People are Strange (When You’re Stranger)

I have a season ticket for the cinema. I don’t use if often enough. That was perhaps understandable when I lived 10 miles outside the city centre, but not now when I can almost see the cinema from my living room window.

There are a few films out at the moment that have piqued my interest, and so I decided I really had to drag myself along and watch one. Unfortunately I wasn’t really in the mood last Friday evening to watch one of the more serious flicks on offer, but schedules were against me, and I plumped for Foxcatcher.

When I reached the theatre however, I found someone was sitting in my seat (the cinema in question recently introduced allocated seating; it’s caused no end of bother.) I thought for a moment about what to do, then turned around and went home.

That probably seems an extreme reaction. It even did to me by Sunday evening. But it made perfect sense at the time. I’ve always been very shy, sometimes more than others, depending on how confident I feel or how tired I am. The last thing I wanted to do on Friday night was enter into negotiations with the person in my seat. They probably would have been okay about it, but the chance remained that they wouldn’t. I didn’t want to sit somewhere else, because then I’d be in the wrong seat.

And there is more to it than just pure shyness; I have a habit of being somewhat misanthropic, and the fact that so many people seem to have an issue with the seat numbering in the cinema really winds me up.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking ‘how ridiculous.’ I don’t deny it. In all honesty, I think the combination of shyness, low self-confidence, and the misanthropy is preventing me from forming proper, lasting relationships.

This is something that’s playing on my mind recently because, reasons. I am waiting for an appointment with a counsellor, and it would be nice to think something positive might come out of it.

So if you know me, and you’re reading this, and you sometimes think I’m odd…well, yes I am.

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Punters and Debators

Painters and decorators. Plumbers and joiners. Rangers have taken a lot of stick over the last two and a half seasons for their performances against lower league, supposedly lower quality opposition.

Statistically, that was never quite the case. In SFL Division 3, as it was at the time, and in SPFL League Two, Rangers won 58 of their 72 league matches, losing 3. That’s a win rate of 80%. The question of style of play in those games is another, more subjective matter. I’ve just spend most of the last two hours watching Manchester United, with their multi-million pound squad and respected manager, struggle to a 0-0 draw against Cambridge United, a team playing three levels below them in the English league.

I can’t think of another club that’s been in the position Rangers have been in the last three seasons – demoted to the fourth tier of their domestic league, but with most of their infrastructure and expectations intact. No other campaign springs to mind to benchmark against.

However, I’d been pondering for a while what a typical top-flight club’s record in the domestic cups against lower-league opposition would look like. Giant-killings, where a team knocks out another from a division or more above them, happen on a fairly regular basis, and would appear to lend credence to the notion that sometimes wee clubs give big clubs a run for their money. It’s still not quite like-for-like, as a team like United would still be playing league games at the highest level. We might never see another club in the same position Rangers were.

As Manchester United were playing against a fourth tier team tonight, I decided I’d have a look at their record in this regard – 36 matches against teams ranging from the Championship to the Conference Premier. For the purposes of this exercise, I took the score at the end of 90 minutes for matches that went to extra-time.

Starting with a League Cup game in October 1996 against Swindon, Man Utd’s record against lower league opposition thus looks like this:

Played Won Drawn Lost For Against Points
36 24 5 7 74 23 77

That’s a win percentage of 67%.

For comparison, here’s Rangers’ record in 2012-13

Played Won Drawn Lost For Against Points
36 25 8 3 87 29 83

The numbers aren’t too dissimilar. I know what you’re thinking though, you’re thinking that Rangers should have had enough in the tank to see off the likes of Stirling Albion and Annan. Perhaps, but in theory Man Utd should have had more than enough to beat the likes of Coventry, Southend, Cambridge, Crewe, Burton, Exeter and Bury at the first time of asking. Perhaps Utd played younger teams, and reserves? Perhaps football’s just football, where anything can happen over the course of 90 minutes. If it all went according to plan, presumably there wouldn’t be as many bookmakers on the high street.

Substitute

Okay, this isn’t just an excuse to post a video of one of my favourite bands. Well, not much.

I was discussing Rangers with my friend Jean at lunchtime the other day, as we are wont to do, and she mentioned one of the many things the Ibrox fans disliked about his management was that he didn’t make personnel changes quickly enough. This is indeed a common accusation levelled against McCoist, and Walter Smith before him, with a common belief that both have tended to make their first sub around the 72nd minute mark. Again, you won’t have to look for long online before you find someone who thinks we should be making substitutions earlier.

Because I have far too much time on my hands (my marathon training doesn’t start in earnest until next week), I thought I’d see exactly when McCoist did make his first substitution during his 127 games in charge of Rangers.

As you can see, the majority of his first changes came between minutes 61 and 70, but it’s worth nothing that roughly 13% came roughly during the half time break. This is all very nice in itself, but when do other managers decide to freshen things up? Thankfully the Telegraph carried out a useful exercise a few months ago, which can be found here. Their data suggests that most FA Premier League managers tend to make their first change between the 60th and 65th minute. I arranged McCoist’s subs into a similar chart.

Unsurprisingly, the median and mean time of McCoist’s first sub is not massively dissimilar to the likes of Mourinho, Rodgers, and Wenger. And most of the rest of the Premier League’s managers, for that matter. Why then, it’s become such a bugbear among Rangers fans is something of a mystery, but a mystery I hope to explore further in future writing this year.

The Rangers Double Standard Part 2

When I wrote the first part of this blog, I expected to receive more disagreeable comments on what I felt was something of a contentious topic. As it was, I was only tweeted by one person, @dross1989, stating that Rangers fans are frustrated because “Most of the youth players you use in your piece are nowhere near 1st team squad this year.”

It’s true that the number of youth team graduates/young players (there’s a semantic difference there that I’ll go into later) in the Rangers first team this season has been sparse. Lewis Macleod started most matches, when fit, before his travesty of a transfer to Brentford. Fraser Aird has started 9 matches (missing a few games through injury), and Kyle Hutton has started twice. You could make an argument for including Steven Smith’s 10 starts, as he came through the Rangers youth system before his three year sabbatical, but even I’m not that brave…

It’s a disappointing return (and similar to last season’s), if you feel that your team’s line up should have as low an average age as possible, and that a whole new crop of young players should break through each season. Personally, I’m not overly concerned, and I’ll try to explain why…

A few years ago, I found an old copy of the Scottish Football Review while tidying the house. It was from the 1996-97 season, but as I looked at the squad lists I found that I barely recognised any of the names. Of the then teenage players, the three Barrys (Ferguson, Nicholson, Robson) were the most noticeable, but many of the 166 names meant nothing to me. For a while I believed this was due to the Scottish game being unable to nourish its young talent, but a few years ago, an alternative explanation presented itself; football is simply an over-subscribed job market.

By way of illustration, consider how many starting places there are in the SPFL Premiership. 12 clubs need to field 11 players each week. Factoring in 9 reserves to cover throughout the season, that’s 240 players in total. Each club will have a number of youth teams as well, so it wouldn’t be unrealistic to suggest that there are ~250 young players trying to secure a first team starting place each season. The fact is that most can’t, and won’t, and haven’t made it. This has the knock-on effect that those young players that do break through have to have something special about them.

Of the 166 15-18 year olds registered to Scottish football league clubs in 1996, a few of them did make a name for themselves in the game: Russell Anderson, Barry Ferguson, Kenny Miller, Gary Naysmith, Barry Robson, Barry Nicholson, Neil Alexander, Lee Wilkie, Gary Teale, Steven Thompson, Craig Dargo, Chris Iwelumo. Most of them played in the English Premier League, Europe, and for Scotland. The vast majority of the rest faded away, to Junior football, or drifting out of the game altogether. And that’s still true today: the vast majority of young men contracted as professional footballers when they’re aged 16-18 won’t be when they’re 22.

This brings us neatly (or perhaps not) to 21 year old Kyle McAusland, who has been released by Rangers today to much consternation from the online faithful. It’s another sign of Rangers lack of trust in youth and short-sightedness in general seemed to be the consensus on Twitter earlier. McAusland seems a decent young player, but I think he’s become a victim of what I like to call ‘Jordan McMillan’ syndrome, whereby the reputation of a young player at Rangers increases each week he doesn’t get a game for the first team, simply because he’s young. The same thing happened with Andy Mitchell, who after being released spent half a season at Annan before ending up at Southport in the English Conference. McAusland seems like a decent young player, but 3 league starts for Rangers and two loan spells, all in the Scottish third tier, isn’t a great pedigree. A recurring sentiment in my Twitter search earlier was that ‘he can’t be any worse than Foster’. Well, he could. There’s a fairly good chance that the guy with 60 matches worth of experience in the second lowest league in Scotland isn’t as talented a footballer as the guy who’s played 400 games at a far higher level, regardless of popular opinion.

But here’s the rub; Rangers fans often like to talk about the standard of player that’s fit to pull on the shirt. We have very, very high standards. Players like Charlie Adam, Steven Davis, Steven Whittaker et al have gone on to make decent careers for themselves in the English Premier League, but were slaughtered on a weekly basis when they played for Rangers (all three of them are still slagged off regularly, it has to be said.) Why then, are we so willing to accept that Jordan McMillan, Andy Mitchell and Kyle McAusland are the answer to our problems at right-back, based on the few matches they each started? Is it simply because they’re relatively young? They almost certainly can’t have proved themselves. Sometimes our fans’ approach to new players reminds me of the quote from The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Or the Villan, in Alan Hutton’s case.

However, I can certainly see the argument that the likes of Calum Gallagher, Barrie McKay and Ryan Hardie might excite the fans (I’d personally like to see all three of them involved more often), and will certainly be on less money than the current first team squad. There’s a chance that they might even be better players. But it’s by no means guaranteed. The problems with the team at the present moment in time, in my opinion, run deeper than being mere footballing issues.

And a couple of other things…

The difference between a young player and a youth team graduate is that the former is typically aged 21 or under, and the latter is someone that’s come through the youth system, and may well still be there. Ryan Giggs for instance would have been a young player until 199-95, then he would have become a youth team graduate. That’s the terminology I use anyway. I get the impression Rangers fans would like to see more young players than youth team graduates.

I continually read that Rangers are afraid of playing young players. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. John Fleck, Andy Little, Danny Wilson, Gregg Wylde, Jamie Ness, Kyle Hutton, Darren Cole, Ross Perry, Kane Hemming, Andy Mitchell, Rhys McCabe, Barrie McKay, Lewis Macleod, Scott Gallacher, Robbie Crawford, Tom Walsh, Kal Naismith, Luca Gasparotta, Chris Hegarty, Kyle McAusland, Fraser Aird, Andy Murdoch, Charlie Telfer, Calum Gallagher and Ryan Hardie have played for the first team in the last eight seasons. 25 players. That’s over three debutants each season. Of course, it didn’t work out for every one of them, perhaps due to them, perhaps due to management, certainly due to certain ex-owners of the club.

The Rangers Double Standard

Given that Hearts are currently, seemingly, running away with the SPFL Championship, it’s no surprise that that some Rangers fans are casting an envious eye at goings on over in Gorgie. They see a club that has recovered from its recent financial travails, and having been relegated from the Premiership at the end of the 2013-14 season is well on the way to securing a quick return, being 13 points clear at the top of the division and with a first team squad full of young players.

As I’ve previously blogged, the Rangers support have a strange fascination with youth. We bemoan the absence of teenagers in the first team squad wherever on the net such debates surface. I have seen at least Twitter user argue that Rangers should be bringing through a number of new young players each season, otherwise they’re failing. There’s no doubting that much of the Rangers’ fan base is exasperated at the small number of youth team graduates that have played for the club this season. I read on a regular basis that we should be emulating Hearts. Which is interesting…

Following the Vladimir Romanov ownership of the club, Hearts went into administration in June 2013. Much of the previous season’s squad departed that summer, leaving Ryan Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald, and Jamie Hamill as the club’s only real senior players. The rest of the squad was made up of players from the youth team, with ages ranging from 17 to 22. The club were also deducted 15 points for going into administration, and despite a late-season upturn in form, relegation was confirmed.

In the summer of 2014 however, the club exited administration under new ownership, and with a new coaching set-up. Stevenson, MacDonald and Hamill departed, and new Director of Football Craig Levein and Head Coach Robbie Neilson brought in 14 new players. Full of confidence, they’ve enjoyed an excellent start to the 2014-15 season.

I don’t blame Rangers fans for envying Hearts, with things going disastrously wrong on and off the pitch. However, I think that the on-going financial problems are adversely affecting the team. Morale and performance seems to have taken a downward spiral in much the same way as it did in the 2011-12 season. However, that’s not the point of this blog; instead I want to look at the perception Rangers fans have of Hearts’ youthfulness.

While it’s true that Hearts did field very young teams last season, and many of these young players are still featuring this season, the proportion of young players starting matches has dropped from 77% to 39.5%. This is broken down in the following table.

It’s worth noting that MacDonald, McGowan, Tapping and Adam King have since left the club, and that Dale Carrick has been injured for most of the season. Nevertheless, the figures below show that the Hearts line-up has been supplanted with more experience this season.

All-in-all, the average age of the XI that have started most games for Hearts this season is 23.91, up 1.45 years from last season, where 1 is the natural increase in age. 24 is still a reasonably young average age for a team, but let us compare for a moment the Rangers team of 2012-13, which was universally castigated for signing experienced players from the SPL and abroad, and not investing in youth.

Incidentally, the percentage of first team starting places given to youth team players by Rangers in 2012-13 was 39%, the exact same as Hearts this season. The average age of that Rangers starting XI (on this date in 2013) was 25.73.

This is slightly beside the point, as Hearts seem favourites to secure automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership at the first time of asking, and Rangers seem doomed to further years of corporate instability, a la Portsmouth. What I am trying to illustrate is that Rangers fans hold their club to a higher standard than virtually any other club in the world, and from these impossibly high standards arise unfair comparisons and…well, urban myths. Hearts’ squad now is held up of a bastion of youth development, as they bring in experienced players from around Europe, while we were castigated for doing the same thing (and yes, while I accept that winning the third division by 24 clear points isn’t quite the same feat, it still rankles.)

This is just a phenomenon that’s existed for decades. The reason that player X might do well for Hearts or Dundee Utd and struggle at Rangers is not because of myriad flaws with our coaching set up, but because they’re subject to a level of forensic scrutiny they’ll have never experienced before, with every mistake and bad game highlighted. Some players can adapt to that, some can’t. They may increase the level of performance they deliver, but the level of expectation surrounding them has increased exponentially. In the past, this standard has helped Rangers win the championships and trophies the fans have been accustomed to, but over the last five years or so, I think it’s grown a little out of control, and become something of an auto-immune disorder, where some fans seem to feel that constantly attacking the club and the team simply shows how much they care about it. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the next five years.