Game on for Kosovo?

On March 5, Kosovo played its first international – a friendly against Haiti. Here’s my When Saturday Comes piece on Kosovan national football. 

England? Belgium? Albania? Which international side Adnan Januzaj will declare for has become a minor back page obsession this season. Last month (Note to Ed: January), a new name was added to the list: Kosovo.

On January 13, FIFA announced that Kosovo – the country the Manchester United winger’s parents fled in 1992 – will be allowed to play international matches after years in the footballing wilderness. FIFA had earlier given the go ahead for Kosovo to participate in friendlies in 2012, but reversed the decision under pressure from the Serbian football association.

This time around Kosovo seems certain to finally field an international side, almost six years since declaring independence from Serbia. A fixture has been pencilled in for March, with opponents to be confirmed. Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci hailed the FIFA decision as, ‘the first step in creation of a superb national team that could potentially be one of the strongest in Balkans.’

Kosovo teamBut the FIFA ruling places significant limitations on the new outfit: National symbols and anthems will be banned at Kosovo games. The team will take the field in jerseys bearing only the word ‘Kosovo’ and a star. Kosovo can only play friendlies and will not be allowed to face club sides or states from the former Yugoslavia until further notice. Footballing authorities in Serbia will have to be given 21 days advance notice of any Kosovo home matches.

International stars such as Januzaj, Bayern Munich striker Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami are unlikely to switch allegiance to a national team that cannot participate competitively, but the Kosovan FA hopes that situation will change.

‘We will be careful not to call players involved with other national teams at the moment,’ said Eroll Salihu, general secretary of Kosovo’s Football Association. ‘But once Kosovo becomes a full UEFA and FIFA member, it will be our moral obligation to open the doors to players who were either born here or have Kosovo origins.’

FIFA’s decision follows the most significant rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia since the war ended in 1999. The Brussels Agreement, signed last April, was widely hailed as a breakthrough in relations between Pristina and Belgrade, granting the Kosovan government more control over the restive, Serb-dominated north in exchange for more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.

Although Serbia still refuses to recognise its former province’s independence, Kosovan officials are hopeful that international friendlies could mark the first step on the road to membership of UEFA and FIFA. (Kosovo is recognised by over a hundred states but does not have a seat at the UN.)

‘FIFA recognizing the right of Kosovo to play international friendly matches is the very first step towards full inclusion of Kosovo in the global football family, 23 years after dictator Milosevic annulled Kosovo’s native football league and closed the stadiums for Albanians,’ said Petrit Selimi, deputy foreign minister.

Not everyone inside Kosovo is happy with the decision. Around 90 per cent of Kosovans are ethnic Albanians, and Kosovo provides the backbone of the both the Albania national team’s players and support.

Some Kosovans cleave to the belief that there should only be a pan-Albanian national team (‘One Nation – One National Team’), not separate Kosovan and Albanian sides. Already supporters groups from FC Pristina and Vllaznimi (from the western Kosovan city of Gjakova) have announced that they will not recognize the Kosovo national team and will only support Albania. The Albania FA has said it does not believe Kosovo-born players, such as current captain Lazio’s Lorik Cana, will switch allegiance.

Others have questioned whether playing international friendlies is the best way to develop football in Kosovo. The country is woefully short of infrastructure, something the current government has failed to redress.

The City Stadium in Pristina, the main ground in Kosovo, needs major renovation work. Recently it was reported that Rasunda stadium in Stockholm had donated second-hand seating and lighting, but these have yet to be installed.

Despite a wealth of Kosovan talent in leagues and national teams across Europe, local football in Kosovo struggles, in part because of a lack of external competition. FIFA’s decision will not change the fact that Kosovan teams are not allowed to play in qualification rounds for the Europa League and the Champion’s League.

As for Adnan Januzaj, there ‘a slim chance’ he will choose to play for Kosovo, says Pristina-based journalist Xhemajl Rexha, ‘but people here would be very happy to see him play for England’.

This piece originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of When Saturday Comes

Kosovo’s Footballing Allegiances

A recent match between Switzerland and Albania included players whose home nation is not yet recognised by FIFA

With less than a quarter of an hour to go in Switzerland’s recent World Cup qualifier against Albania in Lucerne, Granit Xhaka was presented with a glorious chance to put the home side 3-0 up. With the goal at his mercy, the usually clinical Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder shot tamely at the keeper. ‘Shqipëria! Shqipëria!’ (Albania! Albania!) sang thousands of flag-waving Albanian fans behind the goal.

After the match, which finished 2-0, Xhaka, who was born in eastern Kosovo, was asked live on Albanian television if his miss was intentional. Xhaka demurred, offering only ‘no comment’, but the player was less circumspect on the demands of playing against a nation most ethnic Albanian Kosovans identify so strongly with. ‘It is not easy,’ the 20-year-old who left Kosovo for Switzerland as a youngster said, ‘we have the same blood. My father and mother are Albanian and all the other Albanians that know us here know what we are.’

A former province of Serbia, Kosovo does not have a fully-fledged national team of its own. Despite the 2008 declaration of independence being recognised by over 90 countries, Kosovo is not been allowed to apply for membership of FIFA or UEFA. For Kosovan players and fans alike, the makeshift Kosovo national side that has played a handful of low-key matches against the likes of Monaco and Saudi Arabia is no substitute for competitive international football.

The Switzerland clash was probably the most eagerly anticipated game in Kosovo’s history. In the run-up to the match, Kosovan state television incessantly ran adverts for ‘Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia against Switzerland’, a reflection of the number, and diversity, of ethnic Albanians in both line-ups.

No fewer than nine players of Kosovan extraction played in Lucerne, including Albanian captain Lorik Cana – once of Sunderland and now with Lazio – and, for Switzerland, Bayern Munich hitman Xherdan Shaqiri and ex-West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami. The Swiss also boasted two Albanians born in Macedonia, Admir Mehmedi and Blerim Xhemajli.

Switzerland’s Kosovan players have made no secret of their allegiance to both their homeland and Albania. Shaqiri plays with three flags sewn onto his boots: Switzerland, Albania, and Kosovo. Behrami has said previously that he would like to play for an independent Kosovo national team. In the build-up to the game the head of the Albanian FA Armand Duka described ethnic Albanians playing for Switzerland as ‘traitors’ for not opting to play for Albania. Gianni De Biasi, Albania’s Italian coach, concurred

If Duka’s comments were intended to provoke the Albanian fans, which made up around two-thirds of the 15,000-strong crowd in Lausanne, they had the desired effect. Missiles, including coins, rained down from the stands, with Shaqiri, Xhaka and Behrami singled out for special abuse.

After the game Shaqiri, who pointedly did not celebrate after opening the scoring, said fans that called him a traitor ‘do not know the reality’. The statement was widely interpreted as a reference to long-standing allegations that Duka demanded bribes from the families of expatriate Kosovan players that wanted to be considered for the Albanian national team.

Albanian football is already benefitting from Kosovan footballing prowess. As well as Cana, Vorskla Poltava’s Armend Dallku and onetime Burnley signing Besart Berisha are among a number of Kosovans that regularly turn out for the Albanian national side. Attendances at Albania games have been buoyed by coach loads of Kosovan fans coming down the newly-minted $1billion ‘patriotic highway’ connecting Pristina and Tirana. Upwards of 5,000 Kosovans regularly make the four-hour journey for internationals, often outnumbering local Albanians inside the moth-eaten Qemal Stafa stadium.

The qualifier in Lucerne took place on the same day as a high-level conference in Pristina to mark the end of the international community’s supervision of Kosovan independence. Under the banner of ‘Chapter Closed in the Balkans’, a host of politicians and diplomats discussed Kosovo’s future. Football is, belatedly, being recongised as an important part of integrating Kosovo internationally. Without United Nations recognition, Kosovo cannot apply for FIFA or EUFA membership. In May, Sepp Blatter announced that Kosovo would be allowed to play non-competitive games against FIFIA members (much to the chagrin of Serbia, the antagonist in the 1999 war).

As Pristina’s relations with Belgrade slowly improve so too do the prospects of a Kosovan national side. Ahead of a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich in September, all nine Kosovans that appeared in Lausanne signed an open letter to Blatter in support of Kosovo playing full internationals. Kosovo certainly has the talent, as the young Kosovans making names for themselves across Europe attests. Whether Europe’s newest state gets the opportunity remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in When Saturday Comes magazine

Ireland’s Rocky Road to Poland

In May, ‘the Rocky Road to Poland’, Ireland’s official song for the European Championships, debuted at number one in the Irish singles chart. A rather cumbersome 9/8 beat aside, the Rocky Road to Poland is standard team song fare: a mix of famous faces (the Dubliners), folksy humour (rhyming ‘Opel Corsa’ with ‘Warsaw’) and winsome, if misplaced, hope (‘we can win the trophy’). The video closes with shots of a smiling Ireland squad bawling along to a refrain of ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish’.

Led by Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland entered the Euros with a reputation as a well-drilled, no-frills outfit. A parsimonious defence conceded just three goals in a 14-game unbeaten streak leading up to the tournament, a run which included a vital goalless draw with Russia in a qualifier in Moscow and a friendly win over Italy.

But on a wet night in Poznan it took Croatia just three minutes to open the scoring. Worse was to follow against Spain. Again Ireland conceded early, failed to string more than half a dozen passes in succession and were scythed open with alarming regularity. The singing inside Gdansk’s PGE Arena – which seemed to ring louder as each Spanish goal went in – was a credit to Ireland’s fantastic travelling support. The 4-0 score line was anything but.

Ireland’s first European championship finals campaign in 24 years was effectively over after just five days. In the final group game, back in Poznan, the Boys in Green were improved but overwhelmed by an Italian team playing well within themselves.

That Ireland would struggle to qualify from such a testing group was accepted beforehand, but the manner of the team’s exit stung. From the kick off against Croatia, Ireland looked tired and off the pace, bereft of a game plan and unable to retain possession. It fast became a familiar pattern.

Trapattoni showed no inclination to alter a rigid 4-4-2 system that had served Ireland well in qualifying but was ruthlessly exposed by superior opponents. The Italian made just one change during the whole tournament: replacing Kevin Doyle with West Brom reserve Simon Cox ahead of the Spain game. Cox, a player most generously described as ‘honest’, made no impact and was hauled off at halftime.

Having forced his way into the squad late, exciting Sunderland prospect James McClean was left on the bench when his trickery was required most, to provide some creativity against Croatia. Some Irish fans expect too much of McClean – his arrival, as a substitute against Spain, was greeted as if Messi himself had donned the green jersey – but the manager’s handling of the youthful winger was misjudged.

Asked about McClean in the wake of the Croatia defeat, Trapattoni lamented that the white heat of an international tournament was no place to blood novice players. Five days later McClean was given his Euros bow — with Ireland three goals down against the reigning World and European champions.

Trapattoni’s commitment to the players that got Ireland to Poland was unwavering to the point of sentimentality. The workmanlike Paul Green was singled out for fans’ abuse, but the Irish squad was peppered with mediocrity, while two players that might have made a difference – Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman – were left at home. Hoolahan has played for Ireland just once, as a substitute against Serbia back in 2008; Coleman has only played five times and wasn’t a regular in the Euro qualifying team.

The vastly experienced trio of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne all had poor tournaments. If their international future is uncertain, Trapattoni seems set to carry on, having reiterated his determination to lead Ireland into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Ireland’s failings in Poland raise awkward questions about inequity in Irish football, and beyond. On June 18, Monaghan United withdrew from the Airtricity League, the top flight of Irish football, citing financial pressures. That same day Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who stands accused of failing to pay a €1.4m VAT bill, attended the Italy clash in Poznan. Former Anglo-Irish Bank chairman, Seanie Fitzpatrick, one of the main architects of Ireland’s financial meltdown, reportedly spent most of the Euros in a €550 a night hotel in the same city.

FAI Chief Executive John Delaney faced calls for his resignation after footage emerged of his slurred, late-night address to Irish fans on the streets of Sopot, the resort town north of Gdansk where the Ireland team were based for the tournament. Delaney enjoys an annual salary of €400,000.

In June, Dutchman Wim Koevermans announced he was leaving his post as FAI performance director to manage India. Ireland’s cash-strapped governing body have no plans to replace him. Half of Trapattoni’s salary – around €1.5m-a-year – is paid by Irish billionaire and tax exile Denis O’Brien.

This piece appeared in the August edition of When Saturday Comes magazine.

Olympic Spirit Comes to East London

Is that a rollercoaster, daddy?’ a young boy, his face pressed firm against the plate glass, points in the direction of a towering, twisting hulk of clay-red metal in the middle distance. ‘No son, it says here it’s a piece of art’, his father replies, reading off an inscription on a nearby viewing panel.

Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the 115 metres high ArcelorMittal Orbit (so-named after the Indian steel magnates who contributed much of the £20million cost) isn’t just any old piece of art – it’s the largest public work ever commissioned in Britain and the centre point of London’s Olympic village. Unfortunately Kapoor’s effort still looks like a grandiose Coney Island Cyclone, albeit one with an Olympic motif and an observation deck that promises an unparalleled eye-full of the East End.

Until the Orbit opens later in the year, however, the best views of the 500-acre Stratford Olympic site are not to be found inside the heavily cordoned off village but from the London 2012 shop in the adjacent Stratford Centre. Housed in a branch of John Lewis — the games’ ‘Official Department Store Provider’ no less — the store is filled with all manner of gimcrack embossed with the famous five rings, but the viewing gallery at the rear is free to visit and the vista is genuinely spectacular.

‘Parts of the Olympic village are ugly but parts of it are beautiful too,’ says Simon Cole, a resident of nearby Hackney and my guide through the Olympic site and its environs. It is late afternoon — the official Olympic tours long finished for the day – by the time we rendezvous inside the vast, cream-coloured Stratford (think Dundrum on steroids). The Stratford was purposely built so that it’s nigh-on impossible to visit the Olympic site without walking through: it’s estimated that 70% of Olympic visitors will pass along the centre’s abrasively air-conditioned halls.

Wayfinding inside is a nightmare – our tour was delayed for fifteen minutes as my guide and I were waiting outside different branches of the same newsagent. Finally we meet, just in time to see the sun setting over the vast Olympic park from the John Lewis viewing gallery.

Framed in the background by Norman Foster’s iconic gherkin, the eye is drawn, almost inevitably, to the shimmering silver Aquatics Centre. Designed by the famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, this bold, undulating building was created to mimic ‘the fluid geometry of water in motion’ – it’s here that Irish swimmers such as Grainne Murphy will be hoping to excel this summer.

At the heart of the park is the circular Olympic stadium. Track and field events will take place inside stadium, which will have a capacity of 80,000 during the games. As Cole explains, the stadium has proved controversial – and not just because of the on-going legal battle between Leyton Orient, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs over who will inherit it after the games. Dow Chemical is to sponsor the protective wrap that will encircling the 900-metre circumference during the games – the company is claimed to have links with the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed more than 15,000 people in India.

‘Personally I think it’s a real shame,’ Cole says of Dow’s prospective involvement. Cole, a native of Sunderland who sports a Sex Pistols-inspired Hackney Tours t-shirt, is a keen student of the East End’s radical history – as we stare out across the Olympic site he points out a red-brick complex close to the stadium. This, he explains, is the erstwhile site of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, where, in 1888, match girls rose up in a famous strike against the severe health complications that arose from working with white phosphorus.

Nowadays the old Bryant and May building is a gated community, an exclusive address home to popstars such as Katy B. Opponents accuse the Olympics’ backers of attempting to perform a similar transformation in Stratford – more than 3,000 flats, which will house Olympians in the summer, have already been sold after the games, at rates far in excess of what most people in traditionally down at heel Stratford can afford.

Stepping out onto Great Eastern Road, the thoroughfare separating the Stratford Centre and the Olympic park, feels disorientating in the same way that walking in LA does. All around are buildings so large and impersonal that the humble pedestrians is reduced to a pin prick, cars whiz by at furious speeds, a flashing LED sign advertises the Stratford Centre’s in-house casino, behind which peek out a pair of old-style high-rise flats. People are thin on the ground, save the ubiquitous security guards around the village and a few day trippers with tickets for an evening swimming meet in the Aquatics Centre.

English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a trenchant critic of the Olympics project, has called the games an excuse for the ‘privatisation of public space’, that have ruined ‘a wonderful wasteland’ which once existed in the marshes around the River Lea. Proponents – most notably London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron – argue that the games will boost the economy and national pride at a time when Britain is experiencing the most prolonged period of austerity in generations.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere in between. The costs of the games have spiralled to over £11 billion, almost £2 billion over budget, and the event’s legacy is uncertain – but there is no denying that, even in its unfinished state, the Olympic park possesses a thrilling, shock-of-the-new quality.

Standing at the View Tube, a series of nattily recommissioned shipping containers on the Greenway cycle path, the whole site opens up before my gaze. Past the National Stadium and Kapoor’s hula-hoop, beyond the Aquatics Centre and the waves of the temporary water polo auditorium, sits the spectacular fan-like velodrome. Nicknamed ‘The Pringle’ – and described by author Andrew O’Hagan as ‘like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood’ – the velodrome is a triumph of art and functionality. Nearby a giant LED sculpture of the word RUN sits on the outside wall of the handball arena.

But the largest building of all is not a sporting arena or a grandiloquent lump of metal – it’s the media centre, a gigantic white hangar that will house over 20,000 journalists during the games. ‘You can fit two jumbo jets inside it,’ Cole assures me, with a look of mild disapproval.

Cole describes his own view of the Olympics as ‘typically postmodern’: ‘there will be benefits but there will also be losers,’ he says as we pass by a block of newly built condominiums. A group of youths with swimming club logos emblazoned on their tracksuits walk in the direction of the Aquatics centre. Across the road, an office sits empty, the majority of its windows broken.

The East End is still the poorest part of London but the area is changing fast. Near the Olympic park perimeter fences is the shiny new East London Porsche dealership. A few hundred yards further down the road we pass a ramshackled family-run car repair shop.

‘If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I wouldn’t really come to Stratford’, Cole says as we near the end of our tour. It’s a sentiment many Olympic tourists will probably share, but there’s an undeniable, if distinctly ambiguous, allure to a corner of East London that will come alive in July.

For more information on Hackney Tours visit

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, 24 March

Rangers' fall from grace leaves long list of victims

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a visit to Scotland. At a press conference, held in camera-sight of Edinburgh Castle, the Tory leader made an impassioned plea for maintaining two venerable institutions with long histories and uncertain futures: the political union between Scotland and England, and Rangers Football Club.

The question of independence for Scotland won’t be decided until 2014 at the earliest, but the fate of the blue half ofGlasgow’s Old Firm is likely to be settled sooner than that.

Cameron said that he wants to see Rangers, which has entered administration, “survive and thrive”. That the very survival of a football team that has won over 100 trophies in its 139-year history is up for any debate — much less one involving the UK Prime Minister — reflects the depths plumbed by the Ibrox club last week.

The case involving Rangers is complex, and growing more labyrinthine with every passing day. Having entered administration at the start of the week, on Tuesday it emerged that the subject of the petition by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) against the club was not the huge historic tax bill — estimated at £49m — accrued under the stewardship of former chairman Sir David Murray, but debts accumulated by Rangers since the takeover by Craig Whyte in May 2011.
At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the administrators installed at Rangers admitted that HMRC were concerned about “the non-payment of circa £9m PAYE and VAT” since Whyte took the helm at Rangers. Later in the week, it was revealed that a recent £24m loan made by ticket company Ticketus to the club, and mortgaged against future sales of season tickets, had passed through the books of another Whyte company, not Rangers’ accounts as the chairman had previously claimed.

The parlous situation at Rangers has its roots in two related but distinct factors: the massive debts built up by Murray, and the opaque dealings of current chairman Craig Whyte. It was Murray, a businessman whose wealth was estimated at £720m in 2008, who kick-started the debt-fuelled bubble in Scottish football that brought Celtic to its knees in the early 1990s.

Under Murray’s stewardship, Rangers invested big as players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup,Paul Gascoigne and, infamously for £14m, Tore Andre Flo graced Govan. At one stage, the club’s debts stood at a vertiginous £80m, bankrolled in the hope of European glory that never fully materialised. (Somewhat ironically, Walter Smith did achieve runner-up slot in the Europa League in 2008 on a veritable shoestring.)

When the tsunami of the global financial crisis hit, Murray, who had invested heavily in property and mining, was washed up. With Lloyds banking group demanding repayment of an £18m loan, there began a torturous search to find a buyer for the club. Despite being one of the most famous names in world football, no suitable candidate emerged until last year, when Motherwell-born businessman Craig Whyte took the club on for a nominal sum and a tax bill just shy of £50m.

“I think Whyte’s strategy all along has been to take the club into administration, to sink the club and relaunch it as ‘New Rangers’ free of debt,” says Tom English, chief sportswriter at Scotland on Sunday. Currently, Rangers is in the hands of Duff & Phelps — a firm that previously advised the club, and were appointed by Whyte who, as the secured creditor, retains significant control over the administration process.

If Rangers are to avoid the liquidation that many commentators now believe is Whyte’s desired endpoint, the club will need to agree a company voluntary agreement (CVA). “But the level of indebtness is so great that you would need HMRC and other creditors to agree to accept a couple of pennies in the pound at the very most,” says the administrator of, an investigative website that has been publishing details of the club’s murky financial affairs, including the £49m tax bill arising from David Murray’s ill-advised, and subsequently illegal, use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs).

Whyte, as secured creditor, is protected to the tune of £18m: come what may, the current Rangers chairman, who was previously disqualified as a company director for seven years in 2000, will see a handsome return on his investment. But what happens to Rangers is less cut and dried.

Keen to send a message to the football world that paying tax is not an optional extra, HMRC are unlikely to accept a CVA that sees the taxpayer receive just a fraction of the debt owed. It would take a bid in the region of £70-£80m, way in excess of anything mooted so far, to reimburse all Rangers’ creditors.

What would the ramifications be for the green half of Glasgow if Rangers were to go the wall? Tom English believes that, whether they choose to admit it or not, both sides of the Old Firm are mutually dependent: “(If Rangers were gone) Celtic would win the league by huge margins every year. Player recruitment would suffer, the fans would get bored, Sky would definitely renegotiate the TV deal (the SPL’s £80m deal with Sky and ESPN is predicated on four Old Firm matches a season).”

It’s a point reiterated last week by Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond. The ScottishNational Party leader said that Celtic and Rangers “need” one another. “The most die-hard Celtic supporter understands that Celtic can’t prosper unless Rangers are there,” he said.

The Celtic Park hierarchy poured scorn on Salmond’s comments, stating that any supposed reliance on their arch rivals was “simply not true”. However, many Celtic fans are more circumspect, fearful of the prospect an SPL without Rangers.

There is also a sense of deja vu among the denizens of Glasgow’s East End. Back in 1994, after years of trying to match Murray’s exorbitant spending at Rangers, the club were on the brink of bankruptcy before businessman Fergus McCann stepped in. McCann’s almost singular focus on building a sustainable football club at a time when Rangers were marching to a record-equalling nine SPL titles in a row prompted criticism from fans, but his approach has been vindicated.

More recently, Celtic embarked on a renewed austerity drive. Big-money foreign signings are out, young prospects with a high re-sale value are in. What rebuilding manager Neil Lennon has done has largely been funded by the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscowfor £9.5m. On the very day Rangers were in court with HMRC, Celtic announced pre-tax profits for the second half of 2011.

While a McCann-style white knight is unlikely to appear on Rangers’ horizon, Rangers remains an attractive investment opportunity — if an agreement can be reached with HMRC.Andy Kerr, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, has called for a fan takeover of the club, citing the Barcelona model as an inspiration. Elsewhere, former Rangers directorPaul Murray is hoping to put a consortium together. Any prospective owners will have to buy Whyte out and settle a tax bill that some reckon could rise to as much as £75m including penalties. If Rangers really are “too big to fail”, the other option — allowing Rangers to liquidate and reform as a new club yet retain their SPL status — calls to mind another phrase made famous by the credit crunch: moral hazard.

Excessive borrowing fuelled Rangers’ success over the last 25 years, with HMRC used as a de facto private bank. Between 1999 and 2002, for example, the club spent over £50m in transfer fees. Rewarding such reckless behaviour would set a worrying precedent at a time when many clubs are struggling to pay creditors, the taxman among them.

The other alternative is bankruptcy for Rangers. Whether the SPL decided to reinstate the ‘new Rangers’, or, much less likely, to relegate the club to the bottom of the football pyramid, it would be the end of the SPL as we now it, at least in the medium-term.

Tom English finds no crumbs of comfort in Rangers’ current travails: “There won’t be any revolution in the game just because this has happened, just a lot of people losing out.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent, February 19

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'

Just before Christmas, Cillian Sheridan was invited to appear as a pundit on Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s flagship football show.

In studio, the on-loan St Johnstone striker’s analytical skills were more Garth Crooks than Alan Hansen — “I’m rubbish at talking about football,” he says candidly — but it was his sartorial choices that provoked most comment: Sheridan, on his BBC debut, appeared wearing a bright red yuletide pullover, complete with green Christmas trees.

As a consequence, for a brief moment, the Cavan man’s jumper was the hottest property in Scottish football. A tabloid even arranged a photo shoot in which the rangy striker, who was described as being “on trend for 2012”, modelled the finest Christmas knitwear.

Reclining on a wooden chair in a busy café on Woodlands Road, the bustling main artery connecting Glasgow city centre with the bohemian West End, Sheridan smiles as he recollects his first — and possibly last — visit to BBC Scotland: “I brought the jumper with me to the show. I asked (the producers), ‘Can I wear this?’ They said it was okay so I put it on.” The producers, you sense, were less accommodating when the former Celt’s phone rang twice live on air. “It was a shambles. I doubt they’ll ask me back again,” he laughs.

The Sportscene episode epitomises Cillian Sheridan: insouciant, irreverent and imminently likeable. As followers of his refreshingly honest, and often very funny, Twitter feed will testify, this is a man who sports a tattoo of a moustache on the index finger of his left hand and could seldom be accused of taking football, or life, too seriously. As he says himself, “I don’t get worked up about things, it’s not my style.”

In a week dominated by the dyspeptic transfer window — characterised, once again, by average players demanding exorbitant wage — Sheridan feels, in some respects, like the antithesis of the Sky Sports-era footballer. There are no rings on his fingers, he wears a few days’ worth of stubble across his prominent jaw line and speaks with a casual ease seldom evinced amid the media training and PR consultants that are part and parcel of the modern game. Sheridan’s is the relaxed attitude of a young man who practically fell into football. While many of his contemporaries in the current Ireland squad began their careers in the League of Ireland, the Bailieborough man was signed by Celtic as a schoolboy. Sheridan only took up soccer seriously at 16. That year he was also a Cavan minor, where his impressive performances in midfield led the Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules team to offer him a chance to move Down Under.

The financial rewards of football proved too great, however: after a spell at Dublin side Belvedere Boys and breaking into the Ireland under 17 set-up, Sheridan plumped for Celtic Park. But Gaelic football remains his true love: during the summer he is often to be found in the stand at Breffni Park watching Cavan in the Ulster championship. “I see the start and the end of the season. They’re normally out before I go back,” he quips.

Life at Celtic, at least initially, was good. Under former manager Gordon Strachan, he swiftly graduated to the senior side, making his Champions League debut as a substitute against Manchester United in 2008, aged just 18. Two weeks later, Sheridan started the return leg of the same clash. But when Strachan departed in 2009, to be replaced first byTony Mowbray and then Neil Lennon, his first-team options dried up. Neither manager ‘fancied’ the striker, who was farmed out in a succession of loan deals to Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone. In similar situations, ego-driven young footballers are wont to grow restive, but not, it seems, Sheridan: “I was never bitter towards (Mowbray or Lennon). I never said ‘I should be playing’.”

Faced with silently rotting in the reserves at Celtic Park or a merry-go-round of frustrating six-month loan deals, Sheridan made a surprising decision: he joined Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia. It was a brave move that seemed to pay immediate dividends as Sheridan began life in Bulgaria by starting, and scoring, regularly. But when the manager was sacked after two months, the striker found himself out of favour and isolated far away from his friends and family. “When you’re not playing over there it’s hard,” he admits.

Self-deprecating, perhaps to a fault, Sheridan suggests CSKA may have had unrealistic expectations of the young Irish targetman when they signed him two summers ago. “I went over the day after starting against Argentina (in a 1-0 defeat at the Aviva in August 2010), so they were probably expecting an unbelievable player. Then I turned up.”

After the sojourn in Sofia, Sheridan feels at home back in Scotland. He lives near Glasgow University, and commutes to Perth, where St Johnstone are based. Under new managerSteve Lomas, the Saints have maintained their strong early-season form — they currently stand fifth in the SPL — with Sheridan, who has teamed up effectively with co-striker Fran Sandaza, chipping in with some important goals, including the equaliser in Sunday’s draw atHearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.

Despite having three caps to his name, the lanky striker doesn’t talk up his chances of figuring in Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the European Championships. “Realistically I’d only (get into the squad) through injuries. And even then when fellas do pull out there are other fellas that are playing in the Premiership who weren’t in the first squad who will be ahead of me.” When it comes to football, Sheridan is nothing if not phlegmatic.

He might not be booking flights to Poland but his performances before Christmas led to paper talk of a move away from McDiarmid Park. Sheridan, who was injured when the transfer window opened, chose to repay St Johnstone’s faith, renewing his loan deal until the end of the season. It was an example of another trait rarely associated with footballers: loyalty.

Such fealty is even more remarkable given that CSKA Sofia — he is still contracted with the Bulgarian club until 2013 — routinely pay his wages over eight weeks late. “It’s a bit unusual alright. I’ll get two months’ wages and then nothing for two months,” Sheridan says in his soft Cavan drawl.

Wages, or more correctly their absence, has been a major issue in Scottish football this year: Edinburgh club Hearts have been sanctioned by the Scottish Premier League for consistent late payments to players, one of whom, Ryan Stevenson, went on a very public strike. Sheridan, in contrast, describes his ambiguous financial situation as simply “annoying”.

The hope now is that St Johnstone will prove a springboard for a permanent move — and a secure pay packet — perhaps elsewhere in the SPL or, his favoured destination, England. After six moves in less than four years, there’s a sense that the peripatetic striker would like to settle down, preferably somewhere a bit closer to Cavan than Eastern Europe.

Sheridan regularly returns home to visit friends and family. Both his parents are teachers in Bailieborough and, if it wasn’t for football, he would have probably followed in their footsteps. One aspect of the profession in particular still appeals: “Teachers have the best holidays you can get! We only get June off, but they get three months for summer as well as Christmas. Pretty nice.”

In the overexcited world of football, Cillian Sheridan is one player who definitely knows how to take it easy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 12/02/2012.

St Mirren CIC'ing the Habit

Is there an alternative to robber baron chairman asset stripping your club? I spoke to an innovative new venture through in Paisley, to turn local club St Mirren into a Community Interest Company. This feature originally appeared in February 2012 edition of the excellent When Saturday Comes:

Billed as a ‘national day of action’, November 30 witnessed the largest strike in Britain in a generation. That evening, 70 supporters gathered at St Mirren Park not to protest changes to public sector pensions or Tory cutbacks but in a bid to resuscitate an innovative community-led takeover of the Paisley club.

At first glance, St Mirren seems an unlikely candidate for a fan takeover. Solidly established in the lower reaches of the Scottish Premier League since returning to the top-flight in 2006, the club, which has been up for sale since September 2009, is generally regarded as a well-run outfit. Tesco’s purchase of their former Love Street home in 2007, in a deal reportedly worth £15 million, left St Mirren financially secure at a time when many higher profile SPL rivals are feeling the pinch.

Chairman Stewart Gilmour, who saved the Buddies from huckster Reg Bearley’s pernicious grip more than a decade ago (see WSC 153), stated openly that he would prefer to sell the club to a community bid than on the open market. The solution, or so it seemed, was to turn St Mirren into a Community Interest Company (CIC).

The brainchild of New Labour uber-moderniser Alan Milburn, a CIC is essentially a limited company with a social purpose. It attempts to combine the advantages of a company – flexibility in organisation, operation and governance – with the ability to restrict rampant risk taking and to protect assists for the local community. A Community Interest Community can pay dividends and interest, but is restricted in the amounts and is subject to CIC law and a regulator, based in Cardiff.

When it comes to football, one of the most attractive features of a CIC is that it ‘locks-in’ all the club’s assets, ensuring that the assets built up overtime cannot be squandered for profit by the current generation. Instead assets must be used for the stated community purpose. Even if the CIC is wound up, its assets must be transferred to another, similarly asset-locked body. All mightily unattractive for any would-be robber baron chairman.

Ayr businessman Richard Atkinson has spearheaded the move to turn St Mirren into the first professional club run as a Community Interest Company in the UK. (Stenhousemuir and Clyde, in the Scottish Second and Third Divisions respectively, are both CICs). When the Paisley club were put up for sale Atkinson, who has a background in logistics, formed 10000Hours, a social enterprise co-operative with the dedicated purpose of purchasing a 52% majority shareholding in the club.

‘What makes this takeover different is that we are trying to buy the club when it’s just up for sale, not when it’s going out of business. In other cases fans are buying the club off the administrator at a knockdown price – often with an agreement to take on the club’s debts – so they own the whole club. But we’ve had to try and raise the money to buy out the shareholders,’ Atkinson said.

Under the scheme, 10000hours borrows from social enterprise lenders (rather than traditional banks) to buy just over half of St Mirren, with fans subscriptions to the cooperative as well as revenue generated by the CIC after the takeover used to pay off the debt. No debt is loaded onto the club, a la the Glazers at Manchester United.

Until November, 10000 Hours looked odds on to succeed. A broad church of social enterprise backers and charitable bodies had pledged almost £1.3 million, mostly in the form of soft loans and ‘patient capital’ (so called because repayments are delayed by a set number of years). However, after months of negotiations, a decision to sanction the final tranche of funding was reversed. Current director Ken McGeoch has taken advantage of the interstice to announce his intention to pursue a conventional take over of the club.

But Atkinson, who has sat on the board of St Mirren for two years, is determined to fight on. The hope now is that more supporters can be convinced to join 10000 hours, at an individual rate of £10 per month (repaid as equity in the CIC, once the debt is repaid). Since November’s announcement, membership has risen from 800 to over 900.

Retiring football chairmen are wont to declare their desire to safeguard the long-term future of their club (Wigan’s Dave Whelan springs to mind). A Community Interest Company is not foolproof – a board can still over extend itself and get into serious debt – but it does introduce safeguards to protect the club for those who value it most. Whether 10000hours are successful or not, the CIC model is one other clubs, and their supporters, could well profit from.

Football, Football, Football

Last week I played in Amnesty international’s annual Edinburgh critics versus comics football match. Not only was a chance for comics to get their own back for those one-star reviews but it was all for a good cause – to highlight the terrible treatment of Burmese comic Zarganar by his country’s military junta.

The Guardian cameras were there, and even managed to capture a rare goal by yours truly (it’s 3.10 in, but who’s counting…).

We lost 3-2 in the end, we’ll have our revenge next year. Or in print even sooner.

Stokes and Miller in tune with Hibernian rhapsody

Edinburgh is proving a happy hunting ground for two Irish internationals, as I reported in The Sunday Independent a few couple of Sundays ago:

“I doubt I’ll ever tire of Edinburgh,” bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin once said of his hometown. With its spectacular views, historic old town and lively nightlife, the Scottish capital certainly has plenty of attractions — but it doesn’t take the forensic mind of Inspector Rebus to figure out what drew Liam Miller and Anthony Stokes to the city.

After a couple of years spent more on the bench than on the pitch, the two Irish internationals were just happy to be wanted at Hibernian. “It’s been great from day one, to be honest,” remarks Miller, who joined Edinburgh’s green half in September after a few anxious months without a club following his departure from Queens Park Rangers. Team-mate Stokes concurs: “It’s great to be back playing regularly. I’m really enjoying it here.”

As for Hibs, well the feeling is mutual. The Irish pair have been two of the main reasons the Easter Road outfit are currently running Celtic close for second spot in the Scottish Premier League and have a great chance to finally end their 108-year hoodoo in the Scottish Cup. Miller’s dynamic performances in the heart of midfield have won several man-of-the-match awards, while Stokes, with 14 goals already this season, including the first as Hibs came from two goals down to draw with Aberdeen on Wednesday, is showing the kind of form that brought him a £2m move from Arsenal to Sunderland while still a teenager.

Both players have settled in well off the pitch, too. Miller lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and young family; Stokes has an apartment close to the centre of town. “Next to Dublin this is probably my favourite city in the world,” the striker, who turns 22 in the summer, says. “I love where I live. Plus I’m just five minutes away from the ground. When I was at Sunderland, it was a 45-minute drive in the morning just to get to training.”

Miller and Stokes know each other from their Sunderland days. Originally signed by Roy Keane, the pair later found themselves surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light.

“It was really frustrating at Sunderland towards the end,” says Stokes, stretching his legs across two chairs as we talk in an anteroom at Hibernian’s training ground about 15 miles east of Edinburgh. “I remember coming on in a cup game (against Northampton Town). We were two down at half-time, and I scored two in the second half. Next day I was asked to go on loan. It didn’t really matter what I had done on the pitch, I wasn’t going to get my chance there.”

The rangy, Dublin-born Stokes exudes a youthful insouciance, speaking openly and at length about most subjects. His compatriot Miller, who turned 29 last week, is more circumspect, sitting bolt upright with his arms folded across his chest. Unlike his Ireland and Hibernian team-mate, the Corkman is less willing to discuss his time at Sunderland, saying only that “it had its ups and downs”.

Miller, who began his career at Celtic, dismisses the suggestion that the SPL lacks quality: “The Premier League is probably the best league in the world but football in Scotland is at a very decent level.” The diminutive midfielder could easily have spent his career in Scotland — then Parkhead supremo Martin O’Neill wanted to build a team around him but Miller elected to sign a pre-contract with Manchester United instead. Does he have any regrets about leaving Celtic? “None,” he says without blinking.

Stokes has previous SPL experience, too — he first came to prominence after scoring 14 goals in 16 games while on loan at Falkirk, a spree that persuaded Keane to take him to Sunderland. John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was manager at Falkirk Stadium then, and Stokes had no compunctions about renewing past acquaintances when the tough-talking Scot took over at Easter Road during the summer.

“I thought there was no point staying at Sunderland rotting away, not playing football,” Stokes remarks of the decision to come to Hibs. “I knew I needed to be somewhere that I had a good chance of playing every week. As soon as the gaffer asked me up here I knew it was a good move. I’m just glad to get back up here and settle myself down and start enjoying my life and my football again.”

Stokes has never lacked self-belief but his Hibs career was almost over before it began when Hughes publicly reprimanded his new striker following an alleged brawl in an Edinburgh nightclub in September. The Dubliner admits he returned to Scotland with a “reputation” earned during his time at Sunderland but denies any wrongdoing. “I was in the club about five minutes. They said in the paper we were there for two hours drinking champagne. It’s nonsense. It was half past eleven and I’d just arrived and I hadn’t even had a drink. The tabloids just dig for stories. If they can’t find something they make it up.”

Currently second behind Rangers’ Kris Boyd at the top of the SPL scoring charts, Stokes says he has cut down his drinking, although he still goes out “every two or three weeks”.

“If I score two or three goals, I think I am entitled to go out and have a few beers. I don’t see why footballers should be singled out and told, ‘No, no you shouldn’t be doing that.’ We earn good money but you have to have some normal lifestyle especially when you’re 19, 20.”

Miller, too, has had past brushes with authority — most notably in 2008, when Roy Keane transfer-listed his fellow Corkman, citing a “lack of discipline” and “poor time-keeping”. But under Hughes’ tutelage the midfielder is fast maturing into a vocal on-field leader. “I’ve been used to having older people around me in the team. But it’s a young side here and now I’m one of the older heads,” Miller says of his newfound responsibilities.

While Stokes and Miller have been busy stamping their own authority on the SPL this season, it is the recent surprise arrival of another Irish international that has everybody in Scotland talking. “To have a player of Robbie Keane’s calibre up here is special. He is a quality player and I’m sure he will bang in the goals,” says Miller.

Keane’s presence should ensure that the SPL does not fall off Giovanni Trapattoni’s radar and both Miller and Stokes are hopeful of staking a claim for a regular berth in the Ireland squad as we head towards the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships. “I’d like to think that if I keep playing as well as I’ve been playing and keep scoring goals then I’ve a chance of being in the squad,” Stokes remarks.

Ireland’s senior striker has made no secret of his intention to return south when his loan arrangement with Celtic runs out in the summer. Do Keane’s international team-mates on the other side of the Central Belt hope to return to top-flight English football someday? Miller refuses to be drawn on the question, but Stokes admits that, while he may never tire of Edinburgh living, the lure of the Premier League may prove irresistible in the long-run.

“Of course, I’d love to play in the Premiership again. I’ve learnt from my mistakes. But first I have to settle down and show people that I can do it consistently. Before I came to Hibs people were saying that if I don’t score goals here it will be the end of me. But I always knew that if I played regularly I would score goals. Now I’ve got my confidence back, got the half a yard of sharpness back and I’m flying.”