Sunday, 25 March 2012

St Mirren 0 Heart of Midlothian 2

24 hours after my trip to Hamilton came another great opportunity for football. While the previous evening had been spent with Andy Pickwell, this one at St Mirren was with the similarly-named Andy Picken, who is Political Editor of the Scottish Mail on Sunday and a dedicated Saints fan. 
We’d watched the initial sixth round tie between these two sides while covering the SNP Conference at the SECC a fortnight earlier - it ended two-apiece - and he kindly agreed to take me to the replay at New St Mirren Park. In my quest to cram in as much Scottish football as possible in my six months here, I wasn’t about to turn down the offer.
Little did he realise though that he’d be spending the day in London, hob-nobbing with a welter of Scottish MPs and the Westminster press pack and watching George Osborne deliver the Budget, but the inconvenience of being 400 miles away didn’t phase him and our trip was on. 
Of course, the train was delayed and I spent an anxious half hour shuffling around on the Glasgow Central concourse watching the connections we needed to get out to Paisley move across the departure board. The 7.15 passed, then the 7.20. By the time the 7.25 disappeared I was getting restless and so went to Burger King for some onion rings. When I returned, the last hope of going by train had vanished. As Andy jogged through the ticket barrier at twenty to eight, our hopes of making kick-off rested in the hands of a cabbie. 
In the event, we missed only about ten minutes and after throwing £15 at the ticket booth, took up our seats in the corner of the main stand. I was struck that the ground, which has been open just three years, was compact and well-designed with just the right capacity at 8,000. It certainly seemed full on this occasion, with the only visible empty seats far away to our left in the ‘Railway End.’ The home section of the side opposite was full and sweeping away to our right was a sold-out bank of about 1,300 Hearts fans, who created some decent noise. 
Hearts entered the match on a high having won the Edinburgh Derby on Sunday but were quickly on the back foot as St Mirren peppered their goal in the opening 25 minutes. Nigel Hasselbaink - nephew of Jimmy Floyd - looked lively and forced a save over the top by goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. 
The bright start culminated with yet another moment of huge contention - my third in three games. Graham Carey had delivered a teasing ball and Hearts defender Marius Zallukas clearly handled under pressure. The referee failed to respond and Hasselbaink headed into the goal to scenes of jubilation around the ground. But no. Referee Stevie O’Reilly saw no advantage and inexplicably pointed to the penalty spot, ruling out the goal. With a depressing sense of inevitability, Carey’s penalty was saved by MacDonald. 
St Mirren crumbled thereafter - the confidence drained from their play, passes were always the wrong option and they seldom got a shot away. Gary Teale - who with his colourful boots looked likely to create something, as he often did when I watched him at Sheffield Wednesday last season - suddenly looked lost.
Jamie Hamill fizzed a shot against the base of the post, but the Edinburgh side wouldn’t be denied for much longer. The ball was given away to Danny Grainger, who advanced and fed Hamill to fire an accurate low shot past Craig Samson and give them the half-time lead. 
The second period was tame by comparison and only Hearts looked like scoring. Rudi Skacel, who I’m told always scores against St Mirren, forced a superb one-handed save from Samson. But the Czech, whose name was sung with great passion by the Hearts fans, wouldn’t be denied and secured passage into the semi-finals for his team with a close-range finish late on. There wasn’t enough time to mount a comeback and few home fans remained until the final whistle on a disappointing night.
Next Match: Hoping to take in another Scottish game before travelling to Halifax to watch Boston on Easter Monday.  

Hamilton Academical 3 Dundee 1

A quick scan of the fixture list, a check on the train timetables, a text to Andy Pickwell and a prompt departure from work meant this Tuesday night match, my second in Scotland, was a goer and, more importantly, very little effort. 
Andy - whom you already know as the genius behind Ravings of a Boston Boy - happens to live and work in Glasgow at the moment, though his passion for football seemed to be on the wane and he hadn’t attended a match since January or even watched Match of the Day.
 In fact, he’d planned to spend this particular evening stargazing in a local park until the typically cloudy Scottish weather put paid to the Astronomy Society’s plans. But it was fine, since the lure of New Douglas Park, Hamilton is obviously much stronger than the majesty of Orion’s Belt or that plough thing. 
Hamilton’s home since 2001, the ground couldn’t have been better located - a five minute walk down a back alley from Hamilton West station, an easy 20 minute ride from the city centre. It has handsome, permanent stands on two sides and a small, temporary stand on another, though the ground didn’t feel like it was lacking anything by not being fully enclosed. Behind the goal to our right was a small astroturf training pitch which was pretty smart but mysteriously bushy in appearance - not sure how that works with an artificial surface!
Admission was £16, which I’m guessing is fairly par for Irn-Bru Scottish League Division One football. It’s certainly reasonable when compared with the equivalent league - the Championship - in England. One great joy of living here is that Irn-Bru practically flows from the taps. It was my soft beverage of choice even in England, so now I’m in tangy, orangey, girder-y heaven. 
Naturally I parted with £2.50 for the programme but was somewhat bemused that the team line-ups (which also included Saturday’s fixture with Queen of the South) had no shirt numbers and there wasn’t a single page devoted to the visitors for either game! The editorial content includes two pages on ticketing arrangements for the Scottish Challenge Cup final against Falkirk, which is being played at Livingston’s ground next weekend. The rest was just advertising, including ones for Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous to add to the massive suicide hotline sponsorship board I saw at Motherwell. 
I can only assume that sides in Scotland play each other so regularly across the season that all the supporters have memorised their opponent’s squad, meaning pen pics aren’t necessary! It’s a neutral’s nightmare, however. 
Both sides have played in the SPL in the not-too-distant past but this was a low key affair, despite being entertaining enough to restore Andy’s faith in football. Dundee brought about 200 supporters, including a few kids who tried to generate an atmosphere and marked kick-off by doing the Poznan for some reason, but they looked very lost in the big away stand. 
Dundee started at a pedestrian pace but, as so often happens, found themselves in the lead against the run of play. There was a warning salvo when Ryan Conroy struck the upright with a whipped free-kick, but it would be another set-piece from which they took the lead. Striker Conroy sprinted on to a Jake Hyde flick but the ball ran away from him after a sloppy first touch. Accies goalkeeper David Hutton gathered on the floor as Conroy slid studs-first into him. A certain free-kick. Nope, not according to the referee, who bizarrely awarded a penalty. After a prolonged protest, Conroy dusted himself off to score. So that’s two absolutely baffling decisions I’ve seen in two games in Scotland. 
But unlike at Motherwell, it didn’t prove costly. Accies equalised six minutes later when ‘keeper Rab Douglas spilt a corner and Mark McLaughlin poked in the equaliser. Justice had been served but it didn’t stop the majority of the crowd howling with derision at the officials at half-time. The linesman on our side, who looked as though he would struggle to pass any kind of fitness test, had also made some dodgy offside decisions. 
The second-half belonged to the home team, who gained a moderate amount of revenge for their 6-1 thumping in the last meeting here between the sides. From another corner, the ball was worked across goal and Jon McShane popped up at the back post to head in on 50 minutes. Mark Stewart then scorched through to make it 3-1 with a composed finish. A very worthwhile night under the lights. 
Next Match: St Mirren v Hearts in a Scottish Cup sixth round replay.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Motherwell 1 Aberdeen 2

Day twelve of my new life in Scotland and I was surprised at myself for not having yet sought out some live football. Of course, working on a Saturday isn’t going to help but such is the football city of Glasgow that you shouldn’t ever be far away from the next fixture, whatever day it happens to be. It was time to put that right.
Everyone has heard of the big two - more so than ever with the sorry shambles at Ibrox, which is making international headlines - but there’s at least a dozen other Premier League and Football League clubs within a 30 minute radius of Glasgow, not to mention all manner of local amateur leagues. 
So, half searching for a Scottish side to pledge allegiance to and half wanting to do something productive on my day off, I headed to Fir Park for the Scottish Cup quarter-final between resurgent Motherwell and Aberdeen. My Scottish football odyssey started on the 14.24 service from Glasgow Central to Airbles...
And I was handsomely rewarded. A blood and thunder cup tie in the age-old style, complete with three goals, a missed penalty, a player and a manager sent off, plenty of chances and a superb atmosphere. 
Motherwell - a steel town which clings to Glasgow’s coattails down to the south-east but would probably protest a very different identity - has reason to be proud of its football team this season. The team were pushing Rangers for the second Champions League spot long before the Gers’ ten-point deduction for entering administration and it’s now looking more likely than ever Zadok the Priest will be blaring over the Fir Park tannoy in the qualifiers this August. 
Mid-table Aberdeen have their work cut out to overtake Hearts and scramble into the SPL top six before the split next month, but they have perhaps spied another opportunity to reach Europe through the Cup. They wouldn’t have been many people’s favourites here but emerged from a chaotic 90 minutes to reach a semi-final with Hibernian at Hampden Park.  
Fir Park has obviously been extensively renovated and has a modern feel. It was also a comfortable 10-minute step from Airbles station, which was lucky on a nippy afternoon. The slightly-lower-than-normal admission price of £15 was very reasonable and, coupled with a £3 programme and £3 train fare on Scotland’s very cheap railway network, made for a cheap afternoon. It also ensured an attendance of 7,640 which was a fair bit above the league average and boosted by over 2,000 from Aberdeen. 
The Phil O’Donnell Stand (or the first cash turnstile I stumbled across) was an odd mix of wooden and plastic bucket seats. It was slightly weird not having a back to my seat but there was enough excitement on the field to keep me leaning forward anyway. 
Both sets of supporters produced a colourful display as the sides emerged for a Sky-dictated 3.45pm (?!) kick-off. The Aberdeen supporters away to my right produced a colourful red and white tickertape display while holding up banners reading ‘Any Given Saturday‘ (like that one) and ‘We Love HMRC’ (there’s a long-standing rivalry with Rangers, if you didn’t already get that). The Motherwell fans on the far side - who were a loud, pogo-ing mass for most of the match - hoisted a great tifo of a silver Scottish Cup silhouette with ribbons attached in the club colours. 
Unfortunately their team started hesitantly and Aberdeen were quickly on the offensive, scoring after just five minutes. It was controversial. Aberdeen’s Scott Vernon clearly knocked the ball out of play for a goal kick - to the point that all his team-mates ran back to their defensive stations and the ball was being returned to home goalkeeper Darren Randolph. But the assistant inexplicably pointed to the corner flag and referee Craig Thompson acquiesced. 
The inevitable happened. Fraser Fyvie crossed, Andy Considine squared across the six-yard box and New Zealander Rory Fallon thumped home a header to general outrage from three sides of the ground. It should have never been allowed to happen. 
Motherwell took ages to recover their composure and could easily have been put out the game. But when ‘stocky’ front man Michael Higdon was wrestled to the ground by Clark Robertson, he had a chance to equalise. His penalty was well struck, but read by keeper Jason Brown, who parried it away. 
And it proved costly. Five minutes before half-time, Aberdeen’s Chris Clarke swung in a good ball from the right and Fallon, undetected at the back post, slammed a textbook volley home for 2-0. Jeers greeted the whistle and Motherwell manager Stuart McCall’s vocal complaints in the tunnel saw him dismissed to the stand for the second-half. 
The next goal was all-important and it took lightning reflexes from Randolph to repel Mitchel Megginson’s shot shortly after the restart. The home side got too desperate, too early. I lost count of the times they launched a diagonal ball from deep - unfailingly from left to right - in the vain hope Higdon might get on it. But the striker faded from the game, as did flanker Jamie Murphy, who was soon substituted. 
Their cause wasn’t aided when captain Keith Lasley scythed down Fyvie with 20 minutes left and trooped straight off - a straight red. The travelling fans were by this time dominating the vocal battle, with everything going their way. 
But the dismissal somehow invigorated Motherwell and there was hope when Nicky Law slid in to halve the deficit after Brown dived over a low cross. But only half-openings followed in the final 15 minutes and, when Randolph committed himself for a corner, Peter Pawlett saw his shot from halfway dribble wide of the unguarded net. 
An unlucky afternoon for Motherwell - how different would the game have been had a goal kick been correctly awarded in those first five minutes? - but greater spoils await them. 
Next Match: There’s a couple on the radar for next week, work permitting!