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Steven Naismith

Sócrates, 1954–2011 <em>Picture: Sergio Goncalves Chicago</em>

Sócrates, 1954–2011 Picture: Sergio Goncalves Chicago

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
The BBC’s A Question of Sport has been going a while. By chance, I came across it on BBC Northern Ireland on Saturday afternoon.

It’s a show I’ve had an association with one way and another. It was what made me learn facts and figures around sport, I’ve booked guests for the show, helped Ally McCoist prepare for the programme (John Parrott called it cheating) and even did the rehearsals for the show in Glasgow.

It’s changed personnel, been shunted around the schedules and is now more light entertainment with a sports theme than hardcore athletics. And to be honest, I’ve lost interest with it.

I’ve not watched it for ages, until the weekend. Some of the format is the same, but suddenly the teams were playing on what appeared to a be a Wii or PlayStation simulator.

Has A Question of Sport morphed into They Think It’s All Over? At least the latter employed real comedians for laughs. Needless to say, my interests wasn’t rekindled …

Sunday
There was no one who took an interest in football in the early 1980s who didn’t marvel at the Brazilian star Sócrates. He bossed the midfield, striking with his height, curly mop and beard. And boy he could play.

One marvelled even more that his real name was Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, that he was a qualified doctor, that he smoked 60 fags a day, and liked a bevvy.

Unfortunately, the latter duo did for him eventually, aged just 57.

His passing was followed by the tributes, including those who thought he was part of the best team never to win the World Cup. And I can see why people would make that claim.

Sócrates played alongside brilliant players like Júnior, Leandro, Zico, Éder, Falcão and Cerezo. And they were a great team. Just recall how they dismantled Scotland.

But they were flawed, namely in that they could not defend, as Italy showed in a World Cup classic. And great teams can defend. So that, and the fact they never even reached the semis, never mind the final, for me precludes them as contenders as the best team never to win the World Cup.

France that year had as good a case, given they were cheated out of a final place, although it would still be a contest between Holland from 1974 and Hungary from 20 years earlier. Why?

Because I watched the Dutch in 1974, and I have read about and seen film footage of Hungary. That and the fact that the late Bob Crampsey rated them so highly. Good enough for me …

Monday
More brouhaha over the London Olympics with the news that another £40m is being invested in Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. This time those sounding off came from many within sport, saying so much could be done in sport with that kind of money.

Most people said “grass roots”. But you don’t need those with 3G pitches.

I’d like to see a breakdown of what exactly you get from a £40 million top-up for two ceremonies – which up until Monday we were being told were going to be unforgettable anyway.

A flypast by the original Dambusters? The Beatles reforming? A handout of a grand to everyone in the stadium to applaud madly and tweet feverously about how spectacular the spectacular had been.

Or with it be for extra security costs? No, don’t be silly, they needed an extra £250 million for that. Still, there is some change left out of the £9.7 billion set aside for London. Hope they keep a quid back for matches to light that torch …

Tuesday
Snooker’s UK Championship was one of the big events on the calendar, the matches all the way through decided over two sessions, best of 17s or 19s. Proper match snooker.

This year, though, the format has changed in York. Best of 11 is order of the day, a kind of UK Lite if you like. But what it would mean is that matches would be finished in a session, something of a bonus you might think.

Certainly when the draw threw up world runner-up Judd Trump against former world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, people didn’t care how many frames they played over.

So at 5–5, facing a deciding frame, this was as good as it gets – or rather, as good as it got.

Because BBC decided, in their wisdom, to leave Trump–O’Sullivan for the scheduled episode of The Hairy Bikers.

Oh, you could have pressed the red button – and many viewers would have done so willingly if it had been wired to some high explosives.

There is a snobbery at the BBC when it comes to snooker. Basically, we should be glad they still broadcast this ancient pastime, even if it hammers other sports in terms of audience figures.

The Beeb would never have left Murray vs Nadal at 5–5 in the final set at Wimbledon, or Jonny Wilkinson on a last-minute kick at Twickenham, or with a British golfer teeing-off on the last hole at the Open, regardless of what those bearded, motorised chefs from the north of England were knocking up out of offal and sawdust.

Needless to say, Eurosport – who stuck with this mini-classic to the end – gained quite a few new viewers after Tuesday.

Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on the airwaves. I had a right good chuckle when the Sky Sports presenter on Sky Sports News referred to SFA compliance officer as “Vincent Loony”.

Simply stating the obvious?

Wednesday
One thing is certain in snooker. There is always as much going on off-table as on it.

My disappointment at the UK Lite was reiterated, rather more forcibly during his news conference the previous day by Mark Allen, who had some choice words for snooker’s boss, head honcho and some may say dictator Barry Hearn.

“The players don’t really matter, so f*** the players,” said the Ulsterman.

“Whenever Barry came in, one of the first things he said was that the World Championships, UK and Masters wouldn’t be touched. Only 18 months later, the UK format has changed.”

Hearn countered, Captain Mainwaring-like, by dismissing Allen’s criticism of him as that of “a silly little boy”.

And you can say these things when no one will call you to task and you own 51 per cent of the game, something some of the players voted over to Hearn.

That’s not a dictatorship, merely a controlling interest …

Thursday
Hurricane Bawbag strikes the country. But another weather front causes backpage headlines.

The Aluko Storm might continue to run for a wee while after Rangers new boy Sone Aluko was done for diving by an SFA court of coffee and buns.

Diving is cheating, although Aluko might have claimed on another day the wind had blown him over. So I don’t mind things being dealt with retrospectively.

What I do take issue with is that the penalty handed to Aluko is ultimately the same served on Wayne Rooney, by a different court, for booting an opponent. During the game it’s a yellow. But post-game, it becomes a suspension, all because an official has been had, or proved to be inadequate.

And, I really do shake my head when Aluko is suspended and Garry O’Connor of Hibs is not even given a ticking off for an even more theatrical dive to win and score a penalty against St Johnstone.

Promising transparency, the SFA have conjoured up another baffling decision and excuses to match.

On a lighter note, the weather did cause some grief to footballers.

Was this God getting his own back on Garry O’Connor? The best bit is near the end. I didn’t realise Fatima Whitbread trained with the Hibees and got someone to collect her javelins …

Friday
Timing is everything in sport, but surely it is coincidental that hours after Rangers voice their unhappiness at the SFA, one of their own sticks up a couple of Churchillian fingers at the SFA by declaring he wants to play for Team GB at the Olympics.

If I were Steven Naismith, I’d be happy to be playing again properly by the time of the 2012 games.

But as I discussed last week, the SFA are toothless when it comes to players wishing to pursue their Olympic dream.

While he has Olympic ambitions, however, Naismith might have trouble convincing his club manager Ally McCoist that disappearing for a month at the start of the season is a great deal for him and Rangers.

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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Naturally enough, the predominant response among the Rangers players following their League Cup final victory over St Mirren was a sense of triumph. The circumstances at Hampden combined so that the win felt like an act of conquering, of prevailing over the kind of odds that would normally only prompt distress. But then the outcome could surely not conceal a greater truth, something that might yet impact on the Ibrox side’s ambition to gather all of this season’s domestic trophies.

During the first-half against St Mirren, when the game was 11 v 11 and what was at stake was a question of authority, of which team was prepared to engage fully with the obligation to be bold, Rangers were subdued. It was Gus MacPherson’s team who sought to be intrepid, and so they dominated long spells and their two robust strikers – Billy Mehmet and Michael Higdon – so bullied their markers that the Rangers defence ought to have been offered counseling at half-time.

Instead, what we saw after the interval was the clearest expression of Rangers’ alarm. Having been so overwhelmed by their opponents, in midfield and defence, Walter Smith altered the shape of his side to 3-5-2, so that they matched St Mirren’s formation. This is an act of concession by a manager, when he admits that his own side has to be changed to cope with opponents who are in danger of being implacable.

In recent weeks, Rangers have lacked that sense of purpose, of entitlement even, that brought such command to their play during spells this season. They fell behind at Ibrox to St Mirren in the league, before winning 3-1, and Dundee United in the Scottish Cup quarter-final, which ended 3-3 and so requires a replay at Tannadice on Wednesday. Smith identified the uncertainty as a hesitancy, as though the players are waiting for something to happen in a game before reacting.

Against St Mirren, this might have been acutely costly. Smith’s half-time address to his players was strict and emphatic, but any hopes of regrouping were dispelled by the red cards shown to Kevin Thomson and Danny Wilson. Reduced to nine men, Rangers reverted to the one quality that has sustained so much of their aspiration this season: resilience.

It was enough that the Ibrox side could contain their opponents (albeit the lack of a meaningful goal threat was always in danger of undermining St Mirren’s work), but the counter-attack that led to Kenny Miller’s decisive header was an indication of the sense of conviction that so shapes the players’ attitude. In the circumstances, the move upfield should have been considered an opportunity for relief, but the deft precision of Steven Naismith’s cross and the sheer persistence of Miller’s run and header spoke of a different faith, one that remained certain that despite being so diminished, this team could still triumph.

It will have felt exhilarating, but too often Rangers have been required to banish a sense of malaise before they could win recent matches. Eventually, that demand on the players’ resolve will prove too great. Smith, more than most, will understand this flaw, as it perhaps comes from the feeling of anxiety in a squad that has overcome its own limitations to move so close to a season of great achievement.

Against Dundee United – who are rejuvenated under Peter Houston – Rangers will be without Thomson and Lee McCulloch, who is also suspended, while Madjid Bougherra and Kirk Broadfoot are injured and Steven Davis is recovering from a virus. The squad is depleted, not so much in numbers, but by the sprightliness that is lost when limbs and minds begin to fatigue.

There is, no doubt, enough of a gap over Celtic in the Premier League for the title to remain safe, but on Wednesday night at Tannadice, Rangers cannot afford to waver.