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.

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Atlantic-sized threat to Premier League?

Earlier this month the Premier League roundly rejected Phil Gartside (the Bolton Wanderers’ Chief Executive)’s plan for a two-tier Premier League.

Celtic v Rangers - from Guardian.co.uk

Celtic v Rangers - from Guardian.co.uk

Most notably Gartside’s plan included the Scottish giants from each side of Glasgow: Celtic and Rangers.   There was also much criticism of Gartside’s planned ‘licensing’ idea which would, in effect have made ‘PL2’ a closed shop.  Gone would have been the hopes of teams dreaming of ‘doing a Wimbledon’ (as it was known in my day) or these days may be called ‘doing a Burnley’.

Either way – the plans were rejected.  Celtic and Rangers headed back over the border stung by rejection once again.

It may have been the biggest mistake the Premier League will ever make.

Let me be clear.  I am no fan of Gartside’s plan.  However, from the point of view of self preservation or at least self promotion the Premier League may live to regret their decision.

Talk has now, once again focussed on the idea of an ‘Atlantic League’.  For those unfamiliar with the idea it is, in essence those too big for their small ponds banding together to form their own version of a European Super League.  Albeit, it may not be so super given the very biggest fish won’t be in it.

A league with the likes of Celtic and Rangers; Anderlecht and Standard Liege (from Belgium); Dutch clubs like Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord; Portuguese sides like Benfica and Porto – would still make for interesting viewing, not least for these respective club’s bean-counters.

Let us be honest.  This lot haven’t a hope of winning the Champions League these days.  Their fans may argue against it – Porto fans with some justification (not to mention recent history) on their side.  In the main, however, their hopes are slim if not non-existent.  Most struggle to make it to the second group phase – assuming they even qualify in the first place.

Let us assume that the Atlantic League will go ahead.  We’ll ignore the questions about promotion/relegation; Champions League qualifying places and all the headache of away games and away fans.  There’s enough aggitation for this to happen – it is surely inevitable, eventually.

Arrogance or optimism?

What’s interested me lately is – will there be English representation?  Safe to say, I think, the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would reject any invitation (should it come) with a “thanks, but no thanks.”  They have bigger fish to fry and also no requirement for access to bigger pots of money.

The ambitions/arrogance/optimism of the likes of Everton, Tottenham and Aston Villa may cause them to reject an approach too.  No matter the odds against it, these clubs harbour a hope of breaking into the mythical ‘top four’ in England.  Make that a top five these days, with Moneybags City of Manchester elbowing their way into the elite group through sheer weight of spending.

How far down would you have to go to get a club that would seriously consider it.  Would, or more importantly ‘could’ a club like West Ham or Fulham turn it down?  What about clubs on the up like Sunderland?  Even the most optimistic fan starts the season hoping for ‘top seven and a Cup-run’ – i.e. seventh place at best and not getting KO’d early in the FA Cup.

Silverware is a once in a blue moon opportunity.  The title is almost laughably out of reach – there’s more chance of finishing in the bottom three than the top three.

An Atlantic League would offer more prestige and, most importantly more money and more chance of actually winning something.  Could they turn it down – especially the “more money” part.

What if the Atlantic League had an additional two, or even three Champions League places on offer?  West Ham, Fulham et al would surely fancy their chances of finishing ‘best of the rest’ rather than the eternal quest to hang on to the coat tails of the English giants Man United and Chelsea?

Celtic & celtic derbies?

Let’s assume the Premier League close ranks and the riches of the giant $ky ‘goal-den’ goose are enough to keep them here.  Would yo-yo clubs be able to resist?  Are the league-skewing parachute payments enough to sustain them?  Birmingham is England’s second city.  What about West Bromwich Albion or Gartside’s own Bolton?

Cardiff v Swansea - from Guardian.co.uk

Cardiff v Swansea - from Guardian.co.uk

If the Atlantic League is serious about gaining interest around the continent and raising hard cash – what’s to stop them being more mercenary about it?

Why focus on the Premier League?  Some of the most well supported (and therefore more financially appealing) clubs aren’t even in the top flight any more.  Would Mike Ashley’s Newcastle be able to reject the Atlantic League’s advances?  What about Leeds?

Representatives from Wales would surely be welcome.  Cardiff City and Swansea City would jump at the chance – if they had any sense.   They’re currently enjoying quite a renaissance, fighting for promtion to the promised land of the Premier League.  If they think they’re going to be able to compete and survive there that’s optimism indeed.

The monied hand of an Atlantic League may be hard to resist.  Imagine the celtic-derbies – Cardiff v Rangers; Swansea v Celtic!  The interest in those matches alone would be huge.

Yes, even allowing for RyanAir/Easyjet etc.  away games would be tough on the fans.  Granted.  However, the promise that every other week the likes of Benfica, Rangers, Ajax or Celtic would turn up may cushion the blow slightly.

If you did have to travel several hundred miles to an away game, would you rather go to Scunthorpe or Lisbon?  Sorry Sunny-Scunny.

The overly self-inflated egos and self-importance of the Premier League chairmen may see ‘smaller teams’ like those listed as a drop in the ocean.  If that ocean ripples into being the Atlantic League the waves of regret may flow only one way.