Champions League - no need for apologies nor inferiority complex.

Last updated : 03 September 2010 By Vidmar

Everyone remembers their school days. From boring lessons to nasty teachers to the dubious courtship ritual of chucking stones at a girl to let her know you fancy her (“Her head’s bleeding! I’m so in there!”) it is accurate to say your school days – and school status – shape the person you eventually become. Everybody wanted to be the cool kid but the majority will have settled into ‘inbetweener’ mode, neither cool nor geeky, it was a simple existence with the advantage of slipping under the radar of bullies, but none of the ‘cool’ perks like lackeys, sh*t-hot trainers and the ability to compare fanny-wire to the real thing.

Nobody wanted to be the geek. For these poor souls intervals were a barbaric gauntlet-run of assault, robbery, slander, assault, sitting in puddles and more assault. Crowds would gather as the school psycho heroically picked on the smallest guy with no pals; his victim cowering in the corner of the schoolyard screaming “Please not the face!”. But then the day would come. The geek would finally snap. The bully would push him too close to the edge and with all the limp-wristed might he could muster, he would throw the first, last and only punch of his life. CRACK. He would catch the bully square on the jaw and send the tracksuited Goliath sprawling to the ground. The crowd would fall silent, too terrified to release the whooping cheer that seemed so natural. With his nemesis slain the geek would enjoy a new lease of life and maybe even promotion to ‘inbetweener’ level as he no-doubt questions why he didn’t take retaliatory action sooner.

That’s the thing with bullies; stand up to them and you’d be surprised what can be achieved. As we look forward to another Champions League campaign I ask myself; what kind of geek are we going to be? It might just shape what we become in the years ahead.

We can (and do) accept that European football is dominated by an exclusive cartel of clubs whose livelihood depends on the revenue generated by Europe’s premier competition. We can (and do) accept that by introducing seedings, UEFA pander to these clubs as they seek to plan as smooth a path as possible to the money-spinning knockout rounds. We can (and do) accept that nobody expects us to make an impact on the competition.

But just as the geek will eventually grow a pair and finally decide to stand up for himself, we must now stop apologising for earning our place at the top table and concentrate on how we are going to scale the mountain and win this thing. I don’t care if we are 1000/1 to win it; we are in it, so we can win it! There’s only thirty-two teams in Europe in this position so that, for me, gives us a one in thirty-two chance of winning it. What were Greece to win Euro 2004? Second-longest odds behind only Latvia?

Of course I realise the superhuman effort (and logic-defying luck) it would take for us to even get to the semis, but no matter how it is spun, no matter how much our detractors tell us we’re cannon-fodder, there will always remain that remote chance we could win it. We moan enough about ambition-free SPL clubs who aim for a third-place finish with a view to European participation/humiliation, yet we meekly accept such humiliation on the European stage in exchange for success on the domestic front where only one other team has designs on our trophy.

I can’t accept that a club of our size that, despite recent financial strife, still pays players exorbitant amounts lacks any ambition beyond our own well-trodden doorstep. Infuriatingly, this fearful mindset has infected our management and players as our fragilities were well and truly exposed during last year’s attempt at avoiding humiliation.

“We’re happy just to be involved” was the line from Walter Smith before last year’s draw. Oddly, nobody seemed to tell the players we were ‘involved’ as they assumed the classic ‘geek’ position only to fail to deflect any of the bully’s face-shredding blows. Once the bully got tired, his unknown chancer of a pal from Romania threw a few punches and, again, we apologised for getting in the way of his fists and shined his shoes by way of payment. We were relieved once the pummelling stopped and tried our best to put it behind us.

Frankly, it is time to stop accepting the beatings and finally throw a punch of our own. Their players may get paid more and have bigger boot deals and all the rest of it, but the glory of sport is that it boils down to who performs on the night. Matches aren’t won or lost before kick-off. There are a million variables that can swing the game one way or the other and it’s that notion we have to believe in and use it to fuel our ambition (for once). We bemoan being unable to compete but that, my friends, is the worst excuse of the lot. Last season we were being pummelled in Stuttgart but eventually calmed our nerves, rallied and forced an equaliser. And it wasn’t a fluke either, it was a good, flowing move finished off superbly. We then dominated the rest of the game and nearly nicked all three points at the end when another passing move saw Davis strike the foot of the post.

Onto our home tie against Sevilla and a solid, controlled performance aided by a superb one-man show from Naismith up-front saw us contain a pretty decent Spanish side. However, our undoing was all of our own making. Whilst we should have been awarded a penalty, the goal we lost was staggeringly awful. Eleven players back defending in our own box; Sevilla casually rolled it to a player on the edge of the area, who had all the time in the world to waft a cross towards his teammate who secured a free header at goal. It wasn’t a lack of money that cost us that goal, or the SPL, or the seedings, it was rank-awful play from ourselves. No excuses, that goal should never have been lost. It was the catalyst for Sevilla to go on and dominate as we had to step and force the issue and more horrendous defending saw them rip us apart with ease.

Fast-forward to Unirea at home and the same mistakes apply; appalling marking at set-pieces being the obvious error, something we couldn’t even rectify after going a goal up inside one minute. Unirea away was decent until we sloppily lost possession in our own half, allowing an equaliser of wonder-strike proportions. It happens, but why not examine how we can avoid a reoccurrence, rather than shrugging and ‘taking it on the chin’? Stuttgart at home was a total disaster as our formation and line-up were easily countered by an average German side. We barely mustered a chance and it was the first game I’ve ever been at where not one Ranger earned pass-marks. The bullies won and we accepted it.

Nobody questions how monumental our task is, but lets stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Defending set-pieces can be worked on and prepared for, there’s no excuse for losing goals whilst your entire team is less than eighteen yards from goal! Our attacking set pieces are also annoyingly impotent and again, this is just laziness on our part. I expect to see obvious preparation and skill in execution, no matter who the opponents are. Indeed, against Manchester United set-pieces may be our best chance of scoring so I expect these opportunities to be exploited to the full.

Watch our opponents and plan our formation accordingly. Everyone remembers Advocaat pitching Derek McInnes in against PSV. It worked beautifully and we tried it again a week later against Valencia. It didn’t work second time around, so we changed it after forty minutes. Respond to what is happening on the pitch. I want to see that our management can analyse the game and see what is going wrong. All of this is within our capability at any level of football. Of course our players will get away with more mistakes domestically than they will in Europe, but that’s not exactly unexpected is it? Players must be aware of what is required and deployed in a role which allows them to execute that function. Tactics, approach, coaching; these are the fundamentals of football, “putting it in the mix” doesn’t feature and is really just code for “get rid of it asap and get back to your own half”.

Keeping possession is arguably the most important tactic available to us. If we’ve got the ball, they can’t score. Bottom line. I expect each and every one of our players to be able to control and pass the ball, and indeed, move to space once the ball has been released. Standing in formation because you expect to lose it any second is insane. Apart from pissing all over any creativity we might otherwise display, it gives the opposition a chance to chase us down and force us into oh so many passbacks to the keeper, where it is inevitably hoofed up the park to the opposition defence, who have forty yards of space as our lone-striker is invariably camped in the centre-circle. Pass and move. It is easy really.

There’s no need for us to feel so inferior. Really: there isn’t. We have to believe we can perform to our best and let the opposition know they are in for a game. If our application is correct, our tactics spot on and our mentality right, then we can pick up results against anyone. I firmly believe that. Walter has a natural fear of European sides after a fair few humblings but in his last season, I expect he’ll want to finally make a mark on the arena that has largely evaded him thus far. I expect he will realise how crucial this campaign will be in establishing who we are in respect of our coefficient. I expect he’ll want us to finally throw a punch and show we ain’t taking this sh*t no more. I expect we’ll enjoy our promotion to the fanny-wire fondlers.