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November 2005

Graham Rix takes over at Hearts










As bizarre appointments go that of Graham Rix as Hearts first team coach looks in the same category as Caligula making his horse a Roman Proconsul or George Bush (the slightly smarter one) selecting Dan Quayle as his running mate.

Rix's elevation to the Tynecastle dugout came just days after failing to land the job at non-league Crawley Town and almost two years after Partick Thistle failed to shortlist him for the boss's post at Firhill.

Club owner Vladimir Romanov intimated that George Burley's successor would be a coach steeped in European experience. Robson, Scala, Hitzfeld, Ranieri were some of the names being bandied around before the unexpected and inexplicable emergence of Rix.

Let's get one thing straight. This column's objection to Rix has absolutely nothing to with criminal offences committed in the past (though he will find that supporters of other clubs won't be as charitable). It is based purely on Rix's record as a manager.

At both Portsmouth and Oxford United he failed to impress. In thirteen months at Fratton Park his team won just 16 of the 56 matches they played, drawing 17 and losing 23. They were 17th in the First Division (The Championship as it's now called) when he arrived and 15th when he left. At Oxford it was even worse. When Rix took over in March 2004 they were fourth in the Third Division (now League Two) and challenging strongly for automatic promotion. They drew three, lost six and won just once more that season - in their final game by which time they had dropped to ninth and out of the play-offs.

With just five wins in their opening 17 games before Rix departed in November 2004 Oxford had slumped to 21st. In total his teams won just six times in 29 matches with eight draws and fifteen defeats.

Being charitable we could include a 1-0 win for Chelsea over St Gallen in the UEFA Cup (Chelsea were eliminated in the second leg) in 1999 on Rix's CV when (alongside Ray Wilkins) he was briefly in charge at Stamford Bridge following the departure of Gianluca Vialli and prior to the arrival of Claudio Ranieri.

Even so that gives a total of 86 games as a manger under Rix's belt, of which his teams have won 23, drawn 25 and lost 38.

Ottmar Hitzfeld he ain't.

The spin from Vilnius - sorry, Edinburgh - focuses on Rix's coaching achievements at Chelsea and the trophies won during his time there. Sorry, that just doesn't wash. It's like saying Steve Clarke won the English title for Chelsea last season or Alex Miller took Liverpool to the European Cup. Both those Scots hold coaching positions similar to the one once held by Rix yet no one would seriously suggest their influence was greater than Jose Mourinho's or Rafa Benitez's. So it was at Chelsea in the past. Ruud Gullit and Luca Vialli were the bosses who bagged the prizes at Stamford Bridge.

Hearts' new chairman settles in

Now of course we may have got this all wrong. Maybe Romanov was right to sack a manager unbeaten in the League as George Burley was. Maybe right too to dismiss Phil Anderton as CEO and castigate his lack of commercial acumen at a time when Hearts were making positive headlines and selling out every match. Perhaps he was right also to brush aside George Foulkes whose knowledge and contacts within Government were useful in negotiations over expanding Tynecastle and replace him with Gareth from 'The Office.' Oh, sorry, meant to say his son, Roman.Maybe Vladimir Romanov will surprise us all yet again. But it has to be said the omens are not good. The old adage of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' would seem to apply to the Hearts of Burley, Anderton & Foulkes. And applying the old style Julian calendar to recent events, Romanovs and October revolutions don't exactly have a happy past.


If the upheavals at Hearts were the biggest events to take place since this column went on a short sabbatical they weren't the only ones of significance. Before departing for foreign climes we asked whether the exciting start to the season would be maintained and a resurgent Scotland heading for the World Cup or whether it would be back to business as usual.

Well, to the casual observer the sight of Celtic at the top of the heap and East Stirlingshire at the bottom with November more than halfway through would seem to suggest that nothing much has changed. But in reality much has happened since these pages were last updated. While the spotlight has shone firmly on Hearts & Rangers Gordon Strachan has quietly turned Celtic round from the shambolic mess of Bratislava into an effective title-challenging team. At the same time Rangers stuttering season has provoked demands for change from the Ibrox legions. A distant fourth in the league only the prospect of further advance in the Champions League is keeping the hounds at bay and even though Rangers are doing all they can to shoot themselves in the foot - dropping four points casually against Artmedia - they go into their last two games in a qualifying position. Barring a mathematical miracle an away point and a home win should suffice. Though whether this Rangers team is capable of either must be open to debate.

If Hearts took the short-term route of foreign signings to mount a challenge to the big two, Hibs have gone about matters by the longer  - but ultimately more beneficial to Scottish football - road of bringing on talented young Scottish players. And at the time of writing they look to pose a bigger threat to Celtic than Rangers do. That's a tribute to Tony Mowbray - another manager, lest we forget, who arrived in Edinburgh to a chorus of derision. The difference of course is that Mogga was a newcomer to management while his new opposite number has a track record hanging round his neck like an iron noose.

Alas, progress in Europe was beyond Hibs this year and the defeat in the Ukraine by a fairly ordinary Dnipropetrovsk side a stark reminder of how low our game currently stands.

But the biggest disappointment by far of October was the toothless surrender of our World Cup hopes at the hands of Belarus. Never mind all the talk about the victory in Slovenia four days later and how it heralds the rebirth of Scottish football. We've all seen these false dawns before. Think Holland in 1978, the CIS in 1992, Wembley 1999 - all glorious victories that counted for far too little far too late.

The performance against Belarus must rank equal to any of the great Scottish disasters of the past.
Against a team that hadn't won a competitive match away from home for a decade Scotland could have been three down by half-time. In a match we had to win to keep our hopes alive we started with just one recognised striker. And how did we attempt to achieve victory? By pumping high balls up to that lone forward, Kenny Miller. According to Soccerbase Miller is five foot ten. We think he was wearing some Seventies-style Elton John platform boots the day he was measured but even so, high balls to a solitary striker up against four hulking brutes of defenders isn't the cleverest of tactics. Nor is the 'give me the ball, look up, look forward, pass back' style of Barry Ferguson going to advance the cause by much either.

This performance was worse than anything seen in a COMPETITIVE game under Berti Vogts. Yet Walter Smith emerged unscathed from the aftermath. The media had already decided the German was to blame for Scotland's failure. But Berti can't be blamed forever. The next tournament - Euro 2008 - will see Smith judged on his own merits. And barring the accident of being drawn in an overly strong group - say, France and Germany as 1st & 2nd seeds - then if Walter wants to keep the job progress is a must.

Yet the SFA and Smith have gone about preparing for the next competition in an odd way. First by inviting the USA to play at Hampden. Odd, not because the Americans are a weak side, they are far from that. But because it would have made much more sense to be playing a European team already qualified for Germany 2006 than one from another continent.

Secondly, Smith's squad hardly suggests he is looking to the future. The inclusion of the uncapped Scott Brown of Hibs was greatly cheered by the press but Brown's deserved call-up served to obscure the paucity of fresh thinking elsewhere. None of the quarter of David Weir, Christian Dailly, Graham Alexander and Neil McCann for instance will be around internationally come 2008 and this was the perfect opportunity to bring in new blood. But instead Smith opted for the Craig Brown road of 'play them till they drop' which has had such a devastating effect on Scotland thus far this century.

And this column had to strongly suppress a fit of the severe giggles when Walter appeared on TV to say how important it was for his strikers to be playing for their clubs and scoring goals while at the same time once again failing to recognise the existence of Kilmarnock's Kris Boyd. At the time of writing Boyd has scored 11 first-class goals so far this season - more than anyone else playing in the SPL. He has notched up 62 in total in his career, 58 of them in the League. He is the only Scot under the age of 30 to have scored 50 SPL goals. Boyd is only 22.

What more does he have to do to earn a place in the Scotland squad?

Other, that is, than move to Ibrox.  A place benchwarming at Ibrox or Parkhead seems to be a more certain route to international honours than scoring goals week in week out in the SPL as the presence of Steven Thompson, Craig Beattie and Shaun Maloney in recent line-ups would testify.

Now it may be that if Boyd were elevated to the Scotland squad his transfer value would rise accordingly, thus forcing Rangers (if the rumours are true) to up the ante when they come calling in January.

If that's the case then so much more reason for Walter Smith to pick Boyd now. After all, during seven years in charge at Ibrox Walter didn't exactly hold back with the Rangers cheque book and it's no time to start worrying about their finances now.


Just a few words about this column' overseas sojourn. That god-awful game against Belarus was made slightly less painful thanks to the couple of hundred or so expats and tourists watching in The Clansman bar in Barcelona. Details and directions have been posted in the Forum.

And refreshing as it was to be able to watch world class players like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o and the fast-emerging Leo Messi in the flesh at Barcelona's Camp Nou, it was also good to see a typically fearless, all-effort substitute appearance in Barca's 2-2 draw with Zaragoza from Henrik Larsson. He may not be the idol he was at Celtic Park but the Swede is a well respected and much admired player by the Barca socios. With their team trailing 2-0 his was the name they shouted for coach Frank Rijkaard to introduce.

It's not just the football that's better. The organisation is too. Imagine being part of a crowd of 73,926 and being able to exit the ground at 10pm on a Saturday night without fear of crush, walk to the nearest metro, travel through fourteen stations, walk again at the end and be back at your flat within 45 minutes of the final whistle. And then be able to go out for a meal! It takes this writer longer than that to get from Rugby Park to the ancestral home just under five miles away. Even then the village takeaway's usually shut!

To be fair Spanish TV coverage of football is far worse than our own. It's not that the commentators, film crews or analysts are poorer - much the same in fact. But it's hard to imagine Scottish fans putting up with adverts for cars flashing on the bottom of the screen every time the ball goes out of play as was the case in TVE's live coverage of the crucial World Cup qualifier between Belgium and Spain. Nor would we be too enamoured of the twenty-minute ad breaks in highlights programmes. But it was almost worth it just to hear Thomas Buffel described as a player with Glasgow RANCHERS.


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