Comment:- What Answer Are We Expecting When We Ask Why?

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Yesterday I posted up a relatively objective article looking at the death of the Welsh national team manager Gary Speed. On average my blog has pulled in approximately 30-35 hits a day for the past month, mainly from a core group of fellow film blog writers keeping up to date with what is being said about film on-line. The Speed article however managed to gather up over 200 hits and counting. I’d normally be rejoicing that my writing had managed to get out to such a wide audience, but having a closer look at the statistical information about how the article was accessed I feel a little less euphoric.

The number one reason why most people were being drawn to the page yesterday was through a Google search – no surprise there. More distressingly people appeared to be most frequently searching the terms ‘gary speed gay’ (147 people, thus far). I’ve therefore a pretty good idea that those 147 people, clearly looking for a juicy piece of gossip strictly on the QT, were probably disappointed to come across some rather bland prose outlining the neglect of mental health issues in football finished off with a spot of pseudo-existential philosophising on the impossibility of really knowing anyone. In fact I’d go as far as to hazard a guess that few of those in search of a bit of prurient titillation hung about beyond the opening paragraph – and in some ways maybe that is gratifying. I wouldn’t like to suggest that there is something outright objectionable about people scouring the internet for a bit of salacious gossip, after all that is what us human beings do all too well. I’m just staggered that in light of Gary Speed’s tragic demise so many people resort to the default setting of wondering whether the suicide is the result of some forthcoming public ‘outing’.

Whilst talking about Speed amongst friends yesterday, a couple of rather heated discussions spilled forth. One person found the whole cavalcade of media and commentary generated by Speed’s death to be frankly disturbing. The question that they asked was as a direct result of what I had written yesterday and what the news media has likewise been covering, namely why are people so shocked about the suicide of a football player. To contextualise this question, the example of Amy Winehouse was given. A few months ago Amy Winehouse appears to overdose on booze and pills and yet few people were as shocked by her death as they are by Gary Speed’s. What was being suggested here was that people had made a tacit assumption about Speed’s suicide based on what they know of his professional life (even in the case of players and managers, they have only really spoken of the professional figure, the man they worked alongside), in the same way that people made tacit assumptions about Winehouse based on what they knew of her professional life and what parts of her private life had been made public. In the case of Speed there is a glaring absence of private life information for we the chattering multitudes to get our teeth into. In this vacuum of information, people are clearly searching around for answers anywhere they can find them, almost willing rumour to become fact, hearsay to become evidence.

Such behaviour reflects badly upon the mental health of large swathes of humanity. The media circus prompts us to trample upon the privacy of individuals who have chosen to do nothing more than a publicly visible job. When it comes to popstars, actors, sportspeople, we feel as if we are entitled to answers, as if we are not just a fan, but somehow a friend and family member. Nowadays, with such events as a suicide we are insinuated into the media coverage, with its insistent need to understand, to know, to explain how other people feel. An awful BBC interview with Robbie Savage when the news broke about Speed’s suicide, saw presenter Clive Myrie trying to cajole a clearly upset Savage into giving insights into something he patently knows very little about, namely the mental state of Gary Speed. What is the purpose of such endless probing? What more would any fellow football player be able to bring to the discussion other than a few choice anecdotes and a restatement of how shocking the death was and how ‘great’ and professional a guy Speed was? The only person who knows why this death occurred is dead. The only other people who may be able to shed a pale ray of light on the matter are understandably grieving the loss of a loved one. Meanwhile, we the gossiping masses, offer up our condolences whilst trawling around the echo-box internet looking for some anecdotal evidence that Speed might be gay.

As fans we may well have a depth of affection for Speed which made his death genuinely shocking, but, as I wrote yesterday, we did not know the man. Not even the likes of Robbie Savage knew the man. Savage at least played with the man, drank with the man, chatted with the man, but he still didn’t know the man. Hence all of this talk about how implausible his suicide seems, how out of character it appears to be, is really rather futile. In fact all of these why’s just promote this furtive game of Chinese whispers that rumbles on in the vacuum of genuine knowledge (I think here about Fran Lebowitz comments on modern news and journalism in Public Speaking, news is facts, what we have now isn’t news it’s opinion).

Suicide confronts everybody it touches with a sickening sense of mortality and it is in ourselves that we rummage around for the answers as to why, rarely appreciating that in such occurrences there are never going to be any answers, or certainly none that are straight-forward enough to be carried in the attention deficient modern media. A crudely simplistic notion of ‘gay’ outing is a suitably reductive answer, allowing the overly curious general public to go ‘ach, that’s why alright’. It nullifies any attempt at considering the greater problems that lead someone to choose death over public recognition of their sexuality. It also assumes that the invasive nature of a ‘public outing’ is something thoroughly acceptable and right – but then this has been a historical problem attached to certain moral views for a long time. If any such information does come forward in the next few days, I guarantee it will change absolutely nothing with regard to why Gary Speed felt the need to kill himself, so thus it serves merely as a palliative to us terribly wounded voyeurs out there.

Crucially, such a reductive answer to ‘why’, also restores a sense of order to the world, as at least we have an answer, we have something we can point to as a reason, we have an explanation. This makes all of us ‘feel better’, but once again does nothing to change the situation, or to take into account those who are genuinely grieving for the loss of a person who was important within their lives. Ultimately, it is a far scarier proposition to peer into the utter blackness of a galaxy-sized hole and realise that there is nothing in there that we can know, understand, or comprehend. After all, isn’t it the unknown where all of our worst nightmares reside?

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Gary Speed:- Assumptions of Knowledge

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It would appear that in the early hours of Sunday morning the current Welsh national football team manager, Gary Speed, chose to hang himself in his Cheshire home. Suicide is certainly not an uncommon occurrence amongst high-profile public figures, or celebrities. In fact in some areas of our popular culture a perverse glamour has attached itself to such displays of self-negation, particularly in the ‘live fast, die young’ arena of rock music and the potentially dangerous self-analytical processes of a certain type of literary creation. What is quite striking about Speed’s apparent suicide is the fact that it comes from a sportsman, and in particular a football player/manager.

Now it is not that sportspeople are incapable of committing suicide, but rather that the number of active sports stars who do commit suicide is considerably lower than any of the other pop cultural public careers. Amongst the sports with the highest number of suicides is the performance sport of Wrestling, which has far more of an affinity with the more turbulent acting profession than with fellow combat sports such as boxing and the various martial arts. Football, as in soccer, has had comparatively few incidences of suicide among the major team sports. In recent years the only notable examples would be the former Nigerian international Uche Okafor and the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke. The former death was found to have taken place in suspicious circumstances and has since been reclassified as a murder, whilst the latter was thought to be connected with Enke’s long history of depression. When thinking of British football players who have taken their own life, you would have to go back as far as 1998 to the tragic death of Justin Fashanu, who had been harassed for many years for having come out in 1990 as an openly gay footballer (something that still seems to be firmly taboo).

There have certainly been as volatile and seemingly self-destructive individuals in the world of football, as you would find in many other areas of popular culture. Yet the likes of George Best and Jimmy Baxter chose the slow-poison of alcoholism, whilst Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona have stubbornly clung onto life despite their very best efforts and their seemingly blackest moments. Many footballers, as with other sportspeople, do seem to experience an appreciable difficulty adjusting to life away from football, once their playing careers have drawn to a close. All the players mentioned in this paragraph, thus far, experienced some form of depression when they were no longer able to do what had come so naturally to them for so many years. The three British players all turned to the self-anesthitising powers of the demon drink, whilst Maradona went through numerous drug and food problems, before finding some kind of sanity as a coach and a television figure back in Argentina. This highlights one of the key issues in sport, namely what does a sportsperson do once their career is over, usually somewhere around their 35th birthday, if not sooner.

Part of the reason why so many sports reward their professionals well nowadays is due to this problem of career brevity. Yet money does not solve the problem of purpose. Where possible, sportspeople tend to reintegrate themselves back into the game in some kind of coaching, or promotional capacity, particularly with team sports, such as football. Outside of this, due to the growth in professional sport incomes, many former sportspeople move into the business sphere with increasing ease, if not success, upon retirement. The competitive instincts that have been sharpened for many years on the pitch, court or field, tend to be prized by industry leaders, with some suggestions also being made as to their generally positive psychological benefits. Problems seem to arise amongst sportspeople when this competitive instinct is aligned with a compulsive, or addictive, personality that leads to the development of certain dependencies in a bid to sustain dwindling powers and stave off the rapidly approaching obsolescence of an post-sport life.

Returning to the specific issue of British footballers, it is abundantly clear that there has been for a long time an aversion to any real analysis of the psychology of players. Until very recently there was the assumption that players were being paid to do something that they enjoyed, so what could possibly be wrong with them. The dominant stereotype of the British game, with a particular focus on English football, is that its players have traditionally adopted a ‘no-nonsense’ approach. This ‘no-nonsense’ approach has then been extended to the coaching side of the game, as well as to the commentators and supporters attitudes toward the game. In this environment that, until the arrival of the likes of Arsene Wenger, made English football seem like the last bastion of that famous ‘British’ policy of the ‘stiff upper lip’, it is unlikely that issues of mental health are going to be discussed in a measured, open and constructive manner. Far from it in fact, with the tendency being for footballers to either engage in the tried and tested addictive remedies of years gone by, or simply suppress whatever issues may be plaguing their minds.

As a result of this complex nexus of institutionally sustained ignorance, a general lack of understanding, or willingness to understand and a traditional mistrust of the therapeutic approaches for treating psychological problems, the British public’s perception of a footballer’s situation tends to be more than a little skewered. This disparity between what the public think of a player and what the player is actually experiencing is further complicated by the overly self-aware modern media culture we all now operate within. When narrative arcs can be sculpted from players psychologies to demonstrate a human failing that has been superficially acknowledged and brushed aside with the ease of a sugar-pill treatment, all for the benefit of extra publicity and the insatiable lust for column inches, then it only helps to trivialise otherwise intensely serious medical conditions.

The death of Gary Speed seems to have left a number of people within football, and a number of people who follow football, feeling somewhat numb and confused. Unlike many modern footballers Speed seemed to be a grounded, level-headed and particularly unassuming man. During a twenty year playing career, pretty much entirely played at the highest level, Speed won domestic honours, represented his country and was a consistent and highly professional performer for every team that he appeared in. Having prepared himself in advance for a transition into the coaching side of the game, his recent successes managing the Welsh national side, after a disappointing spell in charge of Sheffield United, seemed to suggest he had a bright future in the management side of the game. Unusually amongst the clique-ridden world of modern English football, Speed was a universally liked man, who had a particularly positive effect on the training ground, where he led by example, exhibiting extreme dedication to fitness and avoiding many of the temptations that crowd around football players later in their careers. Even people who had worked alongside Speed for years, the likes of Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer, Howard Wilkinson and Craig Bellamy, could offer little insight into what might have prompted Speed to take his own life.

What Speed’s death has confronted both the general British public and the football establishment with is a painful, but simple, truth. We may think that we know someone, in particular as partners or close friends we might even assume that we have an understanding of the way they work or the way they operate, but in fact as individual’s we are all pretty much inscrutable islands upon which the most enigmatic and esoteric of thoughts and impulses run amok. Perhaps the only times that we are ever truly revealed is in our moments of action, which very often are all too fleeting and final. If Gary Speed had been suffering from a long-suppressed depressive condition, then that reflects poorly, to some degree, upon our incapacity to treat psychological illness with the seriousness and concern that it warrants. Whilst if it has been some much more sudden situation that has compelled Speed to take such drastic action, then, unless it is something akin to the hounding which rode Justin Fashanu to his grave, we can only wonder what drives another to take their own life. What may linger most in the memory of Speed’s passing is not necessarily the gifted and committed professional football player and coach that he was, but rather the certain and numbing knowledge his death confirms, that all our assumptions about the lives of others come nowhere near their elusive inner reality.

Scotland vs Lithuania (at Hampden Park) Tuesday 6th September 2011

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HT:- 0-0

FT:- 1-0 (Naismith 50)

Ref:- Kirstinn Jakobsson (Iceland)

Scotland:- McGregor, Gary Caldwell, Whittaker, Berra, Bardsley (Crainey 70), Don Cowie, Darren Fletcher (c), James Morrison (Dorrans 79), Barry Bannan (Snodgrass 83), Steven Naismith, David Goodwillie. Subs Not Used: Gilks, Hutton, Grant Hanley, James Forrest

Bookings:- Dorrans (82, Foul – Prof.)

Lithuania:- Karcemarskas, Radavicius, Kijanskas (Danilevicius 60), Klimavicius, Zaliukas, Semberas (c), Cesnauskis, Mikoliunas (Beniusis 76), Pilibaitis, Sernas, Labukas (Novikovas 45). Subs Not Used: Setkus, Panka, Ivaskevicius, Papsys

Bookings:- Labukas (44, Del. Handball), Semberas (65, Foul – Prof.)

An improved attacking display from the Scots still could not hide the deficiencies at the back, nor the continued cautiousness of Levein’s tactics, which left most of the Hampden faithful unnecessarily chewing their nails with about fifteen minutes to play. The major positive of the night’s action was the midfield contributions of young Aston Villa midfielder Barry Bannan, who for large parts of the game left me in mind of a youthful Gary McAllister, and fully justified Levein’s claims of future stardom. Scotland dominated considerable spells of the match, yet a combination of exceptional goalkeeping from Karcemarskas and poor finishing from Naismith and Goodwillie meant that the Lithuanian’s perhaps had the better chances. It says a lot for Scots confidence that the best performers on the night were the younger players given an outing, whilst the usually dependable Fletcher managed to waste a penalty opportunity just before half-time.

Prior to this match Levein had made much of the way in which he felt his squad had been ‘cheated’ out of three points in Saturday’s match with the Czech Republic. The squad was apparently still angry about this result, but Levein believed that this anger could be channelled positively against the inconsistent Lithuanians. Scotland were missing two experienced players in Scott Brown and Kenny Miller (both of whom had picked up silly yellow cards against the Czech’s), which gave opportunities to Cowie and new Blackburn signing Goodwillie. Bardsley had managed to overcome the injury sustained during Saturday’s match, whilst Hutton had been, in my opinion correctly, dropped onto the bench in favour of Whittaker. The biggest selection shock was the inclusion of young Aston Villa midfielder Bannan in favour of Charlie Adam, yet by full-time this bold decision had been more than justified.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Levein’s team selection was the preference of a solid, but uninspiring, Cowie in favour of the more mercurial talents of Robert Snodgrass. It seemed obvious that in the absence of Brown, Fletcher would be asked to drop into the holding midfield role. Yet the inclusion of the Cardiff man Cowie in preference to the skilful Leeds Utd playmaker seemed emblematic of Levein’s propensity for safety-first football (particularly as Snodgrass had shone during his run-out against Denmark and both players feature at English Championship level). Most of this disappointment was quickly allayed, however, by the emphatic way that Scotland set about attacking the Lithuanians in the opening 35 minutes of the first-half.

Before the relatively experienced Lithuanian side had even had a chance to settle into things Scotland had laid down a few markers of intent. The lively Bannan, who switched flanks with Naismith throughout the match, delivered a couple of probing crosses into the box in the first five minutes, that showed some invention if just a little naivety in the execution. With the Lithuanians unable to hold on to the ball for longer than a few seconds at a time, the Scottish midfield was able to dictate play and the fullbacks of Whittaker and Bardsley were able to push forward at will. Lithuania were playing a very narrow game, but their strong centre back pairing of former Dinamo Moscow defender Klimavicius and Hearts captain Zaliukas, were proving difficult to break down. Prior to the match the Lithuanians had been robbed of their star fullback Marius Stankevicius (of Lazio) through injury, so the utility midfield player Ramunas Radavicius was having to deputise at right-back, giving Bannan, Naismith, Morrison and Bardsley plenty of joy when linking-up down the left flank.

Whittaker, Bannan and Bardsley were getting numerous crosses into the box early on in the half, as Scotland looked for ways round the back of Lithuania’s tight defensive centre back unit. The best of Scotland’s early chances came from a delightful Bannan cross from the by-line, that unfortunately fell to Christophe Berra in the box, the Wolves centre back hitting a strong shot off target. Bannan was causing mayhem with his delivery on corners and freekicks and yet despite some generally good movement from both Goodwillie and Naismith, neither could get themselves convincingly on the end of these gifts.

As only Scotland can really contrive to do they produced their very best opportunities just as the Lithuanian’s were beginning to look dangerous themselves, in the ten minutes before half-time. First Bannan lofted a perfect chipped pass into the penalty area, which, for once, went between Klimavicius and Zaliukas, only for Naismith to not quite have enough pace to power a header past the keeper. Next Fletcher drove toward the Lithuanian by-line, on the left side of the penalty area, then cut back across Radavicius, before forcing a save at the near post from Karcemarskas. From the resultant corner Bannan delivered a wonderful in-swinging ball which Naismith somehow managed to waste, whilst almost completely unmarked. Moments later, Bardsley broke on the counter and drove a long-range shot just wide of the right post.

This was exciting stuff from the Scots, but their failure to capitalise on these well crafted openings was seemingly having a positive effect on the Lithuanian team, who produced a couple of quality opportunities of their own in the closing minutes of the half. Labukas, who’d give away a ridiculous penalty only moments later, managed to catch both Berra and Caldwell asleep in their own penalty box, but failed to time his header and power it around McGregor. A few minutes later, and just before the penalty, Caldwell’s casual pass to Cowie was intercepted by the Lithuanian captain Semberas, who broke clear of the advanced Scotland back line, leaving Berra isolated with three Lithuanians. Absurdly Semberas chose to run at Berra, rather than pass the ball to either of his better positioned teammates, allowing Berra to clean up this mess and get his defensive partner off the hook (much as he’d done in the Czech match). This was probably the most promising move of the first-half, and after the superb penalty save from Karcemarskas, Lithuania tested McGregor one last time, from distance, as Sernas hit a curling strike inches past McGregor’s left post with the goalkeeper looking stranded.

Coming back to the penalty, it was created by yet another dangerous freekick delivery from Bannan, this time out on the left. A moment of madness from Labukas, substituted at half-time, saw the Lithuanian make like Fabien Barthez and punch the ball away from the near post. After the hysterics of the weekend Scotland were not to be denied a spot kick and team captain Fletcher duly stepped forward to take it. Fletcher’s penalty was low and well struck to the left of the goalkeeper, but bizarrely, for such an experienced player, his body had signposted where he was going to strike the ball and as he opened his body up, Karcemarskas preempted him and produced a fantastic save. Incidents such as this have a tendency to depress Scotland teams, so some credit must be given to Craig Levein whose half-time team talk must have buoyed spirits somewhat, as Scotland took barely five minutes of the second-half to grab the lead.

The Lithuanians had brought on Novikovas at half-time, seemingly a punishment to Labukas for his mind-bendingly stupid penalty giveaway, and the new arrival seemed to give the side a little more width, enabling the team to reduce the effect of Whittaker and Bardsley’s forward-running. Almost straight away the hitherto quiet Cesnauskis managed to smash a brutal freekick just wide of McGregor’s right post, with the keeper again looking unable to get across to it. Despite this early pressure, the Lithuanians fell behind on 50 minutes to a beautiful three player interplay, involving two of the young deputies.

David Goodwillie, who had shown plenty of movement in the first period and a keen awareness of space, took the ball across the edge of the Lithuanian penalty area from off the left flank. His neat pass into Bannan out on the right gave the young midfielder time to turn on the ball and send a reverse pass toward the far post where Naismith took the ball first time on the half-volley smashing it into the top left corner of Karcemarskas goal. The fluidity and precision of this goal was quite breathtaking and could only make you wonder as a Scots fan what might have been if only Scotland had shown such inventive and penetrative attacking play more regularly, on Saturday, against the Czech’s.

The goal winded the Lithuanian side and forced them to change their rigid defensive counter-attacking setup. Immediately after the goal it seemed likely that Scotland would add to the scoreline, particularly when Bardsley drifted into the area, but couldn’t get his shot away in time. However, having weathered a ten minute storm, the Lithuanians brought on Danilevicius – an Arsenal and Dunfermline reject, with Serie A experience – at the expense of fullback Kijanskas, effectively deploying a 3-5-2 formation. Although this tactical tweak didn’t have the game changing effect of the Rezek substitution in the Czech match, it did upset the midfield rhythm of the Scotland side, particularly reducing the space and time on the ball for the highly influential Bannan. Frustratingly Levein resorted to an ever deeper defensive style of play as the game wore on toward the final 15 minutes, once again effectively ceding midfield possession to the opposition and allowing the Lithuanians to run on to the Scottish back line.

With Goodwillie having been unable to add a goal to his strong performance, Scotland were increasingly dependent on Naismith as the main counter-attacking threat. Naismith despite the coolness of his earlier finish, lacked a little bit of composure in front of goal, wasting two great chances from a bit of Bannan invention, one of which should have perhaps been a second penalty for hand ball. This was really the last of Scotland’s serious chances to add to their lead and for the final fifteen minutes there was an increasingly frantic feel to proceedings. Lithuania would have equalised if not for a superb deflected block from Fletcher, that saw the ball settle in McGregor’s grasp, when it looked likely to sneak past the unusually shaky Scottish shot stopper. The substitute Danilevicius missed a sitter when Cesnauskis whipped a cross in from the left side. Whilst McGregor was almost caught off his line by a looping Lithuanian header, only just managing to backpedal and keep it from crossing the line. Later still, the dangerous half-time substitute Novikovas managed to get another shot away from distance that moved all over the place before skimming just over McGregor’s bar.

Levein had taken off a tiring Bardsley for an ineffectual Stephen Crainey (making his first appearance in almost nine years for Scotland) and had also brought on the usually reliable Dorrans for Morrison, but all that the West Brom midfielder managed to contribute to the match was the second professional foul of the night. Snodgrass was given a brief cameo after 83 minutes, replacing the sparkling Bannan, yet with the Scots so much in retreat, Snodgrass was reduced to one moment of jinking brilliance. Right at the death the unfortunately named Pilibaitis had Scotland fans almost disbelieving their eyes, but thankfully failed to get a shot away when standing unmarked just a few yards from goal.

It would have been ridiculously cruel on Scotland to have suffered a second dramatic late equaliser, but nonetheless despite Levein’s continued good work at promoting Scottish youth, serious questions should be asked of his side’s inability to close out matches with a second goal. Any team which has Gary Caldwell’s lack of concentration at the heart of its defence cannot depend on defensive rigour so early in a match. Levein has Scotland playing some inventive football, but too often favours sacrificing forward momentum to hold on to what the side already have. With the well-drilled defences of the Smith and McLeish era this was a tactic that could be deployed to some effect against sides that posed a considerable attacking threat (France and Italy, for example). However, despite the hard work of Christophe Berra, this is not a similarly robust Scotland defence and the reliance on defensive solidity in matches against relatively mediocre attacks like that of the Czech’s and the Lithuanian’s is somewhat perturbing. A win is a win and moreover Scotland have managed a cleansheet, stoking the faint flames of hope once again, but I hope that Levein seriously reflects both on the positives (Bannan, Goodwillie and Bardsley) and the negatives (the preference for caution and defensive retreat) when rounding off our qualification attempt in October.

My MOM:- Barry Bannan – Kevin MacDonald had quietly touted the ex-Celtic youth as one of the brightest sparks in an impressive Villa youth side and Houllier and McAllister appeared to take notice. However it now looks as if Alex McLeish is going to be the real beneficiary, as Bannan added to his impressive early season performances for Villa, with a masterclass in passing that at times had the Lithuanian’s believing there must be at least four Bannan’s on the park at once. His intuitive use of space found him drifting all along the Scottish midfield, whilst his dead ball deliveries were as eye-catching as those of the man he replaced in the starting eleven. On the strength of this performance Scotland have a real talent on their hands.

And Another Thing… : – Lithuania are often patronisingly, if rather comically, referred to as the ‘Hearts reserves’, by Scotland fans. On Tuesday these fans were equally adept at ridiculing some of the Lithuanian player names, with substitute Beniusis, being greeted to cheers of ‘Benny-useless’ (a reference to his less than memorable loan spell at Hearts). Whilst Pilibaitis’ woeful late miss was quickly greeted by the derisive, and rather crude,  chant of ‘Pillow-biters’. I wonder what Vladimir ‘Roam-and-off’ will have to say about matters through his always farcical Hearts PR releases?

Scotland vs Czech Republic (at Hampden Park), Saturday 3rd September 2011

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HT:- 1-0

FT:- 2-2 (Miller 44, Fletcher 82; Plasil 78, Kadlec  90 (pen))

Ref:- Kevin Blom

Scotland:- McGregor, Gary Caldwell, Hutton, Berra, Bardsley (Danny Wilson 75), Darren Fletcher (c), Scott Brown, James Morrison, Charlie Adam (Cowie 79), Kenny Miller, Steven Naismith (Barry Robson 86). Subs Not Used: Gilks, Bannan, Goodwillie, James Forrest

Bookings:- Scott Brown (17, Foul), Kenny Miller (49, Foul), Danny Wilson (89, Foul), Berra (91, Simulation)

Czech Republic:- Lastuvko, Hubschman, Sivok, Hubnik, Kadlec, Jiracek (Pekhart 77), Rosicky (c), Plasil, Rajnoch, Petrzela (Rezek 55), Baros (Vacek 91). Subs Not Used: Drobny, Pospech, Pudil, Lafata

Bookings:- Jiracek (23, Foul), Plasil (58, Dissent), Rezek (61, Foul),  Baros (91, Foul), Pekhart (93, Simulation)

An inconsistent refereeing display from the Dutchman Kevin Blom, who recently refereed the first leg of Arsenal’s Champions’ League Qualifier with Udinese, should not paper over an unduly cautious and relatively anaemic display from a Scotland side that knew they really had to win here to stand any chance of qualifying for Euro 2012.

Craig Levein will surely feel aggrieved at the ‘dubious’ penalty decisions that went against his side in stoppage time at the end of the match, when first Wilson was penalised for leaving his foot in on a quick-tumbling Rezek and then Berra was denied a penalty in almost identical circumstances. However, I’m sure that when Levein sits back to analyse the performance he will feel rather fortunate to have escaped with a point from a game that could, and probably should, have been over long before Miller fired Scotland in front just before half-time.

With home advantage and an urgent need to reduce the points deficit on the Czech’s you would have expected that Scotland would come out strongly in the first-half. However for well over two-thirds of the opening period the Hampden home support were left sitting in nervous silence, as the Czech’s cut through the Scotland defence on numerous occasions, yet failed to find the breakthrough their attacking enterprise deserved. Amongst the most wasteful of the Czech Republic starting eleven was the highly experienced former Liverpool and Lyon striker Milan Baros.

As early as the fourth minute the debutant winger Petr Jiracek (who had an exceptional first half) managed to win the ball in the air out on the left, putting Baros away down the wing. Baros knocked the ball back inside to Jiracek who drove down the flank, before cutting a beautiful ball back to Baros in the centre of the penalty area. Inexplicably the Czech Republic’s second highest scorer of all-time (having scored more than twice as many goals as Scotland’s Kenny Miller) contrived to steam the ball clean over the bar, when it really would have been easier to score.

The lethargic Scottish midfield did not immediately awaken from their stupor, as might have been expected, instead they allowed Tomas Rosicky the chance to pump a free kick into the box, where Jan Rajnoch managed to get between Bardsley and Berra and screw a header inches wide of McGregor’s left post. The Scottish defence was looking all too static and there was a genuine sense that they could end up imploding under this early Czech barrage. I’ve never been a fan of Gary Caldwell, believing him to be a painfully slow centreback, lacking the positional sense and judgement to get him out of jail. Yet it was Caldwell’s link-up play with Adam and Fletcher that really provided Scotland with an outlet to relieve some of the pressure. Scotland were playing some neat passing football and were holding the ball relatively well in the middle of the park, but frequently lacked the final pass that could open things up for them.

Scott Brown managed to get himself his required booking after only 17 minutes for a dumb challenge somewhere around the centre-circle. Brown, like Caldwell, has always been overrated and his complete inability to think his way through a match, reduces his play to little more than a bit of high-tempo charging about. He is frequently a disaster waiting to happen. Thankfully Fletcher, Adam and Morrison were more controlled and economical with their energies and Scotland did produce some neat openings down the left, where Morrison and Bardsley were frequently marauding into the space vacated by Hubnik and Sivok.

Scotland had played almost 30 minutes before they got there first real sniff of goal, before which Berra had to block a beautiful Kadlec pass to Baros in the box and Caldwell had got away with his customary rick of a defensive pass thanks to his centreback partner’s quick thinking. It was Caldwell, charging forward with the ball, who managed to find Miller on the left side of the penalty area, only for the Cardiff striker to fail to get any power on his header. Moments after this half chance, the increasingly influential Morrison put Naismith clean through on goal only for the Rangers player to hit the ball harmlessly back to the inexperienced Czech goalkeeper (deputising for the injured Cech) with a truly appalling first touch.

Despite a really impressive first-half display from Gary Caldwell, who managed to stifle another good opportunity for Baros by showing him away from goal, the Scotland defence were frequently guilty of failing to clear the danger. Often the Czech Republic would break at pace on the counter, leaving the Scottish defence playing catch-up. Across the back line Scotland were failing to take adequate responsibility for ensuring their clearances didn’t drop back into dangerous areas. More often than not the Czech’s were able to get a second, more threatening, crack at goal due to this inability to play the ball out of from the back convincingly.

Amazingly, despite the Czech’s more obvious attacking threat, just before half-time Miller was put through by a bustling Fletcher run and coolly slotted into the bottom right corner with Scotland’s first shot on target. Lastuvka’s attempt at a save was pretty feeble, but it was still a priceless bit of poaching that Miller has become increasingly effective at producing for club and country.

Levein would have surely been ready to tear into his player’s at half-time, but the goal may have softened his rhetoric, as Scotland started the second-half in even more of a lacklustre and aimless fashion than they had the first. This time after just a minute Baros found himself once again in the right place in the box, only to fluff another gilt-edged opportunity. Unlike in the first-half this did seem to put some urgency into Scotland’s play and they spent the next ten minutes dominating possession and putting Naismith and Miller into dangerous positions in the box, from which they failed to capitalise. This moment of Scottish control was fleeting however and with the substitution of the ineffectual Milan Petrzela for the more robust and direct Jan Rezek, Czech coach Michal Bilek brought Baros a little deeper and pushed Hubnik and Hubschman a little further forward. By congesting the midfield in this manner, the Czech’s enjoyed their most dominant spell of the match, with Scotland seeming increasingly happy to sit back on their goal advantage.

Scotland’s inability to clear effectively had not improved and the likes of the wily Rosicky and aggressive Rezek were able to make the most of every second ball that dropped their way. On 65 minutes Hubnik, who had an very productive second half, should have scored the equaliser for the Czech’s, but saw his foot catch in the turf when he only needed to make the slightest of touches to knock Sivok’s headed pass into the back of the net.

Scotland were now reduced to fending off the Czech waves of pressure and foraging for the occasional counter-attacking opportunity. After Hubnik’s glorious chance McGregor managed to release the ball quickly to Morrison who delivered a delightful cross to Miller at the near-post, but this time Kenny was unable to get enough of a touch to divert the ball past the flailing Lastuvka. Up the other end Rosicky took a long-range shot, from about 25 yards out, which managed to career wide off an unfortunate Rezek, preventing an almost certain goal. With this kind of luck it seemed that just maybe the Scots could hold-out.

In the end the unrelenting pressing game of the Czech midfield, allied with Rezek’s highly effective battering ram centre-forward work, managed to create a ridiculously simple opening. Rezek broke wide of Hutton and delivered a teasing cross toward the near-post, where Nedved lookalike Jaroslav Plasil managed to steer the ball into the net with his chest. Embarrassingly the Scotland team, that had been complacently counting the clock down on a 1-0 lead till the equaliser, suddenly began to dominate the middle of the park once more, proving that if they had wanted to they had the wherewithal to compete with this weak Czech side.

Whereas in Scotland’s first goal Fletcher had been provider and Miller finisher, this time Miller exploited a terrible defensive error on the left-side by Rajnoch and broke into the box. Playing, what looked like an overhit pass across the penalty area, Miller actually picked out a lung-bursting run from the Scots captain, with Fletcher dispatching the ball into the bottom right corner emphatically. The roar around Hampden was suddenly deafening, with the home fans breaking into a gleeful rendition of Flower of Scotland. Yet once again the Scottish team took their eye-off-the-ball, with the Czech’s throwing everything at them for the last few minutes of the match.

Step forward the controversial Kevin Blom, who had already missed a Czech penalty shout in the first half, as well as a dodgy elbow by Naismith on Rezek in the second. Rezek could also count himself lucky for still being on the pitch after a horrible tackle on Adam a few minutes after the elbowing incident. Perhaps a combination of these elements were clouding the judgement of the Dutch official as Rezek hopped into the Scottish penalty area in the 89th minute, going to ground laughably quickly under a challenge from young substitute Wilson. To be fair Rezek at least waited for Wilson to make contact with his trailing foot before taking his tumble, and although it is clearly a soft penalty, it’s still a possible penalty. Kadlec came forward to brusquely slam the ball straight down the middle of McGregor’s goal, however this didn’t quite break Scottish hearts.

As with the first equaliser Scotland found a new lease of life and straight from the kick-off Hutton won a free-kick in a dangerous position. Caldwell’s delivery found his defensive partner Berra in space in the box, only for Hubnik to close in on the defender and Berra clearly choosing to go to ground. Levein and some of the Scots’ players appeared incensed as they were still disputing Rezek’s penalty, but although the two incidents were superficially similar, there certainly seemed less contact in the Berra case. At the end of the match Scotland were left feeling cheated, but can only really blame themselves for failing to consistently apply the pressure necessary to brush aside this far from world-beating Czech Republic team. Long before the drama of those closing moments, the Scots should have ensured they had more than a one-goal cushion. Their complacency when in front and their generally poor work at denying the Czech Republic the second ball were what ultimately cost them a vital victory at Hampden (which should put pay to their qualification hopes also).

My MOM:- Petr Jiracek – Even though he was substituted just before the Czech’s equalised and despite the game-changing substitute appearance of Jan Rezek, the Czech winger looked incisive and composed on the ball throughout. Considering this was his full International debut Jiracek ran the lines well and his link up play with Baros was one of the highlights of a hard-fought match.

And Another Thing… : – Scott Brown and Kenny Miller clearly fancied a longer lay-off before returning to club action at the weekend, as both of these senior players shirked responsibility by putting in stupid ‘nothing’ challenges in unimportant areas of the park. The bookings they duly received, ensure they won’t feature against the Lithuanian’s on Tuesday.

In Arteta Arsenal Can Trust

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With most of the important transfer business (Aguero in at City, Coates in at Liverpool, Ashley Young in at Man Utd) already completed, transfer deadline day had both an air of anti-climax and Woolworths bargain bin raid about it. Of the nominal Premier League Top Six, only Spurs and Arsenal (both of whom have started poorly this season) had any really pressing business to take care of on the final day of this summer’s transfer window. Yes, Chelski could have done with a Modric figure to liven things up a little, but they are hardly a squad in dire straits, unlike Everton, and in the end they landed Villas-Boas’s compatriot Raul Merieles from Liverpool anyway (perhaps King Kenny’s only duff move in the transfer market this summer).

It was probably Arsenal and Arsene Wenger who most urgently needed to lay down some kind of marker of ambition in the market. A summer of departures, some good (Eboue, Traore), some bad (Fabregas, Nasri), had stripped this promising Arsenal squad of a significant portion of its quality, as well as its depth. As it turns out the hiding handed to Arsene’s side at Old Trafford last weekend, may well have provided the necessary impetus to push through the most exciting acquisition of the transfer window, as well some other serious quality personnel.

The deals for Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos, that had been touted around the day before the window was due to shut, were duly completed. Mertesacker, despite a Bundesliga sluggishness, will presumably offer a bit of German steel and efficiency to the backline, his positional sense and organisational skills seeming a perfect fit for Vermaelen’s graceful ball-winning abilities. Santos is apparently Brazil’s first-choice leftback, but with his European experience consisting of only a couple of years in the Turkish top-flight with Fenerbahce, it will have to be seen how well he will adapt to the Premier League. The fact Santos is a strong and pacy attacking full-back, very much in the modern Brazilian mode, bodes well for a side that have long missed the consistent attacking threat of Ashley Cole (Clichy was solid enough, but had seemed a little in decline over recent seasons).

Aside from these, in effect, done deals, Wenger managed to carry out three other pieces of crucial transfer business. First of all he was able to send the walking ego, and considerable talent vacuum, that is Nicklas Bendtner, off to bother the even bigger-head (both literally and metaphorically) of ‘Stevie’ Bruce at Sunderland. Having shifted that albatross from around his neck Wenger then secured the loan services of everyone’s favourite Israeli creative mercenary, Yossi Benayoun – a deal that could prove to eclipse even his most important piece of business. However, managing to prise the hard-working Toffeeman Mikel Arteta away from Goodison, was surely the biggest coup of the day. Arteta has been a consistent Premier League performer at Everton over the past four seasons and seems a near like-for-like replacement for the returning Catalan, Fabregas.

At 29, Arteta is entering the period of his career where he should really be enjoying a clutch of trophies and some good Champions’ League experience, which is surely why Everton fans cannot begrudge him the move. Under Moyes Arteta has developed into the kind of crafty, midfield linchpin that he had always threatened to be, but, after his Rangers schooling, looked as if he may never fully develop into. A few Arsenal fans have voiced their concerns about the fact that in signing Benayoun and Arteta, Wenger hasn’t really dealt with the requirement for a strong holding-midfield player. I believe that this is doing Arteta a little of a disservice, as although he’s no Claude Makelele, he certainly has more of a robust physical presence – that Rangers schooling – than Fabregas had. In tandem with a Song or, more longterm, Frimpong figure, I could see Wenger creating a nicely balanced midfield yet.

What is indisputable however, is that Arteta brings some much-needed substance to a midfield that looked, at times, swamped by Manchester Utd last weekend. Arteta is one of the finest, and most cultured, passers of the ball currently operating in the Premier League. I’d go as far as to say that in his time at Everton, perhaps only Paul Scholes, Charlie Adam, David Silva and Fabregas have had more of an impact on the way their teams distribute the ball. Arteta has also shown a willingness to lead by example at Goodison, where alongside Tim Cahill and Phil Jagielka, he organised and directed the Everton side. A midfield general is just the kind of figure Wenger needs now Fabregas is gone, thus Arteta will find himself playing a crucial role in Arsenal’s likely resurgence, after an undeniably wobbly start. Considering the work that Wenger has put in over the last week in the transfer window, does anyone doubt the potential Top Four quality of this Arsenal starting eleven:- Szczesny, Sagna, Andre Santos, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Song, Arteta, Benayoun/Ramsey, Gervinho, Van Persie, Walcott? Frankly, I think barring a serious injury crisis (always a Gooner worry) Arsenal have every chance of proving numerous doubters wrong and maintaining their position at the top table, if not building on it, by adding some silverware. How ironic would it be, if after all the criticism and this awful start, Wenger and Arteta were celebrating come May?

Amongst the other business on transfer deadline day there were a few lovely moves that have really whetted my appetite for the coming season. Personally I think the purchases of Bellamy (back at Liverpool), Bryan Ruiz (in at Fulham) and Maloney (taking a second crack at the English league with Wigan) are quality offensive signings. Bellamy has a ridiculous reputation as a troublemaker which I frequently think is as a result of his obvious passion for the game being somehow frustrated by insensitive managers. Dalglish loves a pacey, dribbling centre forward and Bellamy fits that bill perfectly. With Suarez clearly first choice at Liverpool I think Bellamy will be vying with Carroll for the other striker slot (not forgetting Dirk Kuyt), which is to my mind what makes this a great piece of business. Bellamy is the perfect insurance if Carroll continues to suffer from a little confidence issue. Whilst the presence of a freescoring Bellamy could act as a real catalyst to both Carroll and Kuyt to up their own game.

Jol’s purchase of Ruiz from FC Twente is another exceptional piece of business at Craven Cottage and I’m certain that he will form a lovely partnership with Bobby Zamora. Although the club have endured a ropy start to their Premier League campaign I will be truly amazed if they do not enjoy at least one good cup run, whilst there Premier League status should really not be up for debate come February. Ruiz has pace and strength, with a frightening goal record which should really free up Zamora to utilise some of his superb off-the-ball movement to full effect. I’ve high hopes for this particular partnership and feel this could be the beginning of the end for the declining abilities of the once so promising Andrew Johnson.

Wigan have been exceptionally canny once again this transfer window and I think that Martinez and his latest capture Shaun Maloney, could be a marriage made in heaven. Maloney endured a fairly feeble first outing down south under the smothering tactical restrictions of his former Celtic-mentor Martin O’Neill. However, on his return to Celtic Park Maloney was used intermittently, but highly effectively, through the centre of the park, as an advanced attacking-midfielder. In this role he showed all the guile, wit and creative ingenuity that once had the Celtic and Scotland faithful salivating over his potential. Barring injury, Martinez will surely give Maloney a similar license to roam and dictate Wigan’s dynamic attacking play, which makes me cautiously optimistic for Wigan’s hopes of survival, as well as eager to watch Maloney, like Charlie Adam before him, develop into the great Scots playmaker he really should be.

Flash ‘arry had us fooled for a while down at White City dogtracks. Sounding only a bit like the demented Venky PR machine, ‘arry ‘ad us all finking we was gonna see some Kaka at White ‘art Lane, know whatta mean? Unfortunately it appears that what he really meant is that he had got rid of some central midfield cack, going by the name of Jermaine Jenas. But seriously (to aptly quote Phil Collins, ‘arry’s favourite), Harry Redknapp did have the football hacks of Britain picking their collective glass jaws up off the scullery floor (along with the pickled eggs and Smith’s Salt’n’Shake), when rumours began pouring out around Van der Vaart-time that the gifted Brazilian may be ghosting in for a season-long loan in North London. Alas the Yid Army will have to make do with the solid, battling presence of the wonderfully economical Scott Parker, who dropped in for little over five million having got fed up with blowing (Hubba Bubba sponsored) bubbles in E13.

Among the other dribs and drabs of transfer action, Owen Coyle wove a magic wand and Kakuta appeared (in on-loan from Chelsea, clearly impressed with the job the Scotsman done on Sturridge). They also managed to shore up a cheap deal for David Ngog, who I’m certain, given a sponge bath and some cotton wool bedclothes by the hyperactive Glaswegian, will begin to show Liverpool what they really had on their books. After all, this time last season Ngog was beginning to show some rich form at Anfield, which was surely nothing to do with an extended run in the team under Hodgson, was it? A lot of hype surrounded Crock(ery) Hargreaves cheeky move to Man City and I’m sure that Mancini will have bartered a good deal for the club on the off-chance that the gifted holding player, can’t shift his fragile labeling. Man City have a tremendous abundance of riches at their disposal now and anyone foolish enough to believe they will still be also-rans in the Premier League should perhaps check out the mental health facilities in their area, as I’ve a feeling this season may drive them crazy. Tony Pulis’s continued evolution of Stoke City into, well, Stoke City, must surely strike the fear of god into most other Premier League sides. Stoke are oft-derided as a ‘direct’ side, very much in the Allardyce and Bassett mode of rugged, one lump then two, football. However, Pulis seems to be well aware of where his squads strengths lie, whilst at the same time doing a lot to ensure that they have sufficient craft to belie the ‘scrubbers’ tag. Palacios is a great piece of business, whilst Crouch and Jerome will certainly cause a lot of problems for opposition defences and could also do the truly remarkable and put something like a rocket up that most languid of professional footballers, Kenwyne Jones.

Before I finish up this little summary, I must make a mention of two buys that have renewed my faith in football, just a little bit more than the others here. I’m absolutely ecstatic that the Killie board are continuing to show the Old Firm the way in the Premier League, by acquiring the quality defensive signature of Mahmadou Sissoko, on loan, for another season, from Udinese. Sissoko was superb for Killie last term and, as much as I was sceptical of Kenny Shiels appointment (convinced, as I was, that he would revert Killie to the hoof’n’hope of the pre-Paatelainen dark interregnum), his team appear to be embracing the superbly versatile style that the Finn brought with him to the club. More power to their collective elbow this term. Whilst the sincere desire of Joe Cole to actually rediscover his love for the game was actually quite touching and I genuinely wish the wee ‘erk well on his sojourn in the north of France. As long as his talents haven’t completely deserted him, then a year out of the English media spotlight with a team as good as the French champions can only be a positive move for the Londoner. I’ve a feeling that much like Trevor Steven and Chris Waddle before him, this move to France could see him enter a truly remarkable period of his career, perhaps never deigning to set foot on these shores again. We can but dream…

Being Charlie Adam (Revisited)

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Being Charlie Adam was originally published on my now defunct Imposturous blogspot, on June 22nd 2010. It was an article that partly addressed the serious dearth in creative footballing talent within Scotland at the moment (something Pat Nevin has since pursued in his Radio documentary, The Perfect 10), whilst giving an overview of one of the few Scottish players who has really set the pulses racing over the last few years. Back at the start of last season Adam had resuscitated a career that had looked almost flatlined in his last few months at Rangers, under Walter Smith. This was in part thanks to the midfield responsibilities Blackpool manager Ian Holloway assigned his captain, in what was a very, almost suicidally so, attack-minded team. Everton were seen as the main suitors for his signature last summer. However, Blackpool managed to cling onto him for an entire season, and although he ultimately failed to keep the team in the top division, he didn’t half impress with his spectacular range of passes and his dead-ball excellence. In the January transfer window, Liverpool’s returning hero Kenny Dalglish, attempted to bring Adam to Merseyside. In the event his arrival was simply postponed for six months and now Adam is in the perfect place to realise all of that early promise that the much-maligned Paul Le Guen first saw in him. The impressive start both Liverpool and Adam have made to this new season promises much, particularly if Adam continues to create such a strong on-pitch relationship with young Jordan Henderson and the wily Uruguayan Luis Sanchez. I’ve a gut-feeling this could be a very good campaign for Liverpool, and what better person for Adam to develop into his golden years under, than perhaps the greatest ‘number 10’ figure Liverpool ever had. If only more Scottish players would take a leaf out of the Adam playbook. On the continent he would be heralded as the midfield maestro, he surely is, whereas in Scotland (much as in England, in the recent past), he’s seen as a maverick throwback to the days of Jimmy Baxter and Alan Gilzean. I believe that Craig Levein is trying very hard in a near thankless position at the SFA, but unless that clownish organisation manages to put its house in order and come up with a top-to-bottom regeneration programme for the Scottish game, then the likes of Charlie Adam will continue to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Why are so many talented Scottish footballers so bloody enigmatic when it comes to displaying their talents consistently at the highest levels? Despite the greats of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, such as Laws, Hansen, Bremner, Jordan, Souness, Dalglish and Robertson, there has been a steady stream of untapped, or not fully realised, talent frittered away before a generation of Scots’ fans teary eyes. Think of the sublime gifts of Jimmy Baxter, or Davie Cooper, that, due to the traditional Scottish disdain for healthy living, were so infrequently shared with the Rangers, Raith and Motherwell fans who worshipped them. What about the myriad talents of Giggs’ contemporary Eoin Jess, a player that back in the early 90’s had many Scottish football journalists predicting a similar career trajectory to the Welsh wizard? Aside from his all too brief halycon years at Pittodrie there is now as little to admire of Jess’s career, as there are trophies on his CV.

 

In recent years the youth teams at Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Hearts have developed a number of promising young talents, only for the Old Firm to come-a-calling and set their development back a few years at best (Kevin Thomson, Steven Naismith), or leave them cryogenically frozen at worst (Derek Riordan). Part of this is down to the players themselves, groomed in the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football, they nowadays tend to have an over-inflated opinion of their own talents, achievements and self-worth from a ridiculously young age and quickly fall into all the extracurricular traps their relative affluence allows them. Often it is only on descending down the Scottish League that such players begin to realise a fraction of that potential that initially got them the big pay cheque (just take a look at where some of the journeymen assembled by Derek Adams at Ross County this season started their careers).

One of the most glaring details about talented Scottish footballers’ habits (much like many young English players) in the past few years has been their relative inability to seek out better opportunities in leagues other than their own. Since the tail-end of the Merseyside duopoly of Everton and Liverpool in the 80’s and the likes of McClair and Strachan at United, successful Scots’ players abroad have been an endangered species. Gary McCallister was perhaps the last truly great Scottish player to achieve tangible success abroad, although the mercurial gifts of James McFadden helped David Moyes settle into the Goodison hotseat and perhaps Manchester United’s most consistent performer of the last few seasons has been the tenacious midfield dynamo Darren Fletcher. There really is though no comparison between the current crop of Scots’ players parked in mid-table Premier League and Championship outfits and the greats of the Leeds, Liverpool, Everton and Forest teams of old, not to mention the continental pioneers like Souness, Jordan and Archibald, unless you harbour an ironic soft-spot for Holland’s favourite Scotsman Scott Booth.

Amongst the current crop of Scotland players, I would argue that only McFadden (and where has McFadden disappeared to???) clearly has more natural skill and ability than the former ‘Ger Charlie Adam. Darren Fletcher has grown into a truly world-class talent more through ferocious willpower and sheer, Ferguson-implanted, single-mindedness than by dint of being blessed with fantastic football skills. Adam, much like his former team-mate and club captain Barry ‘pass-back’ Ferguson, comes across in interviews as somewhat lacking in the verbal skills to adequately discuss the weather, let alone his footballing ability (since when has that been an issue for English, French, or Spanish footballers andtheir bland, airbrushed platitudes), yet unlike Ferguson he seems to have an awareness of these limitations. In his most recent incarnation for Championship outfit Blackpool, Adam has literally been following that tired old cliche and doing his talking on the pitch, orchestrating Blackpool’s frenetic brand of attacking football from the centre of the park, turning into a box-to-box midfielder in the Steven Gerrard mould.

As manager Ian Holloway’s club captain and Blackpool’s most expensive signing (at a paltry £500,000 pounds), Adam has embraced the tough fitness training sessions and pass’n’move offensive play of his new club and in the process has blossomed into the player that Paul Le Guen considered to be one of the most promising youth products coming through the Ibrox ranks in his short tenure at the club. It is somewhat troubling to consider that Adam has clearly performed for the likes of Gus MacPherson, Le Guen and Holloway, all managers who demand high fitness levels of their players and yet frequently throughout his time at Ibrox was the object of terrace abuse and derision, due to his ballooning weight and propensity to jog, or waddle, after the ball. He would not be the first player, nor the last, to let Glasgow living get the better of him. I seem to remember Peter Lovenkrands having similar weight issues in his time atIbrox, as well as Riordan, Caldwell and Boruc in more recent times at Celtic.

Despite being given his first Scotland cap by Alex McLeish, at club level Adam clearly did not win Big ‘Eck’s trust on the football pitch, being farmed out first to Ross County and then to his successful stint at St. Mirren under MacPherson. Le Guen succeeded McLeish in the summer of 2006 and after a pre-season goal blitz by Adam the Frenchman regularly selected, and got the best from, him. However, Le Guen’s brutally short reign at Ibrox saw Walter Smith takeover in early 2007 and gradually the dynamism of the last 18 months drained from Adam’s performances. By 2009 Adam was a peripheral figure at Ibrox, seemingly resigned to never quite making the grade for Rangers. It was at this juncture that Adam initially took up a loan option with relegation threatened Blackpool, a move he would later make permanent under the stewardship of Holloway in August 2009.

Adam in the few, mostly dull, football interviews that he has given, has frequently alluded to his need to ‘feel wanted’ and his willingness to ‘play anywhere’ as long as it meant playing regularly. Being a natural left-footer with a thunderous shot, he frequently found himself being asked to play out on the wing at Ibrox, cutting inside when necessary. Yet under Holloway at Blackpool Adam has found himself being utilised in a more demanding central role, where he can show-off his full range of passing and his previously much-maligned capacity to intelligently link up defence and attack with well-timed charges from deep. As a result his goal ratio has also swollen, acceding the near-double figure tally he clocked up in that excellent season in Paisley. A look at some of Adam’s more outrageous finishes against Stuttgart, Celtic, Queen of the South and West Brom, demonstrates his inherent strengths: a precision delivery from dead-ball situations, an excellent first-touch, the ability to turn defenders with intelligent movement and a rocket left-footed finish. Why is it then that it has taken Adam so long to fulfill the potential observed by MacPherson and Le Guen way back in the 2005-06 season?

Adam’s personality in the past has seemed to be a fairly benign one, that demanded the strict motivational abilities of a hard task-master to get the best from it on the training pitch. Adam also seemed previously resistant to playing a strict role within a tactically disciplined side, which both McLeish and Smith frequently demand of their charges. Under MacPherson and Le Guen, Adam seemed to blossom by being given a degree of freedom to run at defences and utilise his strength and balance to break teams down from a number of different positions across the midfield. Holloway has seemed to encourage this with his own preference for open, attacking football, played through the midfield, yet he has also managed to harness Adam to a stronger work ethic by placing the responsibility of the captaincy squarely on his young shoulders. Adam has certainly risen to the occasion this season, dominating a number of key matches for Blackpool with his ability to pick the right pass and his set-piece expertise. In fact Holloway, often derided as a clownish figure in the past, has managed to imbue Adam not only with the confidence to take his abilities to the next level, but also the willingness to sacrifice for the team and also to demonstrate a strong streak of loyalty that few had previously thought possible once Adam’s Rangers dream lay in tatters.

Ominously for Blackpool their captain’s revitalisation has won him a new group of admirers, including McFadden’s former mentor/nemesis David Moyes at Everton. If rumours are to be believed Adam has a tough choice to make this summer between the comfortable existence he has established for himself at the Premiership’s newest club, or pushing himself to achieve further success as part of Moyes robust and competitive Goodison midfield. He would do well to look at the example of a former team-mate who has excelled since arriving on Merseyside. Mikel Arteta had a miserable spell at Rangers in the early part of the decade and yet has become one of the key creative influences for Moyes’ team. Adam may yet become a proper Big Time Charlie.

FutureShots, No.2:- Marc-Andre ter Stegen

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(Goalkeeper, Borussia Monchengladbach & Germany U19)

DOB:- 30/04/1992

POB:- Monchengladbach, Germany

Previous Clubs:- None

Notable Achievements:- Established himself as his club’s first choice keeper at just 18 years of age.

Anyone who has watched the Bundesliga regularly over the last eighteen months will be able to tell you that Germany’s youth squads are in the rudest of health. It seems that the school of 2008, that came to prominence so explosively in the 2010 South African World Cup is merely the start of a great avalanche of talent. Everton and Liverpool have two quality defenders on their hands in the shape of Mustafi and Sama, respectively. Whilst 1860 Munchen have a promising young marksman in the form of Kevin Volland and Wolfsburg have the gifted creative midfielder Tolga Cigerci. Joachim Low has transformed German International football by threading together a youth system that truly reflects the mixture of national identities that have made modern Germany a vibrant multicultural society.

Of the youngsters that have come through this system the most consistently impressive over the last six months has been Borussia Monchengladbach’s determined and acrobatic shot-stopper, ter Stegen. Making his full debut as recently as the 10th April, 2011, in the 5-1 annihilation of FC Koln, the 6’3 keeper has repaid the faith shown in him, by new Borussia Monchengladbach coach Lucien Favre, tenfold. With Borussia having a bit of a goalkeeper crisis (Christofer Heimeroth was in the worst form of his career and his deputy, young Belgian, Logan Bailly was only ever a few steps away from the next clanger)Favre had thrust ter Stegen right into the middle of a relegation dogfight. The fact that ter Stegen not only survived this baptism of fire, but in many minds became one of the key reasons as to why Borussia remained in the Bundesliga at the end of a hellish season, speaks volumes for the presence, organisational capabilities and supreme agility the local boy has shown since becoming Borussia first-choice keeper.

In the twelve first-team starts ter Stegen has now made for Borussia Monchengladbach he is still yet to concede more than a single goal in any individual match. Not only was he a key part of Borussia’s escape from the dropzone at the end of the 2010/11 season, but the confidence that he has given to the Monchengladbach backline, allied to his fast-improving distributional skills, has seen Borussia come out of the blocks flying this term. If not for a minor injury, suffered against Schalke 04, he would have made his U-21 debut in the coming International fixtures. Much like Spanish legend Iker Casillas, ter Stegen has shown a maturity, consistency and confidence well beyond his years. If his development continues in this manner, it is only a matter of time before the International No.1 jersey is his.

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