Forrest smile signals Scotland’s success

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Pictures above: Alex McLeish and James McFadden work out the tactics while James Forrest sends the Tartan Army home laughing.

Greetings everyone. Here is this week’s sporting takeaway. Those under the microscope include Alex McLeish, James Forrest, Martin O’Neill, Gregor Townsend and tennis’s new wunderkind Alexander Zverev. Feedback, as always, welcome.

King James’ five-goal pardon may only deliver a stay of execution for Alex McLeish

Piece by piece, the scaffold was already being mounted in the environs of Hampden for Alex McLeish. Staring down the court of public opinion – the only one that really matters – his head was unquestionably on the block.

And there was no lack of Tartan Army conscripts willing to don a black skull cap and sing the executioner’s song.  Then up stepped James Forrest to deliver the goals that ensured a 12th-hour reprieve for Big Eck – and qualification for the Nations League play-offs.  It also guarantees the Scots being placed in pot three for the Euro 20-20 qualifying draw.  A likely meeting with Finland is now the only thing that stands between us qualifying for our first major championships in 30 years. Surely…otherwise McLeish will find himself back at the gallows.

Scotland’s victories over Albania and Israel, nevertheless, brought about a huge collective sigh of relief from a Tartan Army that was fast running out of patience with the national team boss.  Even if the last 20 minutes against Israel typically meant watching through the cracks in your fingers.  Without Allan McGregor’s wonder save near the end, the script could have been oh so different – but oh so typical.

Which means there is a lingering suspicion that the jury is still out on McLeish, whose understandable joy was in stark contrast to the haunted look that accompanied last month’s morale-sapping in Haifa.  Failure to beat either or Israel at home would have seen him hounded out of office by a hugely sceptical support brandishing pitchforks instead of flags.

Now, though, he is on the brink of succeeding where the likes of Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Gordon Strachan and McLeish himself all failed.

It really is a funny old game. There remains, though, the matter of the mutineers. Those who fell into two categories…can’t play, won’t play. McLeish was deprived of the services of an entire team on Tuesday through one reason or another.

But the Hampden boss is not so blessed with strength in depth that he can easily condemn to the international wilderness those who called off for whatever reason. There is no room for Jose Mourinho-style inflexibility.

Bridges must be built with the likes of Leigh Griffiths and Robert Snodgrass.  And conspiracy theories should be firmly put to bed to choke off talk that some players simply don’t fancy answering the call of duty under the present regime.  No such charge, of course, could be laid at Forrest’s feet.

The Celtic winger was, it has to be said, simply mesmerising over the course of the two games and crowned his ascension as King James in the eyes of the home support.  It wasn’t just the fact he clinically bulged the net five times. Or the fact that his Hampden hat-trick saw him become the first Celtic player in 110 years to bag a treble for Scotland. Neither was it the fact that he is now bracketed alongside Denis Law as part of an elite membership of Scotland players to have scored two goals in back-to-back matches. A rarity indeed.  What elevated Forrest among his peers were the sublime skills he deployed for his goals, notably his second against Albania.

He is now Scotland’s player-of-the-year in waiting. An accolade that would surely win McLeish’s approval.

Forrest hat trick here

Hat-trick man – Forrest’s first of three goals finds the net against Israel at Hampden.

It’s all over for O’Neill and Keane, football’s oddest couple

O'Neill MartinThe end credits for Martin O’Neill’s time as manager of the Republic of Ireland were already rolling before a ball was kicked in Monday night’s goalless Nations League clash in Norway.

Their World Cup 2018 qualification hopes ended in a humiliating 5-1 home defeat by Denmark.  And their inaugural Nations League campaign was plagued by poor results and a string of off-field incidents.

Every manager has a shelf life but O’Neill, pictured left, and Roy Keane did well to have five years at the helm.  They always looked like the oddest delineation of good cop, bad cop. O’Neill, the softly-spoken pragmatist and Keane, the volatile panto villain who could start an argument in an empty room.

But this looks like the final parting of the ways. Hard to see a club side taking a chance on football’s equivalent of the odd couple.  TV companies, of course, will have no such qualms. The comfy afterlife of punditry beckons… 

From the crying game to the trying game, Townsend’s men deliver edge-of-the-seat excitement

Masters of invention. Gallus yet full of guile. Flamboyance allied with flair. Precision paired with passion. Yes, Scotland lost 26-20 to South Africa at BT Murrayfield in the third of the autumn Tests, denting the ground’s fortress-like reputation. But this time the aftermath didn’t smack of another glorious failure. From the outside looking in, it really did smell like team spirit even if we didn’t quite reach nirvana.

Peter Horne’s stunning length-of-the-field try will live long in the memories of those who can say: I wuz there. Similarly, the ingenuity of Hamish Watson smuggling a short line-out ball for the first try was a show-stopping moment.

And then there was Stuart Hogg’s lung-bursting dash from defence that almost yielded another unforgettable snapshot.  The only concern was Finn Russell’s occasional grandstanding. Misplaced passes and poor judgement often put his team on the back foot.  But let’s not be too churlish or hyper-critical.  Gregor Townsend is clearly building a side we all hope can make a serious impact at next year’s World Cup in Japan.

This weekend’s clash at BT Murrayfield against a fast-improving Argentina side will provide another litmus test of progress made. The Pumas are a far cry from the team Scotland scalped 44-15 in the summer in their own backyard. Townsend has made eight changes from the team that came so close to snatching a win over the Springboks. Proof of the depth the coach has available. But in sport, as we all know, winning is key to momentum. Time, then, for Scotland to marry all that brio with an all-conquering mentality.

Lendl effect can give Alexander Zverev the edge he needs to surf tennis’s new wave

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Scotland’s Andy Murray whose injuries are keeping him off the tennis court.

They’re calling it tennis’s changing of the guard moment. Alexander Zverev’s stunning double whammy over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic en route to winning the ATP Finals last week certainly bore all the hallmarks of a coup d’etat.  Elsewhere, fitness issues have driven Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal into exile.

But who would have thought the architect of this new revolution would be a former world number one whose past influence drove Murray and Djokovic to career highs.

Ivan Lendl has only been in the 21-year-old German’s corner for a few weeks but it’s already looking like a stroke of genius.

The brooding Czech is renowned for grafting a layer of steel onto the outer layer of the players under his charge.

Remember when Murray broke down in tears on court after he lost to Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final? Lendl told him that he would never feel as bad on the court again.

Less than a month later, Murray won Olympic gold and went on to win the US Open a few weeks after that. The next year, he won Wimbledon in front of his home crowd. In their second spell together, Murray added a second Wimbledon title and another Olympic gold medal.

Zverev, with his film star looks, certainly has the skills to back up the hype and last week’s victory in London was a long time coming.

But the stats show the mountain the sport’s new wunderkind must climb to even get close to the achievement of, certainly, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, the trident at the heart of the golden era of men’s tennis.

At the same age as Zverev is now, Nadal had already collected three Grand Slams and nine Masters titles; Federer had one Masters to his name; Djokovic had one slam in the bag and four Masters.

But with Lendl now supplying a psychological as well as a competitive edge, a revolution may indeed be properly underway.


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