Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What's the Hampden Roar?

My reaction to the news surrounding Hampden Park

There was something unexpected about the news that the Scottish Football Association are considering terminating their lease at the national stadium, Hampden Park.

This being Scottish football, naturally things are not particularly simple. Chief Executive Stewart Regan has employed a consultancy firm to consider the practicalities of taking international games to other stadiums round the country. (We can assume the consultancy has been brought in to give the Chief Executive cover. Leadership appears to be an alien concept to some in Scottish football).

There are a number of good reasons for the SFA to quit Hampden. Most importantly, it’s just a not very good stadium. For fans behind the goals, you’d be as well watching the game on telly at home; the sunken bowl doesn’t generate a great atmosphere unless the stadium is packed (which more often than not, it isn’t); the transport links are poor (although it will be interesting to see if the extra funding for Glasgow 2014 has any impact). Visiting Hampden is frankly not an appealing prospect for many fans. You only have to visit the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to see what could have been achieved with roughly the same resources.

If the SFA was to remove itself from Hampden, what would be the impact? Glasgow already has two better stadiums in Ibrox and Celtic Park and there’s another 60,000+ seater stadium lying largely dormant 40 miles away in Edinburgh too. With the creation of a national sports academy centre at Heriot-Watt University, we may see the thawing of relations between the SFA and Scottish Rugby, which could lead to Murrayfield staging some Scottish internationals and/or Scottish Cup games (I acknowledge that Murrayfield is far from being a perfect venue also).  

Rotating Scotland’s international fixtures around the country would be a sensible decision. This is what Germany and Spain already do and it was largely successful when England did the same when Wembley was being redeveloped. The last time Hampden came close to selling out was three years ago in the crucial game against the Czech Republic – since then, attendances have varied, so playing world class outfits at Celtic Park  or Murrayfield, top-ranking but unfashionable sides at Ibrox, mid-ranked teams at Easter Road and Pittodrie and friendlies against minnows at stadiums unfamiliar to international football (like McDiarmid Park or Caledonian Stadium) makes perfect sense.

The danger of leaving Hampden would be for an annual bun fight like we’ve seen this season about where semi-finals and finals of national competitions take place. But if a transparent system was put in place, then such conflicts could be avoidable. However, this returns to the idea of the SFA leading, which appears to be something they’re not entirely comfortable doing.

But leaving Hampden is, however, not a simple decision. If the SFA does decide to give notice on their contract, where does that put the bid for Euro 2020? Why would UEFA want to stage a game at a stadium that its home association doesn’t think is good enough? There’s also the relocation of the fabulous Scottish Football Museum and administration offices, although these are not insurmountable problems. The two that concern me the most are, firstly, what would become of Queens Park? The amateurs have called Hampden (in its various guises) their home since 1873. Would Hampden and its 52,000 seats be viable for just an amateur football club and a few music concerts during the summer? If the SFA quit Hampden, will it shun it for all future use? I can’t imagine that should the Old Firm make a cup final together either would be happy with playing at each other’s grounds, nor embarking on a trip to Murrayfield (nor would the residents of said area welcome them) when an adequate stadia is lying vacant within the city.

The biggest problem for me about leaving Hampden would be the heritage and history. My first ever game was at Hampden, on the terraces for Hibs’ Skol Cup win in 1991. I was there for the partial re-opening when we played the Netherlands in a friendly. I was there to some of my best days in football (Hibs trouncing Killie in the League Cup Final; coming back from 3-0 down to Falkirk in the Scottish cup semi) and some of the worst (that 6.05pm on a Sunday Scottish cup semi against Aberdeen and erm, well, the 19th May 2012). To a lot of people, Hampden brings cherished memories, where the results were what mattered, not the horrendous queuing or being half a mile away from the goal; they associate Hampden with Scottish football. Would we lose that link? Would Scottish Cup finals be the same if played at Celtic Park or Ibrox or Murrayfield every season? I think the occasion would be ever so slightly diminished, especially in the first few seasons.

That makes the decision to rule out the redevelopment of Hampden by the SFA even more surprising. By pre-empting the consultants, you’re essentially asking them not to explore all the possibilities that face the SFA. It seems a bizarre approach and I don’t expect it to be fully explained.

Hampden, for better or worse, is our national stadium and I’d like to see the fans of Scottish football fully consulted on any changes. If the SFA is going to make a dramatic change, then surely it stands to reason that the lifeblood of the game deserves to have their views heard. But I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ross Jack's Five Year Plan

Today, the news broke that Ross Jack and Elgin City “mutually agreed” to part company. It followed Elgin’s 2-0 defeat to Queen’s Park on Saturday where his side performed abysmally. The fact that Jack did not fill the bench at New Broomfield has led many to suggest that relations between the manager and the board were not on an even keel.

Jack was Elgin’s longest serving manager since the club gained admittance to the Scottish Football League, lasting one day short of five years. When he took over the club they were positioned bottom and finished the 2008/09 season in that position. That was followed by 9th, 7th, 4th and 5th placed finishes. However, this season has started badly, with the club performing inconsistently.

It was clear that the past two seasons saw Elgin’s best chances of promotion since their arrival in the SFL in 2000. The playoff defeat to a poor Albion Rovers side in 2012 was pretty galling for the club and last year the club had numerous opportunities to secure a play-off place, only to squander them.

Elgin’s inability to be clinical last season arguably cost them the services of two of their star performers – winger Daniel Moore and striker Stuart Leslie, who both joined Nairn County in the summer. The former is allegedly pocketing £1000 a week from County, and Leslie was offered a four year contract to join the Station Park club. Money that Elgin just couldn’t compete with. The loss of Moore and Leslie was compounded to injuries to key players such as Mark Nicholson and Sean Crighton, who were unavailable at the start of the season and Paul Millar out long term. The midfield situation was made worse by the injury of key man Brian Cameron.

Since Cameron’s injury, Elgin have looked utterly imbalanced. New summer signing Shane Sutherland has proved wanting – undoubtedly there is a player of talent there, but his attributes were not being used to their optimum by Jack. At times this season, and especially in recent matches away to Annan and Queen’s Park, there has been no structure to the side beyond the back four.

The signing of former Peterhead goalkeeper, Raymond Jellema solved a perennial goalkeeping problem for Elgin but he has not had the luxury of a settled back four in front of him. Club captain David Niven has looked poor at right back where his selection is all the more galling when he has a perfectly capable natural right back sitting on the bench in the young Graeme Beveridge.

The defensive frailties are there for all to see. After the losing the lead to Annan on 28th December, Elgin were in 9th place having dropped 15 points from winning positions – they would have been in 2nd place had they held onto their leads.

Jack’s biggest weakness has been the deployment of personnel in the midfield and forward line. Frankly, at points this season, the defence and the rest of the team have looked alien to each other. There are a number of talented players on the books at Borough Briggs – Mark Nicholson, Paul Harkins, Ally MacKenzie, Shane Sutherland, Brian Cameron, Dennis Wyness and Craig Gunn are, on their day, some of the most talented players in the league – but under Jack this season, there was no balance and no positional awareness from the players, which often lead the defence exposed.

There is no question that bad luck has played a part in Ross Jack’s downfall at Elgin, but Elgin under his tenure have simply not been clinical enough to see games out when playing with a lead.

The rumour mill is in full flow and the early front-runners for the job are John Robertson and former player Barry Wilson. Both would be intriguing appointments for the club, but with the impending relegation playoffs from the bottom division, the board must be hoping for a gaffer who can salvage something from this season, consolidate and build for next season.

There’s potential in Elgin – attendances were reaching 1000 when the going was good in the last two seasons. Whether the new man in charge can harness that potential is another thing altogether. The club has wallowed in the bottom tier for the last 14 years, a new manager backed by a board with ambitions above mediocrity coupled with the fear of relegation back to the Highland League could be catalyst that City require.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Professionals on the field, Amateurs off it?

I said in my last post that I would return to blogging on 42 Grounds but I didn’t think it would be this soon (although I was sorely tempted by Hibs inept performance on Thursday night, but that would have been more of a full-blooded rant than coherent post).

But two events in the past week has irked me enough to provoke me to write.

Last week saw the launch of the SPFL – the one body amalgamation of the SPL and SFL. The league is due to kick off this Friday and yet there is no sponsor and also no guarantee that one of the clubs in the top flight (Hearts) will be able to fulfil their fixtures. A brave new world this ain’t.

The launch of the branding saw John Collins, Neil Doncaster (Scottish football’s J.Peterman) and Graeme Souness take part in a photocall at Hampden Park. Clearly the first question is what on earth is Graeme Souness’ relevance to Scottish football? Aside from receiving an EBT from Rangers, Souness has contributed absolutely nothing since his departure to Liverpool in 1991.

Surely a launch day for a brand new 42 team league should have been a carnival? Why weren’t chairmen, managers, coaches and players from every team made available to the Scottish media? If this is the 42 club solution where was the evidence of it? Even a photocall with the 42 captains of the SPFL would have given a strong message that things in this new era might be a little different. Instead we got the same old faces trotted out. The lack of imagination is almost staggering – the league names even ape England. Where’s the heritage? Where’s the proud history? Where’s the build-up to this weekend’s opening league fixtures in the Premiership? Why, as Gordon Waddell excellently pointed out in his column, aren’t under 12s getting in for free for games this weekend?

Even BBC Scotland’s advert for the new season is full of images shot in a park – where’s the goals, the rollicking tackles and tête-à-têtes from last season and yesteryears that we love so much? Frankly, the whole idea of a new SPFL season is distinctly underwhelming. And that’s from someone who loves football.

But I also like other sports, and today saw Scottish Rugby announce shirt sponsorship deals for Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors. This season they’ll carry BT Sport on their jerseys. A very canny move from BT, who through this deal circumvent Sky’s ban on BT advertising on their channel. But look at the coverage. To launch the deal the players are wearing BT t-shirts. Not the Glasgow or Edinburgh branding. Those shirts aren’t available yet. Fans have to wait until 19th August to see their new kit. The whole set-up is budget. Can you imagine any major sporting clubs from around the world doing something like this? I can’t.

Apologies for the doom and gloom just before the season starts but one can’t help but feel that whilst our players might be professionals, we in Scotland are absolute amateurs in marketing and selling our sports.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The End?

So this is the end?

A mere two hectic months after I finished 42 Grounds – the new football season is underway. For me, last season ended with a defeat for Hibs at Hampden and the new season will begin this Thursday when Hibs try to overturn a 2-0 defeat against Malmo.

It’s taken me two months to get round to this post for a number of reasons. First of them was that I’ve been incredibly busy with, well, life. Work, weddings and everything else in between. Secondly, I was probably suffering from a little bit of footballing fatigue, writing up reports after every match. But also, I wanted to delay the post because I wanted to have a little bit of perspective on the season.

Two months has given me time to reflect.

And you know what? Scottish football isn’t all that bad. We’re mired in negativity surrounding the game, but I believe this is for two simple reasons: 1) we’ve have the richest league in history playing next door and, as is our want as Scots, we’ll always compare ourselves to what is happening down south and 2) we are far too inward looking in Scotland. There’s leagues of similar sizes throughout Europe that are undergoing just as many problems (just look at the mess in Portugal for starters) but we choose not to focus on them  because we prefer to moan about Scotland’s continual decline from the world-beaters of the ‘60s and ‘70s without recognising the world around us has changed and will continue to change.

But what of last season?

In 42 games I saw:
  • 123 goals
  • Saw games with 186,326 people
  • Paid a total of £597 in admission
  • Bought £90 worth of programmes (having sourced programmes from Hibs and Hearts online, missed the Bet Butler programme sellers and discovered Brechin no longer do programmes)
  • Travelled 2,689 miles (roughly)
  • Most expensive ticket: £30 for Hearts vs. Hibs, 3 January 2013
  • Cheapest ticket: £5 for Aberdeen vs. Hearts, 18 May 2013
  • Most goals: Cowdenbeath 4-4 Raith Rovers, 20 October 2012
  • Four 0-0 draws
  • 15 home wins, 16 away wins and 11 draws
Most of the time, I had a great time and saw some thrilling matches. There were certain moments when I questioned by sanity (being so cold I bought a cup of tea at Ochilview just to feel warmth again springs to mind) but overall I loved my time watching the great and the good of Scottish football.

I’ve said often that the ticket prices are far too expensive for what’s on offer but hopefully that will be resolved – I’m picking up a real sense from clubs that they need to attract new fans to watch the games, not bleed the diehards dry.

There’s a lot to look forward to in the coming season, and I intend to continue writing about Scottish football and with the advent of the Lowland League and pyramid structure there could be some new grounds to write about shortly.

Any round-up wouldn’t be complete without a list of awards – so here are my 42 Grounds awards for 2012/13

Best game: This was a tough one, but across the 42, the most thrilling match to watch was Dundee United’s defeat to St Mirren at Tannadice on 30 December 2012. Tannadice is a great, compact place to watch a top-flight game and then this end to end encounter took place. An afternoon game under floodlights, plenty of rotten defending, great goals and a sending off. Enough to warm the coldest of hearts.

Best team performance: Without a shadow of a doubt – Ross County in their 3-0 demolition of Motherwell in February. I’ve never seen a team work so far for each other – they covered a tremendous amount of ground, defended together and attacked in flurries (over-lapping fullbacks, my favourite). They dismantled the league runners-up in such a fashion that even ‘Well manager Stuart McCall didn’t have any complaints.

Best individual performance: Honourable mention to Leigh Griffiths, without whom Hibs would have struggled in almost every single game I saw them in (seven). I was also delighted to see Aidan Connolly make his debut for Queen’s Park back in November. From the very first minute he looked assured on the park and despite his size he’s done well to bag a move to Dundee United in the summer. However, the winner is Peterhead’s Rory McAllister. He was instrumental in Peterhead’s 2-0 win against Annan in March. Peterhead looked an average side even with McAllister in the side, but his sheer will to drag the team along to victory was most impressive. Evidentially he is far too good a player for the Third Division.

Highlight of the season: During the season it became clear to me that I was developing more than a casual interest in Elgin and that I was suddenly becoming a supporter. Therefore, Gavin Morrison’s free kick to give Elgin a 2-1 lead in the final minute against Annan in April was a highlight. Suddenly the possibility of promotion via the playoffs seemed a real possibility as I danced a jig on the Galabank terrace. Cruelly that moment was taken away within 90 seconds as Annan equalised and broke City hearts. Honourable mention should also go to Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s chairman Kenny Cameron for getting in touch after the reading this post and ensuring I could attend ICT-Celtic. Top guy, who really restored my faith in those in Scotland’s boardrooms.

Best programme: A lot of competition for this one – but Aberdeen get the nod – many interesting articles and designed brilliantly. It just pipped Motherwell, which is another cracking read. Both Inverness and Stirling should be applauded for having a different approach to the traditional matchday programme. Stranraer and Cowdenbeath should also get a mention for very readable publications despite presumably much smaller budgets.

Best matchday experience: There’s only two clubs that have the budgets to put a real effort into the ‘matchday experience’ – the Old Firm and I can only be honest when I say Celtic’s is streets ahead of the other 41 clubs. They make proper use of the big screens that are available to them, fan interaction in the build-up to the game is used throughout and once the game begins, the Green Brigade make enough of a racket for the 55,000 in attendance. Admittedly, I was there on the day they clinched the title, but I can only judge on what I saw over the season.

Favourite ground SPL: This isn’t a hard one – nothing beats a full Tynecastle under the lights. I was there later in the season for another midweek game and it is still special. Compact and steep, it keeps the noise in – quite an achievement when the game was as bad as the 3 Jan stinker.

Favourite ground SFL1: Honourable mention goes to Cowdenbeath. I know some who are not fans of the ‘rustic’ charm of Central Park, but I love it. There is simply nothing else like it in Scottish football and we should appreciate that – especially as the First Division has a number of new identikit stadiums. But the winner is Cappielow, home to Greenock Morton. A glorious green surface, three beautiful terraces and an old-fashioned grandstand with one of the best views in Scotland. On a sunny day, I defy anyone not to enjoy their day out at Cappielow.

Favourite ground SFL2:  Gayfield. I had been warned about Arbroath’s ground – especially as I’d chosen to visit late January, when the weather could be temperamental to say the least. But we found a beautiful wee ground – noisy fans, covered terraces and a wonderful local derby. Standing on the north east corner of the ground, where you can watch the waves crash against the land as well as a football game is pretty special.

Favourite ground SFL3: Although it only spent one season hosting Third Division games, Ibrox is by far and away the most impressive ground in SFL3. The sheer size of the ground is impressive and once inside the ground you can’t help but be impressed by the scale of it. It felt like a proper arena where you couldn’t tell if you were in or out. Scotland is truly fortunate to have a number of magnificent stadia.

That concludes 42 Grounds for 2012/13. Thanks to those who have visited the blog, got in contact via twitter and the like. It’s been a blast and I’d recommend it to any Scottish football fan – you’ll come away with more love for the game, something I didn’t think was possible.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ground 42: Pittodrie

Game: Aberdeen 1 v 1 Heart of Midlothian
Date: Saturday 18th May
Competition: Scottish Premier League
Attendance: 10,465
Admission: £5
Programme: £3

This is it. The final game of the season. The 42nd ground of the year. You would have thought by this point I’d have learnt to take a jacket to a game. Even one in May. Instead I got wet. Really very wet. And damp. And miserable. All this before kick-off.

I’d booked my train up to Aberdeen as soon as the SPL split fixtures were confirmed, so I knew that my adventure would be finishing at Pittodrie. In a way, it was fitting as Aberdeen were the team I first supported as a four year old before, gasp, horror, I switched my allegiance to Hibernian.

I arrived in Aberdeen an hour before kick-off. By this point the torrential rain that had followed me on my journey all the way to the Granite City seemed to have dissipated. So I chanced my arm and decided to talk the 20 minutes from the train station to Aberdeen’s home ground. Big mistake. By the time I got to the ground I was absolutely drenched and my mood was made worse by checking my ticket to see I had a seat in Row D – right where the stand stopped being covered by the roof.

I thought I’d wait and see if all the seats in the covered section were occupied by kick-off and mercifully there were not and I was able to dive in a seat just as the game got underway.

The crowd of 10,465 meant that Pittodrie was only half-full, which was slightly disappointing given the much reduced admission for the dead rubber encounter but I imagine many people were put off by the weather. Completely understandable if I’m honest.

Yet there may not be a football ground near the city centre in Aberdeen for much longer. The club plan to move to a brand new stadium to the south of the city. It’s a move that I feel, could be disastrous for the club. There is no doubt that Pittodrie has seen better days, but when has a move to a new out-of-town stadium ever galvanised a club in Scotland? On the whole, they’ve become white elephants and the lack of transport links for the new Aberdeen stadium leaves me with a feeling this could be the same. Construction of the stadium has been delayed for a year, so perhaps common sense will prevail. What’s clear, however is that little money has been invested in the ground in the past twenty years – in fact, it looks the same as it did when I went to my first match here in 1994/5.

Pittodrie is dominated by a massive two-tier stand at the Beach End of the stadium, called the Richard Donald Stand. It towers above the rest of the ground, and makes it lopsided. The main stand is a typical construction and the South Stand where I was sitting is a large 8,400 embankment which in the east sections hosts away fans.

As I had mentioned, the weather was shocking. It was easily the worst playing conditions I’d seen all season – with puddles forming in parts of the pitch. It was clearly going to be a skiddy surface for the players.

The game didn’t really get off to a flyer and the most entertaining action in the early stages took place in the stands as a group of Dons fans unveiled a banner with the slogan: “Stewart Milne: epic fail”. Milne is the unpopular chairman of the underachieving Aberdeen and soon the fans right to protest was halted as the stewards moved in, removed the banner after a small confrontation and ejected one or two of the rowdier fans. The natives are clearly not happy.

And in all honesty, who can blame them? Aberdeen are an underachieving club. They are a one club team in Scotland’s third biggest city, which has been recession proof in these recent turbulent economic times. They are not a bottom six club, but have largely underachieved since the start of the 1990s. The shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson’s success in the 80s looms large over this club.

The news of the great man’s retirement was covered in Aberdeen’s excellent programme – certainly one of the best I’ve read this season, with lots of interesting content and lengthy pieces.

The game itself was what I was expecting from two underperforming clubs on the final day of the season. It wasn’t bad, but it hardly set the heather alight. Aberdeen had all the early chances and Hearts keeper Jamie Macdonald kept them in the game with several great saves in the first half.

Hearts, on the other hand could be summed up in one word: turgid. This was the third time I’d seen them in the flesh this season and they are not a pleasing outfit on the eye. Obviously matters have not been helped by off-the-field problems but for too long they’ve overpaid people to play football in an unattractive manner. By the amount of money they spend on personnel, Hearts should be finishing third every season in the SPL no problem, but that looks unlikely to be the case for the foreseeable future as belts get tightened around Tynecastle. Fortunately, they have a good few youngsters coming through, so hopefully footballing brains will replace brawn.

Despite Aberdeen’s penchant for 0-0 draws this season, I was impressed by how they were playing under new manager Derek McInnes. They passed a ball a lot better than I expected and one can only hope that will get better if the playing surface is allowed to repair itself over the summer, as certain games at Pittodrie this season have been notable for having more soil on display than grass!

However, what was disappointing about Aberdeen’s performance was that they still played it safe despite the outcome of the game not really mattering. It was rare for the midfield to push further up and support the attackers and even rarely for either of the fullbacks to support the players in front of them by overlapping or for those wingers to run at the shaky Hearts defence. Despite being denied a half dozen good chances by Macdonald in the Hearts goal, it was somewhat inevitable that Hearts were the team to take the lead. Having not looked in the game, Hearts pushed up and got a corner. From the set piece, Ryan Stevenson was able to wander free from his marker and head the ball home unchallenged.  A simpler goal you will not see for a very long time.

It would have been an injustice for Hearts to walk away with all three points and fifteen minutes after going behind, the Dons equalised after good work from Johnny Hayes saw Jamie Hamill put the ball in his own goal.

The rest of the game petered out, with both teams probably quite happy to not lose. It’s probably that sort of attitude that has them sitting 8th and 10th in the league respectively.

As the final whistle blew, it also signalled the end of my 42 Grounds adventure. I’ll be doing a few wrap up posts soon, so look out for that. One thing is for certain – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Ground 41: Dens Park

Dens Park
Game: Dundee 2 v 3 Kilmarnock
Date: Saturday 11th May
Competition: Scottish Premier League
Attendance: 4,190
Admission: £20
Programme: £2.50

As I’m reaching the dog end of the season I was aware of the possibility that I’d be watching some games that would be dead rubbers. If the game at Dens Park was anything to go by, then I’m all for meaningless games.

I journeyed up to Dundee on the train with a hangover that was more brutal than a Siberian winter. Therefore, my decision to walk to Dens Park was a tad foolhardy, especially as the route took me up Hilltown, a rather steep hill.
Dens Park on the right, Tannadice in the distance on the left
This was only my second visit to Dens, the home of Dundee since 1899. The ground has two modern stands behind each goal. The Main Stand at Dens is unusual in Scottish football in that it is oval shaped, which isn’t too noticeable from inside the ground, but can be seen outside due to the shape of Sandeman Street. The stand on the opposite side is the Derry stand which runs for two thirds alongside the pitch. For my previous visit to Dens when Dundee played Aberdeen in the League Cup I know the Derry stand is where most of the atmosphere at Dens is created.

Dundee had been relegated the week before, so had nothing to play for but pride whilst Kilmarnock only had positional money to play for as the teams trotted out of the Dens Park tunnel and down onto the pitch. The weather was all over place (four seasons in one day) and I was heartened to see the home fans giving their team a warm welcome despite relegation. Truth be told, Dundee never had a chance of SPL survival as their arrival to the division was only confirmed a matter of weeks before the start of the season. This made it very difficult to get a squad capable of competing in Scotland’s top division.

The game was only four minutes gone when Kilmarnock took the lead through Rory McKenzie. McKenzie picked the ball up from ten yards inside his own half and ran with the ball. Dundee players backed off and eventually two of them tackled each other as McKenzie took the ball into box and stroked it home with his left peg. It was hard to describe a solo goal like that as nothing short of ridiculous. Evidentially, luck has not been kind to Dundee at all this season.

A visit to Dens is always aesthetically pleasing, and the home side have the classiest shirts in the SPL this season. What is not so pleasing is the clear bumps in the playing surface, which must have an impact of playing passing football. Another unpleasing aspect of the encounter was the performance of the referee (this looks like it’s becoming a theme doesn’t it?) who at no point looked like he had authority over the players on the park.

Dundee equalised in the 19th minute through Ryan Conroy’s close range effort after some good close passing from the boys in blue. Dundee had missed a good few chances preceding the equaliser as the Kilmarnock back four gave Dundee plenty of space, which has probably been the story of their season.

At half-time Dundee said goodbye to a club legend. Rab Douglas is departing the club after falling out with current manager John Brown and he received a touching standing ovation from the fans as he walked round all three sides of the ground occupied by Dundee fans. Even the biggest cynic could not have been touched by his kissing of the goalposts at the Bobby Cox Stand end.
Rab Douglas says goodbye
The second half continued in the vein of the first, with both sides attacking and trying to create chances. Kilmarnock took the lead for the second time in the 58th minute when midget left Chris Johnston cut inside from the wing, fired a shot at the edge of the box that was blocked and returned to him and the youngster blasted his second attempt into the faraway corner.

Johnston looks like a great prospect and I’ll be following his development as he’s a player that could get fans on their feet. Likewise Dundee’s Gary Harkins, a player who infuriates and delights in equal measure – he’s a lovely passer and a very skilful player but his work ethic is less than exemplary.

Kilmarnock doubled their lead seventeen minutes from time when Rabiu Ibrahim showed wonderful poise and balance to escape his marker and lay the ball into the path of Clingan, who curled a beautiful effort beyond Simonsen from 20 yards.

Mark Stewart pulled a goal back for Dundee in the 82nd minute with a neat lob of Cammy Bell but it wasn’t enough to get the Dee back in the game.

At full time the home fans were quite muted when their players were leaving the pitch, which was not surprising given relegation before the last home game of the season. There was glimmers of quality in this match, but not enough from Dundee to garner anything from the match. Which is probably the story of their season. If the club had got a proper pre-season in the knowledge they would be playing SPL football then no doubt they would have had a better tilt at staying in the division.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ground 40: Borough Briggs

Borough Briggs: about to witness a miracle? (No)
Game: Elgin City 3 v 2 East Stirlingshire
Date: Saturday 4th May
Competition: Scottish Football League Division 3
Attendance: 786
Admission: £10
Programme: £2

In the end, it just wasn’t enough. Due to their inconsistent form, Elgin needed a miracle to happen on the final day of the season, to allow them to reach the play-offs. They needed to beat basement side East Stirlingshire and hope that Rangers would defeat Berwick Rangers. That in itself wasn’t difficult to imagine, but the margin of victories had to total seven. Given Rangers recent form, it looked inevitable that they would grind out a win by one or two goals (which is frankly an embarrassment to a team of handsomely paid professionals in a very much part-time league). Therefore, Elgin had to go all-out from the moment the referee blew his whistle at 12.30pm.

For some reason, this was the game I was most excited about all season. I even dreamt about it twice in the build-up to the game. It’s become increasingly evident to me this season that I really enjoy watching Elgin play, even if they are as frustrating to watch as my other team (Hibs). What I enjoy most about it, I suppose, is the intimate surroundings of the grounds and the fact you are so close to the action.

First, however, a confession: this wasn’t my first visit to Borough Briggs this season. Earlier in the season when we attended Inverness-Celtic, we mooted the possibility of a single day double-header, taking in Elgin vs. Annan following the SPL encounter. However, traffic getting out of the Highland capital was a nightmare and so we arrived at Borough Briggs at 3.25pm, with no turnstiles open. Thankfully, someone was around from the club who let us in (for free), but at that point Elgin were already two goals to the good. I didn’t think a post about that game would be particularly fair.

Borough Briggs is also the site of my first experience of the disappointment of postponements in football. As both sets of my grandparents lived in Elgin, we were used to spending Christmas there, and we’d try to catch City in Highland League action, which invariably would be called off due in inclement December weather. Back in those days, Elgin were a good Highland League side and Borough Briggs contained a unique feature: a pill box from World War 2, which sadly was removed when Elgin became SFL members in 2000, alongside Peterhead. Sadly, I couldn’t find a picture of the pill box on the internet, but a photo of it proudly sits in the club’s catering stall.

Aside from the lack of pill box, little has changed at Borough Briggs in the past twenty or so years. There’s a small main stand (with seats provided by Newcastle United) with a covered terrace on the opposite side and uncovered small terracing behind each goal. Borough Briggs is also home to one of the biggest pitches in Scotland, although that might change if plans for an artificial playing surface goes ahead over the summer.

East Stirlingshire started brightly, hitting the post before a powerful deflected header from Jamie Duff in the 16th minute put Elgin in the lead. Suddenly a seven goal swing looked possible. However, that feeling of hope were short-lived as East Stirlingshire equalised through Jamie Glasgow in a well-worked move that had stretched Elgin’s three man defence.

The home fans weren’t worrying too much as Elgin piled on the pressure and by the 39th minute found themselves in the lead once more. This time, Stuart Leslie coolly finishing to give Elgin a small chance of promotion. But, just four minutes later, East Stirlingshire had equalised again with a comical goal – a free kick was floated in that evaded everyone before bouncing and hitting the bar, falling to Paul Quinn who poked the ball against Elgin goalkeeper Joe Malin and the ball slowly dribbled into the net. It was a defensive shocker, combined with an element of bad luck, which summed up a lot of Elgin this season.

It was beginning to dawn on most fans in the ground that a seven goal swing was just going to be out of reach as Rangers slowly proceeded to a 1-0 win over Berwick. It produced a somewhat subdued atmosphere for the second half where Elgin kept trying to push on but without much luck – they genuinely looked like they had run out of steam. One couldn’t help but imagine a scenario where they had held onto their leads for a little longer and also to think back to a number of games this season where Elgin threw away points from a leading position. Close, yet so far.

The second half wasn’t much to write home about and Ross Jack made three substitutions in an attempt to change the score. Just as it looked like the teams would share the points – a long floated ball was headed on for Ceiran McLean to rifle a magnificent half volley right into the roof of the net. It was a magnificent goal, worthy of winning any game, yet somehow, felt underwhelming.

But Elgin fans can console themselves with the fact that the new season is just around the corner.