Category Archives: Football Views

A New Niche Market for Celtic?

We have long since adjusted to the economic reality that even the top football clubs in Scotland are no longer able to attract or retain high profile players from other leagues, regardless of their history and reputation, and despite their global appeal, kept vibrantly alive through the Scottish and Irish diaspora.

Given the unimaginable riches on offer elsewhere, Scottish football clubs have had to position themselves as stepping stones to the English Premiership and beyond, or as the school of hard knocks where youth players from the English leagues might be sent to toughen up. We now take that as standard practice and have grown a bit numb to it. It no longer hurts the way it should.

As others have gone out of existence trying, Celtic’s survival instincts have sharpened sufficiently to maximise the few opportunities available to Scottish clubs, playing the market brilliantly and reaping incredible financial returns, whilst making a spirited go of the Champions League.

In a sense Celtic has mastered the niche market of unearthing relatively unknown players from foreign leagues and developing them into highly marketable products. The very same strategy may now need to be adopted with respect to recruiting a replacement for Neil Lennon.

After a good few years of managerial stability provided by Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan (omitting Tony Mowbray) and Neil Lennon, we may have to recognise that the manager’s position at Celtic is no longer one in pursuit of which top managers across Europe would crawl across broken glass.

It could occasionally result in failure, as it does with some of the players recruited in this way, but Celtic may need to master a new niche market – giving relatively unproven managers a unique platform to promote their abilities to clubs in more lucrative leagues elsewhere.

The seeds of this strategy have already been sewn with regards to Neil Lennon and there is no reason why the next manager should not be of the same type – someone who understands the game, knows how to get the best out of people and has something to prove. They definitely don’t need to be Celtic minded and they definitely don’t need to have a glittering track record, but they do need to have more than a bit of grit.

There is a darker reason why the market is heading in this direction. Unless there is fundamental reform across football’s governing bodies and a paradigm shift in our thinking about sport as a special type of business, small pockets of this industry will continue to attract investors with ridiculous wealth to the detriment of others, and their appeal will continue to grow as hiding places for criminality and corruption.

That is not Celtic’s immediate concern of course, but regrettably it does have an indirect impact on the business, marketing and recruitment strategies of every football club in every league, albeit in different ways. Only a few clubs will be able to make a success of it, whereas others will go bust trying. It is a very difficult balancing act to achieve and recruiting the right manager – not necessarily the big name manager – is integral to that.

Whoever is fortunate enough to be offered the manager’s post at Celtic will be fully aware that it is still a very unique opportunity in its own right, and if the club is fortunate enough to unearth the next rising star in football management, even if his appointment is not the box-office one that instantly captures the imagination, it may turn out to be another significant milestone in the club’s history.


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Buffoonery, Racism or Both?

Leigh Griffiths is either a buffoon or a racist.

Having put himself in a position to be filmed in a pub singing what appeared to be a racist song about a former Hearts player, there might be an argument to say that he is actually a bit of both.

If we assume that he understood and believed in what he appeared to be singing, we should then ask the uncomfortable question, ‘What possible reason could he have had for acting this way?’

Would he have been acting in a manner consistent with the rest of his beliefs and attitudes, that refugees ought to be hated, ridiculed and verbally abused; or would he have failed to make any sort of rational judgement at all, and allowed some loose, and spontaneously aroused, tribal feelings to interrupt the logical linkages between his actions and his beliefs?

If the former, we may need to face up to the fact that, despite wishing to believe that players representing Celtic FC would behave with dignity, and respect the values on which the club was founded, there is a racist element within that could damage the power of the club’s original message, and the integrity of its community work today.

If the latter, we may be able to put it down to the idiocy, irresponsibility and immaturity of a young man whose alertness to moral boundaries and social consequences has diminished as his fame and fortune have increased, if it was ever that sharp to begin with. Regrettably, this is what too much money, high praise and a lot of recognition can do to some individuals.

Either way, behaviour of this sort is totally unacceptable.

It also reinforces the fear that the various forms of bigotry we encounter in football are so tightly connected to tribal feelings that they may never disappear, despite the many initiatives designed to achieve that goal, and especially when a professional footballer, with allegiances to more than one tribe, appears to be the unthinking leader of an unsavoury pack.

Whilst immediate punitive action should be taken to make Griffiths re-examine his apparently racist attitudes and think twice about how he conducts himself in public, hopefully his general buffoonery will not be his professional undoing.

It would be a disaster to think that his immaturity would lead him to the same place as other highly regarded professional footballers who became distracted for various reasons, and either disappeared from the game too early, or simply failed to fulfil their true potential.

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‘A Magnet for Bigots’?

You would normally expect that if someone acted in a certain way, it would be possible to give an explanation of their actions in terms of the reasons why; unfortunately this is not always the case.

There are times when we are left analysing the situation to the point where we start to lose perspective, but we continue anyway in the hope that we can eventually make some kind of explanation fit. We have all done this before.

If you were in Neil Lennon’s position, I think it would be entirely natural that you would want to understand why you have been subject to constant abuse and threatening behaviour from other individuals who know nothing about you. It is natural that sympathetic observers of this abuse would want to fathom it out too, particularly when the episodes are repulsive and unprovoked, such as the most recent one from some Aberdeen supporters.

There is a great deal of mileage in Neil Lennon’s situation for those in the media with false axes to grind, or for whom creating an impression of professional closeness to him seems to have become a bit of a fixation. Whatever the motive, stories of this sort seem to sell newspapers.

We have been told that the abuse directed at Neil Lennon might be down to his ethnicity or his religion; we have also been told that it might be down to him simply being a controversial, confrontational and combative character who happens to attract bigots. This just keeps the story going.

Whether the people in the media or the ordinary man in the street find it best to put the abuse Neil Lennon suffers down to his temperament or his teeth, the various explanations offered do very little to shed any light on what is actually going on, or therefore how to deal with it effectively. We are asking the wrong sorts of questions.

The abuse directed at Neil Lennon is completely irrational; I think we all agree about that. There is no valid reason why Neil Lennon should figure in our thinking as someone towards whom it is appropriate to be violent or threatening. This is borne out retrospectively when the abusers in question are pressed for an explanation of their behaviour. More often than not they cannot give a rational explanation, other than that they just don’t like him, or that he brings it on himself, regardless of the language they originally used to express their hatred.

It is perhaps closer to the truth to understand the majority of abuse directed at Neil Lennon as examples of unthinking hooliganism that bears striking similarities to bullying. As with targets of bullying, it would appear that Neil Lennon has tried to change his public persona to make himself less of a target. This is an indication of deep emotional intelligence on his part; it is an alertness to how other people perceive him – justified or not – and a subconscious desire to make personal changes in order that this type of behaviour towards him stops.

There are groups of people in our society who behave like thugs and bullies, and sometimes only in very specific contexts, because they have been caught up in a moment in which their ability to rationalise their behaviour has been diminished by the effects of alcohol, drugs, sporting adrenalin or basic tribal machismo. The rest of the time, and towards other people, they can be perfectly reasonable and likeable individuals.

It is too easy to read more into these situations than is warranted by the evidence, just because it happens to sell stories or suit an agenda. This is bad enough in itself. But the big problem with this is that we run the risk of being part of the bullying process itself, rather than just a horrified observer and sympathetic reporter of it.

When you try hard to find a way of rationally linking this type of behaviour to something within the victim that attracts it, there is a sense in which you are legitimising it. You are unwittingly creating the emotional space for it to continue, forcing the person being targeted to make one or more of the changes they begin to believe are necessary to neutralise the effects of these apparent reasons.

If you try to depict Neil Lennon as some kind of controversial warrior, a magnet for bigots because of his ethnicity, religious beliefs or personality, or perhaps even a potent combination of these factors in a specific place and time, you are just as guilty of keeping the tedious and regretful narrative going as the individuals are who started it.

This is not to say that we should be silent on this, not by a long shot; rather it is to say that if we remain compelled to find one or three reasons why Neil Lennon attracts this type of behaviour, we may need to think about our own contribution to the problem, however unintended this may be.

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Last Thoughts On Paolo Di Canio

Sometimes the difference between success and failure comes down to sticking rigidly to your beliefs. Other times it comes down to recognising that the rigidity of your beliefs might actually be part of the problem. Perhaps this is where Paolo Di Canio came unstuck with Sunderland AFC.   

It is not so much that his beliefs about how elite sportsmen should live their lives were wrong; the problem seems to be that they had been force-fed to a group of individuals, some of whom were unwilling or unable to respond in the manner required.

The view that premiership footballers should live their lives like elite sportsmen is the correct one. However living up to this excruciating standard demands observing so many strict rules and making so many sacrifices that it doesn’t always sit comfortably with the luxurious existence of today’s pampered stars. There is an inherent incompatibility here that only the tough minded individual can manage.

As Di Canio has frequently pointed out, his regime is for high mentality individuals. The trouble is that there just doesn’t seem to be enough of them going around today and that is regrettable. The few high mentality individuals that do exist are likely to be plying their trade elsewhere.    

Professional cynics and high horsemen may snipe that there could be two ways of interpreting what Di Canio means by ‘regime’ and ‘high mentality’ individuals, with the authoritarian leadership style he advocates causing some consternation in their ranks. Their point of reference would be the dangerous intersection of armchair politics and sport.  

Perhaps the furore surrounding Di Canio’s appointment in the first place didn’t help his cause. Despite giving him their public backing at the time, it may be that the Sunderland board felt privately uncomfortable with the backlash surrounding Di Canio’s previously reported political views and became increasingly worried about his confrontational manner with players.  

For this reason, and despite investing heavily in the squad during the transfer window, opportunities to remove him may always have been on their radar. The team’s dire start to the season would have provided exactly that.







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Hooper – The Best Since Larsson?

Perhaps Gary Hooper was right to feel that he would only have a chance of being called up to the England international squad if he made his move to the English Premiership, regardless of which team he ended up with in that prestigious league.

My view is that he is unlikely to achieve that ambition with Norwich; it is more likely that he will need to work another move after this one. As Chris Sutton recently pointed out, Hooper’s excellent scoring record at Celtic was partly due to the way the team plays and the number of scoring opportunities presented to him.

To join a team that may be more regularly geared towards not conceding too many goals, rather than a team that is expected to win every game, could result in Hooper scoring considerably less for Norwich than he has done at Celtic. The upshot is that he may appear to be not quite good enough for the international squad. Time will tell.

In the meantime, Neil Lennon recently commented that Gary Hooper was the best striker at Celtic since Henrik Larsson. High praise indeed! Whilst Hooper has certainly been an excellent striker for Celtic over the past three seasons, and probably the most consistent we have had for a number of years, I am sure Lennon did not intend to suggest that Hooper was on a par with Larsson.

Perhaps if Celtic’s transfer market policy hadn’t been such as it is, Hooper may not have come to the club with the intention of working his move to the Premiership within a couple of years; and perhaps if he had stuck around at Celtic for a few more years he may have developed even further towards the level of performance Larsson achieved with ease.

After all, the Henrik Larsson who arrived at Celtic Park was nowhere near as brilliant as the Henrik Larsson who left seven years later to join Barcelona. But given Celtic’s current approach to the transfer market, and the Premiership expectations it sets in the minds of the very good players we pick up and develop to sell, it may well be that we never actually see a striker of Larsson’s calibre again.

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The Unenviable Plight of Today’s Football Managers (With Reference to Mancini)

Perhaps it is the lure of stepping into a role in which achieving greatness as a football manager has been sold as a distinct possibility; perhaps it is about not being able to reject a lucrative offer to rub shoulders with the self-styled super elite; or perhaps it is simply about believing in the myth of football as it traditionally was.

Whatever it is that draws some football managers into roles for which their previous posts and achievements may or may not have prepared them, it is impossible to ignore the obvious facts that too many appointments are the result of hasty board room decision making, whilst many others are simply ill fated from the start.

Roberto Mancini would know all about that. A successful manager who had won seven trophies in four years prior to joining Manchester City doesn’t suddenly become any less of a manager after a poor season with the club. Yet his inability to achieve the ridiculously ambitious targets set by the club’s unimaginably wealthy owners meant that he was, in their view, worthy of quick dismissal, and a bucket full of compensation.

Therein lies the problem. Too often a manager’s fortune is determined by his ability to deliver results which, in many cases, are highly unrealistic given the context; the context within which Mancini, and others like him, have been expected to deliver sustained domestic and European success, has been deeply flawed for years.

It is no longer about football. It is not even about any particular clubs. The clubs are important, of course, but only in the secondary sense that they are waiting to be exploited to satisfy the excruciatingly tough demands of the billionaire business men financing the game; it is about ensuring the relentless and inexorable march towards global market supremacy for their own individual brands, and on some occasions, it is also about drawing a glittering drape over the multifarious activities of their faceless business associates.

They understand that football clubs have the potential to become powerful global business machines, if driven in the direction that market forces dictate. They will quickly and ruthlessly change whatever they deem detrimental to their objectives, and do so with alarming frequency and coldness: more often than not, it is the manager who is sacrificed first.

But whilst the clubs themselves may be of secondary importance to certain owners and backers, they remain of primary importance to their supporters, as do the solid traditions and unbroken histories that have shaped their clubs over the generations.

That aspect is now disappearing from many clubs, and it will be very difficult to restore without completely reversing the deeply set trends of recent years. But to do that now would be to pull the rug from under the clubs that draw the big crowds and the major sponsors, destroying the very fabric of today’s game in the process. And it may also open up another can of worms that many in officialdom would rather ignore – that the definition of sporting integrity has long since been auctioned off to the highest bidders.

Mancini’s dismissal is symptomatic of how so many top flight football clubs in Britain have been ripped out of their natural community settings, and had their purposes altered, whilst most football managers, like Mancini, have remained firmly wedded to their traditional footballing ideals. The two purposes rarely fit together comfortably.

But if that is the unenviable plight of today’s football managers at the top of their game, then so be it; if that is the career they choose, they just need to accept it and get on with it. That said, I believe it is an indictment of the game that there are actually very few managers who have the ability to succeed at the very top these days; and sadly, those managers who may have stood a chance of succeeding, are seldom given sufficient time to try.

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Some Thoughts on Alex Ferguson and the Future of English Football

It is worth thinking about whether Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to retire will have an impact, not just on the next couple of seasons at Old Trafford, but on the next five to ten years in English football in general.

Most of Ferguson’s successful teams have been built on the raw ingredients of hard work, loyalty and will to win. Tremendously gifted players have come and gone during his time in charge, but Ferguson’s talent has always been to instil his personal toughness into his teams and make them want to play out of their skins for him.

Being able to say exactly the right thing, at exactly the right moment, is a talent that only a few managers possess; but being able to condense the lessons of an entire upbringing into that single droplet of psychology is what sets Ferguson apart as a truly unique manager.

Remarkably, his intelligent and ruthlessly domineering football personality also sets the tone for the dynamics between the other teams in the league. Ferguson’s uniqueness is part of its cherished character; his irreplaceability is part of its unspoken problem.

Harnessing some of that uniqueness and injecting it into the Premier League as a globally marketable product has been the focus of commentators, pundits, writers and broadcasters for a number of years now. Regardless where things go from here, I think the marketers of the Premier League will know they have now lost its prize asset.

They have already started to project some of Ferguson’s key attributes onto Davie Moyes in the hope that the former’s departure does not have a harder impact on the future dynamics of the Premier League than its marketing machine can handle. To push the idea that both are ‘cut from the same cloth’ is telling.

A handkerchief might be cut from the same cloth as the finest suit, but to turn up for work wearing only a handkerchief would be a disaster, unless you are relying on the same wave of collective denial that has swept through the entire Premier League for the past few years now.

This is not to deny the very good managerial ability of Davie Moyes. It is just to point to the obvious fact that the focus of attention is now quite rightly shifting towards the real power house of European football, which has been built on a different type of foundation.

The ridiculous and unsustainable financial boom that has elevated the Premier League to its false position will naturally come to an end in the next five to ten years, if not sooner. And there will be no other characters of Ferguson’s stature, cut from the same cloth or not, capable of grabbing it by its throat and stopping its eventual decline.

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Some Thoughts on Paolo Di Canio

Paolo Di Canio’s recent appointment as manager of Sunderland Football Club is widely regarded as being a controversial one, largely because of certain provocative gestures he made whilst playing for Lazio, and an interview a few years back in which he is reported to have said that he was ‘a fascist, but not a racist’.

That Di Canio wholly subscribes to an extremist political movement that is defined by sustained episodes of violent racial discrimination is completely unfounded, and something he has denounced on several occasions; that his comments have been misunderstood and twisted to fit the sensationalist agendas of the press and its slavering audience is a much more likely assumption to make.

The appointment was sufficient for former Labour MP David Milliband to resign his position on the Sunderland Board, given Di Canio’s ‘past political statements’, and for many sports writers and commentators to have a field day in condemning both him and the club for his presumed affiliation with a movement that is said to promote hatred, killing, persecution and intolerance.

But without a full and complete statement of his position, it is difficult to understand exactly what Di Canio thinks and why he declared himself a fascist who wasn’t a racist, when in the minds of many people the two notions are vile and inextricably linked.

It may be that our understanding of fascism is just too limited, too politically distorted, and too riddled with cultural assumptions that we are simply unable to appreciate what may be the subtleties of Di Canio’s unique and personal view.

Perhaps Di Canio was simply referring to his sympathies with certain cultural, political and economic aspects of fascism, as an Italian movement from a period in history that valued collectivism over individualism; personal discipline, hard work and obedience, over laziness, revolt and anarchy; and strong, healthy individuals who lived and worked for the common cause of bettering the Italian nation.

Whilst it may have been an authoritarian and nationalistic movement, it does not necessarily follow that being sympathetic to some of the aforementioned values in their own right entails supporting violence, persecution and racial hatred. Maybe that’s where Di Canio sits.

The problem is we will never get an explanation of Di Canio’s true position now as a result of the media fuelled furore surrounding his move to Sunderland and our tendency to jump to unwarranted rag style conclusions.

Given how we have come to understand fascism in this country, and given the style of news we like to indulge in here, it is highly unlikely that he will speak again on the matter, especially not to the British press gang sniffing around for their next big story. He is here to manage a struggling football club and I am sure he will do that with distinction.

(As an aside, consider the position of an individual who declares that he is a supporter of the Labour Party in Britain. Nothing wrong with that, given the core socialist views that define this party; however, it was under a Labour Government that Britain entered into an illegal war with Iraq.

Does supporting Labour then automatically mean someone who agrees with invading other countries without mandate, and engaging in deplorable acts of murder in the name of fake national interests? Perhaps David Milliband could help answer that question, as he takes his principled leave from the Stadium of Light.)

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An Ugly Impasse

It is hard to think that the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation has had anything but a negative impact on the attitudes and behaviours of those it was intended to manage, despite the Scottish Government’s bullish claims to the contrary.

Whilst the police argued that they required a greater range of powers in order to deal with the perceived escalation in sectarian hatred in connection with some aspects of Scottish football, many others were reluctant to entertain the idea that existing laws were inadequate.

One outcome of this is that the greater range of powers seems to be stretchable to match whichever interpretation of the occasion is deemed to suit, with the interpretation sometimes appearing to be influenced by the media, other times by an inability to understand political context and poor knowledge of historical fact.

As a result, a strong belief has emerged within certain groups, particularly the Green Brigade, that the manner in which they choose to support their team has been criminalised unnecessarily and that some of their members have been subject to police harassment, victimisation and disproportionate response.

Whether the controversial containment tactics used by Strathclyde Police in Glasgow on Saturday were appropriate to the situation has been challenged. Whatever the eventual outcome of that, it is clear that the march was unlawful in the sense that no permission was sought from the local authorities in advance. The police would have failed in their duty had they not intervened.

It is difficult not to acknowledge that the Green Brigade has become a powerful force with strong political views, a fact which may sit uncomfortably with some individuals within Celtic FC. But it is even more difficult to avoid the thought that extinguishing, rather than monitoring, a force of this nature is a primary objective of the police. It may draw into a long and complicated war of attrition. Neither side will back down. Neither side will win.

Whichever way you view it, the central issue remains that the Scottish Government caved into pressure to introduce a piece of poorly written and completely unnecessary legislation. In doing so it managed to create a context of confusion, mistrust and tension – perfectly illustrated by the now toxic relationship between the police and the Green Brigade – and we are still no closer to eradicating the problem of bigotry in Scotland.

Like most, I would be relieved to see the end of the type of bigotry that infects football here. As it happens, I would also prefer that political views were not expressed at football matches in a manner that risked creating the impression that such views were in some way reflective of an unwritten part of a club’s story.

Given the background causes, I am not convinced that either will transpire any time soon – but that neither justifies the Scottish Government’s poorly conceived legislative solution to the problem, nor does it excuse disproportionate police response to perceived episodes of non-compliance with that legislation.

We may have reached an ugly impasse. It is time for a re-think – without the media circus, without politicians positioning themselves to win favour, and this time with people who understand the true nature of the problem in this country.

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Could Player Co-Ownership Help Scottish Football?

It is no secret that Celtic’s ability to identify and develop young players with potential has reaped tremendous rewards in recent seasons. Michael Grant recently wrote an article in The Herald suggesting that a potential threat to this successful formula is that other clubs would soon copy it:

A threat related to this is that the increasing levels of debt across Scottish football could make this strategy difficult for Celtic to sustain in years to come. In order to attract young talent to Scotland, there has to be something decent on offer. The lure of Champions League football and the fast track to the English Premiership that playing in that tournament offers currently fulfils that requirement.

But the continued danger of other clubs going into administration or out of existence entirely must be a concern, in the sense that it may influence a young player’s decision on whether or not to take the chance of coming to Scotland in the first place, particularly if other clubs in relatively healthier leagues begin to offer the same route to the top.

So it is interesting to think about whether something similar to the Italian model of player co-ownership could be of benefit to Scottish football (and Celtic!) in the medium to long term as a means of averting this type of threat and ultimately sharing the wealth whilst helping to improve standards?

Player co-ownership is a useful tool that enables clubs to share risks and rewards in the transfer market and in the development of young talent. Essentially, two clubs work out an agreement whereby they share ownership of a player, benefitting from playing rights where appropriate, and a share of the financial rewards if the player’s transfer value increases.

In the absence of a large enough fan base, an arrangement of this sort may help smaller clubs in Scotland benefit from Celtic’s global scouting system and solid financial position. Of course, it may seem too altruistic to imagine that Celtic would do such a thing, but short of being invited into a stronger league elsewhere, it may contribute to an improvement in standards here – and in the meantime, Celtic would benefit by sharing some of the financial risk and player development time with other clubs, whilst still receiving the lion’s share of the rewards.

In Italian football, the model usually involves a 50 – 50 split between two clubs. But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be that way in Scotland. It could be that one or more clubs in Scotland could pool their resources to buy into a 20 – 80 split with Celtic, thereby benefitting from access to players they couldn’t otherwise afford, and benefitting from a share of transfer fees they would otherwise lack. Player co-ownership may help financially stricken Scottish clubs stabilise and gradually improve, by providing a life-saving revenue stream currently denied to them.

It goes without saying that player co-ownership isn’t going to come with a guarantee. There are no guarantees for Celtic either. And whilst it may be difficult for Celtic to contemplate sharing the fruits of its labour in this manner, something like this could actually turn out to be a critical step in ensuring the survival of Scottish football in the long term – particularly if the clubs who benefitted were then obligated to do the same for other clubs, just as soon as they were in the position to do so.

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