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Stenhousemuir 2-2 Dumbarton

SPFL Tier 3, Ochilview, 29/12/18.

Well this was a mustn’t lose – and we almost lost. Thankfully we didn’t.

On our first half performance it would have been deserved – we created nothing and had only one shot on target, Ross Forbes’s free-kick right on half-time despatched with aplomb and hit so hard the keeper couldn’t keep it out. Their goal was a defensive travesty, a litany of mistakes strating with a poor Stuart Carswell ball out (I’m not blaming him, he’s making a fair fist of centre back duties despite being a midfielder, injury needs must) an atrocious Andy Dowie (lack of) challenge and Chris Smith in goal didn’t cover himself in glory with his effort at saving it.

The start was bizarre. We walked out in Stenny’s away kit – or a Stenny away kit an Argentina clone, blue and white stripes and back shorts. Seems the ref didn’t read our email asking if our red strip would be okay. It’s the second time I’ve seen us in the home team’s away kit. The first was at Bayview (the old Bayview) many, many moons ago.

Second half was a different game – after we let them waltz through our defence to retake the lead. We then totally dominated (apart from the odd break) and had a great chance from a Dom Thomas cross which Kyle Hutton put over. Ryan Thomson had an effort from a rebound blocked.

But the amazing thing was the series of corners from Ross Forbes, one hitting the bar and another the near post with a third flapped at by the keeper. If only we had somebody to attack the ball Forbes’s delivery could be decisive but we lack height just now.

Forbes stepped up again right at the death to fire an even better placed free-kick than his first in off the post. Cue celebrations.

The comments from some Sons fans when we were 2-1 down were less than helpful. I don’t seriously believe the players aren’t trying. The time that brought it to a head was a gamble on where the ball would break that didn’t come off. It might have looked like it but it wasn’t laziness on the player’s part – just a misjudgement. If we’d been going well it would never have raised its head as an issue. But we aren’t going well.

I doubt the January transfer/signing window will change much either.

The World Turned Upside Down?

You may have noticed there’s a rather large and important football competition taking place at the moment. (A swift glance at TV schedules would be enough to tell you that.)

Four years ago I expressed my fear that a period of Germanic hegemony was upon us. Notwithstanding Portugal’s efforts at the last European Championships the young German side which triumphed at last year’s Confederations Cup boded well (or ill, according to view) for that prospect.

It seems that hegemony is not to be. In three performances of stunning inadequacy Germany have been so poor as to finish bottom of their group, only a moment of individual brilliance on the part of Toni Kroos yielding them a solitary win over Sweden.

It’s been a topsy-turvy sort of tournament what with England playing well (so far) and Argentina, like the Germans, struggling badly – but still managing to reach the second round.

I’ve not been overly impressed by anyone – though I thought Colombia looked good against Poland. But that may have been because the Poles were totally ineffective.

Brazil seem unbalanced to me; too much in thrall to their star player, Neymar, who doesn’t look fully fit. Belgium may be dark horses but haven’t played anybody of standing yet.

Judgement must be reserved till the knockout games. Too often before, a good showing in the group has unravelled at the next step.

But… Could this be Uruguay’s year again? They’re the only side yet to concede a goal.

(Cue a Portugal win on Saturday.)

¿Qué pasa en Hartlepool?

This post’s title is adapted from an Argentinian newspaper headline (¿Qué pasa en Suecia?) I saw on a TV programme about the history of Argentine football when the national team was widely perceived to have underperformed in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and recieved a hostile reception on their return to Argentina. (See their Group 1 results if you look on here.)

AS to the meat of the post; after bumbling along just above the relegation zone for much of this season (unlike last where they were firmly rooted there before what seemed an almost miraculous escape) Hartlepool United have gone on a similar late run, not losing in their last seven games and winning five of those. (See League Two table and current form here.)

Of course, by mentioning this I’ll have jinxed it. The ‘Pool will most likely lose at Carlisle tonight, now.

Germanic Hegemony Looms

Over the past eight years Spain dominated the international football tournaments in which they took part – though they had a premonitory blip in last year’s Confederations Cup (and what a misleading pointer that final turned out to be.)

After the win by Germany in Rio on Sunday we could be in for a longer period of domination than the Spanish enjoyed as the German players are quite young and will only have gained in confidence from their achievement. I don’t know if I can stand that thought, though.

Still, at least it gives Scotland an early opportunity to claim their scalp as the two countries meet on Sep 7th in the first qualifying game for the 2016 European Championships.

The late World Cup has unified the FIFA and Unofficial Football World Championships. Going into it Uruguay were the holders of the unofficial title but swiftly lost it to Costa Rica.

For historical reasons Scotland is actually at the top of the unofficial football championship rankings. The September game will give Scotland a chance to reclaim the actual title – if Argentina don’t beat the Germans in their friendly a few days before.

di Stéfano

The football legend who has died today had a name that needed no further explanation. He was part of that legendary Real Madrid side that captivated the football followers of Glasgow and Scotland at the European Cup Final of 1960 – played at Hampden Park. di Stéfano scored a hat-trick.

I was too young to be aware of it at the time but the folk memory was promulgated and persists. Such was the effect of that display of what football could be that the names of the forward line still trip off the tongue with no need for googling. Canario, Del Sol, di Stéfano, Puskas and Gento. Mind you, I see film of that game now and think, “Where was the marking?”

One curiosity is that I believe the Eintracht Frankfurt team that formed the opposition that day were all amateurs – as was German football as a whole.

di Stéfano may be unique in having played international football for three different countries, his native Argentina, Colombia, where he played league football for a while, and Spain for whom he was naturalised in 1956. That was the type of scenario that I thought had been resolved by FIFA with its rules on eligibility but in the recent World Cup one of the commentators remarked that Kevin-Prince Boateng who played for Ghana in the tournament had previously played for Germany (but not, it seems, for the senior side.)

The World Cup was one stage that di Stéfano did not grace, for various reasons, but his thirteen national titles (two in Argentina, three in Colombia and no less than eight in Spain) and five European Cups – not to mention his scoring record – speak for themselves.

Alfredo Stéfano di Stéfano Laulhé: 4/7/1926 – 7/7/2014. So it goes.

Cultural Blinkers

I was watching the Argentina – Iran game today (strangely compelling for a 1-0) and was amused to hear the commentator Clive Tyldesley say that most of Iran’s squad had their Christian names on their shirts.

Christian names? For Iranians?

I see from this that it wasn’t just me who noticed…

The War of Thatcher's Face

I’ve never understood the credit Margaret Thatcher was given for sending British troops to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.

The decision to send the Task Force was certainly a gamble but it was by no means brave. Had it failed she would have been gone as Prime Minister: no doubt.

But it was a gamble she simply had to take. Had the troops not been sent her position would have been equally precarious. She could not have sat back and allowed Argentina to keep the Falklands (the Malvinas as we would now know them) by force majeure. She would have been gone within months if not weeks. A British Prime Minister not able to defend British sovereign territory? The Tory party never would take kindly to that.

This was what I like to call the War of Thatcher’s Face. She had to send the troops, had to win, to save face, to preserve her position. Such a decision is the opposite of brave. It isn’t a decision at all. It was almost – but not quite – what in chess is called zugzwang (forced to move) except in Thatcher’s case there was the faint possibility of success.

That the Argentines would turn out to be pretty duff at fusing their bombs correctly and also at enthusing and supporting their soldiers in the field was by no means apparent when the decision had to be made.

It was gamble or die (politically die.) Without that choice she would have been nothing but an ignominious footnote in British History; as opposed to one of the most contentious PMs of recent times.

Nor did I understand the ecstatic reception she was afforded by the islanders themselves when she visited later that year.

If I had been a Falkland Islander I’d have been berating her for allowing the Argentine invasion to occur in the first place – even for encouraging it.

In the end she had no other decision to make – if only because the situation had arisen because she allowed it to.

Falklands Invasion Shock

I’ve been hearing all day on the news about Margaret Thatcher’s “shock” on being told of the intelligence about the imminent Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Why is this being presented/spun as being to her credit? She is said not to have believed that the Argentines would invade. Yet this is despite the fact that she must have had advisers who had warned her of the possibility.

It was only some months after the war, during the Franks inquiry, that she said the things being quoted. She certainly professes shock. But then she had to. She also told the inquiry that immediately after the invasion no-one knew whether Britain could retake the islands. “We did not know – we did not know,” she said.

May I provide a translation? “I’m afraid for my job here. If I don’t wriggle out of this I’ll have to resign.”

Never forget that it was her Government’s decision, for reasons of economy, to withdraw prematurely the Antarctic Survey ship HMS Endurance that sent the signal to the Argentines that Britain was no longer interested in its southern domains and gave them cause to believe the Falklands were theirs for the taking (and keeping.)

Many people at the time (some, like the good lady, still to this day) saw this as Thatcher engineering the conflict. If she is innocent of this charge and that act was simple incompetence then she was – and is – still culpable. I well remember David Owen, Foreign Secretary in the previous Labour Government, saying in a television interview that they had at one time despatched a nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic to warn the Argentines off – a fact which must have been in the minds of Civil Servants in Thatcher’s time.

I also remember Mrs Thatcher quoting the Franks Report in her contribution to the Parliamentary debate following its publication that, “No-one could have foreseen that the Argentines would attack at that time and on that day.”

As I said at the time to whoever would listen: I cannot foresee the exact time and day that it will rain again; but I do know that it will.

Comet Lovejoy

Again via Astronomy Picture of the Day, published there on Hogmanay, these are pictures of Comet Lovejoy, which sadly only appears to be visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

Comet Lovejoy

The image on the left was taken from Intendente Alvear, Argentina, on Dec 24th and also shows the International Space Station crossing the frame as the long straight streak. The one on the right is from the space station itself, taken on Dec 22nd.

Inverting The Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

The History of Football Tactics, Orion, 2008, 356p.

This book does exactly what it sets out to, describing the evolution of football tactics from their formless beginnings when everybody on the pitch, apart from the goalkeeper, dribbled towards the opponents’€™ goal with team mates ‘€œbacking up’€ in case the ball was lost, through the invention of passing (or, as it was delightfully phrased, combination play; I like that, let’€™s bring it back) in Scotland, the first real formation of 2-3-5 – one of whose pioneers was my beloved Dumbarton – mentioned on page 23 but not, alas, in the index – in winning their sole Scottish Cup in 1800 and long time ago, 1883 to be precise: its gradual stalemating till the offside law was changed in the 1920s to allow only two defenders between ball and goal line which in turn led to the withdrawal of the centre half into the back line of a 3-2-5 and the ‘€œclassic’€ three defender, two half back, two inside forward, plus centre forward line-up of the W-M or W-W. The later adaptations of this formation (in some cases, as in Great Britain, very much later) via the diagonal, through the deep lying centre forward, 4-2-4, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, by which time the pyramid of the book’€™s title had been inverted, leading on to 4-5-1, even 4-6-0, plus the variations of all of these and the pressing game, are given their place and their innovators due recognition.

In particular the histories of football in various countries, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the USSR, the Netherlands, England, even a foray into the Scandinavian experience, and the life histories of the various coaches concerned, are admirably laid out as is the tension between attack and defence, creativity and negativity, craft and effort. Through it all the importance of system is a given. A well-organised and drilled side will always beat a disorganised one, or one following too rigid a previous template, provided the system is understood and adhered to.

The tendency for any innovations to be imitated at first mainly in a defensive sense is noted and in passing the notions of Charles Reep and Charles Hughes of direct football being particularly effective is knocked on the head, even on statistical grounds. In some cases it can be, as can any system, but against good players who can keep possession directness will fall down.

Whether football’s evolution has ended is a moot point but in the modern world with global TV coverage and worldwide scouting it is unlikely any team will be able to spring a truly revolutionary tactical surprise. But then again before that offside law alteration there had been little or no tactical change for around thirty years. In Britain, the W-M then held sway for another forty or so.

But the centre half disappeared as a half back, wingers disappeared, full backs became wing backs, wing halves and inside forwards turned into central defenders or midfielders, who evolved into holding players or playmakers; and the playmaker has all but disappeared. The centre forward may go the same way. (I would say that, arguably, with Barcelona, he already has. Messi is not a centre forward, Villa and Pedro tend not to play up the middle.)

In modern football flexibility within a system is a key ingredient, and fluidity. Modern players at the top level are no longer specialists in the way they were. Everyone is an attacker and defender at the same time. (However some will always remain more gifted and more general than others. At the level I watch football the demarcation of roles is still pronounced. I doubt that will change soon.) Football is actually a game played with space – or denying it – and not really with the ball. But, as Barcelona demonstrate, possession, keeping it and regaining it, certainly helps.

The book has occasional infelicities of the sprung for sprang type and a few typos but for all those interested in football and how it came to be the way it is this is a wonderful, informative and illuminating read. I thank my younger son for lending it to me.

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