PART TIME SUPPORTER

Many of you will be supporters of so called ‘smaller’ clubs and will continually be put out by the disparaging reference that clubs in financial difficulty, may have to go ‘part-time,’ as if that’s some sort of slur or put down. The truth is, that many of our part time teams, live within their means and are run on a much more business-like basis than many of the full time clubs they are supposed to aspire to. Thankfully, a recent report has informed us that some of our full time clubs have at last got their house in order and the tremendous financial kickback almost all of our part time clubs have received from Rangers making their way through the lower divisions, will see a lot of them continue to prosper. But is it really such a bad thing to be ‘part-time?’

Full time

I was a full time footballer for 14 years, before the ravages of a serious foot injury put paid to my ability to train every day and I had to go part time and apparently sell my soul to the football devil. Part time players get a raw deal in my opinion, with their commitment to the game and holding down a full time job which in many aspects puts some of our full time footballers to shame. I had a lot of things to get used to, not least of all the fact that I was suddenly having to get up in the morning and go to work for a living. I suppose I could have made things easier for myself had I not signed for Stranraer, with the logistics involved in getting to and from matches, but in fairness to them, they were a very well run part time team who recognised that getting players from their own catchment area would be impossible, which meant we were able to train in Glasgow. It was also fortunate that of the many part time clubs I could have chosen, Stranraer were one of the better payers at the time. This was a consequence of the geographical location of the town, meaning players had to be enticed into giving up some extra time to travel to matches on a Saturday. We were always very well looked after though, leaving at 10am on a match day and stopping at the local hotel in the Blue Toon for a pre-match meal, a luxury rarely afforded by any part time outfit. A final bonus was that I was able to work with Billy McClaren, a veteran of many part time clubs and the only manager I have ever come across who was able to skip seamlessly from amiable to indomitable in a matter of seconds. He was a highly intelligent man and to meet him in the street he was so softly spoken and well mannered you would never believe there were many times in my capacity as player/assistant manager when I had to convince him not to rip the head off one of his own players, but he was a wonderful, old school, football man. A part time football man in the loosest possible sense.

Billy had a very good full time job working in the tax office and his senior position allowed him the flexibility to leave early or manipulate flexi time to allow him to fulfil all his managerial duties. It always amazes me when you hear of the part time player who has a ‘sympathetic’ boss or the manager who is ‘very understanding’ when the player needs time off. I’m convinced a lot of it is anticipation of that day, when the wee team plays the big team in the Cup, and all week, the press are pushing for a romantic story. I’m certain a lot of those bosses are waiting to the hear old line being trotted out by their employee – “Aye, ma gaffer at Chunkerton, Phillips and Webb solicitors has given me the afternoon off so I’ve got time to get to Pittodrie.” Well we all love a bit of free publicity and our ego’s furnished now and again. It HAS to be the reason. Football does irrational things to people and even the most hardened supervisor on the shop floor, seems to fold in the face of a possible giant killing.
While there is no doubt that the standard of play in general as you go down the divisions drops, do not be kidded that the gap between the average full time teams and the better part teams is as big as our pundits and experts would have you believe. One thing it is absolutely not down to is fitness. There is a myth always bandied about when the bigger club beats the part time team that ‘full time fitness told in the end.” In my opinion, this is very rarely the case. When I trained part time, the Monday/Tuesday fitness session was as tough as any session I ever done at a full time club. There is a certain level of fitness your body can reach and a part time player having played 12 games in a row will be no less match fit than a full time player. Don’t we think the roles would be reversed if part time clubs were able to pay the full time players what they are used to? Do we think fitness would come into it then if a team of part time players were getting full time money and therefore attracted more quality? That’s what generally shows in the end. Sure, the high end Championship clubs as has been shown this season, will pull away at the top due to the different resources at their disposal, but as for the rest, I think it has been shown that at all levels, the part timers can compete and certainly have a place.

Wild rover

My time at Stranraer came to an end and after another couple of injections and a close season of doubt as to whether I would play for another year, I decided to give it a go. I had some offers from the Juniors of a tidy signing on fee and a few quid in my hip pocket but I declined as I wanted to finish my career, still playing in the Football League. My legs were going but I knew I could still play for two years as my mind would allow me to compensate for the lack of athleticism. Albion Rovers was to be my final destination in Coatbridge, in truth, it was a family decision as well as a football one for once as the ground was only 15 minutes from my home and 20 minutes from my work in Cumbernauld. For once I was thinking about my family as well as myself. Football does that to you. You become so engrossed in your own world of playing and coaching that you disregard people close to you and their feelings. It’s all about the football. Only now that I am no longer in the game, can I see that. The third division was easy, but I started to realise that even though it didn’t look like it, I was struggling to match players who in reality, shouldn’t have been on the same pitch as me. I was no world beater, but I was better than this although my left knee was now telling me that my head had a cheek to keep up the pretence. It started well, before I jarred the medial ligament again and struggled my way through ’til Christmas. It was a great wee club and the players were well looked after. Wages were always on time and although Cliftonhill was very rundown and dated, there was a tremendous sense of identity and don’t forget, I had played through serious financial difficulties at big clubs like Partick Thistle, Airdrie and even Hibs so there were times when being involved at Cliftonhill was something of a luxury. I played around 15 games before the highlight of our season came around, a Lanarkshire derby in the Cup against Hamilton. They were in Division 1 at the time and being full time and at Accies’ New Douglas Park, full time fitness was expected to take it’s toll as Accies would run out comfortable winners.

They took an early two-goal lead, although we managed to claw ourselves back into the game and get it to 2-2. We had them rocking in the second half as the fans got on their back and with about 10 minutes to go, a cross came in from a corner which I met full on the volley from about six yards, only to see the ball come crashing back off the bar. It went straight out to the 18 yard line to a Hamilton player and they launched a counter attack that resulted in the luckiest of volleys, driven into the ground AND deflected into the net. Of course, the full time fitness had apparently told in the end. Or had it? Well if the Rovers had just had a quality centre back at their disposal, one who could put a relatively simple volley into the net instead of onto the bar, then the apparent ‘part time fitness’ would never have come into the equation. Then again, if I’d have been fit enough to get back and stop that lightning quick counter attack, who knows what the headlines would have been. Either way, whether it was full time or part time, the best thing I could do, was call time.

Finally… On Saturday in the national newspapers I tipped Hibs to not only win the game on Sunday against Rangers, but to also win through the Championship play-offs. My prediction was based on current AND overall form throughout the season. Whilst I was left with egg on my face after Sunday’s result, I still believe Hibs can win through at the end of the season and it remains to be seen if Rangers can now maintain a level of consistency and gain enough momentum to capitalise on what was clearly a very good result and level of performance at the weekend. A more pressing question for Rangers fans though should be “where has that level of performance and more importantly commitment been all season?” There can be no doubt it was hugely improved on what has been served up during the League campaign so far on both counts.

With all the financial implications and cutbacks at Rangers, and the inevitable scaling back on luxury items at both Murray Park and Ibrox, I just hope that none of the cost-cutting measures has involved the removal of all the mirrors from the first team Changing Room.

My first book – JOURNEYMAN: FOOTBALL FROM THE INSIDE is now available to pre-order from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

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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MEN IN BLACK 2

So, after further scrutiny of laboratorial proportions, Sunday’s game at Tannadice only enhances further the viewpoint that officiating at Scottish football matches seems to have deteriorated markedly over the past couple of seasons. Whilst there can be no doubt the Sky cameras – and the intense thirst for every angle to be covered – make the job an ever increasing minefield, there can be no question that if so many mistakes and bad decisions were not being made, the cameras would not be picking them up. Sunday’s disastrous performance from the officials is the latest in a long line of high profile incidents that are either missed, or worst still, spectacularly wrong. Cup finals, semi-finals, crunch matches and high profile games rarely pass these days without incident. Work your way down through the divisions from royalty to ramshackle and you’ll hear the same thing reverberating through the corridors of the SPFL grounds.

Standards are dropping. Players, managers and coaches at all levels are all saying and seeing the same things, but to my mind there is very little acceptance of that within the secretive and protective corridors of power. The longer we bury our heads in the sand and continue to ignore what everyone else can see, the longer it will take to return standards to an acceptable level.

Whilst I understand it is a difficult job with the advent of media intrusion in football and fans expectations at an all time unrealistic high, I still believe everyone in the game has a right to expect better. Matches are ruined and career paths can be changed on the back of one blatant offside, missed handball or a goalscoring opportunity catastrophically denied. If it were only one, there would be no issue. Human nature dictates that mistakes are made, but where else are there continual, glaring errors and rarely does anyone seem accountable? The answer to that is an easy one. Nowhere.

Change

Player & Management/Referee & Official relationships are at an all time low. The ‘Respect’ campaign pays lip service and shows a united front, but clearly at ‘on pitch’ level, the cracks that have been appearing for many years have now reached Grand Canyon proportions. The trust amongst players and officials has all but gone on the back of some dubious high profile cover ups and tribunal decisions, and even more high profile mistakes on a weekly basis and the only way to get that back, is to start getting more of those decisions right.

I have to say here and now that I think our match officials are honest. The majority of bad decisions made are done so without favour. It is no coincidence that over the years, both Celtic and Rangers feel that referees favour one against the other. The truth is, both these bigger clubs have ALWAYS got more decisions, largely due to the influence of a large, vociferous support. To think they are not swayed by that, is to deny the blatantly obvious. However, my biggest gripe of all is that the officials don’t know the game. There are instances on a pitch that at times baffle me how a referee cannot see what’s gone on. The shot that has come off the defender with the goalie going the other way and a goal kick is given. The last ditch tackle were the defender clearly plays the ball. You can tell by the direction the ball has travelled that he clearly got a touch on it, and yet, only the ref didn’t see it. As a coach, in recent years, the officials had almost become unapproachable, aloof and arrogant and I know from speaking to many guys still in the game now, the feeling among many is still the same. It may well be a protective mechanism and there is no doubt some coaches and managers’ behaviour over the years does nothing to foster harmony, but unless there is a mutual mellowing of the ‘us and them’ mentality, there could be many more years of poor decision to come.

I also have a theory that one of the reasons for the decline, is the previous rule that referees had to be retired to the glue factory at 47. This meant that guys who were clearly at the top of their particular game; Rowbotham, Dougal, Dallas, Young et al, were phased out before they needed to be. Everyone will have their beef with each of these individual people, but there is no doubt in my mind, this was the last crop of officials, who made fewer big mistakes over the course of a regular season. Who do the present group have to aspire to? Surely it can’t be good for them, seeing the perceived top men making bad decision after bad decision. This has resulted in a fresh crop of officials, who have been rushed to fill the void left by their predecessors, without the knowledge, experience or know how to do it. I have also learned, that since the scrapping of the ‘overage’ rule, referees are no longer judged by age but by fitness. Are we to believe then that any referee over the age of 40, is being decided upon whether or not they are fit, rather than if they are fit for purpose? Unfortunately, in many cases, it looks that way.

Solution

So what can we do to extricate from this impasse? Well to my mind, the first and most obvious solution would be where applicable to use video evidence. The referee can still do the corners, throw ins and general decisions on the pitch, but key moments; dives, penalties, offsides that result in goals MUST be decided at the side of the pitch. 30 seconds to the fourth official replay and back again. In this age of technology, it can’t be difficult. Next, there MUST be accountability. At the moment, players and fans don’t see enough officials being punished for consistently poor performances. Sure, one or two are demoted for a couple of games, but does that really make any difference. We had the absurdity of our officials who made such a glorious hash of things at the weekend, refereeing in top games in Europe this week. Drop them for a month, and then phase them back in gradually, and pay must be altered accordingly. There should also be a system where they are removed from future UEFA games as punishment. It may sound over dramatic, but there are people’s livelihoods genuinely at stake on the back of some of the most spurious decisions. If nothing else, it will at least let the fans see that people are taking note of poor performance levels. My final recommendation would be that the referees watch more football. Attend practice matches, training games and league games at all levels, but don’t watch the referee, watch the players. How many of our officials are only ever at a match they are officiating in? How can they expect to see the obvious deflection or leg breaking tackle if they don’t know what it is (but make no mistake, they should).

There can be no other explanation as to why on so many situations, the only person in the ground who hasn’t seen the handball is the man in the middle. This may well sound like a rant, and in many ways it has turned out that way, but football runs through my veins, it is why I was at Celtic Park last Wednesday, why I was in Coatbridge on Saturday morning watching a kids game and why I was at Easter Road on Wednesday night. I wonder how many of our officials could ever say that about the game. I wonder how many have the passion for the game, you and I as a fan have. I wonder…

Finally… After having my say on the vagaries of our referee’s, it would be remiss of me to allow the situation to pass without comment on player behaviour. There is no doubt that players, on occasion, can help the officials with regard to their on-field behaviour. Surrounding the referee like a pack of hungry wolves does nothing to enhance the image of the game and nor, in my opinion, does it do anything to influence or alter a referee’s decision. Indeed, if I was officiating, I think I’d be more inclined to rebel against the madding crowd and prove that I was not one to be coerced into making any favourable decision. Feigning injury was a slight on your character back when I played and showing that your opponent had hurt you was a sign of weakness, not just as a footballer but as a man. A return to those type of principles among the players would certainly go a long way to righting some wrongs and teaching our young players some good habits for a change.
Diving has also become a scourge to our game, but I have a radical solution that I think may just rule out the propensity to throw yourself to the ground in one fell swoop.

If a player is deemed to have dived, the referee should be able to book the player and give a direct free kick in the same position at the other end of the pitch. So if a player dives in the box, a penalty is given at the other end and if a defender was to dive in his own half to get himself out of impending trouble, then the free kick is given right were the infringement took place. Of course, the referee would have to be sure, but surely the punishment alone would be deterrent enough to stop any striker from diving to gain a spot kick or dangerous free kick if the ball was shifted directly to the other end for the opposition to potentially score. It may be revolutionary and radical and no doubt slightly flawed, but without at least trying to erase this cancer from our beautiful game, and continuing to accept it, we are just as culpable as the players who perpetrate it.

Footnote: I started this blog after watching the Celtic-Dundee United game on Sunday and looking on at the aftermath throughout the week. I was almost finished it yesterday, when events from Hampden started to unfold and the sheer disbelief at what I was hearing started to sink in. I’ll give you my quick take on the incidents and leave it at that, but I have to say after the results of the appeals started to filter through, I felt so disillusioned I was going to pull it altogether. What’s the point, I thought. I can’t make a difference and it feels like I would be banging my head against the wall, but I owe it to myself to put my thoughts out there. I have not altered this piece since then, so here goes:
Van Dijk and Butcher: Both equally guilty, however, in my view, a yellow card would have been sufficient, but having given Van Dijk a red, Butcher should have been cited. Having not cited Butcher, it was inevitable, as I hinted at midweek, that Van Dijk would be rescinded to ‘even it up’
Connolly: Unequivocal dive
Cifti: Unequivocal and deliberate kick
Paton: Completely innocent
Brown: Reckless tackle, definite yellow, however under current rules, had the referee given a free kick, some may well have given a red and, had this initial incident been dealt with and play stopped, the whole sorry episode may well have been consigned to the annals of time.
So there you have it.

My first book – JOURNEYMAN: FOOTBALL FROM THE INSIDE is now available to pre-order from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk
All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

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