ARTHUR MONTFORD

Legend is a word that is used all too freely in football. Players who are very good, even World class, are sprayed with this wonderful word that encompasses the true dimension of being the best, yet few deserve it.

One man, who can rightly be described as a football legend, was Arthur Montford.

I only met Arthur a few times, having been privileged to play football in an era where broadcasters were not the perceived stars of the show they are today. Unassuming, yet somehow assertive, with a presence that belied his manner, Arthur was a true legend.

I grew up watching Scotsport (and Sportscene). They became a staple of the football diet and, Sunday dinner wasn’t complete without the Scotsport tune in the background and the dulcet, eccentric tones of Arthur Montford describing the action. The game never seemed dull when Arthur was commentating and that in my opinion was his greatest skill.

He was a fervent supporter of Morton, having been a childhood friend of the long time chairman Douglas Rae and rarely missed a match. This, typifies his passion for football as a whole. I mean, why else would ANYONE wish to follow Morton every second Saturday. But that was Arthur, at his happiest, watching football, talking about football, breathing football.

He was a gentleman, with a knowledge of the Scottish game and it’s players rarely rivalled, although as the years went by and his mind deteriorated slightly, some of that knowledge inevitably wained. I know this from personal experience as I bumped into Arthur coming out of a paper shop a couple of years ago in Torrance, a suburb just north of Glasgow. I said “Hello” and we stood chatting for a few minutes as I regaled the stories of players I knew and mutual friends in the media. But I honestly don’t think he remembered who I was, but do you know what, to Arthur it didn’t matter that I was just another punter talking football. I’m sure he’d have quite happily stood there furnishing my ego for a while longer, but unfortunately my works’ van was waiting for me and we parted with a smile.

Ever the gentleman, he would never realise that I was the one in the priviliged position of being able to chat to the legend that was Arthur Montford.

It’s different now, with Sky cameras covering every angle, but somehow, Arthur had the ability to do that on his own. The passion he had and the sheer determination to make a bad game a good one, meant that you often felt you had been there. On a Sunday afternoon, Glen Michael had cleared the way and Paladdin had magic’ed his way through numerous Tom and Jerry’s, the chair was pulled and you took your seat in the ground. The game you were watching now certainly wasn’t the one you were at, as Arthur’s commentary brought the 0:0 draw to life in his own inimitable way.

They don’t make them like that anymore and, in Arthur’s own words, his passing really is this time “a disaster for Scotland”.

And as I said earlier, but unfortunately nowhere near as inimitably as the man himself, it’ll be some stramash at the Pearly Gates.

David Farrell

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TRIALISTS AND TRIBULATIONS

Ali Dia. We’ve all heard the story of how Graeme Souness was duped into signing the mercurial Mr. Dia on the strength of a phone call from someone purporting to be George Weah. Super Ali was his cousin and supposedly, had represented Senegal and was a graduate of the PSG academy. On paper it sounded feasible and, out of desperation and without due diligence, he was signed on a one month contract. However, as is consigned to history, George Weah turned out to be more Mickey Weah, and the spurious Dia made one substitute’s appearance before suffering the ignominy of being taken off himself.

Wikipe-Dia

Now back then in ’96, the internet consisted of waiting patiently for page 23 of 73 to come up on Ceefax, in order that you could find the information you were looking for, although many a holiday to Las Americas ended up being booked after stumbling upon the “bargain breaks” page whilst waiting for the Torquay Utd result to come round for the coupon. But how simple is it to be duped into believing, that the player about to walk through your door for a week’s trial, is who he is portrayed to be?

Well, in truth, even in the modern age of the internet, some players and indeed agents will go to any lengths to conceal facts about players and ultimately make them seem better than they are, just to get them a foot in the door. The financial position of Scottish clubs dictates they are always on the lookout for a cheap signing and, very often, the foreign trialist is an avenue pursued in the hope that a gem can be unearthed to fill a position. Surely, with the correct research and a quick glance at Wikipedia, mistakes will rarely be made. So would it surprise you to know that as recently as last month, a Scottish Premier League club, having done their research and a double check of the CV, only found out that their incoming 6ft 3in striker, was in fact 5ft 10in when he walked through the dressing room door without having to duck?

The Agent

It’s a dangerous game the “trialist” one, you can so easily be made a fool of. It is important to remember at this point that the majority of agents are only doing a job, like you and I, when pushing their clients to you. They will hoover up young players at youth level, regardless of whether they see a player in there or not, in the hope that one of them becomes the Andrew Robertson or Duncan Ferguson of their day and ultimately make themselves a few quid and, as their client base and bank balance builds, they will start to bring across less well known overseas recruits, in the hope that someone “falls” for one of them. Lets be honest, if you get a trialist enough games, as long as he isn’t Ali Dia, he’s bound to show up well at some club. I’m sure you can all recall someone at your club who has signed after a trial, who quickly disappeared off the club radar.

Didier Agathe though was a clear exception. He had played in France for six years but did virtually nothing. He had blistering pace though and a bit of something different, and his agent was able to identify that he might just catch someone’s eye in Scotland. What an understatement. He was brought to Raith Rovers at a time when they had many, many trialists and, I was fortunate enough to be involved at Airdrie when he made his debut.

He was outstanding. He scored a hat trick in a 4:1 win and literally tore us to shreds. He quickly settled and got a nice move to Hibs before finally making himself and his agent wealthy men with a fantastic move to Celtic.

The role of the agent in all this is simple. Get a player a club and in doing so, get the player the best deal possible. In turn, agents get a cut from the player and, these days, more often than not, from the club the player is being transferred to. A fee is agreed as his reward for making the “deal” happen, though sometimes deals will fall down due to agents demands rather than players’. This comes as a direct result of a club being happy to pay astronomical wages for someone they feel can contribute, whilst refusing to pay for someone they feel hasn’t. It’s like buying £50 worth of shopping and refusing to pay 20p for four poly bags to carry it home.

It’s also important to stress that for the majority of SPFL players and clubs (outside the top four or five) agents are becoming less and less of a necessity as a “take it or leave it” culture has developed on the back of tightening budgets. Even the least financially astute player will be able to haggle over two hats and a balloon.

The club

Whatever you do, don’t think it’s a good thing your club is awash with trialists. From my experience it usually means one of two things – you are very, very short of players OR you are struggling financially. As an example of this I can hold up Blackpool who, as recently as last summer of 2013, had FORTY TWO trialists between the start of pre-season and the beginning of the season proper . Incredibly, in those six weeks, NONE of them were signed. Such a flow of players and raft of short term solutions, loan deals etc is never good for the stability or progress of a club. The cheap option rarely works, indeed, Blackpool now languish at the bottom of The Championship, a slide that can be traced back to then.

Hearts can also be held up as an example under the ego that was Romanov. They had a huge turnover of players and loan signings as well as trialists from all manner of outposts. I know of an occasion when the dressing room was so full of people one morning before training, that one of the contracted foreign players had two pals sitting in with him who were thrown a set of training kit each and proceeded to go ahead and warm up only to be questioned and removed by the coach who, only at that point realised they had no place there.

Thankfully, for Edinburgh’s sake, Hearts have now recovered and seem to have themselves back on a solid footing.

So let me assure you, that for every successful Didier Agathe, there are far more Ali Dia’s and Isaac Mopi’s. Who’s Isaac Mopi? Well Monsieur Mopi was almost to become my Ali Dia.

Ropey Mopi

One of my responsibilities at Dundee was to sift through the weekly mountain of letters, CV’s and DVD’s of players looking for a trial. It quickly became a case of disregarding most as unheard of, or not having played at a good enough level. One or two would catch the eye and a follow up call would be made to player or agent. DVD’s were most difficult to assess as it quickly became apparent that even then, I could have trawled my Mum’s loft, cut a few Betamax tapes of my days on Sportscene and mashed up a DVD that made even ME look like Platini.

But this one stood out – Isaac Mopi. Cameroon Under 21 and two full international Caps made him a beacon among the usual waifs and strays. But something wasn’t right, there were gaps in his CV, he was currently playing in the football hotbed that was Malta and I could find no trace of him on Google among Cameroon’s squad of 40 for the African Nations Cup. The agent was called and I was assured that the gaps could be accounted for due to a long term injury and he was only in Malta to get himself fit before taking Europe by storm.

So Mopi was summoned to Dundee (at the agent’s expense as being honest we still smelt a rat) and his trial began. We quickly realised after a couple days that whilst the rat was quick enough to run up a drainpipe, having got to the end, he’d have run over the edge. Brain dead and with very little ability, it was fairly obvious why he wasn’t getting a game in Malta. We were right to have been suspicious. A bit more digging and the full story unfolded.

Cameroon has three National teams. One, an Olympic Squad, one, the National team and finally a third “development” squad of 40 players with the potential to one day reach the National team. So whilst Rigobert Song and Roger Milla were swanning it all over Europe, our Isaac had in fact played two, believe it or not, “trial” games for that development squad. And the reality was, he couldn’t get in that one either.

Maybe next time you see “A. Trialist” on a team sheet, you’ll have a better understanding of where he might have come from or how he got there, but spare a thought for the coach who’s had to spend hours trawling through DVD’s, CV’s and letters of budding Messis, the majority of whom turn out to be more Happy Shopper than Harrods. As for the agent, well, i’ll let you decide if he deserves to have his carrier bags paid for.

Onto this week’s Tips and we’re still hunting for the elusive treble after Scott Struthers’ near miss last week. Willie McStay is this week’s Guest Tipster and he goes for Dundee Utd to beat Motherwell (evs), Inverness to beat St. Mirren (evs) and Raith to beat Stirling (1to3) for a near 9to2 treble. Good Luck

…..And Finally Some of my regular readers, and indeed some of my new converts, may have expected me to pass comment on Rangers and Liverpool this week. However, I felt that I would have been going over old ground as a lot of what I have previously spoken about in “Losing the Dressing Room” and “There’s Something About Mario” relates particularly to what may be going on at both clubs at the moment. Links to both can be found above and i’ll leave it to you to see how much of my insight has a relevance to which club. I’m certain there are elements in both that can be linked, however, to Liverpool in particular, i’m sure avid readers will have already seen it coming.

David Farrell

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

BOO

I hope I never startled you there, because that certainly wasn’t my intention. The idea though, was to gather a few of my pals and stand about 50-yards from you and see if we can mortally wound you, or at the very least, maim you by shouting as loudly as we can because you play for the other team. Ok, so me and my mates booing is a little different to a few thousand people, but to the majority of players, that’s how it’ll be dealt with, like swatting a fly from the lid of the Wintergreen bottle. So believe me, Aiden McGeady will have not have been bothered in the slightest, by the plans, and subsequent execution of a campaign to “boo” him during the game.

The Act

It is important for me to emphasise at this point that what I am talking about here is the specific act of “booing.” If anyone attaches racial, sectarian or offensive language to the mix, then in this day and age that is entirely unacceptable. However, you will find that whatever the reason, most opposition players will not care, or be affected, in the slightest.

When I played, being the aggressive, abrasive character I was, I’d be delighted if I was getting stick from the opposition. It was like a badge of honour to me if I’d put in a good tackle or was noising up their players to such an extent that they wanted to boo me. I know it was a different situation with McGeady and McCarthy (had he played), as they were being singled out because they had chosen Ireland over Scotland. Yet the consequences are the same and in good players, it usually only serves to galvanise rather than derail. There’s an inner determination in most players that makes you puff out your chest and stand tall if the other fans are targeting you. “I’ll show them” was my motto if it ever happened to me and, I am absolutely certain that will have been the attitude of Aiden.

These are players playing at the top level, in front of 60, 70, 80,000 fans every other week. Do you really think a few boos are going to disaffect them? For me, and I’m sure it’s the case for them, it’s really not that big a deal.

The Sword

My old boss at Hibs, Alex Miller, used to despise players turning their back on the ball if someone was having a shot at goal. His mantra at the time was always “I’ve never seen anyone killed by being hit in the face with the ball,” (he didn’t always use face I hasten to add). For me, it’s a scenario that can be repeated in this instance, because as far as I know, I’ve never heard of anyone being booed to death.

When I first used that analogy last week, someone pointed me to the example of the Gladiators in Rome, whom, upon being booed were given a virtual death sentence. My response, of course, was that “swords can’t boo.”

Now I’m well aware there are very specific reasons in this instance why McGeady was targeted. The fact that he chose not to play for Scotland and, more particularly, decided to pull on the green of Ireland, makes it an emotive issue in this country. But do fans really mean any real personal harm, when you see their twisted, distorted faces screaming abuse at their pantomime villain of choice. In my experience, probably not. Having played against both sides of the Old Firm, like most players, I know how fickle fans can be. Most will not differentiate from player to player and club to club, because it’s only ever about their team, their culture and THEIR beliefs.

The Confusion

In my first game at Celtic Park, I came on as a substitute fairly late in the game. Having played a lot of reserve football before then, the majority of the players would have been aware of who I was and my background, not so the fans. Peter Grant had possession over next to the old ‘Jungle’ and, I came across and timed a great tackle, playing ball and man and knocking it off Grantie for a throw in. Both of us ran for it, trying to ‘buy’ the throw in from the ref (it was definitely ours) and I reached it first, grabbing it and trying to take a quick throw. As I turned on the old gravel track, a voice exclaimed from the crowd, “Ya f****n’ ORANGE b*****d.” I looked up at Peter and, still trying to grab the ball from me, we both smirked knowingly and wryly at the fan in question.

Two seasons later I was playing at Ibrox and, by now, was slightly better known. We had a corner early in the game, taken by Michael O’Neil. Unusually for him he swung a ball in to the near post with his right foot and as I had started my run from the edge of the box, I caught a header flush from six yards and watched as it screamed just past the post. I should have scored. It was a moment I had dreamt of, scoring at the Copland Rd end, but as my momentum carried me onto the track, my dream became a nightmare as only yards from my face, a blue sea flashed a variety of one and two fingered salutes accompanied by the usual “wahaaaayyyyy” and “You’re s***e, ya FENIAN b*****d Farrell.” Celtic and Rangers fans don’t do diversity, as in their eyes, within the space of a season I had been both Orange and Green.

The Offence

As the years have gone by, I’ve come to recognise that it was probably a blessing that I missed that header as there was no guarantee that, with my momentum taking me onto the track, I would have stopped myself from jumping in among the blue hordes. Conversely, had I done so, there would have been serious doubt as to whether I’d have made it back out.
Was I offended by what was said on either occasion? No. Did it bother me? Not in the slightest. Player attitudes towards booing and getting varying levels of abuse from opposition fans in general haven’t changed. To the majority, it will have very little effect. Indeed, in my experience, being booed by your OWN fans, will have a much more detrimental effect on players than anything else ever will. Something you might all want to take into account the next time one of your players is going through a difficult time, but that’s a subject for a whole new blog of its own for another time. So before you think about booing any of the England players tonight, take into account that it may not quite have the effect you were hoping for.

But all of this was more than 20-years ago and, whilst recognising attitudes have changed greatly since then, I firmly believe that the majority of fans, Celtic, Rangers or anyone else for that matter, are rarely being personal when they decide to pick on someone from the other side. Players, for their part, can help by not reacting and exacerbating the situation, or indeed, taking things too seriously and this is where I have to give Aiden McGeady enormous credit, because not once through the whole episode, did I hear him make an issue of it. Which is more than can be said for Mr Delaney of the FAI or our very own Gordon McQueen for that matter.

I have personal experience of not taking a reaction from fans too seriously and, on this occasion it was entirely my own fault. As a young player of around 22 I took part in an ‘A to Z’ type profile in the Hibs programme. One of the questions asked was “Favourite Song.” It hadn’t been long since Hibs had won the League Cup and, as it was a favourite of the punters at the time, I chose “No Cups in Gorgie.” The fans loved it, but it was petty and naive on my part although in my defence, I was young and knew no better. I got lots of nice letters from Hibs fans saying how much they enjoyed my comments, but among them was a slightly larger, padded package. My immediate thought was one of the boys had shoved a pair of knickers in an envelope in the hope I would fall for it and brag around the dressing room, to teach me a lesson. However, on opening the package, there was a lovely, photocopied letter of my article, on which a beautiful, heartfelt ‘message’ had been scrawled from some Hearts fans and, another slightly less kindly smelling ‘message’ had been left. I found it funny and strangely flattering that someone had gone to all that effort, but it was something that certainly taught me a harsh lesson that the more you open your mouth, the more likely you are to have it shut for you. Maybe you should bear that in mind the next time you open yours at a football ground and think the opposition player is going to crumble. It might just come back to haunt your team and on the back of it, it would be interesting to see what kind of ‘message’ the rest of the fans might want to leave you.

Onto this weeks Guest Tipster and the less said about football “expert” Michael Gannon’s effort the better. This week i’ve gone for Scotlands top football administrator and the hugely well respected Scott Struthers. Scott’s selections are Morton (2to5) to beat Stenhousemuir, Arbroath (8to13) to beat Clyde and East Fife (4to6) to beat Elgin in the hope of bringing home an 11to4 treble

Good Luck

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

IT’S ONLY A GAME

It was interesting to see last week that, with all the new technology and money that has flooded into the game, some things haven’t changed. Of course, we must embrace modern technology and all the new ideas and developments that come with that or we will never progress and move forward, but the training ground ritual of wearing the “Yellow Jersey” it seems, has remained intact. The sight of Partick Thistle defender Jake Carroll training in a muscle laden, lycra onesie morph suit as a punishment for being the worst performer in training over the previous week – their very own version of the “Yellow Jersey,” brought back many memories of similar dressing room rituals and bizarre routines over the years.

Training

In truth, training schedules and drills are very similar the world over. There is a general pattern most clubs will follow throughout the working week. Sunday/Monday will generally be recovery days. Light sessions of gentle exercise, five-a-sides, pool work and massage after the weekend game. Tuesday is the day when the main fitness work of the week is done. Aerobic work, strength and conditioning training, and more demanding possession and pressing sessions, alongside possible gym work in the afternoon. Wednesday is the traditional day off to allow for recovery from the exertions of the previous day. Thursday is usually when the technical work, practice matches and team shape is done, working towards the match and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses, allied with some crossing and finishing and some small-sided games. Finally Friday, a light session, five-a-sides and possibly some set-plays. Some teams will also do some short, sharp sprint work to ready the legs and mind for the challenges of the match.
Initiation ceremonies, where new players have to sing or dance or indeed indulge in their “party piece” (whatever that may be) are commonplace in football and usually take place before the start of those Friday, light hearted, less demanding sessions. These ceremonies are as much about nurturing team spirit and accepting the new guy, as they are about breaking up the monotony of the working week and easing the pre-match tension. Many a new signing has been accepted on the back of his rendition of “Delilah.”

At Airdrie we worked as hard as anyone in training, we were the original “work hard, play hard” Crazy Gang and those rituals formed an important part of that togetherness and harmony. The razor-tongued wit of Kenny Black and Allan Moore would cut you to pieces if you allowed it; you had to stand strong and show your mettle among the group and, if you didn’t have the tongue of a serpent yourself to reply with, you had to have an iron will to show you could still be trusted to stand tall when it mattered.

Yellow Jersey

It was a brilliant dressing room and we had our very own “Yellow Jersey” ceremony every Friday. Only ours wasn’t a lycra onesie, it was in fact, a yellow jersey; old, decrepit and resembling a rugby top, it was signed by everyone who had ever had the honour of placing it over their head and was rarely, if ever, washed from week to week. It was a horrible thing and certainly ensured a competitive edge to training matches throughout the week. No one wanted the “yellow jersey” in Friday’s secret vote.

Each day the players’ performance would be assessed by their peers and, usually by the end of Tuesday training, ideas were being formed as to who was this weeks favourite and, of course, the lobbying began. If I hadn’t had a great start to the week, I’d begin leaning on the influential ones, “Moorie’s having a shocker,” “Jimmy Sandison’s had a terrible two days,” just to plant the seed.

Fortunately for me, for a while there was no need as one of our new signings was to become the proud owner of the jersey as he ‘won’ it so often, although ultimately he was to become the reason it was tossed in the New Broomfield bin.

Gary Mackay had taken over from Alex MacDonald and with financial constraints now kicking in, we were forced to sign some lower league players and throw together a squad which was a pale shadow of the “Crazy Gang.” One of our new signings struggled in games, but even less impressively for him, he struggled in training. He wasn’t up to that level at that point in his career and by the time each Friday came, there was no longer even the need for a vote. The run was only broken when the Gaffer came to me to relay to the rest players that we were to manipulate the vote, as the player in question had expressed the view that it was now affecting his confidence and his level of performance. I was gobsmacked and, to a dressing room that was a bastion of political incorrectness, I knew I had a struggle on my hands to get them to accept the Gaffer’s reasoning, but with team spirit and the well-being of the player concerned to consider, the decision was taken to bin the Yellow Jersey altogether, rather than manufacture someone else to take it on his shoulders.

Whether that was the right decision, I’ll let you decide for yourself, but the Gaffer had to be respected. As for the player, well, I think it’s fair to say that to some of his team mates that same respect was almost impossible to win back. The dressing room circle had been broken and, whilst there is no question in my mind it was the right thing to do for the individual, the team spirit that I held sacred had been compromised. I’d much rather he’d stuck it out. You just never know, he might have come through it a better player.

Ultimately that’s what it’s all about in a dressing room environment. Getting the best from each individual whatever way you can for the benefit of the team. Although in this instance, I’m not convinced it did.
Whilst the majority of these bizarre training rituals and routines are team based, there have been many individual sessions I have been privy to over the years that are sometimes baffling and occasionally downright ridiculous. I’ll leave John Burridge and his many idiocratic ways for another time, indeed Budgie deserves a blog all of his own for some of his antics, but one person you would never have associated with the bizarre, was big Stevie Woods. However, in this instance, Woodsy was victim rather than perpetrator, although as with many of these routines, there was to be a twist.

Ball Bag

Stevie, as we know now is Celtic goalkeeping coach and was trusted mentor to Fraser Forster before his £10million move to Southampton, but whilst at Preston as a young up and coming ‘keeper he was an innocent pawn in a game between John Beck (Preston manager), who was renowned as a task master and, the first team goalkeeper at the time, whom Beck wanted rid of. They were both called in for afternoon training whereby some young players would cross balls and as the goalies jumped to catch, Beck would swing a full bag of training balls and smash them into the body of each in an attempt to get them to drop the ball. As if the Republic of Ireland international wasn’t vexed enough by Beck’s inconvenient, impromptu session as he lived in Sheffield, the pugilistic nature of the routine and the subsequent sit-down to answer the question “the merits of catch or punch,” was enough to tip him over the edge.

The goalie was out, Woodsy was in and Beck had his way. It was a classic, yet rather bizarre piece of football management.

Would he get away with it these days? I’m not so sure. When I reminded Stevie of the story recently he was at pains to emphasise that it wasn’t a drill that he used with big Fraser. Indeed, his exact words were “he would have smashed me into next week had I tried it.”
The modern footballer is well looked after, pampered even and, at the slightest hint of anything unusual or untoward, the ‘players union’ card is played. A lot of these unusual training routines and team bonding exercises will become a thing of the past, but I for one, believe they should still have their place. Whilst the world moves on, the mind of the footballer and the manager may not and it’s important to remember that every bizarre routine is played out for one purpose only, to improve the team either in character or in ability.

That’s all every player and manager ever wants. You’ll never see any of these unusual routines and traditions on Sky in “The Boot Room” or on your FIFA 15 training game. But wouldn’t it be just a little bit more fun if we did?

Onto this week’s Guest Tipster and the least said about my grammar policeman, Paul McGeary’s effort last week the better. Daily Record columnist and sports journalist Michael Gannon is doing the honours this week and he goes for, Inverness (23to20) to beat Hamilton, Kilmarnock (10/11) to beat Ross Co and, Forfar to win at Morton (12to5). Good Luck

David Farrell

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell