Monday, January 28, 2013

If there's one subject likely to draw both consensus and discord amongst Scottish football fans, it's League reconstruction.

The consensus is there in that the vast majority of us know that there has to be change of some sort and the discord comes with none of us being able to agree exactly what that change should look like.

The latest proposals on the table from the governing bodies just don't cut it.

There should not be change for changes sake. We've waited long enough for this to happen so it has to be the right proposal that gets accepted.

A 12-12-18 set up is not that proposal.

The few plus points, such as the redistribution of wealth and some sort of pyramid system being in place, are far outweighed by the ludicrous mid season splitting of the divisions and other issues that feel like they were drawn up on the back of a beermat.

The numbers in the top two divisions still do not address the complaint of over familiarity with opponents. Continuing to play the same teams at least four times a season is not going to get the punters flocking back through the turnstiles.

It may do in the Third Division, sorry, National League, where at least we would get a bit of variety, although hopefully that would not be the place we would regularly be finding ourselves.

At the time of writing this, there is still a lot to discuss. By the time you read this, it may already have been done and dusted. We can only hope not, for if it has been, then they've gone for the quick fix and the wrong one.

However this plays out, any change should not be implemented midway through a campaign.

You can't change the goalposts when the thing that everyone thought they were playing for from day one no longer exists.

So what do we at AFTN feel is the way forward?

Well obviously we don't have the magical cure either, but looking at an even 14-14-14 split makes the most sense to us. I'd even be happy with a 12-16-16 and the addition of two new teams to freshen things up from the start.

Maybe we should all take a step back and take a look at the past.

I know times have changed and there are so many different ways that people can spend their time and hard earned cash on a Saturday now, along with the lure of televised games, but the numbers we got at Scottish League games years ago were phenomenal at times.

Apart from it being a different time and mindset, something must have happened to capture the fans' imaginations and get them to keep coming back in numbers week after week.

Let's look back the Fife's glory years and take 1947/48 and 1948/49 as examples.

There were two main divisions and a bit of a mish mash of a third. In that first year we won the 'B' Division. the following season we finished fourth in the 'A' Division.

32 clubs. Two divisions. A 16-16 split, with a further 12 clubs (including some second teams) in the C Division.

Those numbers worked then. Football worked then. East Fife worked then. What changed?

Maybe we should stop looking too much to the future and learn some lessons from the past.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The 2012 Major League Soccer season ended with the MLS Cup on December 1st.

Seven weeks later and the teams are all back in pre-season mode, looking forward to 2013's "First Kick" on March 2nd.

For Vancouver Whitecaps, there was an extra month to sit around and improve their golf handicap, having bowed out of the playoffs in the first round at the start of November.

It was a historic season for the Club, making the playoffs in only their second MLS season and becoming the first Canadian club to ever do so.

Some change from their previous bottom of the heap finish, but it set the expectations. 2013 had to be even better.

For Whitecaps fans that means several things: winning the Canadian championship for the first time and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League; and reaching the playoffs once again, but this time hosting and winning at least one game.

Anything less will be deemed a failure and although he would never admit it publically, Head Coach Martin Rennie knows this to be the case and the Scot, who pushes himself harder at every opportunity, would have it no other way.

Last season, the Thurso born Rennie decided to rely on the help of some fellow Scots and other UK expats.

'Designated Players' Kenny Miller and Barry Robson, were joined by former Newcastle and Irish national team defender Andy O'Brien.

The first two came in amongst huge fanfare, and pay packets to match (Miller on $1.24 million and Robson on $596,000). The softly spoken O'Brien came in under the radar, picked up only $192,250, and outperformed his two bigger name signings every step of the way.

The daggers of many fans were soon out for the seemingly underperforming Scots. Barry Robson finished the season with 3 goals in 17 appearances and Kenny Miller just 2 in 13.

Not the best production. Not the worst. But when you're talking about the team's two biggest earners, more was expected.

Fans were quick to point the favouritism finger and accused Rennie, and his assistant, ex Jambo Paul Ritchie, of bringing in their countrymen on reputation alone and just because they were Scots.

Maybe they did, but either way, it didn't seem to be working.

The axe was particularly out for Miller, with many fans hoping he would arrange a loan or permanent move back to the UK this off-season. The addition of several new and younger strikers and wingers seemed to indicate that Miller's days in Vancouver were numbered.

Rennie though seems keen to keep hold of Miller, and for his part in it, the Scottish captain is very happy in Vancouver and wants to stay and prove he is not a busted flush.

The jury was out on Robson. Some felt we were going to see the best of him this season. Others just wanted him gone too, partly from his on field performances and partly due to his on field actions and overall demeanour. The general consensus though was that he was the best midfielder that the Whitecaps had.

Somewhat ironically, and unexpectedly, as Whitecaps pre-season training got underway on January 21st, Miller was there all smiles and raring to go and Barry Robson was absent.

It was then revealed hours later that Robson and the Whitecaps had parted ways with the Club and player having mutually agreed to terminate the contract, playing the good old "family never fully settled in Vancouver" card.

When Robson was announced as joining the Caps in February last year, there was genuine excitement at what the experienced midfielder could bring to the team.

Unfortunately, once he started playing in July the reality was a player from a different footballing culture who just didn't seem to have what it takes to cut it in Major League Soccer.

Is the game really that different in North America to the UK? Others have struggled and Kris Boyd has just been bought out of his contract at Portland Timbers. Maybe it's just the Scots!

The sometimes lengthy travel between games takes some getting used to. So does the often poor quality officiating. How you deal with such things, and frustrations in general, tend to shape people's perceptions of you and Robson's biggest struggles seemed to be shaking off the perception of him by some fans and the media.

Many didn't like his on field attitude and he was plagued by rumours of dressing room disharmony. He was certainly hard to like at times out there.

If you were to ask fans for their lasting impressions of Robson, it wouldn't be his standout performance against Beckham's LA side in July (where Robson was the best midfielder on the park), instead it would be his constant arm waving to either berate of team-mates (including the club captain in one heated exchange) or the officials, the failure to track back or look interested at times, the sitting on his ass complaining about everything when the game was going on round about him, sometimes to the detriment of the Caps.

All sadly true and all attributes of a player that will always find it hard to settle into the North American game and win the warm affection of the fans here.

When he arrived in Vancouver he told AFTN: "I wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s the type of guy I am."

And he did. For all to see. And many didn't like what they saw.

I can't knock him for that to an extent. I want to see passion and the desire to win. At least he showed he cared.

Fans in particular can accept such actions if the player himself is without sin. Sadly Robson performed so far below his game on many occasions that it really was a case of pots and black kettles and his actions were clearly born out of frustrations at himself at times.

He was seen and portrayed as dour and surly by sections of the media, but it has to be remembered that he came from a background where the football media are not to be trusted. He wasn't used to be forced to chat to the press pack on a daily basis and less than enamoured by the post match open dressing room, which he never liked or got used to. I still find it weird wandering in there after a game!

I never found him to be hard to deal with personally. He always had time to speak with me. We shared a laugh and joke about a few things. Maybe it was just being a fellow Scot in unfamiliar surroundings, but as his time went on he did start to crack some smiles in the press scrums and come across as more friendly and approachable. Not that such things make as interesting reporting of course.

Are the Whitecaps a better team now without Robson? At this precise moment, no. There is now a huge gap in the midfield.

Will they be a better team when Rennie brings in a younger, more creative, productive and athletic midfielder in his place? Undoubtedly.

Given a full season here, I think the fans would have seen the Barry Robson I've watched since his early days playing against East Fife. Unfortunately we only ever got to see some very rare glimpses of that player in MLS.

Something didn't work with the Robson experiment. Whether it was the player, the tactics, the team-mates, the environment or a combination of all of that, we may never truly know.

Now, as pre-season continues and it's six weeks till the new season kicks off, the Whitecaps have a massive gaping hole in the middle of the park. Whoever replaces Robson needs to be strong, creative and someone to build the team around for several years to come. I'm guessing he won't be Scottish.

This is shaping up to be a very intriguing season for Vancouver Whitecaps from the off. We'll keep you posted.

[You can get daily news on all things Vancouver Whitecaps on AFTN's Canadian website at: www.aftn.ca]

Monday, January 14, 2013

It's hard not to think of East Fife's past in this season of anniversaries.

When you want to do some research or enjoy some reading about yesteryear, your number one stop should always be Jim Corstorphine's excellent history of the first hundred years of East Fife Football Club, "On That Windswept Plain", which was brought out for the Club's centenary in 2003.

That book was not the first to document the Fife's long and distinguished history though. That honour belongs to a 48 page book that was published in 1948 and which covers the wonderful, and sometimes testing, early years of the Club.

"Through The Years With East Fife FC" was written by William Phenix Junior and "issued under the auspices of East Fife Football Club" to tell the story of the Fife "in word and picture".

I don't know how many were originally published but it has been a long sought after collector's piece for the avid East Fife fan and one which doesn't appear all that often for fans to buy on ebay or elsewhere. It should be a must have for all Fife collectors though.

You're probably not going to uncover too many new or unknown snippets of information in the book, as a lot is also covered in Jim's book and elsewhere, that's not what makes it a magical must have.

Simply flicking through it and looking at the photos and adverts, and reading the style of writing, is what does it. You realise that you are holding in your hand a segment of history from a time when East Fife were amongst the best in Scotland and a force to fear.

You can pretend you're a Fife fan from the time, reliving the glories you've just seen with your own eyes, that now seem so long ago to us and we can only dream of ever repeating. It's hard not to get misty-eyed and nostalgic.

The tale of East Fife's early history is documented in short snippets under headings such as "The Kick Off", "All-Conquering East Fife", "Nearer - and Nearer - and Nearer", "Excelsior!", "Nightmare Interlude", "A-Dreaming, Promotion, A-Dreaming Of Thee", and many more.

The brevity of it all sees so many things quickly covered or just glossed over, but inside you find tales from the days in the Northern League, the Central League and of course the Scottish Cup win in 1938 and the first League Cup win in 1947.

We learn of the history and early days and how in season 1911-12 East Fife "shed their funereal garb of almost all black and donned the present-day famous strip of black and gold". The writer then pondered whether "the injection of a gold streak into the black was a symbolic expression of the hopes for a golden era in both playing and paying sense". The current Board should take note.

I love looking through old football books, programmes and magazines in general, but especially for the photos. There's 12 of them in "Through The Years", most, if not all of them, will be familiar to the faithful, but even so, looking at them so crystal clear just makes them seem anew.

For example, the first ever (?) team photo of East Fife from 1903 is well known, but in this book, for the first time that I recall, you can actually see people sitting on the hill behind them. The original Bayview mound! It's the little things in life!

Pride of place in the centre pages is reserved for a photo of "The Men Behind The Scenes" - the then Board, including the legendary Chairman John McArthur, who tragically died a year later at the League Cup semi final win over Rangers.

Nearly half of the book is taken up by adverts, but even these capture the times. There's a great on the inside back cover for Manfield-Hotspurs boots with the tagline "1948 Cup Finalists - Once again the Cup was won in Manfield-Hotspurs".

And of course we all know who won Cups wearing them.

In the acknowledgements section near the end, William Phenix noted that he expected "criticism of what is NOT in these pages may well turn out to be a more potential goal-scoring attack than criticism of what IS there".

We'll leave you with the introductory paragraph from this final section of the book to sum it all up:

"Sclimmin' ower and scramblin' a'low the fence at Bayview Park to see East Fife when my 'Saturday penny' had been already spent, I have ripped holes in my breeks. In later days I have ripped along many a road and rail to a far-off away game. I am, unashamedly, a dyed-in-the-black-and-gold football fan. Collecting material for and writing this history of East Fife, therefore, has been a fascinating ploy for me".

And it's also a fascinating, if all too short, read.

If you ever get the chance to add it to your collection, then you really should.

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