TWO matches played within four days of each other could be construed as confirmation of the existence of one of football’s occasional curiosities.
It is that two teams, in this instance Scotland and Rangers, can have nothing in common and everything in common.
While the former operates at the highest level of the professional game and the latter at the lowest, both in recent times have been subjected to accusations of under-achievement on the grounds that their performances regularly fail to match their players’ talents. This is an assumption – and a rather widespread one involving some supposedly reputable pundits, at that – which cries out to be challenged.
The notion that Rangers, for example, somehow disgraced themselves in the 3-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Dundee United at Tannadice was rooted in the bizarre belief that the Ibrox side is currently replete with SPL players who should have been at least capable of offering the home team much stiffer resistance.
About 15 minutes into the match, with Rangers already a goal behind and looking less convincing with each minute that passed, Andy Walker on TV offered the comment that Ally McCoist’s players had started slowly and were “not yet up to speed”. That they were still playing at the same tempo (but three goals down) at the final whistle surely confirmed that they had, indeed, been “up to speed”, but it was one which would make no impression on clearly superior opponents.
The former striker also noted (implying it was of huge significance) that McCoist had fielded a team of “very experienced players”, suggesting that they would make things difficult for United. He seemed oblivious to the truth that no amount of experience will adequately compensate for a serious shortage of quality.
McCoist himself afterwards helped perpetuate the myth by claiming that “our SPL players” were the biggest disappointment of a wretched day. With a single sentence, he joined the ranks of those who continually mistake players who play in the Premier League for Premier League-standard players.
The Rangers manager has been aided in the propagation of this confusion by certain elements in the media, who proclaimed such “luminaries” as Fran Sandaza, Dean Shiels, Kevin Kyle and Ian Black to be “big name” signings, and backed up their nonsense with preposterous reports that Rangers were paying such mediocrities salaries of £7,000 per week. Enquiries have since elicited the more plausible information that Kyle, for one, earns basic weekly wages of £500, much more in keeping with his injury-strewn history and his present capabilities.
For all the hype, however, it seems very likely that a large number of Rangers supporters, while pledging allegiance and giving a practical demonstration of it by buying season tickets and attending matches, will have looked at the intake (and at a stream of unproven younger players from Murray Park) and shivered with a mixture of depression and dread.
The Premier League in England is similarly replete with unexceptional players, many of whom have been regularly selected for the Scotland squad and who will surely continue to feature through the tenure of Gordon Strachan. It has become quite wearing to hear professional commentators, some of them normally very sound judges, assure their listeners and viewers that the national squad is overloaded with very good players.
Even the usually peerless Davie Provan said during the new manager’s opening match against Estonia that “watching these substitutes coming off the bench, you see just what a good squad we have, a lot of very good players there.” This did not sit well with a largely uninspiring 1-0 win over lowly-rated visitors, although allowances would certainly have to be made for the weather and the condition of the Pittodrie playing surface. It would also, of course, be ludicrous to claim that the Scots squad is full of bad players. Strachan has quite a number of pretty good ones, but, in an international context, that simply makes them average. It is, in fact, a striking feature of the current squad that it contains such a spread of players of the same, average abilities.
Whenever a manager boasts that “there are no stars in our side”, it should be recognised as an admission of ordinariness. Every team of high aspiration and achievement is distinguished by its exceptional players, from Best, Charlton and Law at Manchester United in the past to Messi, Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona in the present. Without stars, there is no brilliance.
Something suspicious over bookmakers being stung
Anyone with the slightest inkling of how bookmakers conduct their business will be as perplexed as this veteran punter by the revelation that Europol are investigating alleged match-fixing on a colossal scale. The corruption is said to involve hundreds of games, as well as a similar numbers of players, referees, club officials and the inevitable, seemingly ubiquitous “Asian and Far East gangsters”.
It’s not that we regular investors are likely to be shocked to the core by the discovery of dishonesty in a business renowned as a magnet for such beloved tabloid adjectives as “villainous”, “shifty”, “seedy” and the ever-reliable “shady”.
The bafflement stems from a question much less complicated than any exploration of immorality: familiar with the odds layers’ readiness to close winning accounts, refuse bets of any substance on an improbable outcome to any event and slash prices like a fire sale, it seems legitimate to ask how these oriental scoundrels find a single bookmaker who can even spell “suspicious” to accommodate wagers whose returns are, allegedly, measured in millions – and we’re not talking yen.