Friday, September 2, 2011
Courting disaster and reconstruction
Can't get enough of Scottish football's European adventure 2011-12? Fear not. After 'Black Thursday' saw the remaining three SPL clubs eliminated from the Europa League and the imposition of a period of national mourning, Celtic await news of a legal reprieve that could send them sheepishly into the group stages.
Sion, the Swiss club who beat them in a match defined by Daniel Majstorovic's jaw-droppingly witless 44th-second red card foul, are in the dock for breach of a transfer embargo enforced by FIFA. Four of the players who faced Celtic were signed while the embargo was in place, including Pascal Feindouno, who scored twice in their 3-1 win.
The embargo dates back to the messy acquisition of Essam El-Hadary, an Egyptian goalkeeper, three years ago. His club claimed he was not eligible for transfer, El-Hadaray tried to invoke FIFA's Article 17, nobody quite knew what was going on and FIFA ruled in favour of Al Ahly, the Egyptian club.
If you think that's hard to follow, try getting to grips with the appeals procedure. An appeal was upheld in a Swiss court, but the Swiss Supreme Court and the Court of Arbitration for Sport have all backed FIFA. The case will be heard by UEFA this week, going back to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the final stop for Sion after that.
All of this must take place before the commencement of Europa League fixtures on September 17 and UEFA insiders have been briefing that Sion will be expelled, resulting in Celtic's return.
If things look bleak for the Swiss, they can at least take heart from the form of Scottish clubs in Europe so far this season. If they can get Majstorovic on the stand, the case is as good as theirs.
When Craig Levein was manager of Dundee United, he was involved in something of a running battle with the Scottish Football Association. Now he is under their employ as the national coach, his transformation into their cheerleader is not as discordant as it first appears.
The SFA is undergoing necessary change in pretty much every area. Levein has been in post during the entire process and has an inside line on what the governing body was doing to turn the ship around even before all four Scottish clubs in Europe struck an iceberg before August was out.
He hits his mark on the problems facing Scottish football: a lack of participation levels, a lack of facilities, a lack of football in schools.
He is also on message in blaming the clubs of the SPL for not voting through the ten-team league reform put forward by their own organisation, operating from within the same Hampden HQ as the SFA. Here he is in disagreement with his former club, whose chairman, Steven Thompson, is one of several critics of a smaller league.
Levein argues that the primary factor for the slump is money, or the lack of it in Scottish football. He thinks the best "product" is "the best teams playing against the best teams". Here is where his argument becomes more fragile. Money is the problem, but so is the possibility of playing the same teams six times a season and the smallest relegation zone in European football. These are the reasons the overwhelming majority of supporters favour a bigger league with increased promotion and relegation.
As Scotland boss, Levein is in a strong position as a champion of the need to promote participation and the nurturing of the best young talent at Scottish clubs. However, in taking sides in the debate over league format at the same time, he risks losing those core messages in the hurricane of hot air around an already chaotic argument.
Levein has been robbed of one of his big strengths in his current position as the Scotland coach does not get to sign players. At Dundee United, he built a fine team from obscure pick-ups and academy talent. One in the former category was Fran Sandaza, the striker who returned to Scotland with St Johnstone this season after a spell at Brighton in League One last season.
Sandaza said before he played his old club last weekend that he would not celebrate if he scored. So dreadful was St Johnstone's record in front of goal that this seemed an unnecessary pledge, like saying which charity you will give £1 million to should you win the lottery before you have even purchased a ticket.
However, as North of the Border predicted some weeks ago, Sandaza is a better bet than anything St Johnstone have had up front and scored twice as they drew 3-3 with United - the first time in over a year they had scored three times in the SPL. After both goals, the Spaniard stood all sullen before he was engulfed by happier team-mates.
This brought to mind the reaction of Henrik Larsson when he scored for Barcelona against Celtic, or Denis Law when his backheel for Manchester City helped relegate Manchester United. And as much as we like his game, we wondered if Sandaza's injury-plagued two years at Tannadice really merited such a display of solemn respect for his former employers. He is already on his way to being a more significant figure in Perth than he ever was in Dundee.
Where are they now?
Ahead of the international break, last weekend provided an excellent opportunity to catch up with some Scotland old boys. Stevie Crawford scored four goals in 25 internationals during the peak years of his career, as Scotland established their now 13-year habit of failing to qualify for major tournaments. Last weekend, at the age of 37, he was to be found in the Second Division, scoring his first goals for Forfar Athletic, his 11th club.
One league further down, Paul Hartley won a big one early on in his debut season as a manager. Alloa Athletic were relegated to the Third Division last season and recruited Hartley shortly after he announced his retirement from playing, having finished the season with Aberdeen.
The former Hearts and Celtic midfielder was a first pick for Scotland in the last European Championships campaign, starting both games as Scotland beat France home and away. Four years on, he is starting out as a manager in the bottom tier of Scottish football, and last weekend his Alloa team came from behind to beat Peterhead, the other team to drop down from the Second Division last season.
Both Crawford and Hartley made it to the big time: domestic trophies, Scotland caps and, in Hartley's case, the Champions League. In an era when that kind of career is well rewarded financially, it is retro-cool to see them still kicking it in the lower leagues.