Sunday, September 23, 2012

What a difference a few weeks make for Vancouver Whitecaps.

A couple of issues ago in East Fife programme The Bayview, we looked at the "Tartan Transformation" that Vancouver has gone through on both the managerial and playing side.

Things were seemingly going swimmingly, as last season's last placed side comfortably looked on course to make their first Major League Soccer playoffs. It wasn't a case of 'if' they made them, but just what seeding they would get.

The Whitecaps are in the Western Conference and five of the ten teams make the post-season action.

Just a month ago, the Caps had an eleven point lead over sixth placed FC Dallas, with a game in hand.

As you read this today, that game in hand is still in play (until tomorrow), but Dallas have slashed that lead to just one point and it's squeaky bum time in Vancouver for a side that have now lost five games on the bounce, bookended by two defeats by Dallas.

Even last season when the Whitecaps were very poor and bottom of the heap, they never lost five in a row.

So what has gone wrong? Well the blame seems to be being laid firmly in Scotland.

Many are pointing the fingers at three Scots: players Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, and manager Martin Rennie.

Robson and Miller have come to Vancouver on large 'Designated Player' salaries. That DP tag allows some of their wages to not count against the salary cap and is meant to attract marquee players to the League like David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry.

Unfortunately, such a tag also brings with it such expectations to perform and neither player has been. Or should that be, both players are has-beens?

Miller has been a flop for the Caps so far, scoring just once in eight games. When you've replaced a huge fan favourite, that's never going to wash.

Robson has scored twice in 12 games and had initially won the fans over by scoring in consecutive home games, but can't seem to play in the hot conditions away from home. His dour demeanour and regular shouting at team-mate's mistakes hasn't gone down too well either with the mild-mannered Canadians.

Manager Rennie is getting the most blame. He inexplicably tore apart a winning team mid-season selling and trading star players and fan favourites to make way for the Scots and others, in what many have likened to him playing fantasy football with the team and just bringing in people he's admired from afar in Scotland.

Since he started swinging the axe, the team has only won two games and seems to have lost any sort of chemistry and harmony. Even the players are talking about the need to generate some new chemistry, amidst rumours of internal fall-outs.

The other killer for Vancouver is the crazy MLS scheduling.

They have played 10 of their last 14 matches away from home, and like many of the vast number of Asian drivers in the city, they're just not very good on the road.

By the time tomorrow's home fixture with Colorado comes around, they will have played just four home games in the previous 94 days. It's insane, but the only saving grace is that they now have four of their last five matches at home, where they are strong and should be able to save their season.

Mathematically they need 12 points from 15 to guarantee a playoff spot. Realistically, looking at the remaining fixtures for both Vancouver and Dallas, six should be enough.

If they fail, then it will be one of the biggest collapses in MLS history and there will be calls for heads to roll both on and off the pitch.

It could leave Vancouver looking for their fourth manager in just two years. Thankfully it shouldn't come to that, but even if they make the playoffs, it's going to be a hard ask to do anything once they're there.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

I'm not sure what we've all done in a previous life, but it clearly must have been bad to merit supporting both East Fife and Scotland.

With the Fife struggling in the League and looking like a relegation battle may be looming, and Scotland looking to have already blown their 2014 World Cup qualification chances, it's pretty bleak around these parts at the moment.

All of this could turn around in an instant of course. That's the wonder of football.

At times like this though, it's hard not to let your memories take hold and look back to happier times. The glory days.

You know, the days of "Five in a row", Archie Gemmill's wonder goal against the Dutch, David Narey's toepoke, wee Gordon trying to jump the boards, John Gordon Sinclair and BA Robertson having a dream. When you could buy a packet of Panini World Cup stickers and excitedly hope that you got a shiny SFA badge or a self adhesive photo of god (Stevie Archibald).

Ah happy days.

Oh but wait. The East Fife fan part of my brain is kicking in and I'm seeing Peru, Iran, Hansen and Miller colliding to let Russia score, failing to score against ten man Uruguay, Costa Rica. Aarghhh.

Horrible memories. But you know what? I wouldn't swap them because it was Scotland playing in the World Cup Finals, when we were consistently one of the best teams in Europe. At least we were there.

I'm lucky. As a kid, I got to grow up with all the excitement and assemble a collection of memorabilia full of Naranjitos and Piques. When those four weeks in June and July actually had some emotional attachment.

When will see these likes again?

Unfortunately for East Fife, most of our memories don't go back to our special glory days, because most of us weren't born to see the three League Cup wins and Scottish Cup history being made. And don't the lino lickers down the road enjoy reminding us of that fact.

It's in our history and these achievements will never be taken away from us. We may not have seen them, but we can be proud of them and have a tear in our eye when we read about them.

When will we see these likes again?

I've been watching East Fife since the 1983/84 season and I've seen one Championship, a scattering of promotions, some great Cup giantkilling feats, a lot of heartache, and a lot more disappointment.

You don't follow a club like East Fife for the glory. But it would be nice more than just once in a blue moon or, at the very least, have the feeling that you're at least trying and there is some hope.

And that just it with the Fife and with Scotland right now. There doesn't seem to be a lot of hope around in the fanbase, and it is really hard to see the situation both are in changing any time soon.

It's depressing, but you don't give up on your team, no matter how many knocks you receive along the way.

That's always been the old mantra, but sadly this does seem to be changing and there's more and more people walking away from both club and country.

What is the solution? Who knows? But whoever has it would do well to come forward soon before things get into too grave a state.

Will we ever see the glory days return for East Fife and Scotland again? It looks less likely with every passing year.

I still have the hope, but the expectation has long since faded.

Maybe in the next life.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Most of the fans don't want Kenny Miller to start and want to see the new up and coming, young goalscoring sensation leading the line.

That's the story for Miller right now for both club and country.

For Scotland, the fans want to see 22 year old Jordan Rhodes. For Vancouver Whitecaps, they want to see 22 year old Jamaican international Darren Mattocks.

Miller has been a loyal and valuable servant to Scotland, but at ten years the elder to both of these players, he is maybe looking at his best form being behind him and having to play a secondary role.

And it would seem that the Scottish media have been quick to pounce.

Miller has seen a lot of changes during his playing career, but one of the constants is the negative attitude the media have here. It always appears that they love nothing more than failure so they can go to town on the player(s) involved.

It must get wearing but you also get used to it.

Kenny spoke with AFTN after the recent qualifiers and the first thing we had to ask him was what he thought of the media's coverage of the two draws:

"The Scottish press get something in their head. They've got different agendas to probably what the team have got.

"They've taken a negative spin on it. On Saturday they had a negative spin on it, and obviously rightly so on Tuesday night, because it was a poor performance and a poor result."

So do the team, the media and the fans just need to get over it, move on and try and do better away from home to keep our qualification hopes alive?

"We've got to get over that.

"When you've been playing the game as long as I have, you don't get too high about the highs and you don't get too beat up about the lows. You've just got to pick yourself up and get on with it.

"That's kind of where we stand with the national team just now, and that's what we've got to do. We've got to pick ourselves up and get ready for the next double header next month.

"Personally, you've just got to get on with it. I've been knocked down many a time in my career and come back stronger."

It's not going to get much easier for Scotland or Miller, with the highly fancied Belgians coming up next month.

Belgium are clearly resurgent and many people tip them to win the group, helped by on-form Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard from Chelsea.

"They're a fantastic team . They've got a lot of high profile players, which we've seen one in particular really light up the Premiership in his first three games this season.

"When that game comes around, we'll make sure that the manager has a set up and a way that hopefully we'll get the right result."

Wales are up before that and anything but a win will pretty much end Scotland's already faltering qualification hopes. Then watch the media reaction!

Making the move to Canada and Major League Soccer, where the sport battles for column inches with the big four of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey, has meant that Miller isn't under the same media scrutiny.

That must be nice:

"Well it's that. Obviously, if you're not doing well sometimes you deserve criticism.

"The way the Scottish press is, they are what they are.

"They've got a job to do and they choose to do it the way they do it and that's the way we've just got to accept it.

"I've been well used to it over the last 12/13 years of my career, so it's not going to start to affect me too much now."

Despite the poor results and the negative press, Miller has no intention of stopping making the transatlantic journey to play for his country:

"Going away and playing for your country is always an honour. It's something that I've always said I'll enjoy doing."

How long he'll be a starter is now the big question. The one thing you can't question is his commitment to his country.

Perhaps if there were a few more like him out there, putting their country ahead of their own issues, the national team wouldn't be in quite the doldrums that it is right now.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The ‘Road to Rio’ gets underway with a vengeance on Saturday with what I would already class as the first of two must-win games for Scotland.

Our constant failure to qualify for a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France has left us in a vicious circle of lower seedings and increasingly tougher qualifying groups.

This won’t change until we qualify once again and restore the glory days of regular qualification and ‘five in a row’. You have to have that hope or else what’s the point?

A near whole generation of the Tartan Army has missed out of the joys of watching their country at a major tournament.

I’ll state now that I think Craig Levein is the wrong man for the manager’s job and should have been punted before this campaign got underway. Unfortunately, we all need to get behind him for now.

I’ve probably have more hope than expectation with the current Scotland squad due to the toughness of the group. Two home wins to kick off the campaign would give us some momentum to rise up and be a respected footballing nation again.

What gives me the most hope is that we are finally starting to see some of our younger talent come to the fore and play at the top level. Nineteen members of the squad are playing in the top two divisions in England, with 11 of them in the Premiership.

Only two players are currently plying their trade abroad, and one of them, current captain Kenny Miller, has been having a bit of a rough start over in MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps. Miller has mustered only one shot on target in his first few games there, but he did at least bury that chance!

We had a chat with Kenny about the upcoming games, the hopes of reaching Brazil and the younger talent coming through.

Is Saturday a must win?

"They're home games. If we're going to be successful in any campaign, whether it be World Cup or Euros, you've got to try and put your home games to bed and get three points and as many as you can. Hopefully all of them, but if not, as many as we can. 

We're starting with the two homes games and I think it is vitally important that we pick up points.

It's a tough group and every team will pretty much fancy their chances in making the World Cup, so it's important that we do get the right results at home."

Third seeded Belgium are resurgent and much hyped right now, with many people tipping them to win the group, helped by on-form Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini and the even more on-form Eden Hazard from Chelsea.

Scotland travel to Belgium for their fourth game of the group in October, but Miller doesn’t want to look too far ahead:

"We'll cross them when we come to them.

At the moment we have Serbia and Macedonia coming up first, then Belgium next month.

They're a fantastic team . They've got a lot of high profile players, which we've seen one in particular really light up the Premiership in his first three games this season.

When that game comes around, we'll make sure that the manager has a set up and a way that hopefully we'll get the right result."

Scotland’s morale boosting friendly win last month was pleasing, particularly as they played really well in spells to dispatch Australia 3-1 in Edinburgh. It gives us hope that when we choose to play attacking football, we can do some damage. We just need to play that way more often and lose all the defensive nonsense that Levein seems to adore.

Miller decided not to travel for that game as he was still trying to settle into his new surroundings in Vancouver, and living out of a hotel meant that he wasn't able to watch the game live, but he was getting regular updates on his phone.

One pleasing aspect from that game was an international goal for the up and coming, and highly rated, Jordan Rhodes, who Miller describes as "a goalscoring machine". With so many players out, and changes to the squad, was that a big win for us?

"Well it was. Obviously off the back of the US game, which was a poor performance and a poor result and unlike the team to be honest with you. We've been moving in the right direction.

The Australia game gave us a chance to put that right and the lads who were there by all accounts played very, very well and the result suggests that. A 3-1 victory against Australia is no mean feat.

The lads did very well there and hopefully put that USA result behind us."

Let’s hope so.

We'll see just how far on Saturday against Serbia.

Monday, September 3, 2012

There's something magical about the start of the new football season.

We've all been through it many times before, and some a lot more than others. It still gives me a buzz, even though deep down, I've seen this movie before and I know what lies ahead.

I love watching 'Match of the Day' and 'The Football League Show' on opening day just to see the joy and excitement on the fans faces as they head into their grounds and the sun makes it's rare appearance for the season.

The cynic inside me is saying, you're happy now, but give it a few weeks and you'll be calling for your manager's head and in a relegation dogfight.

The optimist in me though is saying, let them have their moment in the sun, as this is that special time of the season. This time could be the rarest of occasions when it could all be different.

It's the time of the year when every team is level. We're all starting from an equal playing field and even though some teams are more equal than others, we are all united in hope and anticipation in what may lie ahead in the next ten months.

Even some of the most pessimistic fans are full of hope and excitement, often more than realistic expectations.

And if you're really lucky, and your team starts with a high up letter in the alphabet, you could be top of the table or in the promotion positions before the season has even begun! Lucky old Aberdeen.

For many fans, that will be the only time you will see your team up at that end of the table.

Many of us spend the final weeks and months of the season just wanting it to end to put us out of our misery. Then the close season comes and you're bored out of your nut and you're counting down the days until first of all the new fixtures are released and then until the first ball of the new season is kicked in anger.

We've spent the summer scouring the internet forums, twitter and the sports pages to try and glean any indication of possible new signings.

We've checked the various bookies odds at the comparison sites. Can we really be 14/1 to win the League? They're crazy. I'll have £20 on that right away before they see sense and our odds plummet. We always forget that you never see a poor bookie.

That first Saturday of the new season finally comes around and you're all giddy at seeing the new players, catching up with old friends and settling down for another exciting season of fitba'.

Then the first month comes to an end and you're still looking for your first League win, are out of two Cup competitions already and you're thinking of all the ways that twenty quid could have been put to better use.

Yup, that movie's just had it's umpteenth rerun.

But that's the curse of being a fan of a lower league football club. Would we really have it any other way? If yes, then we could all have walked away by now. We're masochists, each and every one of us.

Even fans of Rangers are starting to see it's not so easy down in the lower depths of Scottish football.

What odds would you have got on them being fourth in the Third Division, with two draws, after their first three League matches as their new club?

East Stirling are still pointless. Not exactly a new feeling for their fans in a new campaign.

And for us here at East Fife, well it already looks like we're settling in and taking root in what seems to be our usual position in the Second Division.

Five points adrift of top spot already, and in neither of the promotion, playoff or relegation spots.

Did the summer even happen or have the football seasons become like the weather ones now and we're just combining them into one?

But we still have hope and when you're a fan of a lower league club, sometimes that's all you need.

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