, Scotland were well drilled, difficult to break down (with one of the meanest defences in world football) and fun to watch as a Scotland fan (albeit perhaps not against Morocco). It was a testament to Brown’s abilities as a manager that he continued to improve the side over his long reign as boss (over 70 international fixtures which is still a record today) and motivate them to compete as a unit rather than a collection of individuals with the common goal of qualifying for major tournaments.

Besides Scotland, Craig had a long career as a manager both in Scotland and England with spells at Clyde, Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen. We chatted with Craig recently in what turned out to be one of the most interesting and fascinating interviews that we have ever done, so much so that we have split it into two parts! We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Back Of The Net: Most fans remember you for your time as a manager but as a player starting out back in 1957 you were considered a hot prospect for the future. Unfortunately, a series of knee injuries would hold back your progression as a player. You did however play under some incredible managers like Scot Symon, who guided Rangers to six league titles and two Cup Winners Cup finals and Bob Shankly who took Dundee to the Division One Championship as well as to the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1963. What influence did these men have on your career and did they have any impact in you eventually becoming a manager?

Craig Brown: As a youngster brought up in Hamilton, I played most of my football for the school team, Hamilton Academy but I also played for Kilmarnock Amateurs U 18 team. I was doing well and was selected for the Scottish Schoolboys in 1956 with the late, great Billy McNeill (who was at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell,) in the team. The following year I still was of age, and I captained the team which included Alex Ferguson of Govan High School.  We beat England 3-0 at Celtic Park in my first game but lost 4-3 at Dulwich Hamlet the next year.  

I signed from school for Rangers FC and my ability, or lack of it, meant that I never played in the first team.  I was sent for a season for experience to Coltness United Juniors where I played well enough to be included in the Scotland Junior squad.  When ‘called up’ to Ibrox I had 18 months in the reserves but never threatened the two first team guys in my left-half position, Billy Stevenson, who was transferred to Liverpool, and the unconventional Jim Baxter. My lame excuse for my ineffectual performance at Ibrox was the knee injury I sustained which later required 3 operations, and a full replacement eventually. 

Brown signs for Rangers in July, 1958.

The manager of Rangers was Mr. Scott Symon.  You’ll notice I instinctively called him “Mr.”. That was quite normal sixty years ago whereas now “Boss” or “Gaffer” is the nomenclature used.  He was not a training ground coaching manager, but he was a thorough gentleman who commanded great respect.  The best adjective I’d use to describe him is ‘dignified’ and just a little distant from the younger players.  If he unconsciously influenced my career it would have been to confirm that it is no fault to be courteous and that kindness should never be mistaken for softness. 

BOTN: And what about Bob Shankly? That move to Dundee seemed to work for you as a player.

I went on a loan deal to Dundee at a time when loans were not fashionable and after 6 months was transferred outright to Dens Park where the manager was one of the famous Shankly brothers, the elder one, Bob. I did reasonably well there, well enough to earn a medal in 1962 when Dundee won the Scottish Championship using only 15 players in the process at a time when substitutes weren’t in vogue. Bob Shankly, like is brother, Bill, was a big influence on my career, but to copy his management style would be impossible.  He was inimitable.  He possessed a great football brain and a wonderful Ayrshire turn of phrase.  He never called me Craig. It always exalted me to the dirty by “Christ Craig”! Even after a good game he’d say, “Christ Craig, that wisney too bad today, son!” Describing an opponent, he’d say, “He tossed up with a sparrow for legs.  And the sparrow won.  So, take him from the knee doon, as one from eleven is ten!” I could never really use Bob Shankly as a role model as he was a one off, incomparable, but he had the admirable quality of honesty without which I deduced you cannot survive in the cut-throat world of professional football. These two managers I could never emulate but just hope some of their attributes lingered with me.

Brown jumping with teammate and goalkeeper Pat Liney to stop a Celtic attack at Celtic Park, 1962.

BOTN: You got your first taste of management as assistant manager of Motherwell in 1974 before taking over as manager of Clyde in 1977, albeit on a part time basis whilst still working as a primary school teacher. You had ten successful years with The Bully Wee, guiding them to the Second Division title in your first year in charge. What did you learn about management during those years that would help you as your career progressed?

CB: When my indifferent playing career ended prematurely, I was keen to use my SFA coaching qualification which I had taken while a pro player, latterly at Falkirk F C, where I experienced 3 managers, Alec McCrae, Sammy Kean and a former Scotland boss, John Prentice. Again, I had the opportunity to play under very different styles of leadership and, hopefully, learned a few does and don’ts along the way. Also, the team trainer was a man who did well managing Scotland, the legendary Willie Ormond.

Among those instructing and attending the superb SFA coaching courses were luminaries of Scottish football, men like Jimmy Bonthrone, Dick Campbell, Frank Coulston, Alex Ferguson, John Hagart, Archie Knox, Jim Leishman, Ross Mathie, Andy Roxburgh, Jocky Scott, Alex Smith, Walter Smith, and the three McLean brothers, Willie, Jim and Tommy.    

While working as a Lecturer at Craigie College of Education, I was privileged to be appointed as assistant manager of Motherwell FC by the oldest McLean brother, Willie. What Willie doesn’t know about the game is not worth knowing so that was a wonderful learning curve for me. Motherwell had a fine team in the first year of the new SPL, one good enough to knock Jock Stein’s Celtic, Kenny Dalglish and all, out of the Scottish Cup, having beaten Alex Ferguson’s St Mirren at Fir Park in the round before.  

After spending three years at Motherwell the first of my old pal’s acts found me appointed as manager of Clyde F C. Billy McNeill, a good friend from schools’ football had left his job at Clyde to go to Aberdeen F C and he recommended me to Clyde. The players were part-time, so it was a perfect job for me as I was able to continue my full-time lecturing work. The first of many lucrative sales from Clyde was to Billy at Aberdeen when he ‘stole’ Steve Archibald for £25,000 on New Year’s Day, 1978.  In spite of losing our best player halfway through the season we went on to win the 2nd Division Championship. Many other profitable sales such as Pat Nevin (£95,000), Tommy McQueen (£90,000), Joe Ward (£90,000), Gerry McCabe (60,000), Raymond Deans (£40,000), Brian Ahern (25,000), and Jim Kean (£25,000) augmented the attendance income and kept the Club in a healthy financial position.   

Steve Archibald signing for Aberdeen in 1978, much to the obvious disappointment of Brown.

It became apparent this early that club management involved much more than training and picking a team. The club balance sheet had to be considered and man management of players was important especially as, unlike full-timers, they were not wholly dependent on you for a living.   

BOTN: I’ve heard that a few times that many people believe a manager is just picking the team at the weekend and not much more but there is and always has been so much more to the role. Moving on, In 1986 you became Scotland’s assistant manager working along-side manager Andy Roxburgh and together you guided the country to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and Euro 1992 in Sweden. In both tournaments, Scotland finished 3rd, winning once and losing the other two. Regardless, being assistant manager to your countries national team must have been quite the honour. How did that come about?

CB: While still at Clyde I received a phone call at the College where I was employed from Alex Ferguson. He said, “Broon, how would you like the holiday of a lifetime? I’ve been asked (after the tragic death of Jock Stein) to take the Scottish team to the World Cup in Mexico. I’d like Walter Smith, Archie Knox and you to join me as the coaching staff.  We have a minimum of 3 games to play, but we won’t let that interfere with our enjoyment!”. When I said that I had a job during the month of June, Alex (he wasn’t Sir then) suggested I asked for unpaid leave of absence.  Old pal’s act yet again!  Arguably, this was my greatest honour during my career. To be asked, while not working at the top club level, by the best manager on the planet, to join his staff was a tremendous accolade so, having been granted absence at a time when student classes were running down for the summer break, I was on my way to the altitude training camp at Santa Fe in New Mexico.

BOTN: Working for Sir Alex must have been interesting?

Being on the coaching staff under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson was a tremendous experience for me and also dispelled the late “hair dryer” myth as in the entire campaign I never once heard him even raise his voice. He spoke in a conversational manner, but there is no doubt these high-level players listened intently to every word. 

After the three World Cup 1986 games, when Alex was disinclined to continue the Scotland job, preferring to remain at club level with Aberdeen, Andy Roxburgh was an inspired appointment by the SFA. Having had 9 enjoyable years with Clyde, Andy approached me to be his assistant. I accepted and football, not teaching/lecturing, became my life. I was used to being in charge of a team, so I was given sole charge of the Scotland U 21 team while assistant with the national team. It was possible then as the qualification fixtures matched in those days, the U 21s always played the same opposition the night before the full international.

Brown was part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s backroom staff at the 1986 World Cup.

BOTN: Scotland narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro ’88 by two points after starting the group badly but did reach the 1990 World Cup. How did you prepare for that tournament?

Andy did very well continuing the World Cup qualification successes of the past.  He took Scotland to Italy in 1990 where his preparation, as always, was meticulous.  The technical and medical staff received weekly lessons in basic Italian from a teacher who taught at nearby Hollywood Secondary School. We saw the problem of having a full-scale proper practice match with injuries, and fatigue, in Mexico, so we persuaded the SFA to permit us to invite 6 youth international players to supplement the squad. 

The preparatory trip to the USA was excellent and our facilities in Rapallo near Genoa were superb. They were not new to the squad because Andy arranged a visit a couple of months before the World Cup to enable the players to acclimatise. We took the projected group to stay in the team hotel and watch the highly charged local derby between Genoa and Sampdoria. 

Weeks later, via a short spell in nearby Malta and a low-key friendly against Norway, we went back to our Hotel Bristol in Rapallo ready for the opening game against Costa Rica.

We were accused of underestimating our opponents but that was a bit unfair as they had a good qualification record and some fine individual players. Had the normally reliable Maurice Johnston not missed a couple of great chances the famous Tartan Army would have been less disappointed at the one goal defeat. But condemnation it was!     

BOTN: How did you and Andy pick the team up and get them motivated for the Sweden after that defeat to Costa Rica?

I’m not without bias but I believe Andy did a great job lifting morale in the five days before our next match against Sweden at the same venue.  Training was lively, with a good bit of humour, and our video analyst, Brian Hendry, produced amusing material on the screen out with, before and after, official squad meetings. The players, without the prevalence of today’s social media and mobile phones, were a bit isolated from the harsh criticism until, on the way to the stadium there was a huge, harsh banner which read “P45 for ROXBURGH”. The fact that Andy laughed and took it so well undoubtedly helped the atmosphere in the team coach and in the dressing room immediately before the match.  The great team spirit was evident in a fine display with a popular guy, Stuart McCall, scoring the winning goal.

Scotland’s failure to beat Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup was a bitter blow for Scotland’s management team of Roxburgh and Brown.

BOTN: Next up was that difficult match against Brazil right?

Yes, and to lose the final group match against Brazil was not in any way an embarrassment as the game, watched by 62,502, was extremely close against one of the best teams in the world. The only goal was scored by sub, Muller, who came on for Romario, in the 82nd minute as he latched on to a rebound following Jim Leighton’s great save.

BOTN: It must have been disappointing to be knocked out but reaching the Euro’s two years later must have made up for that.

With only eight teams qualifying it was a remarkable achievement by Andy Roxburgh to ensure that Scotland qualified for their first ever European Championship in Sweden in 1992.  

BOTN: When Roxburgh quit a year later in 1993, you were promoted to manager of the national team. Over the next 8 years, Scotland qualified for the Euro ’96 in England and the World Cup ’98 in France which ended up being the last major tournament that Scotland would qualify for up until recently when a 22-year wait was ended with qualification to Euro 2020. There must be a lot of special memories and moments during those 8 years in charge that you look back on.

CB: From 1986 until 1993 when I was surprised to be appointed manager of the national team, I had been working successfully with all Scotland squads. The indefatigable and talented Ross Mathie was in charge of the U18 And U16 teams but when the FIFA U16 World Cup was being played in Scotland I was asked to take charge of the team with Ross as my colleague.  I had known his outstanding capabilities well as he had been with me at Clyde, so it came as no surprise that all the youngsters under his charge were brilliantly coached and schooled in good behaviour and extreme courtesy. Having qualified from a difficult group we beat Germany in the quarter final at Aberdeen, the Carlos Quieroz coached Portugal at a sell-out Tynecastle in the semi-final but lost on penalty kicks after extra-time to Saudi Arabia at Hampden in the Final with a 52,000+ attendance. Second in the world was a creditable achievement as was sixth two years earlier in the FIFA U20 World Championship in Chile when, again, we failed with a retaken penalty against West Germany in the quarter final.

Scotland almost became World Champions in 1989. Despite leading 2-0 with Paul Dickov (above) on the scoresheet, Scotland lost the final to Saudi Arabia on penalties.

Our success was replicated during this period because with Tommy Craig my fine colleague, we reached the semi-final of the UEFA U21 championship in 1992, having beaten Germany at a packed Pittodrie in the quarter final following an away draw in Bochum. The one goal defeat by Sweden over two legs in the semi-final was, again, a praiseworthy accomplishment. So, at youth level in top competition we had been in a quarter final, semi-final and final of prestigious events and, as assistant, had been involved in two qualifications, WC Italy ‘90 and Sweden Euro ‘92, at senior level.

I suspect that my involvement in these successes had quite a bit to do with my unexpected appointment, especially since big names such as Dalglish, Ferguson, Bremner, Miller, McQueen, Jordan, Strachan and Souness were being touted. I was asked to be in interim charge for the final two qualifying games, the first being away from home in the Olympic Stadium, Rome, against Italy who had the incentive of going to the FIFA World Cup Finals in the USA if they were to beat us. Unwittingly I made a controversial selection by playing Dave Bowman in place of Paul McStay. This was because I wanted to eliminate their main man, Roberto Baggio. I watched the Italian warm-up, undertaken in the double penalty box sized area below the main stand and was hugely impressed, but not surprised, at the high tempo of the workout.  The sweat was even pouring down Baggio’s ponytail.  

In spite of my severe warning to our players about early concentration in front of a packed crowd (61,178) we were a goal down in four minutes when Donadoni shot past Bryan Gunn from the edge of our box. I was looking for a hole to jump into in the Olympic track 12 minutes later when Casiraghi angled a shot into our net. 74 minutes left to play, and we were two down against one of the best teams in the world who were eventually only beaten on penalties by Brazil in the WC final months later. Although Kevin Gallacher got a goal back, we lost the game but played admirably.

BOTN: Not a terrible result based on this. That Italian squad was full of quality players.

CB: Indeed. The final match of the campaign was also away from home against Malta a month later. There was a month of speculation about who was to be the next manager with the SFA in no rush to make an appointment and I was one of the least favoured candidates with 8% of the fans’ votes. Kenny Dalglish had the best amount, polling 28%, then Alex Ferguson had 21%, with Gordon Strachan third. The fact that the best manager on the planet had only 21% of the votes helped me when I was questioned because I could say with complete candour that if 79% of the Tartan Army didn’t want Alex Ferguson, I couldn’t give much credence to the poll. 

Anyway, while in Malta the day before the 2-0 victory the then SFA Chief Executive, Mr Jim Farry, invited me to his room where I was met by the Chairman of the International Committee, and Chairman of St Mirren FC, Mr Yule Craig, who offered me the job. I was pleased to accept and the next day before the match SFA President, Mr Bill Dickie of Motherwell FC came to the dressing room and informed the players. It was reassuring to hear that there was spontaneous clapping among the players and staff. I don’t know if all would be clapping months later when harsh squad selection had to be made in an attempt to qualify for Euro 96. My first official Scotland team was: Jim Leighton, Alan McLaren, Colin Hendry, Brian Irvine, Ray McKinnon, Ian Durrant, Gary McAllister, Billy McKinlay, Pat Nevin, Ian Ferguson, Kevin Gallacher, and the subs used were Tom Boyd and Scott Booth.

Craig Brown was selected as Scotland manager in 1993.

I must admit that I was threatened by the man in charge of the SFA at the time, Mr Jim Farry, for whom I had great respect in spite of a few contentious moments such as when I selected an ineligible player, Everton’s Matt Jackson, for the Under 21 team. 

BOTN: How did he threaten you?

The threat? “The Euro ‘96 Championship is next door in England. We must be there! If not, you’ll be sacked!”  

We were there after a successful qualifying campaign when in 10 matches we lost only 3 goals in a group comprising Finland, Faroe Islands, Russia, Greece, and San Marino. Our preparatory trip to the USA was excellent. We were visited by Rod Stewart who invited the entire squad to his concert in the Madison Square Gardens. We joined the 17,000 inside the arena and around 5,000 outside clamouring for tickets. Rod even invited the lads on stage during the show, the second half of which he performed wearing a Scotland team jersey to the great delight of the enthusiastic crowd. The next day he joined us in training and proved he was no mean footballer.

Prior to our return flight to London we were advised that the England team, preparing in Hong Kong, has got a few drinks too many and Gazza was photographed in a dentist’s chair with drink being poured down his throat. There were stories of damage to the aircraft which, if true, would have been exaggerated. Anyway, I warned our guys about our behaviour as I was concerned that some English based press would maybe want to even things up. We went on to the flight dressed immaculately, changed into tracksuits for the journey, then returned to the blazer etc with all ties worn properly. I always recall Ally McCoist saying to me when we landed at Gatwick and the paparazzi were there in numbers, “I can see the headline tomorrow. Scots in sober sensation!”

BOTN: That does sound like McCoist. Euro ’96 was a spectacular tournament to be involved in though.

CB: The Euro ‘96 tournament has been well documented, highlighting our genuine misfortune to miss out so narrowly while giving credit to Gazza for a wonderful goal when we were well on top with 8 corners to England’s 2 and the lion’s share of possession, and sympathy to Gary McAllister for his penalty miss.

BOTN: Let’s talk about France ’98 for a moment. The squad you took to the tournament was incredibly strong yet there was no place for your goal scorer against Switzerland at Euro 96, Ally McCoist. You also lost Andy Goram three weeks before the tournament began after he decided to pull out as he believed he wouldn’t start ahead of Jim Leighton. Both players were in the latter stages of their careers but had impressive seasons in the run up to the tournament. How much did their absence have an effect on how the team performed in France?

CB: Austria, Sweden, Latvia, Belarus and Estonia stood between us and a place in the World Cup Finals in France in the summer of 1998. Once again, our team excelled in the ten qualification matches, again losing only three goals. Significantly, too, the man who missed the penalty against England volunteered confidently to take our next penalty. It turned out to be a crucial one in Minsk to give us a 1-0 win against Belarus at a difficult away venue.  We lost only one match, in Sweden, and were pleased to get to another nearby location, France, for the World Cup.  

The host country, France, who didn’t have to qualify, were seeking friendly fixtures and asked if Scotland would be interested. I agreed, never thinking we were to play the eventual winners, provided we could play at one of the potential World Cup venues. So, in November we went to St Etienne to play a really formidable French side. We were a goal down at half time and I remember just after the interval asking Ally McCoist to warm up as I had it in my mind to replace Gordon Durie. While Ally was preparing himself to a standard such that his pulse count, as checked by physio, Eric Ferguson, would be acceptable to join the fray, Gordon scored one of the best goals I’ve seen from a Scotland player. Now when a player has scored, I always feel he’s on a high and the goal is twice the size, so as the circumstances had altered, I changed my mind and said to Ally that we’d leave it meantime.   Quite spontaneously, the genuinely jocular response was, “Durie, one goal in six years! Prolific, f—-ing prolific!”   And with a smile and no rancour he returned to his seat. We lost 2-1 to Zinedine Zidane and Co and had four other friendlies, against Denmark and Finland, then Colombia and the host country as part of our preparation camp in the USA.

BOTN: Is that when Goram decided to leave?

Squad selection was my next major task, and it was simplified a little when Andy Goram told me in New Jersey that he had to return home for personal reasons. There was suspicion that he had gone because he know that Jim Leighton would be first choice in France. This was totally wrong because the goalkeeper incumbent hadn’t been decided by Alex Miller, Alan Hodgkinson and me. In fact, I’m still in possession of the delightful letter Andy wrote explaining his decision and wishing best wishes to Jim Leighton and the entire squad.

The other contentious issue concerned the fact that I omitted two Euro ‘96 stalwarts from the squad. Before announcing the final group, I met both Stuart McCall and Ally McCoist to explain their omission. Not the most pleasant of tasks I must admit! Let me admit, I don’t think for a minute I got every decision correct regarding selection!

The decision by Brown not to select Ally McCoist or Stuart McCall for the 1998 World Cup was seen by many fans as a mistake.

BOTN: Really? What makes you think that now?

To have to play the world champions, Brazil, in the opening game was, for me and most of Scotland, a mouth-watering prospect. Such was the appeal of the fixture tickets were like gold dust and many personalities, including Tony Blair, Rod Stewart and Sean Connery, were in attendance. Our warmup was indoors because of the opening ceremony and that’s my lame excuse for conceding a goal in four minutes. I was proud of many aspects of our operation that day – our immaculate appearance turning up in the kilt, the respect for the playing strip with every jersey inside the shorts, stockings identical, the response by singing the anthem, and most of all our playing performance nullifying the potent threat of Ronaldo in particular. The 2-1 win I think flattered a very good Brazil team and left us with justifiable optimism for the next two matches.

BOTN: Those two being against Norway and Morocco.

Yes, A fine goal by Craig Burley from a Davie Weir assist, gave us a draw we thoroughly deserved in Bordeaux against Norway setting up the St Etienne decider against the African champions, Morocco, a football mad country with a 36 million population. A fair amount of criticism has been directed in our direction for that 3-0 “humiliation”. I refute that entirely. I’m accused of being a statistics guy, but I maintain that the stats are factual. The official FIFA report has Scotland in front in every respect except goals scored: corners 6 – 1, offside 3 – 4, shots 22 – 14, fouls 13 – 18, possession too………. and this is playing most of the second half without Burley who received a red card.

To be continued.

For part 2, click here

Talking Heads – Discussing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on football

With the world crippled by the COVID 19 pandemic, global football has come to a grinding halt as countries focus on trying to contain the disease. To date, 39,000 people have lost their lives and just over 800,000 have been affected by the virus; with those numbers unfortunately growing by the day. The hope is that with government driven measures being introduced at a country by country level, the spread of the disease can be slowed enough to give the health care workers on the front line enough time to support those who are currently sick and the medical community time to find a viable treatment.

Like most industries, the football world is feeling the effects of the global shutdown. Clubs who have stopped operating for now have had to make drastic cuts to stay afloat with many laying off ground and administrative staff in the process. At some of the larger clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona, players have accepted temporary pay cuts in an attempt to help the club staff not on the pitch. But for other players who play in the lower divisions and operate on a pay check to pay check basis, its a more worrisome time with a very uncertain future ahead of them.

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Rhys McCabe and Maurice Ross answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

To get a better sense of how the situation is affecting the football world, we spoke to Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe. Caldwell is a former Scotland international defender who is the president of League1 Ontario club Oakville Blue Devils FC, as well as an assistant coach of the Canadian national team. Fellow internationalist Ross is working as first team coach at Motherwell in Scotland whilst former Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland Under 21 midfielder Rhys McCabe currently plays for Brechin City in the Scottish League Two. We spoke to them about the current situation, how it’s affecting football and what the future holds.

BOTN: Let’s go to Rhys first. Tell is about the current situation regarding your existing contract and what the league suspension means for you.

McCabe: My current situation is that my short term contract is meant to finish at the end of May, start of June. But I can’t think about that for now. The (league) suspension I feel is right as 100% of the focus must be on the health and wellbeing of everyone. Until we get this pandemic under control, nothing else matters.

There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment. Are they finishing this season? Will delays mean more games and more into next season? Will there be a new league structure?. There are lots of components which will play a role. Already its been three weeks without sport and people are in a pickle with what to do. Sport is a huge part of our society and without that people feel lost.

BOTN: Maurice, as first team coach at SPL side Motherwell, how are you feeling about the current situation and the suspension of the league?

Ross: Like all football people we like to be outdoors and competing. This of course is not the case due to the virus. I’m so bored. Plenty long walks and lying in bed a bit longer is no substitute for getting up and going to work! I miss that so much! Planning sessions, correcting movements of players and just that feeling of achieving something each day. Sooner this is resolved the better.

BOTN: Is the club concerned about the uncertainty of the suspension and the financial implications?

Ross: The club are doing all the planning possible to forecast what the future looks like depending on when/if we get back to playing. We are lucky we are in a relatively good position financially just now but we know there will be challenges ahead, so we will rely on our fans to help us through joining the Well Society or buying season tickets soon.

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

BOTN: Steven, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what will happen to the existing league and cup campaigns in the various different countries. How would you resolve the league situations?

Caldwell: The leagues have to be finished in my opinion. There is no way you can start a new season until the previous one has been concluded. The knock on affect might be a modified 2020/21 season but it’s my belief the previous one has to be brought to a conclusion whenever that may be.

Ross: From our (Motherwell) prospective, we will follow the advice and decisions of government and football authorities. Obviously we are third and in a European position so we would want the season to be played to a completion if there was any way at all possible, but we will accept whatever people say because this is bigger than football – it’s people’s health!

BOTN: What impact do you think this enforced break will have on the players mentally and physically? If the league is to restart at a point in the future, will players be able to pick up from where they left off with ease?

Caldwell: I don’t think they will be able to pick up with ease. There is no doubt it will have an affect. Normally at this time of the season teams are in their peak and rhythm is at its optimal point. I think it may have a pre season feel when it resumes. The players will be affected mentally and physically however I don’t see this being a great problem when the season continues.

McCabe: This pandemic is and will have a huge impact on players as its almost like an off season schedule. To then come back into things fully committed and ready when your body on a normal basis would have a 5 week period to do a pre season and prepare for the demands of a season. The risk of injury will be higher and no matter how much you train and keep fit during this time there is nothing that compares to match sharpness. Nothing in a training format can replicate this . That’s just a fact.

On the mental side, I feel it will have an impact on players but not just players; society as a whole. For over 30+ years there has been a culture of “football Saturday” where people look forward to and live for the weekend of football, wherever that may be home or away or a simple match on the tv. It’s become more social every season with the media and Sky broadcasting live matches.

This all has a knock on effect as people will be lost with nothing to do or look forward to. Trying to fill that void will be very hard but the priority 100% is the health and safety and trying to get this under control.

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Footballer like Lionel Messi and Marcelo have been keeping themselves busy in home isolation by juggling toilet rolls

BOTN: The financial implications of this pandemic will be felt throughout all levels of football with several reports suggesting clubs could go bust as a result. Do you think this will happen or is it up to FIFA or local governing bodies to stop this?

Caldwell: There is an enormous money in the game of football. Now it’s up to those that have to provide that assistance to make sure all forms of the game are protected. I sincerely hope that this happens and this unprecedented crisis creates an understanding of what truly makes this game beautiful.

BOTN: Let’s focus on the players for a moment. There will be a lot of players who are looking towards this summer with much trepidation due to the need to move clubs or indeed find a new one if their contracts run out. Do you anticipate that players will be expected to make personal sacrifices as football gets back on its feet following this pandemic?

Caldwell: Yes I think players will make personal sacrifices. They will have to. The intricacies and knock on effect of this is wide reaching and it will certainly have an impact on those who are becoming a free agent in the summer. It’s hard to tell at this moment however I think it will have a detrimental impact financially for such players.

BOTN: Rhys, your contract is up at the end of the season. How concerned are you about this summer when your contract concludes especially as it’s still unknown when the football season will resume?

McCabe: Concerned may be the word for a lot of people out of contract with Bill’s to pay and no job to do so, but for me it’s more about the love for it and when it will actually commence and what exactly the structure and format is going to be?

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With many players out of contract, the fast approaching summer brings further uncertainty.

BOTN: Has your club (Brechin City) been one touch with you about renewing your contract or given you any reassurances?

McCabe: With what’s going on, it hasn’t been spoken about as I would imagine the list of to dos at the club are through the roof. I’m only contracted until the end of May regardless so I will see what my options are then.

BOTN: Maurice, Are Motherwell making contingency plans for the various different scenarios and what will happen to players and staff out of contract in the summer?

Ross: I can’t comment on the final question as I am not privy to the ins and outs of all contracts. However this football club always behaves in an ethical and professional manner so I’m sure whatever happens Motherwell will act accordingly.

BOTN: There is clearly a lot of unknowns about what will happen and what decisions will come as a result. This leads us to the question around communications. Let’s start with you Rhys. Have you had any communications from the PFA Scotland about what’s happening long term?

McCabe: The PFA Scotland have been updating the players on a regular basis with knowledge, advice, help and updates they hear through the governing body. Again it’s hard at the moment because there is no definite answer on how to treat this and until the government have a plan in place we have to wait. But they have been great with regular updates and support.

BOTN: Finally Steven do you think FIFA and UEFA have been vocal enough during this pandemic or do you think they are leaving the decisions primarily to the local federations?

Caldwell: I think there is so much uncertainty that Uefa and FIFA don’t know what to say at the moment. I think they are concerned about giving definitive details and then having to go back on them. By mid to late April we will have a better understanding of how long this realistically is going to take and that’s when both organizations have to step up and be decisive with their actions.

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One on One with: David Robertson

For any manager, moving to a foreign country that you know little about can be a challenge. Going in, having to build a team from scratch and being successful in your first season is almost impossible. But for former Scotland defender David Robertson it has become reality. The Aberdeen, Rangers and Leeds left back moved to India at the start of 2017 and transformed the fortunes of Real Kashmir FC by guiding them to the league title and promotion to India’s top league. It’s a million miles away from where it all started for him as a marauding full back in some of the most successful sides in Scottish football in the 80’s and 90’s.

We chatted to David recently to find out more about his career, his adventures in the US and how he masterminded that title success in his debut season as a manager in India.

Back Of The Net: You broke through into the first team at Aberdeen in 1987, aged 17, and played in a defence that included Alex McLeish, Willie Miller and Stewart McKimmie. How much did that trio of players help you learn your trade as a defender in those early days? Miller was described by Alex Ferguson as the best penalty box defender in the world. Would you agree with that statement?

David Robertson: Yes, Willie Miller was a great penalty box defender but his reading of the game was incredible. He and Alex McLeish were incredible to play alongside and with me being 17 playing regularly they were a huge help. Willie was the grumpy one that would shout at me, Alex was the encouraging one, and between the two they both helped me with their different styles of helping me. Stewart McKimmie was great too and helped me as a young player and gave me advice on how to handle being a young player in a top team both on and off the pitch. Two players that really helped me on my early days was Peter Weir and Billy Stark. They often gave me advice on how to get better; Peter encouraged me to forward and overlap him, and he would fill in for me. As a young player I made mistakes and he always encouraged me.

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Playing for Aberdeen, Robertson outpaces Paul McStay of Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Aberdeen had some tremendous players during those years you spent there including Jim Bett, Jim Leighton, Eion Jess and Hans Guilhaus to name a few. Is there someone who really stood out at that time, who you learned from the most?

DR: Ability wise and being underestimated Jim Bett was an incredible player, he never gave the ball away and his vision was incredible. He used his body so well to keep possession.

BOTN: In 1991, you transferred to Rangers and became an important part of the club who won nine titles in a row. You also picked up six domestic cups and played in the Champions League. It was your most successful and consistent spell as a player. How enjoyable was it playing for the club at that time? How difficult was it as a team to maintain the same performance levels season after season as you closed in on nine in a row?

DR: I always say about my time at Rangers in a very successful era was that I took it for granted and I wish I could re-live it and appreciate the experience. It was a great time, fun and very successful. I think winning what we did tended to be more of a relief than enjoyable. At Rangers at the time every game you had to win, every cup and championship you had to win. Many players go through their career not winning anything and some one or two trophies. I won 14 national trophies in Scotland and I wish I enjoyed them more. I look back now and I think what a career I had and how lucky I was.

BOTN: How difficult was it as a team to maintain the same performance levels season after season as you closed in on nine in a row?

DR: I found it personally easy to motivate for each season. I took each game as a bonus as I knew at the time Rangers could buy anyone to replace me. I think Walter Smith was great as he kept adding 2 or 3 top players each season to keep the hunger and competition for places high.

Robertson keeps an eye on Celtic's John Collins during an Old Firm derby (Image from Tumblr)

Robertson keeps an eye on Celtic’s John Collins during an Old Firm derby (Image from Tumblr)

 

BOTN: Former Rangers captain Richard Gough said that the team that drank together, won together. How important was it to the success of the club that the players bonded away from the training ground? Do you believe that is still the case today that a club that is close off the pitch will have success on it?

DR: It was so important, we had some great characters that made it enjoyable and fun to go to work. McCoist, Ian Ferguson and Ian Durrant made this dressing room lively. I think it was the fact that there were big name players there but no one thought nor acted like they were better than any other player. We had some great times on and off the field.

Over the years coaching I find the team bond and togetherness is the secret for success and that is how we won the I league 2 and how were are doing so well. You can have the best players in the world but if there is no team spirit it is tough to be successful. Look at Leicester City who had a real team spirit and belief. Look at Liverpool. You just have to watch Jürgen Klopp to see he has a happy team. He is a lively character and it rubs off on the players, and that is how they are winning: through a happy environment.

BOTN: Where would you place Walter Smith in terms of the best managers you have worked for? Do you think your management style mirrors his in any way?

DR: Yes, Walter Smith without a doubt, he had everyone playing for him and Archie Knox. His man management was incredible, kept everyone happy and was never ruffled and never showed he was carrying any pressure to the players. He was the same all the time. Would have a go at you if you deserved it. I had Archie for a long part of my career at Aberdeen and Rangers. Alex Ferguson was great also when I was 14 until I was 18 when he left for Manchester United but I was probably too young to appreciate his qualities

BOTN: A move to England followed with Leeds being your destination. Injuries however ravaged your time there and forced you to eventually retire. Was that a bitter way to end your playing career?

DR: I was excited about playing in the Premiership (Premier League), but after the first season I had a serious knee injury, and for the next 18 months I tried to make a comeback but there was too much damage in my knee. I was more disappointed that I did not play longer in the Premiership, but I enjoyed my time there. We stayed three more years in Yorkshire, as we loved the place and we have a lot of good friends there.

I started so young in the first team at Aberdeen and played a lot of games. They say on average a player will play around 500 pro games. I was just short of that so I can’t be too disappointed.

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David’s time in England with Leeds was hampered by a bad knee injury (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Surprisingly you made only three appearances for Scotland at senior level during your career. Why do you think this was? You surely offered a different option at left back than Tom Boyd or Maurice Malpas.

DR: It was frustrating that I did not play more for Scotland but I feel looking back on my career I would not change anything. At the time I was frustrated but playing for Rangers during the spell made up for it, as we played big games almost every week. To put the record straight the coaches at the time both Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown did a fantastic job and I have no complaints about not having more appearances. Those two led Scotland to the country’s last visits to major championships. At the time I decided I did not want to be a bit part or travel all over the world to sit in a stand or sit on a bench.

It may sound ungrateful or big headed, but I just wanted to focus on playing for Rangers and I felt being away and not playing would affect my confidence at Rangers. I knew Rangers could sign anyone they wanted so I had to be at my best to remain on the team. Anyone that knows me knows I’m not a big-headed person and that I’m down to earth and very reserved.

BOTN: After retiring you began your career in management with stints at Elgin and Montrose. You resigned from Elgin after four months as manager following a failed takeover bid of the club by Kenny Black. Did you believe your position was untenable after that failed bid?

DR: I was at Elgin for close to 3 years. At the time the takeover sounded exciting. I felt at the time the club maybe lacked ambition but years on when you take the passion (to do well) out of the situation, it was probably the best thing for the club to go it alone. There is not too much ability to sustain the ambition of a small club as it would need one individual to fund the club and that model is not sustainable long term. You just have to look at Gretna. At the time I did feel I could not continue. Maybe in hindsight I was too rash in my decision but at the time I believed in the opportunity for the club to progress.

BOTN: Eventually you moved to Phoenix where you stayed for ten years before moving to India. What drew you to the US and what did you gain from your time there?

DR: I enjoyed living in Phoenix as it’s where my children spent most of their lives and it’s a very fond place that we as a family love. After being at Montrose and Elgin City I did feel disillusioned with Scottish football which at the time what I thought was narrow minded and had no ambition. I felt it was time to move. But in reality, those clubs are for the local people to support and the custodians have a duty to be realistic and loyal to the local community. During my time there as a coach it made me the coach I am today.

I coached 3 teams so I had 12 training sessions per week and between 4 and 14 games per weekend so I could change things on the fly and experiment in real games which many coaches have one game per weekend and don’t have the bottle to change things. I eventually ran the whole club from managing 60 coaches, pay roll, board meetings, finances etc. I learned so much.

Robertson holds court at Phoenix FC try outs (Image from Rangers)

Robertson holds court at Phoenix FC try outs (Image from Rangers)

BOTN: It was in Phoenix that you met businessman Robert Sarver who attempted to buy Rangers after your recommendation. Do you think that was a missed opportunity by the club and are you surprised to see that he bought RCD Mallorca in the Spanish second division after his move for Rangers failed to materialize?

DR: I do think it was a big miss from Rangers, but the passion of supporters and board members/ shareholders were maybe concerned with an outsider taking control which I can understand. But I know Robert well and he is committed and has the opinion even though he is the owner, he is only a custodian and knows that the fans and shareholders vote with their feet no matter how much money an individual puts in. But I know he would have made the club back to where it was and push it on. He has invested vast sums of money into Real Mallorca.

BOTN: Let’s talk about your move to India. It’s quite a transition from Phoenix, Arizona to Srinagar, which is in Kashmir close to the border with Pakistan. How did that move come about? Did you have any hesitations in making that move given the stability of that region?

DR: I was approached by an agent. I had offers from China, Uganda and Real Kashmir. I chose Real Kashmir as it was a new club with no expectation and no vision, so I could start afresh and stamp my mark on it. To be honest I did no homework on India let alone Kashmir and I went into it blind.

BOTN: It’s an incredible achievement to win promotion in your debut season as manager but to do so with a club that was only formed 2 years previously makes it even more impressive. What do you put down as the reason behind that success?

DR: As I had to built a team a club basically from scratch in a county I was not familiar with, every player had to buy into what I was doing. I feel we play to the level of players we have and not try to play like Manchester City or Barcelona. Too many coaches I see around the world want to play pretty football with players that are not comfortable doing it. We are fitter than any team we have faced. I have taken a lot of the fitness exercises from my coach from Elgin and Montrose, Davy Johnston. Again, too many coaches rely on sports science which, some of it works, but players have to be mentally tough and keep going when other teams are tired. This is through real tough running sessions, to keep them going.

BOTN: Given all that you achieved as a player, how does that title rank amongst everything else you have won?

DR: It’s my greatest achievement in football for sure mainly because on the field every decision was mine and as the coach you are fully responsible for everything. As a player on a winning team you are only a small part of it.

Robertson (centre) walks his side through tactics during a Real Kashmir training session (Image from Tumblr)

Robertson (centre) walks his side through tactics during a Real Kashmir training session (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Football in India is having some serious issues with the I-League (Indian League) under threat following the decision not to broadcast 30 of the season’s games. There are also concerns about the financial stability of teams playing in the ISL (Indian Super League) and talk of those clubs potentially being moved into the I-League. It seems like a complex issue. How do you interpret what is going on and what do you see as the resolution?

DR: It’s tough to know what will happen because in India many decisions are last minute so it won’t be clear for some time. I do think the I-League is more exciting to watch and be a part of. The ISL games in my opinion are like exhibition games and lacks the passion.

BOTN: In a recent interview, you stated that the talent levels in India are high but it’s the lack of information that is holding football back. What did you mean by this? 

DR: I feel in Kashmir the talk is there but the players got no exposure until now. I do feel the influx of foreign players has helped the Indian players not only on the pitch but also off the pitch. As a result the players are now more professional than before. I have seen a big change in my two years here. It’s a bit like the USA in that it will take some time.

BOTN: Your son Mason has recently signed for the club and has hit the ground running. How far do you believe he can go in his career and how good does it feel to have him in India now with you?

DR: Mason can play multiple positions and, in my opinion, can play for any team in Scotland. He had managed to get himself so fit by being full time. He has lost over 18lbs as well. I think his stint in the USA in college soccer was not good in the telescope of fitness and physical training as I think it was geared more for American football. But having said that, he has worked so hard and it’s attracting a lot of attention from ISL and other Asian clubs. He has gaming pace and is one of the top players on this league.

Like Father, Like Son - Davis with his son, Mason (Image from Tumblr)

Like Father, Like Son – Davis with his son, Mason (Image from Tumblr)

BOTN: Finally, some quick hits. Best player you played with?

DR: At Rangers Brian Laudrup, just because I made the runs and 9 times out of 10 he gave me the ball, he was an incredible talent. Also Ian Ferguson, in my opinion was the most underrated Rangers player. I thought he was immense. At Aberdeen it has to be Peter Weir and at Leeds United it was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

BOTN: Hardest opponent to mark?

DR: You will find this hard to believe as I have played against Di Canio, Beckham, Giggs, Overmars, and Del Piero, but the player I struggled against the most was Ivo den Beiman. I first played against him in a pre-season game for Aberdeen against Montrose. He was at Montrose and he destroyed me. He seemed to follow me all over. He went to Dundee, Dunfermline and I seemed to always be playing against him. In one game I read he signed for Dunfermline and we were playing them the next day. I thought, “oh not him”. I don’t know what it was about him but I struggled every time against him.

BOTN: Who in your opinion is the outstanding Indian player in I-League right now?

DR: I’m not being biased but Mason is one of the top players. We also have a 6ft 7in striker (that teams can’t play against). There are many top foreign players here. As far as Indian players there is a player called Jobby Justin who in my opinion is the best Indian striker at present.

BOTN: Where do you see yourself in five years? Still managing in India?

DR: I would like to at some point coach in the UK but it’s tough to break in there. But Asia is great and I have enjoyed it and been looked after well. I have a good name here and won the AFC Coach of the Year so my reputation is high here.

BOTN: Thanks David and good luck for the rest of the season.

To find out more about David’s journey in India, check out the fantastic article in CNN or catch the BBC documentary “Real Kashmir FC” featuring David now on the IPlayer. You can also follow David’s progress on Linkedin and Twitter

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One On One with: Steven Caldwell

Football in its’ purest sense is about winning games and scoring goals. The need therefore for a quality striker is undeniable yet when it comes to building a team, most managers will build from the back with the belief that you keep a clean sheet and don’t concede then you stand a better chance of winning. Usually they turn to a formidable figure at centre half, one like our next interviewee, former Scotland defender Steven Caldwell. Over a 20 year playing career which saw Caldwell play for Newcastle, Birmingham, Burnley, Toronto FC and his national side, Caldwell became known as a no nonsense, reliable centre half who over the course of his career evolved into a natural leader both on and off the pitch.

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Now retired, Caldwell is using his knowledge and experiences in the game to forge ahead in his new career as an analyst for TSN in Canada where he now resides. I caught up with him recently in Toronto to discuss his time as a player, what it was like playing for Roberto Martinez and why he is looking forward to the World Cup in 2026. Enjoy!

Check out the full interview here:

With thanks again to Steven Caldwell. Check out Steven on TSN or on Instagram and on Twitter.

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One On One with: Maurice Ross

The opinions of Maurice Ross are split between Glasgow Rangers fans. The majority view him as a product of the club’s youth development team who broke into the first team and gave his all for the shirt. Others peg him as a player who was out of his depth in a team full of stars. The player himself admits that he knew he didn’t have the same level of talent that some of his teammates had, but he still approached the challenge much like he has approached his entire career – with a will and determination to succeed. Being catapulted into that team at such an early age was both beneficial and detrimental to the player’s career prospects.  He learned from the best, day in day out, but in doing so he set the benchmark so high that it was almost impossible to replicate or reach as his career progressed. Wishing his career had happened in reverse is a strong indication of that high benchmark. Regardless of your opinion, his career stats say a lot. Ross played for Rangers over 80 times, winning several domestic honours in the process, which rightly earned him 12 international caps for Scotland. He also played in several countries across the world as he developed both as a player and as a person. Now as a manager with a growing reputation, Ross is using his experiences as a player to his own benefit and to the benefit of those who play for him. We sat down with him recently to find out more.

BackOfTheNet: Let’s start at the beginning with Glasgow Rangers. You signed for the club as a trainee before eventually breaking into the first team, partly under Dick Advocaat, but more when Alex McLeish took over. As a younger player coming into that squad, how did you cope with the pressure of playing in front of 50,000 people at Ibrox each week?

Maurice Ross: It’s sounds really strange but because I had been traveling to Glasgow three times a week playing and training with Rangers since I was 13 years old you are somewhat indoctrinated. I remember guys like Alex Hosie and John Chalmers preaching to us with the all familiar ‘no one likes us we don’t care’ on a daily basis. We were bred to believe we were better than everyone else, even Celtic. I was never one blessed with masses of talent but I was very quick and a brilliant reader of the game. When we trained at the Astro turf we had around 3,000 people watching us, so even at 13, you’re being put into situations that have you perform under pressure and great numbers of folks watching. So, when it came to the stadium being full in a competitive game, it was actually ‘normal’. It’s a sensational feeling running out to 50,000 Rangers fans. Nothing can ever replace that. I miss it.

BOTN: Were there times when you had doubts about your ability to perform at that level?

MR: I doubted my ability on a daily basis, to be honest, but John Brown, who I give much credit in my mental development, encouraged me to suppress any doubt and show no weakness, which at times would be hidden behind a cloak of bravado. How could I not have doubted myself in a backdrop of Murray Park playing with Ronald De Boer, Barry Ferguson and Claudio Cannigia? I was not even close to these guys but I had to somehow compartmentalize my negative thoughts and focus on what I was good at! Which was giving it to the good players, running all day, fighting like hell and delivering crosses from wide areas. Long passing, dribbling etc. were not my thing so I focused on the strengths I had.

BOTN: In past interviews, you talked about receiving your football education from the Rangers training session you took part in and working daily as you mentioned with the likes of De Boer, Caniggia, Ferguson, Jorg Albertz and Lorenzo Amoruso, to name a few. Is there one player in particular who took you under his wing and helped you develop as a player?

MR: There isn’t one individual that I can say I learned more from or took me under their wing, but I do hold Craig Moore in high esteem because of his manner and how he conducted himself as a man. He also had limited talent set but he was class. I was close with Ronald De Boer and Shota Arveladze whom I still have contact with today. These guys, along with Jan Wouters, altered my typical Scottish way of thinking, and I believe these guys, along with the other top internationalists, taught me “proper football”.

BOTN: How important was it for you as a younger player to be exposed to these guys on a daily basis?

MR: My way of thinking is simple. You train with these boys 280 days a year, yet you only play 40 games. Where is it most probable you will learn the most? Of course, it’s in training. I loved training with these guys. It was a pleasure. An education. I will never forget the chance Dick Advocaat and Alex McLeish gave me. Alex and I had a somewhat tempestuous relationship which is mostly down to my immaturity and lack of self-belief, but he still played me in four cup finals, which I’m eternally grateful. He has given me the greatest gift ever. I can proudly say I am a treble winner for one of the biggest clubs in the world. I say that with a smile on my face.

Ross gives his all in an Old Firm match against Celtic (image from Maurice Ross)

BOTN: Eventually it was time to move on from Rangers, and despite a failed move to West Ham that you were keen on, you eventually did move to England in 2005, first with Sheffield Wednesday, then Wolves and Millwall. It’s fair to say your time down there didn’t go quite to plan. Looking back now, were there reasons why it didn’t work out?

MR: The West Ham move fell through because Chris Burke got injured in a session when I was in the training park just about to sign for West Ham. Martin Bain pulled me back up the road and Alan Pardew didn’t take too kindly to it and pulled out of the deal. Boom. Football can be that cruel at times. Then my agent called me that summer and asked me if I was ready to travel to Wolves, as I was second choice right back behind Jackie McNamara, but “they would never get the Celtic captain”. Celtic stalled on the deal and he signed a three-year deal there that could have easily been mine and it would have altered my career. Sod’s law, Jackie injured his crucial ligament and two months later Wolves are on the phone again asking me to come in for a season. Once he was back fit they also had two young lads coming through, so there was no justification for Glenn Hoddle to sign me when he has his main guy back fit and two backups. Again circumstantial!

BOTN: Would you have done anything differently?

MR: At Millwall, I just couldn’t settle. It was just not what I was brought up with and I couldn’t leave quick enough.

BOTN: Before you left Rangers, you made your international debut for Scotland against South Korea during the Berti Vogts era. Vogts was heavily criticized for his approach while he was Scotland’s manager, but he did manage to blood a lot of players who would play pivotal roles for Scotland in the future, including James McFadden, Darren Fletcher and Craig Gordon. Do you think he was treated badly during his stint in charge? And how did it feel making your debut in that dark blue shirt?

MR: I felt it was terrible how the press treated Berti Vogts. This is a man that won the World Cup. Incredibly poor taste if you ask me. Can I tell you, Paul Daniels couldn’t conjure up wins with the squad we had. It’s was very much a transitional time in the national team and I feel that he was made a scape goat. Ok, maybe he didn’t help himself with handing out caps to so many people in such a short period of time. He is a gentleman and a man I am very fond of because he allowed me to represent my country in many big European qualifiers. I can sympathize with him now because I too have coached abroad for six years now and it’s easy to be misunderstood when you don’t speak in your mother tongue.

Ross represented Scotland on twelve occasions (Image from Maurice Ross)

BOTN: Over your career, you have played in a variety of different countries including Norway, Turkey, & even China. A vast majority of British players choose to stay in Scotland or England because it’s comfortable for them, but you decided to try something new and see how the game is played elsewhere. What was the driving force behind you doing that? What did you learn from those experiences?

MR: Initially my move abroad to Norway was a chance to come away from Millwall. Once abroad you learn to understand different cultures and different training regimes, different attitudes to drawing a game or losing a game (something I never got used to). It’s like anytime you go abroad, you see something different. I also learned by evaluating what not to do. In Scotland we tend to believe the foreign way is the best etc. – far from it. We have many fantastic traits and beliefs in our Scottish game and I would hope I never lose those. I believe it’s important to see and learn from as many different facets of your life as possible. Ignore what you don’t believe in and grow as a coach and as a person. I wholeheartedly believe I am a better person now since I embraced other cultures.

BOTN: Let’s talk a little more about your move to China. China has a lofty goal of winning the World Cup by 2050. To do this they are spending large amounts of money on youth development as well as bringing in top players to improve the CSL. Having played out there, do you think that is going to be possible for them to achieve (to win the WC)?

MR: Do I believe China will win the World Cup? Maybe, who knows? Anyone can win it, right? From a numbers point of view, they statistically could achieve it if enough people are exposed to the right footballing understanding. Throwing up pitches right left and center doesn’t cut it for me. Education liberates people! Football is no different. Putting in place UEFA licensed coaches at the low levels is key to any development. To put it into perspective, I was coached twice a week from the age of 9 by the likes of Paul Sturrock, Maurice Malpas, and Jim McLean…….I firmly believe those days were a fundamental part in how I became a pro footballer. If China can first and foremost educate the majority of their young population, then integrate football into the education system, then set up footballing academies, then I believe they will have a chance to succeed.

BOTN: After retiring at 31, you moved into management firstly in Norway and now in the Faroe Islands. Was management always something you wanted to do? How did that transition come about?

MR: I was always talking as a player, always organizing, always pushing and pulling players into positions. I don’t know if it came natural to me but I believe coaching is in my blood. I will not be remembered as a player, but I think I will be remembered as a coach/manager. When I quit at 31, I enlisted on an open university course for engineering which took me into the oil industry quite rapidly. I then took over a recently relegated team in Norway. I convinced these players who were only paid petrol money to train four times a week plus the game. This dedication to the cause allowed us to complete a back to back double promotion and finish 5th in the league – one of the Norwegian ‘top football’ pyramid, which was the club’s highest ever ranking. Then I was hooked. So, I have taken my badges and am now a qualified A license coach and will seek to take the pro license ASAP.

Winning ways – Ross has tasted success as a manager (Image from Maurice Ross Instagram)

BOTN: What would you say is your managerial style, and how does that compare to the managers you have played under?

MR: My style is a mixture between Glenn Hoddle’s pedagogical approach and Uwe Rosler; the great Man city striker who had a fantastic passion for the game. Learning day to day is essential for players and partnering that with controlled passion is a recipe for success in my book.

BOTN: What is next for Maurice Ross? Do you have ambitions to manage back in Scotland or do you see your future abroad?

MR: Coaching is my life, whether that be a Glasgow Rangers or Texas Rangers. Under the watchful eye of my advisor Raymond Sparkes we will evaluate all options. For us, the only criteria is environment. I will not make a career move based on finance. The main thing for me is that I become a better coach and the players in my care feel that they learn every single day. When I can achieve those two things then I am a happy man.

Older but wiser – With his playing days behind him, Ross is forging ahead with his managerial career (image from Maurice Ross)

BOTN: Finally, some quick one or two-word answers please – toughest opponent you played against?

MR: Mark Overmars – standing on your shoulder all the time, waiting to pounce in behind you with that electric pace. If you dropped too deep to combat that pace he popped into the hole and received it to feet, then you were in trouble! Great talent.

BOTN: Best player you played with?

MR: Pound for pound Barry Ferguson

BOTN: Will Steve Gerrard be a success at Rangers?

MR: First and foremost, I hope he can succeed, the club needs it! Will he? With the contacts and scouting network, I’m sure he will have the best chance of recent managers to succeed. There are no guarantees in football but he certainly has a back bone and he’s very much his own man. So, with that belief, the massive network will give him a solid chance to succeed. With 48,000 season tickets sold already, it shows the public also believe in it. Let’s get fully behind him and close the chasm that is between us and Celtic. Good luck to Steven and Gary Mac.

BOTN: And who do you think will win the World Cup?

MR: Germany.

Thanks again to Maurice Ross for taking the time to speak with us!

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Brazil’s Football Roots and Its Debt To Scotland

As Brazil hosted the world at World Cup 2014, few in the country spared a thought for Scotland who failed to qualify. The Scots had a torrid campaign that started poorly under Craig Levein only to finish on a brighter note thanks to a turn around by new coach Gordon Strachan. Scotland have failed to reach the World Cup on the past four tries with the last one (France 1998) a fading memory. But Scotland were  represented at the summer tournament with every kick, not through current player participation but instead through Brazil’s footballing history. After all, it was a Scot who brought the beautiful game to their shores many years ago.

Thomas Donohoe - the father of football in Brazil (Image from Archives

Thomas Donohoe – the father of football in Brazil
(Image from Archives

The name of Thomas Donohoe will mean little to many except for a select few and now anyone who happens to walk past his statue in western Rio de Janeiro. It was Donohoe who in the early 1890 introduced Brazilian texile factory workers to football and not as many claim Charles Miller who is wrongly seen as the father of the game in the country. Yes Miller was the first to organise a match between two teams on Brazilian soil in April 1895 but that was eight months after Donohoe’s kick around at the factory. Credit is still due to Miller for taking the initiative and establishing the countries first league shortly afterwards but Donohoe official holds the title as the father of Brazilian football, following his six a side match months before. Born in Glasgow, Donohoe started his career aged 10 following in his father’s footsteps by joining the print works, working as a dyer. Some years later with limited opportunity and a now expanding family (wife and two boys), Donohoe started to look outside of Scotland for a new job that would be more financially rewarding. He found that the Latin America textile industry was booming but running short of workers so decided to set sail for Rio and new opportunities. Leaving his wife and kids behind, Donohoe landed in Brazil and immediately found a job as a master dyer at a new textile factory in Rio. Settling into life in this new country, Donohoe quickly established himself with the local expat community and was shocked to learn that football did not exist in Brazil. It was this that motivated him to write to his wife, telling her and the boys to join him in Brazil but to also bring a football when they came. She arrived shortly after and it wasn’t long before Donohoe had organised the countries first match on a pitch next to the factory. Football was born, going from strength to strength over the next 100 years.  

A bronze statue of Donohoe has been erected in Bangu (Image from Getty)

A bronze statue of Donohoe has been erected in Bangu
(Image from Getty)

Donohoe’s role in creating football is not questioned by historians or fans of Miller but what is questioned is what consititued as the first game. Many believe that the six aside match that Donohoe organised was not a real match and that Miller’s eleven aside match only a few months later was, making him the father of football. But for Clecio Regis (who has built a bronze statue in Donohoe’s honour) and historian Carlos Molinari, they believe that his match was legitimate and are fighting hard to get it fully recognised by the BrazilIan FA. The claim is backed by Scottish Football Museum curator Richard McBrearty who has confirmed the validity of Donohoe thanks in part to the British census of the time. Data from the 1891 census has confirmed that Thomas Donohoe, originally from Busby near Glasgow, Scotland arranged Brazil’s first organized football match. This has been confirmed further by historians in the Bangu region of Brazil, where the game took place. Brazil kicked off the tournament against Croatia in Sao Paulo, less than five hours away from where that famous game took place. It was another chapter in Brazil’s footballing history which started all those years ago by a Scot who simply wanted to play the beautiful game in his new homeland.

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Stewart Regan out as SFA chief executive – so what’s next?

With the dust now settling on Stewart Regan’s resignation as Chief Executive of the Scottish Football Association, it’s time to take stock and work out how Scottish football moves forward. Regan did not exactly leave a legacy; more a trail of destruction after an almost eight year spell littered with failure after failure. Since 2010 when he was appointed as chief executive replacing Gordon Smith, Regan bumbled his way through the role eventually replacing the respect he had coming in with utter disdain. Fans, clubs and players alike all failed to warm to him and his inability to get results marked his card from very early on. At a recent scheduled SFA board meeting, Regan’s fate was sealed. He simply had to go.

What went wrong?

The role of Chief Executive of the SFA is never been one that is well liked, according to seasoned journalist Tom English but Regan’s approval levels were so low that it’s surprising he didn’t get the boot sooner. Make no mistake about it, Regan was pushed out by a disappointed board rather than making it his decision. His failure to secure a sponsor beyond the end of this summers deal with Vauxhall was a major issue. As was his failed attempt to bring in Michael O’Neill as new Scotland manager. Throw into that two hastily arranged summer friendly games half way across the world that few are in favour of and you have a melting pot of calamity that sealed his fate.

Regan failed to tempt O’Neill away from Northern Ireland (image from Tumblr)

Was he really that bad and what next for the SFA?

Regan departed with a brief statement stating “While it has been tough, I am proud to leave having overseen a period of significant change and substantial growth”.  Growth is hardly the word that most Scotland fans would use and to be fair they are not wrong. He did have some successes as he implemented many of the recommended changes from the Henry McLeish report into Scottish Football including the introduction of an independent judicial panel and the roll out of a pyramid system  to help lower divisional teams like in the Highland leagues gain access to the leagues. But for everything good he did, there were four or five calamitous mistakes in judgement or avoidable errors. Examples include the referees strike in his first year in charge, the handling of the Rangers EBT tax case and subsequent administration, his appointments both at national team manager level and performance director that failed to deliver on numerous levels or his general approach to things which tended to rub people up the wrong way – case in point why did he not speak to the clubs about the summer friendlies and explain the idea before announcing to the media. Those friendlies aid no-one, especially the development of the national team and the clubs in Scotland who can help raise the nations UEFA co-efficient making things easier in the long run. The SFA board could no longer excuse his ineffectiveness and excused him from the role. Now their hunt begins for his successor and its an appointment of the utmost importance – they must hire the right person who can hit the ground running immediately and start to make amends for the last eight disappointing years.

Who is in the running?

Replacing Regan will however not be easy. Yes the bar has been set remarkably low almost to the point that a cardboard cut out of William Wallace may do a better job but still a difficult one to fill. The SFA needs to get the appointment right. They need someone who has experience as a leader, someone who knows the game but can also create fresh ideas. They need to forget about nonsense notions of appointing someone like Gordon Strachan – great player, good coach but not a Chief Executive by any stretch of the imagination. There are some obvious candidates out there like Neil Doncaster who could be tempted to switch from the league to the FA. But if the SFA is to win back the support of the fans,  they need a fresh approach and in my view a woman’s touch with two fantastic options being Ann Budge and Leann Dempster. The Edinburgh based pair have worked wonders at their respective clubs, Hearts and Hibernian in recent years and although perform different roles have the same attributes needed to be successful. Highly respected in the Scottish game already for the work they have done, both would bring a freshness to an organization that has simply become stale. Whether either would want the job is a different story as many view it as an impossible task especially given the conditions that the job has to operate under and the country it operates within.

Hibernian chief executive Leann Dempster is an early favourite for the job (Image from Tumblr)

What Challenges will the new person face?

Many. Scotland is naturally a very pessimistic country but when it comes to football, that pessimism is magnified by ten. Decades of heart-break and under achievement on the pitch coupled with a sense of distrust in those who run the game in the country have contributed to an overflowing melting point of skepticism and depression. At the very heart of this is the SFA and its eight board members who between them decide the fate of the game. Predominantly each member has their own agenda to enforce tied into the club that they are there in part representing. In the past that has made decision-making at the top-level almost impossible as members were more inclined to side with what worked out best for them and their club than for the betterment of Scottish football. This is slowly changing with the appointment of the boards first female member in Ana Stewart recently but the old school mentality still exists making life for whoever the chief executive is difficult. Added into this some major challenges such as finding a new manager for the men’s national team, making a decision on a national stadium, finding a new sponsor and tackling the issues with Project Brave should make the job as appealing as a root canal without anesthetic

If it’s that bad, will anyone be able to succeed?

In short yes. The challenges are resolvable and some could give the new chief executive some early wins. Appointing a new national manager is the priority before the friendlies in March against Costa Rica and Hungary.  Speed and effective communication are key to this – advising the likes of Malky MacKay and Gary Caldwell that they have no hope in hell of getting the job whilst interviewing more suitable candidates like Alex McLeish, Steve Clarke and Lars Lagerback in the first few weeks should help the new chief executives case. Next is a national sponsor to replace Vauxhall whose existing deal runs out in the summer. Then tackling the stadium issue (moving to Murrayfield the most sensible option here) before the end of the year should result in a positive scorecard for the new person in charge from the fans, clubs and media alike. Oh and also ditching those pointless around the world friendlies in the summer against Peru and Mexico would help too!

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Rangers Ready To Ride The Storm With Murty Now At The Helm

The weather in Florida may have been a little colder than expected but that didn’t seem to bother Graeme Murty. Following his promotion from caretaker boss to permanent manager of Rangers in December, Murty was taking charge of training in Orlando ahead of his sides participation in the Florida Cup. Rangers face two competitive matches over three days against Brazilian sides Atletico Mineiro and Corinthians before jetting back to Scotland to resume their domestic season. It’s a welcome break for the new boss who has helped the club to pick up the pieces following another tempestuous period.

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Rangers in the US at the Florida Cup (Image from Tumblr)

Two impressive friendly wins in Florida may not be worth lot but it does put the team on a good footing as they return to Scotland for the second part of the season.  And boy do they need it. Much was expected of Rangers this year with a new manager at the helm and a  bevy of new players. There was an optimistic vibe around the club, one that has been absent for some time now. But after a nervy 1-0 home victory over Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn in the Europa League qualifying, that optimism quickly disappeared and was replaced with dread. Five days later Rangers were knocked out of Europe following a 2-0 defeat which cancelled out that win in Glasgow and put Progres through to the next round. It was by far one of the clubs lowest points (and for a club which has gone through administration and relegation to the bottom tier of Scottish football, that is quite a statement).

Things barely improved during the rest of Pedro Caixinha’s short reign. 14 wins out of 26 doesn’t sound like a terrible return but for a club that has grown used to always winning, it wasn’t good enough. The noose around Caixinha’s neck tightened a little bit more each week as his signings failed to perform on the pitch and his paranoia increased off it. Eventually Rangers board would be forced to eat humble pie and eject the man they saw as a potential game changer – someone who could leap-frog the club forward by a few years. The plan before Caixinha was to build slowly, construct a team on a sound footing then eventually challenge for honours both at home and abroad. But with Celtic getting closer to nine in a row and Caixinha whispering tempting tales of quick victories and epic rises in their ears, the board ditched the careful approach in favour of gung-ho. The cheque book was flung open and in came a host of new players, most of whom few people had ever heard of. Morales, Pena, Cardoso, Herrera, Candeias, Alves, Dalcaio all arrived to fan fare and with much hope attached. Some familiar names came in to –  Ryan Jack of Aberdeen and Graham Dorrans from Norwich adding options to a growing squad. Others departed as Caixinha looked to remould the squad in his image. That in itself was a gamble for the manager given the need for his new look side to gel quickly and perform. Ultimately that gamble never paid off and Caixinha was dismissed.

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Caixinha and Murty (Image from Tumblr)

Picking up the pieces once more was Graeme Murty. The former Scotland defender who joined the club in 2016 as head coach of their development squad had previously been in charge when Mark Warburton had been sacked so taking the reins again felt familiar. Whilst the search for a new boss rumbled on, Murty plugged away trying to reignite the passion amongst the group of players he inherited and instill some belief that the season was not over despite sitting far behind Celtic and now Aberdeen in the league. The group was low in confidence and splitting at the seams when Caixinha departed. Two groups had formed – the Scottish contingent led by Kenny Miller who had found himself pushed out to the sidelines in the latter part of Caixinha’s reign and the Portuguese speaking players made up of most of the new signings. Separation within a club is never a good thing and more often than not leads to disaster. Murty knew he had two months to pull them together again and get some results on the board before regrouping over Christmas with a view to making the necessary changes in the January transfer window. By then he expected a new manager would be in charge and that he would once again be back focusing on youth development but instead he is the man in charge at least until the end of the season.

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The Boss – Murty takes charge on a full time basis until the end of the season (Image from Tumblr)

Seven wins, four defeats and one good draw against arch rivals Celtic has left Rangers third in the league, three points behind Aberdeen and eleven behind their city rivals. Not much better than when Caixinha left but the side feels different – more together than before. The opening of the window along with a much-needed break to the sunshine has refreshed the Rangers squad in preparation for their next bunch of domestic fixtures. There are a few new faces amongst the mix – Sean Goss has arrived from QPR and Jamie Murphy has been brought in. Scotland defender Russell Martin and Jason Cummings should be arriving shortly too. There is also two returning faces. Andy Halliday and Michael O’Halloran are back after Murty cancelled their loans which were approved by Caixinha who saw them both a disposable. And back at the club following an almost 30 year absence is Jimmy Nicholl who has been brought in as Murty’s assistant manager.

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Jimmy Nicholl played for Rangers in the mid 80’s, now back as assistant manager (Image from Tumblr)

The changes have been slow yet steady as Rangers look to get back on track and return to the original plan. Their experiment to expedite success failed miserably and likely set the club back even further. Yet the club seems more positively charged than ever before. Murty may not have been the glamorous appointment that most fans were looking for and may not even keep the job beyond next summer but for now he is exactly what the club needs – a steady hand on the wheel as the club battles through another transitional stormy period.

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Will Scottish Pride Survive Hampden Exit?

Scottish pride is hard to define but it is a feeling that starts on the outside and quickly travels inward triggering a variety of emotions not commonly seen from a scotsman – shivers start to migrate down the spine, the hairs on your legs and arms stand at attention, your feet start to move in a bouncing motion and a broad smile creeps onto your face. There have only been a few times in my life where this type of pride has overtaken me and more often than not it was in Hampden Park. Standing on a cold windy day in the upper terraces of Scotland’s national stadium alongside 51,000 fellow Scots, the first chords of The Proclaimers 500 Miles would start to blast over the loud speakers. The crowd slowly starts to jump as one, eventually becoming one as the vocals kick in. When i wake up well i know i’m gonna be i’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you!  The stadium eventually erupts as scottish pride reaches fever pitch with the chorus – tadalalala tadalalala tadalalala tadalalalalalal.

Those are the memories along with the hundreds more created over the years on that pitch – Scotland battling the Magical Magyars of Hungary in 1954 in front of 113,506 fans, Dalglish goal against England in ’76, McFadden’s goal against Holland in 2003 just a few examples that the fans will take with them if Scotland is to leave Hampden. After a 111 year stay, the Scottish Football Association is considering whether or not to renew its lease (which expires in 2020) of the national stadium or blow the final whistle on the Mount Florida Stadium. The SFA are consulting with various groups as they review the options including renewing the lease for another ten years or parting ways in favour of playing the games around the country or at another stadium like Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Traditionally a Rugby venue, Murrayfield has played host to several big events over the years since it refurbishment in 2005 and could easily accommodate the Scottish football team as well.

Murrayfield - the new home of Scottish football? (Image from Tumblr)

Murrayfield – the new home of Scottish football?

That option has been met with much publicized rejection primarily by former players who maintain that Hampden’s history and legacy should be saved despite the crumbling stadiums growing list of problems. However the fans appear to feel differently and are hoping that their voices are heard. A recent survey of 2,293 fans by the Scottish Football Supporters Association found in favour of leaving with only 15% of the fans wanting to stay with 34% favouring a switch to Murrayfield. Of the remaining, 25% believe that the national teams should play their games on the road across Scotland’s various stadiums whilst 24% believe that a new Hampden should be built. That option seems incredibly unlikely given that the SFA has barely two pennies to rub together.

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Hampden has changed over the years but it could now be time to say goodbye (Image from SFA)

Leaving Hampden makes the most sense. Whilst a negotiation would be needed to secure either Murrayfield as a central base or with the various grounds it would likely be cheaper than renewing the existing lease. Those savings could be diverted into improving Scotland’s future chances of qualification with youth investments in line with Project Brave ( the SFA’s blueprint for future development). Those concerned that moving to another stadium will result in a loss of atmosphere need not worry as it wasn’t the stadium that filled me with Scottish pride but the fans themselves. There is a reason why the Scottish fans are missed at major tournaments and it has nothing to do with whats happening on the pitch. The fans make the atmosphere and will do so regardless of where the national team plays its games. Hampden’s legacy will be maintained in our memories and in the archives but its time for Scotland to move on, leave home and write a new chapter filled with lots of scottish pride.

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Time to change Scotland’s dysfunctional play offs?

Football can be a cruel game as highlighted in the Scottish Premiership/Championship playoff games between Hamilton and Dundee United. Greg Docherty’s strike in the 64th minute was enough to settle this two legged playoff and condemn Dundee United to another season in the Scottish Championship with Hamilton surviving by the skin of their teeth. United, who finished in third place simply ran out of steam after a grueling 38 game season followed by four play off games against Morton then Falkirk before they faced Hamilton.

Greg Docherty's strike sunk Dundee United and ensured Hamilton had another season in the SPL (Image from Tumblr)

Greg Docherty’s strike sunk Dundee United and ensured Hamilton had another season in the SPL (Image from Tumblr)

Failure to gain promotion could have detrimental consequences on United. Despite owner Steven Thompson stating that no budget was assigned before the playoff game, the amount that is going to made available to manager Ray McKinnon will be dramatically less (if anything at all) than if United had won promotion. Indeed it’s more likely that cuts will be need to made both to the playing squad and off field staff in order to balance the books ahead of another season in the Championship. The club which is rumoured to be £1.8m in debt now faces a rebuilding job both in terms of both personal and in confidence ahead of the new campaign.

McKinnon must wield the axe now after failing at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

McKinnon must wield the axe now after failing at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

The situation in Scotland is by no means unique in football. Other leagues operate a similar model including France.  This season saw Troyes, who finished 3rd in Ligue 2 faced Lorient placed 18th in Ligue 1 in a two legged playoff. Troyes won the first match 2-1 and when Lorient couldn’t find the net in the return match (game ended goalless) Troyes were promoted along side Strasbourg and Amiens who finished 1st and 2nd in Ligue 2 respectively.

Troyes secured promotion by beating Lorient in a two legged play off (Image from Tumblr)

Troyes secured promotion by beating Lorient in a two legged play off (Image from Tumblr)

However the fact that there are other leagues with the same structure does not make it right. Achieving promotion should be because you have beaten those around you in the same league not having to beat a team from the league above. United arguably had done this by defeating Morton and Falkirk in the days before. Promotion should have been secured with the win against Falkirk similar to the setup in England. Instead United were undone by 180 minutes of madness against a side that has been competing at a higher level for some time now. The argument has always been that it keeps the game in Scotland interesting but surely it favours the current team in the Premier league? History presents a worrying trend that supports this. Since its reintroduction in the 2013-2104 season only one team has managed to successfully navigate the play offs and win promotion. That team ironically was Hamilton.

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Rangers overhaul needed as Pedro looks to clear house

Two defeats in six days at the hands of arch rivals Celtic had Rangers boss Pedro Caixinha likely scrambling to his laptop to cancel his summer holidays. After a month in the role, the Portuguese coach must now realize the size of the task that is in front of him. A complete overhaul of the first team and reserve team squad is needed if he is to build a team that is capable of competing in the Premiership next season. The league table highlights this as Rangers struggle not only to catch Celtic in first but also are slipping further behind Aberdeen in second.

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The gap between Celtic and Rangers is growing (Image from BBC)

The board has indicated that funds will be made available but are unlikely to be significant. With a limited budget to play with, Caixinha may need to focus on the free transfer market but before he can do so he will need to offload as many duds as possible to create breathing space in the existing wage budget of‎ £11million. Clearing out the squad will not be an easy task in itself. Of the first team squad of 25, almost half are on contracts that run until 2019 or beyond. That rules out terminating contracts as the club would have to buy them out at a hefty cost which it simply cannot afford to do. Finding buyers may be equally hard based on the players current salaries and poor performances this season.

Pedro will look to clear house this summer and overhaul his squad (Image from Tumblr)

Pedro Caixinha will look to clear house this summer and overhaul his squad (Image from Tumblr)

If he hasn’t already, Caixinha will be drawing up a list of players he wants to keep in his squad for next season. Based on current form, that list could be written on a post it note. Kenny Miller has already been signed to a new one year deal whilst current club captain Lee Wallace remains an important figure. Winger Barry McKay has shown enough promise to convince Caixinha of his worth however with German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig rumoured to be interested, he may be sold in order to bring in much needed additional funds. Defenders Danny Wilson and Lee Hodson should also remain along with Jordan Rossiter who despite spending the majority of the season on the injury list is still a talent to build a team around.

37 year old Kenny Miller has been rewarded with a new one year deal by Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Of the remaining players, four are certain to leave – Clint Hill and Philip Senderos due to contract expiry; Jon Toral and Emerson Hyndman due to end of loan deals. Michael O’Halloran’s card is definitely marked after a fall out with the manager so he is likely to leave if a buyer can be found. That leaves decisions to be made about the futures of 12 first team players – Foderingham, Kiernan, Tavernier, Crooks, Halliday, Holt, Forrester, Windass, Kranjcar, Dodoo, Garner and Waghorn but all could leave given the right price.

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Loanees Toral and Hyndman will leave at the end of the season (Image from Tumblr)

Caixinha has already shown that he is not afraid to promote youth players into his first team squad with Myles Beerman and David Bates having already started a few games this season. Turning to the youth team may add a freshness needed to what has become a stale squad. That is good news for talented youngsters like Aiden Wilson, Liam Burt, Ryan Hardie and Billy Gilmour who are the future of the club and its long term prospects. In addition to them, he will need to add new faces with a good mix of youthful promise and experienced heads. Potential options include Steven Whittaker, Steven Naismith and John Ruddy who are all set to leave Norwich this summer. Former Scotland captain Darren Fletcher is also out of contract as is Charlie Adam, Graham Dorrans and John Terry although its not a given that any of those players would entertain a move to Rangers.

Ibrox return for Steven Naismith? (Image from Tumblr)

If money was made available, moves for Aberdeen’s Kenny McLean or Falkirk’s Craig Sibbald could bolster the clubs small home grown contingent. Rotherham’s Will Vaulks is also a name touted as a possible acquisition following his sides relegation from the English Championship which may highlight the current pulling power of Rangers at this time. Either way, Caixinha will need to do his business as early as possible to ensure he has time for his new look side to gel. It could be a long summer for the Portuguese coach as he looks to get Rangers back into the race in Scotland.

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Back Of The Net Podcast – Strachan’s Scotland Sorrows

We are back with another podcast and todays has a solo focus -the future of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan after a poor start to their World Cup Qualifying campaign. Should he stay or should he go? Can he pick a striker who can score? Will he drop Grant Hanley? Is Barry Bannan his lovechild? All this and more in this weeks pod! Enjoy!

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Back Of The Net Podcast – Pep Rips Hart Out Of City As Maradona Opens His

Welcome to the Back Of The Net podcast! This week we look at Pep’s decision to dispense with England stopper Joe Hart, Big Sam’s first England squad, Oliver Burke’s transfer to Germany, who the British clubs will face in the Champions League and Europa League and finally Diego Maradona’s scoring ability off the pitch!

Listen below, download via Soundcloud, ITunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or on all good podcast services!

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As always, comments welcome. Let us know your thoughts and what you would like to hear on future pods. Enjoy!

No More Excuses For Sorry Scots

Growing up in Scotland, football was my life. When I wasn’t at school, sleeping or eating I had a ball at my feet. Summers were spent at one of three places that kids in my hometown of Largs could play the beautiful game – Barrfields, Bowen Craig and Inverclyde. From early morning to the streetlights coming on signaling it was time to stop, I played football with my friends;  4 aside with jumpers for goalposts to a knockout tournament in pairs when real goals were an option. But eventually one by one the fences went up, the gates were locked and playing the game we loved was only possible if we booked a pitch and paid. My love affair with the beautiful game never wained but the amount of time I spent outside playing it did. Unfortunately my experience was not unique with similar situations happening all across Scotland as kids no longer able to play in the busy streets now also had no where else to play. Twenty years on, the knock on effect of this action along with a hatful of other problems has lead to the decline of Scottish football as we see it now.

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One by one the fences were erected and kids were stopped playing football (Image from Inverclyde Sports Centre, Largs)

Yet another tournament has passed that the Scotland men’s national team have failed to take part in. That makes nine in a row with the realization of a tenth only one more disappointment away. But disappointment isn’t the word not anymore. Scotland fans used to be disappointed about not qualifying but at the same time were optimistic that we would get it right the next time. Gradually over time with each passing failure that optimism disappeared and has now been replaced with pure frustration. Every two years the debate rages on radio call ins and in the press about the reasons why and what needs to change in Scottish football. But nothing ever seems to change despite the endless chatter. It has gotten so bad that the Scotland fans can not listen anymore, frustrated as we sit on the sidelines stranded once again while our neighbors all appear to be moving on.

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The SFA’s use of the tagline “This Time” in their latest ads for ticket sales for the upcoming qualifying campaign says it all (Image from SFA)

Enough is enough. We have heard the excuses for twenty years and it’s starting to get old. We don’t have world class players, they are not technically as good, the system is broken, there aren’t enough kids coming through and my personal favourite we were just unlucky. Bad luck can stretch for more than a few years granted, even seven if you break a mirror but seriously how many have Scotland broken then? We must have literally smashed the glass ceiling at this rate. The brutal truth and a difficult one to say and write is that we are full of excuses which fundamentally must stop before we can move forward. Accepting the truth that as a footballing nation we have regressed whilst others in similar positions have progressed is painful. Whilst we bicker over what is wrong, the rest are moving forward leaving this once proud nation languishing in the football wilderness. Enough with the 100 pages reports that suggest radical overhauls, systemic failures and a complete restructuring of scottish football only to be read once and then used a paperweight at the SFA. Enough of the dinosaurs at the Scottish Federation pondered the meaning of football (and life) instead of taking action; much as France, Belgium and Germany did. All three nations had eureka moments spurned by failure which prompted the swift changes that brought recent successes. The SFA will argue that all three are countries with larger populations and considerably deeper pockets which allowed for the quick progression and they may have a point but what then about Iceland?. The tiny island with a total population of only 330,000 may have embarrassed England in the second round of Euro 2016 but it should have made Scotland fans weep uncontrollably at the same time. With a fraction of the population of Scotland and a much smaller budget to play with, they boast more professional coaches, better facilities and a blossoming youth development program that should make us break down and cry. Iceland’s future looks remarkably bright whilst Scotland’s looks bleaker by each passing day.

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Iceland’s infrastructure which includes several 5G indoor all weather pitches puts Scotland to shame (Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

But the SFA are not the only ones guilty of burying their heads in the sand. The clubs are at fault too. Enough with the attitude that change is not welcome and that the clubs in Scotland’s top tier must protect themselves from it. A succession of frustrated performance directors have been and gone – first Dutchman Mark Wotte then Scot Brian McClair both tried to change peoples perspectives but gave up after months of banging their heads against the wall. Reform comes in many shapes and sizes, some more complex to execute than others  and whilst a few are so hair brained in conception that only the SFA would consider them, all have good intentions behind them. Change is needed now and the clubs need to embrace and support such change. Their self preserving attitude is damaging the core of Scottish football and its national teams chances of progression.

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Scotland line up against Brazil at the 1998 World Cup in France, the last time Scotland qualified for a major tournament (Image from Getty)

That said, there is and has to be hope. As the Flower of Scotland says “We can still rise now, and be a nation again”. Its not too late to make radical changes to Scotland’s setup – embrace the learnings of others, change our approach and reap the benefits in the long run. But to do so we need to accept that we are stuck in a rut, absorbed by our own defeatist attitude and over reliance of excuses. France, Belgium, Germany and Iceland all woke up to their problems and made the changes needed with the result being an upturn in fortunes. Scotland can follow a similar path towards progression and turn around their fortunes on the pitch. Only then will the Scotland fans be able to turn dreams into reality as the national team books their spot at a major international tournament once more.

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Nations Look To Copy Belgian Blueprint for Success

 

It may have taken 88 minutes for Belgium to grab their second win in the 2014 World Cup group section and secure qualification for the knockout stages of the tournament but for Belgian fans, the wait to see this moment has been a lot longer. Belgium is revelling in what has been proclaimed as the Golden Generation – a group of talented players who have come through in recent years and are accredited with turning around the fate of Belgian football. However the evolution of Belgian football should be credited to the vision of one man, Michel Sablon who put the wheels in motion many years ago. It was in 2000 when Belgium was co-hosting the European Championships with Holland that was the main turning point. Placed in a group with Turkey, Italy and Sweden, expectations were high that the hosts would reach the knockout stages with relative ease. Despite an early win against the Swedes, Belgium suffered back to back defeats against Italy and Turkey eventually finishing in third place in the group and missing out on progression. With an aging squad including captain Lorenzo Staelens, Luc Nilis and current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots Belgium were looking towards the future generation and what they saw was bleak.

The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium (Image from AFP)

The failure of Euro 2000 was a blessing in disguise for Belgium (Image from AFP)

Belgian football was on a downward slide and faced years of mediocrity. Few saw the problem as clear as Sablon and even fewer would have thought that the overhaul needed was so radical. Sablon realized that the Belgian league was failing, that it was struggling to produce on a regular basis talented players for the national side. Added into this, any ones that did emerge moved abroad at an early age in order to play in a better league. So he created a new blueprint for the national obsession, one that went back to basics and focused on what was really important. What he came up with was hardly revolutionary but instead common sense. To succeed, he needed clubs on every level to embrace his plan, not partially but fully committing to it. Changing the philosophies and mindset of an entire nation is one thing but managing to convince everyone to implement it is another but somehow he managed to do just that. Not that it was an easy task, especially given the changes he was asking them to make at a youth level. Sablon asked for all teams in the Under 18’s and below to play a 4-3-3 passing formation and more importantly forget about winning.

Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning (Image from Getty)

Youth football in Belgium is focused on technique rather than winning
(Image from Getty)

He realised that younger players and their coaches were too obsessed with the result of the game and what it meant for their position in the table to care about perfecting their individual game. He used university professors to film and study over 1,500 youth games in an attempt to show them what he meant. The result was exactly what he thought and backed his argument that winning at all costs was killing the game. So with the support of the Belgian FA, he simply scrapped the league tables and reorganised youth football introducing smaller pitches, five against five at junior level, seven against seven for older kids and a renewed focus on technique development. The best players from across Belgium were regularly taken out of their clubs and sent to six performance academies for two weeks at a time. This meant that the younger players got to know each other early on which has helped as they all migrated to international football, first at youth level then later to the full internationals you see today at the World Cup. The years passed slowly, with friction from the clubs and youth teams an ever present until in 2007, Belgium’s youth changes started to show promise when they made the last four of the European Under-17 championships for the first time in their history. The stars of that tournament were Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.

Eden Hazard is one of Belgium's best players (Image from PA)

Eden Hazard is one of Belgium’s best players
(Image from PA)

Now 14 years after instigating change, the fruits of Sablon’s labour were on show at this years World Cup. Belgium possessed one of the more talented squads in the tournament and was even tipped as potential dark horses to win the trophy. In every position, Belgium has star players who are all plying their trade at the highest level. As an attacking team, Belgium boast the likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku and not forgetting Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke who only due to injury is not in the squad. Their backline is impressive too with Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany playing in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the current game, Thibaut Courtois. Indentifying a weak link in this vibrant squad is near impossible and the talent doesn’t stop there with a host of youngsters coming through the youth team like Thorgen Hazard, Laurens De Bock, Dennis Prat and Massimo Bruno, all eager to break into Wilmot’s team.

The current crop of Belgium stars (Image from PA)

The current crop of Belgium stars
(Image from PA)

Other countries are now following suit in particular Scotland who have taken the Belgian blueprint and have implementing it fully with the hope of having the same effect. Formerly under the guidance of Mark Wotte, the SFA invested £20m in seven performance schools and indoor training centres. But they face an uphill battle to change the mindset of Scottish clubs who are struggling to stay afloat and with the mentality of the Scottish public in general. If they want to have the same success as Belgium, then following Wotte’s plan is the only way forward regardless if of who is in charge. The results may not be obvious now but if Scotland can produce a squad with the same quality of talent as Belgium for the 2022 World Cup, then it will be money and time well spent. For Belgium, the future looks bright with the current squad set up to dominate for the next 10 years. The possibilities of this team are endless and it may start with a surprise World Cup final victory in the near future. If they can lift that trophy, Sablon will be hailed as a hero, the man who changed Belgian football for the better.

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The Challenges Facing Scotland After Yet Another Failed Qualifying Campaign

In an expected result, Scotland finished off their dismal qualifying campaign in style with a 6-0 win over lowly Gibraltar matching their result in Glasgow. Not quite the end they were hoping for but all dreams of reaching France next summer died when they failed to see off Poland with only thirty seconds remaining. Dissecting what went wrong in this campaign has a strange familiarity to it. Like a path ventured down too many times, Scotland continues to present the same problems over and over. Plucky when the underdog, Scotland displays the passion for which they have become famous for. But passion hardly ever ends in points and for some bizarre reason that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s when we are supposed to be top dog that is the main concern, unable to cleanly dispatch the lesser nations of the Faroes Islands, Estonia and our new nemesis Georgia. But surely both are equally important. Qualification isn’t dependent on taking the scalp of a larger, more technical nation but it can’t hurt right?

Poland's last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention (Image from PA)

Poland’s last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention
(Image from PA)

In this campaign when Ireland snatched four out of six points from Germany and ran Poland close in both of their meetings, why could Scotland not match or better that? Arguably they are a better team than their North Sea neighbors, even if you only base that on our two meetings with Ireland when Scotland took home four from six in terms of points. Why do they have the belief  that they can get a result yet Scotland appears to not. There are a thousand excuses for why Scotland failed to beat Germany or Poland, everything from unfortunate deflections to better quality of players and the personal favourite – they simply lacked that wee bit of luck on the ball. Nonsense, all of it. In football anything can happen. Look at Greece who went from struggling to win a European Championship game to tournament winners in just a few matches. It’s eleven men vs eleven men, not David vs Goliath. Germany were strangely under par in qualifying and were there for the taking but Scotland lacked belief that they could actually do it. Even when they do score, blind panic sets in and Scotland fold like cheap deck chairs. They prefer to go behind and rally rather than take the lead and control. But time after time, taking the lead is a curse. This is what cost Scotland a qualification spot really, not dropping three points against Georgia.

Shane Long fires Ireland's winner against Germany so why couldn't Scotland do similar? (Image from Getty)

Shane Long fires Ireland’s winner against Germany so why couldn’t Scotland do similar?
(Image from Getty)

It doesn’t help that the entire team seems unconvinced by the defence. Once a staple of Scottish football, the defense looks less convincing by the day. Bremner, Greig, Hansen, Gough and Hendry have been replaced with middle of the road defenders, all of which are good but never great. Indeed Strachan only ever played the same back four twice in ten matches. Leaky is not the word as Scotland shipped 12 goals in qualifying including Gibraltar’s first ever international goal. In comparison Wales conceded only four times as they qualified highlighting the real issue Scotland faces- they cannot defend. Makeshift left backs, rotating centre half, limited right backs and goalkeeper loyalty conundrums all plagued this campaign and ultimately cost Scotland qualification. Being tight at the back can be the difference between winning and losing, stopping the opponents from scoring then nicking a goal at the other end to secure an unfavorable 1-0 win. Scotland did it in the past against France (twice), Holland and England despite being under a barrage of pressure for the entire ninety minutes. Both in Scotland and in Poland, the Scots had the lead before letting it slip. Six points instead of 2 may have been the difference between Scotland progressing to France 2016 and Poland staying at home to lick its wounds.

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland (Image from Getty)

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland
(Image from Getty)

So what is the solution? Perhaps following the NFL’s lead and appointing a defence coach who knows how to organize the back five  and make them solid once more. Scotland could employ a permanent defensive midfielder to sit and cover the back line but again without coordination this move would be limited. There is a nucleus of players there to work with but the need structure and guidance if they are to be successful. Fresh blood is often what is needed but the lack of talent coming through is a concern however this is hardly a new problem for Scotland or indeed most countries of our size like Northern Ireland or Wales. Good players can become great if deployed correctly and possess the belief needed to succeed. Scotland have just under a year now to regroup, refocus and go again before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. That should be enough time to sort of Scotland’s defensive frailties and reestablish the passion and belief needed to help them qualify.

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Where next for Moyes As His Career Lies In Tatters

You have to wonder where has it all gone wrong for David Moyes? The move to the sunshine of Spain was meant to rejuvenate his managerial career but instead it has dented it even further. David Moyes apparent failure to ignite Real Sociedad’s fire has led to his sacking yesterday almost a year to the day that he took over. Despite rescuing Soceidad on his arrival last season, Moyes could not find the winning formula in this campaign and leaves the club dangling just above the relegation zone after only two wins in their first eleven games. With the international break now upon us, the timing makes a lot of sense and Sociedad have wasted no time in appointing its new manager, former Barcelona B boss Eusbeio Sacristan. As Moyes and his assistant Billy McKinley took their leave, the former Everton boss must have been wondering what went wrong and what is next.

Moyes spell at Real Sociedad has ended only a year after it began (Image from Getty)

Moyes spell at Real Sociedad has ended only a year after it began (Image from Getty)

His last challenge lasted less than a year too when he replaced Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. But his time at Old Trafford was always destined for failure. Replacing arguably the greatest manager the world has ever seen at a club whose fans expectations were at an all time high made the task daunting to the best of managers. Like a rebound girlfriend, longevity was never on the cards and before Moyes could complete his transitional season, he was sacked. Once viewed as the darling of the Premier League, Moyes reputation was in tatters. All of the hard work and good credibility generated through his time at Goodison had gone with many in the media clambering to question his managerial abilities. The job at United seemed to be too big for the Scotsman, a miscalculated leap that ended up being a canyon rather than a babbling brook. Battered and bruised, Moyes searched for a plausible return to management. Despite his disastrous spell at United, there were various offers on the table, some more appealing than others. Moyes knew that jumping back in to another Premier League job would not relieve him of the media glare that had hounded him so badly at United. The solution was a move abroad and in particular to Spain with Real Sociedad. Similar to Everton in their frugal yet calculated approach, Sociedad appeared to be offering Moyes exactly what he needed – time. Despite being ambitious to the last, the Sociedad board were realistic about the next few years and saw Moyes as the man to lead their transformation from relegation candidates to La Liga challengers much like he had done at Everton. But his failure to assimilate was his downfall, his lack of understanding of the Spanish language his boundary and his tough no nonsense approach to coaching the ever tightening noose around his neck.

Life at Old Trafford proved difficult for Moyes (Image from PA)

Life at Old Trafford proved difficult for Moyes
(Image from PA)

The question is where next for David Moyes? A return to the Premier League would be the more sensible approach given Moyes comfort and understanding of that league. But at present there are no jobs on offer. He was in the running for both Aston Villa and Sunderland managerial vacancies but turned them both down in favour of continuing his Spanish adventure. On reflection, it wasn’t perhaps the best decision but hindsight is a wonderful thing and to be fair to Moyes neither job looked more attractive than the one he current had. Moyes can financially afford to wait and see especially given the volatile nature that managers in the Premier League are forced to live under. It may be that come January there have been other sackings, the most likely candidates being Steve McLaren at Newcastle, Garry Monk at Swansea and Alex Neill at Norwich. The Newcastle job may appeal more than the other two but Moyes will face stiff competition from Ajax boss Frank De Boer who has publicly lauded over that job.

A move to Newcastle could appeal to Moyes if it was to become available (Image from NUFC)

A move to Newcastle could appeal to Moyes if it was to become available
(Image from NUFC)

If he doesn’t go back to England then continuing his European journey is another route. A return to Scotland with boyhood club Celtic could be appealing especially if they finally end the less than impressive tenure of current boss Ronny Deila or perhaps a move to Holland or Germany which has proven to have mixed results for British managers throughout the years. The last option would be a move into international football, much like Claudio Ranieri did with Greece or Guus Hiddink has done on several occasions. The job he would want in this space is currently filled by Gordon Strachan and is unlikely to be vacated anytime soon especially now that the Scotland manager has renewed his contract for the World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign. Taking charge of a foreign national team is also highly risky (again see Claudio Ranieri and Guus Hiddink) with a language barrier still a major factor in achieving success. Moyes will know that his next move needs to be the right one, not just the most convenient one. He needs to find another Everton, a place where he will be given the time, love and support he needs to transform an ugly duckling into a golden swan. Whether there is another Everton out there though is still to be seen.

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Down But Not Out – Scotland Now Prepare For Bare Knuckles Fight With Poland

If only points were awarded for effort in football, Scotland would surely have walked away with something last night against Germany. They put up a good fight twice coming back from going a goal behind but in the end left Hampden with nothing but a sore head and a bruised ego. It wasnt an unexpected result but stung nonetheless as Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 took another blow. The sucker punch however was not against the Germans but instead last Friday night in Tbilisi when Scotland were TKO’d by an old foe in the form of Georgia. In a fight they had to win, Scotland looked sluggish failing to connect with any of their jabs at the home team before suffering a fatal blow to the abdomen which they were unable to come back from.

Georgia's suckerpunch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Georgia’s sucker punch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Much like a well-traveled fighter, Scotland has a checkered past. It has some famous shock wins against the heavyweights of world football including France and Holland in qualification but for each one there are several bouts they look back on and can’t believe they lost. It’s the same story year after year for Scotland and their supporters who turn out in their droves regardless of how bad the pummeling will be. They watch helplessly as lesser opponents push Scotland to the ropes time and time again, first jabbing then slamming Scotland with a hook and an uppercut. The fans see Scotland bleeding and want the referee to call time early to save their prize-fighter. But he can’t and he won’t. Scotland must defend itself but it can’t, unable to push their opponent back and stop the onslaught. Disbelief fills the stadium as the fans remember how Scotland managed to push better opponents, the so-called heavyweights all the way to the twelfth round. They think If only Scotland could be consistent then perhaps they would have a shot at something great.

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight (Image from PA)

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight
(Image from PA)

Unlike in Tbilisi, the effort was more apparent against the current world champions. Scotland battled hard, trying to stay in the fight they now most desperately needed to win.Their defence looks solid, if not totally convincing and held of the German onslaught of intricate passes and probing shots for a majority of the tussle. Against Georgia the midfield was lethargic and failed to create any really opportunities for the lone frontman Steven Fletcher to strike. But against Germany, Scotland where throwing wild punches, often missing the mark all together but still trying to push back. Germany had seen it before in their last fight but this time looked concerned as the pair exchanged blows in the first half. Twice Muller tried to knock Scotland out but twice they responded, first through Maloney and then by McArthur. The fight was evenly balanced going into the break. German trainer Joachim Low delivered a stern warning to Germany that they needed to win this fight to take a step closer towards the Euro’s. He told them to step up a gear and finish Scotland once and for all. They did just that with the fatal blow happening just moments after the restart, a blow that knocked the wind out of Scotland and left them dazed and confused. As the referee ended the fight, Scotland trudged off the park believing all was lost and it may be.

Up Next Another Heavyweight - Poland (Image from AFP)

Up Next Another Heavyweight – Poland
(Image from AFP)

To make matters worse, Scotland must watch as Wales and Northern Ireland edge closer towards the Euros. Once considered poorer versions of Scotland, the duo have now leap ahead of their northern rival and are challenging the heavyweights once more. The only chance Scotland has at redemption comes next month when they face up to another tough heavyweight in the form of Poland. They must win this fight and the following amateur bout against Gibraltar to stand any chance of reaching the play offs. Battered and bruised, Scotland must regroup and look deep inside themselves for the energy to go out in front of their home support once more and finally knock down a heavyweight. The gloves are officially off now as Scotland prepare to fight dirty in an effort to keep their dream of qualification alive.

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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

“Three more points” is the message that Wales boss Chris Coleman will be telling his team as they stand on the edge of greatness. After a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cyrus in their seventh European Championship qualifying group match, Wales find themselves on top and within touching distance of next years tournament in France. It will be an amazing achievement for Wales who have failed to qualify for every tournament since 1958. Mathematically Coleman has it correct – three points from their last three games will be enough for Wales to reach the promise lands and rid themselves of the ghost of ’58. And with Israel up next on Sunday who they ironically beat back in ’57 to reach the 1958 World Cup, it’s surely a case of when not if for Wales. Rush, Giggs, Hughes and Saunders all tried in the past to propel Wales to a major finals without luck. But now this new generation looks set to do it and write their names into the record books.

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament (Image from Getty)

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament
(Image from Getty)

Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu have all played their part but Wales owe a huge debt to one man in particular who has been outstanding. With five goals and several assists so far, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale has played an instrumental role in putting Wales in with its best chance of qualifying in nearly sixty years. It was his goal that settled the tie with Cyprus much like his strikes against Belgium, Israel and Andorra before that. Bale appears to be unstoppable when he pulls on the red shirt of his home nation. Arguably a poorer side without their talisman in their starting eleven, Bale makes Wales tick but is far from the only reason why they find themselves in this position. Coleman has done a solid job since replacing Gary Speed under tragic circumstances, bringing his side together as one whilst instilling belief that qualification can and would be achieved. Standing in their way were some formidable foes but by playing as a group and more importantly for each other, they look set to do it. Stunning yet hard-fought wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus has Wales on a seven game unbeaten run that looks set to continue all the way until the Euros kick off next summer in France.

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

Wales will likely be joined there by England who are unbeaten in their group and are within touching distance themselves. But if current form continues and some other results fall favourably for them, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be joining Wales and England at the Euros making it a clean sweep for the home nations. Northern Ireland lie second in their group behind Romania but ahead of Hungary going into today’s crunch clash with the Faroes Islands. Three points today are essential before Micheal O’Neill’s side can even start to think about Monday’s defining match against Hungary. By that stage, Northern Ireland could have a five point cushion between themselves and Hungary, especially if Bernd Storck’s side fails to beat leaders Romania in their match today. With Greece and Finland still to come, qualification is hardly guaranteed but like Wales, the Northern Irish players have faith that they can make it happen. Unlike Wales though, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale-esque figure in their ranks. Instead they have a team of grafters who give their all to the cause and to date have produced some fine results against Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania. Kyle Lafferty, the gangly former Rangers frontman has been their unlikely hero, picking up the hero status from David Healy and running with it. Five goals in six games shows he is a man in form and if his country is going to qualify, they will need Lafferty to maintain that form and fire them towards France.

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

Out of all of the home nations, Scotland has the toughest challenge after being placed in a group with the current World champions Germany and heavyweights Poland. But Gordon Strachan’s side has performed brilliantly so far and kept themselves in contention going into the home straight. Currently third in the group only two points behind Germany and three behind Poland, their remaining four games will have the Tartan Army on tenterhooks. Up first is a must win game against Georgia today, played at the same time as Poland visit Germany with the result of that game arguably more important than Scotland’s. After Poland’s surprise victory at home against Germany, the group has been left wide open and is anyone’s for the taking.

Poland's win over Germany has left the group wide open (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Poland’s win over Germany has left the group wide open
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Strachan knows that to stay in contention he needs to win today and then prepare his side for two crunch home fixtures against the group leaders. He will look towards the more experienced members of his team – Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney to provide the motivation to the rest of the squad as they remind the others of the anguish they went through after several failed qualifying campaigns. Not that the Scotland squad needs to be motivated though, having lost only one of their last six qualifying games. There is a real belief in the group that if they play together they can get the results they need to reach France. Two wins from their last four games might not be enough but three wins especially one over Germany or Poland could be. It would be an amazing achievement for Strachan’s men to reach Euro 2016 and join the other home nations in doing so.

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man is an expression that perfectly describes what happened on Saturday in Israel.  With Wales taking on group leaders Israel in a must win game, the welsh fans were looking to one man in particular to be their inspiration. Gareth Bale did not fail to disappoint and when his country needed him the most he was there to provide the goals and the gloss on a well fought 3-0 victory over their group rivals. The Real Madrid star who has had a problematic season so far in Spain with many of the Real fans turning on him was a constant threat from the first whistle to the last. He provided the set up for Aaron Ramsey to head Wales into the lead before adding a stunning brace himself to wrap up the points. His first was a perfectly taken free kick, curled over the wall into the corner leaving the goalkeeper stranded. The second came thirteen minutes from the end; a drilled shot from Aaron Ramsey’s pass was enough to give Wales the win and have them leapfrog Israel into top spot in the group. Israel and Belgium do have a game in hand to play against each other which could see Wales drop back down to second before their crunch game with Belgium in Cardiff in June.

Expectations were high for Scotland going into Sunday’s must win game against Gibraltar at Hampden. Having warmed up with a narrow win over Northern Ireland four days earlier, Scotland fans were expecting a goal rout against the tiny peninsula state. The visitors were playing only their tenth international since being granted UEFA membership in 2013 and had until Sunday failed to record a competitive goal or a win. So when Luke Casciaro collected a pass from Aaron Payas on the twentieth minute of the match before coolly slotting it under David Marshall in the Scotland goal, dreams of an upset were very much on the cards. Scotland looked rattled having taken the lead only moments earlier through a penalty from Shaun Maloney but soon found the composure needed to get back on track. Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher added Scotland’s second of the day with a glancing header just before the half hour mark before Maloney added a third with his second penalty of the day. Steven Naismith put Scotland into a commanding position with a four goal six minutes before the interval.  The second half started much as the first had ended with Scotland in control and Fletcher in particular looking hungry for more goals. He would add a brace to complete his hat trick and earn himself a place in history as the first Scotsman to score three goals in an international fixture since Colin Stein did it in 1969. The win leaves Scotland still in contention in 3rd place in the group of death which also included World Champions Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland meanwhile put their 1-0 friendly defeat to Scotland behind them when they took on Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday. Amidst scenes of protests outside the ground from religious groups who were calling on the IFA to boycott the game as it was played on a Sunday, Northern Ireland surged out of the blocks and into an early lead only to see the goal strangely ruled out. But the home support didn’t have to wait long before Kyle Lafferty drilled home his twelfth international goal after some good work from Niall McGinn who headed the ball towards the striker who sweetly volleyed home. The former Burnley and Rangers front man added a second five minutes later with a fine header from a Conor McLaughlin cross. Finland did manage to pull one back late in the game but Michael O’Neill’s men held on for another valuable three points. The win leaves them in second spot, a point behind Romania who they face next in June. With Greece already out of the reckoning and Finland struggling to find a winning formula, it looks to be a three way race between Romania, Northern Ireland and Hungary for the two automatic spots. A win against Romania followed by three points against the Faroe Islands could see Northern Ireland clinch its place at the European Championships for the first time in their history.

Harry Kane’s dream season continued with his debut appearance for England against a very poor Lithuania. In typical Kane style, he marked his first England cap with his first England goal only two minutes after coming on as a substitute. The Tottenham striker latched on to Raheem Sterling’s cross to head in at the back post and seal England’s four nil victory. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling handed England all three points and kept their quest for qualification on track. Sitting top of the group after five matches with a six point lead England will progress if they win their next two games against second placed Slovenia and whipping boys San Marino. Few would bet on England progressing especially given the depth of talent available to manager Roy Hodgson. Already blessed with several options upfront, Kane’s addition and strong showing on his debut including not only his goal but some strong link up play will be sure to give Hodgson some food for thought.

With five games remaining, all four home nations look to be in good positions to qualify for Euro 2016 set to take place in France. With two automatic places in each group and the best third place team qualifying, the home nations all know that this is their best chance of all reaching the tournament. They will want to avoid the playoffs considering who may be involved at this stage in the game. Holland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Switzerland all occupy third spots in their respective groups and are struggling for consistent form. If that continues the playoffs could be one of the most hotly contested of all time. Hopefully be then all of the Home nations have already sealed their places and will be focusing on the challenges that lie ahead of them in France.

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Scottish Future Looks Bright With Latest Batch Of Talented Youngsters

One of a host of bright stars for Scotland - Ryan Harper of Real Madrid (Image from Getty)Once considered a breeding ground for new talent in the 70’s and 80’s, Scottish football entered into a somewhat dormant phase of its history with few Scottish born players making the move to other countries to ply their trade. Of the ones that did, only a handful succeeded such as Paul Lambert who joined Borussia Dortmund from Motherwell and helped them to the Champions League title in 1997 before returning to join Celtic. Others like Gary O’Connor lasted only a few seasons abroad before returning sheepishly to Scotland to rebuild his career. But now a new generation of talented players is emerging and interest in Scottish football has spiked again with many clubs now sending scouts to watch specific players. The latest player to agree to the move is Stephen Hendrie, the Hamilton left back who has signed a pre contract with West Ham and will depart for the Premiership in the summer.

Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer  (Image from Getty)

Hendrie has agreed to join West Ham in the summer
(Image from Getty)

The 20 year old has had a superb season helping his side perform above expectations in the Scottish Premier League. Over the years Hamilton has become one of several clubs in Scottish football who continuously discover, develop and sell on young talent. Previous graduates include midfielders James McArthur and James McCarthy who both left the club to join Premiership sides and have since built notable careers. Whilst the latter of the two has chosen to represent the Republic of Ireland at national level, he is still Scottish by birth and a good example of how the clubs youth system is progressing. Similarly Dundee United, Inverness Caley Thistle, Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Hibernian have all had talented Scots leave their ranks in recent years to test their skills at a higher level.Switching to the English Premiership has been a common theme for several Scottish players once they start to out shine the other players in Scotland. Alan Hutton, Charlie Adam, Andrew Robertson, Steven Naismith, James Morrison and Steven Fletcher are all examples of players who have made successful switches and continue to play in England’s top league on a regular basis. But now other European leagues are sitting up and taking notice of the Scottish talent on show. The recent move of Ryan Gauld from Dundee United to Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon is probably the one that springs to mind to most after his £3 million move. The player dubbed “mini Messi’ by the Dundee United fans is still only 19 but excelled in Scotland over a two year period before Sporting came calling. He is now pushing hard for a starting spot in the Lisbon first team after performing well in various cup matches.

Gauld is considered one for the future for Scotland national manager Gordon Strachan who is reaping the benefits of work carried out former Performance Director Mark Wotte. The Dutchman was drafted in by the SFA in 2011 to revamp the countries failing youth system and immediately set about implementing the recommendations of a review conducted by former first minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish. These changes most notably included a shift in mindset around how clubs were developing its younger players, focusing more on technique, fitness and healthy living. The plan, partially backed by the SFA with significant investment saw the appointment of Wotte and the birth of a new generation of players. Whilst it’s the clubs that deserve most of the praise for the way that they have nurtured talent, McLeish and Wotte deserves some credit for starting the conversation and helping Scottish football to get back on track.

The late Henry McLeish and his report  (Image from STV)

The late Henry McLeish and his report
(Image from STV)

The future now looks rosy especially for the national team. Not only can Strachan call up players who have spent several years in the Premiership developing their games but he now has a wealth of talented players coming through to freshen up his side. Gauld, along with the likes of Chelsea’s Islam Feruz, Real Madrid’s Ryan Harper and Dundee United’s Stuart Armstrong are the future of the national team. For the fans their hopes are that this new generation can help the national side to finally end its long term exodus and reach a major international tournament, something it has failed to do for nearly 30 years. Reaching a World Cup or European Championship would be just reward and indicate how far Scotland has come over the past ten years. If the influx of talent young players leaving the country for stronger leagues across Europe is an indication, then Scotland looks to be on course once more to reaching its goals.

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Football Mourns The Passing Of Legend Dave MacKay

Football mourns the passing of Dave MacKay (Image from S&G and Barratts/Emipics Sports)Football in Britain during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was not for the faint hearted. Characters like Billy Bremner, Norman “Bites yer legs” Hunter and Ron “Chopper” Harris ruled the game with their harsh brand of fearful football. Talent players they were but they were also notorious for crunching tackles and dirty challenges which helped them to be successful. However one player who had tremendous success during these times was harshly portrayed as a bully simply because of a single photo. The picture of Dave MacKay grabbing Billy Bremner shirt and holding him up during a clash between MacKay’s Tottenham and Bremner’s Leeds in 1966 painted MacKay as one of these football hard men but it was far from the truth. Yes MacKay was known for his tough approach to the game but it was his self drive and strong will to be successful that made him into the player he was. Scotsman MacKay became a legend during his playing days and he will be remembered as such as people mourn his passing today after the former Tottenham, Derby, Hearts and Scotland midfielder died aged 80.

MacKay and Bremner in the now legendary photo  (Image from Mirrorpix)

MacKay and Bremner in the now legendary photo
(Image from Mirrorpix)

MacKay was always destined to be a footballer, after growing up on the back streets of Edinburgh with a football glued to his feet. There was only ever one club that MacKay wanted to join and despite the interest from others, he finally became a Hearts player in 1953 much to his delight. Little did they know that in doing so, Hearts had managed to sign someone who would redefine the way that they played. Under the management of Tommy Walker and with MacKay installed as captain, Hearts won their first of two Scottish league titles, first in 1958 and then two years later in 1960. The first triumph earned Hearts a spot in the record books after they won the league with 62 points on the board and 132 goals scored. It would be the making of MacKay who bossed the Hearts midfield with the grit and determination that he would later be known for. MacKay would only stay with Hearts for a further season, eventually leaving his boyhood club to join Tottenham in 1959 in a move that would help MacKay secure legendary status.

Dave MacKay made only 22 appearances for Scotland, mostly due to injuries  (Image source unknown)

Dave MacKay made only 22 appearances for Scotland, mostly due to injuries
(Image source unknown)

Over the next nine years, MacKay would etch himself into Spurs folklore as a fan favourite, the tough tackling Scottish midfield general who was afraid of no-one. With MacKay in place as the heartbeat of the club Spurs won the league in 1961, three FA cups in ‘61, ‘62 and ‘67 and the European Cup Winners Cup in ‘63 beating Altetico Madrid in the final, a game MacKay unfortunately missed due to injury. It was during this time that the fateful image of MacKay standing up to Bremner was taken, a picture that has haunted him ever since. Upon leaving Tottenham, MacKay linked up with Brian Clough at Derby in a move that would see the player converted from his traditional role as a central midfield general to a no nonsense sweeper using his influence and ability to read the game to turn defence into attack. It worked perfectly with Derby winning promotion back to the first division and MacKay being named the FWA footballer of the Year. Having won 22 caps for Scotland over a eight year period (mostly curtailed by injury) including an appearance at the 1958 World Cup age was now starting to catch up with the player. Now 37, MacKay decided to leave Derby for one final season at Swindon in another move that would change his career for the better.

The move would kick start MacKay’s time as a manager first at Swindon then at Nottingham Forest and eventually back at Derby following the resignation of Clough. It was at Derby that he would win his only honours as a manager, lifting the First Division title in the 1974-75 season and the FA Charity Shield in 1975. Later roles at Walsall, Doncaster and Birmingham would follow with a nine spell in Kuwait in between. His final roles back in the Middle East with Zamalek and Qatar failed to bring any further success so MacKay at aged 63 decided to call it a day. Despite limited success as a manager, MacKay’s time as a player had already cemented his place as a football legend and that legacy is being remembered today. The great George Best called him “the bravest player he had ever played against” whilst his former club Tottenham called him “one of their greatest ever players and a man who never failed to inspire those around him”. A leader, a gentleman and a legend, MacKay will be remembered not for that photo but instead for the player he was and rightly so.

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Norwegian Wonder kid Odegaard Signs For Real Madrid

Norwegian wonderkid, Martin Odegaard (Image from Getty)Touted as one of the hottest prospects in the game, it was only a matter of time before he left his home in Norway for pastures new. After months of speculation, Stromsgodset prodigy Martin Odegaard has finally signed for Real Madrid for a reported fee of around 3m Euros.  A formal announcement and unveiling is expected today at the Bernabeau as the 16 year old is presented to the Spanish media. The Norwegian wonder kid has chosen to move to the European champions ahead of various other lucrative offers including ones from boyhood favourites Liverpool, Manchester United, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Madrid rivals Barcelona. But the draw of working with Carlo Ancelotti and being part of the new generation of Galatico’s was too good to refuse. Ancelotti has already spoken about his delight in getting the deal done proclaiming that Odegaard is a kid with exceptional talent and personality.

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year  (Image from Getty)

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year
(Image from Getty)

Born in December 1998, Odegaard was always destined to be a footballer as his father was a huge influence on him in his early years. Hans Erik Odegaard, a former player himself, has nurtured his son throughout his childhood and instill a strong work ethic into him, regularly encouraging his son to train for a minimum of 20 hours per week, even as a small child. Many have criticized Hans for being a pushy parent but he insists that Martin always dreamed of becoming a footballer much like other boys his age so all he was doing was encouraging his development into one. And what a job he did. Martin’s endless hours spent practicing and perfecting his technique have made him into one of the most exciting players ever to emerge from Norway. Hans would also provide Martin with his first step into the game by landing him a trial at his old club Stromsgodset who quickly snapped up the youngster before any one else could. As the bigger teams across Europe started to get wind of this talented 12 year old, Stromsgodset with the help of his father pulled the player closer and encouraged him not to become distracted with their interest and to focus on his career in Norway which would start by breaking into the first team. His progression was quick with Martin joining first team training sessions aged 13 before eventually making it onto the subs bench two year later.

Odegaard became the youngest player ever to play in the Tippeligaen at aged 15 years and 117 days when he was handed his Norwegian league debut for Stromsgodset against Aaelsund. Then manager Ronny Delia, now head coach at Celtic in Scotland, saw something magical in the boy and decided it was time to let him shine. Appearing as a substitute in the 72nd minute of the game, Odegaard wasted little time in showcasing his natural ability by dancing round four players before playing an inch perfect pass to fellow substitute and teammate Thomas Sorum to score.  One month later he would score his first goal for the club in a 4-1 victory over Sarpsborg, making him the league’s youngest ever scorer, a record that had stood for over 100 years.  Two months later he would make his European debut in the Champion’s league second qualifying round defeat to Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti. By now speculation was mounting over how long it would be before the wonder kid was called up to the national team. Having starred in Norway’s Under 17 team in a tournament played in Scotland back in early 2014, it was expected that Odegaard would be made to wait and move slowly through the ranks before making his full debut. However with manager Per Mathias Hogmo under increasing pressure to freshen up his under performing squad ahead of the start of the European Championship qualifying stage, Hogmo accelerated Odegaard’s progress and handed him his full debut in a friendly against Saudi Arabia. A month later he became the youngster ever player to play in a European Championship qualifier as he rose from the bench to replace Mats Moller Daehli in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria.

Carrying the label of the next Lionel Messi is a heavy burden for someone so young but his father is confident that his son will be able to cope. Having spent hours working on his first and second touches plus running at pace with the ball, Hans believes his son has the tools to emulate his idol and become a player of similar stature. Fellow professionals agree calling him a phenomenon and a player with unbelievable talent, the best that Norway has ever produced. High praise for a player who is still only 16 and has a lot to prove in the game. But at Madrid, Odegaard will get the best coaching that money can buy and has the best chance of becoming the player that many hope he will. His father, who has protected his son well and kept him grounded, will be beside his son all the way on his journey after accepting a youth coaching role with Real Madrid as well. Both Odegaards are now looking forward to the next chapter in their lives with Hans determined to make their time in Spain a success. Success comes in various forms but for his son getting into the first team and playing for Madrid is the dream. With an already talented squad, it may be a harder and longer road for the young player but a journey he is prepared to take as he looks to become the next Lionel Messi.

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Why Platini’s Tinkering Could Destroy UEFA

All smiles from the joker (Image from PA)With the application phase firmly underway, there appears to be no turning back on Platini’s revolution of the European Championships. The next event, due to be played in France in 2016, will be the last of its kind as a new format is adapted for the 2020 tournament. No longer will a single country host the entire tournament, instead 13 cities will host various games in an attempt by Platini to mix things up. His argument is that no country alone can afford to host the games on its own, with infrastructure alone being a huge cost to the host nation. Added into this falling attendances and partially filled stadiums at some of the less glamorous games highlight a need for radical change. Platini is convinced that a revitalized European Championships that encourages smaller nations to join in with by hosting games can reignite the passion and generate more money. The fans will benefit too in his eyes, with hotel chains and airlines unable to hike up their prices specifically to the host country. Instead low cost airlines will profit by ferrying passengers between the various cities where the games are being played.

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020  (Image from Skyscraper.com)

13 venues across Europe will host Euro 2020
(Image from Skyscraper.com)

It’s another hair brained idea by Platini which on paper looks sound but in practice makes little sense. Logistics aside (organizing a 4 week tournament across 13 countries with consideration for fans, TV broadcasters and players would be a nightmare for anyone), the idea of ripping up the framework of the world’s second biggest football tournament and starting from scratch is crazy. This isn’t the first time that Platini has been found guilty of making strange suggestions and he has many wondering if he is a football genius or a buffoon. Orange Cards, sin bins, Gulf World Cups and a newly created Nations Leagues to replace international friendlies are all straight from the Frenchman’s head whilst goal line technology which the game is crying out for is ridiculed by Platini as Playstation football. His support of the switch to the winter for the Qatar 2022 World Cup also shocked many, none more so that the leagues that play in his own organization who will see major disruptions to their domestic schedules that will take seasons to rectify. Platini appears to have too much time on his hands and too much of that time is spend on his own thinking up new ways to change football “for the better”.

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football  (Image from PES)

Platini compared goal line technology to Playstation Football
(Image from PES)

Granted the European Championships needs a fresh coat of paint and some additional glamour added to it, but starting from scratch is not the solution. Yes the cost is intrusive but can limited if the country selected already has the stadiums in place. It should be pointed out that some countries in Europe have the facilities and infrastructure in place to stage a tournament tomorrow. England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy could all host with ease whilst Turkey would only require spending on infrastructure like roads and airports which is already doing. The problem sits with Platini and his inability to listen to reason or any other argument other than his own. Many saw Platini as the man to save football from the clutches of a corrupt FIFA and the eventual successor to Sepp Blatter but now many are hoping this won’t happen as given a bigger remit, his damage could be on a grander scale. Imagine a World Cup split over five continents or a new international Super league that pits Scotland against New Zealand or Chile against Japan on a frequent basis. As crazy as it may sound, it could be a possibility if Platini got his way. Like Napoleon, there is a danger that Platini believes he can conquer the world and change it for the better. His world however is football and needs to be protected. Football fans across Europe will be hoping that common sense returns to this once great man and he returns the European Championships back to its original format just in time for the 2020 tournament.

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Aberdeen Mount Serious Challenge To Celtic’s Title Aspirations

Aberdeen look for further silverware after winning the League Cup last year (Image from Getty)It’s hard to believe that it has been thirty years since Aberdeen last won Scotland’s biggest honour, the Premier League title. Led by Sir Alex Ferguson, Aberdeen were the dominant force domestically and a formidable opponent in Europe as well winning three leagues titles, the European Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup in a glory filled six year spell. Since then, Aberdeen have struggled to compete against the financial clout of the Old firm, Glasgow giants Rangers and Celtic who between them have won every title since ’85. But now Aberdeen may have their best chance in over three decades in arguably much more favourable circumstances. With Rangers, Hearts and Hibs all playing in the Championship (Scotland’s second tier) following relegation, and Celtic struggling to find consistent form, the door is open to Aberdeen once more to make a serious title challenge.

Can the current Aberdeen team replicate the success of Fergie's side?  (Image from Getty)

Can the current Aberdeen team replicate the success of Fergie’s side?
(Image from Getty)

To win titles, you need to be scoring goals and Aberdeen certainly are. Their strike duo of Adam Rooney and David Goodwillie has 19 goals between them so far and don’t exactly look in the mood to stop. Rooney in particular is replicating the type of form more associated with his namesake Wayne, and has the swagger to match. Signed on a free after being released by Oldham, Rooney has been a revelation this year as Aberdeen mounts a serious title challenge. The 26 year old previously spent a successful period playing for Inverness and it was this that alerted Aberdeen to his potential. His strike partner Scotland internationalist David Goodwillie is also performing well as he rescues his career after a torrid spell at Blackburn and a long drawn out court case connected with the alleged sexual assault of a woman during his Dundee United days. Their goals have helped Aberdeen to seven wins in a row, with their last defeat coming in early November at the hands of rivals Celtic. Manger Derek McInnes has done a remarkable job in building a team able to compete given the limited resources that he has had to work with. Smart deals like those struck with Barry Robson, Niall McGinn, Willio Flood and Goodwillie have added much needed experience to a fairly young squad. Indeed the introduction of younger players like Jeffrey Monakana, Cameron Smith and Craig Murray has added an extra zip to Aberdeen’s game that has been missing in previous seasons. The youngsters, either brought in through the clubs youth team or as inexpensive transfers from lower league clubs, showcase McInnes ability to garnish fresh talent and craft them into established regular starters even at such a young age.

To pip Celtic to the title would be extra special for manager Derek McInnes after spending some of his playing career on the blue side of Glasgow at Rangers. But that is neither here nor there as McInnes attempts to keep his team on grounded and focused on the task in hand. One point ahead in the league, Aberdeen knows that they can ill afford any slip ups if they are to finally lay the ghost of ’85 to bed. Celtic do have one game in hand to claw it back and regain top spot so it could come down to the wire as the season enters its second half. Next month’s clash between the two could go a long way in deciding who wins the title. Celtic are strong favourites given the resources at their disposal and the ability to strengthen further during the transfer window. However its Aberdeen’s team spirit that could be the deciding factor in the battle for this seasons Premiership title.

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The Fight Is On For Ownership Of Rangers

The Battle for Rangers heats up (Image from Getty)Remarkably almost three years on from entering administration, Glasgow Rangers remain in tatters. Financial mismanagement, greed and self preservation on behalf of certain individuals has tarnished this once iconic football club and turned it into the laughing stock of world football. Ripped of its soul and starved of those who hold the club close to their hearts, Rangers are fading fast into the abyss with the threat of another administration or worse becoming a real possibility. They have already lost faithful manager Ally McCoist who quit after enduring years of torture at the hands of others seemingly hell bent on destroying the club he loves. And now its star players are heading for the exit with Lewis McLeod already sold to Brentford in order to bring in much needed funds to keep the club on life support for a few more months. Left back Lee Wallace could be next to depart with several interested parties watching the ongoing developments at Ibrox with interest. Each day is like a new nightmare for the passionate fans who only want to see Rangers regain its financial footing and challenge once more for honours both at home and abroad.

Rising star Lewis McLeod has already been sold to bring in much needed funds  (Image from Getty)

Rising star Lewis McLeod has already been sold to bring in much needed funds
(Image from Getty)

The fans are quite rightly demanding answers but as yet are unable to get a clear picture of what is happening behind the closed doors at Ibrox. Drip fed information by non executive Chairman David Somers, the fans are struggling to understand who exactly owns what at Rangers and how a club that has consistently cut back on costs can still be hemorrhaging money to such an extent that majority shareholder and Chairman Sandy Easdale had to loan the club £500,000 recently to avoid it from being wound up by HM Revenue and Customs. Struggling to balance its books, Rangers are at real risk of financial suicide before the end of the season unless significant investment can be found. Step forward three unlikely characters who have added more complexity to the story. In the first surprise move, the Douglas Park Group consisting of wealthy fans and established businessmen Douglas Park, George Letham and George Taylor swooped in to buy 16% of the club from investment firm Laxey Partners. Their purchase was made as a tactical move to stop Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley from his planned takeover, a move that many see as problematic for the club. Ashley’s involvement at the club is under scrutiny from various parties including the SFA, English FA and UEFA as its breaches dual interest rules and has now been blocked by the SFA in his attempt to increase his ownership to 30%.

Who owns what at Ibrox?

Who owns what at Ibrox?

Currently Ashley controls 8.9% of the club but has greater influence on its day to day running after persuading the club to hire close acquaintances Derek Llambias and Barry Leach to the key roles of Chief Executive and Finance Director respectively. Ashley also loaned the club £3million in November to help with running costs but in exchange landed the naming rights to Ibrox as well as an extremely lucrative merchandising deal. The Douglas Park Group believes that Ashley is not acting in the clubs best interest and has offered a further investment of £6.5million in exchange for seats on Rangers board. In a similar move, South African based businessman Dave King has snapped up a 15% stake in the club by purchasing the shares once held by Artemis and Miton. The move was made after King’s original offer of £15million for a controlling stake was rejected by the board in favour of Ashley’s loan previously mentioned. King, a lifelong Rangers fan has been wrestling with the Rangers board for years now with the intent to gain control and stabilize the club. But with the Easdales unwilling to budge, King has had to be creative to get his foot into the door with a coup his likely next move. Before that is possible, King will have to convince the Financial Conduct Authority that he is not working in unison with the Douglas Park group as that would require additional steps to be followed.

The final twist in the saga is the appearance of US businessman Robert Sarver who has expressed an interest in acquiring the club. The owner of NBA team Phoenix Suns made a formal bid of £18million for controlling interest with another £15million to be invested only for it to be rejected by the board for undervaluation of the club. Sarver has until February 2nd to increase his bid and make it formal if he is keen to proceed. His interest in Rangers was peaked after discussions with former Rangers left back David Robertson who is now working in Phoenix as a youth soccer coach. The two became close after Robertson coached Sarver’s three sons and when he found out that Sarver had ambitions to invest in a European based football team, he urged him to look at Rangers. After carrying out a detailed review, Sarver made his move just after Christmas informing the board and WH Ireland which manages RIFC’s listing on the Alternative Investment Market. Whilst his initial bid has been rejected, it is unlikely to deter Sarver from proceeding. However the moves made by King and the Douglas Park group may have complicated things but the American is happy to work with fellow like minded individuals in order to restore the club to its former glory.

US businessman Robert Sarver could be the answer for Rangers  (Image from Getty)

US businessman Robert Sarver could be the answer for Rangers
(Image from Getty)

The next few weeks and months will be interesting viewing for Rangers fans as the story unfolds. The battle for ownership at Ibrox will be messy, with four player’s jocking for position. In one corner, Mike Ashley plots his next move, likely in collaboration with the Easdale brothers and Somers who many now see as Ashley’s mouthpiece. Robert Sarver will review the response from the board and react accordingly within the month before his February deadline. King and the Douglas Park Group will also watch with interest to see what the American financier does next. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the trio could join forces to oust the existing board and seize control of Rangers once and for all. It is rumoured that conversations have already taken place and that plans are being developed. This would be the best scenario for the Rangers fans that are being urged to back the trio in any way that they can. A return to normality for Rangers is on the horizon but time will tell if it’s the path that this once great club travels down or whether they will remain in their current descent into the abyss.

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What Next For Rangers As McCoist Resigns

More turmoil at Ibrox (Image from Wikipedia)The resignation of Rangers manager Ally McCoist has been formally acknowledged by the club on the stock exchange leading fans and shareholders to wonder what next for the troubled boss. McCoist letter of resignation was in direct response to the dismissal of key long standing non playing personnel at the club despite reassurances weeks earlier that this would not happen. It was the straw that broke the camels back for the manager who has steered the club through some of its darkest hours including administration and relegation to Scotland’s lowest professional footballing tier.

What next for McCoist?  (Image from Getty)

What next for McCoist?
(Image from Getty)

His formal notice is 12 months in length leaving the club and its owners with a difficult decision to make – pay off McCoist now or let him run out his contract. Normally the obvious resolution would be to cut ties and end the association quickly so that both parties could move on but for cash strapped Rangers paying off McCoist may not be possible. With a severance payment due of around £400,000 it will ultimately come down to chairman Sandy Easdale and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, who now controls 9% of the club to put up the cash to pay off McCoist. The board is set to meet with McCoist tomorrow to discuss next steps with the likely outcome that the manager will be allowed to leave sooner rather than later in order to protect the clubs chances of getting back into the Premiership.  In recent weeks in the lead up to him handing in his notice, several members of the board have been vocally opposed to McCoist remaining in charge. Results on the pitch have not been good enough considering the talent at the manager’s disposal and the club is at risk of going backwards once more. A change now may stop this rot and hand Rangers back the emphasis needed to get them back on track and challenging for promotion once more.

Decision maker Mike Ashley  (Image from Getty)

Decision maker Mike Ashley
(Image from Getty)

Once McCoist has formally left, the task of hiring a new manager will be undertaken. The good news for Rangers fans is that the early front runners being considered for the job are all former Rangers players. Stuart McCall played for the club during its most successful era, quickly becoming a fan favourite at the heart of the midfield. The tough tackling no nonsense McCall would be seen as an ideal replacement given how he performed in the manager’s role at Motherwell in recent years.  With limited funds and resources, McCall turned Motherwell into title contenders and the hope would be that under similar circumstances he could do the same at Rangers.

McCall could replace McCoist in the Rangers hotseat  (Image from Rob Casey Photography)

McCall could replace McCoist in the Rangers hotseat
(Image from Rob Casey Photography)

Terry Butcher was also part of that team as part of a defensive rearguard alongside Richard Gough. During his time with the club, Butcher gave no less than 100% in every appearance he made earning himself a slot in the clubs illustrious history. As a manager, Englishman Butcher has chalked up over 24 years of experience at clubs across the UK including stints at Inverness, Hibernian and Motherwell in Scotland as well as spells in England with Sunderland, Brentford and Coventry. He also had short stays with Sydney FC in Australia and as assistant manager for Scotland under the ill fated George Burley reign.

Butcher is a front runner for the job  (Image from Getty)

Butcher is a front runner for the job
(Image from Getty)

Whilst his stay at Ibrox was limited to only 13 games over seven years at the very beginning of his playing career , Billy Davies still holds a special place in his heart for Rangers. The former Motherwell, Derby and Nottingham Forest boss has thrown his hat into the ring and has been spotted at Ibrox recently watching some games. All three candidates present different managerial styles but all have at least one thing in common – a shared passion for the club.

Billy Davies is keen on the role  (Image from PA)

Billy Davies is keen on the role
(Image from PA)

Whoever lands the role will not be in for an easy ride. Turmoil off the pitch continues with power squabbles now on a daily basis and with the SFA launching yet another investigation into its ownership. On the pitch, the players lack belief that promotion is possible. The squad is more than capable of doing so but until they regain it, they will likely continue to languish in the Championship.

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Scotland’s Mini Messi Destined For Greater Things

Gauld arrives at Sporting Lisbon (Image from AFP)Once in a lifetime is how 18 year old Ryan Gauld described the opportunity to move to Sporting Lisbon. After completing his £3million move from Dundee United, the dazzling midfielder spoke to reporters at Edinburgh airport about his dream to play in Europe and how he couldn’t turn down this chance. Gauld is not fazed by the move nor feels under pressure to live up to expectations which bode well for his future career in Portugal. Sporting who beat several top clubs across Europe for his signature, are so confident in his ability that they slapped a €60 million release clause into his contract to warn off any future interested parties. Having lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United in 2003 for only €15 million, it’s understandable why they want to protect their investment in a player who has demonstrated on several occasions how talented he actually is.

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough  (Image from Getty)

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough
(Image from Getty)

Gauld’s transfer comes at a time when Scottish football appears to be turning the corner, with several new young players bursting onto the scene. Dundee United has been the epicenter for most of this talent, with Gauld joining Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, John Souttar and Andy Robertson in the first team recently having all come through the youth ranks. All of this is welcomed news for Scotland manager Gordon Strachan who is rebuilding the national team after years of disappointment and heartbreak. With MacKay Steven already a full international and the likes of Jordan Rhodes continuing to improve at national level, the future looks bright for Scotland. Gauld has not yet won a full senior cap, restricted to Under 19 and 21 appearances only but his move to Sporting may expedite the situation especially given Scotland’s lack of creative influencers. In Gauld, Strachan may have a player who can become Scotland’s outlet of creativity for the next decade.

Moves like Messi  (Image from Getty)

Moves like Messi
(Image from Getty)

Gauld has lit up the Scottish Premier League for the past two seasons with his mesmerizing ball control and unique ability to drift away from defenders with ease. Watching fans may be inclined to compare him to the late Davie Cooper which is a fair tribute to the youngster given Cooper’s legacy. But Gauld is much more than just an imitation of Cooper, he is the real deal. For someone so young, Gauld possess amazing vision and can read a game like no other. At only 5ft 6in, his small stature gives him incredible close control and speed on the ball which is a nightmare for opposition defences, whilst his ability to interchange his finishing either with power or a side footed pass illustrates his range. Gauld is destined for greater things, with the dreams of a nation resting on his shoulders. Hardly surprising he has been dubbed Mini Messi. Like Messi, the pressure will be on Gauld to live up to those lofty expectations and not end up as another British failure abroad. Few Scots have succeeded abroad (John Collins at Monaco, Paul Lambert at Borussia Dortmund, Steve Archibald at Barcelona) but the rest have failed miserably. Given his personality and grounded approach, Gauld will be keen to prove his worth and pay back the faith shown by Sporting by giving his all from day one. His break into the first team will come and it will be up to him to seize it with both hands or face returning to Scotland as another flop. However anyone who has watch Gauld so far will know that this is unlikely to happen and Gauld will use this move to his advantage as he looks to build upon his career in Portugal. Share your thoughts below or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or Twitter: https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog. You can now follow us on Tumblr and Instagram as well!

Europe’s Minnows Finally Turn Up To The Party

Europe's minnows finally stepping up? (Image from Getty)It’s been an interesting start to the 2016 European Championships qualification campaign with a series of surprising results so far. In the earlier match weeks Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Iceland showed non believers that spirit and determination sometimes can overcome experience and skill as they set about securing a handful of points in the race for qualification. Meanwhile the so called European heavyweights appeared to be sluggish out of the gate with Holland, Spain and Greece all failing to dispatch teams ranked much further down the FIFA official rankings. Whilst the Dutch and the Spanish have rebounded in spectacular fashion, Greece stuttering start to the campaign under new coach Claudio Ranieri came to an abrupt halt this past weekend when the lowly Faroe Islands arrived in Athens and left with their heads held high and three vital points in the bag. Joan Edmundsson’s 61st minute miss hit shot was enough to condemn the Greeks to bottom place in group F and to give the Greek FA enough leverage to finally dispatch Ranieri.

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece  (Image from AFP)

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece
(Image from AFP)

To be fair, the Faroes result was a shock but not as much as San Marino’s point against Estonia. The enclave microstate has not managed to secure a single point in their last 61 international games so ending that run meant more to them that winning itself. For a while it looked like the match would follow the usual storyboard with Estonia pressing from the off. But the resilient San Marino side held on to the end, securing a valuable point and ending that horrific losing run. The last game the San Marino actual won was in a friendly back in April 2004 against fellow strugglers Liechtenstein who have had their fair share of defeats as well since then. But recent results including a 0-0 draw against Montenegro in October followed by Saturday’s stunning 1-0 victory over Moldova have given Rene Pauritsch’s side much need optimism for the future. Liechtenstein now find themselves in a strange position, three points ahead of Moldova in fifth place with the former Soviet state rooted to the bottom of the table. It’s the same position that Malta now finds themselves in after their 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia this past weekend. The tiny Mediterranean island used to be the whipping boys of European football but in the past few years have started to show a more formidable side to their play, carving out friendly wins against the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg whilst holding Northern Ireland to a draw. However in international competition the team still lacks that killer instinct showing only flashes in recent years, especially in the 1-0 win over Armenia in June of last year. Sunday’s match in Sofia started much like most of the others, with Malta going behind after only 6 minutes to a bundled in goal by Andrey Galabinov but fought back well to earn a point from the penalty spot converted by left back Clayton Failla.

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria  (Image from PA)

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria
(Image from PA)

When the idea of changing the qualification criteria for this upcoming European Championships was floated, it was met with a tidal wave of negative responses from critics citing that it would not make for interesting viewing nor makes it easier as UEFA President Michel Platini suggested for smaller European nations to qualify. Platini ignored the objections and pushed ahead with his master plan to rejuvenate what has becoming a stale second tier tournament behind its much more glamorous cousin, the World Cup. But after four matches which has shown that the qualification process is far from pre determined and is in fact wide open, Platini will surely now be sitting back with a large grin across his face. All nine groups are very much still in play with a variety of nations who have struggled to qualify in the past like Wales, Iceland, Scotland and Cyprus all in good positions. There is still a long journey ahead before reaching France but if qualifying continues to throw up these startling results, it may not be impossible to believe that the tournament will see not just one but several new faces taking part.

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Rangers Chaos Continues As Mike Ashley Tightens His Grip

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley tightens his grip on Rangers (Image from PA)The calamitous situation unfolding at Ibrox should surprise no one as yet another diabolical chapter of Rangers history is written. In the latest twist, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley who current owns 8.92% of the club tighten his grip by injecting a £2million interest-free loan into the ailing club. This was in stark contrast to the apparent £15million rescue package put on the table by South African businessman Dave King or the £3million offer from Sale Sharks owner Brian Kennedy which was rejected in favour of Ashley’s investment. At the heart of this lies a boardroom battle that has plagued the Glasgow giants for over three years now since former owner Craig Whyte plunged them into administration. Rangers appeared to be on safer ground with the appointment of a new board containing former Manchester City executive Graham Wallace as CEO and accomplished financial guru Philip Nash as financial director. However as Ashley made his play for increased power at Rangers, both Wallace and Nash have been forced out of the club with the duo resigning in the last few days. This leaves the board with two empty slots of which it would appear that Ashley is keen on filling with his own men.

After Wallace backed Dave King's plan and it was rejected, his position was untenable  (Image from Getty)

After Wallace backed Dave King’s plan and it was rejected, his position was untenable
(Image from Getty)

Step forward former Newcastle managing director Derek Llambias who has since flown to Scotland to hold talks with Rangers PLC chairman David Sommers and the football board chairman Sandy Easdale about filling the position of CEO at the club. Llambias has suggested to the media that he is one of several candidates that the club is considering to fill Wallace’s boots but few believe this is actually the case with Ashley now pulling the strings. The second position is likely to be filled by Stephen Mucklow, yet another close acquaintance of Ashley’s. Mucklow’s appointment will be less contested than the CEO role however given his background of failed businesses and various unknown involvements at a host of companies at present, it should be seen as the more contentious of the two appointments. The exiting Nash had a pedigree in football when he arrived at Ibrox having worked at Liverpool and Arsenal in the past as financial chief and it appeared to those close to the club that he was trying to resolve the clubs troubled cash flow problem. With Rangers still in financial peril, getting rid of the one man that could have stopped that from happening could be disastrous for the club.

Derek Llambias has flown to Scotland for CEO discussions  (Image from PA)

Derek Llambias has flown to Scotland for CEO discussions
(Image from PA)

Given the financial mess that Rangers are in, the question around why a £2million loan beat out more concrete offers for higher amounts (£3million and £15million respectively), with less stipulations needs to be asked? The answer is more troubling than many Rangers fans care to admit. The club is locked in a power struggle with Sandy Easdale as majority owner with 26% of the shares calling the shots. PLC chairman David Sommers appears to be only a puppet to Easdale who has entrenched himself with Ashley so deeply that the Newcastle owner now controls more of Rangers than a shareholder of less than 9% should. Not only does he own the naming rights to Ibrox, which he acquired in a dubious manner for only £1 but he also owns other Rangers assets and is further strengthen his grip on the club each and every day. Having signed an agreement with the SFA to restrict his involvement in Rangers to only 10%, it would appear that Ashley is exploring other avenues beyond share ownership to increase his control at Ibrox. SFA chief executive Stuart Regan has written to Rangers and to Ashley requesting information from both parties about the Newcastle owner’s involvement at the club and his future plans.

Dave King's sizable rescue package was surprisingly rejected  (Image from AFP)

Dave King’s sizable rescue package was surprisingly rejected
(Image from AFP)

It is unclear exactly what Ashley is up to or why he has chosen Rangers as his next pet project but as a businessman at heart, money will principally be behind the move. By appointing both Llambias and Mucklow to the board, Ashley protects his investment and has influence over the forward direction of the club. Llambias has been quick to suggest that Rangers fans have nothing to fear from this wealthy owner and that he has the best of intentions for the club. However the last time they heard that statement was from Craig Whyte and we all know how that turned out. They have every right to be nervous as yet another shuffling of the pack happens at Ibrox, whether the cards dealt this time will be any better, well they will have to wait and see.

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