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June 2005

Season's disappointing end for Scotland











“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Last time round we said we hoped it would be the other way round but the concluding lines of TS Eliot's morbidly powerful (or powerfully morbid) 1927 poem 'The Hollow Men' seems an apt epitaph for the 2004-05 Scottish season. After the pyrotechnics of the final day of the SPL Scottish football turned from the spectacular to the soporific as the 2004-05 season meandered towards its conclusion with a mundane Scottish Cup Final and two World Cup qualifiers of monumental boredom and sterility.

Against Moldova at Hampden Scotland took until nearly half-time to create a decent chance against the qualifying group's supposed whipping boys. Then when we did manage to take the lead thanks to a goal from Christian Dailly (only on the pitch following an injury to Jackie McNamara) we treat the Moldovans as if they were Brazilians by defending in depth and at times in desperation for the remainder of the match before substitute James McFadden grabbed a second goal right at the death.

On to Minsk for the tie against Belarus. Built up by the Scottish management and media as the best side in the group bar Italy, the home team actually turned out to be pretty mediocre. Scotland did a good job of shackling danger man Aleksandr Gleb but showed precious little ambition in a game where a win would have proved priceless.

It's safe to say that had Berti Vogts still been in charge then entire boatloads of vitriol would have been heaped on the German's head. But Walter Smith is still enjoying something of a honeymoon with the 'fans with laptops' and is an accustomed schmoozer of the Scottish sporting press corps of many years standing. So the manager avoided the flak his predecessor would undoubtedly have had to face.

With just one win in six games our World Cup hopes should be dead and buried. But thanks to the good fortune of being drawn in a poor group with all teams capable of taking points from each other the undertaker remains on standby though the hearse is revved up and ready to go.

Scotland, through no great effort of their own, are sitting just three points away from runners-up spot in the group and a plausible case can be made for all not yet being lost.

That case centres on facing an Italian team at Hampden right at the start of their season. The Italians at both club and country level are notoriously slow starters. Nor have they been impressive on their travels in this campaign thus far. A narrow win in Moldova, a draw in Norway and defeat in Slovenia suggests the Hampden fixture is far from a foregone conclusion.

After that the next match is in Norway where, in contrast to Italy, they will be coming to the end of their season. And remembering that the much-maligned Vogts put out a side that drew away to the Norwegians, victory should not be out of the equation.

It may be that Scotland need to win all four remaining matches and if they did then no side other than Italy could overtake their points total. Conceivably as few as fourteen or fifteen points might be enough to take second place.

At any rate Scotland's fate is still in their own hands. But being realistic this Scotland team doesn't look capable of winning often. For Walter Smith read Craig Brown. We are back to the old days of organised mass defence and relying on breakaway goals. And while we still have hope there will have to be a massive improvement before the Tartan Army can think about making hotel reservations in Germany in a year's time.

Certainly if we continue to treat Moldovans as Brazilians then cast ourselves in the role of San Marino as we did in Minsk then yet another tournament will pass by without Scottish participation.


Those miserable World Cup games were in striking contrast to the end of the domestic season. Last time we dealt with the title race but the fight at the bottom was just as intense. As usual the authorities cocked up the fixtures. Making the bottom six play on the same day as the FA Cup Final was transmitted live on terrestrial TV was just plain stupid and all too reminiscent of the fixtures farces of the past like sending Kilmarnock to Inverness at New Year and leaving Easter Saturday as a blank day as happened a couple of years ago.

But it didn't ruin the excitement as both Dundee clubs and Livingston endured a nervous afternoon. And as this writer can testify there were a few Dunfermline fans at Rugby Park who went through what Alex Ferguson calls “squeaky bum time” as Killie raced into a four-goal lead over the Pars.

In the end the black spot was visited upon Dundee. Or so everyone thought. With the SPL things are never that simple and complaints over the role of Hassan Kachloul as an "unpaid amateur" at Livingston raised the faint possibility that a points deduction might yet send the Almondvale side down.

It seems unlikely. Last year the SFL reacted to the annual relegation farce by including both Partick Thistle and ICT in the draw for the Challenge Cup as an either/or option. This time the name of Dundee and Dundee alone represented the relegated team.

The end of the season also saw the end of the notable refereeing careers of Hugh Dallas and Willie Young. They've been the subjects of much criticism over the years but their departure leaves a gaping hole in refereeing standards in the SPL which will be hard to fill. Rightly, Dallas has been regarded as Scotland's top referee for several years as his many UEFA and FIFA appointments - including fourth official at the World Cup Final - testify.

Yet Young too deserves to be remembered well. Attacked by many for a perceived inability to keep up with play, Young always managed to control a game with a smile on his face. Never officious, Young was always able to enjoy a bit of banter with the players and if all referees did the same some of the heat would be taken out of contentious situations.

That giant (in more ways than one) of a referee, Tom 'Tiny' Wharton died recently and was accorded acres of respect in newspaper obituaries. Yet in his day there was no more vilified official in Scotland, frequently criticised for being unable to keep up with the game and for refereeing from the centre circle.

No doubt as time goes by both Dallas and Young will be more fondly remembered than they are right now. This column would like to get in first by saying they were probably Scotland's best referees since the heyday of the finest of them all - Willie Miller!!!


And so the curtain rings down on 2004-05. It's been a season which has taken this columnist from the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona to the slightly less palatial surroundings of Portland Park, Troon via many other places in between. But it ended as it always does at Rugby Park. Killie's four goal win over Dunfermline meant that personally the season ended on a high even if the departure of Jamie Moffat as chairman three days later left a serious question mark hanging over the future of Ayrshire's Premier club.

That's for the future. As always here at scottishleague.net we end the season by looking back at our predictions. Preening ourselves on what we got right and prostrating ourselves for what we got wrong. We do so in a spirit of honesty, magnanimity and openness. As well as the full knowledge that unlike print old web forecasts are easy to trace!

The World Cup saw us at our most optimistic when we proclaimed “the chance is there to go to Italy in March with nine points in the bag and the rest cutting their own throats.”

Ah well, at least we were right about the rest!

Domestically, we thought Celtic would retain the title with Rangers second and with just two minutes of the season remaining that prediction was on course. We reckoned Hearts had a job on their hands protecting their fifteen-points lead over the chasing pack for third and that while they would reach the new UEFA Cup mini-leagues that would be as far as they got. So not too bad there.

We always get Dunfermline spectacularly wrong. His season was no different as we thought the Pars were top six material and would easily brush aside Icelandic opposition in Europe. But our worst domestic forecast was undoubtedly this. “Dundee United did well under Ian McCall and we expect them to be the main threat to Hearts for third place.” At least we got Aberdeen's improvement to top six status right!

We reckoned three teams - Motherwell, Hibs and Killie - would be “on the fringes of the top six but well away from the relegation struggle." Not too inaccurate - except for our (and in our defence everyone else's) failure to spot the Hi-bees rise though we did say “If Derek Riordan can reproduce last season's form and Scott Brown can learn to control his temper, the Hi-Bees can surprise a few.”

Correctly, we placed Livingston and Dundee in the drop zone but like just about everyone else outside the Highlands we forecast relegation for ICT. That's one prediction we're glad to have got wrong as the Highland team were truly outstanding in the year just gone.

In the First Division while we had Falkirk down as one of the favourites and said St Mirren could prove to be the surprise packet we also thought Partick Thistle would be involved at the top not the bottom. We marked Raith's card for relegation but mistakenly picked Clyde to go with them.

The Second Division crystal ball produced another mixed bag. Wrong at the top where we picked Ayr and Morton but right at the bottom where we said “perm two from Alloa, Arbroath, Berwick and Forfar.”

In common with the rest of the known universe we selected Gretna to win the Third but thought Peterhead would lose out to East Fife. And we shouldn't really claim any credit for picking East Stirling to finish last.

Finally, yet another book plug. Page 164 of 'The Roar of the Crowd' calls for the introduction of play-offs and a pyramid system. The Scottish League will introduce the former next season and have taken the first steps towards the establishment of the latter.

It's nice to end the season having got something right!



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