A GOOD NEW YEAR?
It all came tumbling down so quickly. First, there
was the national side. Scotland, fresh from one of our finest
victories of recent years, set off to Amsterdam full of hope and
returned, humiliated 6-0 by the Dutch. The memory's too recent
and the pain is still too great to dissect that particular match
here. Best perhaps to remember that we did what we should have done
in reaching the play-offs. In McFadden and Fletcher
we appear to have unearthed two stars of the future. And Hampden
Park is once again turning into a fortress for Scotland.
Then came Hearts. Like Scotland they achieved one of their
greatest victories in winning in Bordeaux and like Scotland were
blown apart in the second leg. If the Jambos 2-0 home defeat doesn't
sound quite as horrendous as the Amsterdam disaster, consider this:
in 49 years of European football, this was the first time that
a Scottish side had lost a tie after winning the away leg first.
Next, Dundee went into administration, with debts of £20M.
Forget the Ravanellis and the Caballeros. They'll
find clubs soon enough. Think instead of the young players thrown
on the scrapheap and the backroom staff left jobless just before
The questions that need asking about Dundee should have been asked
a long time ago. Why were they allowed to build up a £13M
overdraft at the bank? Why were they permitted to sign Ravanelli
and Burley when their plight was so dire? Why was a man with the
track record of Giovanni Di Stefano ever allowed within sniffing
distance of Dens Park?
Whatever and whoever is to blame, one of our major clubs now
lies at death's door. Dundee FC not only have a proud past. They
were European representatives this season and even now as they lie
stricken they are just 90 minutes from their second national Cup
Final inside twelve months.
The day the administration order came into force at Dens, I swear
the air turned chill at every other club in the SPL outside the
Old Firm. And the Big Two are safe not because they are better managed
- they are not - but because no bank would ever force the closure
of two of the country's biggest institutions. We used to laugh at
how Real Madrid escaped punishment for their huge debt because
they were too big to hurt. Well, the same applies to Rangers
But to no one else. As was witnessed by the latest financial upheaval
to hit the Scottish game. Four years ago we were told that the Scottish
Media Group were investing in Hearts. Now, it transpires
they were merely lending money. And having decided to forego converting
that loan to shares in the Edinburgh club they now want repayments
to begin. Not just as a consequence of that but as the result of
a number of factors, Hearts now have to sell their Tynecastle
home by the end of the season.
They don't even have the comfort of using any of the proceeds to
build a new ground. Hearts are looking to rent out Murrayfield from
So there then is the fate of two of the teams who represented
Scotland in Europe this season. One is on life support which may
be switched off at any time. The other is about to become homeless.
Was it really just mid-November when we were filled by a new optimism
sweeping our game? Can that spirit be rekindled or are our clubs
staring the abyss in the face? Make no mistake. The long-heralded
financial crisis has hit our game and hit it hard. Who now would
be surprised if any or all of the remaining SPL clubs followed Motherwell
and Dundee into administration?
And yet this is supposed to be a time of cheer. With that in
mind we turn now to the World Cup 2006 Qualifying draw and analyse
The first thing to say is that it could have been a whole lot worse.
We were always going to be in with one of the top seeds and while
Portugal or Turkey may have looked better on paper Italy are
undoubtedly a more attractive proposition from a financial viewpoint.
We have played the Italians twice before in qualifiers and while
we have lost both matches away we have a victory and a draw to our
credit at home.
Slovenia deserve every respect. They have earned their second
seed status by virtue of qualifying for Euro 2000 and the 2002 World
Cup. Like Scotland they lost out on Euro 2004 in the play-offs.
But while the Slovenes will be difficult Berti Vogts must be delighted
to have avoided meeting the Dutch again.
Norway also missed out on Portugal in the play-offs and it
is a bit surprising to find them in the fourth group of seeds. They
too will be difficult opponents as past encounters testify.
Belarus and Moldova will be no pushovers and will
take points from the others at home. Our task is to make sure they
don't take any from us.
Yet all things considered we do not share the pessimism expressed
in the aftermath of the draw by such luminaries as Colin Hendry
and Lou Macari. We have avoided being placed in a seven-team
group which would have given us two extra hurdles to overcome. That
rules out the first three groups as being preferable. And would
we really have preferred France and Ireland in group four to Italy
and Slovenia? Or Spain and our old nemesis Belgium in group seven?
Naturally there will be some who would have wanted to be in England's
group. But that would have meant swapping Slovenia and Norway for
Poland and Wales. No great improvement there.
Perhaps only group eight with a top two of Sweden and Croatia could
have been better than the hand we have been dealt. But even there
Hungary are the fifth-placed side and while Hungarian football is
in decline, a trip to Budapest appears a more difficult assignment
than a visit to Minsk.
The key to success of course is no different than in any other competition.
Win your home games and avoid defeat away. Scotland are capable
of beating all bar Italy at Hampden and can fancy our chances of
taking a point against the Azzurri. Away from home we will need
to defeat one - and preferably both - of the bottom two countries,
and get draws in Norway and Slovenia.
If we can do that then second place will be ours. Whether that will
be enough to obtain one of the two automatic qualifying places for
runners-ups or whether we would then face another play-off is another
For now we have nine months before the campaign starts. Nine precious
months in which to build on the improvements shown against Germany
and Holland. Germany 2006 was always the target when Herr Vogts
was appointed as Scotland coach. Berti, it's over to you.