Wednesday, August 24, 2011
North of the Border
Beaten by the bank
Until his death in 2008 after a long illness, Eddie Thompson ensured Dundee United were competitive at the top of the group of teams below the Old Firm in the SPL. A supporter of the club, financially as well as in the stands of Tannadice even before he took control, he used his personal fortune to stretch the budget of United. It is a model of ownership and investment that relates to dozens of club in UK football and hundreds around the world.
This week, Stephen Thompson, the son of the late United owner and current chairman, revealed that the club's bankers have retained the entirety of the £2.8m transfer fee received from Blackburn Rovers for the Scotland striker David Goodwillie. The Thompson family, he added, can no longer support the club and they will have address the remaining debt of around £5m and put a team on the park from the income it generates in the SPL.
United were beaten by newly-promoted Dunfermline last weekend. From the team that finished last season, they have lost Goodwillie, Morgaro Gomis (Birmingham), Prince Buaben (Watford) and Craig Conway (Cardiff City). They received a fee only for Goodwillie, an academy product.
The other three were at the end of their contracts, having been transformed at United from lower league players or academy rejects into internationals.
Peter Houston, the manager, was pragmatic about it all. He described the bank's actions as "turning the screw on the chairman" and expects no new signings during this transfer window. As a result, we can expect a far less competitive Dundee United and, next season, a different model entirely.
For fans of that club - and any other propped by a wealthy individual and/or a bank with a diminishing tolerance of indebted football clubs - the age of austerity may mean an end to bold ambition.
As Hibernian continue to struggle to get a toehold in the SPL season, their board may come to revisit their decision to reject an offer of £300,000 in compensation for the services of their manager, Colin Calderwood.
That offer was made by Birmingham City in June, when the Championship club, were in competition with Nottingham Forest in attempting to recruit Calderwood as assistant manager. The Hibs chairman, Rod Petrie, has often proved a shrewd negotiator when his players are courted, but this time the knock-out counter-offer did not appear.
Instead, Hibs were left with a manager who had implicitly made known his desire to move to a secondary position at another club, and Birmingham have not yet given up hope of recruiting Calderwood to assist Chris Hughton. Under such uncertainty, Hibs were caught cold at the start of the SPL, and bad vibes have created some bad momentum pretty quickly.
Defeat by St Mirren was their 21st in 36 under Calderwood. Petrie has had a twitchy trigger finger in recent seasons, dispensing with John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen and John Hughes without too much procrastination.
Should he end up signing a cheque for compensation in Calderwood's name, when he could have been cashing one a few months earlier, the inquest may focus not on another failed Hibs manager, but on the man appointing them.
A big week for Scottish clubs in Europe ended with some big questions, like: has the national game ever been in worse shape? After they were knocked out of Champions League qualification, Rangers lost the first leg of their play-off for a place in the Europa League, 2-1 to Maribor in Slovenia. On the same night, Celtic were held to a 0-0 draw at home to Sion of Switzerland and Hearts were obliterated 5-0 at home by Tottenham Hotspur. Chins were low.
The case of Hearts is to be viewed singularly. They were over-matched in every way at Tynecastle, up against a Spurs team of exceptional quality and worth. The demoralisation of the home players and support extended to anyone who had high hopes for a fair fight on a rare night at the old Edinburgh stadium.
For the Old Firm, results were not fatal, but the realities behind them were just as stark. Celtic and Rangers find themselves in dogfights against clubs of inferior stature. The Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, argued that Sion have a wage bill comparable - if not higher - than his, but for Rangers this was the latest blow in a summer that has seen them lose a series of transfer targets and a place in the Champions League play-off to Malmo of Sweden.
Both Old Firm clubs are capable of surviving into the group phase of the Europa League, but neither appears to have the calibre to match their surges to the final of the second-tier competition in recent years. If they don't make it, the case will be continue to be made that we have never had it so bad. And for once, those stretching for hyperbole might have a point.
The perfect journeyman
There are 42 teams in Scotland and, after only a handful of matches in the four divisions they play in, only one has a perfect record. Annan Athletic are the Scottish Football League's newest members, winning the vote to replace Gretna when that club went out of business in 2008 and were defeated in the play-off final for promotion from the Third Division last season.
This season, they have beaten both of the favourites for the title, Alloa and Peterhead on their way to three wins from three.
Six of their 10 goals have come from Ian Harty, a 33-year-old striker who has made 15 stops in an itinerant career, and has scored goals with regularity for most of his employers. Only once has he ventured outwith the lower leagues of Scotland, for a five-month spell at Darlington in which he made two substitute appearances.
Harty is a short and not-that-dynamic penalty-box poacher who has fallen out with more than a few team-mates and coaches in the last 15 years. In that, and in his ability to plunder goals in front of three-figure crowds around Scotland, he continues a rich tradition of natural-born goalscorers with attitude, whose presence on the teamsheet brings a sense of foreboding to supporters in the know at opposing clubs. After all, he's played for most of them.