Monday, 25 November 2013

Too many coaches speak with forked tongues

FOOTBALL is basically a simple game which has become overcomplicated by systems and formations, numbers that add up to 11, whether it’s 1-4-4-2, 1-4-2-1-3 or 1-4-3-3 - or in Craig Levein’s case when he was Scotland coach, 1-9-1!
I’m a great believer that it’s about good players, not weird and wonderful systems dreamed up by coaches.
What’s the first thing you hear managers say when they aren’t getting it right?  - “It’s not about systems, it’s about players.”
Damn right it is. But there’s so much political spin that you become dizzy trying to understand what the hell they’re talking about and that annoys me.
If you’ve got a good team it’s because you’ve got good players – round pegs in round holes.
But the game’s full of systems and statistics. For me the only statistic that matters is how much possession you had, what you created, and how many goals you scored.
Did we defend properly; did we get in front because we were strong? None of that seems to matter anymore and that bugs me no end.
It seems to be more about finding players to fit a certain system rather than ones who are fit for purpose to play football.
The game’s about controlling the ball and passing. But there’s a coaching manual full of catchphrases and systems that would baffle the average mind.
I get the impression that it has reached the stage when a lot of players think it’s more important to fit into a system rather than performing and producing for the team as a whole.
It’s a con. A manager will begin with a certain system and if it isn’t working he’ll change it at half-time and then if he introduces a substitute who happens to deliver a pass for the winning goal or scores himself, the manager will take all the credit for his “inspired” move.
But if the same substitute does nothing, he won’t even be mentioned. So, what’s it all about? The plan is either to confuse the public or keep them in jobs.
What we need is more non-conformists and someone like Kenny Shiels fits the bill.
I met Kenny recently at a social function and we chatted away for quite some time about his views on the game.
I got the impression that he has become less confrontational and no longer feels a need to fight the world.
I’ve heard it said that in life you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes and I think that might well be the case as far as Kenny is concerned.
It’s all about what happens on the pitch with your own club rather than trying to solve football’s problems. It seemed that when he was in charge at Kilmarnock Kenny was in the newspapers every week commenting on some aspect or other.
It was as if he felt a need to say what others were thinking and he might have been better advised to have kept his own council.
I think he has a natural talent as a coach and is an enthusiastic deep thinker about the game with a desire to bring young players through and develop their talents through good and bad because he sees something in them that he wants in his team.
He isn’t the type to chop and change constantly for the hell of it. He wants to mould youngsters instead of shuffling the pack and Inverness could do a lot worse than appoint him as successor to Terry Butcher.
Kenny brought success to Kilmarnock and won them the League Cup. They also played attractive football and were difficult to beat.
You certainly won’t find anyone more committed and I just hope he has learned that what happens to his own team is more important than trying to change the SFA’s mindset by having fights with faceless people.
I suspect that the media was using him as a mouthpiece when he should have been concentrating far more on what mattered to Kilmarnock.
And I think if he can stay clear of issues on the periphery and not feel that he is swimming against the tide, he’ll be a better manager for it.
We’ll only find out for sure if he has changed if he gets back into management, and if he does that at Inverness and he’s looking for a scout, I’m in the market for work.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Another Scotland friendly? Better off with Kevin's Grand Designs

By Andy Ritchie

SO here I am, positioned in front of the telly on Friday night, pen poised to write down anything of Hampden significance. My head is good to go, but what about my heart?
Well, let’s say there’s little response from it. It’s possibly somewhere else, certainly not in this dear green place. Just call me the reluctant scribe. I’m on Scotland blogging duty, but I don’t really want to be.
My country is involved in a friendly against the USA and, for all I care, they might as well be playing Brazil. And even then I’m not even sure that would float my boat.
Bob Geldof didn’t fancy Mondays. Well, I don’t fancy football friendlies on Fridays. Or on any other night of the week, for that matter. And, within minutes of the kick-off, my mind is wandering so far away from the National Stadium that they might have to send out a search party to find it.
So I’m blethering to my companions, including my ma, and I’m watching the game: then I’m watching and blethering. And, yes, I’m considering changing channels. Hey, I’ve actually thought of turning over to Children In Need a couple of times but, no, let’s be professional about this - I’m supposed to be working here. Man, though, it’s bloody hard to be professional.
Wait a minute: I’ve drawn a little bit of inspiration. I’ve noticed that one or two of the Scotland players are sporting beards. I must improve my maths, it’s far more than one or two: there’s Fletcher, Snodgrass, Conway, Hutton, Hanley…and, wait a minute, is that a five o’clock shadow beginning to fall over Charlie Mulgrew’s face? And, God save us, one of the substitutes, Wallace, is wearing another. It’s a veritable explosion of hair - made in Scotland.
Quite the little statistician, aren’t I? If I’m not careful, I’ll be upsides with Wee Pat Nevin before long. But, listen, this is a serious consideration: I can’t remember playing in a team with so much facial hair. Okay, you were allowed to grow beards if you wanted to during the Seventies, but they weren’t at their most popular in this particular era.
I mean, we tended to go big afro and then even bigger afros. I can’t remember many pop stars or film stars with beards. They were for old men and down and outs. Oh, and Bluto, of Popeye fame. Now, those were some whiskers!
That didn’t mean we were short of those delightful little eccentricities. Dear me no. We tended to go for sideburns in the flavour of Mungo Gerry - and were very much into what we called the Tom Selleck porno moustaches. But beards? No.
And actually, I must admit: a wee bit of hair on your face isn’t too shabby. Some suit it better than others. Not for me, though. I looked like that wee animal that used to pop up on breakfast television: Roland Rat.
But here I am counting beards when I should be analysing what’s going on with Scotland. Truth be told, there’s not much going on. We (Scotland) are on our way to a moral victory. We are set to keep the run going and so that’s three games without defeat under Gordon Strachan. They did us 5-1 last time, so 0-0 looks better.
But I like a sting in the tail. I prefer something to matter. Tonight, the football is ordinary, to say the least. The Americans look as if they are just shaping up for a wee runabout. And nothing, or indeed no-one, is demanding my attention, other than this new fixation with facial adornments. Hey, international football friendlies are a bit like eating Chinese food. You can eat a No 132 and, about 35 minutes later, you’re hungry again.
It’s just two teams on the park and naebody is really worrying about what happens out of the whole exercise, apart from maybe the managers.
They say the crowd is about 25,000. Well, they say there are fools born every day. Who would want to pay money on a Friday night to leave the comfort of their firesides and go and watch this?
To my mind, it’s just a money-making exercise for the SFA. What they should have done is let everyone in for nothing. Or play it behind closed doors. At this time of year, it’s like saying: would you like to buy a ticket for the dress rehearsal of a pantomime? Maybe you would. I wouldn’t.
There are times when I am pulled out of my boredom. Is that Flower of Scotland I hear being sung? If it is, it’s a pallid version, a subdued and almost embarrassed version. But you can’t blame those poor fans: it’s hard to get excited about nothing. Besides, they are probably asking themselves why they’d bothered to come in the first place.
If we must, let’s talk football. Fletcher is up front with Snodgrass. I’d have preferred to see Fletcher playing closer to a wee guy like Naismith. But it’s just about all right. You can’t say that anyone is doing his chances any harm.
Barry Bannon? I’ve never believed that those whose arses are close to the ground can make significant contributions when things become physical, but he’s doing all right, using the ball and playing to his strengths. In these matches, though, players understand that they’re going to get another half tick on the ball.
Then we have the right-footed Conway on the left wing. This tactic seems to be flavour of the month with managers and coaches. This Andros Townsend boy from Tottenham has started something.
Tonight, the best chance of the match comes from the right. It works its way across the box and Fletcher plays it on to Conway, who skews the ball past the post - with his right foot!
A thought occurs here: do we need to suffer this again on Tuesday night against Norway? Here, is there anything else on? Maybe like the final of the World Bowls? Better, still another enthralling version of Strictly Come Dancing?
But, hang about, my ma loves Grand Designs. Maybe she’ll insist on a wee bit of Kevin McCloud. And who am I to resist? Besides, there’s a man who disnae wear a beard!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013


A telephone call can change a life.

I have often wondered how the one I received in the late summer of 2008 might have changed mine.

It was from Piers Morgan. Yes, he of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and Twitter fame.

“Can I speak to Jim Black?” enquired the unfamiliar voice. “Speaking,” I replied.

“Hi, it’s Piers Morgan here. I was given your number by a colleague of yours at The Sun and I understand that you are a man with a detailed knowledge of Glasgow and all things Glaswegian.”

“Is that right?” I responded in a tired voice, in the belief that I was the victim of a wind-up and the Piers Morgan at the other end of the line was “at it.”

But I quickly changed my mind when the voice added, “I want to pick your brains. How about lunch? Anywhere you like. You choose the restaurant.”

In that instant I instinctively knew I was speaking to the real Piers Morgan.

If he had said “nothing too expensive, mind” I would probably have hung-up. But the good Piers doesn’t strike me as a man who does anything on the cheap – especially lunch!

“Great,” I said. “When do you want to meet?”

“Next week alright?” he asked. Regrettably, it wasn’t. I was booked up for two weeks in the sunshine of Cannes and I don’t think my missus would have impressed had I informed her that the holiday was off and I was going for lunch with Piers Morgan instead.

Clearly, whatever Piers wished to “pick my brains” about could not wait and we never did have that lunch.

But I can’t help wondering what our proposed meeting might have led to. Would I now be Piers’ man in Scotland – his Mr Fixit, his gopher...his resident trouble-shooter north of Hadrian’s Wall?

Probably not. There again, who knows?

I’ve still got his number, but I’m sure it has changed several times since.

But if you happen to read this, Piers, give me a call back. I’m sure you’ll be able to acquire my mobile number without any difficulty. If not, it’s the same one you dialled back in 2008.

Oh, and lunch is on me. It will be worth it just to find out how my life might have changed.

While I find Piers’ Life Stories compulsive viewing, I cannot say the same of Coronation Street.

Let me begin by saying that I never was a fan of Corrie. But, having been coerced into watching the every-day happenings of Weatherfield on a fairly regular basis of late by a Soap-obsessed partner, I marvel at the duplicity of those who produce the iconic ITV serial.

It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that the Soap’s should mirror everyday life as it affects the rest of us – warts and all.

But the producers have unashamedly taken a tragic story-line and milked it for all its worth, not in the name of compulsive viewing, but rather simply to boost ratings.

I refer to Hayley Cropper having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Yes, none of us can avoid the inescapable fact that cancer – the most terrifying six letter word in the English language – pervades all our lives at some point.

But for weeks now viewers have been subjected to the unrelenting misery of Hayley and Roy’s struggle to come to terms with her imminent passing.

Not content with an almost daily diet of death, the script writers felt a need to introduce an added twist to the tale by creating a second terminally ill character whom Hayley felt a need to visit as she lay dying in a Hospice.

Just what you need if you happen to sitting at home contemplating your own mortality    and desperately in need of some light relief.

So, don’t be fooled by the pay-off line that follows the credits: “If you’ve been affected by Roy and Hayley’s story, contact the Samaritans” followed by the national telephone number of that fine body of volunteers who have been responsible for rescuing so many.

It’s all about viewing figures, not lives saved – no matter how much added misery they bring to our into our living rooms when there is already more than enough reality rubbish filling our screens.

Mind you, compared to the diet of poverty porn served up by programmes like “The Scheme”, BBC’s BAFTA award-winning documentary, STV’s daily horror show “The Night Shift” has reached new levels of mind-numbing banality.

The station’s bosses should feel nothing but shame at subjecting insomniacs to such utter rubbish produced for a pittance.

Having said that, dreary voiced presenters lacking a basic grounding in grammar talking over film clips of a helicopter flying the length and breadth of the country to bring us views of our dear, green land, interspersed with clips from the station’s archives dating back 30 years, might after all turn out to be far more effective than a double dose of mogadon!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Me, a dilatory old doctor... and cancer

AS we settle into the biorhythms of Movember - the month dedicated to defeating the devil that is prostate cancer - it may be time to challenge the dictum that all doctors know best.
So, come with me to a West of Scotland National Health consulting room and an incumbent who was so overtly friendly that he might have been an old school buddy rather than a general practitioner. This was only my second appointment with him, but I was immediately put at ease in what normally constituted an alien environment.
He revealed that my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test was slightly aberrant. He further emphasised that no alarm bells should be rung. Now, I’d leant fairly enthusiastically towards hypochondria all my life, but I reckoned that this surely was a no-sweat situation. And hadn’t the medical profession previously insisted that my prostate was small going on miniscule?
I was told to return for a further test in a few weeks. Similar consultations took place over many months. Each time the PSA count increased, but my doctor insisted that he was relaxed about the situation. So I convinced myself to join him in that laid-back posture. Besides, how could you argue with someone who had medical qualifications?
To be strictly fair to him, he did send me to the local hospital, where an ultrasound test was performed. This apparently was inconclusive.
When my PSA reached 7.5, my locum was not noticeably unnerved: he simply unfurled another comfort blanket by telling me he had patients still walking around with quotients of 20 and over. This was reassuring. Well, almost.
Surely, there must be a more definitive test, I asked? The word ‘biopsy’ was mentioned, but my doctor shuddered as if he had seen Christopher Lee converting to Dracula mode. ‘You wouldn’t want that,’ he told me. ‘That’s a very nasty procedure. Very nasty, indeed.’
To be fair, I can’t say I was ever a proponent of nasty procedures. I’d committed myself to the cause of cowardice all my life, so I didn’t really want anything that would inflict pain or indignity on this sad, old relic of a body. I thus proceeded to go with the medical flow. It was a decision that would ultimately prove hopelessly flawed.
One day - we were now approximately two years down the line - the alarm bells began to ring so stridently that you might have thought my doctor had become a convert to campanology. Surrendering to agitation, if not wholesale panic, he divulged that my PSA was now 13.9 - and that I might have to subject myself to the procedure that provided the fabric of my nightmares.
My mind initially concentrated on recrimination. Of course I was fuming with this silly, old fool, his function being to save lives, not endanger them. However, I directed the greater proportion of my anger at myself. Why hadn’t I learned more about prostate cancer and PSAs? Why didn’t I use the Internet to familiarise myself with the situation? I mean, there was enough information about the disease on Google to keep Holby City in production for years.
I knew why I’d resisted any opportunity of transparency, of course: I was old school and almost endorsed technophobia. I didn’t like or understand computers, and sought education from the mouths of experts, not from the electronic media. There again, perhaps I was happy with my ignorance. Maybe I didn’t want to know. How infernally stupid was that?
It was time to address the reality of the situation, I had private medical insurance, which previously I’d been reluctant to use as it sent the premiums soaring. But, cost be damned, this now had all the hallmarks of emergency.
Within days, I was in a consulting room and the surgeon was strongly recommending biopsies. He couldn’t quite understand why someone with a PSA of 13.9 was demanding his attention at this late stage. ‘I operate when the figure reaches four,’ he admonished.
As my Adam’s Apple performed an impromptu break dance in my throat, he inquired as to the age of my general practitioner. He was not surprised when I told him that he was very probably in his late fifties/early sixties. It was time for an alarming revelation. The consultant surgeon told me that doctors in middle age upwards were not always conversant with the vagaries of the illness. I silently wished I had been privy to this information a couple of years back.
An appointment was made for the biopsies. Faced with the inevitable, I was uncharacteristically calm. There were no Christopher Lee moments. Sure, I experienced minor discomfort but strangely no real pain. You suspected the GP’s prediction of nastiness belonged to hyperbole. I considered myself lucky.
That luck deserted me almost immediately when the prognosis was delivered, however. They told me there and then: it was cancer and a most aggressive one at that. If I remember, four of the five tests prove positive. The remedy was simple and brutal: a radical prostatectomy - which meant the removal of the gland and the end of my life as fully-functioning man.
That night, sleep promised to be problematic. I should have been in a ferment. Instead, I was seized by an almost disturbing tranquillity. Tears would come to me, all in good time, but not then. This was the moment for prayer and pragmatism. I was 63, had reached the top in my chosen profession of sports journalism, had a beautiful wife, lovely children and five adorable grand-daughters. No-one could say, least of all me, that I’d been in deficit. If this was my fate, then so be it.
But something was gnawing at me: I wondered how, in hell’s name, had I managed to contract this awful illness. Had it been genetic? There was no history of it in the family, as far as I could ascertain.
Then it hit me: could it have been the notorious Index Finger Test? It provides the alpha male with a psychological jungle to explore, even when it’s conducted with sensitivity. Let’s have it right: having your backside antagonised in such a fashion is scarcely appealing.
But the sensitivity was conspicuously absent when I arrived at a private clinic in London in 1999. I’d had the procedure before, so I knew what to expect. What was unexpected was the force behind the finger on this occasion. It promised to fillet me like a North Sea haddock.
I chastised the young doctor, sarcastically suggesting that he could have taken a longer run-up in the manner of England fast bowler Darren Gough. He was not amused, but then neither was I. My insides throbbed with pain and that pain lasted many weeks before the natural healing agents prevailed. Could that have been the reason for having to undergo radical surgery? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps it was attached to my destiny.
Whatever, the operation took place on a Saturday afternoon in March 2008. The delay in discovery had led to the tumour growing exponentially. It was out of prostate and there were legitimate fears that it might endanger the lymphatic system and bones.
Here, Lady Luck visited me again. A bone scan, further tests and agonising delays ultimately proved that this was not the case. And when the surgeon told me he had managed to remove all the diseased tissue and later that my PSA was showing zero, my happiness could not have been purchased for a million quid.
Life had regained the threads of a silver lining but, unfortunately, not for long. Signs of the cancer began to reappear two years later and I was referred to an oncologist. This time, a course of radiation was recommended. Side effects were obligatory but you were obliged to take them in your stride. Once again, the cancer scurried into a corner and made out a surrender was in the ether. But once again it returned - almost furtively at first, but forever becoming bolder.
I’ve just turned 69 and I suppose in many ways I live from appointment to appointment. The oncologist told me ostensibly at our last meeting that, having had the radical surgery and the radiotherapy, there were no more cures available - only a series of delaying tactics. That, of course, doesn’t signal imminent disaster. These tactics can offer a formidable resistance to the malignancy of this disease.
So, I’m waiting - and it may not be long - for that renegade PSA to reach the figure four. Then, it’ll be time for some hormonal therapy, the side effects of which include hot flushes and weight gains. Well, everything comes with a price tag.
I’m sorry to report that the narrative does not have a happier conclusion. But, hey, it’s not as if I’m incapacitated. I’m still standing. Still working. I look around me, witness life’s carnage and acknowledge that it could be
far, far worse.
The fact, is however, that save for the ineptitude of a general practitioner (I never received as much as an apology from him) and the crass stupidity of someone who should have known better (that’s me), it didn’t have to be like this.

In this significant month of Movember, just be sure you don’t make the same mistake.