THE GAFFER

Gaffer; Boss; Coach; I’ve even come across one whose players came to know him as Mike (after the irreverently hapless Mike Bassett). It takes all manner of personalities to become a football manager, I’ve played under a few and I’ve worked with a few. There are certain characteristics that are essential and there are others which have no bearing at all on whether a manager is good, bad or indifferent, but there is only one thing a manager will ever be judged on, and that is success. How it is achieved, almost becomes irrelevant, and in my experience it cannot be pigeon holed into ‘hairdryers’ or the proverbial ‘arm around the shoulder’ types. Those traits are more determined by what the players are like, rather than what the manager is like.

Training

There are different types of football manager. Modern day ‘Gaffers’ will tend to manage not just the team, but the club. Board meetings need to be attended, finances discussed, budgets organised and then there’s the small matter of training.
This is where the importance of delegation and trust becomes a key factor. Martin O’Neil for example rarely got the tracksuit on or masterminded a training session and indeed, it was said, there were many occasions he was only at the training ground once or twice a week. Steve Walford and John Robertson were the coaches, they put together the training and organised the sessions. Walford done the coaching and that is something that is becoming more and more common. But is it wrong? Absolutely not, when you are as successful as that man has been, you can turn up at 1:45pm on a Saturday if you like, take the plaudits and doff your cap as you say “see you NEXT Saturday boys.”

Listening

Contrast that with the current position Alex McLeish is in with Genk in Belgium. Alex has vast experience of managing at the top level, and I know he has moved away over the years from being a ‘hands on’ training ground coach who takes all the sessions, to a thorough, deep thinking ‘manager,’ who will oversee ALL aspects of the club as well as being on the training ground every day to observe and cajole, not only players, but coaches too.

The coaching structure in Europe is vastly different from here in the UK and, this is where a manager of Alex’s experience is not only crucial, but essential. Currently at Genk, he is working with, a Sporting Director, a Technical Director (who identifies and signs a lot of the players), an assistant and three coaches. The three coaches are fantastically known as Coach One, Coach Two and Coach Three. Another huge part of the manager’s job will be to make sure that ‘Coach Three’ feels just as important within the hierarchy as the Sporting Director does and, as long as he has input and is listened to, that will be the case.

From what I’ve heard, big Alex is no shrinking violet when it comes to putting his point across when necessary, however, it is his ability to listen which is standing him in such good stead when dealing with the vagaries of such a large technical department. HIS success over the years, hasn’t come from not being around much.

Doing

One thing I do know which is a necessity, is passion. Players need to see it. They can be just as fickle and as sensitive as fans. It’s important to stress at this point that I’m not talking about the type of passion that results in fist pumping with the punters after a victory, a ‘show’ of passion. Fans and players alike, quickly see through that. I mean the type of passion when you look to the side after a referee has made a poor decision and your Gaffer is non-plussed, veins popping and screaming at him to change his mind.

Neither is it the flailing arms, remonstrating with all and sundry in another ‘show’ to the fans, playing to them trying to convince them that you’ve got it. I wanted to see my Boss toe-to-toe with theirs, supporting me and asking for a decision, even when he KNEW I’d committed a foul. It’s the sort of thing that builds an unbreakable trust between manager and player. Mourinho has it, Sir Alex had it, Guardiola has it, Alex McLeish and Martin O’Neill have it. If it’s good enough for the best, surely it must be good enough for the rest?

There is little more deflating when you’re under the cosh, than seeing the Gaffer standing, arms folded and motionless, lost in a mixture of bewilderment and loneliness.
I’ve been there, as a coach and assistant manager. The game is going against you, the shape isn’t right. One or two players aren’t doing their job. You’ve tried shouting, it’s not worked. You know you need to do something. As assistant, I’d be in the Gaffer’s ear “he needs to come off,” “we’ll change to 4-3-3,” “their number 10 is giving us a doing…” and that’s the point when it happens. The point where you become lost. That time in the game when the fans think you are standing there, looking empty with no thought of changing things. In fact, that effect is brought about by the opposite. There are now TOO MANY things you could do and at that point, if there was a way out of the ground via a hole in the track, you’d take it, rather than feel the loneliness of knowing that the next decision you make could be your last as the fans continue to bay for your blood.

Seeing

I’ve been there as a player as well. I remember a game at Peterhead, we were being battered and I felt we should be doing something to stem what felt like a blue wave through our midfield. I NEEDED help. I looked over and I could SEE the Gaffer, but he wasn’t there. There was a break in play and I took the opportunity to run over and nudge him in the right direction, “Gaffer, their extra man in midfield is killing us.” His riposte was swift, but no less convincing, “Do you think I don’t f*****g know that?”
I turned and ran back on to the pitch mumbling “well clearly you don’t or you would have done something about it” (it may not have been as polite as that, but I’m sure you get the point). As the years in football wore on and I became a coach and assistant manager myself, I’ve come to understand that he probably had seen it, but being able to do something about it quickly enough, probably separates the good, from the great.

Laughing

The final ingredient, and one which is all too lost in the pressures and goldfish bowl type of scrutiny, is humour. It’s not essential to be a success, but if you don’t have it between managers and staff, relationships can become tense and fractious. Alex Rae and I, have been friends for over 30 years and there is nothing which has kept us together more in football than humour. We used to travel back down from Dundee in the car and discuss the game, the tactics, what went wrong, what went right, and we’d stop at a wee pub in Aberuthven for an hour to unwind have a laugh with the locals. It became something of a ritual and certainly helped ease the tensions for an hour after a match. On one occasion after a particularly tense match, we’d lost and the team had performed poorly. The car was deadly silent. Neither of us could speak. The anger and frustration building, the atmosphere in the car was tight. We were sitting like coiled springs ready to explode. I knew I had to say something. I looked at him as he was driving – nothing. I stared again – zilch. When I looked for the third time, the length of the stare was more uncomfortable than watching your dad dancing at a wedding. He broke “what the f**k is it?” My reply was swift and to the point, “I’ve got more hair than you.” Now those of you who know us, will know, that particular contest, would have come down to counting the final two or three strands on each other’s head (although there’s no question in my mind that I won). But the ice had been broken and our mood had been lightened just a fraction to allow us to enjoy our hour in the Smiddy Haugh a LITTLE more.

So if you’re watching your team this weekend and you see your manager, standing, looking lost, spare a thought for what he might have gone through during the week. Yes, on a rare occasion, it might have been very little, but in most cases, he’ll have gone through more in seven days than you would ever have imagined. And whether it’s the “tracksuit” manager or the “boardroom” manager, the important thing to remember is he is only ever doing it for one purpose, winning. That is where we are all judged and, that is why we will ALL ultimately be removed from our positions at some point. And with the January transfer window approaching, it was no surprise to see five go in the last fortnight. And whether you wear your tracksuit to the boardroom or your suit to the training ground, that’s one thing that will never change.

….Finally No Guest Tipster this week, due to it being the Festive period. I’d like to take this opportunity of wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I’d also like to thank everyone who reads the blogs and for the kind words written about them. I enjoy telling a story that’s not often heard and i’ll be back in the New Year to tell some more. Good luck and have fun

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

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WALK ON

There are few things make my blood boil more than clubs trying to renege on their contractual obligations, onerous or otherwise.
Any contract signed by either player or manager is agreed with the intention of fulfilling the terms. I have NEVER known a player or coach to sign a contract whilst harbouring thoughts of breaking it. Clubs are quick to try and find any way possible of doing anything they can to try and minimise compensation payouts or “persuade” a player to leave when it suits. That, whilst understandable in certain scenarios, is in my opinion a far more onerous practice, than the terms and conditions of ANY contract.

Ally McCoist’s contract situation and the now subsequent resignation has been the subject of much cantankering and, with the ongoing soap opera at the club, is without question a complicated issue, however, one thing you can be certain of, is the contract that was agreed by all parties is legally binding and no amount of public chest puffing will gain either side the moral high ground.

Morality

Fans would do well to remember that in football, morality is a scarce commodity. Almost everyone looks after number one and in tendering his resignation, Ally McCoist is no different. The biggest contrast here though is that there is now a huge, public game of ‘Call My Bluff’ being played, and Ally has played the first card. You can be absolutely certain that in doing so, he has fulfilled to the letter the conditions of the contract, because when you are protecting your pay off, and make no mistake about it, that is what is happening here, it is crucial to do everything, legally, by the book.

Clubs in better financial positions than Rangers, will pounce on ANY possible breach of contract in order to avoid a compensation payout. This is the reason why you hear the horror stories about out-of-favour players, or high earners who the club want to move on, being made to train on their own, or with the youths. They will make up excuses about a players lack of fitness, or needing extra technical work in order to justify the extra sessions. The reality is they are doing it in the hope that the player either throws in the towel, or gets so frustrated he is driven to doing something in breach of club discipline. Both of these scenarios, gleefully from the clubs point of view, result in a reduced – or in the case of gross misconduct – nullified pay off. You can be assured the Ibrox board will be scrutinising both the contract AND the behaviour to see if anything can be done to mitigate their liability.

Reality

From a fans perspective, there are side issues which complicate matters. The perilous financial position of the club has led for calls for Ally to do the so-called “honourable” thing and “walk away” for nothing. A predictable view, but a romantic one with very little basis, as it is highly unlikely ANYONE would walk away from a lucrative £800k pay off (a figure I have no way of verifying but it seems to be the generally accepted amount). Particularly when he has seen all manner of waifs and strays walk off with pockets bulging larger than Coco the Clown’s at a juggling convention.

I can see only three outcomes to this palpable mess:-

– Ally remains manager ‘as is’ for the next 12 months and is paid as per his contract.

– Ally is put on ‘gardening leave’ and is paid as per the terms of his contract for the next 12 months.

– A compromise is reached between the board and Ally on the contract and he leaves the club.

The final option is in my opinion, the only way the club can possibly move forward, and the sooner it is cleared up the better for them. The other two will result in even more collateral damage to a car crash which is teetering on the brink of a write-off. And whilst it is the best option for the team, it is not one that will please the fans as with all compromise agreements, comes the “confidentiality clause.”

One goes with the other, and if the supporters think that at the end of all this, when Ally is eventually ‘persuaded’ to leave, he will be singing like a miner’s canary; they will be greatly disappointed. I’m afraid Ally’s singing will be limited to his next club’s Christmas Party.

Unless of course, there’s an Insolvency event…

Congeniality

Contracts can be complex issues on both sides of the border and how the situations are dealt with post-termination are very different. In England the PFA Union is very powerful and their members are protected very well. Money down there is rarely an issue due to the TV companies involvement at all levels and this ensures that even the smaller, less lucrative clubs, can afford to quickly and amicably negotiate a settlement.

Did you know that if a coach or manager is sacked in England, the new incumbent cannot be put in place until agreement has been reached on the previous regime’s terms? It’s one of the main reasons ‘gardening’ becomes such a popular pastime amongst sacked managers as the club continues to pay until a long term settlement can be reached.
We lost our jobs at Notts County and with term still left on our contracts, a meeting was arranged. The financial guy sat down and explained to us he had been given a figure by the chairman and as long as we didn’t go over it, we could be out of the room very quickly indeed. My first question was the immortal “what’s the figure then?” Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but within 15 minutes, calculations were made and we shook hands amicably and with a minimum of fuss.

Parity

Contrast that with the situation which regularly unfolds in Scotland whereby a club, will sack a manager and immediately stop paying regardless of length of contract. Lawyers are immediately contacted and a claim for Unfair Dismissal is filed. The next six months are spent negotiating and in between times it becomes difficult to take another job, as any remuneration then becomes deductable on any claim against the club. This is why they do it. You have 12 months left on a contract, you take a job after five months, then the club who sacked you are only liable for the first five months, as well as any loss you have encountered in your new contract.

It can unfortunately become a case of brinkmanship as you wait for your court hearing to come up whilst surviving on no wages. So spare me if you will, the sympathy for the club who MAY have to pay compensation. Contracts are there to be honoured on both sides and, as it happens, I settled out of court five days before the hearing after a long nine months without pay.

Somehow, I don’t think Ally McCoist will worry too much about not being paid for a few weeks while he waits on a compensation agreement to be thrashed out. But as ever, with all things Rangers over the past two-and-a-half-years, there are probably still more questions than answers. If Ally can walk away from this debacle with his legacy still as intact as his apparently onerous contract, then his reputation as a shrewd operator will have been forged as strongly as his bond with the supporters. As for his reputation as a football manager, well, I’ll let you decide on the answer to that one. And of course, one question still remains at the end of the whole sorry episode, where on Earth do Rangers go from here? Surely, time will tell.

Finally, onto this week’s Tips and after another disappointing from the ex-pro’s, it’s back to the boys from the Scottish media for the elusive treble. This week Sunsport’s very own football writer, Kenny MacDonald, goes for Stranraer (2to1), Forfar (4to6) and Queen’s Park (4to6). As ever, good luck and here’s hoping.

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

FULL TIME

Football is the most addictively potent mix of joy and pain. How else do you explain continually going back to watch your team, week after week, when they’ve let you down so many times? Why would you STILL play five-a-sides once a week after work, when you can barely SEE your feet, never mind have the energy to run with them? Why else would you wake up the next morning, hardly able to walk, performing that weekly ritual of lumbering Meccano jointed bones to the car? Why? Because it’s in us, all of us; players, coaches, managers and fans alike and there’s no getting away from it.

Going

Now I’ve been out of the game for six months, a period which is approaching the longest time I have been without professional employment in football for 28 years. I’ve been through the joy and pain as a fan, a player and a coach, ALL the highs and lows. I have now reached the stage where MY left foot takes two hours to warm up in the morning and, neither knee can decide which one should be the first to give way on any particular day. But I wouldn’t have given up one second of it and, if Willie McStay should phone tomorrow and ask me to assist him again somewhere, or, God forbid, if a chairman should think out of the box for once and decide to make me their manager, I’d be back in a shot. It’s almost sadistic when you’ve been sacked so many times, to want to go back into that unforgiving pressure pot. The day after the sack you feel lost, lonely and there is an inevitable feeling of “what will I do now?” but it passes within a week or two and the whole merry-go-round of going to games to ‘keep the eye in’ starts again. It rarely works, that, ‘keeping the eye in.’ The premise behind it is that you go to games, see all the coaches and managers, keep in touch with people and let everyone know you’re available. The reality is that football is a very nepotistic game and all you do is keep bumping into the same out of work managers and coaches. It’s like a school for football drop-outs, a football manager’s Dead Poet’s Society.

But none of it, the coaching, the managing, nor the supporting, none of it compares to playing. It’s why YOU labour through that sick, five-a-side ritual and why I played for as long as I felt I was doing myself justice. But what happens when you hear that first dissenting “your legs have gone?”

Going

I was a fan, my Dad would take me everywhere; all the grounds, home and away from the age of three. I loved it. The atmosphere, the day out, all of it. It felt just as good going to East Fife as it did Pittodrie. My 10th birthday present was being allowed to go to my first Old Firm game, a Roddie MacDonald header won it. I had two options as a kid, play football or watch football. I don’t blame the kids these days for taking up the XBox because if I had the alternative of playing football on the TV, I’d have probably taken that too. But we had the ZX Spectrum and that wee ping pong game that was battled out on screen for competition. And we wonder why playing football in the streets was a better alternative to what’s on offer now.

After all that, I was fortunate enough to play on all of those grounds I had visited. Every single one in Scotland and that surreal feeling of realising that only a couple of years earlier I had been on the other side of the fence. I never wanted it to end, but of course, it did.

I can trace the beginning of MY end to a fateful day at Airdrie that was to be the start of a downhill slide, one I couldn’t stop.

I had a piece of bone jutting out from the ball of my heel and it needed shaving off. We had no medical cover at the club due to finances, so I kept playing whilst on the waiting list. The pain, at times, was excruciating but I hoped to make it until the end of the season to avoid paying for the op myself.

There was one last throw of the dice. An injection into the bone might settle the inflammation. I’d had one at Hibs to cure a niggle on the knee between the League Cup semi-final and final and it worked a treat. Everyone in football knows you are allowed three, any more and you risk serious damage in later life, so I had two left, two jags of the needle that would determine how much longer I could prolong the season. Neither worked, but the third one did (well, Airdrie never knew I’d had one at Hibs) and I was back playing… briefly. What I didn’t know was the injections also weakened the area of the original injury, the plantar fascia (the tendon which holds the front and back of the bottom of the foot together).

Three or four games later and whilst chasing my old pal Mark Yardley – chasing in the loosest possible sense I might add – the bottom of my foot ruptured. The injections had taken their toll and my Airdrie career was all but over. The club went into administration and I continued to play out my contract whilst trying to get fit. It was a long nine months before I could play again and when I did, it soon became clear my foot wouldn’t take full time training. Steve Archibald had been good to me, paying my wages until I was fit again and it was only right now I was fit that I should walk away and we should part ways to let me find myself a part-time club. Stranraer was to be my destination and things went well until the foot flared up again 18 months later.

Gone

The Second Division was a stroll, I was playing sweeper and most weeks could have played with a suit on and never needed it dry cleaned. But my foot was stiffening up more and more and, through the adjustments in my running style I was picking up more calf, groin and hamstring injuries. I’d tried orthotic inserts, but ironically they gave me sore feet. I signed a new contract, but in the first pre-season friendly on astroturf, it flared up again. I was struggling. I missed a couple of weeks training and heard whispers that the club thought I had signed knowing I was injured. It wasn’t true, I was no worse than when I first signed 18 months previous. I went to a specialist and prognosis wasn’t good either, I was pretty much finished. However, he gave me one glimmer of hope – AN INJECTION.

I had to get back playing. I was only 32 and wasn’t ready to quit. I was on the way down but I wasn’t out yet. I took the plunge. Needle number five, 10 days rest and back to training. Finally, after the 6th injection, three weeks later I was back playing. I had to, I couldn’t have them thinking I had signed under false pretences, that meant more to me than anything else, but it also meant I had another year or two in me. Or so I thought.

The next season I signed for Albion Rovers. Now the wee Rovers are a smashing football club. They don’t have much and the stadium is a bit rundown, but they treated the players well and they lived within their means, something a lot of our clubs could learn from and at the time, we had a few decent players and a good manager in Peter Hetherston. Now I knew Peter well, he was an old friend and I knew he hated running as a player, so I knew his training would be all about ball work and technical drills. How wrong I was as I had forgotten Silky had spent his latter years at Airdrie. I was 34 and had seen it all, I didn’t need this. But I was soon to find out my body didn’t need it either.

The football itself was easy, it looked like I was playing well, but there were signs that others couldn’t see. My knee and foot were playing up and average players were beating me, turning me and getting away when two years previous they wouldn’t have been on the same pitch. I knew, and as a player, don’t let anyone tell you differently, they know when their time is up. Anyone who plays beyond that point is deluding themselves and their club. The final indignity for me came when I banged my dodgy knee again.

I was training on my own at Cliftonhill, in the middle of the winter to try and get fit, the knee was now a pale shadow of what it should have been and even though the foot was now bearable, I was toiling. Eight sets of 200-yard runs, and although a sniper on the roof of the Cliftonhill stand may not have been out of place in Coatbridge, it was clear it wasn’t a bullet that hit my calf. Lying there in pain from a torn muscle, I’d had enough. I can still vividly remember saying out loud “what am I doing here?”

I walked in and went home. I told Kevin McCallister (who by now was the manager) at the next training session I was chucking it. He could tear up my contract if he wanted, but it was agreed we would keep it quiet and I would play if he needed me and most importantly, when I was fit. I played a few more games and he gave me the honour of captaining the team in the last day of the season for my final appearance at Stranraer of all places. After 18 years it was over. No tears and no grand exit, I had done my bit.

Coming back

Should I have taken all those injections over the last four seasons? Undoubtedly no. And it’s important for me to state here I was put under NO pressure by anyone to take them, it was entirely my choice. I just wanted to keep playing. It’s the same, masochistic reason I would get back into coaching tomorrow, even after having been sacked so many times and the same reason you’ll drag yourself to fives this week, and pour yourself from bed the next morning. It’s also the same reason we keep going back to watch our teams after they lose to someone from a lower division in the cup and we say “never again!” It’s football and it’s in all of us. So apart from the injuries, the injections, the ZX Spectrum and the snipers, we’ve all got a lot more in common than you think when it comes to ‘playing the game.’

Onto this weeks tips and after another hard luck story last week, this time it’s the turn of my old Dennistoun pal and ex Morton and Man City legend Jim Tolmie. Jim (not surprisingly) goes for Morton (4to5), Falkirk (6to5) and Kilmarnock to draw (21to10) for an 11to1 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

INFERIORITY COMPLEX

This week’s blog is dedicated to my pal and Grammar Cop Paul McGeary, who last week was diagnosed with leukaemia. He’s a young, fit man and started chemo this week. We’re all with you big fella #notoneinch

So that’s Inverness, St. Johnstone and most recently, Kilmarnock, all gone to Ibrox and been dispatched with a minimum of fuss. I was critical of Killie’s approach on Sunday as I felt they went down without as much as a whimper, but how much of it is down to the mental attitude of the players playing against Celtic and Rangers and, how much of it can be put down to the tactical approach?

The first thing everyone has to realise here is that more often than not, and it’s important to stress I am talking historically here and not necessarily about the current Rangers squad, Celtic and Rangers will have better players than every other club in Scotland. This is not to say that teams going to Ibrox and Celtic Park SHOULD have an inferiority complex, but the reality is, and human nature dictates, that they often do.

The stats

Plans will have been set out early in the week as to how to combat the “big” teams’ style of play and silence the fans. That was always something I found peculiar, this, “silencing” of the fans . I understand the principle behind it, keep the score to 0:0 for the first 20 minutes, let the game settle down and then the fans turn on the home team giving you a better chance of winning. Unfortunately it is flawed on two counts. The first, how often do you see the fans of Celtic and Rangers turn on their team? It rarely happens and it only takes a poor refereeing decision or a crunching tackle to galvanise them back into a frenzy. Secondly, what happens when you then lose a goal after 21 minutes? That, for me is the key aspect. It’s not about keeping them quiet for 20 minutes, it’s about not losing the first goal.

Did you know that statistically, of League matches won throughout the UK, 80% are won by the team that scores first?

Let that sink in for a moment, because i’m willing to bet the ratio is even higher when it comes to the bigger clubs. Something the gamblers among you might want to consider when placing a bet in-running. So for me, the most important thing about playing against the big boys is not about WHEN you lose the first goal, it’s much, much more about NOT losing the first goal. If you want to give yourself a chance.

The reality

I was fortunate to play in a very good Hibs side and we regularly gave Rangers and Celtic, a very tough game (although more often than not at Easter Road). I remember a game at Ibrox, were we had played very well in the opening 35 minutes. We were organised and disciplined and indeed could have scored from a corner (which I headed past) believe it or not. But the game turned a minute later as Rangers got two quick corners in succession at the other end. 40,000 spirits lifted and the noise, which, for the most part of the game, you are able to shut out as it becomes a secondary din, became a crescendo.

Standing in that penalty box at Ibrox and Celtic Park can be a lonely place. The noise in those moments of unexplainable calmness, as everyone waits for the ball to be swung in, is difficult to describe. The thirty seconds can feel just that little bit longer and not only can you hear it, you can FEEL it. Then, with each wave of attack you know what’s coming. Don’t let any player or coach tell you differently, you hope it’s not, but as I said, you can feel it. And then, the unerring inevitability of it all…41 minutes Hagen, 42 minutes Hateley and our half time team talk had gone from pats on the back to kicks in the guts.

But we had done our job, we had kept the crowd quiet for the first 35 minutes, hadn’t we?

Bravery

So just how do you go about beating the big boys in their own backyard? Well in my opinion, you can forget the romantic, fan driven notion of “having a right go.” As I explained, the bigger teams have better players and, if you go “toe to toe,” the likelihood is you’ll be on the end of a drubbing. At any one time, the most players at any of the other clubs who could get into the Celtic team is one or two, so most teams, as Kilmarnock did on Sunday at Ibrox, will play with one striker.
You then need your players to be “brave,” but brave doesn’t mean in the sense of fighting and scrapping for everything (that should be a given). In football terms, when a manager talks about his players being “brave” he’s asking them to take the ball, to manipulate and to make passes.

I’ve touched on this before, but it is not only the ability to do that which separates the average players from the good ones, it’s the ability to do it under pressure. When you’re being pressed and hounded and you can still make the correct decision. Fortunately for me, we had players like Kevin McCallister, Michael O’Neil and Steve Archibald who could do that. I was there to give them the ball. The only decision I had to make was which one to give it to.

Better

But what makes their players “better”? Most players will find their level and, will end up playing at a level their ability can handle. The “better” will move to the best level in this country (which is usually Celtic or Rangers). The barometer is ALWAYS how they can handle the ball and manipulate it. Can they slow possession down and dictate the pace of the game and speed it back up again with a forward, incisive pass when required. If they can, then they will have a chance of playing at the next level. If not, they will stay where they are or drift back down. This is a process that stands up wherever the player is playing.

A perfect recent example was the Scotland v England international match. Scotland get success as a national team by playing a high tempo, pressure “british” type game. Unfortunately they came up against Premiership players who could move the ball and slow play down, dictating the pace of the game and countering with quality and precision. There is no doubt Scotland “had a go”. But it was unlikely to ever result in a victory given the difference in the ability of the players. In my opinion, if you’re going to Celtic Park and Ibrox, it’s only better losing having a go at them, if doing that gives you the best chance of winning.

Good players not only need to handle the ball, but handle the occasion. Being able to play for the big clubs is about being able to manipulate the ball and do all those things i’ve talked about AND deal with the pressures of the crowd, the club and the occasion as well. It’s all part of the mix and one of the reasons why players are at YOUR club and not the Old Firm.
Killie’s players will have been well prepared and told to attack with pace and numbers when possible. They will have been told to be organised, keep their shape and discipline and to take their chances when they came. They will have been told to keep it tight (for 20 minutes). They did none of those and it looked like some of the players didn’t handle playing against the “big” club, as is often the case. That’s what will have disappointed Allan Johnston and the other managers the most. Will they ever be able to…?

Home or Away

I was fortunate to have played in a few big games and felt I handled the occasion’s reasonably well, but as I’ve said, I had the easy job, I won the ball and gave it to the guys on whom the pressure was to create and do the “magic.” Although there were times when keeping it simple was an art in itself. I also had the unusually quirky fact that I have played against Celtic at Hampden, Rangers at Celtic Park and Celtic at Ibrox, the latter being the Scottish Cup Semi Final which went to a replay and for which I was I was dropped (but that’s a story for another time). All of this meant that when we went to Ibrox for the third time in three weeks, a Rangers win meant they would win the League and, having been in the Home dressing room for the previous two games, this time we were back were we belonged in the Away. We put up a good fight although in the end we lost 3:1 and the celebrations began. I wanted to get off the pitch as soon as possible, but not before I shook every players hand (I wasn’t having anyone saying I had snubbed them). I raced off the pitch and straight down the tunnel, past the injured Stuart McCall and Ian Ferguson and turned left, heading for the HOME dressing room. The door opened and John Brown screeched “you better head back were you belong or you’ll not get back out of here” (although not so politely). I turned, head down, red faced and marched straight past the by now bemused McCall and Fergie.
So much for handling the big games reasonably well.

Onto this week’s Guest Tipster and whilst Willie McStay hit the bar with his Scottish Cup tips, at least it was better than his performance on Super Scoreboard’s quiz where he scored no points. This week it’s Sunsport’s resident horse racing expert and football pundit Robert Thomson who goes for Partick (5/4) to bt Killie, Forfar (13/10) to bt Stenhousemuir and Berwick (evs) to bt Clyde. He’s even putting up a horse for us – Kumbeshwar (each way) in the 2:15 at Wetherby. Good luck

And Finally I’ve been asked a lot about Virgil Van Dijk this week and whether he can play at the top level. Following on from the points I made above, every player finds their level and Virgil’s is certainly not the SPFL. He is finding playing for Celtic very easy and with his pace, power and technique I think he could cope well with the EPL. A top 4 side? I’m not sure yet. I think he would have to prove himself at premiership level first, a la Wanyama, before the biggest clubs come calling. As for Celtic, they are certainly not in a position to knock back £10m for someone the paid £1.5m for. Unfortunately for Scottish football, I don’t see him being here very much longer.

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