Greetings everyone. Here is this week’s sporting takeaway, my impartial look back at the sporting landscape from the weekend. As usual, feedback, comments and corrections welcome. This week’s cast includes Steven Gerrard, Jose Mourinho, Neil Doncaster and the entire European Ryder Cup team.
LION-HEARTED LIVINGSTON PROVE THAT STEVEN GERRARD STILL HAS PLENTY WORK TO DO TO MAKE RANGERS KING OF THE SPFL JUNGLE
Steven Gerrard, pictured above, swapped the Kop for the Copland Road to chase a genuine football challenge. Resurrect a moribund Rangers side into one that could at least exorcise recent ghosts. Banish the spectre of unyielding under-achievement. And become a messiah in the eyes of the Ibrox fans by leading your club out of the trophy wilderness. It was a tantalisingly ambitious – yet daunting – pitch made by the club’s director of football Mark Allen.
Friday will mark 22 weeks since the former Liverpool captain was paraded inside the Blue Room at Ibrox and tasked with bringing order from chaos.
And no one could rationally argue that significant improvements haven’t been made. A root and branch analysis of the playing staff carved away a lot of deadwood. Results and performances have undeniably got better.
Qualification for the Europa League remains the high water mark of his tenure so far.
But Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to SPFL rookies Livingston was a shuddering reminder that the wheels can quickly come off any premature talk of a Gerrard juggernaut steering Rangers back on to the right road.
Rangers, for all the necessary squad renovation work already carried out by Gerrard and Gary McAllister, remain a serious work in progress. A glance at the Premiership table shows them in sixth position, one place further back than they were a year ago, and two points behind fifth-place Celtic. More importantly, they already lie eight points behind surprise pacesetters Hearts, who come to Ibrox on Sunday carrying potent weapons in the shape of man mountain Uche Ikpeazu and a resurgent Steven Naismith.
To his credit, Gerrard refused to sugarcoat his assessment of Rangers shortcomings on Sunday. It was, he admitted, a baffling performance. To the extent that fans may be worried about which Rangers side will turn up for Thursday night’s Europa League clash against managerless Rapid Vienna.
Celtic are also on European duty on Thursday night, with Red Bull Salzburg posing formidable opposition to a side that still looks like a jigsaw puzzle with vital pieces missing.
Saturday’s 1-0 home win against a gritty Aberdeen side will be a welcome boost after the disappointment of losing to Kilmarnock. As was the sight of the lesser-spotted Scott Sinclair scoring what was an equally rare goal.
Reliance on Leigh Griffiths’ fitness is a gamble for Brendan Rodgers. But without him, Celtic look shorn of a predatory striker who can plunder a goal from nothing. Evidence for the prosecution lies in the crucial strikes that put Rosenborg and St Johnstone to the sword in the league cup quarter-final last week. Goals that got Rodgers out of two uncomfortably tight spots. A nascent Sinclair could yet provide the spark for the chain reaction that is missing from Celtic’s front line.
Seven games into the new season, however, and the league table still looks like an optical illusion. Hearts way out in front, being chased by another beast from the east in the shape of Hibs, followed in third place by Gary Holt’s West Lothian shock troops living the dream and then Kilmarnock, confounding any notion that Steve Clarke would suffer from second-season syndrome at Rugby Park.
Of course, no one is putting their mortgage on it staying that way as sunlit days give way to slate-gray afternoons.
The chink of light that saw bottom markers Dundee emerge from a long-dark tunnel with their first win of the season will give Neil McCann a little more wiggle room.
But don’t bet on it offering up little more than a temporary reprieve.
Winter is coming and, in football, there is always someone prepared to play the game of thrones
LEAGUE CUP SEMI-FINAL DEBACLE IS ALL ABOUT TV MONEY AND CORPORATE GREED, SO LET THE FANS EAT CAKE
Fans are the lifeblood of football. How many times have we heard it? The men, women and children who front up every week in all weathers to cheer on their teams. Not the prawn sandwich brigade so disparaged by Roy Keane all those moons ago. No, the rank and file, scarf-wearing Ordinary Joes (and Josephines).
Why then is the SPFL so hell-bent on short-changing thousands over the debacle in staging the League Cup semi-finals between Rangers and Aberdeen and Celtic and Hearts back-to-back on a Sunday afternoon at Hampden?
Everything is wrong with it. Aberdeen fans will have to rely largely on cars to get to Glasgow’s south side in time for the noon kick-off against Rangers.
No matter the weather, the pitch will cut up, reducing the entertainment value for Celtic’s clash against Hearts.
And then there is the bleeding obvious…four sets of fans who don’t need a reason to go tonto with each other. What happens if the first game goes to extra-time? Or penalties? Neil Doncaster better offer up a prayer that tribalism is left at home on the day that is officially the last one of summer, bizarre as that may seem.
Why couldn’t one game be played at Hampden, pictured above, and the other at Murrayfield on the same day. Lest anyone forget, the Edinburgh stadium only a few short weeks ago was in serious running to become the home of Scottish football.
It’s not as if anyone couldn’t have foreseen the possibilities of this happening, with Celtic and Rangers both still playing in Europe. Plan B, however, wasn’t in the SPFL’s playbook. Guff about contractual obligations to playing the games at Hampden doesn’t wash. The SRU would surely have been happy to stage the game in return for a little amelioration. But here’s the rub. It’s got nothing to do with alternatives and everything to do with television money. BT call the tune and they are no doubt rubbing their grubby paws in anticipation at the potential audience both games will serve up…and to hell with the consequences. But they could still have been guaranteed that audience by moving one game to the east. Instead, it all looks once again that common savvy is beyond us. The whole thing is mad, bad and dangerous. Contempt of the worst kind for those they still have the disgraceful effrontery to call the lifeblood of the game.
LATE NEWS: It seems now that one game may be played at Hampden while the other will go on at Murrayfield, but it’s never over until it’s over and it was reported on Wednesday night that Celtic had complained that Hearts would receive an unfair advantage if the game were to be played in Edinburgh.
WRETCHED TO WATCH AND AT WAR WITH HIS PLAYERS, JOSE MOURINHO’S OLD TRAFFORD EXIT STRATEGY IS WORKING PERFECTLY
The buzzards are silently circling, hovering above Old Trafford while eyeing the carrion that has become Manchester United. And getting ready to pick over the bones of Jose Mourinho’s disastrous reign in charge.
Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to West Ham was an abject illustration of a team that has given up on their manager.
Mourinho was special, once. But a previously captivating, successful figure is a shadow of his former self, his United side cast in his sullen, dour image.
Ten points from seven Premier League games reflects their worst start to a season for 29 years. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? They are wretched to watch, painfully pitiful in all departments. The players have clearly given up on their manager.
If now isn’t the time to sack him, when is? Perish the thought, however, that this is all a subtle ploy by Mourinho, a carefully-thought out exit strategy. It’s not as if we haven’t seen this before.
The clash of egos with Paul Pogba does neither man any credit. The usual weary clichés about no man being bigger than the club are invariably trotted out. Frankly, I’d punt them both.
But you won’t win matches when you go to war with all your players and publicly castigate them. Sir Alex Ferguson, pictured unveiling a portrait of Douglas Smith of Drumchapel Amateurs fame, frequently ripped into his players, sparing no one the fabled hairdryer. But he delivered trophies. But silverware has now become collateral damage at Old Trafford, outweighed by the commercial considerations of having Alexis Sanchez’s name on the back of a shirt to help offset his near £440k a week pay poke.
This is a battle for the soul of Manchester United, the biggest club in the world. But one which today has been stripped off all its mighty lustre.
You have to go back almost 30 years for it to be worse than this. Ferguson started 1989-90 with four defeats in seven games, the last of which was a 5-1 horsing against Manchester City but held on to his job and went on to win the first of 38 trophies later that season.
But that was a different era, before the importance of finishing in the top four became paramount. Mourinho might have been brought in to restore the glory days of Ferguson but they seem further away than ever.
Talk of Zinedine Zidane being brought in is good for the chattering classes on the terracing and in the media. Who knows? He may be the right man to kick off a French revolution at Old Trafford.
Right after Mourinho is stripped of all rank and marched to le guillotine.
ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL: THE MUSKETEER MANTRA THAT ENABLED EUROPE TO PUT USA TO THE RYDER CUP SWORD
There was a moment on Saturday afternoon’s foursomes that summed up the Disunited States of America’s Ryder Cup attitude.
Bryson DeChambeau watched as a five-footer slid past the hole – and his playing partner Tiger Woods curled his lip and walked away in disgust.
No fist pump of encouragement. No words of comfort from one of America’s totems to a rookie playing in his first Ryder Cup and facing a theatre of noise from the galleries at Le Golf National. Only selfish disinterest and disillusionment as Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood inflicted a 5&4 win. Same with Phil Mickelson, who guaranteed Europe victory when he dumped his tee shot into the water at the sixteenth on Sunday afternoon.
In the week that Donald Trump said his country would ‘embrace patriotism’, there was little sign of chest-beating from an American side that, largely, would rather chase greenbacks than scrap for their country.
Harsh? Perhaps. But contrast the American spirit with that of the entire European team. They connected over a musketeer mantra of all for one and for all, an esprit de coeur appropriate for an event taking place in Paris. A bond of brothers who clearly like each other – and didn’t that strength of unity show?
Europe thoroughly deserved to win. It was utterly compelling viewing. Captain Thomas Bjorn came in for some pre-tournament stick over his decision to pick an out-of-sorts Sergio Garcia as well as keeping faith with Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter, more perhaps for his ability as a team mascot than his golf. (Although his postbox celebrations did make him look a little like Postman Prat)
But both delivered. And then there was Molinari and Fleetwood, a bromance that said so much about European togetherness.
But no one should be left off the roll of honour…Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Alex Noren, Thorborn Olesen, Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson. Every one of them played their part in an enthralling triumph. Allez Les Bleus indeed.
Hyped up before a ball was struck, Mickelson and Woods didn’t win a single point all weekend. Zilch. Nada. Rien even. But they can console themselves with the knowledge that in November they will be battling it out in a high-stakes, winner-takes-all match for $9m in Las Vegas. Working for the Yankee dollar, while their careers are on the Skids!