WITH apologies to St Johnstone and their supporters, the worst result of the season so far was surely their 4-0 win on Saturday against Inverness.
Saints manager Tommy Wright had no fear of contradiction when he declared it his side’s best performance of the campaign to date, but for every team in the Scottish Premiership bar his own club and Celtic it has to be regarded as a body blow.
One look at the table tells you why. The champions are now three points clear of Caley Thistle, with a game in hand. At plus 12 their goal difference is almost twice as good as anyone else’s. And that means the league is as good as won, three weeks before the clocks go back.
All right, Celtic will probably lose the odd game here or there, for all that they have yet to do so in domestic competition. If the fixtures fall in a certain way, they may be knocked off the top of the table for a day or two, perhaps even a week or so. But no more.
This was the weekend reality set in, and normal service was restored. Right from day one, Inverness have made a good attempt at matching Celtic, but there was never any way they were going to do that over the course of the season. So now we know for certain: Terry Butcher’s club are merely in the race for second place along with several others.
By rights, Caley Thistle should not even be in that race, given their lack of resources compared to most of their rivals. The fact that they have been at or near the top since the season began is testament to Butcher’s powers as a manager in general, and in particular as someone who has an eye for how well little-known players from other leagues will fit into the Scottish game.
The former Rangers and England captain is very well aware of how difficult it is for his or any other team to come close to Celtic over the course of a season, and for that reason has always been wary of making rash predictions. Even when Caley Thistle have been going through a really good spell, he has traditionally been loath to suggest they will achieve something as modest as a place in the top six, never mind anything loftier – and understandably so.
But other teams, from bigger cities, with bigger fan bases, do not have any such excuse for shying away from real ambition. For the sake of the standard of the Scottish game, we need them to challenge Celtic for far longer than just seven or eight matches. But at the moment, and it has to be said for the foreseeable future, that need is simply not being met.
Motherwell, third at present three points further back from Caley Thistle, have done more than most over the past few years to inject an element of uncertainty into our top division. They, too, could be regarded as over-achievers, given the size of their budget compared to others.
So those of us whose hearts sank when we heard that result from McDiarmid Park on Saturday should absolve Stuart McCall’s team, like Butcher’s, of any blame for the predictability of our Premiership. Indeed, we should thank McCall for producing a team that has played some extremely positive football over the past few years.
But if he can do it, and if Butcher can do it, surely the managers of other clubs can do it too. And surely, if they have bigger budgets, they can do it to a higher standard.
We’re not talking silly money here, and we’re certainly not advocating rash overspending in the quest for trophies. But it would be nice to see some evidence of coherent team-building at places such as Tannadice, Pittodrie and Easter Road. Team-building that would ensure clubs such as Dundee United, Aberdeen or Hibernian would be regularly making a consistent challenge for second place, and doing more than inflicting the odd, joyous upset on Celtic once every few seasons. Granted, Celtic are becoming richer by the year compared to the rest of Scottish football, and that process will continue for as long as they qualify for the Champions League. Only if and when Rangers are back in the top flight and in sound hands off the field will there be any threat to Celtic’s annual stake in the most lucrative competition in the history of club football.
So, of course it is difficult to compete with Neil Lennon’s team, and becoming more difficult by the season. But is it beyond the wits of other clubs to hire coaches who can at least run them close?
Hibs chairman Rod Petrie boasted last week about being second in the balance-sheet league. Judged on average league positions since the SPL began, he told his club’s annual general meeting, Hibs were fourth behind Celtic, Rangers and Hearts – or, as he preferred to say, second of those clubs who had “lived within their means and paid their creditors in full”. Aberdeen might wish to take exception to his selective use of statistics, and we might want to point out that, for many SPL seasons, Rangers and Hearts did meet their financial obligations. But Petrie was certainly right to make the general point that remaining solvent is preferable to going bust.
And yet, if Hibs really have been a rock of fiscal stability for so long, what is their excuse for the number of traumatic humpings [to use the technical term] they have endured in recent years? Equally, given Aberdeen’s stability, how come their long-suffering fans have seen so many false dawns?
In both cases, there have been some poor choices of managers. So until the boards at those two clubs and others acquire the perspicacity that has so far eluded them, we will be stuck with a national sport in which one club is in a league of its own, and the rest regard mere survival as the height of their ambition.