‘Race’ for the top six

The race for the top six is something of an oxymoron at times with little prestige. The only measurable element of success seems to be an increased pay out however this being the most apparent reason to celebrate feels a little bleak.

An opening to perhaps a last minute run for a European place and a confidence builder as the season sprints to a finish in the last five matches of the campaign.

Hibernian sit in pole position at the minute however with in-form Motherwell and a derby against Heart of Midlothian to come, they will certainly not be resting on any laurels before the split occurs on the weekend of the 6th April.

Motherwell have their trip to Easter Road up next which will be followed by a meeting with St Johnstone, then up to Pitoddrie before rounding off with a match against Steven Gerrard’s Rangers on Sunday 7th April.

St Johnstone have St Mirren and Motherwell before March is out then in the space of three April days play Dundee at McDairmid Park before travelling to Rugby Park for a clash with Kilmarnock.

Livingston are regarded as the outsiders of the group albeit are a very capable squad and have suitably surprised the pundits and supporters alike. Livi have matches against Aberdeen and Hibernian to look forward to in March, with April bringing a home game against Hamilton and a trip to Glasgow to face Champions elect Celtic.

The fact that clubs celebrate making the top six is telling of the road the game has taken. We see club chairmen counting the pennies, promoting this feature as a success but it could be argued that the split may have added a pointless barometer for the sake of revenue.

That said these four clubs will be looking to beat the April deadline and spring into the last five fixtures with a bounce in their step to try to push for a summer of European football.

Of the games the clubs have ahead of them, St Johnstone would be the favourites but they currently sit five points behind sixth placed Hibernian. Saints should pick up the most points from the four games but will it be enough to usurp Hibs?

The Perth side need to overhaul a four point deficit having lost 1-0 to Hibs midweek past thus requiring Hibs to lose points in at least two matches.

Hibs infamous struggles at Tynecastle could well be the deciding factor on the last weekend before the split, but their match up with Motherwell this coming Saturday will go a long way to determining the final positions.

Motherwell returned to league action following the winter break by beating Hibs 1-0 at Fir Park with terrific teenager David Turnbull finishing exquisitely following a late run in to the box.

The Easter Road encounter will be one to get the pulses racing with McNulty, Kamberi, Ariyibi, Hastie and Turnbull all in good form. ‘Well seem a little bit more settled despite Paul Heckingbottom guiding his new charges to seven points from nine with a gutsy 1-1 draw against Rangers last time out.

Turnbull bagged a double in the latest edition of the South Lanarkshire derby as Hamilton were put to the sword but it’s the electric Jake Hastie and Gboly Ariyibi who are proving to be the star turns alongside their terrific teenager Turnbull.

Looking over the fixtures there’s so many variables, everyone of them pivotal and they will create their own excitement but the two points between Hibernian and Motherwell exacerbates their coming together on the 16th (March).

Hibs will feel, with home advantage, that they should win and in the league they remain unbeaten under Heckingbottom coming back from a goal down to earn a point against a vibrant Rangers side. Their second half performance was a great improvement in which they staked their claim for a point or indeed more as they kept Allan McGregor busy during the latter stages of the match.

Stephen Robinson on the other hand will be hoping his side can go to the Capital and claim the points. Following up on Saturday’s 3-0 derby day delight with a capital caper will take them above their opponents and into the top six.

As well as being the outsiders in the pack Livingston have the toughest of the fixtures when analysing the next four games.

They’ve changed formation in recent weeks from their 352 setup to a more cohesive 4231 with Craig Halkett, Craig Sibbald and Chris Erskine proving to be important players in the newly adopted system.

There’s a lot more to Livingston than their perceived anti-football tactics. Alongside their strength in defence they have good ball players throughout the whole of their team. They also have individuals in Pittman, Hardie and Robinson capable of creating chances and popping up with the odd goal.

They were never going to be an all out attacking side considering most of these players who won promotion were from the lower leagues. They have mastered their guile alongside some craft and deserve a lot more respect than they get from some football fans.

Giving all that was intimated at the start this Livi side can be genuinely proud of being in the exciting race for a top six position.

Hibs currently being in sixth (and probably the club who budgeted to be in the top six) will be hoping it’s done and dusted before the derby with Hearts but you just can’t rule any one of the four out as the Scottish Premiership has been as intriguing as it has been unpredictable.

Football Without Borders

Mid-June and the 2017-2018 season for some has barely finished indeed the elite keep going but it was an announcement on Friday 8th June 2018 that caught my eye.

 

Writing this in the midst of the 21st FIFA World Cup taking place in Russia my thoughts and opinions couldn’t be further removed from the likes of Brazil, France and England or players of the Messi, Ronaldo and Griezmann ilk.

 

All the greats have converged on Russia but it is National League outfits Boreham Wood and Sutton United who have caused quite a stir in the world of Scottish Football.

 

When the Scottish Professional Football League announced that its lower league cup competition would include English teams for the forthcoming 2018-2019 season the decision was met with plentiful amounts of disbelief and dismay alongside those of a more understanding positive nature.

 

The Irn-Bru Cup or as it is better known The Scottish Challenge cup was first contested for in 1990. The winners were Dundee, last season the competition was won by Inverness Caledonian Thistle but in the last couple of years the formation of said tournament has changed somewhat and in an unsavoury fashion in relation to the feelings of some supporters.

 

Reading the supporter forums I note the responses of “get the Irish, Welsh and Colt teams in the bin and bring in Highland and Lowland league clubs.”

 

‘If they want a multi nation cup competition go ahead BUT the Scottish Challenge Cup should only be for teams that play in the Scottish leagues’ 

 

’As if this tournament wasn’t ridiculous enough already’ 

 

’Just bin the whole thing’

 

Of course football is a game based on opinions sometimes extremely forthright ones, some with very little credibility and also those of a dreamy nature.

 

We’ll focus on the positive spin on the competition later in the article but for now why would fans be against such innovation? Could this be the way forward for competitions at a higher level to become cross border? Would these types of competition be accepted further down the line by both supporters and officialdom respectively?

 

After all a competition like the one that is currently being formed by the SPFL would be very hard to create from scratch.

 

Understandably so the supporters of a more traditional era are likely to be against it from the get go.

 

Why should “their” competition be diluted with the invitation of teams from neighbouring countries without them thinking about the possible benefits.

 

Since 1990 the competition was ran solely for Scottish clubs until the last couple of years but perhaps without any great interest. None more so than in 1998/99 when the competition was disbanded thanks to a lack of a sponsor and it is with this I believe the SPFL are making a move to try to make it more appealing to outsiders and neutrals.

 

The first final between Dundee and Ayr United drew a crowd of 11506. Since then only 3 finals have exceeded 10000, two of them involving Rangers as they battled their way back to the Premiership following their financial irregularities.

 

Feeling enough that there needs to be some change so why not this?

 

UEFA stance towards cross border competition seems to be easing slightly and with this move to include other British and Irish club sides in a semi-professional capacity be one which opens up the door to a British Cup or even a European league competition.

 

The Champions League has ensured the rich clubs get richer and have their very own playground. Every so often an Ajax, a Celtic, a Qarabag or an APOEL Nicosia manage to break the mould and fight their way in to the group stages/knockout stages.

 

European competition whets our appetite for the game throughout the cold autumnal, wintry evenings but as with Brexit could the clubs below the elite look to take responsibility of their own futures.

 

In a defining turn of events I believe that football in north and Eastern Europe could well merge to bring a more fruitful being for all clubs and not just the rich. This move in lower league Scottish football could well be the start of a revolution.

 

In the last decade we have had British Cups, Atlantic Leagues and Balkan Leagues touted as the way forward but UEFA have often kyboshed the ideas right from the get-go but recently they have authorised a cross border competition in Holland and Belgium which sees a competitive women’s league and access to European competition. This is a move from the norm for UEFA and clubs in Scotland and further afield may well be taking note.

 

The British Cup idea has been mooted for a while but nothing has been forthcoming since the Texaco Cup, an attempt to create a cross-border competition, was last played for in 1974.

 

The Anglo-Scottish Cup followed soon after Texaco’s sponsorship ceased but season 1980-81 seen the last final, between Chesterfield and Notts County, in that competition.

 

The Anglo-Italian cup was another competition of a previous era which was cross-border. The competition started in 1970 but was renowned for violent clashes between the English and their Italian counterparts. It became a semi-professional tournament before being stopped altogether. Finally the competition was revived in the early nineties for second tier clubs as European Competition began to really take precedence for the big boys.

 

Of course Swansea and Cardiff compete in the English leagues and there has always been chat aimed at seeing Rangers and Celtic in the English Premiership.

 

Whilst the move to a The Premiership or Atlantic league is perhaps inconceivable for now I’ve always argued that both of the Glasgow giants would easily hold their own in the upper regions of the English Premiership especially once the financial rewards kicked in. They are in the top five biggest clubs in the United Kingdom for me. Just behind Manchester United and Liverpool. 

 

On the subject of an Atlantic League one club director claimed “if we don’t act now…it will be increasingly difficult for clubs like ours”

 

This came hard on the back of the big four nations in European Football being told that they will have four clubs each in the group stage of the Uefa Champions League.

 

Horsholt of Copenhagen isn’t short of support from his neighbouring countries. Scotland, Holland, Belgium, Norway and Sweden join the Danes in looking to move their game forward in a way they can hopefully begin to challenge the big boys and start to eat at their table more often.

 

Hunger for such a league isn’t all that’s needed and the UEFA stance at the minute prevents the support turning in to a realisation.

 

“The biggest clubs will grow larger and stronger” was the war cry from the FC Copenhagen official but how would such a league form?

 

Teams from the aforementioned companies would compete out with their own leagues, in anticipation of larger commercial incomes from TV money and of course an increased pot of winnings.

 

In February 2016 the Atlantic League was given some life by an English based consortium who had approached Harry Van Raaij, the mastermind of the Atlantic League which was unceremoniously dumped on its proverbial by UEFA at the turn of the century.

 

The finer details were all hush hush but this consortium had approached Van Raaij having secured plausible sponsors and broadcast partners. This is an important step because these countries really are falling behind the bigger leagues with their access to large amounts of TV money.

 

Struggling to keep their heads above water there are some well-supported teams losing out and not just Rangers and Celtic. It was Rangers’ own Ali Russell (chief operating officer at the time) who spoke eagerly on the subject of a British Cup competition. There is no question it would suit the agendas of the Scottish clubs more than most but that’s not to say the clubs shouldn’t be approaching the subject, at least, with a bit more vigour.

 

The changes to the setup of the Challenge Cup were lauded as an “exciting day” in Scottish Football history “demonstrating further innovation and forward-thinking for the game in this country.”

 

These were the words of the much maligned SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster but I fully support his views in this instance and clearly Scottish Football is attempting to lead from the front when it comes to promoting their own game.

 

To do so effectively though they will need the help of their neighbouring countries especially the one with the richest leagues in the world.

 

Positively there is a sea-change in the way supporters are viewing the competition and it appears they are beginning to curry favour with some.

 

Reading varying forums following the inclusion of English National League sides I note supporters happy at the change:

 

“If they removed the colt teams and included more national league/welsh/Ireland/northern Irish I would rate it as one of the best Scottish Cups you could play in.

 

The chance of a caper away day to a different country in a competitive game is one we should all cherish.”

 

This is exactly the angle that league bosses should be using to promote this competition and future competitions. The supporters live for days like these and Dumbarton fans speak vividly of the away day to Oswestry to play TNS as the ‘best they’ve ever had.’

 

Starting from the bottom up is the best way to let these ideas breathe and gain momentum. Every supporter loves an away day but none more so than those starved of any great fun in the past decade or so. For some one away day to Wales or Northern Ireland is definitely one to be cherished.

 

So how could this competition be the one to start it all?

 

A dummy run is always good and I am sure league bosses down south and in Europe will be watching with anticipation as to how it all pans out.

 

I am of the opinion that if it works with the British and Irish clubs then SPFL officials should look to include some of our European neighbours from Ligue 2, Serie C, Bundesliga 3, Tweede Divisie and so on.

 

Not only giving supporter’s great away days, memories and clubs a chance to experience European football. This would also give a platform for the money men in the top leagues to sit up, take notice and move the game on at all levels.

 

Start off small and end up in Europe, the mantra of many modern football teams could well be the norm moving forward.

 

I fully believe a league structure like a Pan-European competition could well be the turning point for the financially disabled clubs compared to their rich counterparts. Instead of trying to run hampered by the varying constraints they could make strides forward achieving more on a club by club basis but also as a collective force.

 

For it to be successful though it would need a change of thought from the governing body UEFA although as stated previously the Belgian/Dutch women’s league may signal a softening of their attitudes towards such leagues.

 

Something needs to be done, whatever that may be, it must create a fairer ground upon which these clubs can compete. Currently the smaller leagues can’t get close to the TV revenue that the other leagues enjoy and a league system as discussed above could be a step forward to a multi European super league should UEFA move itself in to the modern times instead of archaically looking out for the main players.

 

If it was to get off the ground and worked well I can only see the benefits of such a league and I am sure UEFA would be more than happy to use this as a test model.

 

There are a lot of clubs feeling almost left out by the changes in European Football of late and this will not go away. Atlantic and Balkan leagues may well be the catalyst for future improvements.

 

Perhaps when all is said and done these competitions may be pilots that don’t get off the ground but cross border competitions may not just be pie in the sky and Brexit may mean EURemain in footballing terms.

 

We can only sit back and enjoy the ride.

 

First published in The Football Pink - Sep 18

Hibee uncertainty

As the news breaks that Hibernian have failed to land their target to replace the neither resigned or dismissed Neil Lennon it beggars belief as to why this has been played out, yet again, with no proper communication from the club.

 

As the hours have ticked by and the days have passed Gordon Strachan, Alan Stubbs and Paul Heckingbottom have all been the bookies ‘favourite’ at one point but as the nights rolled by Michael Appleton was seemingly flavour of the month and it was all supposed to be done in a matter of time.

 

Thirteen days on from the day that seen Lennon become unemployed, a situation that had left more questions than answers, the Hibs support were still left in the dark when BT Sport presenter Darrell Currie @darrellcurrietv tweeted “Unlikely Michael Appleton is going to be the Hibs manager. Talks have broken down…”

 

Granted not the best source but his tweet was eventually backed up by Sky Sports News and the BBC but what was not highlighted was the ignorance in which the (un)happy Hibees had been treated. There is obviously a need for discretion but to fully shut out the stakeholders of a company is deplorable. Especially one which is not only a football team but a business as per the words of CEO Leeann Dempster who addressed the support rather blandly, a few days ago, via their TV channel.

 

You wouldn’t be allowed to treat any other business investors the way Hibs are doing it would find itself reported to various ombudsman’s and would likely see it’s support waning.

 

Here though you have shareholders, season ticket holders and even those who have paid on the gate but most importantly they are all invested deeply in to the club via a love and passion evidenced by their financial support throughout.

 

To have a meek interview as their only modicum of clarity following Lennon’s “mutual consent” exit and the subsequent chase for a manager to fit in with the structure leaves supporters feeling very let down but perhaps unsurprised.

 

They’ve been here before after all and it seems that the club haven’t learned from mistakes made in the past. The Steve Clarke rumour, the myths and the truths that still drag at the heels of a supposedly forward thinking football entity because of that particular story.

 

The Colin Calderwood calamity, the Pat Fenlon debacle, the Terry Butcher disgrace that all ultimately ended in the relegation of May 2014 were supposed to be sagas left in the past but the loss of such a charismatic individual like Lennon was always going to hang heavy.

 

The form was poor, the team selections were a lottery and the formations/tactics were weak but the support on the most part was unwavering behind a man who the faithful believed “got” Hibs.

 

A manager the calibre of Neil Lennon is unlikely to step foot across the front doors of the Hibernian Training Centre or Easter Road stadium in our lifetimes but the next appointment is vital as to the direction the club takes in the immediate aftermath of his departure and whether or not the support many of which came back after the 2016 Scottish Cup victory will stick around to back the Hibees.

 

Of all the names considered to be interested in the post Michael Appleton’s was the one that stood out notwithstanding the unlikely event that Strachan was even approached.

 

How does this look if Appleton doesn’t get the job?

 

The board are already under fire, it can be left up to the masses to decide right from wrong in that respect but here if they don’t get their man on the back of that statement and the subsequent lacklustre Hibs TV showing then it can only be portrayed as amateur.

 

Caretaker Eddie May intimated that Saturday past was definitely his and coach Grant Murray’s final game in charge and that a new man would be announced this week. As we approach Wednesday you would have to think that any new manager coming in to do just that, manage the team on Saturday against Hamilton would need to be in place, well, as of now.

 

Appleton had a playing career cut short by injury, a managerial career punctuated by supporters unrest, club upheaval and administrations and has spoken of needing to find the right club to go to next.

 

Hibernian obviously thought he was the right man and pursued him into the weekend only for talks to turn sour and this is where the problem likes.

 

Who carries the blame?

 

Hibs or Appleton?

 

I think if the fans had been kept up to speed within the rules of confidentiality then the board and football operations would be exonerated of any blame but in current circumstances they have invited pressure upon themselves and have allowed an already ragged situation to become unruly.

 

Appleton may have moved the goalposts himself but it’s got to the stage now where Hibs have got to speculate to accumulate, get the man they want and perhaps most importantly get the supporters back on side.

 

This can’t just be lip service though as the important date of advertising season tickets for 2019/20 must be fast approaching.

 

It’s got to mean something.

 

Something with a bit of understanding, something with a focus, something that will bring every Hibernian together again.

 

Loyalty is earned.

Scottish Cup 4th Round

The romance of the Scottish Cup kicks in this Saturday as the top teams enter the tournament and the smaller clubs look to take some scalps.

 

Auchinleck Talbot are at home to Ayr United, Cowdenbeath host Rangers, East Kilbride head to Inverness, Elgin travel to the Capital to play Hibernian and it is a rerun of the 1995 Scottish Cup final when holders Celtic entertain Airdrieonians.

 

When the draw took place late in November the Christmas lights were just getting switched on, Inverness were yet to overcome Edinburgh City in a replay, the turkeys were still clucking, Hearts were still to get stuffed by Livi before Rangers and the Jambos were to claim derby wins after St Nick had done his rounds.

 

The Scottish Premiership went in to cold storage thereafter and the big guns will restart their seasons with insalubrious, testing, exciting cup ties but could the smaller clubs play on their opponent’s inactivity by causing an upset or two and earning themselves a place in the draw for the 5th round.

 

Fast forward 52 days from the date of the 4th round draw and Central Park, Cowdenbeath will be at capacity for the visit of Steven Gerrard’s Rangers. Boasting the likes of Jermaine Defoe, Steven Davis and Alfredo Morelos amongst their playing squad I am almost certain none of them will have faced up to the surroundings that they will encounter come Friday evening. That may be the only shock they get though as I can’t see there being anything close to an upset in Fife.

 

It will be an eye-opener for sure.

 

A football pitch encased by a stock car track.

 

Showers which at their warmest will feel like a dip in the North Sea.

 

Dressing room tighter than a ships cabin.

 

Yet Cowden will attempt to use all that and more to their advantage as they bid to capsize Rangers who have embarked on a six game unbeaten run since losing to Aberdeen at Ibrox in early December.

 

On to Saturdays matches and it’s this group of fixtures where I think the shocks will come.

 

Auchinleck Talbot vs Ayr United, home win.

 

Dundee vs Queen of the South, away win.

 

Motherwell vs Ross County, away win.

 

St Mirren vs Alloa Athletic, away win.

 

Got to say do not go putting your house on any of them but looking at the full card these are the games where I can see the higher placed sides being toppled.

 

Talbot’s Beechwood Park will be packed to the rafters and Auchinleck warmed up nicely with a fiercely contested derby win against Cumnock.

 

They sit 3rd in the Scottish Junior West Premiership but don’t let that fool you. They will be up for the battle, free from any expectation and will not sit back against their Ayrshire neighbours.

 

Former Ayr United player, their youngest ever, Mark Shankland has scored 3 and assisted 3 in the Scottish Cup this season and will hope to cause his old side trouble. Shankland made his debut at 15 years old replacing teammate Stewart Kean becoming United’s youngest debutant.

 

Ayr United on the other hand are winless in their last five, losing the last two and their version of Shankland, Lawrence, is top scorer by some distance but is also suffering from injury so he isn’t guaranteed to play in Saturday lunchtimes derby day delight.

 

The former Aberdeen hitman has been his club’s shining light as they’ve surged towards the top of the Championship, albeit lying second as we speak. However it may be that his injury is an achilles heel in more ways than one.

 

Think Auchinlecks home advantage, a huge desire from the junior side and Ayr United’s lack of numbers may swing the match in Talbot’s favour.

 

Struggling Dundee will likely be given a stern test at Dens when Gary Naismith’s Queen of the South head north.

 

Jim McIntyre has been busy in the opening 3 weeks of the window adding 4 new players however he will be lamenting his luck as new centre half Andrew Davies fractured his foot and will need replaced himself.

 

Former Arab Craig Curran moved up the street and they will be hoping he and veteran Kenny Miller can strike up a partnership to not only save them in the Premiership but propel them to the latter stages of this seasons Scottish Cup.

 

Queen of the South currently lie in the play-off spots in the Championship and have consistently ploughed a furrow throughout the last few years unfortunately coming up short but with the talismanic Stephen Dobbie in their ranks anything could happen.

 

Dobbie who has scored more than half of their league goals also scored two and assisted one in the last round of the Scottish against Formartine United.

 

He’ll be at the very focal point if Queens were to beat their Premiership opponents. Dundee will be without their number one, in Jack Hamilton who is recovering from an operation on his finger.

 

For me Queen of the South will thrive upon a Dundee side low on confidence, perhaps resting a few players looking ahead to their battle against the drop and also they are a team conceding lots of goals.

 

Dobbie who has scored or created a goal every 74 minutes this season will be the man who downs the Dees if Queens are to emerge victorious.

 

Ross County travel south for a match up with Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell and this is one that a year ago would have been a standard Premiership fixture.

 

County sit top of the pile in the Championship although they were thumped four nil by Queen of the South in their last match with the aforementioned Dobbie claiming a couple. County though have players capable of downing a Motherwell side beset by injury before the winter break, it remains to be seen if they will have many of the players back but this could be one where a lack of games could come back to hurt the Lanarkshire side.

 

Motherwell have only won two of their last eight stretching back to the beginning of December and will be hoping for instant impacts from their two January signings.

 

Gboly Ariybi has joined on loan from Nottingham Forest whilst former fans favourite Ross McCormack returns on loan from Aston Villa.

 

McCormack’s career has somewhat stalled and will be hoping a return to his old stomping ground will be reignite his form.

 

Ross County’s chairman spoke last week of his desire to ensure County get promoted at the first time of asking and that a second term in the Championship could cost his side £500,000 so he will be hoping Ross County can go far in this seasons Scottish Cup competition both for financial and footballing reasons.

 

Billy McKay and Joshua Mullin will be the visitor’s main threats and it’s in Mullin that I can see a match winner but it will be a close encounter on Saturday afternoon.

 

St Mirren face up to Alloa Athletic and it’s a return to Paisley for everyone’s favourite central midfielder Jim Goodwin.

 

Goodwin’s style on the pitch has its ardent critics but what Saints would do for a leader like him this term.

 

His first foray into management took a while to get going but now his Alloa side sit seven points off the play-offs but I am sure more importantly for the Clackmannanshire outfit they are now six points ahead of the relegations places.

 

Unbeaten in their last six, scoring twice in each of the games and boasting two players in fine form as they head into this match at the Simple Digital Arena.

 

Alan Trouten and Dario Zanatta two players at polar ends of their careers and they will be hoping for a big performance from both of their start turns.

 

Zanatta has recently extended his loan spell from Heart of Midlothian and he’s scored three goals in his last five but brings an energetic spark and creativity to an Alloa side which is more used to battling against relegation when in the Championship.

 

Trouten, at 33, is enjoying an Indian summer in the Championship that despite having a very fruitful career in the lower leagues for clubs like Brechin and Clyde. He has 15 goals to his name so far this season and will be looking to increase that tally against St Mirren on Saturday.

 

St Mirren have struggled for goals this term and it’s a big reason why they languish second bottom in the Premiership. Their top scorers have got 4 each and one of them left the club this month so it’s easy to point out their struggles but Oran Kearney is attempting to put things right on a holistic level.

 

New guys Mihai Popescu and Vaclav Hladky have joined in the meantime from Dinamo Bucharest and Slovan Liberec respectively whilst Kearney has also added Brad Lyons, on loan from Blackburn a player the manager knows from his time at Coleraine.

 

Winning only one match in December but still managing to drag themselves off the bottom of the league will have brought some hope to the St Mirren faithful but they may choose to lump all their eggs in to one basket giving former Buddie Goodwin’s side a chance to take a notable scalp.

 

A shock could well be on the cards and Zanatta will be looking to celebrate his new Hearts contract and his stay at Alloa with a top performance which could be the difference between the two sides.

 

There are plenty of stories and sub stories as the cup weekend approaches but Hibs and Hearts will be hoping to make use of home advantage, both clubs have been very quiet in terms of January signings but Hibs especially should have enough to get past Elgin.

 

Easter Road will be hoping to catch a first sight of new boy Ryan Gauld.

 

Hearts will be hoping for revenge against a Livingston team that battered them five nil and although this is no given, Hearts are always well fancied at Tynecastle.

 

Fife plays host to another derby as League One Raith Rovers face Championship Dunfermline Athletic.

 

The Pars have yet to win in the New Year losing their last match away to Dundee United. Seventh placed in the Championship plays second in league one and there may not be too many surprised if the bragging rights stay in Kirkcaldy come Saturday evening.

 

They have lost their Hearts loanees in Malaury Martin and current Dunfermline top scorer Aidan Keena who has been promised first opportunities by his parent club.

 

Replacing Keena may not be possible before Saturday and Rovers will be smelling blood.

 

Finally another game which catches the eye is Lowland league leaders East Kilbride heading north to play John Robertson’s Inverness Caledonian Thistle. East Kilbride will be hoping for a big performance from their players as they attempt to topple their more illustrious counterparts.

 

Enjoy the weekend, Scottish Cup 4th round day(s) is always exciting.

Leigh Griffiths

Sparky by name, sparky by nature.

 

A man with a talent, a brother who brings with a laugh or two, a son with a trouble or two I am sure and finally, perhaps more importantly a father full of love and affection.

 

His real spark is for his kids and at this time especially people would do well to remember that.

 

Some of the disparaging chat surrounding Griffiths is disgusting.

 

This is a man who has obviously sought help, his current club have put their arm around him and said he’ll be out for a period of time. Former clubs have also thrown their support towards him showing the esteem this cheeky but charitable guy is held in.

 

The stigma of mental health is what provides for the ignorant minds and anyone in Leigh’s fortunate position are simply ignored when it comes to feeling depressed.

 

It’s not for us to speculate upon the issues which have led him to this juncture but it is for us to support someone who has always supported his local community, attended hospitalised Celtic fans and indeed has turned up at children’s parties to surprise them after social media requests.

 

It’s difficult to imagine a well off footballer feeling unhappy for a period of time, feeling anxious month to month and having horrible thoughts day to day but like any human Sparky as his vices, has his desires, has his worries and there’s nothing wrong in that.

 

You can be depressed and live a fully functioning life and boy must Griffiths’ world be lively.

 

You can be depressed and hold down a full time job and in his case lead the line for Scotland’s premier football club.

 

You can be depressed and remain cheerful, optimistic and happy and that is definitely the persona Griffiths has worked to maintain.

 

He’s been out of the team for a while now bar a couple of fleeting appearances lately but it’s now been decided that he will be out for a number of months as Brendan Rodgers’ “rogue” will now get the help he’s been badly needing.

 

We can only hope that the help he’s receiving will get him back amongst family and his loved ones in good time.

 

Football comes second to things of this nature but the footballing family should be a rock upon which he can rely on.

 

Living with a mental health illness can be catastrophic in the way it chips away at every part of your life from physical wellbeing to relationships and then of course mentally.

 

Griffiths profession requires him to be at the top of his game, always thinking, always playing and always performing any slight negation and he would be berated by his supporters and probably even his teammates.

 

Being open and honest about his issues will help him in the long run and no one should take this as a sign of weakness. Anything but, the likelihood is he’s had to be stronger than ever to seek the help required.

 

He would have had to battle many demons and go through a lot of torture possibly on his own before he spoke to someone and this is something many people do each day. The likes of Leigh Griffiths can only help break the stigma but it’s without doubt in unfortunate circumstances.

 

He’s a well-known character in the Scottish game and indeed had a short spell down south at Wolverhampton Wanderers but it is north of the border where he properly shot himself to the top of his game.

 

His loan spells at his beloved Hibernian boasted great statistics and showed the country just how good a footballer he is. 78 appearances in a couple of seasons with a goal approximately every 2 games (38) and he also helped to assist a further 17.

 

His enigmatic personality helped endear himself to a crowd which he had often sat amongst and still does to this date.

 

A personality which betrays how he really feels but this is what makes Griffiths a bigger man than most, he was willing and strong enough to keep going, to keep performing whilst going through the darkest times.

 

Of course it was at Celtic where his quality was fully realised. League championships, cup wins and Champions League goals have all been aplenty in the last five years but now he faces his biggest battle.

 

Every one of his 5 titles (in 5 years), his 75 league goals (in just 128 appearances) and his 19 Scotland caps will seem peripheral to his current situation.

 

In his time in Scottish football he has regularly given away his boots, strips for charity or to those who are ill.

 

Back in 2017 Griffiths turned up to a young boy’s birthday having received an invitation from a friend of the family on twitter. He was true to his word and that sums up the caring and kind nature of this charismatic individual who despite his chaotic life is still able to put his fans and the wider community first.

 

Back home in Leith he’s been a big help to Edinburgh Helping Hands a movement set up to help the Edinburgh community and give them access to sports coaching amongst other community groups.

 

Something Griffiths has happily been a figurehead of previous years.

 

Whilst his life may be, as suggested above, chaotic and crazy it’s worth thinking about the actions of the public and the devastating effect that they can have on men and women all over the world that including financially fortunate footballers and celebrities.

 

A word, a sentence, a story can have long lasting effects on an individual and footballers are no different.

 

“I hope your kids die” one tweet aimed at Griffiths and that is obviously going to affect you. People can be horrible especially now in the world of social media and some think it’s fair game to say what they like but some of them are just guys from the local park with a good bit more talent at their feet.

 

That’s no reason to hate upon them though and nothing hurts more than cutting language and untimely actions from your peers. Everyone has mental health those with ill mental health need our support not our ignorance.

 

Leigh Griffiths has talent beyond many in Scottish football, he’s also a human being and it’s the human in him that needs the continued support of our footballing community. In Brendan Rodgers I think he has the perfect manager to nurse him back to full health, he seems understanding, caring and more importantly helpful in such times and I am sure they will all stand by their man.

 

Good luck Leigh. Stay strong. 

Old Firm hoping to “remain”

Celtic and Rangers are flying the flag high in Europe and both may yet see a continental flavour hit these shores after Christmas.

 

It’s been a decade since Rangers and Celtic both competed in European competition into the New Year but the Glasgow giants are making considerable strides this season.

 

Rangers have only lost one game in Europe this season and that was during a topsy turvy away match at Spartak Moscow at the beginning of last month. Meanwhile Celtic have lost three, one a damaging reverse in a Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens they then went on to lose two away games to Red Bull sides in their Europa League group. In spite of this they retain a strong record in Europe.

 

Both teams now stand on the brink of taking on the bigger names left in the competition after Christmas has past. Steven Gerrard may not need a miracle and Brendan Rodgers may not need a hand from a big man in a big red suit but they will hoping their fans can sing and rejoice in a winter wonderland of their own.

 

Rangers head to Vienna to take on Rapid Wien and without looking into deeper permutations they will know they must win at Austria to qualify. The home tie with Austria’s team in green and white ended in a 3-1 win for Steven Gerrard’s men with much talked about striker Alfredo Morelos bagging two.

 

Celtic also face Austrian opposition in Red Bull Salzburg at Celtic Park hoping to get revenge for their 3-1 hounding in Salzburg that despite Odsonne Edouard giving them an early lead in the city where the sound of music was filmed.

 

Celtic Park is always filled to the rafters on a European night with a wall of noise greeting the players on their entrance to the pitch, the sound of music it may not be but the decibels will be as high as they have been for a long time with the Celtic faithful looking to cheer them over the line.

 

In the earlier Thursday kick off (1755hrs) Rangers will go for broke in the Austrian capital but they’ve approached every game this season, minus the first old firm game, in the same manner which has been very open to somewhat gung-ho.

 

From back to front they’ll need to be at their best if they are to jump above their hosts and play in Europe after the New Year and with a goal difference of only one it’s easy to surmise that they’ve played with an openness that played more to their offensive strengths rather than hold out hope defensively.

 

A conscious decision and one that for the most part has made them entertaining proposition to watch this season. Matchday one in group G saw them pick up a point in a fantastic 2-2 draw that drew as many plaudits as negatives.

 

A Santi Cazorla led ‘Yellow Submarine’ blew Rangers away with a blistering start and indeed a fantastic effort from Colombian Carlos Bacca was the one which bulged the Rangers net flying past Allan McGregor in the Rangers goal not even a minute in.

 

Villarreal continued to pepper the Gers goal with effort after effort but Rangers slowly played their way back in to the game and equalised through summer signing Scott Arfield, they did fall behind again two minutes later only to fightback once more and claim a point as the returning Kyle Lafferty notched an important equaliser.

 

To further highlight the complete contrast between their free-flowing forward play and their rather generous defensive showings had they not let slip a lead not once, not twice but three times in Moscow then their trip to Austria may have been that wee bit more straightforward.

 

Goals from Daniel Candeias, Glenn Middleton and an open goal were not enough to guarantee a positive result before eventually letting all three points slip from their grasp in a torrid fifteen minute spell at the start of the second half.

 

Having said all that two 0-0 home draws with Spartak and Villarreal fly against the wind in terms of them being a more attacking outlet it would be fair to say that in the game versus the Russian cracks they were well on top and unlucky not to turn their possession into goals.

 

The fact they are still in with a great chance of qualifying is as much down to goalkeeper Allan McGregor as it is Morelos and Lafferty.

 

His saves all the way through the campaign has really set up this shootout with Rapid. He made a fantastic save late in the game away in Shkupi, a penalty save from Tavares in Maribor and two world class saves in the aforementioned 2-2 draw in Spain.

 

McGregor will likely be called upon on Thursday but Rangers have shown they can get a result when the chips are down and their backs are up against it in Europe. Gerrard himself has plenty knowledge of how to get a result in Europe.

 

Opponents Rapid Vienna lie 8th in the Austrian Bundesliga in sharp contrast to Celtic’s Austrian counterparts Salzburg lead the league by a whopping 14 points after only 16 games.

 

Celtic started smartly in the Red Bull Arena but succumbed to a stronger, more technical outfit and will hope to show a more resilient side this time around as they look to make it 6 wins out of 7 at home in Europe this season.

 

10 home European goals so far in this campaign, a counter which would be gratefully enhanced on Thursday evening but perhaps more importantly they’ve only conceded 3 at home, to this date, in European competition this term.

 

Salzburg are 5 wins out of 5 and will be hoping to finish the group stage with a perfect record so it will not be an easy game for Celtic despite being at home. Salzburg have also outscored their opponents 3 to 1 in group B amassing a goals for tally of 15.

 

£9 million buy Edouard will be hoping to repay some of the exorbitant price tag it took to sign him from Paris Saint Germain in the summer, his goal in Salzburg was rendered pointless by the rest of their display and ultimately the poor result.

 

Callum McGregor has been a main player for the hoops especially in the absence of Captain Scott Brown but man of the moment James Forrest will be hoping to continue his fine streak following on from a double against in form Kilmarnock on Saturday.

 

Forrest has belied his previous tag and shot himself to the forefront of the Scottish game this season and has scored 14 goals since the beginning of October for both club and country. Outscoring Lewandowski, Kane and even the mercurial Messi.

 

Often thought about as having plenty velocity but no geometry the fast paced winger has certainly struck a high note in showing all his critics what he’s really made of.

 

A high note more akin to the sound of music but Celtic and Rangers will be hoping their supporters are listening to the Europa League anthem composed by Michael Kadelbach and are living to a story of emotion and energy come February 2019.

 

As with the Brexit vote the majority of Glasgow will be hoping (not voting) to “remain” in Europe come Thursday evening.

What’s gone wrong at Hibs?

The current malaise hanging over Easter Road is a deepening sense of “they’ve been here before”. The football is as uncertain as it was under Colin Calderwood and Terry Butcher, the support is slowly turning and the players seem lacklustre at best.

 

Nothing seems to be working at the minute and Neil Lennon is apparently concentrating on “football matters” instead of doing the media work but we can only hope the dark cloud hovering above Easter Road is not figuratively doing the same over the manager’s head, something needs to be done and hopefully Lennon is the man to do what is required.

 

He spoke last week of helping his team to regain their mental strength and if anyone can he can. His struggles can be deeper than football so if anyone knows about rebuilding people mentally then Lennon would be up there with regards to people you’d call on.

 

Hibernian need and deserve better. The latest run is not only frustrating or worrying, it hurts and it will be hurting the manager, players and supporters alike but it’s time to be strong, proud and determined.

 

For if they continue to wilt, the rest of December could leave the Hibees stranded in the mediocrity of the bottom six and damage to a positivity which has encased the club since 21st May 2016.

 

Record season ticket holders, an accounting profit but ultimately it’s the losses on the field which are hurting the most.

 

Around 4.45pm on Saturday 6th October and Neil Lennon’s side have just thumped Hamilton Academicals six goals to nil, they’ve moved to within two points of their city rivals at the top of the Scottish Premiership fast forward two months and they’ve plummeted to 8th position, without a win in seven, conceding thirteen and scoring only six. Four of those coming in a couple of 2-2 draws with the Premiership’s two bottom teams.

 

Hibs head to Hamilton for the return fixture on Saturday but neither side can claim to have too much confidence (something you would never have thought on that sunny autumnal day at the beginning of October).

 

Where can Hibs improve?

 

Movement

 

The effervescent way that Hibs swept Accies aside has long been forgotten and the players just aren’t pulling teams apart like they did when scoring six at home. The winter break may not have helped and injuries (which we’ll touch on later) have definitely held Hibs back but they need more from their forward thinking players.

 

The defence don’t have any options when playing out from the back. A tactic which Lennon and his assistant Garry Parker like to advocate. A consistent defensive set up has been hard to come by but whoever has the ball they are met with very limited options.

 

It’s easy to align the loss of McGinn, McGeouch and Allan with the downturn in Hibs fortunes but then they started the season well enough only to hit the rudders with an almighty shudder in recent weeks.

 

The midfield has no shape, the players don’t seem to want the ball and the strikers are constantly caught underneath or half a yard behind the ball. Not good enough.

 

The movement needs to be far better, the strikers need to offer more angles, make sharper runs and start dragging defences out of their comfort zone. For too long it’s been too easy to play against Hibs with players going through the motions and in the upcoming games the boys in Green will need to be more dynamic if they are going to arrest this worrying slump in form.

 

Shape/Formation  

 

Hibs have played a variety of different formations this season to varying degrees of success but the failure of the management team to stick to one maybe two is definitely a cause for concern.  

 

Whether it be 352, 4231, 4141, 433 or just a plain old 442 Hibs can’t seem to find a formula that works for them week in week out.  

 

Once again injuries may not have permitted the use of a settled shape but to change it game by game seems folly at best.  

 

The Hamilton game seen the Hibees play a diamond in midfield and provided the base for quite possibly their best performance of the season.  

 

Mark Mulligan sitting in front of the defence, Vykintas Slivka and Stephen Mallan to the left and right respectively with Emerson Hyndman at the tip of the diamond.  

 

Mallan and Hyndman both getting on the scoresheet.  

 

The next game against Celtic saw Lennon change shape despite a confidence boosting result the last time out. Given that the game was at Celtic Park it’s understandable but he started with Lewis Stevenson at left centre half, Daryl Horgan and Slivka as wing backs.  

 

Celtic were two goals to the good and had hit the bar before Kamberi and Boyle brought Hibs back in the game following yet another switch in formation.

 

They’d eventually go on to lose the match 4-2 a result that kickstarted the poor run of form they are currently struggling with at the minute.  

 

Next up was a trip to the west end of the capital to meet table topping neighbours Hearts. The game was an attritional affair but once again it was Lennon’s team selection that bamboozled the support in the Roseburn end of Tynecastle that evening.  

 

Young Ryan Porteous was left out, Steven Whittaker started and Hibs once again, at Tynecastle, went one up top. Giving their opponents too much respect, allowing the Jambos too much time in defence and therefore inviting immediate pressure as the ball was hit long for stand in striker Peter Haring.  

 

There was a definite air of uncertainty that night and indeed in the last two months that maybe with a more fluid, consistent formation would have been eradicated.  

 

Between each shape though there’s probably only five yards of a difference to each position so a lot of it comes down to discipline and effort.  

 

Belief  

 

The air of uncertainty has spread like wildfire but this group of players need to believe otherwise they’ll be sinking deeper than they can swim.  

 

The players look like they are lacking in every department, the team are devoid of any creativity and the manager seems unsure of how he’s going to get a tune out of them.  

 

The start of the season possibly masked what was underlying at Easter Road but where the players were previously bouncing off each other, playing one twos, shooting with accuracy and driving at teams in a determined fashion they are now one paced, playing balls behind their teammates and only managing a handful of shots on target each game.  

 

It’s been very disappointing of late and as suggested earlier on Lennon feels the need to instill a better mentality into his players it must also be up to the very same players to take the game by the scruff of the neck and pull each other out of this mess.  

 

Their application needs to improve, their determination needs to be greater and their discipline has to be spot on to get back the belief that is so badly lacking.  

 

Lennon  

 

Does the manager believe? He’s certainly starting to take more stick now than at any other time of his time in the managerial hotseat at Easter Road but he’ll be working tirelessly to put this right.  

 

His team selections have come in for criticism in the last few weeks none more so than at Kilmarnock where he fielded 6 recognised centre halves and a defensive midfielder in a 352 formation.  

 

This baffled more than just the Hibs support especially after Garry Parker, said post match that it was a team set out not to concede.   Against a team who Hibs had a good record against in the last year. Did they really need to go so negatively.  

 

The result suggests it made no difference but only the gaffer himself will know or accept he made a mistake.  

 

The main criticism is that he has not spoke to the media be it in-house or the broadcasting companies but he’s done this before and unfortunately it wasn’t to do with football.  

 

He’s an intelligent football man who knows that every team hits a bad run of form but hopefully that’s all it is and Lennon can get himself and his team back firing on all cylinders.    

 

Injuries  

 

To do so he’d ideally have all his injured players back. The Easter Road injury list is as extensive if not more so than the one so publicly highlighted across the city. Players like Jamie MacLaren, Paul Hanlon, David Gray, Darren McGregor and Florian Kamberi have all been out at one point in time causing a lot of upheaval in the starting XI week in week out.  

 

The injuries have prevented Hibs from having a settled side but it has to be said they should have had enough quality in reserve to win at least two of the last seven games.  

 

Overall this has been a very tough time, the toughest time Neil Lennon has faced in his tenure but the criticism towards him is unfair for now, it’s how to react in adversity that matters and Lennon has the charisma and self-belief to pull this around, but do the players.  

 

Parker suggested after the St Mirren draw that certain players weren’t doing enough and they knew who they were, whilst pinpointing Kamberi as one who he felt was not playing as well as he should.  

 

It’s up to the players now to prove they are good enough to wear the green and white of Hibernian, it’s up to manager to find a settled shape and it’s up to the club to ensure everything improves.  

 

Hamilton, Celtic, Rangers twice, Livi and Hearts are all to come before the winter break and if Hibs don’t pick up three points in North Lanarkshire it’s hard to see where their next win will come from.  

 

A big, big three days for Lennon and co who has found it hard to replace last season’s quality but this month it just needs to be about quantity and a suitable quantity of points at that.

Read all about it

As the public fall out of love with the printed media it’s perhaps fair to say that if you don’t love your product you can’t expect your customers to either.

 

Digital media is the present and the future but you can’t take away from the fact that generations before (anyone under the age of around 30) loved picking up a paper, a fanzine and a match programme.

 

As the news hit that Johnston’s Press had filed for administration it brought back memories of standing outside the nearest newsagent waiting on the Pink newspaper to get all the latest news on the Saturdays footballing entertainment.

 

Johnston’s Press includes the Scotsman and the Edinburgh Evening News in its productions and its debts seem to have been classed as insurmountable.

 

But what of it to the average football fan and the correlation between its apparent demise and other fitba related printed media.

 

A capacity crowd at Easter Road is higher than the daily circulation of the Scotsman so it’s easy to see why the paper is struggling.

 

Just under 20,000 copies per day with subscriptions of 5,000. The equivalent of being a season ticket holder at your football club. A further 5000 (free) copies in the airport and such like. Relatable by the amount of free tickets given out to players, families and school children by your club.

 

So that leaves around 10,000 full price sales and a comparison with clubs like Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen when they are playing poorly.

 

As with The Scotsman and it’s sister paper The Edinburgh Evening News most other papers are experiencing drops in their circulation.

 

The press and journal publication in Aberdeen recorded average sales of 48,208 per day in 2017 but that was a 13% (approx) decline from 2015.

 

More than double that of the crowds usually seen at Pittodrie but like the The Red Final an Aberdeen FC fanzine the customer base has dropped in the last few years.

 

Down the east coast and the Tayside journal, The courier, in 2017 sat at 35,813 from from 43,031 a fall in sales of around 17% in a two year spell.

 

Of course they are still well out stripping the bums on seats at their local football teams but Dundee United, Dundee and St Johnstone have never possessed exceedingly large followings in the last twenty years even when doing well and entertaining their supporters.

 

When the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed on the Johnston’s Press administration we can only hope there are no job losses or at least they are kept to the minimum but as with the Edinburgh Pink News and the Aberdeen Green Final all good things come to an end.

 

Every game in the nineties and early 2000s was extended into the night by the evening sports papers which were urgently produced at 5pm every Saturday night and on sale before you could ask for your first post match pint.

 

Both the Green Final and the Pink News ceased in 2002 amid a digital override of everything traditional.

 

Rich, egotistical owners, tyrant tv broadcasters and disappearing fanbases are undeniably factors of the decline of our beautiful game but with everything we need to know now available at the touch of a button, the world has lost the virtue of patience and it is printed publications which have felt the brunt of this new normal.

 

Now, the concept of waiting until you have heard the radio or seen the evening papers to find out the scores of the day seems almost unfathomable. This tradition has been usurped by twitter and, I guess, blogs like this one.

 

There’s been some abysmal football, some low crowds and a fair share of self-defeatism but as with the newspaper industry Scottish football needs to keep its traditions too.

 

Hell is it too much to go back to the days where we stayed in the ground until the final whistle, supported your team no matter what instead of slating them on social media, then went on to the local hostelry and waited for the evening papers.

 

Papers that defined your sporting day and commentated on the highs and lows of your rivals from amateur to junior all the way up to the senior game.

 

As with the papers it’s very rare you see a club fanzine in Scotland a popular purchase in the nineties to early noughties. The aforementioned Red Final, The Jambos No Idle Talk and the Hibees Mass Hibsteria were all fascinating reads and not just endless moaning or groaning as you read on the fans forums nowadays.

 

From your serious contributor to their hilarious friend and back again to the main guy who brought it altogether and provided the backbone to some such publication.

 

The matchday programme used to be a staple of your day out but out sourcing them to generic programme suppliers which in turn meant higher costs seen supporters decide to spend their cash on another pint or an overpriced pizza at the ground.

 

We all long for the days of standing on a Terrace with our mates, reading the papers of old and traditionally having a football day out.

 

The dream is there because for sometime at least it was reality. The smell of a bovril, the side by side tribalism of you and your fellow supporter, the taste of a pie, the cheers as the teams came out of the tunnel.

 

Now it’s pictures of the players, videos of the opposing teams goals and an all too familiar

feeling of just going through the motions.

 

Similarly we desperately don’t want our newspapers to fall out of line. Fat cats have ruined the game of football for it is now a business than a sport for most but we can’t let our newspapers go the same way.

 

I fear it may be a little too late but there’s nothing better than reading about and analysing games whilst getting the black ink all over your hands.

 

Match Programmes, fanzines and newspapers alike.

 

It’s tradition guys, just like mud on your boots or numbers on your shirt.

 

Read all about it before it’s gone

Livi Lions Roar

Livi’s Lions Roar Livingston are once again a huge talking point in the landscape of Scottish football. They have worked their way up the leagues and as with the early noughties, this team in the late teens are coming of age at the right time.

 

For Davie Hay’s cup winning side read David Hopkins double promotion winning squad, for David Fernandez read Dolly Menga and for Jim Leishman read Gary Holt.

 

There’s clear and obvious differences between the teams but 18 years on the lions have awoken with a thunderous roar.

 

There will be no Brazilian flair of the Marcio Maximo ilk in the home dug out and the players will, in the main, be better known to the supporters but the success and the positive results will likely mean even more.

 

Livingston have been here before but this time they are fighting above their weight, without the sizeable cash injections of previous years and they are playing with an effervescent style which belies their industrial tag.

 

Promotion from League One was classed as a resounding success considering the depths the club had plunged in recent years.

 

They were penniless following a second administration with numerous court battles relating to their financial irregularities.

 

In 2015 Livingston ensured they wouldn’t suffer the ignominy of relegation to League One but their fate was sealed only a year later as David Hopkin’s side plummeted down another league.

 

Previously in December 2014 Mark Burchill had taken control of the manager’s hot seat and very hot it was - 22 incumbents to this date - since Livi won the league cup in 2004. Burchill won the Scottish Challenge Cup in April 2015 before their dramatic escape from bottom spot in the Championship. They won 6 points from their last 2 games to jump above both Alloa and Cowdenbeath.

 

Burchill though, couldn’t carry these feats into the following season and he was subsequently sacked. Following a one year reign, the man in charge was replaced by David Hopkin in an effort to save the club from demotion.

 

These efforts however ultimately failed and following the Championship play off in 2016 Livingston were relegated. The club elected to keep Hopkin in charge and with that kept the club’s full time status in spite of their recent fate.

 

Following a string of bad luck Hopkin set about not only winning promotion back to the Championship but ultimately he’d guide his charges in to the Premiership on a shoe string budget and with many of the players that he inherited.

 

It is the players at the club who deserve the credit.

 

Granted, the managers are behind the method however without the right men on the ground the job could not be achieved, and achieve they did, as they won their team its way back into the premiership.

 

Thereafter protecting their premiership status would have been goal number one and they’ve without a doubt set about that task with great determination.

 

The club stated at the time of relegation that “continuity” in that the club remained full time and retained David Hopkin was the most important thing to help get the club back on its feet.

 

Hopkin, a former Scottish internationalist, and his players acquitted themselves brilliantly to the job they had to do in League One following their agonising relegation in the previous seasons play off against Stranraer.

 

They won the league by a massive 19 points and returned back to where they belonged, for a season at least, in the Championship.

 

Given we all know how the story ends “back where they belong” is not meant to be disrespectful indeed it’s testament to what they have done that they are well above that level.

 

Livi’s Lions scored 80 league goals reaching 81 points and winning 26 games as they led the league for 29 weeks out of 36. They not only deserved promotion they cantered to it and the Championship would be their next destination.

 

They were just as consistent as the competed in the Championship for season 2017/18 much of this was again down to the players but the squad Hopkin was working with was settled, honest and hard working.

 

Alan Lithgow, Craig Halkett, Shaun Byrne, Nicky Cadden, Matthew Knox and Rafa De Vita are all still at the club to this date and it’s this consistency that has driven them up the leagues.

 

Lithgow scored in the Premiership Play Off semi-final as Livingston brushed past Dundee United a team with plenty of Premiership pedigree. Rafa De Vita and Pittman also impressing on their way to the final.

 

It was perhaps fitting though that Keaghan Jacobs was the man to fire the club into the Premiership. His goals against Partick Thistle steering Livingston up another league having this year been awarded a testimonial.

 

He’s been through and seen it all at Almondvale, promotion, relegation, administration and promotion again. So to score the decisive goal would have been a fantastic feeling for a long-time club servant.

 

Livingston were back in the big time.

 

Jacobs adjusting to life back in the top league was to score a wonderful free kick away at Motherwell equalising for his team from 25 yards this meant he was the first Livingston player to score in each of the four divisions.

 

Midfielder Jacobs has notched 24 goals but for a player who is more renowned for his engine and his passing ability than his goalscoring it’s a good return through his 200 plus Livingston appearances.

 

Perhaps it’s unfair to highlight individuals as it is definitely a collective unit that is doing the business at the Tony Macaroni Arena but Craig Halkett and Declan Gallagher are two massive characters in that home dressing room.

 

Livingston re-signing Declan Gallagher was met with plentiful derision when he was released from jail in 2017. He was behind bars, after a violent assault, for just under a year but Livi took the chance and he’s repaid them with some fine performances as they won back to back promotions.

 

At 27 years old the centre half possibly has his best years ahead of him and it’s easy to see why Livingston thought he was worth another chance. Playing 117 times in all in West Lothian he’s a rock beside his defensive partner Craig Halkett.

 

Halkett is a player Livingston signed from Rangers in 2016 and despite the Livi squad possibly showing up a lot that’s wrong in Scottish Football in terms of young players not getting their chance it’s certainly worked out well for the team in yellow and black.

 

Former Ranger Halkett is a colossus at the back and at the age of 23 is only going to get better. His performances in the Premiership certainly don’t suggest that he will struggle going forward.

 

For a player of his age and, indeed, from centre half he has been involved in a goal in 10% of his matches played. Great return from a player who could go all the way to the top.

 

Behind Gallagher and Halkett on the pitch is another former Rangers squad member, Liam Kelly.

 

Kelly, a goalkeeper, who has kept 10 clean sheets from his 17 games played this season is pushing himself in to the Scotland reckoning with fantastic display after display.

He and Halkett should at least be under consideration given their age and their ability. If McLeish and his staff aren’t looking at them yet then they will be by the end of season.

 

A player that’s always caught the attention is the tenacious Scott Robinson. Formerly of Hearts he’s now approaching his half century of appearances for Livingston.

 

Many were surprised when Hearts let him go, having made 115 league appearances for the Gorgie club but their loss is most definitely Livingston’s gain having also been at Kilmarnock, Dunfermline and East Fife in between. A combative, yet classy player who can both mix it and stand out is a very important member of Gary Holt’s squad. He’s also been involved in 10 goals since his arrival meaning a goal or an assist every four games.

 

Further forward Nicky Cadden and new signing Dolly Menga are leading the charge as they battle away with the big boys.

 

Cadden, 22 years old, has played 59 times for the club and is following in the footsteps of his highly rated twin Chris Cadden who plays for Motherwell. Cadden has caused many defences problems so far this season with his directness and he’s without doubt a player who is continuously improving.

 

Dolly Menga has hit the headlines of late for a headbutt but he’s a terrific focal point for a Livingston team who are batting well above their average.

 

For all he is a focal point, he’s got good control and he’s not just a player to launch balls at. Indeed the general difficulty this team has is getting labelled a long ball team but it is a team very capable of getting the ball down and passing it about. For sure they are strong in the tackle, robust in defence and not afraid to “get rid” when they are in need but to dismiss them as a long ball team would be folly for their opponents.

 

The Lions achieve a very credible average possession of 47.5% throughout their games so far. This is on the back of playing Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and most recently Celtic.

They need to be that bit more clinical in front of goal as they are only averaging 3 shots on goal per game but for a team who have won two promotions on the spin they have certainly settled in well to the top league.

 

Of course it wouldn’t be Livingston if there wasn’t a managerial saga and after David Hopkin decided his position was untenable following a second successive promotion the manager’s gig was given to Kenny Miller.

 

Miller taking on the position as player-coach but only two months later and a couple of weeks into the new season it was decided that he wanted to concentrate on his playing career.

 

Strange circumstances indeed but it led to current gaffer Gary Holt taking charge and it looks like he’s calmed everything down and it’s full steam ahead for the former Falkirk manager.

 

Livingston have been a fantastic addition to the Premiership and it will be very interesting as to where they end up both as a team and as a set of individuals. They’ve taken points off five of the top six from last season with Aberdeen still to play so there’s no reason to write them off in terms of a top six position themselves.

 

Individually the majority of this team have been together for a long period of time and there is a great camaraderie as noted with Gallagher being reinstated and Shaun Byrne suggesting the club was more like a “family” to him.

 

This can only bode well going forward but a number of players will be having their names scribbled on scout’s notepads across the country and down south if they continue to push themselves and Livingston on.

 

First and foremost though, as touched on earlier, Livingston have given these players a chance where other clubs have not. They’ve given others a platform from out of the junior game and further afield but overall they are good for each other and so far the Premiership is good for them too.

Capital slump as Saints jump

Hearts and Hibernian have both hit a slump as the capital duo have each gone four games without a goal. Hibs dropping out of the top six and Hearts losing their grip on top spot in the Premiership table.

 

The big movers are St Johnstone who have now won five games in a row since losing 6-0 to Celtic at the beginning of October. Their fantastic run is evidenced not only in points won but also with a goals conceded tally of zero.

 

A crowd of 2125 watched from the stands at McDairmid Park as Saints added Hamilton Accies to their list of scalps which include Motherwell, St Mirren, Livingston and Hibernian. Tommy Wright’s men scoring nine goals in the process.

 

Their result at Easter Road is the standout given it was 11 months since Hibs had last lost a league game at home and Wright’s Northern Irish counterpart Neil Lennon could be forgiven for worrying about his clubs recent downturn in fortunes.

 

Since returning from the October international break Hibs have scored two goals in five games, albeit against the Champions. Subsequently Hibs have struggled against Hearts then lost narrowly and uninspiringly to St Johnstone with their latest defeat coming on the road at Aberdeen.

 

Lennon can point towards five of their last seven games being away from home and considering Hibs record on the road - only 4 wins in 2018 - it’s perhaps par for the course but he will know this poor run of form must be arrested as soon as they come back from the November international break.

 

Only 10 of the Leith’s side 43 shots have been on target with an average 49% possession over their last four games before the break.

 

Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom though with three of these fixtures away at Celtic, Hearts and Aberdeen grounds where they’d be likely to surrender possession but they are being nowhere near clinical enough and the strikers, like Kamberi and MacLaren, must all start converting their chances.

 

They have continued to create opportunities but their shots to shots on target to goals ratio is just as worrying as their recent downturn in form.

 

This is not a statistic that’s just hindered Hibs in recent weeks but really since the start of the season.

 

None more so than in their league cup fixture with last Fridays opponents Aberdeen at the end of September. The Hibees dominated the game with 61% possession and over 20 attempts on goal only 6 of those causing concern for Dons ‘keeper Joe Lewis.

 

Eventually succumbing via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

 

Much has been said about the failure to re-sign Scott Allan in the summer and he undoubtedly would have helped to create more chances but the facts are that the strikers aren’t making the most of the possible assists from the current playmakers at the club.

 

If Kamberi is off his game or suspended as has been the case then his team seem to lack a plan b and this where they’ll need to strengthen in the January transfer window.

 

Lennon and his assistant Garry Parker will be hoping to have Paul Hanlon, David Gray and Thomas Agyepong back in their squad as the return to face matches against Dundee, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Hamilton before facing Celtic, Rangers twice in a week, Livingston and Hearts before the end of the year.

 

A very tough period of games but being more clinical and welcoming back injured players will propel Hibs back up the table.

 

Over the city and Heart of Midlothian have injury concerns of their own some more long term than others and face the prospect of the impressive Peter Haring having a hernia operation in the New Year.

 

Hearts have failed to score a goal for over 400 minutes and have created very little over the course of their last four games with only 10 shots on target, in total, during the time in question.

 

Like Hibs they have an extensive injury list but they will have been buoyed by the news Christophe Berra and Uche Ikpeazu look like returning earlier than expected. John Souttar and Steven Naismith are also out for the mid to long term.

 

Craig Wighton is a very able deputy in the forward areas if the ball is played into feet, Jimmy Dunne would be hard to remove from the starting XI even after skipper Berra and Souttar make a return to action so the Jambos squad should be strong enough in numbers to cope with injuries and suspensions going forward.

 

St Mirren are up next for the Jam Tarts and they will need to go to Paisley and return to winning ways in order to reignite their season which has promised, until the injuries and a tougher run of games, to be a good one.

 

Then in the run up to Christmas they face Rangers, in form St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Hibernian as part of a 7 game spell before the winter break kicks in.

 

In form St Johnstone are the team on the up though. Climbing from 8th place to 4th earning a massive 15 points and sitting 3 points off the top. Deserving of more support, as stated previously, low numbers attended this weekend’s clash with Hamilton where Saints recorded their biggest home win since they defeated Inverness Caledonian Thistle by 3 goals to nil in December 2016.

 

Tommy Wright will wonder what else he has to do to win back the crowds. Consistently punching above their weight in the league his side are coming good once again and look to be a threat to anyone they come up against.

 

They will look to keep building on their recent form as they play Hearts, Aberdeen and Motherwell before hoping to get revenge on Rangers for their thumping at Ibrox earlier in the campaign.

 

Livingston are still plying away successfully and for only the second time in their history have taken points off Celtic. The champions went back on top on goal difference despite a nil nil draw with Livi as Gary Holt’s side defended in their numbers to frustrate Odsonne Edouard and co on the plastic pitch at Almondvale.

 

The draw meant that Livingston have now taken points off five of the top six from last season with Aberdeen yet to play.

 

Two former Rangers youths are the rock that Livingston are basing their spine on with Craig Halkett and Liam Kelly proving to be stand outs as Livingston punch well above their weight. The duo could well be looked at internationally if McLeish does his scouting right in the coming months.

 

Rangers signed off with a 7-1 victory over Motherwell and now lie third on goal difference from Kilmarnock, only two points behind Celtic and Hearts.

 

Defensively they were shambolic in Moscow through the week and have struggled at times in defence domestically.

 

The spaces they leave in behind from committing too many players forward must be a concern especially  in the full back positions and it certainly wasn’t a surprise to see John Flanagan dropped to the bench as his side comprehensively blew a beleaguered Motherwell away.

 

Steven Gerrard was pretty scathing about the defending in the Russian capital stating that Under 13s and Under 14s would be able to clear the ball with both feet so basically there was no reason why his players couldn’t do it.

 

Connor Goldson the main culprit also lost his position in the team with Gareth McAuley getting a rare appearance at centre half coming off the bench at half time.

 

It’s hard not to be excited about the ever improving Glenn Middleton a lad not large in stature but carries himself brilliantly on the pitch, can play a bit whilst hold his own. A mature head on young shoulders.

 

Gerrard readily accepts the blame for his mistakes but doesn’t protect anyone if he feels they have let him down a characteristic you don’t often see in a manager but a refreshing one for the most part.

 

His players may eventually disagree with such an approach but the supporters will love the openness and despite having their worst start in years they are not far off their champion city rivals.

 

It’s extremely tight at the top and that can only be a good thing for Scottish football and the spectacle it is constantly trying to sell. The TV deal is up for grabs and more competition will lure the TV companies into paying more for our product.

 

The top six are separated by five points and each team has a very hectic schedule following the internationals and before the league takes a winter break so it will be very interesting to see where teams find themselves come close of play on 29th December.

 

Neil Lennon, for one, will be hoping there’s plenty of movement in the top six as he looks to steer Hibs back up the league.

The terribly terrific Tynecastle tone

First things first coin throwing and punching (if you can call it that) a goalkeeper is not on and never will be but give me the hostility, the anger, the bile every week rather than the ipad, iphone, camera wielding modern day football fan.

 

Especially on away days.

 

Standing in the Roseburn end of Tynecastle on derby day you know you are hated, you know you are going to get abused but nothing can take away from the tribalism felt when marching from the pub to the ground then inside the stadium when the first song breaks out.

 

The partisan crowd can easily sweep you up and make you enter a different dimension. As said earlier no one can condone coin throwing and the like but I totally get how embroiled one can get inside the bowels of a stadium, on derby day no less.

 

You stand there, you shout, you sing, you hate, you gesticulate and you literally don’t care about anything else for 90 minutes or so.

 

Individuals can ruin a good atmosphere but supporter groups make them and this should never be taken away from them, poisonous or otherwise.

 

A lot of chat seems to be directed towards closed door games, supporter bans and public shaming of the perpetrators but the blame game should be just that. Blame and blame only. The guys who did it will be regretting it but to grass someone up or to lose somebody their job because of a stupid incident is slightly over zealous.

 

The atmosphere at Tynecastle the other night was electrically charged, emotions were high, tempers frayed and that was just in the stands.

 

Neil Lennon has come in for some stick and fair play to him for being so upfront about the coin throwing incident stating ‘hopefully he gets to meet the guy.’

 

His delight that Hearts’ last minute goal was chalked off for offside was there for all to see and clearly it rubbed the Jambos up the wrong way but had Craig Levein reacted in that matter they’d have lapped it up.

 

Celebrations and contentious decisions should all have emotion attached to them. That goes for board members, managers, players and obviously for the supporters in the stands.

 

Lennon is everyone’s favourite pantomime villain yet when allowed to concentrate on his football he is a very bright and articulate man who is a fantastic coach so he done what he done knowing the irate reaction it would bring but it was only a bit of give and take.

 

The half time “entertainment” was Ian Black. A man now playing junior football with tales of his successful derby record but if anyone wants to look for pantomime villain they didn’t need to look much further than the touchline and that was just at half time.

 

The point is every team has them, you absolutely love them when they are yours and hate them beyond hate when they come up against you.

 

To say Lennon deserved it is masking the problem. Not one person deserves to be hit by coin whether you hate them or not. One certainty in all this though is the abuse the Jambos would have been dishing out to Lennon all night so when he turns around and gives them it back, they’ve got to be a wee bit more smarter. Having said that it was one coin, the rest of the Hearts fans probably just went into incandescent rage just as the Hibees used to when Rudi Skacel ran the show for Hearts.

 

Talking about the show there was some football played, albeit agriculturally, both sides though were missing some key players through injury with Paul Hanlon a massive miss for Hibs and Christophe Berra a long term injury victim for the Tynecastle side.

 

The game started at the usual frenetic derby pace with neither side getting the ball down the deck for a long spell of time. Hammer and tongs rather than neat and tidy but an Olly Lee strike from 25 yards seen Hibs keeper Adam Bogdan dive high to his right to prevent Lee’s effort from hitting the back of the net.

 

This was to prove to be Hearts one and only shot on target.

 

Hibs then started to take control without putting too much pressure on their hosts and whilst they were mixing it in the midfield they never got much out of there two strikers. Two very useful players on their day but Martin Boyle definitely seems to cause more damage as a winger whilst Florian Kamberi seemed to be caught up in the occasion and was playing the man instead of the game.

 

Stevie Mallan swung in a searching corner kick which evaded everyone in the central area and reached the head of Hibs defender Darren McGregor as he peeled round to the back post only to nod his effort, from 4 yards, into the side netting instead of troubling Zdenek Zlamal in the Hearts goal.

 

In a game that was a real war of attrition there was a genuine lack of quality throughout so Stevie Mallan’s shooting range and technique was the best skill on show. He tried his best to notch a goal for Hibs and add to his already tantalising tally.

 

From open play he hit a shot from thirty yards that had Zlamal beaten all ends up only for the ball to crash straight off the crossbar.

 

Thereafter he hit the top of the bar with a free kick from around twenty five yards before cheekily attempting to catch Zlamal out at his near post which the big Czech got down smartly to save.

 

Kamberi who was visibly distracted by the atmosphere and ultimately found himself embroiled in a battle with Clevid Dikamona and Jimmy Dunne who at the heart of the Jambos defence were brilliant and really played Kamberi well which ultimately seen the big Swiss striker sent off.

 

Both his particular bookings were very harsh but he’d spent most of his time on the pitch scrapping and grappling with one or the other defenders named above and for that reason, looking on, it was no surprise when he finally was booked then subsequently sent off.

 

The first booking coming when he jumped alongside Dikamona, referee Andrew Dallas adjudging it to be a foul, he was booked for persistent fouling. The actual infringement wasn’t a foul in the first place so it could be argued it was a harsh booking but in all fairness Dallas, rightly or wrongly, had spoken to the Hibs forward on numerous occasions.

 

The second booking was shocking and Dallas had started losing his way in the game before this and never regained his composure after it.

 

Kamberi challenged Oliver Bozanic midway in the Hibs half as the men in green and white defended the Gorgie Road end.

 

It was a strong coming together between the pair but a fifty fifty nonetheless one which Kamberi won fairly despite a free kick being awarded to Hearts.

 

What followed was a complete head-loss from Kamberi and some very clever tactics from Jimmy Dunne. Knowing his opponent was on a booking he got right up into his face and Kamberi reacted blowing up like a match hitting petrol.

 

You could argue that it was unprofessional on both sides but football is a game for winning or getting one over on the other side and whilst you don’t like to see it Jimmy Dunne’s plan worked perfectly and Kamberi was given his marching orders.

 

Perhaps more troubling to Neil Lennon is that his striker will now miss this weekend’s clash with in form St Johnstone although his sending off did change the course of the game. There’s no doubt about that.

 

Hibs had to mix it with Hearts right from the start and they definitely done that but going down to ten men left them with a wee bit too much to do so they had to fight to stay in the game.

 

No quarter is ever given on a very tight playing surface but Hibs just couldn’t play their usual expansive game a bug bear of many trips to the west side of Edinburgh.

 

There was an unfortunate incident with the Hearts goalkeeper late in the second half as he appeared to be struck by a Hibs supporter as he went to collect a ball, TV angles don’t show it too well but being not too far away from the incident Zlamal certainly hit the deck as if he’d been punched.

 

This kind of behaviour is not what Scottish Football wants to see especially in light of them opening up discussions on allowing booze back in our team’s concourses.

 

Clevid Dikamona was close to being the Hearts hero after he looped a header into the back of the net following some poor flappy play by Hibs goalkeeper Adam Bogdan however the goal wasn’t to stand.

 

Peter Haring was standing in an offside position when his teammate headed the ball goal wards and proceeded to block Efe Ambrose who was coming round to clear. Nevertheless a huge let off for Hibs but a great call from the linesman who had previously missed two or three incidents.

 

Lennon was then hit by a coin as he celebrated the lineman’s flag going up.

 

No disrespect to him but that unfortunately summed up the game, the most exciting part was a disallowed goal. Granted it came in the last minute and the game didn’t lack the heart or passion which Lennon displayed in that minute but it did want for some quality and someone to put their foot on the ball.

 

Special mention must go to Hibs Australian international captain Mark Mulligan who was outstanding and strolled through a tempestuous ninety minutes. Played the ball well, read the game brilliantly and not once did he get caught up in any of the ugly stuff on or off the field.

 

A class act.

 

Jimmy Dunne defended stoutly for Hearts and played the game very well especially in his encounters with Kamberi but he looks to be a player who can go on to a higher level and it will be very interesting to see if he stays in Gorgie beyond January.

 

With very little football to talk about and several off-field incidents it’s unfortunate but these incidents are the ones which people are talking about and comments from Partick Thistle manager Gary Caldwell and ex police chief Les Gray suggesting that Neil Lennon was to blame for the coin throwing incident beggars belief.

 

There has been a complete overreaction to this and it is more evidence of the way Scottish Football beats itself up. Let the authorities deal with what they see fit and let Levein, Lennon et al get on with the football.

 

Two days on and we are still hearing calls for summits and seeing the headlines all over the news channels. It’s not for us to mull over, it’s for us to move on from.

 

As for jointly released statements basically they are non-statements. Just saying what people want to hear.

 

Embarrassing and something that shouldn’t be done. Up there with half and half scarves.

 

Let’s move on and enjoy the bitter atmosphere for what it is. One person’s terrible is another person’s terrific.

Fergie the hero for the Dons

Aberdeen and Rangers knew the Champions lay in waiting as the second Betfred Cup Semi Final of the day kicked off as the skies darkened over Hampden Park.

 

The clocks may have went back this morning but this game didn’t take long to tick into action with Alan McGregor tipping a McGinn effort wide of the post, Ejaria being yellow carded in the first minute with Graeme Shinnie following Ejaria into the book a minute later.

 

An eight minute delay midway through the first half took all the early sting out of the contest. Andrew Considine fell to the ground a few yards into the Rangers half following an aerial challenge, he lay stricken on the Hampden turf as medical staff tended to him. He left the pitch on a stretcher and was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure.

 

Max Lowe replaced Considine on the 35th minute.

 

Following that it was a match broken up by poor play, good defending and stupid fouls as both sides played their way back in to the match.

 

Rangers had the majority of the possession but Scott McKenna and Michael Devlin were defending stoutly despite the presence of Umar Sadiq, making his first start in weeks. All of Rangers first half shots were wide of the target and Joe Lewis remained untested in the Aberdeen goal.

 

Whilst McGregor wasn’t overly strained in the Rangers net Niall McGinn should have had the net bulging instead he blazed high over the target when presented with an opportunity on the 15 minute mark.

 

It was a gilt edged chance superbly manufactured by Gary Mackay-Steven who beat Flanagan on the Dons right hand side before cutting for McGinn who wildly ruined a great chance.

 

For Rangers former Don Ryan Jack scuffed a shot wide of the upright when sliding in Daniel Candeias might have been the better option and Worrall lashed at a knockdown from his central defensive partner Conor Goldson which had narrowly avoided Sadiq before Worall sent it over.

 

Jack was playing well in the middle, picking passes and urging his teammates on with Ejaria and Candeias proving constant menaces to Aberdeen but the final ball often let down Rangers as they pushed to make the most of their possession.

 

Eight minutes of injury time never brought a goal so the sides went in level at the break.

 

The second never really got out of first gear either and Aberdeen’s tactical approach was winning the day. It was a war of attrition and not easy on the eye but Derek McInnes a man who knocked back Rangers before Gerrard was given the managers job had set up his team to pick apart Rangers and bide their time until they got their chance.

 

James Wilson was up front on his own and he was a lonely figure as Aberdeen closed the game off but gave him very little supply or indeed support.

 

When the chance came it was Lewis Ferguson who was the Aberdeen hero bulleting home a header from a fantastic Niall McGinn corner kick.

 

The sheer number of players prevented McGregor from coming for the set piece but Ferguson, a name mainly associated with Rangers, was there to firmly plant a header into the centre of the goal.

 

The son of Derek Ferguson who scored a pearler of an overhead kick in the Europa League against Burnley rose well in the box and elevated Aberdeen into the Betfred Cup victory.

 

Tactically McInnes set up his team to be hard to beat and they certainly were. Limiting Rangers to a few chances and the ones they had didn’t trouble Lewis in between the sticks.

 

Rangers were lacklustre going forward, insipid in possession and wasteful on the ball. Aberdeen on the other hand were content to keep them at bay.

 

Ejaria, Coulibaly and Candeias were seeing plenty of the ball but failed to move Aberdeeen’s resolute defence and not once did the on form Ryan Kent manage to turn Shay Logan.

 

Alfredo Morelos suspension left Steven Gerrard with very little option but to play Sadiq up top. The Colombian who stupidly got himself suspended in the last round will have been watching on wishing he was involved.

 

Too many players though were well below their best and this allowed Aberdeen to take even more hope as the game wore on.

 

McKenna and Devlin were bullying Sadiq, Shinnie and Ferguson were beginning to win their midfield battles whilst Aberdeen were taking care of the ball far better than they had done in the earlier part of the match.

 

A fantastic professional performance from Aberdeen and one which propelled them into yet another cup final under McInnes.

 

They’ll return to Hampden on Sunday 2nd December.

Christie Checks Celtic into Cup Final

The first of the Betfred Cup semi finals kicked off on a cold but sunny afternoon at the home of Scottish rugby. A crowd of over sixty thousand watched on as the game grew in time but Ryan Christie’s introduction at half time was the catalyst for a stirring second half showing.

 

Christie won a penalty, drew an error from Zlamal before curling in a fantastic effort to be involved in all three of Celtic’s second half goals.

 

As part of the largest Scottish Football attendance since 1990 the fans could be forgiven for complaining about the fare on offer in the first half but the second half showing from Celtic will have appeased their fans with the Jambos scratching their heads as to why changes, tactically, were not made earlier.

 

Craig Levein’s Hearts side was much changed from the team which beat Celtic one nil early on in the season with long term injuries to Souttar, Berra and Ikpeazu leaving Levein to utilise his massive squad.

 

The players coming in haven’t let him down though and with Haring coming back in it was more of a settled midfield even if it was set up narrowly to nullify the threat of Celtic.

 

Celtic on the other hand gave Scott Bain his usual Betfred Cup goalkeeper slot whilst Christian Gamboa, Jozo Simunovic, Dedryk Boyata, Ryan Christie and Lewis Morgan joined Craig Gordon in dropping out from the team which suffered a brutal loss in Leipzig on Thursday night.

 

The first half was less than inspiring with both teams feeling each other out but as the half wore on it began to become a bit more open and this certainly suited Celtic more than Hearts.

 

Hearts were comfortable when the game was scrappy and fragmented especially in the first half hour. Naismith and Kouassi both being substituted didn’t help the flow of the game, both players coming off with knee injuries although Kouassi was less than impressed having seemingly ran off his injury following an innocuous landing.

 

Celtic once again bounced back domestically despite their abject European performance and it was the introduction of Christie which sparked wild scenes in the Celtic end as thirty thousand plus turned the west of Edinburgh green and white.

 

The punctuated nature of the first half was evidenced in the first ten minutes when Steven McLean was booked for an apparent elbow television showing no contact whatsoever then Steven Naismith went off injured in the fifth minute having went down in an off the ball incident before a flurry of niggly fouls broke the game up further.

 

Hearts were pressing narrowly and despite affording their opponents plenty of the ball they prevented them from doing anything to hurt them in the early stages.

 

Dikamona had to defend brilliantly to prevent Edouard from getting in on the angle. The DR Congo international used all of his body strength to usher the ball out and away from danger.

 

Steven McLean did have the ball in the net for the Jam Tarts and it was a cute wee flick following a knock down in the box but it was ruled out with McLean standing two yards offside after Edouard had pushed out in time.

 

Up the other end Zlamal got down well to send a Sinclair effort around his left hand post. Sinclair was the man who was causing the Jambos problems and he was facing up Smith every time, giving him a very hard time and half time probably arrived at a good stage for Smith and his teammates.

 

Half Time saw the change which would turn this match well in the favour of the Glasgow side. Olivier Ntcham never reappeared following the break and it was the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle man Christie who replaced the Frenchman.

 

It didn’t take long for Christie to make an impact and it was he who was upended in the area as Celtic drew first blood from the penalty spot.

 

Bozanic clumsily ran in to the area Christie was attacking, hung a leg out and Collum’s whistle signalled the penalty award. A very soft penalty but one that was taken superbly by Scott Sinclair.

 

Sinclair sent Hearts goalkeeper Bobby Zlamal the wrong way and found the bottom right hand corner as Zlamal dived, early, to his right.

 

Celtic had started the second half like they ended the first and Hearts were slow to respond, indeed, the game was more or less out of their reach by the time Levein and his squad reacted.

 

The second goal came somewhat fortuitously but Celtic weren’t going to care when James Forrest was guiding the ball home from inside the six yard box following Zlamal’s error. The big Czech goalkeeper allowing a tame Christie shot to squirm out of control and Forrest was alert enough to run in and score to virtually put the game to bed.

 

Zlamal was to later make up for his error and definitely prevented the score line from being that bit more embarrassing.

 

The game was over as a contest in the seventy second minute as Christie ran on to a poor Edouard touch to brilliantly pass the ball into the net past the despairing Zlamal.

 

The big Czech, Dunne and Smith all clearing efforts off the line as Celtic attempted to ascertain their superiority but the score would remain at three nil.

 

Rodgers would be delighted with his side and the way they reacted after Thursday with Forrest, Rogic and Sinclair all impressing.

 

Levein would be gutted at missing the injured players and losing Naismith so early on but he might be a bit critical upon himself too given he and MacPhee were slow to react to a game that was quickly going out of their control.

 

He could have made a change earlier and Callum Morrison was an option but Naismith’s injury saw their game plan fall to pieces and Celtic took full advantage on the big Murrayfield surface.

More than a Fleck of quality

Once dubbed the ‘Scottish Wayne Rooney’ John Fleck made his top-level football debut at the age of sixteen in 2008.

 

In spite of a ten year career and over 300 appearances Fleck somehow feels like the forgotten man in his home land, especially when it comes to international squads.

 

He has been a consistently strong midfielder throughout, however seems to continue to fall short of the recognition he deserves. One example being last season where he completed 90 minutes in all but one of the forty one games he started for Sheffield United in the Championship. Showing his worth to Chris Wilder, his Blades teammates and the Bramall Lane faithful.

 

He most recently endeared himself to his home supporters on Saturday past when, like a blade, he cut through Derby County’s defensive armoury and laid it on a plate for Chris Basham to score.

 

Vintage 2008 and just as swashbuckling as his early Rangers career.

 

Fleck was caught up in the NEWCO/Rangers debacle and subsequently objected to his contract being transferred to the new company but what proved to be Rangers loss was most definitely Coventry City and Sheffield United’s gain.

 

Son of former Ranger Robert Fleck, John made his debut in a Scottish Cup tie against East Stirlingshire. He then went on to become the youngest player at the time to have played in a British senior cup final when Rangers faced Queen of the South on Saturday 24th May 2008. Rangers emerged victorious in a five goal thriller at Hampden Park.

 

He may well have won more trophies had he stayed at Rangers under different circumstances of course but whether he would have got as many appearances and minutes is uncertain.

 

Many a good young Scottish talent has been stifled not only by the number of imports coming in to our clubs but also because of unreasonable expectancy placed upon such a player.

 

Players like Fleck need minutes, where they are trusted but understood. Where they expect but realise their limits, where they can improve but also learn.

 

For every minute on the pitch is another minute learned and he’s certainly using his decade worth of experience to his own and his teams gain as they battle at the top end of the Championship.

 

Following Rangers it was at Coventry City where he learned his trade.

 

Fleck was involved in a goal every 6 games whilst producing combative and effective displays week in week out which more than caught the eye (even if his goal involvement wasn’t particularly strong).

 

He played 162 times in the league for Coventry and his consistency was lauded by all at the Ricoh Arena in spite of these being testing times for the Midlands club.

 

A loan spell at Blackpool punctuated his early career but it was at the Ricoh and now at Bramall Lane where he has taken his career to the next level.

 

In his twelve Championship matches this season, he’s played one thousand and fifty three minutes of first team action, notching one goal and playing a consistent starring role in the heart of a fully beating Sheffield United midfield.

 

He may have left Coventry under a cloud considering what most Sky Blues fans would consider a sideways step however he remains to be a fan’s favourite for at least one half of Sheffield.

 

Fleck’s on pitch style played a crucial role in the performance of the team which now shares joint position in the Championship behind only Yorkshire rivals Leeds United and Middlesbrough on goal difference.

 

The Championship is more topsy-turvy than a Newco/Stayco saga is but Fleck has been through a lot and he will be hoping to lend on his experience and expend on his talent to ensure his teammates are celebrating come May 2019.

 

“The next Wayne Rooney”

 

Labelling youngsters against their predecessors is a British footballing epidemic. Why not just let the kids be and let them progress at their own pace in their own style?

 

Having ignored the labels, Fleck is now the consummate professional who is markedly improving year upon year.

 

He’s also got time on his side, at 27, he’s played a big part in one promotion for Sheffield United however he and his teammates would go down as legends if they were able to win their way to promotion in the richest league in the world.

 

The Premiership may well beckon in the future but his performances in League One were worth their weight in gold as United won promotion back to the Championship.

 

His goal involvement, in particular his seventeen assists, propelled Sheffield United to the top of League One with his team amassing 100 points and scoring 92 goals in the process.

 

United blazed aside all of their opponents with Fleck involved in a goal every 168 minutes of his time on the pitch. All of these merits and still no place in the international squad?

 

Fleck has played for Scottish Youth sides up to the 21s. His last game came in 2009 but since moving down south has failed to be involved with the full international squad to this point.

 

Fleck has the ability, the drive and the undoubted belief to be the man at the heart of the Scottish midfield just as he is doing so for Sheffield United. In fact given Scott Brown’s second retirement from International football you could argue there are boots to fill.

 

Championship opponent John McGinn can lay claim to these boots for now but Brown’s presence and character on the pitch is unlikely to be replaced by just one set of feet and who better to take the spot than Fleck?

 

He would be an ideal representative for his country yet it’s amazing how he has been overlooked to this date considering his strong performances for his club side.

 

Stuart Armstrong, Kevin McDonald, the aforementioned McGinn are in pole position but in the summer Alex McLeish was faced with a number of call offs for clashes against Mexico and Peru yet Fleck still wasn’t given a chance.

 

Why is this?

 

There’s plenty of conspiracy theories as to why this is the case but on the face of it seems to boil down to a sheer lack of understanding of how Fleck has improved his game since leaving Rangers.

 

A player of undoubted quality who does the dirty work in the engine room of his team’s midfield wherever and whoever he is playing against.

 

Fleck is also capable of the sublime as witnessed by his driving runs or his goals as shown most recently by his superb free kick the Steel City derby at Hillsborough.

 

If Fleck can continue to keep proving himself at the top end of the Championship then surely international caps will not be too far away.

Internationals - Does anyone really care?

Another international week is upon us and the question is, does anyone really care?

 

As per usual in Scotland an international week consists of moans and groans about the current incumbent of the SFA’s head coach seat, an outcry over scandalous ticket prices and the standard call offs.

 

Leigh Griffiths being the most high profile of this set.

 

Arguably Scotland’s most potent striker has confirmed he is pulling out to concentrate on regaining full fitness. The Celtic striker is quoted stating that he needs to focus on his fitness over this international period to get back into the best possible shape.

 

As a man ‘Sparky’ has plenty of detractors, embroils himself in a few family debacles but more so from the footballing side he is also a very decent striker as his two free kicks against England showed.

 

These goals in a World Cup qualifier left the Hampden Park crowd in raptures before Harry Kane silenced them as England snatched a two all draw right at the death.

 

Since then, and before in some cases, the “Tartan Army” (as the Scots fans are known) have seemingly went in to retreat and the battle between the Scottish Football Association hierarchy and the supporters is now on as the price is outweighing the product.

 

Much like Leigh Griffiths the pull of alternative options is seeing international crowds fall to the lowest ebb they have been in some time, indeed since McLeish’s first time in charge they have more than halved in amount.

 

McLeish’s first game in his initial spell coming against Georgia, drew a large crowd of 50,850 for a European Championship qualifier.

 

In his latest spell his first home qualifier as such (an inaugural Nations League match) brought an attendance of 17,455. A visit of the Albanian national team is hardly one to set the heather alight but considering Hampden has drawn crowds of over 50,000 for games against the Faroe Islands it is evidence of a downturn in the enthusiasm of the Scottish people towards their countries national side.

 

In some sort of strange correlation to his past tenure, the Scotland gaffer came up against the man who all but ended his dreams in the European Championship qualifiers back in McLeish’s last Scotland game in November 2007.

 

Christian Panucci nodded home an Andrea Pirlo free kick in the last minute in front of a capacity crowd of 51,301 around about the time when Scotland supporters last felt confident in their side.

 

When Albania came to town, their manager was Christian Panucci, McLeish’s Italian counterpart overseeing a two nil victory for the home side as the aforementioned Leigh Griffiths was left sitting on the bench for much of it.

 

So what will bring out the Scots supporters and make them think again when it comes to attending matches and being proud of their nation once more?

 

Well Alex McLeish is probably as well informed as most despite the apathy currently, he knows the simple way to amplify the attendances is by bringing back success.

 

In his first stint in charge of the national side he managed them to a 70% win rate and enjoyed the heady heights of a James McFadden led one nil win in the Parc Des Princes against France.

 

The decade in between has more or less been forgettable for one reason or another and much like the supporters it seems playing for your country isn’t an attractive option for the players at this moment in time also.

 

And is it any wonder when not only do they have to play in poorly arranged international friendlies, but the football world’s governing body is slowly but surely diminishing any quality control they had over the game.

 

FIFA is a well publicised corrupt organisation but making the World Cup a 48 team tournament dilutes the competition of real quality and brings around more corruption headlines than footballing ones.

 

For FIFA the obvious impact is the increased revenue options which is already in the billions but are they forgetting the supporter?

 

The custodians of the game, the stakeholders of the business in other terms, are being completely ignored.

 

Ironically the 48 team set up would on the face of it boost a country of Scotland’s stature chances of qualifying as does the Nations League yet supporters don’t seem interested in that competition either.

 

Conversely however this year’s world cup in Russia was one of the most exciting we have witnessed and that was for both travelling supporters and the armchair equivalent but unfortunately that was one which broke from the norm.

 

The average attendance was down in comparison to the previous three tournaments and whilst the host nation’s hooligan element may have scared away some, it was another damning statistic further evidencing the negative perception amongst the supporters of international football.

 

In Scotland, per population, we have the highest league attendance “in Europe.”

 

England led the way in terms of numbers with both the Premiership and Championship ranking at the top end of European League attendances but per capita Scotland led the way.

 

So the support for football in general is there, and increasing all the time but on the international scene no one seems really interested in the dark blue of the Scottish national team and McLeish will need to improve upon his current 33.3% win rate to bring the army back to the fight.

 

This time around, so far, Ryan Fraser has joined Griffiths in pulling out of the squad to play Israel and a Portugal side minus Cristiano Ronaldo. The Israel game is an imperative must win fixture for Scotland in their quest to gain a play-off spot for Euro 2020 as part of the new European Nations League.

 

Trying to figure that out is like trying to correctly identify the answer to an algorithm at school but that’s for another day, the fact is Scotland have an opening to Euro 2020 that they can’t let slip away.

 

With that in mind you’d think the players would be more excited about playing for their country. In June no fewer than 10 players pulled out of squads to play in Central and South America against Mexico and Peru in warm ups for the respective nations World Cup campaigns.

 

Some would say that these matches should never have been scheduled and you’d be hoping guys like Tierney, Robertson, Armstrong and Griffiths et al would have turned up wanting to stake a claim for their shirt in the upcoming full internationals against Albania and Israel.

 

Alas they chose to stay at home and now players like Lewis Stevenson, Chris Cadden and Ryan Morgan all have international caps. Now they are all good pros and no one is begrudging them success but to have been capped by ones country you used to have be excelling at your trade.

 

Not so much jobs for the boys but jobs for whoever answered the gaffers last minute pleas for help.

 

Griffith’s reasoning behind his latest withdrawal is subject to some derision, he was after all given the end of season games off to concentrate on his fitness as well, but more and more players are putting their clubs and their fitness ahead of representing their countries.

 

Down to allegiance? Down to money? Down to not giving a flying one? We’ll never know but the future looks bleak at the minute and only an upturn in results will be a driving factor behind increasing crowds.

 

In a world where football is on the up it’s difficult to see a way back for the national side at this moment but the Tartan Army will be hoping that they can rise soon and become a footballing nation again.

Super Sunday - Intrepid Idea

It’s the latest uproar in Scottish football but the Scottish Professional Football League’s decision to host two games at Hampden Park on the one October day may not be as outrageous as you think.

Aberdeen are due to face Rangers at 12 noon before Celtic play Hearts at 7.45pm.

A festival of football. A showcase for the Scottish game.

Having said that the moans and groans indicate the fans, Aberdeen and Hearts ones in particular, have been unfairly treated.

The first train from Aberdeen arrives into Glasgow 15 minutes after the first whistle has been blown at the National Stadium whilst the Jambos will struggle to get a train home after the match.

The simple answer is buses.

Get them booked and get down to support your club.

Aside from that the response from others would be that clubs like Aberdeen and Hearts rarely take large crowds to semi finals. Neither do Hibernian, Motherwell or Dundee United for that matter.

Though you can empathise with the statements of Aberdeen and Hearts, there are plenty arguments for the matches to be played on the same day in my opinion.

The trouble aspect is being overplayed and despite there being four sets of supporters in the same area it’s hard to imagine there being widespread violence as some have suggested.

Of course this is all based on opinion but we’ve had Rangers/Celtic semi finals in the past with the majority of arrests being made as a result of sectarian language rather than a dust up or two.

Only 10 arrests at the last old firm semi final in 2017 and 34 in 2016.

Adding a further 30k supporters between the Hearts and Aberdeen contingents is unlikely to cause the fiery implications suggested by some naysayers.

The biggest flashpoint will be Aberdeen’s clash with Rangers but with it being the early kick off, less time to drink, the usual low attendance from Aberdeen fans there’s unlikely to be too much of a problem.

The hardcore group of fans will come out to support their club. It is this simple, if you want to travel you will.

Everyone associated with the Scottish game would love Hampden Park to be rammed for each game but without excess amounts of fans from the Glasgow clubs then there will be swathes of empty seats whether the games were played on different days at different times or not.

Going back in time Hearts semi final crowds have averaged an attendance of 29,733 with the largest being 41,378 at Celtic Park against Rangers in 1993 and the lowest being a replay in 1992 versus Airdrie at 11, 163. The initial game recorded a crowd of 27,310.

The average ranges from games in 1986 to April 2012.

Two of the latest games have been against Celtic but in April 2012 the year Hearts went on to win the Scottish Cup against local rivals Hibernian they took a crowd of sub 10,000 to the respective semi final.

It is unlikely the Jambos support will be much lower or higher than that in any case. So to suggest a different time would wholeheartedly enhance the travelling maroon army is folly.

As with Hearts, Aberdeen have regularly taken low crowds to semi finals and since the turn of the decade they’ve been involved in seven cup semi finals in Glasgow. Six of them at Hampden and one at Ibrox Stadium.
Their average attendance is 30,726 with their highest coming in two clashes against Celtic back in 2011.

So the clubs may be “appalled” and “astonished” but how about the clubs themselves making it more viable for the supporters to travel?

They could work with the sponsors to ensure supporters buses were on hand and subsidised in order to get all their fans to Hampden and back.

This is a genuine point and something which happens on the continent so why not here?

The clubs will be making a fortune from the semi final and possible final appearances so if they are serious about wanting the fans there then make it even more accessible for them.

Since the inception of the Betfred Cup total prize and television money has increased by 15% with a pot of over £2million for last seasons competition. That’s not including gate receipts.

So the money is there if the clubs wanted to reward their fans and create a Scottish footballing spectacle then they could.

That’s not just for these semi finals that’s for all semi finals and finals of Scotland two flagship knockout competitions.

The TV companies will always have the upper hand now as that’s where the revenue comes from but the clubs need to be doing more instead of bleating.

BT Sport have done more than most for the Scottish game and we are lucky to have them especially ahead of Sky TV and their horrendous coverage. They even managed to switch the Motherwell and Hearts badges the other night. Embarrassing.

We can’t have our cake and eat it, if we don’t offer the fans some sort of carrot to come out and support their club. Otherwise the armchair supporter will become the norm and in a time where attendances are on the rise then every Scottish team needs to be acting upon that upturn.

So rather than arguing about and scorning the decision it’s time for all involved to come together and make it something to remember.

Semi Final day should be exciting and a day out for the supporters. You may well regret it if you sit at home whilst your team head for a final at which you’d all want a ticket, whether it was played at 10pm on the moon or 2.30am in Australia.

One point for consideration however is whether Hampden Park itself can cope?
Can the stadium be managed appropriately? That, though, is another story altogether.

The rise and rise of Martin Boyle

As Neil Lennon is crowing about his star player for a Scotland call up the possibility of Martin Boyle playing alongside his current teammates Mark Mulligan and Jamie MacLaren internationally is growing by the day.

Graham Arnold was at East Mains and Easter Road recently having a look at his two current internationalists but it was a conversation with Boyle that may have been the most important.

Boyle is Scottish through and through but qualifies for Australia with Oz origins as his father was born in Australia.

Internationally his name is unlikely to have to cropped up until of late but he’s certainly making his claim now and may find himself adding to the Antipodean contingent down Leith.

A call up to a training camp in Dubai next month is a high possibility following Arnold’s visit. They then have a double header against South Korea and Lebanon in November friendlies in which he’d love to be involved should that call arrive.

So what of Boyle and his credentials? How good a player is he and is he ready for international football?

His career has been a slow burner and indeed hasn’t always been credible enough to sustain a permanent position in a club challenging in the upper echelons of the Scottish Premiership.

Since his loan move to Hibs, in place of Alex Harris, his subsequent permanent move and then most importantly Neil Lennon’s time as manager of Hibernian Boyle’s career has taken off at blistering speed.

Pace was always deemed as his only true asset and his end product certainly as he played higher up the leagues was where he let himself and his teammates down.

You could forgive supporters for altering the song that rings round Leith now for the words: “and his final ball is sh*te”

He’s slowly but surely changing that opinion and throughout his early fledgling career to his current season at Hibs where his stats have improved year upon year.

His early career was fragmented by loan moves but the mantle has now been fully grabbed by “Squirrel” at his spiritual home of Easter Road.

As with his agile sounding nickname his ability to put defenders aside is a joy to behold and he is beginning to prove a lot of people wrong, myself included.

Boyle, who was born in 1993 in Innerwick, East Lothian before moving up to the North East. Much like his formative years he spent his early career close to his hometown of Aberdeen with Montrose.

He had a blistering start to his days at Montrose scoring 26 goals in 70 games whilst assisting a further 8 goals. He played as the main striker with the Gable Endies and was involved in a goal every 2.06 games.

His form for Montrose earned him a move further down the east coast to Dens Park and Dundee.

He wasn’t quite the discovery that Dundee thought he was going to be with only 5 goals in 64 games but it was at Dens where he was re-positioned as a winger and his further 9 assists seen him involved in a goal every 4.57 games.

He subsequently found himself back on loan at Montrose then at Hibernian as the Edinburgh side were relegated to the Championship. Alan Stubbs bringing him to Easter Road in a swap move with peripheral winger Alex Harris.

His current gaffer Neil Lennon has waxed lyrical about him on a few occasions and indeed handed him a new four year contract until the end of season 2020/2021 on the back of his performances in the early part of last season this coming after only signing a two year deal in the summer.

Lennon saying: “He has had a brilliant season so far. He was always on his backside when I first came in but he has learned to stay on his feet a lot more and he looks as if he has done a lot of work during the summer.

Martin has great pace and power. He has a goal in him, plenty of assists in him and he has agreed to sign an extension on his contract that we are delighted with.”

He’s slowly starting to back up his manager’s claims.

This season (2018/19) he’s currently been involved in 0.54 goals per game in his matches played. The goals/assists coming at an average of 162.43 minutes. A sign of his importance and also his continued improvement.

It’s early in the season but in comparison with last season where his goal involvement per game was 0.45 at a rate of one goal or assist every 187.74 minutes he is certainly aiming for a far more productive season.

Bearing in mind he’s played a lot of these games at RWB or RW rather than through the middle his stats especially his assists (18 in last 2 seasons to this date) are starting to become more like those associated with international players.

His current market value, as registered on the credible transfermarkt.com, is also on the rise. It shows an increase of over £500,000 in 3 years.

There’s no doubting he’s far from the end product though as evidenced in his latest game for Hibs against Aberdeen in the Scottish League Cup quarter final.

Finding himself free in the right hand side of the opposing penalty box, 36 minutes in, he tries to side foot the ball home with his left instead of playing it inside on his favoured right to an expectant Ollie Shaw. The ball ended up well wide of Joe Lewis’ goal, the attack came to nothing and the words of all his detractors came back to haunt Boyle.

 

He was a constant threat to Aberdeen though as he is to all opposition teams whether it be home or away domestically or even in European competition as proved in the early part of this season.

Whatever the outcome is internationally not only is “Boyler” now an important player for Hibs he’s also a player that Neil Lennon has turned into a capital asset for the Edinburgh based club.

He truly now is a “Starman playing on the right...his name is Martin Boyle and he’s f*cking dynamite.”

Hearts Beat as the Champions Struggle

As the new season starts to take shape with six games played by all the Premiership clubs it’s hard to see Neil McCann stay in his post much longer whilst Brendan Rodgers really needs to earn his corn as his team faces their first real challenge of his tenure.

McCann and Dundee are pointless after six games having conceded 10 goals in September alone. They’ve also been dumped from the League Cup by a Lawrence Shankland driven Ayr United.

By stark contrast Hearts are setting the heather alight for now. Industrious as ever they’ve defied their scattergun approach and made their business look astute and well researched. Levein and MacPhee will be hoping their form lasts into the winter months.

Losing their first points of the league season at Tynecastle to a stubborn Livingston side, who have excelled since their return to the top flight, will have hurt the Gorgie outfit but being booed off the park is perhaps slightly over-zealous from the Jambo fans.

Uche Ikpeazu is getting a lot of credit from his new supporters but it’s midfielder Olly Lee who has caught the eye adding a goal scoring threat from the middle of the park.

It’s a fantastic start but one which will come under considerable threat in the next few weeks as they face Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs in October.

They don’t lose too many goals and even the loss of club captain Christophe Berra through serious injury hasn’t seen a decline in defensive performance.

At this point last season Hearts had only won two games and indeed won only two games as the season closed through April and May so the turnaround in form is incredible especially with a much changed squad having signed no less than 18 players in the close season.

Sat in behind the Jambos are a tripod of clubs locked on 11 points. Rangers, Hibernian and newly promoted Livingston.

Rangers have had their worst start to a season, by the Record books, in years but Gerrard as noted in my previous article is in the middle of turning them into a different beast and their latest 5-1 victory over St Johnstone is further evidence of a stronger Rangers.

Glenn Middleton is a terrific young player who made a starring impact in their Europa League match in Villarreal. It’s great to see clubs having to blood young Scottish talent such as Middleton. He also notched his first senior league goal against Dundee last week.

 

Hibernian are two points better off at this stage of the season than they were after six last season. They also have a significantly better goal difference as of this weekend.

The three nil victory over Dundee was described as “one of the best performances” seen under Neil Lennon’s impressive leadership.

They too have difficult run of games coming up though and his stewardship will need to be perfect as his charges face Celtic, Rangers and Hearts in a testing spell during the month in which the clocks change to darker days. Lennon will be hoping the sun continues to shine down Leith.

Times have changed in West Lothian though and Livingston are flying high. David Hopkin unbelievably got them promoted via the play offs, they’ve subsequently sacked Kenny Miller but the current incumbent Gary Holt is determined to continue the crazy success story down Almondvale way.

Millers acrimonious departure has left many unanswered questions but the board will take heart in the fact Holt seems capable of steering the good ship Livi in the right direction.

A squad made up of several ex junior players with experience added along the way has seen a meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the Scottish Premiership. One of their star turns is Scott Robinson a player who looked very good for Hearts development teams but wasn’t really given a chance down at Tynecastle Park.

Livingston will be hoping they can maintain this form well into the New Year to ensure safety before the run in.

In behind the chasing pack sit Kilmarnock and Celtic on 10 points apiece. Killie having taken the points in the dying seconds of this weekend’s match against a Celtic side which Rodgers said is “a worry” and is “frustrating” at the minute. Their worst start for over 20 years has already blown the race wide open where many thought they’d stroll it again but therein lies the problem.

Complacency.

Their transfer activity or lack of it, as it happens, is complacent at best. It’s downright arrogance in the main though and guys like Hendry, Christie and Morgan should be nowhere near a Celtic squad never mind the unseen signings of Compper and Allan. Their transfer policy is ludicrous and it may be coming back to bite them.

The defending champions have registered only 1 point out of 9 on the road so far this season and lost the same amount of points as they did in the whole of the Invincibles season.

You don’t remain invincible forever though especially not if you become stagnant whilst others improve.

When asked if the Celtic fans should be alarmed Rodgers replied “Yeah. Yeah I think they should” this on the back of Celtics worst start to a season since Dr Josef Venglos in 98/99.

 

The hype down Govan way is clearly not the only thing that should be troubling the mind of the Celtic faithful.

 

Mikey Johnston, much like Middleton, is one bright spot and a player who looks to have a bright future in the game. Makes a change giving one of their own a shot instead of loaning youth players from down south.

Kilmarnock look a decent side again this season and under Stevie Clarke they have a very astute manager who is transforming the Ayrshire side and playing a far more expansive game with last seasons top scorer Kris Boyd sitting on the bench as Greg Stewart and Eamonn Brophy lead a new look forward line.

They are also predominantly hard to beat and games against Rangers and Hibernian aside they have conceded only 1 goal at most per game in their league games to this date.

In mid-table there is an Aberdeen side struggling to regain last season’s form but can point to a couple of strange refereeing decisions as to why they’ve possibly not picked up as many points none more so than Michael Devlin’s sending off against Kilmarnock.

 

Aberdeen will kick on again though and they would fully expect to replace Livingston in the top six by the time Christmas comes.

 

They have bought wisely and in James Wilson, a Manchester United loanee, they will have signed a proper goalscorerhaving seen Adam Rooney leave for Salford City.

 

It’s much of a muchness for St Johnstone, Motherwell and Well’s Lanarkshire rivals Hamilton with the Claret and Amber sides last gasp 3-3 draw with Rangers proving the highlight for the clubs mentioned.

 

Peter Hartley getting the equaliser only days after suggesting he and his teammates laughed at Rangers player Fabio Cardoso getting a broken nose in a clash between the two clubs last season.

 

St Mirren have struggled since their return to the top flight and have also changed their manager but unlike Kenny Miller, Alan Stubbs was let go on the basis of a poor run of form. Only a few games into the league campaign and the Buddies pressed the panic button. This does seem a bit drastic and it will be a difficult job for new gaffer Oran Kearney to turn things around immediately.

 

The former Coleraine boss is now working under director of football Gus McPherson but Stubbs had done a lot of recruitment in the summer so it will be a while before the new boss can get to know is squad without much evidence to go on.

 

So to Dundee. 

 

The Tayside outfit look set to join their city rivals in the Championship if their form doesn’t pick up soon.

 

Pointless, with only 2 goals scored and 14 conceded Neil McCann must be running out of time. 

 

Having said that they lost 21 games last season same as relegated Ross County so will hope to finish in the same fashion picking up important results as the season progressed.

 

A three nil thumping by Hibernian this weekend was a damaging result for McCann but with games against Hamilton, Kilmarnock, Livingston and Hearts to come before a possible fright night on Halloween against a sure to be fired up Celtic he will hope to lay ghosts of the recent games to bed and pick up some much needed points or he himself could be axed before the geysers hit the streets of Dundee.

 

All in all it’s been an intriguing start to the season and one which promises to give supporters of the Scottish game plenty talking points.

 

From bitter feuds, champions stalling, hearts thumping and young Scottish players getting a chance the 2018-219 season looks set to be a bumper campaign for all involved.

 

Not bad for a tin-pot league.

Rangers must be Gerrard to beat.

At the time of writing Steven Gerrard has just guided his new charges into the group stages of the Europa League ensuring European football at Ibrox at least until the early winter. Early September though saw a bruising defeat to their city rivals in the first Glasgow derby of the season. 

 

Where will the winter take Rangers?

 

Rangers will likely have a spring in their step and having achieved European qualification into the autumn months his next step will be to try and get closer to Celtic on the pitch.

 

Since the return of the team from Govan to the Scottish Premiership, Celtic have been so far ahead you could claim to have seen the Grand Canyon in meetings between the two Glasgow giants. Once again they were well beaten on 2ndSeptember 2018 and in spite of the final result being one nil, Celtic dominated with 75% possession in the first half alone, having more than double the amount of shots and limiting Gerrard’s Rangers to only 2 on target in the entirety of the match.

 

No one will have felt the impact of this result harder that Gerrard himself, but where does he go from here amidst all the pressure?

 

What pressure I hear you say, this is the man who single-handedly won Liverpool a Champions League in 2005, who has amassed over 700 top flight games and played countless times for his country. Most would say he doesn’t have the personality to wilt in the Glasgow fishbowl where many have drowned in the recent history of Rangers.

 

Born in a working class area of Merseyside, Whiston, in 1980. Gerrard due to his footballing ability was advised to join a Catholic school in his area as they had the better football team. His talents were clearly recognised then as they are now and he was recommended by a local PE teacher, subsequently Gerrard spent his formative school years at Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School despite not being a Catholic. This was so he could play at the highest level of school football in the area.

 

Complete success wasn’t immediate and it’s his staying power that may well be vital at his new club.

 

He failed to make the England schoolboy team but went on trial with Manchester United in order to force Liverpool to make a move. Signing his first professional contract, with his boyhood heroes, on 5th November 1997, at seventeen years old. He went on to make his debut a year later as a second half substitute against Blackburn before making his full debut a week later versus Tottenham.

 

His talents were recognised by scouts whilst playing for Whiston Juniors at the age of 9 but it took Liverpool until he trialled for Manchester United before they made their move.

 

He finally signed a deal with Liverpool and he never looked back despite admiring glances from Chelsea and the top Spanish clubs he never wanted to leave his heroes and was disappointed when that time eventually arrived.

 

A lack of a league title to his name will be the bug bear that no doubt strengthen his desire to do well as a manager. In terms of footballing success this is a guy decorated in medals from every other competition he played in as a Liverpool player.

 

If Gerrard takes his winners mentality and transfers it in to the Ibrox dressing room then competition to Celtic and the rest will have undoubtedly heated up.

 

Playing 710 times for his first love Liverpool scoring 186 goals in that spell and learning from individuals at the top of their profession will stand Gerrard in good stead. Guys like Houllier, the now Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, Klopp and even former Ranger Alex Miller will have enabled him to build up dossier after dossier on how to coach a good winning team.

 

What impresses me the most is his relaxed yet unforgiving attitude towards his players, his club, referees and the opposition and the press. He was lambasted for claiming a foul on Ryan Jack in the lead up to Olivier Ntcham’s goal in the September edition of the Glasgow derby but what manager doesn’t back his players.

 

Good managers know when to speak, when to shout, when to be patient and know how to motivate.

 

It appears Gerrard already has these characteristics in the bag.

 

In Rangers Europa League Play Off round match vs Russian cracks Ufa he berated the referee for the first time in his career. Rangers finished the game with 9 men but fuming after John Flanagan’s second yellow card and subsequent send off the normally mild-mannered Gerrard shouted “You can F****** book them too it’s not just us playing.”

Now you didn’t need to be a mouth reader to determine what was said but nor did you expect it from the Liverpudlian. For most managers this would be par for the course but for Gerrard this would feel like a bogey blotching his score card.

 

Of course he’ll need to remain calm and assured. As the season progresses the last thing you want to do as Rangers manager is show any weakness. The press, the opposition and even his own supporters would jump on that and it would be a long road back.

 

A private family man will need to address the stresses and strains of a Glasgow football culture steeped in hatred, bigotry amid infinite amounts of passion. A charismatic, football enthusiast is transferring his undoubted footballing talent in to the crazy world that is being a football manager or head coach in this day and age.

 

He wound down his playing career in the more salubrious surroundings of Los Angeles playing 38 times for Galaxy in a short stint over the Atlantic until Jürgen Klopp brought him back to Anfield where he began his coaching journey with the Reds under 18 side.

 

Not only decorated as a footballer, Gerrard as a person has honours to his name having been granted an OBE in December 2007, he’s a Freeman of the Knowsley borough and holds honorary fellowship of John Moore’s University as a recognition of his contribution to sport.

 

It’s these successful traits that Gerrard will lean on as his career passes. He’s also extremely loyal as Chelsea’s pursuit of him showed. He admits to thinking about a move but once he sat back and thought about it he decided to stay with HIS team. The passionate support of Liverpool is mirrored dramatically by the support of Glasgow Rangers and should the fans and the board show Gerrard the loyalty he deserves then they will be a match made in heaven.

 

As with every Scouser Gerrard has an overwhelming desire to succeed and uses the pain of the Hillsborough disaster to drive him on. His cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley died in the disaster at the age of 10. He was the youngest of the 96 who died. 

 

Everything he does he dedicates to his relative.

 

In January 2017 he got the call he craved the most, a return to Anfield was on the cards and he was given a role as an academy coach where he proved himself every bit as good a coach as he was a player.

 

He successfully impressed Jürgen Klopp with his passion, his desire, his interest and his understanding of an academy coach. It wasn’t long until he was put in full charge of the clubs under 18s side and it’s there where he kept his feet on the ground before earning his special move to Rangers.

 

Youth director Alex Inglethorpe is quoted as saying “If I was to pick one individual who embodies the characteristics and values we are looking to instil into our organisation at Kirkby, it would be Steven Gerrard.”

 

Gerrard in his one full season of youth team coach guided his young charges to a respectable 3rd place in the league table. In the Europa Youth League Gerrard’s Liverpool were knocked out on penalties by Manchester City at the Quarter Final stage only after beating long-time rivals Manchester United in the last sixteen.

 

Rangers were linked to Ben Woodburn in the summer and he was one of the stand outs for Gerrard in his time as Under 18s coach. Gerrard failed to get him but has signed up Ovie Ejariaand the dynamic winger Ryan Kent.

 

His squad is the most balanced a Rangers one has been since they started back in League Two following their financial troubles. Two or three bodies for each position, each and every player capable of wearing the shirt something not easily said of Rangers players in the past couple of years.

 

Goalkeepers McGregor and Foderingham provide the top of a strong spine for the club. Goldson has been a breath of fresh air for the club and in competition with him you have Katic, Worral and McAuley. The spine is augmented by Ryan Jack, Scott Arfield with Lafferty and the enigmatic Alfredo Morelos leading the attack.

 

Gerrard has a squad of 25 players and he count on every one of them. He will, undoubtedly, bring a new found sense of organisation, order and a professionalism unseen at Ibrox for many a year. The synergy of such a squad can only create a positivity around the once damaged club.

 

He couldn’t do all this a lone ranger though and not without help Gerrard has immediately constructed a very strong backroom team. Well known faces to the Liverpool legend were appointed with trusted companions, experience and strong personalities all complimenting his style.

 

Well known Scotland internationalist Gary McAllister is Gerrard’s assistant: A character who Gerrard played a lot of important games beside in the Liverpool midfield.

 

Former Reds academy coach Michael Beale is now first team coach at Rangers and he has a great youth coaching pedigree at Chelsea and Liverpool supplemented by a nine month stint in Brazil as assistant manager of Sao Paulo from December 2016.

Upon his arrival Beale spoke highly of his colleague “I was very fortunate to spend some time with our manager when he was a player, so when you see that level day in day out, it opens your eyes to that level, so I have been very fortunate to be around some top people in the game.”

 

It’s this demanding nature that Rangers players will need to aspire to.

 

Tom Culshaw, former Liverpool under 18s assistant, is the Technical Coach at the Hummel Training Centre now and he too spoke of an understanding relationship which will hopefully benefit their new players.

“We have a good relationship and I think he trusts me to try and improve him as a coach and if there is anything where I disagree with what he is doing, I think he respects my opinions”

Respect is a buzz word in football at the minute none more so than Jose Mourinho’s outburst following Manchester United’s defeat to Tottenham earlier in the season but if a guy like Gerrard can’t win the respect of a newly, united dressing room at Ibrox then the club will struggle to gain that respect whoever is in charge.

 

The fitness coach of Liverpool under 18s has also followed his counterpart north of the border and he undertakes the role of Head of Performance.

Jordan Milsom: “The manager’s style of play I think is going to be quite aggressive, both in and out of possession. To play that way you need to be able to physically cope with that, not only within a game, but repeated games.”

A suggestion there that the players will need to be a lot fitter than under previous Rangers regimes.

 

Evidently Rangers play off result in Russia epitomised everything that Milsom spoke about. Playing the best part of 25 minutes in a European away leg with 9 men was a great result and one which allied to great fitness and concentration.

 

He’s been well backed both on and off the field but will he need to succeed to protect his reputation?

Of course he will want to and time will tell on that front but personal gain as well as his club’s gain may not be an overnight success story.

Given time, no financial struggles and a free reign alongside a seemingly open chequebook then the Liverpool legend will have a blank canvas upon which he can create his own masterpiece.

 

Rangers fans are incredibly hard to please and want the glory days to return tomorrow but I am sure they won’t be naïve enough to think it will happen in an instant.

 

Gerrard has landed on a pot of gold being named Rangers manager. Rangers have been a basket case of a club for a while now and Celtic have been miles ahead so the road between the two may not be easily closed and possibly, this current regime, may have to face a few diversions in their time at the club. This will keep his reputation intact even if he was to fail.

 

He has though taken control of his own destiny and with that Rangers’ fortunes. He’s started reasonably well and will hope by Christmas his newly assembled squad will be in a position to push their esteemed city neighbours who are perhaps beginning to show a sense of complacency given their lack of movement in the summer transfer window.

 

Qualification for the Europa League group stages was achieved, remarkably, by conceding only one goal in four away legs. A great feat for a club who leaked goals last season.

 

He needs to be afforded time but should he continue to improve Rangers and get them challenging on all fronts then his stock will rise immeasurably.

 

A win-win for both parties.

 

Rangers, the club and the players, need to buy into Gerrard and Gerrard needs to be aware of the stature of the club he’s at. If both parties marry up well then it could be the blossoming of a successful relationship but only through Christmas and in to the New Year will we see if real progress has been made.