Winners and Losers: Ross County | Charlie Mulgrew | Juanma | Hibs

Paul Quinn shakes the hand of Hibs' David Gray at full-time in the League Cup final. Picture: SNS
Paul Quinn shakes the hand of Hibs' David Gray at full-time in the League Cup final. Picture: SNS
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Which players shone brightest and who had games to forget from the Scottish football weekend?

WINNERS

Ross County

Everyone associated with the club is a winner. Players, coaches, directors, fans, everybody. There can only be one moment in your life when the team you love wins its first major trophy, and I sincerely hope County fans don’t wipe the smile off their faces for a long time yet.

Michael Gardyne (Ross County)

Dundee United and Kilmarnock fans must have been watching the final in amazement. “Is that the same guy?” they would have wondered aloud to each other. Sometimes certain players suit certain clubs. While Gardyne is a punch-line around Tannadice and Rugby Park, in Dingwall he’s a club legend. And yes, Ross County are not a club with the same history or, perhaps, stature in the Scottish game as the aforementioned duo. But with both those sides currently occupying the two relegation places, they would kill for a player of Gardyne’s quality right now. Just as long as he played like the Ross County version of Michael Gardyne.

Against Hibs he was excellent, scoring the first, creating the second and generally being involved in everything good Ross County did in attack.

Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)

The way Partick Thistle approached their match with Celtic on Saturday told us everything we needed to know about how other teams perceive the reigning champions and current league leaders - if you’ve got the bottle, they’re there to be riled up.

Thistle swapped leading scorer and dynamic striker Kris Doolan in for the broken down lorry that is Mathias Pogba with the sole intention of pressing Celtic high up the park and forcing an error from the low-on-confidence back-line. Generally a sound approach, Thistle were undone in their attempts by the Celtic starting XI. There was no Dedryck Boyata, no Efe Ambrose and even Nir Bitton had returned to the side to add a bit of presence and composure to the screener position in front of the back four.

Another reason Thistle failed to lay a glove on the Celtic defence, until late in the match, was the presence of Charlie Mulgrew in the centre. Many people, including this writer, had all but written off his career at Celtic after missing most of the season through injury. Those problems have limited his mobility, which means his days as an effective playmaker in the centre of the park may be behind him, but on Saturday he proved to a national audience that he remains an solid defender at this level.

Marvin Johnson (Motherwell)

Marvellous Marv put in another tremendous performance to help Motherwell come back from a goal down to defeat Dundee United on Friday.

You had to feel sorry for the league’s bottom club. As is natural with a team in such a precarious position, there was a little bit of an overreaction in the wake of the result and its perceived effect on their ability to survive this season. In all honesty, the way Motherwell are playing at present, there will be few challenges for United to overcome between now and the end of the season tougher than an away trip to Fir Park.

Motherwell have been excellent since moving to a 4-3-3. They’ve been so good, in fact, that it’s a wonder Mark McGhee didn’t try out the system much sooner, considering it was his preferred formation of choice during his first spell in charge.

Perhaps he was unsure whether he could put together a front three that could co-ordinate together effectively. That’s certainly not a problem with Johnson, Louis Moult and Scott McDonald, who look like they’ve been playing together for years.

Johnson, in particular, is thriving in the new position. While he’s often at the front of the attack alongside Moult, with McDonald dropping deep, he’s given license to roam around the final third and terrorise opposing defenders with his direct running and skill. He netted the equaliser on Friday before crossing for Louis Moult to net the winner.

Juanma (Hearts)

The Spanish striker didn’t score, but in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Dundee it was a reminder that he does possess great ability to lead the line for Hearts, something supporters haven’t witnessed a whole lot of since August.

The attack in general looked better than at any point since Henan Jianye drove a van full of money up to Tynecastle and demanded the signature of the tall one with no neck. There was a fluidity to the play that hasn’t been seen in the post-Osman Sow era, as Robbie Neilson took the unusual step of partnering Jamie Walker and Arnaud Djoum in the centre with Don Cowie on the right. While this would have raised a few eyebrows, it worked out perfectly with both Walker and Djoum capable of running beyond Juanma. Each missed a first half sitter though they made amends to combine for the game’s only goal.

It’s a real shame Hearts are stuck out on an island in third place with little chance of putting any pressure on the two sides in front of them, because they’ve now won four league games in a row without hitting full stride. If they can go up another gear, which they can on the evidence of Saturday’s improvement, then they’ll make life very difficult for both Celtic and Aberdeen in the remaining four games against both those sides. It’s just a pity they’ve got little hope of catching them.

LOSERS

Alan Stubbs (Hibs)

One manager was brave on Sunday, one wasn’t. One left with the League Cup trophy under his arm, the other possessed nothing except a five game winless streak that’s included four defeats.

Jim McIntyre surprised everyone with a 3-1-4-2 formation that County, unless this writer is mistaken, haven’t played at all this season. He did so in order to find the right balance between giving his defence the extra protection they badly needed, while also keeping the two-man strike-force McIntyre loves to use (unless they’re playing Celtic). Not content with this, he changed the shape once again in the second half, going to a 4-3-3. He was bold, he was brave, and he got his reward.

Regarding the formation, it’d be too harsh to say Stubbs lacked bravery. He just went with his trusted formation. The narrow diamond has worked very well for the majority of his time in charge of the club. Changing it, and it then backfiring, would have looked like an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to recent results. However, it is in attack where the use of 20-20 hindsight tells us he should have went with another option than to pair Jason Cummings and Anthony Stokes together.

The guys on The Terrace Podcast put it brilliantly when they likened the relationship between the duo to that of a sullen teenager and a parent. Each acknowledges the other’s existence but there’s very little in the way of interaction. They are also too similar to be an effective pairing, leaving Hibs fans to long for the mercurial and unique talents of the departed Dominique Malonga.

Perhaps starting the pair wasn’t Stubbs’ biggest crime. After all, with question marks over El Alagui’s fitness, James Keatings’ confidence and Chris Dagnall’s general ability, there wasn’t exactly an obvious replacement screaming to be picked instead. However, given the way Cummings played for most of the game, and how badly Stokes tired after the hour mark, the fact that both players got the whole 96 minutes is a charge Stubbs has no answer for.

Ronny Deila (Celtic)

His team may have won, but that doesn’t mean he’s under any less pressure, especially now that Neil Lennon has left Bolton Wanderers and will soon be appearing on a television screen near you as he looks to get back into management. You know Sky and BT are going to ask “Lenny” to come be a studio guest. And what do you think is going to happen when he analyses, for example, a Celtic draw at Hearts? Do you think he’s going to defend Ronny Deila, the man who ridiculed his chips and Irn-Bru dietary plan? Or is he going to stick the boot in?

For Deila, the next few months are going to feel like the boyfriend who’s just found out his partner’s ex is available again and, surprise surprise, suddenly he wants to get in touch to “catch up”.

“Oh yeah, I heard about your new man. What’s his name, Reggie or something?”

“It’s Ronny.”

“Ah, whatever” *laughs mockingly*

Gary Harkins (Dundee)

(*Warning* serious “yer da” chat coming up)

The Dundee playmaker makes the list for spending all of Saturday and perhaps the rest of the weekend in Prince Buaben’s back pocket, presumably only getting air when the Hearts midfielder took his phone out to tweet trolling emojis aimed at Hibs fans.

Buaben likely received the Dundee playmaker from Rangers’ Dominic Ball, who did a same sort of nullifying job on Harkins in last week’s cup game.

Prior to the last two matches, Harkins has been consistently great since forcing his way back into the Dundee side and receiving the captaincy after Kevin Thomson’s departure. These last two games have highlighted a concerning reliance on his creativity within the Dundee first team. When he doesn’t play well, Dundee don’t play well. And, with only four games remaining before the split and Dundee currently in the bottom six, he better get his mojo back quick.

Hibs fans

Let’s see if I can write anything here without ending up on Hibs.net, shall we?

The ability of the Easter Road club to consistency take themselves to Hampden these past few years, only to endure misery once they get there, is quite staggering.

Hibs are often accused of bottling it. My name made it’s way on to the aforementioned fans’ forum last year when I took part in a Google Hangout which claimed they bottled it against Falkirk. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t entirely fair. You can only really claim a team bottles it if they play well below their best. That day Hibs murdered Falkirk in every department except the score. The two sides have played a number of close games against each other over the last two seasons, and only one of them saw more domination by one side than the semi-final (a 3-0 win for Hibs achieved, uselessly, after the semi defeat).

Was Sunday a case of bottling it? Probably not. Hibs could have played better. John McGinn wasn’t particularly effective, nor was Jason Cummings or Kevin Thomson, while Alan Stubbs was a little slow to react with the changes. But, overall, they still shaded the match. Just not the score. Again.

For Hibs fans, it was a familiar feeling of disappointment and the annoyance of everyone saying they “Hibsed” it again. What made it worse on this occasion was that it was supposed to be different. The five games unbeaten against Hearts and the leadership of the club from Leeann Dempster down to Alan Stubbs was supposed to be changing the culture of hard luck stories. Instead, the threat of a once special season crashing down around them looms large on the horizon.

As an aside, according to the definition mentioned in yesterday’s Rumour Mill, to have “Hibsed” it is actually different from bottling it, but I’ll leave it there. I’m starting to stray down a dangerous path.

READ MORE - Rumour Mill: Celtic tracking Dijks | Muirhead on failed Celtic move | Rangers eye title win before Celtic tie

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