Monday, March 25, 2013

If I was to sit here and ask you "where did it all go wrong?", I'm sure your first thought would be that I was talking about East Fife's season.

It could be. Or it could also be about Scotland on the international stage, or Scottish clubs in Europe, or what happens to all the promising youngster that we produce in this country, or why don't we produce players like the old days?

Sadly it could be a seemingly endless list that a one pager in an East Fife programme could in no way even begin to address.

For the sake of this week's blog though, I'm talking about the general state of the game in Scotland, which can also encompass all of the above anyway.

Watching from afar, this season just seems to have lurched from one shambles to another, with many that are entrusted to lead the game in Scotland seemingly out of touch with the average fan and apparently clueless in what needs to be done to take the game here by the scruff of the neck and give it the kicking it needs to not just survive, but to thrive.

From the Rangers debacle that dominated the close season, to more failure by our "top" club sides in Europe, to Scotland's shambolic World Cup campaign, to the constant talk about league reconstruction that have gone nowhere. It's been a depressing season all round that shows little signs of easing up.

The two latest pieces of this annus horribilis are the current plight of Dunfermline Athletic and the never ending saga about how the league set up will look next season.

Even to consider adding Old Firm colt teams to the League set up ahead of teams like Cove Rangers and Spartans. Seriously SFL?

We can add a third in Tuesday night's draw against Albion Rovers if you want, as that's left us deep in the brown stuff with eight games remaining. Happy thoughts, Happy thoughts.

The Pars plight is both shocking but not exactly surprising at the same time.

Now let's preface this with the usual no-one wants to see any club go bust, etc etc, BUT at some point it is going to take a middle-sized club to go to the wall to get other clubs acting correctly.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking, because you know what, will some of them ever change or is the lure of spending beyond their means to reach the promised land of the SPL just too much?

We've covered this before but when you look back to East Fife in the increasingly distant past and look to who our peers were, Dunfermline were in the division below us. Then something went right for them and they rose the league and were somewhat Premier mainstays for a bit, then a yoyo club between the top two divisions.

So how did they get there? And is that what has them in their current mess? Could that have been us if we hadn't lost Davie Clarke and our top players to Falkirk in the mid 80s and instead spent to strengthen the squad? Or how about if we'd taken Steve Archibald's advice and gone full time in the mid 90's.

We'll never know. Other clubs, like Ross County, seem to be well run, worked hard to get to the top and are doing well, albeit with some debt I would guess.

How does a football club allow itself to get to the stage where they are running up debts into six figures and not paying the taxman? Why at no point did someone say, you know what, we're not heading to a good place here, until it was too late.

At the time of writing this, they look doomed. Maybe a saviour will come along at the last minute, but will that really be better for them than doing a Sevco? Only in so much that the little local businesses may at least see the money that they so badly need for them to survive.

Chin up Pars fans. We'll see you in the Third next season. Fife derbies again. Woo!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Paul Ritchie earned seven full international Caps for Scotland and more at U21 level and below.

The ex-Hearts hero may be plying his trade on the other side of the world at the moment, as assistant manager of Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer, but he is still proudly Scottish and looking forward to taking time out from his busy schedule to watch the next two matches in Scotland's 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, the first competitive games in the new Gordon Strachan era.

Paul's fellow assistant manager in Vancouver is former Wales international Carl Robinson. The two had some excellent banter in the build up to the last game between the two countries, with some secret wagers between them. As we all know, that particular match ended horribly thanks to the Welsh submarine Gareth Bale. Dive. Dive. Dive.

Ritchie took it as well as any Scot would, and with Vancouver's manager also being a Scot, Martin Rennie, Robinson immediately found himself on a scouting trip to Honduras! We're sure that was just purely coincidental.

Now round two was last night, so by the time you read this, we'll all know just how good or bad things ended this time around.

We're hoping well, as it will put the following interview into a better context, as Paul chatted with AFTN last week to share his thoughts on Strachan's appointment, how we should play out the remaining qualifying campaign and the continuing inclusion of Scotland captain Kenny Miller, who is with him over in Vancouver.

So what does Ritchie think of Strachan as the new Scotland gaffer?

"He's a quality coach. He's coached at the highest level. I think he's the fans choice, so I think when you have the fans backing it will go a long way because the Tartan Army have been starved of success recently.

"Hopefully under a new manager we can aim to progress. It might take a number of years. There's a lot of good kids coming through. It might be too late this year to qualify for Brazil, but I think there a chance for the future."

Has Ritchie ever played alongside Strachan in his 17 year pro career?

"No. I never played with Gordon. I played with a number of teams against him."

We spoke about the dilemma Strachan faces in these very pages a couple of weeks ago. Does he play his strongest team and experienced players in the remaining qualifiers, in the hope that some kind of footballing miracle can be pulled off, or does he blood the new breed of Scottish internationals and let the likes of Jordan Rhodes get valuable experience spearheading the attack, thinking ahead to that next qualifying campaign?

Ritchie had no question as to how Strachan and Scotland should approach the remainder of the campaign.

"I think we've got to go for it as long as it's mathematically possible. Two games coming up and if we win both of these games it gives us a good chance. But you know what Scotland's like. We give ourselves a chance and then fall at the last hurdle.

"But I think as long as we can succeed and as long as we have a chance to qualify, we must go for it, so we must pick the best players available at the time."

And that's just what Strachan has done. He's picked the strongest squad he could for the double header against Wales at Hampden last night and in Serbia on Tuesday.

For the Whitecaps management and fans that has meant the loss of Kenny Miller for the game in Houston today, and who knows what state he will be in when he arrives back for the Chivas game the following weekend.

You see, Major League Soccer has many faults and one of them is their sometimes crazy scheduling that sees league games directly clashing with the international calendar.

This is despite the US still being heavily involved in trying to reach Brazil, having games themselves on Friday and Tuesday, and with 38 players from 15 different countries now missing their club matches this weekend as they are away on international duty.

There's no postponements for clubs, no matter how many players they may be missing. This is no East Fife v Clydebank situation!

But why bring Miller over for his second cross-Atlantic journey in a few weeks? He only saw a handful of minutes against Estonia.

The answer is experience and what he can bring to the squad off the pitch, as well as on it. A role he has been undertaking in Vancouver, as he takes the new crop of young striking talent at the club under his wing.

You also have to factor in that he has had a new lease of life and started the new MLS season with a bang, becoming captain of the Whitecaps and winning over his doubters with two excellent performances and an opportunistic goal of the highest order.

Maybe Strachan is right to keep him involved and we'll see the Kenny Miller of old in a Scotland shirt again. Ritchie seems to think so.

"Kenny's in the squad now. I know for a fact that there's a number of people back home who think he's past it, he's too old. Having seen him in the first two games of this season, he's got a lot of football left in him.

"The effect he has here with the younger players, I think he can have that effect on the Scottish players. When you look at the younger players who are involved with the national team just now, playing at a good level, they're really lacking that little bit of experience. Kenny's got that experience and he's willing to share that.

"He's a fantastic pro and the younger ones like Jordan Rhodes will learn off Kenny Miller."

So is a coaching role in the Scotland set up something that Ritchie sees in the future for Miller? And how happy will the Whitecaps be in Miller making 12+ hour journeys across the Atlantic for such a role?

"Time will tell. From our point of view, unless he does play, it's not beneficial to us as a club to have Kenny flying back and forward.

"Kenny will make that decision himself. If he's part of these next two squads and playing and involved, then good for him, keep at it. But if he goes there and doesn't play.

"I know his family circumstances are a little bit different just now, his wife and baby are back home, so that's the thing, but we can't have Kenny making these trips for nothing. And that's a selfish point of view.

"Kenny was fantastic the first two games of the season for us and we need to keep him like. We don't want him travelling 5,000 miles there and 5,000 miles back to sit on the bench. Everybody knows that when you go away with the national team, the training isn't as intense as it is with your club team.

"He's a great professional. I think the break will do him good, but hopefully he does play and hopefully he plays some part in Scotland winning the next two games."

Paul of course didn't have the knowledge that all of us reading this today now do. So how did last night go? Did we give Wales a doing? Did we get revenge and kick Bale off the park? Has the Strachan era started as a success? Do we have something to look forward to on Tuesday? Or was it a case of same old, same old?

Sadly we all know things went tits up again, but as Ritchie says above, we do have a habit of falling. And it never gets any easier. It's still going to be a long road ahead.

[This article first appeared in the East Fife programme 'The Bayview' on Saturday March 23rd 2013.]

Monday, March 11, 2013

As East Fife fans we know that the black and gold don't like to do things the easy way.

The last three seasons have been a bit of a rollercoaster as we flirted with the relegation playoffs one year and the promotion playoffs the next, only to settle for mid-table mediocrity once again at the end of it all.

This season has seen very few highs, too many lows to count on your fingers, and with ten games to go, I think most of us would just be happy with mid-table mediocrity again at this point.

It's not exactly a lofty achievement to be aiming for as a storied football club.

As it stands, we're in a battle and need to start putting in the performances and stringing the results together that will get us out of our current plight and relegation dogfight.

We're heading in to the final quarter of the season and the games aren't going to come much bigger than our next three games, starting today.

Arbroath may be in that mid-table spot we crave, but they are certainly there for the taking today. A draw may not be a disaster, but we have to start looking at taking full points from our home matches.

Then comes two huge games against our fellow basement dwellers, that if we don't take the full six points from, then we're going to be in big, big trouble come May.

Albion Rovers surprisingly grabbed what will be a confidence boosting three points against Stenhousemuir on Tuesday, in a seven goal thriller. They're still adrift at the bottom by nine points, so at least we have that - for now.

Our goal difference (of a massive 20 goals) is saving us from that dreaded relegation playoff spot at the moment. Stranraer are filling that and meet Albion today.

As we face Albion next week, if the unthinkable were to happen, and they string three wins together on the bounce, they would be just three points behind us. Then we have face Stranraer at home the week after.

It really isn't exaggerating to say how huge the next 15 days will be for our hopes this season, and without being too dramatic, our footballing future as anything but a forgotten also-ran of the Scottish game.

The players need to step up but so do we the fans.

Those that know me, will know that I'm not around Methil much these days unfortunately, but I was back at the end of January and saw the 3-3 draw with Ayr.

I can't believe the team I saw fight back that day is in the trouble it currently is, but what surprised me even more was the atmosphere and crowd at Bayview that day.

So many regular faces from my past were just simply not there to cheer on the team any more. They've found something else to occupy their Saturday afternoons for various reasons.

The new Bayview has never been a source of much noise, singing and excitement, but I just couldn't believe how flat it was. Dare I say, how boring.

Where was the passion, the enthusiasm and the vocal support?

Many complain about the minority that abuse our own players. Who never seem to have a good thing to shout out, only criticism. You know one of the best ways to not hear that? Drown them out by singing for the team.

It's not always easy of course when the team just isn't giving you much to cheer about on the pitch, but we're all in this together.

I've been spoiled in my new surroundings of watching football in North America. There's still that perception that fans over here don't get the game and aren't passionate.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fans here sing and chant for pretty much the full ninety minutes. They don't let their support waver and you seldom hear a cry of derision at their own player. They bring banners, huge flags, drums, noise and most of all passion.

That's the passion we've not had at this club for many a year. Passion both on and off the park. To live and die for the jersey.

That's the passion we now need to keep us as a Second Division club.

Run until you're sore, shout until you're hoarse. Find a friend that's lapsed and get them back into the fold.

Make East Fife a proud and passionate football club once again.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Scotland get their disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign underway again in just over two weeks time when Wales come a calling to Hampden Park.

There's not exactly a lot to look forward to in the fixture, apart from maybe getting some revenge for the travesty that happened in Cardiff in October and the hope that someone in a blue jersey will give the diving Gareth Bale the hard kick he truly deserves (my money's on Scott Brown, whether he plays or not!).

Bottom of Group A after four games, eight points adrift of the top spot and with five teams above us in the table, it's all looking a bit bleak and there's still six games to go.

You could take the glass half full approach and say that's still 18 points available that would take us up to a whopping 20, or you can take the more realistic approach that we're now looking ahead to the campaign for Euro 2016 and the 'Road to Rio Paris'.

Even if we do start to string a few wins together, jetting off to Brazil next year would require a more unlikely comeback than Gary Glitter.

The only good thing to come out of this campaign so far is that it has meant the end of Craig Levein as the Scotland boss, something we can at least all be grateful for, so thank you cards should be on the way to the FA's of Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Belgium.

In what should have been a surprise to no-one, Gordon Strachan was named his replacement on January 15th this year and the new gaffer has a 100% record so far following the narrow 1-0 win over the mighty Estonia last month.

At least he managed to beat a team below us in the FIFA world rankings, so he's already off on a better footing than Levein.

It was a horrible performance, but we might have a few more of those ahead of us in the next few months.

Strachan is faced with a dilemma. Does he play his strongest team and experienced players in the remaining qualifiers, in the hope that some kind of footballing miracle can be pulled off, or does he blood the new breed of Scottish internationals and let the likes of Jordan Rhodes get valuable experience spearheading the attack, thinking ahead to that next qualifying campaign?

For me, it has to be the latter.

Strachan needs to use these games to take a good look at the group of players that will be key to trying to reach France in 2016. He needs to see if they can perform at the top level and get them experience playing in these kind of matches. Treat the rest of the World Cup campaign as training games and let the players stake a claim and show that they deserve to be in the international reckoning.

Give some the U21s a shot, as they'll be moving up soon enough. Hell, I'd even throw 17 year old Islam Feruz into the mix at some point.

Not all of the current crop and older players are wanting to be put out to international pasture quite yet though.

One of that old guard is current captain Kenny Miller, who still dearly wants to be involved in the Scottish national team set up, whether the Tartan Army want him to be or not!

To let you know just how keen he is to be part of Strachan's plans, Miller made the gruelling 12+ hour trip from Vancouver to Scotland in February for that Estonian friendly. When you consider how many players have all of a sudden got an injury when friendlies come around, it's some commitment.

Not only that, but he put his place for his club at risk by doing it, leaving their Whitecaps' vital preseason training camp, which has just got underway.

He's no plans on stopping making that trip, but how does he cope with the jetlag?

"It takes a wee bit of time getting used to it. I think the more you do it, the more you're kind of prepared to get used to the timing of things going both ways. I generally find it not too bad coming back this way (to Vancouver)".

Miller has had a pretty rough time of it after moving to Vancouver Whitecaps and Major League Soccer last summer. He's only scored twice in 13 appearances and lost his starting spot towards the end of the season.

The offseason in North America seems to have revitalised him though and he's looking fitter and sharper than at any time there so far. He also taking on a different kind of role, playing more as an attacking midfielder behind the lone striker up top.

He's also been finding himself coaching the three young strikers around him, the oldest of whom is 22, eleven years his junior. It's a role that seems to have brought the best out of him and a smile to his face.

Maybe it's not quite time to put him out to graze in a Scotland jersey just yet and he'll be used in a similar coaching and mentoring role for the rest of this campaign, helping some of the young Scottish strikers to be fully prepared for international football.

That of course will be up to Strachan.

Miller made his debut for Scotland in April 2001, when he came on as a sub against Portland. During his international career, which currently sees him with 17 goals in 66 appearances, he has served his country under seven different Scotland managers, including the newly appointed Strachan.

It's a familiar voice in the dressing room for Miller, having played under him during his brief time at Celtic, so what does the current Scottish captain make of the new Scotland boss? A good appointment and someone to turn the fortunes of the national team around?

"Well, only time will tell. Obviously we got off to a winning start. It wasnae a great performance and things, but we got the win and that was the main thing. We just need to build on that for the next qualifiers."

That they do, and not exactly words to get you carried away for the new Scotland boss.

One Vancouver based Scot who does think that Strachan will do a good job in his new role is Miller's club boss, Martin Rennie:

"I think it's a good appointment. He's obviously got great experience and had a lot of success as a manager and I think he'll command the respect of the players and the media as well.

"It's a tough job being the Scotland manager but he's one of the guys that you could see doing very well, hopefully like Walter Smith and Alex McLeish did."

Hopefully indeed. But even more hopefully, like a Jock Stein or Andy Roxburgh and actually see us qualify for major tournaments again.

We have a dream. Let's hope it can come true. The rebuilding starts March 22nd.

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