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June/July 2003

Close Season












Some Scandinavian and Eastern European countries traditionally run their football seasons between March-November on account of the winter weather but for most the football season begins in August and ends in May. Of course in World Cup and European Championship years the season is extended. But even in this 'off-year' it appears that we now have a 52-week sport. For the 2003-04 season started before 2002-03 finished!

That's right. On Saturday June 21st 2003, the Intertoto Cup got under way. 24 hours later the Spanish League came to its conclusion with the Spanish Cup Final seven days after that.

If that wasn't enough then the draws for the preliminary rounds of European competition gave us all something to ponder. In the Champions League qualifiers Celtic will play either Torshavn of the Faroes or, more likely, FBK Kaunas of Lithuania.

Martin O' Neill
will be a relieved man to have avoided the likes of Djurgardens of Sweden and Rapid Bucharest. And with the experience of Suduva last year proving to be the launchpad for their march to the UEFA Cup Final, surely O'Neill's side will be represented alongside Rangers in the draw for the third round qualifiers.

On the face of it Dundee appear to have a tougher tie in prospect against Albanian runners-up Vllaznia. The Albanians are regulars in European competition but their record is modest to say the least. Dundee, playing their first European tie for 28 years (if we discount their failed adventure in the Intertoto a couple of years ago), will expect to be in the hat alongside Hearts for the first round.

What then, can we expect from our clubs in Europe in 2003-04 and what will they themselves be hoping to achieve?

Celtic are easily the most experienced but it would be asking too much to expect them to repeat last season's heroics. They will want to make the Champions League group stages at least as will rivals Rangers. Both sides will be seeded in the qualifiers but that is no guarantee of success as Celtic found out against Basle last year.

Should they get there they would both find it difficult to make further progress as both would be seeded third in their groups. For either of the Old Firm to qualify from their groups to the new knockout stage of the last sixteen would be regarded as excellent progress and would extend their interest in Europe through to March 2004.

Hearts have a 50/50 chance of being seeded in the UEFA Cup's first round draw. It all depends on results in the Qualifying round and which teams drop out of the Champions League qualifiers. But if they were to be seeded they would then stand a good chance of becoming the first team outwith the Old Firm to reach the second round in Europe since Aberdeen in 1996-97.

For the past six seasons Scottish clubs have usually beaten the small fry before falling themselves to modest but higher-ranked opponents. Should the Jambos get a seeded spot they would be in a good position to end that miserable record. If Dundee were to get through to the second round too they would be the first to beat two opponents since Aberdeen overcame the less-than-mighty Barry Town in that previously mentioned campaign.

So, the last sixteen for the OF and the second round for Hearts and Dundee. It doesn't sound like too daunting a task but these are still demanding targets though not impossible ones. If all four of our clubs could achieve these aims it would be proof that our club football is beginning to compete once more at European level.

Failure would indicate that Celtic's success last season was a one-off, fuelled mainly by foreign stars.

Future's Bright?

At first glance any visitor to Scotland might look at season 2002-03 and decide all is well with the game. One of our clubs has just reached the Final of a European tournament, losing only in extra time after being reduced to ten men. And our national side has just drawn against last year's World Cup finalists in a match they could have won.

But it wouldn't take much scratching away at that thin veneer of respectability for our visitor to soon realise what all of us know - that our national game is still deep in trouble. The SPL is locked in a potentially damaging legal wrangle with Falkirk. Administratively, the disaster that was Roger Mitchell may have gone but his legacy is to leave our cash-strapped clubs locked into a TV deal which actually sees most of them lose money. The crazy 'split' in the league after 33 games will continue next season. And all around clubs are desperately trying to offload players as the reality of economics hits home.

Rangers may have won the treble but their team is already breaking up as the Ibrox club faces up to the chilling prospect of satisfying their demanding fans on a budget which would only be described as shoestring if we could say for certain that Alex McLeish had enough in the kitty to buy a pair of laces.

This is the harsh reality that is now biting our clubs. Rangers pack their ground for almost every game. They cannot sell any more season tickets than they do already. It is difficult to see how they can achieve any more commercial success than they have now. In a world where supporters can sleep in Rangers duvets, eat their breakfast in Rangers bowls while wiping their baby's mouth with a Rangers bib, what more can the club do to extract ready cash from their adoring legions? Rangers toilet paper perhaps? Or would that look too much like an admission of where the supporters cash has gone these past few years?

If Rangers paid back a million pounds each week to their creditors, they would still be in debt a year from now. Why did the club get into this state in the first place? And, more importantly, how can they possibly get out of it? Answers on a postcard please to Ibrox Stadium, 150 Edmiston Drive, Glasgow G51 2XD. I believe the club would particularly like to hear from a Mr D Murray.

Celtic meanwhile bask in the glory of European success but Dermot Desmond tells the supporters not to expect any of the millions they have poured into the club since 1994 to be spent on strenghtening the squad even though Martin O'Neill knows many of his players are reaching the end of the road and that next season will be the last at Parkhead for Henrik Larsson.

How the Parkhead punters must cast an envious glance at Spain where club chiefs have to fight and win elections to obtain office. For all the millions that Celtic supporters have poured into the club since Fergus McCann ousted the ancien regime their influence on the club remains the same as it was in the days of the Kelly and White dynasties - zero.

Can the rest take any comfort from the troubles of the big two? In one sense, they can. For with the Old Firm having to rely more on the bargain basement end of the transfer market and on home-reared players the gap between them and the rest should begin to narrow.

That's not to say that the League flag will be fluttering over any ground other than Ibrox or Parkhead but the days of 30 and 40 point gaps between the OF and third place should be over. Maybe not next season but surely after that. In the five years of the SPL the closest any club has been to the OF was in its first season when St Johnstone finished twenty points behind Rangers and with fourteen fewer than Celtic. This season Hearts were a massive 34 behind them both - a record for the gap between 2nd and 3rd but not as big as that between 3rd and 1st as in 2001-02 when Livingston were 45 behind Celtic.

But it isn't just the Old Firm that are feeling the pinch. The others are now beginning to suffer for the days when they put players on contracts worth thousands of pounds a week to be paid for by revenue that failed to materialise. Hearts, Aberdeen and Dunfermline have already started on the road back to financial sanity. Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Dundee appear set to follow by offloading players surplus to requirements and no longer quake in their shoes when an agent rings.

But it's at the bottom end that the madness still seems to persist. Of the clubs that finished in the bottom four last season only Partick Thistle appear to be acquainted with reality - and it may cost them dear.

Thistle have opted for basic contracts of no more than £500 per week. It's not so long since the Maryhill club were under an SFA interdict in the transfer market and stood on the brink of relegation to the Third Division. Clearly there is going to be no return to those days at Firhill. Yet here it seems they have gone too far the other way. Can Thistle survive in the SPL paying that kind of money? If they can, watch for the rest following suit.

Dundee United appear to be bucking the trend towards retrenchment. Under new ownership the Tannadice club seem intent on buying their way out of trouble. Anxious club bosses will be watching and comparing their performance next season with Partick's.

Livingston are still the masters of the gimmick. After the failure of "Barcelona legend" Guillermo Amor, their next trick has been the appointment of a coach with no experience in European, let alone Scottish, football. They have justified handing the job to Marcio Maximo Barcellos on the grounds that he gave Ronaldo the chance at fifteen to play in Brazil's under-17 team.

Now, here at scottishleague.net we do not know if Barcellos is a good coach or not but we do know that if the only qualification needed is the ability to spot that Ronaldo could play a bit then there are millions of us capable of coaching an SPL side.

What really appals though is what is happening at Motherwell. Here is a club in administration. A club that has, for the third time in their history, avoided relegation when they should have gone down. A club that has been found to be in debt to players whose contracts they summarily cancelled.

Yet this is a club that is still permitted to sign players, hand them signing-on fees and contracts while still not settling with the players they owe cash to. This cannot be right. While Partick Thistle struggle to keep their affairs in good order, Motherwell are allowed to poach players from them.

Why is there no SPL sanction here? When Kaiserslautern found themselves in deep financial doodoo they were forced to sell their ground or go out of business. We're not advocating anything that extreme in Scotland but it cannot be right for Motherwell to raid other clubs for players before they have cleared their outstanding debts.

So, of the bottom four, three are determined to avoid either reality or responsibility. No prizes for guessing which one we would like to see avoid relegation next season.

And the bitter financial winter has set in at lower levels too. St Johnstone and Ayr United are offloading players as they are unable to continue to pay full-time wages on gates of 2,000. But the most intriguing move in the First Division has come from Falkirk who have awarded a one-year player-coach contract to Russell Latapy. This will be Latapy's third lucrative signing-on deal in the past two years and with his 35th birthday approaching, possibly his last.

We must admit that the thought of Latapy instructing the Falkirk youngsters in the importance of discipline, timekeeping etc brings a wry smile to our faces but there is no doubting his talent. Poachers have turned gamekeepers before. This appointment is one to watch in the months ahead.

As for the national team, the draw against Germany was merited. Indisputably the best performance of the Vogts era, it was a game that - bar the usual defensive lapse - could have been won. Yet Iceland's ability to do what Scotland couldn't - win in Lithuania - leaves our prospects for qualification up in the air. Assuming (and maybe we shouldn't) home victories over the Faroes and Lithuania, then that would be fourteen points and should be enough for second spot in the group. But if Iceland were to snatch a home win over Germany that would leave us requiring a point in Dortmund in September

At the moment it's still in our own hands but those dropped points in the Faroes and Lithuania may yet cost us a play-off place. Salvation for Scotland might come from an unlikely source. The Faroes held Germany for 89 minutes before losing to two late goals and both Iceland and Lithuania have to visit the islanders. Anything the Faroes can take from either game will be a welcome boost to Scotland's campaign.



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