Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Not so Red October, Swanson's rise
Why Scotland gives its managers time, Friday night games and a very special player called Danny Swanson feature in this week's North of the Border.
Not so Red October
October is bad month for football managers. This is the start of the five-month 'sacking season', the period when club owners have their finger on the trigger like Dirty Harry, constantly enquiring as to their manager's assessment of their own good fortune.
This week two managers in the Championship left their positions and in the weeks ahead, many more will follow. Last year, English clubs spent almost £100 million sacking and replacing their most important employee. And that is exactly why it won't happen in Scotland.
First, a little qualification. Vladimir Romanov, the owner of Hearts, is not one to respect traditional boundaries. Every season is 'sacking season' for him, and recently Jim Jefferies went after two games of the season, so let's leave Hearts out of this.
For the rest of the managers in Scotland, job security is markedly greater than in England. Clubs are cutting their budgets and limiting expenditure. Unless they believe, for example, that a change in manager will avoid the catastrophe of relegation, SPL clubs are now more likely to give managers time.
A bit more qualification. For the Old Firm, as ever, things are different. Their parameters of success and failure are exclusive and should Neil Lennon's Celtic continue to concede a double-digit lead to Rangers in the SPL - and even have an interloper, Motherwell, in front of them for second place - his iconic status at Celtic Park is unlikely to protect him until February.
However, the bottom club, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, have already stuck by their manager, Terry Butcher, through a relegation. Their reward was a storming return to the SPL. There is plenty of discontent at Hibernian and Aberdeen, but not sufficient to move their owners to bloodlust.
In fact, the next managerial move in Scotland is likely to be the result of an English manager losing his job. The vacancy which arose this week at Bristol City may well be filled by Derek McInnes, the St Johnstone manager. Like his predecessor, Owen Coyle, he has shown the benefit in allowing managerial talent time to develop.
McCall or nothing
Motherwell have been the most consistently impressive of the clubs chasing the Old Firm in recent years. Running off a budget far inferior to those at Hearts, Hibs and, until recently, Dundee United, they have been successful in the transfer market, their academy has filled their first team and they have stuck to a fluid game that has always been among the more attractive in the league.
Previously, the admiration they drew was shared equally between the players and the manager, particularly when their ship was steered by Mark McGhee and Craig Brown, both charismatic men in their way and as impressive with words as their players were with their deeds.
This season Motherwell lie between the Old Firm in October, although they have played one more game than Celtic. They have several excellent and under-rated players, but this season their manager has remained in the shadows of their success.
Perhaps this is of Stuart McCall's own making. The former Rangers, Everton and Scotland midfielder may prefer to let his team do the talking, but he deserves great credit for their achievement so far. Maybe his lack of kudos is down to public perception of him. Not of his managerial skills, or his playing career as a tireless box-to-box man, but maybe - just maybe - the result of Google searches that combine his name with the words 'falls off a car'.
Friday night lights
Scotland experimented with Friday night football last week with pretty encouraging results. The two matches, one in each of the top two divisions, both saw crowds greater than comparable fixtures played on a Saturday and both ended in big wins for the home team, suggesting that most of them will be back again if they have the chance to get their weekend off to a winning start.
In both cases, the home clubs badly needed a change of scene. Aberdeen's start to the season had been horrible, with defeat by part-time East Fife in the Scottish Communities Cup their nadir. It turns out, though, that Friday night is their thing and they gave Dunfermline a 4-0 hiding that sounded alarm bells for the SPL's newest members.
In the First Division it's harder to gauge what a good or bad start is. Last Friday Partick Thistle played Morton, who are top of the league. They won 5-0, which took them to within three points of the top. Had they lost, they would have been joint bottom. This was not even a particularly Freaky Friday in the most competitive division in Scotland (and quite possibly the world), where matchday predictions are best attained through the acquisition of a clairvoyant mollusc.
You've come a long way baby
Craig Levein's selection of Danny Swanson for his Scotland squad to take on Liechtenstein and Spain this week may have contained an element of vanity. Levein was Dundee United manager when he bought the midfielder from Berwick Rangers, the only team in Scottish football that plays in England.
That Swanson translated his game-breaking moves from part-time football to the top of the Scottish leagues is impressive enough. That he now stands on the verge of an international debut is a remarkable story. Players who make it that far are normally marked at birth, or pretty close to it.
When most of his new Scotland team-mates were embedded in academies, Swanson was undergoing a heart bypass, at the age of 13, to counter serious health problems. His second season at Berwick was claimed almost totally by an injury, before Levein took a gamble on him the following season. Swanson is a rare kind of player, in more ways than one.