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Ok, call me a weirdo, but I loved pre-season. Anyone who has played alongside me over the years knows it and if they’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance a lot them are thinking, ‘Yeah, and you were a busy bastard as well.’ I heard that a lot throughout my career, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot of players more than happy to see the back of these last few weeks of hard graft.

See, I don’t really understand that and I never did back then. Getting back to playing football, feeling as fit as you can possibly be in the anticipation of a new season and all that may bring – what’s not to love? My friend and ex-Dundee United teammate, Gary Bollan, wasn’t so much of a fan of those four to six weeks prior to the start of the new campaign. He still carries the mental scars from some of his pre-seasons, especially those inflicted under the management of Jim McLean and Paul Sturrock. He’s now a manager in his own right at Airdrieonians and when we met recently to catch up and chat about how he was putting his team through their paces, it was inevitable that we got talking about the beastings we took back then.

Bobo wasn’t the worst runner, but it’s fair to say that his robust frame meant that it didn’t come easy to him. With a shake of the head he ‘fondly’ recalls a particularly gruelling experience that’s still fresh in both our memories. One of the standard destinations during the first week of pre-season at Dundee United was Monikie Country Park; a punishing forest run followed by a figure of eight around two fairly large reservoirs that you had to complete in under 20 minutes. The wind almost blew you into the water as you ran exposed to the elements (Scotland in July is unpredictable at best) along the raised bank. He remembers emerging from the trees and lifting his head to see where everyone was… he could only just make out my group in the distance. We were halfway through our run around the second body of water and heading for the finish line. I think his quote to explain his feelings at that time was ‘mentally gone’, as he tried to get his head around the fact that he was just about to begin the loop around the first loch. I was in my element.

Dundee United always had fit teams and were notorious for having tough pre-seasons. It almost felt like the managers, coaches and experienced players steeped in the history of the club, like Billy Kirkwood, Paul Hegarty, Maurice Malpas, Paul Sturrock, Dave Bowman and Gordon Wallace thought it was their duty to carry on from where wee Jim had left off. ‘Heggy’ was a machine and led most of the runs even though he must have been easily touching 40 at the time. I remember legendary, veteran defender, Maurice Malpas giving me a wee bit of advice on my first day as I jovially lifted the pace to go past him during one of the many 20 minute fatlecks. ‘Easty’ he growled, ‘Run by me again and I’ll fucking hook ye!’. A few years later I remember goalkeeper Sieb Dijkstra struggling on what he thought was the first tough run of the day and having to stop to get his breath back; we were only in the warm-up!

Back then, pre-season for me was a time to really push myself to my limits, both physically and mentally (without getting injured) and in the process doing enough to ensure I was in the starting eleven on the opening day of the season. That’s all that mattered. I’m very lucky that I’m naturally fit, and it certainly helped in those early years where a fitness coach was a novelty, never mind a sports scientist. However, I struggle to understand professional footballers who moan and groan about hating pre-season, especially nowadays in the era where sports science and the physical needs of the individual is a priority. Players should embrace it. It’s a time to really drill down into your craft and work not only on your fitness, but also details of your game, without the pressure of a competitive match to prepare for.

It was probably my favourite time of the season and for many reasons. It wasn’t just because the physical challenges were something I could excel in. The close season got boring. Don’t get me wrong I love spending quality time with my wife (in case she’s reading) and I enjoy a bit of sun on my back and everything  else that goes along with a few weeks rest, but I could never totally switch off. So, by the time that first day back came around, I was quite literally ready to hit the ground running, filled with the renewed sense of hope and purpose that the anticipation of a new season imbues in players and fans alike.

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You almost feel invincible. Seriously. Yes there’s the spell where you don’t think there’s a hope in hell of getting your legs moving again for an afternoon session without a can of WD40 and those  evenings twitching in and out of sleep listening to the soothing sound of Wimbledon on the TV (pre-Sharapova obviously). But once you get through that first week, it’s genuinely the best feeling in the world. You’re eating healthily, getting ripped and starting to feel sharp, a level of physical wellbeing you don’t get to feel anywhere close to throughout the season as there’s always a knock or a niggle to deal with.

The whole approach to pre-season training has certainly changed and undoubtedly for the better. I feel fortunate to have straddled eras that saw the transition into the model that many clubs use today and I can now use these experiences as a coach.

Certainly in the latter part of my career the conditioning work became more progressive, and the ball used as it should be (we are footballers after all) from day one with the real tough sessions being intense possession based exercises or small sided games. Unbelievably, I actually remember myself and a few of the other older players at Leyton Orient complaining that we didn’t think we had worked hard enough because we didn’t feel that aching soreness in our legs before the start of the next day’s session. However, that period is probably the fittest I’ve been over a whole season.

I’m not saying I’d be adverse to a Monikie type run as a coach, but it wouldn’t be to measure fitness in the guise that I’ve been accustomed to. It could be thrown in to test attitude or even used  at a lower intensity as part of a recovery session to allow the players to enjoy a different environment. I watched a couple of Gary Bollan’s early pre-season sessions with Airdrieonians and apart from a fatleck run as part of the warm-up, it was very much a session that you would see mid season. The intensity was greater and the work/rest ratios very structured, but most of the hard work was done with the ball and in a realistic context, as it should be.

I’ve also studied a few of Bayern Munich’s early pre-season sessions on Youtube and apart from the facilities, the golf buggy for water breaks, the army of support staff, and the slightly better standard of play (sorry Bobo) the principles were the same. In fact I think Gary’s task is way tougher as his lads are part-time. He’s got the extremely difficult job of balancing and structuring the conditioning, technical and tactical work into two or three sessions a week with most of his squad also working their 9 to 5’s.

There are different things to consider in football at every level. For example, while Bobo works out the most effective way to get his side operating at peak physical fitness as well as embedding the style of play he wants them to adopt after a four to six week break, I wonder if clubs at the top of the game even need to give the players a pre-season in the traditional sense?

For instance how much conditioning does Arturo Vidal need to be ready for the start of the Bundesliga in two weeks time. His club football lasted as long as it could have with Juventus going all the way to the Champions League Final and then his involvement with Chile – winning the Copa America – has meant that he’s had three weeks rest at most before joining up with Pep at Bayern.

World Cups, European Championships and 50+ game domestic seasons ensure that elite players certainly don’t need a Dundee Unitedesque pre-season of old, but it would be fun to see how they’d get on. It’s probably no surprise that I’m pretty jealous of the lads getting put through their paces at this time of year. I might not be able to replicate the football sessions I loved so much, but I actually quite fancy a wee run around Monikie for old time’s sake. I wonder if Bobo would be up for it?

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Some facts and figures for you…

  • 13 Premier League titles
  • 49 trophies
  • 71 years old
  • 27 wins from 34 games so far this season
  • 84 points
  • On course for a record 96 points
  • Gets up at 6am to go to work

You’ve probably already realised the impressive statistics above relate to arguably the greatest football manager of all time; Sir Alex Ferguson.  But these numbers (the BBC have compiled a more in-depth numerical analysis here) can only tell you part of his incredible story.  They won’t tell you how he managed to instill and nurture a winning mentality after he captured his first league title for Manchester United in 1993, 25 years after their previous title success.  Nor will they hint as to what he said in his half-time team talk that inspired one the greatest comebacks in sporting history – the incredible Champions League victory against Bayern Munich in 1999.  They can’t tell you how he really feels after leading Manchester United to their 20th title, less than a year after their City rivals stole it from under their noses in the dying seconds of last season and watched as they painted his adopted city sky blue.  You can probably guess though.

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Photograph: Manchester Evening News

These are the pieces of the story in between the numbers, the bits that aren’t so clear-cut, although numerous words have been written in an attempt to describe one man’s desire to keep on winning.  How he pushes himself and those around him to their absolute limits.  His ability to recycle a team over 27 years, but still have the same core beliefs and achieve the same level of success.  To prove critics wrong and keep up with the changing face of the most dynamic game in the world at boardroom level and most importantly at the coal face.  I could go on and on.  But what I find most interesting, and it’s the same thing that intrigues me with all the great managers I currently admire, Morinho, Guardiola, Klopp, is his relationship with his players.

Some may still associate him with the ‘hairdryer’, his temper and his utter ruthlessness when it comes to dealing with his multi-million pound earning stars, and I’ve no doubt that that dimension of his character still exists. It has to.  It’s too simple to look at his man management in black and white.  if you do, then his enigmatic rule might even be interpreted as dictatorial.  But it’s the grey areas in between that I think give us the best clues to his consistent success over the years.

Somehow he seems to keep players happy.  Even those who aren’t playing regularly come in and do a more than adequate job for him, and you never hear of any real unrest coming out of the Old Trafford dressing room.  No-one’s too big a name to be dropped – just ask Wayne Rooney!  How does Sir Alex do this?  Well, he may actually be in the minority of managers that believe honesty is the best policy, instead of sitting down in front of you, doing their best to avoid prolonged eye contact, and giving you some bull-shit that they think you want to hear.  If one of his players doesn’t want to accept the truth, keep their head down and work even harder for an opportunity,  which he probably will get, then quite simply they’ll be out the door.  He gives them confidence, he has a belief in every one of them, that’s why they’re at Manchester United.

David de Gea is a prime example.  His manager quite rightly left him out of the team in the early part of the season and the press certainly didn’t make life easy for the young Spaniard.  However, Ferguson always believed in him.  Can you imagine having Sir Alex Ferguson in your corner?  It’s no wonder De Gea has silenced his critics.  The way he handled Andy Carroll’s ariel assault last week is a perfect example of the transformation he has undergone this season.

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Sure, it’s probably more acceptable to a player to be sitting on the bench at Manchester United than it would be for someone at a lesser club.  The incentive that’s always there of being part of a side winning trophies and writing history can, in the short term, be enough to balance out the lack of actual game time, but good players want to play consistently and no doubt those like Javier Hernández will want to contribute more next season.  However, Alex Ferguson will have made it very clear to the Mexican Internationalist that even though he has had limited appearances, his contribution of eight goals has played a part in delivering the club’s 20th title.

Ryan Giggs has been the heartbeat of Ferguson’s reign for well over a decade, and looks set to lead his manager’s quest for glory for another season at least.  Ferguson though, acknowledges every player’s part in the club’s success over the years.  Take Wes Brown and John O’Shea for instance.  With all due respect to them, they were never going to be remembered by the United fans in the same way that the likes of Gary Neville or Steve Bruce undoubtedly are.  However, I’ve no doubt that Ferguson would be hard pushed to distinguish between either pairs’ contribution when it comes to breaking down the parts his players have played in his many victories over the years.  As mentioned in an excellent piece by Daniel Taylor in the Guardian, ‘Everybody contributes’.

At Old Trafford on Monday night, Robin van Persie  spectacularly made sure his first season at his new club ended with silverware.  The champagne in the dressing room still had it’s fizz as Ferguson waxed lyrical on the seemingly unlimited potential of his star player and what he’s achieved this season, while also cleverly sowing the seeds for a possible new breed of multiple champions when he singled out Phil Jones and Rafael da Silva for special praise.  I can only imagine the confidence with which Jones will approach next season with his manager’s words of encouragement ringing in his ears; he probably wishes it was set to begin the day after this campaign ends.

Phil JOnes

Photograph: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

Like Giggs, Scholes and Beckham before them, these young Manchester United players will see Sir Alex as a father figure.  I’m very aware that sounds a bit cheesy, but bear with me.  The reason I use that tired phrase is because of my relationship with my own Dad.  I said in my wedding speech that big Archie was ‘harsh but fair‘ and anyone who knows him would understand exactly what I meant; with no explanation.  Black and white.  Right or wrong.  Was I afraid of him?  Yes, but not in a physical way – although I did get a sore behind on a few occasions, and those were well deserved I must add.  My biggest fear was letting him down, and it still is.  I think Manchester United’s players will testify to how strong a motivation that can be.  The hairdryer might be used more sparingly nowadays, but you can be certain that it isn’t Sir Alex’s only weapon of choice in his mission to add to those numbers above.

As with most things of this nature, I’m a bit late to the party with the whole Harlem Shake thing.  Not obscenely late, as my wife pointed out, but late enough.  Anyway, this was tweeted to me the other day by my good friend and freelance journalist Stuart Hodge and it cracks me up every time.  Graeme Souness with an iron – what more can you ask for?  Genius lads.

 

Terry Butcher has a very big decision to make, that’s if he’s not made up his mind already.  It’s been reported that the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager was due to hold further talks with Barnsley earlier today about taking over the reigns of the struggling Championship side.  There are a lot of people who will think it’s a no brainer for the former England captain.  After all, there’s no denying Barnsley are a bigger club, play at higher level, and potentially offer a quicker stepping stone to further Butcher’s managerial ambitions – that’s if he can first keep them in the Championship, which will be an incredibly tough task.

However, let’s not forget the love Terry Butcher has not only for Inverness Caledonian Thistle , but also for his adopted home.  His side currently sit in second place in the SPL and even though there are realistic doubts (and he will have them also) as to whether this is as good as it gets for the Highland club, I’m sure big Terry would love to finish the job and welcome european football to Inverness next season.  That’s part of the footballing arguement for him to stay, but every time I speak to him, whether it’s personally or when it was for this interview I’m about to share, conversation always turns to his love of the area.  The beauty and diversity of the surrounding Invernesshire flora and fauna provides the calming influence and contrast needed to counter the intensity and passion which Butcher was famous for portraying in his career as a player, and which is somewhat now his trademark managerial style.

He might have worn the Three Lions with pride, but there’s no denying he’s an honourary Scot to many.  Whether he stays or goes, there’s no doubt the decision will not be an easy one for him to make.

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago as part of my degree:

Former England Captain, Terry Butcher is no stranger to receiving accolades.  In a professional career spanning thirty four years, he has lifted silverware as both a player and manager, but it is with genuine pride that he describes recently being awarded a Doctorate of Sport from Southampton’s Solent University as “one of the best days of my life.”  All  of his family were there, the first time they had been together since Christmas last year, and it was made even more special as he had the pleasure of seeing his son Ed graduate ten minutes before him.

Butcher has previously travelled all the way from his Invernesshire home to impart some of the knowledge he has garnered from over 3 decades in professional football to help Ed and the rest of the students on the Sports Coaching course.  The honorary degree was presented in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the football industry.  A contribution that saw Butcher continually put his body on the line throughout a playing career in which winning was an obsession.  In more recent times he has tried to convey that same spirit and attitude through management and also in the lectures and practical sessions he has taught  at the University.

When I last spoke to Terry Butcher, it was back in June and the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager was looking to add to his newly promoted team for the upcoming SPL campaign.  I had turned down a new contract offer with Swindon Town and the former England Captain was giving me his best sales pitch to try and convince me to return north of the border.  “You’ll love it up here Easty,” he said, “It’s a great bunch of boys and we’re going to give it a real go this season.”  I didn’t doubt for a second that I would love it, and the prospect of playing for a man I had gained so much respect for from our time together  at Dundee United was a massive lure, never mind him waxing lyrical about the wonderful scenery and lack of traffic in the Highlands.  I had a big decision to make, one of the hardest of my career, and after much deliberation I chose to join one of my former managers, Paul Sturrock, at Southend United.  I didn’t think the time was right for me to go back to Scotland, but I was definitely flattered at Terry’s effort to tempt me there, so I must admit there was just a hint of trepidation on my part when I phoned him looking for an interview.  I needn’t have worried.  “Not a problem, just don’t stitch me up!”, he agreed warmly, although he couldn’t help but mention on a couple of occasions that I could have been part of the success his side are currently enjoying.

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That is why these days he conveys more passion when talking about his current position as manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle than the exploits of his past, although he is still very proud of all that he has achieved.  I’m not surprised by his desire to focus more on the present as things couldn’t really get much better for him at the moment.  I spoke with Terry at the end of an amazing week that began when his current side earned a well deserved draw against his former club Rangers at Ibrox.  That was followed two days later by the collection of the aforementioned degree and in just as many days with the award of SPL manager of the Month for October.  Citing the “ups and downs typical of football” Butcher’s week of highs ended on a slightly sour note when Caley Thistle lost to another of his previous clubs, Motherwell.  A win could have taken his newly promoted side into third place in the league but Butcher, pragmatic as ever about his recent good fortune noted; “There’s always a low thrown in there somewhere.”

A temporary low if Thistle’s away form is anything to go by.  And true to it, three days later his well traveled side bounced back with a 2-1 win at Pittodrie against Aberdeen, extending an unbelievable record on the road which has seen the Highland club go unbeaten away from home for almost a year.  Reflecting on the two wins and two draws that attributed to his latest award, Butcher recognises how far his club has come in that time.  After being relegated just three months after taking over at the helm, and with pay cuts and redundancies a knock on effect of the clubs demotion, Butcher had given himself an unenviable task.  This time twelve months ago, Inverness were languishing sixth in the Scottish First Division but after “a lot of hard work and determination”  in a season that included a 21 match unbeaten run, Inverness won the title by a comfortable twelve points.  He said, “Last season was magnificent and the way the board are, it gives us a real platform for the future.”  The promotion success has carried over into what has been a fantastic start to the current campaign and Butcher humbly dedicates his manager of the month award to “everyone at the club who has worked so hard this season.”  He also states that “You’ve got to have the right people around you and I’m very lucky that I’ve got Maurice (Malpas) with me.”  Malpas was also Butcher’s right hand man at Motherwell and the former Scotland Captain doesn’t hide his dislike of the Auld Enemy  “I know I get stick from Mo every day about being English”, Butcher concedes “but I’m delighted that he’s with me because we can work things out together.”

Butcher has had enough experience of the down side of football management and he certainly isn’t taking for granted the purple patch that both him and his club are currently enjoying.  It’s with total honesty that he describes his time at Brentford as a “disaster”.  Spells at Coventry City, Sunderland and Sydney weren’t exactly memorable for the right reasons either but in his two spells as boss north of the border, he has certainly done his reputation no harm.  Guiding a youthful Motherwell squad to two top six finishes and a Cup Final appearance was no mean feat given the financial difficulties the Lanarkshire club faced at the time, and you can draw parallels with his time there and with what he is accomplishing now at Inverness.  I’m not surprised by the impact he made on the young players at Motherwell or by the success he has had with the impressionable squad he is in charge of now, as he’s always been a natural leader.  My first memories of big Terry, as my Dad used to affectionately call him, are as a seven year old, watching him lead the Rangers revolution under Greame Souness.  I wasn’t to know then that 13 years later I would be sitting in the away dressing room at Ibrox as a Dundee United player in front of the man himself whilst he gave a team talk that made me want to run through walls to achieve a victory over his former club.  We won 1-0 that day.  During his 18 month spell as a coach with Dundee United, his enthusiasm for the game left an indelible mark on me as a 20 year old in the infancy of my career.  Not only was he an inspiration in the footballing sense but Terry was also a great role model for life in general.  I have memories of the second most successful England Captain in history laden with balls, bibs, cones and other training equipment, carrying it all by himself to the mini-bus after sessions.  Another image that sticks in my mind is of him helping out the lunch lady by doing the dishes in the kitchen of the canteen at Tannadice Park.  Over ten years have passed since then and he still remembers; “Maureen’s fish and beans on a Thursday, lovely!.”  These sort of things stick in Butcher’s mind because he is a people person.

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I ask him what his philosophy is on getting the best out of his squad. He simply says, “There is no blueprint or master-plan”…“I try to tap into players and their mental approach and get them to believe in themselves and the team.”  Butcher exudes positivity and he might never again give as rousing a speech as his infamous “Caged Tigers!” rant to his England team-mates during Italia 90 but you can bet that anyone who plays under him will be inspired to give nothing but their best.  He doesn’t try to imitate any one particular management style but admits to using “bits and pieces” that worked for old managers and adapting them to his own style.  He talks with great fondness for the late Sir Bobby Robson, who he played under for the best part of 14 years, both for Ipswich and the national team.  “He was an unbelievable man, made you feel ten feet tall, inspirational in the way he handled you and talked to you, a fantastic leader.”  It’s fitting that those words could also be used to sum up Dr. Butcher perfectly and I’m sure his former mentor would be very proud of his protégé, although possibly a tad surprised by his newly acquired moniker.

Some of you who follow me on Twitter may already know that I’ve recently had a couple of pieces published by Paul Grech on his excellent Blueprint for Football site. Paul has a massive interest in youth football and the development of young players all over the world. The purpose of his blog is to really understand what drives successful development programmes and what lessons can be learned, not only from the approach different football clubs and associations take, but also from other sports.

I’m delighted he decided to feature the final project from my sports journalism degree which consists of three articles I completed back in May under the title; The Future of Scottish Football. Earlier in the year I interviewed the Scottish FA Performance Director Mark Wotte, The SFA Chief Exec Stewart Regan, Falkirk manager Steven Pressley, and Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson among other prominent people who have an interest in the future of our game. With qualification for Brazil 2014 looking nigh on impossible for the national team after two draws and two defeats in the opening four matches of the World Cup qualifying campaign, the ‘blueprint’ for the future of Scottish football is more important than ever.

Click on the image above to read part one about what is being done for kids at grass roots level and also ‘elite’ players in the 12-16 age group. The title of part two is ‘The Next Stage’, where I talk about, what is in my opinion, the most important part of a players’ development if they are to progress to the top level in football; the stage where they are under the tutelage of a professional club. Click on the image below to find out why Steven Pressley thinks that the Spanish footballing renaissance of the last decade can help Scotland create a footballing identity of it’s own.

Part three will be coming soon. Feel free to comment here, or on Paul Grech’s site if you have any thoughts on the first two instalments.

Thanks for reading.

This is a post I could’ve and should’ve written weeks and months ago, but I’ve left commenting on the Rangers subject until now, mainly because there’s been too many ifs, buts, and maybes during the whole saga.  Understandably, there’s been an overkill of media coverage and I didn’t think I needed to add my voice to the melee especially when some of what’s been reported on a daily basis has been excellent.  I’ve particularly enjoyed the objective and rational views of Channel 4’s Alex Thomson.  The respected journalist and broadcaster’s comments have not only carried considerable weight but Thomson has shown some of his more football conscious contemporaries how it should be done.

The award winning Rangers Tax Case blog has not only given forthright views and explained the legal nuts and bolts in layman’s terms throughout (thanks for that) but also, at times, exposed the failings of the Scottish mainstream media.  Tom Hall’s The Scottish Football Blog is another online voice that has told it like it is and continued to question the motives of those involved whilst understanding the consequences of what ‘the correct decision’ will mean for Scottish football.  That’s not to say there hasn’t been some great reporting.  Kenny Millar and Alan Temple have have been bang on the money with their passionate comments and Graham Spiers, who is never one to shy away from a controversial subject, has regularly let his thoughts be known, delivered in his opinionated and inimitable tone that we all know and love.

Love him or hate him, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything he’s written on the matter, but Jim Traynor has made some interesting points on the whole sorry affair.   And while he unfortunately changed his stance on where the new Rangers FC should begin their rebirth (from the Third to the First Division) I’ve no doubt his u-turn is based on how he thinks Scottish football can best survive and prosper, as like those mentioned above; he genuinely cares.

Photo: Channel 4 News

But these are my thoughts.

The correct decision has been made.  Rangers/Sevco/Newco/whatever they’re going to be called, starting again in SFL Division 3 is the only way forward for Scottish Football.  For once in the recent history of our game a long term decision has been made that hasn’t been dictated by money, by T.V. deals, or by Chairmen who want to keep the company of an exclusive but poisonous elite.  Fans have played their part, now they must really PLAY their part by realising where Scottish football is in the grand scheme of things.  I’m not saying we can’t have big ambitions but we have to realise that Scottish football is in a dire state before predicting the comeback we all wish for.

Supporters must do this by going to watch their team whatever the division and understanding that there are now no Dalglish’s, Baxter’s, Johnstone’s, Waddell’s or Law’s.  Yes there are times (maybe too often) when the standard on show doesn’t merit the entrance fee but there are some equally awful games in the self-styled best league in the world – the English Premier League.  However, there are some exciting young players that just might get the chance to help make our football better again.  There are also players trying to make a living and achieve at whatever level they possibly can and sometimes they will surprise even the most fervent pessimist.  The revolution looked and sounded good on the social networking sights – is it going to continue in the stands?  Lets hope so.

Clubs have listened up to a point.  They couldn’t help but listen and I feel that in a lot of cases the supporters have been a get out of jail free card for some Chairmen.  But now is the time for these clubs to start helping, beginning with lowering prices.  They’ve ignored the fans (the customers) for too long.  No doubt, they’ll make their excuses.  In the past, they’ve told us reducing ticket prices doesn’t work because the gates don’t increase.  They’ll also probably say that they’ve voted for what the man on the terrace has been shouting for, and that the fans now owe them something for making this ‘momentous’ decision on their behalf.   They cannot use this as some sort of bargaining chip.  This is the time for reconciliation from both parties and also for clubs to finally start working together – all 42 of them.

Where do the SFA, SPL, and SFL fit into the ‘Scottish football landscape’?  I honestly believe that everything these organisations have done was, in their mind, an attempt to safeguard the future of our game.  However, that doesn’t mean it was right and they are all guilty of going about their business with a lack of integrity and leadership, particularly the Scottish FA and the SPL.  Changes have to be made so that there are rules set in place when clubs fail to play by them.  It shouldn’t have taken an event of this magnitude for those in power to sit up and take notice and attempt to restructure our game.  It’s been crying out for someone to take it by the scruff of the neck and out of the hands of the Chairmen who got it into the current state it is.

In fairness, I think that the excruciatingly overdue restructuring of the league was, and still is on the cards in the next couple of seasons.  Whether everyone will come to a consensus is another matter.  It’s a main recommendation of the McLeish report which the Scottish FA have certainly taken heed of and they have successfully pushed through some  changes in the last 18 months that I think will have a positive long term affect on the development of future talent.

What is unforgivable is the attempt from our games’ leaders to bend rules to suit one club, no matter how big or important.    My brother’s life changed when his contract was torn up as Airdrie went into administration and then liquidation, and I can’t remember The Scottish FA coming up with any plans to help save the Diamonds.  Not only that but their attempt to railroad clubs into making the ‘correct’ decision is unacceptable.  The phrase ‘sporting integrity’ has almost been worn out due to the incompetence and lack of leadership shown by our associations.  I interviewed some of the main figures earlier in the year and everyone of them to a man talked about how in an ideal world, they would start with a blank piece of paper.  This is as close as they’ll get.

There’s going to be a lot of collateral damage.  I’ve no doubt we are going to see some clubs go into administration and I have the utmost sympathy for those who are going to lose their jobs but Scottish football has relied on the ‘Bank of the Old Firm’ for far too long.  I’ve witnessed first hand clubs paying overinflated wages to average players, bank rolled on the back of future gate receipts when Rangers and Celtic come to town.  All in the hope of keeping up with the Glasgow giants, but realistically to battle it out for a top six finish and another couple of pay days.  Where has it gotten them in the grand scheme of things?  On a positive note, we have exciting young players and some teams that want to play the game in the correct manner.  Lets get behind that.

Photo: The Guardian

What now for Rangers?  I feel for Ally McCoist.  He has taken a beating.  So have the fans  and employees that love the club so much, and so have those businesses and honest individuals that have lost money in this fiasco because of the actions of people who were trusted with the reputation of one of Britains biggest clubs but couldn’t honour it.  Before I went to Broomfield when I was 11 years old, my team was Rangers.  I had the shirts, I read the books I found in my Grandpa’s loft, my Dad took me to Ibrox when he could afford it, and I can’t believe what’s happened to such a great club.  It’s history has been tarnished but it can rebuild with dignity and honour, so much of which has been lost.

McCoist has conducted himself with grace and humility and while his ambitions have been stifled for now, I’ve no doubt he’ll attack the challenge he now faces with the same intensity he showed every time he pulled on a Rangers jersey.  Scottish football will once again use Rangers on their journey back to the top League, however long that may take and in whatever form it will be.  At least this time the benefit will be for the many and not the few that have been running our game into the ground for so long.

Feel free to get involved in the discussion by posting your thoughts below…

I know it’s been ages since I posted but it’s taken an exhibition of footballing genius to awaken me from my blogging slumber.  Last time it was Athletic Club Bilbao (ACB) who jolted me into action after their inspirational team performances against Manchester United in the Europa League.  They might have struggled to produce similarly accomplished displays on their way to the final of that tournament, and during their remaining La Liga fixtures, but Marcelo Bielsa’s young side gave us a reason (if anyone needed it – I certainly did!) to fall in love with football all over again.

And that is why Andrea Pirlo is the hero of this piece.  Similar to ACB and their take on how football should and can be played, Pirlo’s midfield masterclass against England in the quarter finals of EURO 2012 gave me that rare feeling that I was watching something very special.  Only this time it was pure individual brilliance.  The way he controlled the play, the tempo of the game, and his ability to deliver one quarterback-esque pass after another with pinpoint accuracy just blew me away.  Add in his ridiculous, bordering on petulant, penalty which was all Joe Hart deserved for his immature antics, and I’m not sure if there’s ever been a more complete performance from a player of his type in a major tournament.

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Photo: The Guardian

That’s a bold statement, especially considering he never scored.   But if you analyse his play, not only in terms of stats (Pirlo made 131 passes with 87% completion rate according to the BBC), his performance included everything you want from a deep lying midfielder and more.

There’s been enough written about his technical ability, his touch, range of passing, the way he keeps the ball, so I won’t go over old ground but I was just in awe of how easy he made it look.  Even when people tried to get tight to him, granted that wasn’t very often, he always had a picture of what he wanted to do and even when that changed he still had the guile and tenacity to get out of difficult situations, more often than not, still in possession of the ball.

He’s never been the most mobile of players.  He doesn’t need to be, given that he’s two steps in front of most in his head.  Saying that, I think he covered as much ground as anyone during the 120+ minutes of the game and anyone who has said ‘he hasn’t got the legs anymore’, has surely been proved wrong.  It maybe doesn’t seem like it, but believe me, the amount of work that goes into creating space to try and get on the ball that much during a match takes up almost as much energy as trying to win it back – although I’m not sure Gerrard and Parker would agree.

Another sign of player who is at the top of his game is his ability to adapt.  When Andy Carroll came on and started making a nuisance of himself by holding the ball up and it looked like someone was finally asking some questions of the Italian back four, Pirlo recognised this and just planted himself on the Liverpool man’s toes whenever anyone tried to knock it long.  Compare that with England’s lack of game knowledge concerning how to stop Pirlo running the show.  Roy Hodgson was never going to commit one of his midfielder’s to push right onto the Italian and break those two sacred ‘banks of four’ but a striker might have at least got in a position to deny Pirlo some space.

However, that’s easy to say now and it’s true that the way Italy play suits Pirlo and vice versa but getting back on track, it was just an absolute joy to watch someone so accomplished and a master of their craft who plays in the same position as myself.  The closest I’ve got to being compared to him was when an old team mate from a few years back said we had similar hair – I’ll take that!

Photo: Official STFC

I’d love to say I knew he would light up this tournament the way he has but I won’t lie.  I’ve not seen him play much recently but I’m not surprised Juventus ended up Serie A champions with Pirlo no doubt at the heart of their success.  I’ve always admired him though, and I hope I get a few more years of being captivated by him before he thinks about hanging up his boots.