The Burley & the bath water

So Scotland have sacked George Burley.  This after the former Ipswich boss failed to steer them to World Cup qualification or even the outside chance of qualification via the play-offs (though we all know how that would have ended).

George Burley (image from TeamTalk.com)

"What do you expect me to do with this shower?" (image from TeamTalk.com)

Most pundits say he had it coming – most Scotland fans would agree.  I may not surprise you hear that I don’t.

This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water – or to put it another way: fixing the holes in your walls when the roof’s caving in.

Scotland are just not very good.  Not that Burley is a genius but no amount of tactical tinkering and half-time tea-cup related wobblies will get you past that first and all important fact.  Would a Capello, Hiddink or a Mourinho make a Grimsby Town into world-beaters?  Exactly.

I should come clean at this point.  I’m an Englishman (a fair chunk of Irish blood too) but I’ve no real sympathies for the Scots.  Unlike most of our northern cousins, I’d rather they did well as opposed to badly but I won’t fall over myself to cheer them on.

However, as a Colchester United fan, I’m no fan of George Burley’s either.  Burley jilted us at the proverbial altar.  After we rescued him from football management obscurity he paid us back by jumping at the first opportunity to return to his alma mater, Ipswich – our fierce local rivals.  We never forgave him.

That said, I think Scotland got it wrong getting rid of him.

Scotland failed to qualify from the smallest and what looked a relatively ‘simple’ World Cup group.  Netherlands have first place taped, granted – but all Scotland had to do was best Norway, a side nowhere near the peak of their powers, to take second place.  Don’t embarrass yourselves against Macedonia and Iceland and a play-offs place should be nailed on.

Bad start

It started badly when they lost away to Macedonia.  A pair of beatings from the Dutch were to be expected but a tame draw and a 4-0 trouncing against Norway saw any hope of 2nd place vanish over the horizon.

How could this come about?  Sloppy management clearly, in the opinion of the Scottish FA (SFA).

Let’s look at the Scottish team though.  The players who actually lost those key matches.

The team is made up of a list of also rans and that’s being generous.  Between the sticks: David Marshall, who plays for League One side Norwich City.

The rest of the defence are Callum Davidson (an ageing, injury prone Championship player); Gary Caldwell from Celtic (don’t get me started on the ‘strength’ of the Scottish Premier League); Alan Hutton (whose matches for (admittedly) Premier League Tottenham you could count on one hand); and Graham Alexander (Burnley’s bearded centre back who must be nearing 40!).

The midfield features the one decent, top-flight player: Darren Fletcher – a key part of an impressive Manchester United side.  Scott Brown and Steven Caldwell are two more Celtic players plus there’s Kris Commons who plays for Championship strugglers Derby County.

Up front? Ross McCormack who plays for Championship side Cardiff alongside Rangers’ Kenny Miller.

Now I’m not knocking those players (ok I am – viciously so) but they’re hardly a collection of world-beaters are they?  Fletcher is the only one in danger of being any good – who may get into a top international team’s XI.

Is that Burley’s fault?  Hardly.  He can only pick the players available to him and the sad fact is there just aren’t that many good Scottish players out there.

Dearth or death of talent?

Where have they all gone?  Scotland were never awash with world all stars but they still had a scattering of decent players.  Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish are obvious examples.  In more recent times players like Paul Lambert were good enough to be picked up by decent European sides (Borussia Dortmund) and went on to win the European Cup.

Fletcher aside which Scotsman could do that now?  And where are they coming from?  Researching this article I logged on to the SFA website to see that the Scots Under-16s had been beaten 2-1 by their England rivals.  The quote from the coach (Ross Mathie) was telling: “…you’ve got to remember these are the Premiership stars of the future we were up against.”

That maybe true Ross – but why aren’t your boys Premier League stars of the future?  It’s not like you can lay claim to the oft used English defence of “no top English managers”… I think Sir Alex Ferguson may fall into that category for the Scots!

The straw that broke the camels back for the SFA was a 3-0 defeat by Wales – Burley’s last game in charge.

The Welsh side were packed with talented youngsters.  Even those of ‘more mature years’ are Premiership players.

Arsenal & Wales' Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey: Exception or exceptional?

Arsenal starlet Aaron Ramsey was the star of the show.  Even if you take him, as perhaps an exception, out of the equation, the Wales team are superior and not just in terms of the scoreline.

They’ve got three goalies to pick from: Jason Brown; Wayne Hennessey and Boaz Myhill – all at Premier League teams.

In defence: Gareth Bale, James Collins and Danny Gabbidon – more Premier Leaguers.  I need not go on I think?

George Burley may not be in the same league as the Capellos, Hiddinks and Mourinhos of this world – but then nor are Scotland.  Even if the SFA were able to attract a top of the range manager you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

They need to roll their sleeves up and get into the muck at the bottom of their trough of talent.  At the moment it’s a pretty shallow trough.

Fifa seeding ‘fix’ another blow for fairness

This blog risks becoming an an anti-Fifa rant – but the football governing body’s latest decision heaps more ridicule on their independence and role as protector of all things football.

In late September they announced that the play-offs for the European section of the World Cup qualifiers would be seeded.  They tried to hush it up as much as possible, hiding amongst debate about the current hot topic of the time – Olympic sports.  Farce-fiddler in chief, Sepp Blatter, wibbling on about ‘soccer’s’ place as an Olympic sport – as talk moved on to rugby sevens and golf as the latest Olympic money-wagons.

The timing was also critical as well.  Left any later the cries of ‘fix’ would have been deafening.  With two fixtures left in most of the World Cup groups they tried to sneak it under the radar.  At the time the list of teams that may have ended up in the play-offs included: France, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic – amongst others.

A tournament without the majority of those teams, with the likes of Slovakia and Serbia having the audacity to qualify ahead of the ‘big boys’.  Lille’s Robert Vitek just isn’t as ‘sexy’ as va-va-voom Thierry Henry – and won’t appeal to nearly so many sponsors – sorry, ‘Fifa family’ members.

Teams like the Republic of Ireland, having already battled through their seeded group – bravely overcoming Bulgaria and running World Champions Italy close – face another seeded draw.  It’s just plain unfair.

Put it this way.  How would you feel if one of those many plucky Brits at Wimbledon – someone who’s not Andy Murray – battles their way to the Grand Slam’s semi-finals.  They managed to beat the number three seed early on in the tournament and raced through heroically to the last four.  Then, with dreams of a thrilling final against a Federer or a Nadal in SW18 – the All England Club say: “Ah, hang on old chap – can’t have you wrecking our lovely, planned Rafa v Roger final… we’ll just re-draw things so you face the toughest possible opponent.”

The outcry would be huge – and fully justified.  Fifa are effectively doing the same to the likes of Ireland, Bosnia and England-conquerers Ukraine.

If the groups end up, as expected the eight play-off teams will be: Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Russia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Ukraine, France and the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa will now fix, sorry ‘seed’ the draw according to the Fifa rankings – oops, sorry, the Coca-Cola World Rankings (I kid you not, look).  So: Russia (ranked 6th); France (10th); Greece (12th); and Portugal (17th) cannot be drawn against one another.  Slovenia (54th), Bosnia (46th), Ukraine (25th) and Ireland (38th) will have to take their chances.

The fact that in order to finish second in their group Slovenia have already overcome four teams ranked in Fifa’s top 50 is neither here nor there.  Nor that Ireland battled through a group including two of the top 20 ranked teams.

This is motivated by money, power and greed – pure and simple.  Look at the size of the seeded nations and therefore the size of the wallets of those country’s TV stations.  Look at the heavily sponsored stars in each of those teams.  Fifa run the unthinkable risk of a tournament without the likes of Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Ribery, Andrei Arshavin etc.

Sean St. Ledger and his Ireland team-mates will just have to jump through another hoop to have any chance of qualifying.  And if they don’t?  They miss the tournament and their Fifa ranking is damaged again.  The vicious circle is spun once more and Fifa twiddle their fingers and get hearty slaps on the back from the power-brokers of the Football Associations of the big-hitters.

Football lives for the upsets, the battles of David v Goliath.  Think of the most exciting matches you’ve seen, of the most famous cases of a plucky underdog thrilling a horde of fans.  The sad truth is, David doesn’t pay as well as Goliath so the tournament ‘bouncers’ Fifa put up a “Sorry, no trainers” policy as they usher their ragged and tattered mates in through the side door.