Monday, January 30, 2012

Andy Ritchie and the Scottish Mavericks

I'm slaving away trying to come up with a greatest Scottish league XI for the The Away End's current search for the best of the best.

I've actually already had my vote but now I've been asked to put something down in writing and I find myself with too many names, too many options.

Should I only vote for players I've seen? That restriction would still allow for a hell of a team.

A team that would remind us of the gems we've cherished amid the gloom of the last 25 years.

Then there are the players who, through an accident of birth, I didn't see play. But I thrill to their stories and I'm convinced at least some of them should be included.

And, this being a Scottish league XI, there are those players whose legends are confined only to this country. Or even to their own clubs.

Willie Hamilton would fit in here. Not many more than a 100 league appearances for Hearts, Hibs and Hamilton. An abbreviated career and one often spent at hungover odds with his bosses. But Jock Stein and Pat Stanton reckoned him to be one of the most talented players they'd ever seen. Not bad judges those two.

Perhaps they provide a persuasive argument for the inclusion of a maverick.

A maverick like Hamilton. Or like Chic Charnley, arriving at Old Trafford with his boots in a plastic bag, leaving Billy McNeill to shake his head and ask "if only?"

Chic, scoring from the halfway line, thrilling fans enough for a fanzine cover to tag Pelé the "black Chic Charnley.

Chic, getting chased on the training pitch by a man wielding a Samurai sword.

Or a maverick like Andy Ritchie?

When David Beckham was in his free-kick scoring pomp for Manchester United it was Morton's Ritchie that Alex Ferguson chose to compare him to.

Overweight, moody, lazy. When I hear Ritchie described in such terms I warm to him more and more.

I'm increasingly thinking that my team must include such a richly talented loose cannon.

But which one?

Hamilton? Charnley? Ritchie? Or is there another maverick I can't afford to ignore?

Enjoy Andy Ritchie doing what he did his best. And then let me know your thoughts: which of the Scottish league irregulars should I be prepared to try and tame as I manage the greatest Scottish league XI of all time?

Have your greatest Scottish XI say at The Away End

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Falkirk v Celtic

Saturday 15th October 2011.

Celtic, fresh from a defeat at Tynecastle, are 3-0 down at half time to Kilmarnock.

Winning the title looks a long way off, Neil Lennon's managerial coat seems to hang on an ever shooglier peg.

They came back to draw 3-3, three goals in a 10 minute burst from Anthony Stokes and Charlie Mulgrew salvaging a point. And, with hindsight, transforming a season.

That draw was the start of a run that has seen Celtic lose just one game in 21. That defeat came against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League. The last point they dropped in the SPL was at home to Hibs on 29th October.

Along the way they've scored 41 goals across four competitions and conceded - including those three at Rugby Park - just 13.

An emphatic turnaround powered by form that looks - from this distance at least - to carry treble winning potential.

That, for Falkirk, is the depressing reality that punctures dreams of semi final glory at Hampden today.

Lose a two goal lead and then beat Rangers in injury time. Come from behind in extra time to beat Dundee United on penalties.

And then face another mountain to climb at Hampden. If Falkirk are to get to the league cup final they'll have done it the hard way.

Neil Lennon has been a model of admiration on the topic of Falkirk and their manager Steven Pressley this week.

Even allowing for hackneyed managerial chat - and, perhaps, attempts to defuse any lingering ill-feeling from a past personality clash - it's easy to see why.

Written off and the butt of a thousand internet jokes, Pressley has persevered. Instructed to cut his cloth in line with Falkirk's poverty, he's built a young team with determination and imagination. Today's semi final is a just reward.

A just reward but a mission just about impossible. It's true that Celtic's recent run has been hugely impressive without being scintillating in every game.

But they win and they win and they win. Celtic could have an off day, Falkirk could play as well they've ever played. And Celtic might still find a way past them. It's a habit they've got at the moment and it's proving a hard one to break.

Maybe if Falkirk can get an early goal, maybe...

Another semi final, another win for an SPL club. I'd not bet against it.

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