Friday, 21 May 2010

Don't Teach The Old Dog New Tricks

Less than half a season gone and the Formula 1 World Championship is already beginning to look conclusive. Sound familiar? Exactly twelve months ago, Jensen Button was well on his way to championship title after more than a decade on the grid, playing an integral role in the fairytale that encapsulated Brawn GP’s maiden season.
After Mark Webber strolled to victory at Monaco last Sunday with his team-mate Sebastian Vettel in close pursuit, a number of his rivals lamented that the Red Bull team are simply too technologically advanced for the other teams to compete. In contrast with the Brawn GP, who succeeded on a shoestring budget overseen by the parsimonious guidance of Ross Brawn, Red Bull receive abundant financial backing from billionaire owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who demands his team take the championship flag this season. It is too soon to foresee which driver will take the championship crown but the Red Bull team, astutely marshalled by Christian Horner, must be the favourites. Following a piquant opening to the 2010 campaign, the prodigal young German Vettel has been transcended by Webber, ten years his senior, who has utilised his experience, wisdom and raw ability to ruthless effect. The rest of the field, led by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso appear perplexed and left stranded in the Red Bull slipstream. Other heavyweight contenders for the title such as Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button of McLaren have been made to look somewhat languid as they struggle to overcome the reliability problems that have plagued many of the grid forerunners this season. The one-time insuperable titan Michael Schumacher has toiled throughout the season as it becomes ominously apparent just how far the seven-times world champion has fallen from grace. Nevertheless, Schumacher provided a glimpse of his vintage characteristic guile as he audaciously leapfrogged Fernando Alonso on the final corner of the Monaco circuit just as the safety car pulled into the pits. It is refreshing to observe the potency with which less fashionable drivers such as Kubica, Rosberg and Sutil all drive, seemingly incited by the failure of their leading adversaries to pull away from the rest of the grid. A repeat of the 2008 season finale, when Hamilton was crowned World Champion only after the final lap of the final race of the campaign, is every neutral’s wish. While Red Bull hold an undoubtedly large lead, it is one which is most definitely assailable, as Jensen Button proved last year when the championship fate was decided with one round to spare. I hope Webber maintains this early momentum to take the championship which the old dog so thoroughly deserves.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Season of discontent: What does next term hold for the SPL?

Should Gordon Brown be re-elected as the British Prime minister on Thursday, he will be required to address a multitude of issues in order to get the Labour party back on track. In comparison with the enormity of the tasks facing Neil Doncaster and his SFA colleagues at Hampden Park, the murky waters of Westminster represent something of a tranquil haven.
The controversy surrounding the recent league split contained tenacity more akin to the nature of a pitbull terrier. Despite retaining the SPL title last weekend at Easter Road, Walter Smith was noticeably riled by the post-split fixture list that requires his team to make play three consecutive away matches. As they did exactly 12 months ago, St Mirren are destined to travel north to take on Falkirk, who are again their relegation rivals, for a third time this season. Likewise, Motherwell are unhappy at the prospect of playing two extra games away from home, although the players may see this as a blessing in disguise given the current state of the Fir Park playing surface.
To rectify the deficiency of “sporting integrity”, Walter Smith threw his weight behind the idea of restructuring the SPL to accommodate 18-teams to replace the current 12 club format. The notion of not playing the same team four times each season is understandably appealing on footballing terms, as the lack of familiarity between teams would facilitate less predictable results, and ultimately result in more compelling viewing. However, the influx of six first division clubs into Scotland’s premier league will culminate in fixtures such as Queen of the South against Hamilton Academicals, which is unlikely to entice neither fans nor TV revenue. The recent proposals of a 14-club top flight encompassing the play-off structure currently exercised in the First Division appears to be the more pragmatic approach. Along with ending the annual plight posed by the league split, the probable improvements in playing styles and gate receipts renders this solution an attractive proposition to supporters and broadcasters alike.

As the media frequently remind us, (messrs Traynor and Leckie among others) this season has been the worst season for Scottish football since Moses asked Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Under the admirable control and discipline of Walter Smith, Rangers have stretched their resources to an impressive measure both on and off the park, allowing them to saunter to another league victory. Of course, it needn’t have looked so effortless had it not been for the turmoil that currently engulfs the East end of Glasgow. Few other teams outside the Old Firm are so fixated by the challenge of beating their local rivals to the championship year in, year out, which is why Tony Mowbray was dismissed from Celtic with ruthless immediacy. When successfully deployed, his principles of attacking football provided a refreshing contrast with the callous and gritty win-at-all-cost approach taken by Walter Smith that attracted regular recriminations. However, Smith’s record of six trophies in three years is beyond reproach. While Tony Mowbray looks for a new job, Neil Lennon has assumed the position of ringmaster as he seeks to overhaul the circus that has encapsulated Celtic’s season. Aside from the Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Ross County, Lennon and his assistant Johan Mjallby have successfully nursed the ailing team towards the finish line while circumventing the threat of slipping to third place behind a pertinacious Dundee United side. Despite losing head coach Craig Levein midway through the season, Peter Houston has assumed managerial duties with remarkable adroitness, and produced a side oozing impetus and vivacity. Houston’s impeccable blend of uncompromising physicality in defence with an efficacious, peripatetic midfield supplying the prodigal David Goodwillie allowed for the easy dismissal of third place challengers Hibernian. At the other end of the table, Falkirk appear favourites to be relegated after narrowly avoiding the drop last season, despite coach Steven Pressley’s best attempts to lament, exasperate and inculpate his way to safety. Following the most enthralling first division title race in years, Inverness Caledonian Thistle managed to bounce straight back into the top flight when Dundee, Dunfermline, Queen of the South and Ross County were all serious promotion candidates.

Witnessing Henry McLeish speak at the Scottish Football Debate last September, I was impressed by the ambition and integrity in his proposal to conduct a meticulous review of Scottish football. The compiled findings of the review released last week made for pessimistic reading, suggesting that a complete overhaul of the system is required from grassroots up if Scotland should ever again produce world-class players. This may be the case, but this season has seen the gulf between Scotland’s elite clubs diminish somewhat, meaning next season should be a much more unpredictable affair.