SPFL reveal dramatic Scottish League Cup format restructure

 Photo: Ben Ramage ©

The SPFL has announced an exciting new Scottish League Cup format taking effect next season.

Starting from next summer, the progressive new format for the Scottish League Cup will include competitive group football in July, a ground-breaking bonus point system, a new broadcast partner bringing more live games and increased revenues for clubs, as well as the re-introduction of a winter break.

Taking effect from summer 2016, the new format will see eight groups of five teams play each other once each in a round-robin format across five July dates (16th, 20th, 23th, 27th & 30th). The new 80-game group stage will involve all 38 teams not involved in UEFA qualifiers, plus winners of this season’s Highland League and Lowland League.

New broadcast partner BT Sport will show six group stage games live, within a total of 13 matches to be broadcast from next season.

The group stage will use the traditional three points for a win and one point for a draw model, however in another innovation all drawn matches will go straight to a penalty shoot-out whereby the winner of the penalty shoot-out will be awarded a bonus point, believed to be a first in world football.

The bonus point system is designed to create greater excitement around every match as well as providing more points variations to increase the number of meaningful games throughout the group stages.

The eight group winners and four best runners-up progress to the second round, when they are joined by the four UEFA qualifying clubs and the competition reverts to traditional knockout format.

The SPFL is delighted to announce that BT Sport will become the exclusive live TV broadcaster of the League Cup from summer 2016.  BT Sport will screen six games from the Group Stage in July and a further seven games from the knockout rounds for each of Seasons 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20.

BT Sport’s new contract will increase the money available for all the clubs significantly.

Another benefit of the new format will be that it allows the re-introduction of a two-weekend winter break for Ladbrokes Premiership clubs during January 2017.

In the wake of the announcement, Simon Barrow, Chair of the SFSA, said: “We are delighted to see that the SPFL are looking to make progressive changes in order to re-engage Scottish football fans and keep them entertained.

“We are aware that this is only a stepping stone to fixing our game, which most believe is nearing its lowest ebb, but it is at least a step in the right direction.”

On the potentially world leading decision to award bonus points in the wake of draws during the group stage, he added: “Scotland is historically a land of innovators, so why not try something new and break the mold.

“We at the SFSA are continuing to look at and champion different ways to improve the game for our fans and for the good of the sport.

“We believe that summer football, a winter break and looking at ways to get excitement back into Scottish football are essential to our games recovery, and this announcement is at least a start in what is a long road to recovery.”

SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster said of the decision: “The new format of the Scottish League Cup marks an exciting new chapter for the competition and sees Scottish football leading the way with a number of innovations.

“Fans, the media and clubs alike have expressed a desire for competitive summer football which will be delivered from next July while the ground-breaking bonus point system should add incentive to teams and excitement for supporters.

“Our agreement with BT Sport delivers a huge increase in the number of games being shown live as well as providing increased competition prize money for clubs.

“The new format has also enabled the re-introduction of a winter break for Ladbrokes Premiership clubs. We are consulting with Ladbrokes Championship, League 1 and League 2 clubs to establish whether they also favour a winter break in their respective divisions.”

Simon Green, head of BT Sport, said: “BT Sport is thrilled to deepen its connection to Scottish football through this new long-term deal. Our team looks forward to bringing fans an exciting and innovative new competition from July 2016.

“Today’s agreement expands our summer programming line-up while also giving Scottish football fans an exciting new summer football competition.”

The current Scottish League Cup format involves six rounds; the new format, scheduled to kick off on Saturday, 16 July, 2015, involves four rounds plus the new Group Stage.

Former Tartan Army captain McAllister calls Scotland fans to arms

Scotland, Liverpool and Leeds United legend Gary McAllister has urged all Scottish football fans to join the Scottish Football Supporters Association.

In the lead up to Scotland’s decisive qualifying double header against Poland and Gibraltar, the Scotland Hall of Fame member and former captain has urged all Scots to get behind the countries first fully independent fans organisation as well as the national team.

Now a coach at former club Liverpool, McAllister has supported the SFSA since its conception and has been present since its launch. He has written to all members and prospective members on the importance of all Scots joining together to fight for improvements in our game.

In an SFSA newsletter, he will tell current members; “I don’t just want Scottish football to survive – as someone who has been proud to captain my country, I want it to thrive”

“SFSA is the first independent network bringing together ALL fans in Scotland to “reclaim the game” and help make it flourish once more. We already have over 40,000 individuals signed up – but we need more. We need EVERY fan in Scotland on board.

“Why? Because supporters and all those involved in backing and funding Scottish football need a real say in how the game is run, at club level and within the football authorities.

“The Scottish Football Supporters Association really believes that if we pull together we can achieve a huge amount – a game run for and by those who love it most, community owned clubs, better facilities, more visibility for the game and more people involved in it.

I know that sounds ambitious. But as a former pro and now a fan myself, I know that’s what’s needed to make an impact.”

Joining the SFSA remains completely free, and it only takes a few minutes online to become a member and be a part of the biggest totally independent push for positive change in our game.

The SFSA remains the only organisation totally free from operational restrictions, which allows us to campaign for what really matters to fans without fear of reprisal. It also allows us to question the activity of football governing bodies, who should not be allowed to act solely in their interests rather than with fans opinions considerations in mind.

This has allowed us to speak up about human rights issues surrounding the recent friendly against Qatar, as well as running a successful ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign which saw awareness and a banner raised at Hampden during the recent qualifier against Germany.

We have polled Scottish supporters on issues like Safe Standing and whether Hampden Park should remain the home of the Scotland national team, because we want to know what fans really believe. We have shown support for community ownership, which we believe can be the future of Scottish football for many clubs.

We have also backed campaigns run by other like-minded fan organisations, such as the FSF’s ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign which aimed to force clubs to lower excessive away ticket prices.

While we remain young, we have now already attained over 41,000 members who are determined to change the Scottish game for the better, as well as several group memberships from various Scottish clubs.

We are also the first fully independent Scottish fans organisation to gain membership of Fans Europe, Europe’s largest fan network, because we want to work alongside our European counterparts to work for wider change in football across Europe.

We implore you to join us here and help us to continue to speak with the supporters voice, your voice, as we try to take back and reclaim our game in the name of what really matters most to football – the fans.

FSF’s ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign for capping away ticket prices hitting this weekend

HERE at the SFSA, we are committed to the view that fans are supporters, not consumers.

That is why we are wholeheartedly behind the Football Supporters Federation’s campaign ‘Twenty’s Plenty’, which asks clubs to cap their away ticket prices at a maximum of twenty pounds.

Any fan who has followed their team away from home knows that the price of doing so can be severe on the wallet, never mind the emotional toil. Rising fuel, transport and food costs have made following your team even more difficult.

What loyal supporters don’t need to add to these costs is astronomical ticket prices. Instead of rewarding those who are willing to travel to games rather than watch the highlights on the telly, these fans are being exploited.

While FSF’s action is largely in response to the often ridiculous pricing structures at Premier League teams in England, the same issue greatly affects Scottish fans that travel the length and breadth of the country every other weekend to follow their team.

This weekend the campaign comes to a head for a weekend of action, and we implore all our members, and any Scottish football fans, to support the action and let all clubs know that fans are supporters, not consumers.

You can do this in two ways. The easiest way to back the campaign is to use social media to highlight good and bad ticket prices when you see them this weekend. Use either #20Plenty or #TwentysPlenty on Twitter and Facebook to help support the cause.

Secondly, you can sign the FSF’s #ShareTVWealth petition – calling on football authorities to redistribute its TV income more fairly, including reducing ticket prices.

Always remember that clubs are more inclined to listen to their fans than anyone else. Let’s help fight the growing exploitation of loyal fans by backing this campaign and tell clubs everywhere that #TwentysPlenty.

Read more about the campaign here – http://fsf.org.uk/campaigns/away-fans/twentys-plenty/actions-for-fans/

Three changes Strachan should make for crucial Poland qualifier

Gordon Strachan’s squad announcement yesterday proved that this is a man who will stick by his troops, despite the Georgia and Germany defeats which have left our Euro 2016 fate in Irish and Polish hands.

Many called for Steven Fletcher to drop out altogether after drawing a further two blanks in the September defeats which look set to see Scotland miss out on the big party once again.

Strachan has called him up once again though, and few are expecting anything less than the misfiring Sunderland striker to line up once again in a match the gaffer is finally willing to describe as ‘must win’.

Gordon has stood by his players throughout the campaign, some argue to the extent of loyalty at the cost of overlooking form and other talent. Charlie Mulgrew, James Forrest, Steven Fletcher and even recently talisman Scott Brown have all been lucky to keep gaining caps despite underperforming.

Three ‘new’ faces have joined the squad though, with Aberdeen’s stand out performer Graeme Shinnie finally getting the international recognition he deserves for his fantastic form with the early league leaders.

Blackburn’s free scoring Jordan Rhodes finally returns to the squad, with goals at number one on the priority list against Poland, as does uncapped midfielder Kevin McDonald of Wolves.

Here Ben Ramage looks at three changes Strachan could make to help the Tartan Army fire past Poland and at least keep the pressure on Ireland going into the last fixtures of the group, so long as the Irish don’t manage to beat Germany.

Craig Gordon in for David Marshall

Poland’s biggest threat, the giant Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski, is unfortunately in the form of his life at the moment, notching ten goals in his last three games. What we wouldn’t give to have a striker like that in our squad!

Whoever is tasked with stopping him continuing this terrifying form has a huge challenge on their hands, but given Marshall’s performance in the recent Germany game, it could well be time for Craig Gordon to be brought back into the international fold.

Marshall was less than convincing against the Germans, diving far too early for Muller’s second goal after only managing to palm the ball into the box, not away from goal. Gordon is well renowned for his shot stopping ability, capable of truly world-class saves, which could be the difference should Lewandowski find space to fire at Hampden.

Darren Fletcher in for Scott Brown

A big call, granted, but few could argue that Scott Brown was at his most dominant in the crucial qualifier away against Georgia. Normally the captain would have grabbed that kind of vital game by the scruff of the neck, but much like his lacklustre performance against Malmo in the Champions League for whatever reason the combative midfielder just wasn’t as effective as he usually is.

While players shouldn’t be hung out to dry for one poor performance, Brown just hasn’t been at his brilliant best so far this season and central midfield is one of the few areas Scotland actually have ample quality replacements. Moreover, no player should be untouchable or above being dropped, this can only lead to complacency.

Darren Fletcher, one of Scotland’s few recent caps who have truly neared World Class status in his heyday at Man Utd, has fought back to fitness and is now the influential captain of West Brom, finally getting the regular game time in the Premier League he needs.

Granted West Brom have not had the best start to the season, but Darren has played and excelled in so many big games for Scotland that his coolness and ability to control the game could be imperative against Poland. In arguably Strachan’s most significant game in charge, he could do a lot worse than to turn to such a quality midfield general when the floodlit pressure builds at Hampden Park.

Steven Naismith in for Steven Fletcher

Strachan has stuck with Fletcher throughout this entire campaign, insisting that his all round game and link up play with his teammates makes up for his lack of proficiency in front of goal.

This is true, and most can see that Steven is a quality forward with a fantastic touch and great vision. But simply put, he just has not scored enough goals. In Strachan’s system he is the most advanced player, and he has not been effective enough in front of goal to put us ahead in huge games, particularly recently against Georgia. This has seen our qualification fate slip through our hands and into others.

If his club form was brilliant then the Tartan Army would be more forgiving of Strachans insistence to keep him in the side, but that simply isn’t the case. In Sunderland’s last four games, he has made two substitute appearances, scoring none. He has been coming back from injury, but nevertheless that form is not indicative of gaining the main striking role for your country.

Steven Naismith meanwhile has played in all three of Everton’s last league games and managed a man of the match and a stunning hat-trick against Chelsea, despite only coming on as a substitute against Mourinho’s men.

Couple this with the fact that he has scored in huge international games before, most notably against Spain at Hampden, it is clear that Naismith could lead the line effectively against Poland and is more in form to do so than Fletcher.

Naismith also fits the bill in terms of the progressive formation Strachan wants the national side to follow, with all players able to hold the ball up and move positions in a more fluid front line. Fletcher’s inclusion over Naismith’s in this instance would certainly indicate that the gaffer holds loyalty above all else.

Banner to show refugee support unveiled at Hampden by SFSA

THE SFSA worked alongside UNISON,  Unite and United Glasgow F.C. to unveil a banner showing support for refugees as the humanitarian crisis continues to grow in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Scotland fans were hugely receptive to the banner as it was first revealed outside the stadium before Scotland’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier with Germany kicked off and then again inside the stadium during the match.

The idea stemmed from similar banners which have been prominent in football grounds around Germany and several German fans joined in support outside the national stadium.

Fans from both countries also received leaflets which detailed why the show of support was so important as the world faces one of its toughest humanitarian crises.

The various groups that ensured the issue was raised were joined in support of the action by Jamie Hepburn, the current Minister for Sport, Health Improvement and Mental Health in Scotland.

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Pictured above, he said: ‘ I was really happy to support the fans of both countries last night at Hampden Park, as we showed that the people of Scotland really care about this humanitarian crisis and are willing to help.’

Paul Goodwin, of the SFSA, stated: ‘I am delighted with the amount of support which we have encountered from both Scotland and Germany fans today. Life is about more than just football and it is vital that we work together to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.’

We would like to thank everyone who helped make and support the banner unveiling such a success and would implore everyone to continue retweeting and sharing our message by using the hashtag #refugeeswelcome.

Here are a few of the best examples of fans around the stadium who supported the campaign:

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SFSA set to show support for refugees before crucial EUR0 2016 qualifier

Scotland supporters will display a “Refugees Welcome” banner before tonight’s UEFA EURO Qualifying match against Germany at Hampden, in a proud imitation of the actions of football supporters across Germany.

The display will give Germany and Scotland fans the opportunity to express their support and solidarity for those affected by the refugee crisis.

Organised by ourselves and with the support of Unison Scotland, Unite and United Glasgow F.C., the display will begin at 6.30 pm at Queens Park Pavilion in Lesser Hampden and we are looking for all Scotland fans to get involved and show their support by carrying the banner in honour of the thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and others every day.

We will also be handing out leaflets which we implore you to take a picture with and retweet, share and post on all social media channels to show the UK Government that Scotland fully supports helping those in dire need of our help.

Make sure to use the hashtags #refugeeswelcome and #reclaimthegame and we will make sure the message is spread as far and as clear as possible.

Keep an eye on our social media channels for all updates and further information.

 

 

Strachan must seize chance to put Georgian nightmare to bed

AS Gordon Strachan’s squad assembles for training ahead of two huge fixtures for the Tartan Army, the popular manager has an opportunity to put right one of Scotland’s most recent disasters.

His rejuvenated side are in with a chance of qualifying for France 2016, but even with a combination of impressive performances and results so far, they still trail Poland and Germany in a very tough group.

With the world champions entertaining the Poles on Friday, Strachan knows that the Georgia game offers an excellent opening to draw level with at least one of the competitors for the top two automatic qualification spots with just three games remaining.

However, Georgia has represented an even better chance for the national team to once again qualify for a major tournament which was unforgettably spurned.

In 2007, Scotland headed to Georgia on the back of an emphatic victory over Ukraine which saw the Tartan Army leading then world champions Italy by one point and losing finalists France by two points with just two games remaining.

Euro 2008 was well within grasp and with it a glorious return to major tournament football at the expense of one of the biggest powers in world football.

Alex McLeish was confident, deciding to go with two strikers against a team then ranked 63 places beneath the squad and with nothing to gain from the fixture.

Unfortunately, the Georgians also had nothing to lose and proceeded to beat a ragged and overconfident Scotland team 2 – 0, despite fielding three teenagers in the process.

While the squad may have been tired from the Ukraine game just three days before, as well as having a host of suspended and injured players, there were really no excuses for the failure to capitalise on such a phenomenal group performance having already put France to the sword twice.

Scotland then had to face the much more difficult prospect of world champions Italy at Hampden to secure qualification. A gutsy performance was undone at the end thanks to one of the worst refereeing decisions of all time. It really was unbelievable. (Click this link if you can bear to put yourself through it again).

But the group was ultimately lost on Georgian soil. Now Strachan has a chance to put that result to bed and turn the match into one that finally catapulted the Tartan Army into a major tournament as it should have done all those years ago.

There will still be work to be done, of course, but the similarity remains. This game is imperative to ensure that another promising qualification group does not turn into yet another near-miss.

Should Germany beat Poland as most would expect on Friday night, Scotland would draw level with the Poles heading into the last three fixtures if we finally leave Georgia with three points.

And while we still have Germany to face the following Monday, there is a lot of belief within the Tartan Army that Strachan’s side have every chance of taking something from the visit of the world champions as they visit a sold-out Hampden Park.

Even should we lose to Germany, we still have Poland to welcome to Hampden in what will be a hugely important game which will likely decide the qualifying fate of all three teams in October.

That remains in the future, though, and all attention must focus on the present. Georgia is the first hurdle and must be given all the teams consideration given it has tripped us up on the home straight once before.

Once Georgia are safely cleared we can, then begin to believe again as we have the chance to decide our qualification fate under the lights of Hampden once more.

Five Scots who could make Strachans squad for crucial September qualifiers

THE upcoming Euro qualifiers against Georgia and Germany in September will go a long way to deciding whether the Tartan Army will be descending on France once again for a major tournament next year.

Gordon Strachan’s side are on the brink of clinching a qualification or play-off spot. Much of the squads success is owed to continuity within the group, with Strachan desperate to maintain a domestic club atmosphere within the international side.

That being said, the gaffer has never been opposed to calling up in-form players, or looking to get youngsters in to take a closer look and let them gain experience of the national set-up.

With Callum Paterson, Ryan Gauld and Ryan Christie already called up to new coach Ricky Sbragia’s Under-21 side, Ben Ramage has looked at five Scots who did not make the full squad last time out but have excelled so far this season, which may see them make it into Mondays announcement.

Scott Bain – Dundee’s keeper has been in excellent form so far this season, helping them make an excellent start to their league campaign. The Dens Park stopper was called up for the last squad, but was cruelly denied his spot when he suffered a knee injury. Strachan has already spoken of his admiration of the 23-year-old, whose emergence has been likened to Craig Gordon as a youngster at Hearts.

Lee Wallace – Handed the captain’s armband by new gaffer Mark Warburton, Wallace has been in great form as Rangers have made a winning start to the season. His performances against Hibernian and St Mirren have been particular stand-outs, and his playing in the Championship has not hindered his selection in the past. With eight caps for the national side already, though, many would have tipped him for more in his younger years, the 28-year-old may benefit from Craig Forsyth’s less-than-confident performance against the Republic of Ireland and replace the Derby defender in the squad.

Matt Phillips – The powerful winger has continued his form from last season despite QPR struggling to adapt to life in the Championship this year. He scored two and set up the other in their first league win against Wolverhampton, and has been the subject of various Premier League clubs interest having made more assists than any other player last season in the English Premier League. His creativity and confidence in front of goal could see him add to his two caps for the national side.

Stuart Armstrong – Armstrong has been one of Celtics stand-out performers this year, showing the form that persuaded Ronny Deila to bring him to Celtic Park from Dundee United. He has notched two goals in the league already, but it is his impressive all-round performances in the Champions League which may persuade Strachan that he is ready to return to the national squad. He has made the squad before, back in 2013, but may struggle to get game time this time around in an already congested midfield. At just 23, though, it looks like Armstrong will force his way into the national side before long.

Jamie Walker – An outside chance, but Walker has been inspired as Hearts have rushed to the top of the Scottish Premier League on their return this season. His direct running and creativity could be vital in breaking down a stubborn Georgian defence, and his confidence will be sky high as the Jambos have continued their Championship winning form. Having made his way through all the younger national sides, including an excellent goal for the Under-21s, Walker may be the young player Strachan decides to take a closer look at this time around.

Should Safe Standing be introduced to improve the fan experience in Scotland?

THE myth that standing at a football match is more dangerous than sitting has long since been disproved.

In stadiums across Germany, Austria, Sweden, The US and Canada the success and security of Safe Standing areas have shown that rail seating, amongst other forms, provide a perfectly safe option for fans to stand while they watch football matches.

As Celtic have announced the planned introduction of rail seats at Celtic Park, it is time for other Scottish clubs to look at the option of introducing safe terrace areas to improve the fans experience at our clubs.

Neil Doncaster and the SPL announced years ago that, so long as a club has the local police force and local safety committee satisfied with their pilot scheme, clubs can introduce safe standing areas.

Here at the SFSA we are helping clubs look at the issues and opportunities surrounding safe standing, because we believe that almost every football fan can see the benefits of having some safe standing zones in their stadium.

German style Rail seating, backed by the Safe Standing Roadshow and the Football Supporters Federation, would allow clubs to make sections or entire stands terraces again.

This could greatly improve the atmosphere of many grounds, as it is widely accepted that fans sing more while standing than when they are seated. The majority of younger to middle aged fans in particular are believed to prefer standing to sitting, so forcing them to sit is clearly counterproductive.

Of course, vice versa no fans should be forced to stand, and thus a balance of seating and standing areas should be sought by clubs. The majority of elderly fans and parents with young children wish to sit at football matches. By separating the different categories, the users of both have a greatly improved experience.

Those that wish to sit will no longer worry about their view being blocked by someone standing in front of them. Concurrently, those who wish to stand should not have to feel guilty about doing so in case they impede the person behind them.

The reality is that many fans do stand up anyway, regardless of the all seater stadiums which are now in place. At Hampden Park, it is clear to see that the majority of fans stand throughout entire matches.

There is standing throughout games at several stadiums already, introducing Safe Standing would simply make standing official. It would also make it, the clues in the title, safe. Rail seating ensures that overcrowding cannot occur, as well as remove the anxiety and annoyance that the current situation incurs.

A supporter survey carried out by the FSF in 2009 found that three out of every four fans who prefer to stand at games have been told or asked to sit by a steward or police officer.

This can be a continuing source of friction between the fans and the authorities, particularly at away games. Fans can and have been ejected for persistent standing in seated areas, which could be completely resolved by the introduction of Safe standing areas.

Clubs may feel that the cost of installing rail seating is a big deterrent. But standing areas typically accommodate a higher density of supporters, meaning that more fans can fit in the same area and thus more tickets can be sold.

This also results in allowing ticket prices to be lower than in seated areas, which encourages more people to attend which not only boosts attendances but also allows people from every wage bracket to attend.

The Safe Standing Roadshow have visited Scottish clubs with a view to helping explain how crowdfunding could help pay for re-introducing standing, should the fans appetite be strong enough.

As an example, through Tifosy, a crowdfunding platform, fans raised over £250,000 to help Portsmouth FC build a training ground for their first team and academy.

A similar method could be used to help clubs introduce rail seating into their stadiums should the club not be able to afford all or some of the costs.

While we don’t believe fans should have to pay for the right to stand in their own stadiums, it is clear that fans are willing to help their clubs should it improve their own and the clubs situation. The Foundation of Hearts are a case in point.

With Celtic already signed up, and a list of benefits to each club and their supporters, it is clear that Safe Standing could and arguably should form a part of every ground in Scotland.

 

Safe Standing Poll

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Five Scots to watch out for as the English Premier League kicks off this weekend

THIS weekend sees the beginning of another English Premier League season, the wealthiest and most heavily broadcast league in the world.

And while there aren’t as many Scots playing south of the border as there were in the second half of the twentieth century, there are still several plying their trade from Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge.

Whether it’s a first step into the Premiership, or hoping to return to form or fitness, Ben Ramage has looked at five Scottish internationals looking to make a big impact this season.

Matt Ritchie – Bournemouth

The exciting winger has finally reached the Premier League after working his way up the divisions with Swindon Town and the Cherries. Ritchie played a huge part in Bournemouth’s title winning season, as he reached double figures in both goals and assists, and ended the season with an impressive 15 goals from out wide. Eddie Howe will be relying on him to continue to pose an attacking and goal scoring threat against the stronger defences of the Premier League.

His brilliant form for Bournemouth coincided with his first Scotland call-up, with Strachan always on the look-out for attacking talent. He has made four appearances for the national side since his debut against Northern Ireland, and notched his first goal in another recent friendly against Qatar. His pace and quality with the ball suggests he can thrive in the Premier League, which could help cement his place further in the national team.

Ikechi Anya – Watford

‘Kechi’ burst onto the national scene as a relative unknown when he was first called up by Strachan, the then Watford player who began his career at Wycombe Wanderers before spending several years in Spain with Sevilla B, Celta Vigo and Granada. Strachan’s decision was quickly vindicated when he made an impressive debut against Belgium before scoring in his next game against Macedonia.

Now a Scotland regular with 15 caps, Anya has been employed as a wing-back for much of his career at Watford. But with yet another new manager, Chico Flores, to impress it remains to be seen where he will fit next at the Hornets having made most of his international appearances as a winger. He played a full 90 minutes in their final pre-season friendly against Sevilla though, which suggests he is firmly in Flores plans. His versatility combined with his electric pace should see him become a key player as Watford aim to avoid relegation, as he finally tests himself on the platform many Tartan Army supporters believe he belongs.

Steven Fletcher – Sunderland

A huge season lies ahead for Steven Fletcher. When he signed for Sunderland for £12 million in 2012 having reached double figures for a struggling Wolves side two seasons in a row, it appeared he was set to become the goal scoring number nine that Scotland had been craving. However, a spate of unsettling injuries has led to an inconsistent career at Sunderland, with many Mackems and Scotland supporters close to losing patience with the former Hibernian hitman.

That being said Fletcher has always offered much more to teams than just goals, with an excellent footballing brain which often leads to great hold up play and assists for teammates. This is the reason Gordon Strachan rates him so highly, and with Sunderland coach Dick Advocaat appearing to give him a vote of confidence by shipping out one of his attacking rivals Connor Wickham instead of him. He featured heavily in Sunderland’s preseason tour of America, and it is now time for Fletcher to prove himself once more on the Premier League stage.

Russell Martin – Norwich

Looking forward to a return to Premier League action is Norwich skipper Russell Martin. Having long established himself at the Canaries, highly rated ex-Hamilton manager Alex Neil has handed the defender the armband again ahead of what could be a very testing season as they aim to stay in the league having been promoted via last seasons Championship play-offs.

The right back earned the nickname ‘The Norfolk Cafu’ for his exploits at Carrow Road, but it was his performances filling in at centre-back which led Strachan to call for him to fill one of Scotland’s most problematic positions. He hasn’t let the Tartan Army down yet, making 19 appearances for the national team and it will be great to see him fight to keep Norwich up this year alongside fellow Scots Steven Whittaker and Graham Dorrans.

Darren Fletcher – West Brom

Another captain hoping to lead his team to a strong season is Darren Fletcher, who finally looks to have put his horrendous injury troubles behind him. He can now focus on reasserting himself as one of the league’s most effective and influential midfielders, at the heart of Tony Pulis’s West Brom side. The Baggies struggled towards the end of last season, but with international teammate James Morrison alongside him Fletcher will be hoping to power them back towards to the top half of the table.

He will also be desperate to help lead Scotland back to a first international tournament for 18 years, as this may be one of his last chances to play at a major tournament given his age and history of injuries. The former Manchester United star surely deserves a chance more than most to lead his country out at France after battling back from his terrible illness, should Strachan’s side make it to Euro 2016.

Help us lobby FIFA sponsors to ensure independent reform

The fallout from the FIFA allegations and Sepp Blatter’s resignation promise to be momentous, with the organisation finally headed for much needed reform.

However, to ensure that this prime opportunity to reform footballs biggest football association and governing body is as effective as it can be, it is imperative that FIFA is reformed by an independent body.

This will ensure that the changes which are required are effected wholeheartedly and ruthlessly, and most importantly not by those who still have ties and emotional or political links within the organisation.

With a view to ensuring this process is impartial our friends at the Football Supporters Federation have, along with the help of New FIFA Now, put together a list of chief executives emails for all eight of the groups key sponsors.

Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Visa, Hyundai, Budweiser, Gazprom and Kia all have a duty to ensure that FIFA is reformed as correctly and fairly as possibly, having funded the groups operations and benefited from their advertising space for decades in some cases.

FSF as such have written a well-structured argument which you can email to all sponsors simply by clicking the links in this page – http://fsf.org.uk/latest-news/view/fans-urged-to-target-fifa-sponsors – and signing off with your name.

The message is as follows;

Dear (name),

I and countless other football supporters from across the globe are dismayed at the corruption and influence-peddling at the top of footballs world governing body FIFA. It is time for an end to this scandal afflicting our beautiful game and the voices of supporters to be heard. Although I welcome FIFA President Sepp Blatters announcement that he will stand down, I call on your organisation to demand an independent commission to oversee changes to FIFAs statutes ensuring robust safeguards against future corruption, fair elections and transparent governance. Being a sponsor and commercial partner of FIFA your organisation reputation and public image is at risk if FIFA fails to reform, and it cannot be allowed to reform itself. Football and your brand can only be protected if FIFA is reform by a wholly independent process. If you want to find out in more detail what myself and other football supporters are calling for, please read the New FIFA Now Guiding Principles page, which clearly outlines a vision for a fairer, more accountable FIFA structure.

Kind regards, (your name)

By sending the email to all eight sponsors, as we have done, you will help to put pressure on the financial supporters of FIFA who are key political and financial players in the reformation of the governing body.

All football supporters, from Scotland to South Africa, have a duty to ensure that the governing body of our beloved sport is not allowed to succumb to the corruption and greed which has permeated FIFA.

As such, the hope we all share to stamp out exploitation and backhanders may finally be exacted on the face of worldwide football.

Championship preview – Who will return to the top flight of Scottish football?

WITH Hibs and Rangers set to lock horns again and St Mirren also battling for the automatic promotion spot back to the Premiership, Ben Ramage has looked at the key signings and departures in the Championship so far and had a go at predicting the final league standings.

Alloa Athletic

The Wasps narrowly avoided relegation last season, and Danny Lennon will be looking for a more comfortable season at the Indodrill Stadium this season around. The loan signings of Celtic duo Conor McManus and Michael Duffy should help to bring some quality in midfield and up front respectively, while the central-belt side have also brought in Burton O’Brien from Livingston, Dougie Hill from Raith Rovers and Kyle McAusland from Dunfermline. This should help ease the loss of defenders Daryll Meggatt and Ben Gordon, as well as strikers Liam Buchanan and Kevin Cawley. Lennon will have to work quickly to bed in his new acquisitions in order to avoid another relegation scare.

Dumbarton

The Sons moved quickly to bring in manager Stephen Aitkin from Stranraer, after they lost in the League One play-off’s to Forfar. He immediately set to work on improving the squad which failed to make it half way up the Championship last year, ultimately finishing 7th. Ex-Jambo Darren Barr has been brought in to sturdy the defence, while Bino Gordon Smith has been acquired to add extra firepower as well as Alloa forward Kevin Cawley. They have lost two influential midfielders to the Premiership with Chris Turner joining Hamilton Accies and Darren Petrie returning to Dundee United after his loan spell. Also lost midfielder Scott Agnew to St Mirren but former midfielder Aitkin has sought to address this by bringing in Jamie Lindsay on loan from Celtic as well as signing Jon Routledge from Hamilton.

Falkirk

There has not been a lot of movement for Bairns fans to get excited over so far, with gaffer Peter Houston largely trying to keep together his squad after a successful season last year which saw them finish 5th. He has lost exciting forward Rory Loy, though, to Premiership side Dundee, whose goals will be sorely missed, as well as experienced Jamie McDonald to Kilmarnock.  He will hope that replacement Bob McHugh from Motherwell will keep up the goalscoring of Loy, while keeper Danny Rogers has been brought in on loan from the Dons.

Greenock Morton

Last year’s League One champions Morton have struggled to add to their league winning side so far, with gaffer Jim Duffy only managing to bring in winger Bobby Barr from Brechin City and Stranraer defender Frank McKeown. He has managed to keep the majority of his title winning side together, though, with Stefan Milojevic and Jamie McCluskey the main casualties of going up, both of whom have moved abroad. The Ton may need to strengthen further to stay up in the more competitive Championship.

Hibernian

Having come up short against Rangers in the play-offs last season, Alan Stubbs has tried to strengthen significantly in order to go one further this time around. Not only won’t they have to compete with Edinburgh rivals Hearts this season, they have also signed James Keatings from the Jambos, a Championship promotion expert who went up with Hearts last season as well as before with Hamilton Accies. Martin Boyle has also been added up front joining from Dundee, while keeper Mark Oxley has joined permanently from Hull City having been on loan last season. Stubbs will have been annoyed at losing Liam Craig and Callum Booth to Premiership opposition, joining St Johnstone and Partick Thistle respectively, but happy to have so far kept hold of young stars Jason Cummings and Scott Allan. Their pursuit of the title may well rest on continuing to keep hold of these young stars.

Livingston

Having escaped relegation and administration last year, Livingston will be hoping to stabalise in the Championship this year. Mark Burchill has lost three key midfielders so far, with Shaun Rutherford and Kyle Jacobs both joining Queen of the South and Burton O’Brien leaving for Alloa. Has made some sound looking acquisitions so far, though, with midfielder Kieran Gibbons joining from Aberdeen and defender Morgyn Neill coming from Motherwell. Striker Liam Buchanan has also arrived from the Wasps to add some much needed firepower at the Almondvale Stadium.

Queen of the South

The Dumfries side won many plaudits for their expansive style of play last season, and the Doonhamers will look to push on now that Hearts have left the league and left arguably a two horse race for the title. Motherwell striker Steven Higgins has been brought in to further fire on the Queens, while Callum Tapping and Shaun Rutherford have been brought in to bolster their all-important midfield. They have paid the price for their success last season, though, with Ian McShane leaving for an undisclosed fee to Ross County, Kevin Holt joining Dundee, Mark Durnan leaving for Dundee United and Gavin Reilly leaving for Championship winners Hearts. While they have received compensation for all these young talents, they may struggle to replicate their terrific form last season this time around.

Raith Rovers

Ray McKinnon’s excellent work at Brechin City saw him appointed Raith Rovers manager, and he has looked to strengthen the side which finished mid-table last year. So far he has strengthened the defence with Kyle Benedictus of Dundee, James Craigen and Darren Petrie from Dundee United and Partick Thistle repsectively and Mitch Megginson up front from Dumbarton. He was powerless to stop key forward Christian Nade joining Hamilton Academical, though, or Ryan Conroy from leaving for Queen of the South, so it remains to be seen where McKinnon can take the The Rovers this season.

Rangers

Ex-Brentford boss Mark Warburton has set about rebuilding the Rangers side which just fell short in the play-offs last season to Motherwell. This begun with a major clear-out of established players, including Kris Boyd, Lee McCulloch, Steven Smith, Ian Black, Jon Daly and Bilel Mohsni, as well as all the Newcastle loanees from last season. He has brought in two Hearts players in Jason Holt and Danny Wilson, the key signing being skipper Wilson who returns to the centre of defence having left the Gers for Liverpool. He has also recruited heavily from Wigan, bringing in former Newcastle youngster James Tavernier as well as Martyn Waghorn and Rob Kiernan from the Latics. Andy Halliday has also been brought in from Bradford City, and with few key losses from Ibrox Rangers certainly look in a strong position to take the Championship title at the second time of asking.

St Mirren

Looking to bounce back after a dismal season last year which ended in relegation, the Buddies new manager Ian Murray has moved quickly to try and rebuild a demoralised side by adding midfielders Stuart Carswell from Motherwell and Cameron Howieson from Burnley. Defender Luke Conlan has also joined from the Clarets, while striker Paul McMullan has been brought in on loan from Celtic. They have lost the influential duo of Gary Teale and Gregg Wylde, though, to management and Plymouth Argyle respectively, and will be hard pressed to bounce straight back to the Premiership with Hibs and Rangers a tough obstacle to overpass.

Predicted Table

  1. Rangers
  2. Hibs
  3. St Mirren
  4. Queen of the South
  5. Falkirk
  6. Raith Rovers
  7. Dumbarton
  8. Livingston
  9. Alloa
  10. Greenock Morton

Hampden Park – Should we stay or should we go?

THE exciting 2018 World Cup draw and the game against England opened up a debate about where the colossal fixture should take place.

With the SFA announcing that the game would take place at Hampden Park, long the home of Scottish football, many Tartan Army fans believed the game should be played at Celtic Park or Murrayfield, where undoubtedly thousands more people could attend and arguably the atmosphere would be better.

The SFA, meanwhile, is currently looking at whether to extend the current deal they have with Queen’s Park to continue renting Hampden Park for national team fixtures, which is due to expire in 2020.

Here at the SFSA, we have been speaking to fans up and down the country as to where they would like to see the national team play their fixtures from 2020 onwards.

The recurring options that have emerged are; to stick with Hampden as it is, to improve or rebuild Hampden Park or to tour the country and play fixtures at grounds depending on the likely attendance requiring accommodating.

Our writer Ben Ramage has looked at the positives and negatives of each prospective option.

Keep Hampden exactly as it is.

For: there are a large group of Scotland fans who wish for the national team to continue using Hampden Park as their undisputed home ground. This is mainly down to sentiment that Hampden has long been the home of Scottish football and that is should continue to be so. Many fans have fantastic memories of games at Hampden Park, such as the defeating of France, Holland and Czechoslovakia, of which the games and the atmosphere are favourite memories of following the national side.

The argument also rests on the fact that Scotland rarely sell-out Hampden, so increasing the stadium’s capacity is not necessary. Rebuilding Hampden or improving the stadium would also be an expensive process which the SFA may not have enough funds available to proceed with.

Against: while many fans believe Hampden is a perfectly adequate national stadium, there remains a significant group of Tartan Army fans who believe that the stadium is not befitting of a national football side. These fans’ argument rests largely on the atmosphere of the ground, which they believe is down to the structure and lay-out of the stadium.

Three of Hampden Park’s stands are a significant distance from the pitch. The South stand has a running track in front of it, while the goal-end West and East stands have a large area in front of them which distances supporters from the pitch, and thus the action. This is argued to decrease the atmosphere, as singing as a whole stadium is difficult to effect, particularly as the distance between fans at games is large given that Hampden Park rarely sells out.

Improving or rebuilding Hampden Park.

For: many fans have called for the rebuilding or improvement of Hampden Park. This would keep the national side at the same venue, which would appease those who wish for Hampden to remain the spiritual home of the national team. This could be affected by knocking down the East and West stands and bringing them closer to the pitch. This would bring thousands of fans closer to the pitch, as well as increase the capacity should the stands have two steep tiers instead of one sloping tier.

Rebuilding the national stadium is the most drastic option, but would allow for the construction of a purpose built football stadium, with the maximum amount of fan capacity and fan satisfaction regarding viewing and pricing to be taken into account in the construction. Extra seating would mean that ticket prices could be lowered to try and attract more fans to smaller qualifiers, while the SFA could earn more money by selling more tickets to larger international games.

Against: the construction of a totally new stadium would be hugely expensive and time consuming. With only four years remaining on the current deal, it looks unlikely that another stadium could be built in time, even if the funding was available which it likely is not. The location of the stadium would also take much planning and preparation.

Rebuilding would be difficult, with Hampden one continuous stand rather than four separate stands. While work was ongoing Hampden would also be out of action, meaning the national side would have to use other venues to host qualifiers.

Leave Hampden and use various stadiums around the country.

For: there is the possibility that the national side could leave Hampden Park and use existing stadiums around the country for qualifying and friendly matches. This is the model that Spain and current world champions Germany employ. This model allows for matches to be allocated to stadiums taking into account the likely attendances. This means bigger matches could be hosted at stadiums such as Celtic Park, Ibrox and Murrayfield, while smaller matches could be hosted at grounds such as Tannadice, Pittodrie, Tynecastle and Easter Road.

This would mean that the SFA could ensure that every Scotland game was sold out, by matching games with grounds regarding expected attendances. This would boost atmosphere, as a sold out ground is generally accepted as having a better atmosphere than a half-empty ground. The hosting of games at larger stadiums would also increase revenue, as more tickets could be sold at grounds with larger capacities for games which normally sell out at Hampden.

Against: touring the country would mean that the national team would not have a ‘home’ ground, which some argue would lessen attachment to grounds. Hampden Park is loved by so many because it is the official home of the national team, which would undoubtedly be lost if the team played at various grounds around the country.

The SFA would also have to pay to ‘rent’ each ground which was chosen to host specific games. While the money for this should easily be made back from ticket sales, should games not sell out there is a danger of a shortfall in funding. With the current deal with Queen’s Park in place, which is expected to be a fairly paltry sum, the national team always has a home for national games, as well as being the headquarters of the SFA.

 

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Is it time for our National Team to move away from Hampden?

Our writer Ben Ramage discusses why the fans opinion should be taken into account when deciding on the future home of the Scottish national football team.

IN the wake of the World Cup 2018 draw, Scotland have been handed arguably their biggest qualification game in nearly 20 years in a competitive fixture with England.

The SFA’s decision to host the momentous game at Hampden Park is hardly surprising, given that it is the official home of the Scottish national team, at least until 2020.

But at the fans’ level, it has fuelled further discussion as to the long-term suitability of Hampden as the national team’s home ground. And with SFA chief Steward Regan admitting that options are being looked at as to the long term future of Hampden, the time to discuss how to progress is now.

While Hampden has been Scotland’s official home for 112 years its popularity is continuing to wane, with many Tartan Army fans believing that the layout of the stadium is not conducive to a sparkling atmosphere.

First and foremost, the running track which runs in front of the South stand increases the distance significantly between fans and the action on the pitch. This continues around to the East and West stand, the least popular spots for fans to sit albeit the most affordable as a result.

This distance has been cited as the main reason that the atmosphere sometimes feels lacking at Hampden Park. Singing is often hard for the Tartan Army to orchestrate, given the massive distance from the East to the West stand.

Granted, for larger games the atmosphere can be terrific but that is arguably down to the size of the opponent and magnitude of the games. A sold-out stadium full of Tartan Army fans will always produce an atmosphere, if anything this is more in spite of the stadiums layout.

This distance also plays a significant factor in attendance figures. Anyone who has been to Hampden knows that these stands, specifically the goal-end East and West stands, provide the worst viewing but are also the cheapest. The view from these stands is arguably unacceptable on the national stage.

The problem is that the cheapest tickets are still not cheap. In this campaign alone, Tartan Army loyals were charged £35 to sit in these stands to watch Gibraltar, competing in their first-ever international group stage.

Should fans know that the atmosphere and view they were going to receive for £35 were to be excellent, this might not seem as expensive. However, knowing they are paying that much for a poor view and atmosphere is certainly off-putting.

Another argument for moving stadiums, particularly for the biggest qualifiers, is the extra capacity it will bring. While Scotland games rarely sell out for the biggest games, i.e the upcoming Germany game which has already sold out before reaching public sale, the capacity at Hampden is a hindrance.

Shy of 52,000 is more than accommodating for most of the national team’s fixtures, but for Germany in September, or the recently announced England World Cup qualifier, the extra 8,000 seats at Celtic Park or even 15,000 at Murrayfield would be sold.

This would not only generate extra revenue, the atmosphere would be improved due to the extra voices and the improved layout of the stadium. Lionel Messi recently said that Celtic Park had the best atmosphere in Europe when he visited with Barcelona, and who are we to argue with the Argentine maestro.

Celtic Park is fairly undisputed as one of the most atmospheric stadiums in Britain, as is Ibrox, so why not utilise this for the national team. The distance from the stands to the pitch is intimidating for visiting sides, and we should always be looking to give ourselves the best advantage over opponents.

One option is to follow the German national team model, where the national team travels around the country at stadiums fitting the proportion of the game.

This would allow Scotland to play their largest games at the largest stadiums in the country, Celtic Park, Ibrox and Murrayfield, and the smaller games at stadiums around the country, such as Pittodrie, Tannadice, Tynecastle and Easter Road.

Not only would this take the national team away from the Edinburgh and Glasgow, which believe it or not is not where the entire country lives, it will also allow the SFA to avoid the rental fee they pay to rent Hampden from Queen’s Park.

This would allow the national team to fill the biggest stadiums in the country for the largest games, and pack out smaller stadiums for smaller qualifiers depending on the opposition.

Rebuilding Hampden Park is another option, but is obviously the most costly and time consuming. Hampden is already home to a brilliant museum, the SFA offices and of course Queen’s Park, so considering them is imperative.

But it is also imperative that the Scottish fans who pay massive amounts of money to follow their side through thick and, more often, thin should be considered when deciding where they watch their beloved team.

Kind World Cup 2018 draw reunites Auld Enemy rivals

As the dust settles on the pots in Russia, the Tartan Army have had a night to try and control the excitement which followed the momentous draw.

Whether they have managed to remains to be seen, but they certainly have reason to celebrate as Scotland picked up one of their most favourable draws in recent times.

Of all the potential pot 1 opponents, Wales and Romania would have arguably presented the best opportunity of picking up points at home and away. A return to face England at Wembley though in a first competitive fixture for seventeen years certainly makes up for missing the lowest ranked pot 1 seeds.

Not only this, but England are not the most dangerous seeds Scotland could have drawn. Holland, Spain, Germany and Belgium are all higher ranked opponents which we have done well to avoid.

And with even better luck, which normally deserts Scotland when preliminary group draws are dealt, we have managed to sidestep the biggest pot 2 opponents France and Italy.

Normally we would have found ourselves in Group A or Group G, alongside Holland and France or Spain and Italy. The mountain we normally have to climb has been shortened significantly given the comparatively favourable draw of Slovakia.

In typically confident fashion Strachan claimed post-draw that he would have taken any group such is the belief he has in his current group of players. But even he must have drawn a significant sigh of relief when Sweden, not Scotland, was handed the group of death alongside Holland and France early in the proceedings.

The fact we side-stepped the other group of death highlights how good a draw this was for the Tartan Army compared to our recent efforts.

That being said, the threat of Slovakia should not be underrated. Despite missing out on the 2012 European Championships and the 2014 World Cup, the side have been resurgent so far in France 2016 qualifying. They currently sit top of group C having won 6 out of 6 fixtures, including beating Spain.

Almost certain to qualify for France, they will provide a very stern test in the race for 2018 qualification. As a result they will also pose a significant threat to England, which could help open out the group as the Three Lions may drop points to Slovakia at home and away.

The momentousness of the occasion when England come to Hampden and when the Tartan Army descend on Wembley once more will likely also be a leveller, which could help open up the race for first even further.

While Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta will provide tests of varying difficulty, such is the improvement under Gordon Strachan that Scotland can be confident of taking maximum points from every meeting with the lower seeds. The trip to Slovenia will be the biggest potential banana skin, with England only managing to beat them 3 – 2 in Ljubljana in a recent qualifier.

Overall the Tartan Army can rightly be very enthusiastic in the wake of the kindest draw we have received in years. The England games will be special in their own right, but the draw most importantly presents us the best opportunity we have had to return to the biggest football stage in the world for the first time in 20 years.

 

Opponent round up:

England – FIFA World Ranking – 9

– Key Player – Wayne Rooney – Striker (Man Utd) Caps – 105

Slovakia – FIFA World Ranking – 15

– Key Player – Marek Hamsik – Midfielder (Napoli) Caps – 78

Slovenia – FIFA World Ranking – 49

– Key Player – Samir Handanovic – Goalkeeper (Inter Milan) Caps -76

Lithuania – FIFA World Ranking – 96

– Key Player – Tadas Kijanskas – Defender (Hapoel Haifa) Caps – 43

Malta – FIFA World Ranking – 158

– Key Player – Ryan Fenech – Midfielder (Valletta) Caps – 41

 

Scotland’s Fixture list:

Sunday 4 Sep 2016 – Malta (a) – 7.45pm

Saturday 8 Oct 2016 – Lithuania (h) – 7.45pm

Tuesday 11 Oct 2016 – Slovakia (a) – 7.45pm

Friday 11 Nov 2016 – England (a) – 7.45pm

Sunday 26 Mar 2017 – Slovenia (h) – 7.45pm

Saturday 10 Jun 2017 – England (h) – 5pm

Friday 1 Sep 2017 – Lithuania (a) – 7.45pm

Monday 4 Sep 2017 – Malta (h) – 7.45pm

Thursday 5 Oct 2017 – Slovakia (h) – 7.45pm

Sunday 8 Oct 2017 – Slovenia (a) – 5pm