Saturday, October 15, 2011

SPL: Saturday Superstore

Six SPL games on a Saturday afternoon? A fixture list that makes me feel dizzy. The past is an unfamiliar place and all that.

A full house. A lunchtime kick off in Ayrshire is the only nod to modernity, the joker in the pack reminding us that we're so totally not, like, living in the last century or something.

How we've missed the SPL, longed for it's tender embrace to soothe the pain of another aborted Scottish mission.

Spain attempted to smother us to death with their passing on Tuesday night. They kept the ball without a Scottish foot, knee, head, hand or bahookie intervening for the first two minutes of the match.

Then Christophe Berra booted it into the stand. It was at once comfortingly familiar, reassuringly defiant, inspiringly Scottish and a depressing articulation of our limitations.

All of which, for reasons that Dr Steven Pinker might be able to explain, put me in mind of the SPL.

We start today in Kilmarnock, where the men are men. Except when they're swinging their handbags at Kirk Broadfoot.

The visitors are Celtic. They might, or might not, be on the verge of signing James McFadden. I'm very far from being an expert but I don't look at Celtic's major weaknesses this season and see McFadden as a provider of bespoke solutions.

Celtic, of course, are ten points behind Rangers and but a lowly third in the league. I don't think its outrageous to suggest that being third in a two horse race is far removed from being considered a position of strength. Long way to go though.

Kenny Shiels reckons he'd rather play entertaining football than finish a few places higher in the league. A romanticism that many of us can sympathise with. Of course it sounds like a bloody stupid thing to say if you end up bottom of the league.

Not that Kilmarnock are bottom of the league. But they've lost their last three games and are only two points ahead of current SPL dunces Inverness. Romanticism is fine. Bismarck would quote Shakespeare, could appreciate Byron. But he could also dish out some realpolitik when the occasion demanded. Will Kenny Shiels be able to do the same?

I wouldn't be surprised if Kilmarnock beat Celtic today. It's the sort of thing that tortured aesthetes enduring a bad run pull off. Just like the French rugby team.

I wouldn't be surprised. But I'll not back it. Away win.

It's approaching 25 years since Alex Ferguson left the fortress he'd built in Scotland's north east to create a dynasty in England's north west.

It's 24 years since Jim McLean took Dundee United to the UEFA Cup final.

Whither the New Firm?

Answering that question might require a book. More practically they're at Pittodrie today.

Aberdeen have been something of an SPL crisis club this season. Actually they so often push themselves to the front of the "crisis club" queue that one suspects a perverse pleasure titillates Pittodrie when soul searching, hand wringing and abusing the manager are called for.

They've actually only lost one out of their last four. While it looked at one stage that Paul McCartney would get married more often than Aberdeen scored this season, they spanked Dunfermline in a scintillating (probably) four goal display of attacking intent (possibly) last time out.

And they're only a point behind Dundee United. All of which might leave Craig Brown channelling Jim Callaghan (another chap of mature vintage who took over when a younger man had been turned into a trembling wreck by the pressures of the job) and asking: "Crisis, what crisis?"

(Actually Sunny Jim didn't say that. He said: "I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos." And, in all honesty, Aberdeen didn't look capable of causing chaos or even mild panic earlier in the season.)

In common with much of the league Dundee United have been hamstrung by inconsistency so far. Four draws, three home defeats. The upshot is ten points from ten games.

Thankfully Peter Houston saw a blueprint for revival in Alicante on Tuesday. The tangerine tiki-taka revolution starts now.

Actually it probably doesn't. United remain a capable team who aren't quite clicking often enough.

I'd still have backed them to win this one a couple of weeks ago. Not now. Home win.

Paulo Sergio, cardiganed guardian of Tynecastle, was spluttering something about referees and lie detector tests this week.

I'd never argue that Scottish football doesn't have a need for a Gorgie-based cross between Val Doonican and Andy Sipowicz. But right now it might prove a distraction as he tries to put right Hearts' unfortunate away record.

Strange that the manager has had such a convincing run at Tynecastle but seemed powerless to right whatever it is that's gone wrong on the road.

Today's trip to a plummeting Dunfermline might be the best place to start. On the other hand, of course, a plummeting Dunfermline might see Hearts, encumbered as they are with wretched travel sickness, as the perfect way to stop plummeting.

That's the thing about football. One man's succour is, well, it's also another man's succour. Maybe.

Dunfermline beat Dundee United 1-0 on 20th August. Since then they've lost five games and drawn one. They've conceded 19 goals in six games. They've been beaten by East Fife. And they've shipped four goals without reply to Aberdeen.

That's an unfortunate run that could quickly become a disatrous run. Finally a day trip Hearts can look forward to. Away win.

Although Rangers brought Hibs recent low key revival to an end at Ibrox, Colin Calderwood could at least take heart - medical experts assure me he must have one - from a performance that had both a certain cohesion and carried something of an attacking threat.

The manager has endured worse times at Easter Road. The SFA let off both Graeme Stack for an alleged elbow on Kyle Lafferty and Garry O'Connor for an alleged dive against St Johstone.

This has been taken in some quarters to be proof of the incompetence of the SFA's new disciplinary procedures and/or a symptom of the ongoing anti-Rangers agenda at Hampden. Seriously.

I didn't think the Stack footage was damningly conclusive enough. I felt O'Connor was balletic under contact that he seemed to engineer himself. Even video evidence is all about opinion.

But one man's allegation of not being up to the disciplinary job is another man's barely credible conspiracy theory and still another man's good news. So you won't find Colin Calderwood complaining. If Stack has been inspired by his repreive to remember how to get his body shape right and hold on to the ball then that will be ever sweller.

Hibs face Motherwell today, currently the gooseberries at the top end of the SPL. Quietly impressive this Stuart McCall led Motherwell team.

And second in the league with almost a quarter of the season gone. Who would have bet on that?

I've actually got high hopes that this might be a good game. A scoring draw. I await crushing disappointment.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round. They all laughed at Ally McCoist when he said the job was sound.

Where are our modern day George Gershwins to turn the story of McCoist the manager into song?

Nine points clear at the top, ten points ahead of Celtic, an Old Firm game won. Two European exits and a league cup defeat aside, Ally can be rather happy at the moment.

He made signings in the summer - if not the megabucks deals that were rumoured by some at Ibrox - that have let an ageing team evolve. And they look at home in the league, at times impressive, at times just grinding it out and getting there.

Mind you, McCoist has always been a lucky one. He even got to Patsy Kensit before she got that trout pout.

Not everything in the garden is rosy. Financial clouds continue to gather. But McCoist is doing what was asked of him. He can do no more. Not that it's over yet, not by a long way.

Danny Lennon is another manager who might like to thumb his nose at the doubters. He believed in his project, believed in it as he looked in his players eyes and asked them to be men. Believed in it as he took stock of the mistakes of his first season and reshaped his squad.

Could it be that a young manager given time and backing has found the confidence to flourish. That would be refreshingly unlike the SPL.

Of course it's all relative. St Mirren are in sixth place and as close to fifth place as they are to bottom. Such are the glories of the SPL middle order.

But Lennon can point to progress. And probably does. Using a wallchart on the dressing room wall.

I'll still back the home win today though.

One of the teams that St Mirren are chasing are St Johnstone. A lesson in how to run a football club on a budget. In letting the manager get on with things. In placing a premium on sensible progression rather than projectile vomiting money in an ultimately futile attempt to buy the limited success that Scotland offers.

It also seems that Derek McInnes won't be trading in Perth for Bristol City. That's good news. I'm not kept awake at night by the managerial machinations of either St Johnstone or Bristol City.

But I like McInnes and I want good Scottish managers to stay in Scotland for as long as possible.

And Bristol City? Championship strugglers? The money might be better. But really? There would be something not quite right about it. Maybe not up there with Morecambe and Wise leaving BBC1 for ITV. But at least the same as The Only Way Is Essex moving from ITV2 to Channel 5.

I've written before about Terry Butcher being a manager who found the platform he needed at Inverness. And it turns out he's as capable of being as crap up north as he is anywhere else.

Unfair, unfair. Lost a lot of players, reshaped, refashioned, needs time. But they do seem to be struggling a bit.

It's obviously considered a temporary blip: he's signed a contract to stay on until 2014. There has to be a degree of faith involved in putting that offer on the table.

They also won last time out against St Mirren, proving that there's always points on offer as the SPL's lower reaches (six points seperate fourth and twelfth right now) scrap it out.

But it could be another tricky one for Terry's men today. A contentious win for Hibs - with a cameo by Margot Fonteyn O'Connor - is St Johntone's only league defeat since 13 August.

That makes this a home win for me.

That's it then. A Saturday superstore, a soccer smorgasbord, a scintillating SPL shindig.

Enjoy.

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