Thursday, February 9, 2012
Doom and gloom continues
This week's North of the Border once more delves into the enduring misery at Rangers and Hearts.
WHYTE'S BLACK HOLE
A fstories have dominated Scottish football over the course of the season, and most of them made a bid for the headlines again this week.
Let's start at Rangers, who were knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Dundee United at Ibrox in their first game since selling the SPL's top goalscorer, Nikica Jelavic, to Everton without signing a replacement. That was the start of a bad week for the champions, as focus then switched to their owner and chairman, Craig Whyte.
Whyte came under media scrutiny once more, as it was alleged that he may have misled a court over a link between a previous suspension as a company director and his treatment of creditors. In interviews Whyte gave over the weekend, he was again candid about the club's preparation for administration. That appears unavoidable should they lose an impending tax case, but Whyte refused to rule out the possibility that it could happen regardless of - and perhaps even before - that outcome.
The chairman revealed the club is running at a loss of £10 million per year, a black hole that requires European football to be filled. Rangers lost their qualifiers for both competitions this season, and as they continue to cut costs and lose their best players, their ability to make it into the group stages of either UEFA tournament is diminished.
Whyte describes a desperate situation, and Ally McCoist - a hero as a player for Rangers - is enduring something of a nightmare in his first season as their manager.
KELLO: I MUST BE GOING
The ongoing story at Hearts has certain parallels with that at Ibrox. Here, again, is a club that, in the recent past, spent a long way beyond its means and who now has a hefty bill to pay, in more ways than one. This week they were chased in the courts for around £150,000 by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, who were waving a winding up order around. Hearts have become masterful at such brinkmanship, no matter how unnerving for their supporters, but there was more to worry them on the football front, too.
Hearts were put up for sale in December and the club sold or loaned three first-team players during the January window. Then, on the final day of trading, they received an offer for their starting goalkeeper, Marian Kello. The Slovakian was targeted by Austria Vienna and a fee was agreed between the clubs, but the player opted against the transfer.
His subsequent disappearance from the first team was described by his manager, Paulo Sergio, as "a political matter". Anyone familiar with the operation of Hearts under owner Vladimir Romanov is familiar with this kind of thing. The Russian-born millionaire used to fax team selections, along with substitutions, to managers on matchday and has frequently dabbled in player recruitment.
Eventually, as reporters waited for the official press conference ahead of Hearts' midweek match against Celtic to begin, Kello called them over, asking them if they "wanted the real story".
Hearts under Romanov have become shrouded in such secrecy that they must have been salivating like thirsty hounds. Or hungry monkeys, as Vlad might have it.
Kello revealed that he had been told by Sergeyus Fedotovas, a director, to agree to the £83,000 transfer to Vienna or face being removed from the team for the remainder of the season, and his contract. "I have been here three-and-a-half years, I always do my best for the club, but they always put me down," he said. "I have to say something. They [the club] might do something to me, I don't know, but I have to protect myself."
It really is best not to consider the possible implications of that last bit.
Still at Tynecastle, Celtic faced a midweek trip to Edinburgh for their game in hand in the SPL and a chance to make it 13 league wins in a row at the venue where they suffered their last domestic defeat.
This was trailed as a test of Celtic's improvement this season and they gave an utterly convincing display of not only their championship credentials but also the fine squad that Neil Lennon has now assembled.
Hearts have been weakened by the necessity to offload players, but Tynecastle remains a hostile place where a victory of any kind is cause for some celebration.
Celtic's 4-0 win included a fourth goal in four games for their captain, Scott Brown - the SPL's player of the month for January. Among the many excellent acquisitions made by Lennon, and the excitement surrounding the emergence this season of academy graduate James Forrest, Brown's form since his recovery from ankle surgery has provided the quiet engine behind Celtic's new-found authority.
Since he was bought for £4.4 million from Hibs in 2007, Brown has matured into an old-fashioned central midfielder, after starting out as a more attacking player and then being reprogrammed to play a deeper role. Now he uses both sides of his game while, for the time being at least, keeping a lid on the volcanic temper that once was a hallmark of his game.
Gary Bollan took over as manager of Livingston following the club's demotion to the bottom tier of Scottish football, a result of a spell in administration. In his first season, they won the Third Division. The next year, they won the Second Division. They started this, their first season back in the First Division, in fine form, but have since slipped back to a mid-table position that reflects their financial strength in that league. Yet, this week, Bollan was sacked.
It is a baffling decision when judged by the normal standards for success. Bollan claimed his employers told him he was not promoting enough players from the Under-19 squad to the first team and this was the primary reason for his dismissal. The Livingston academy has provided substantial revenue for the club in the past, with Graham Dorrans, Richard Snodgrass and Leigh Griffiths all finding their way to big clubs in England after getting their break in West Lothian. However, those were exceptional talents.
Bollan pointed out that he has regularly played academy players this season, but wanted to balance that with enough experience to ensure Livingston defended their place in the First Division. It appears the demands are higher than that at Almondvale, two years after they were playing in the Third Division.