FLASHBACK to the 2008 Scottish League Cup final, six years ago to the day, and Dundee United are playing some lovely stuff.
Their four-man midfield is running the show and United’s clever young manager, Craig Levein, seems destined for great things, maybe even the Scotland job one day. The quartet is Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Mark Kerr and, last but not least and the first player in our tale this week, Willo Flood. Rangers appear to have no answer…
But with just a few minutes left Kerr is short with a back-pass. He doesn’t see the second player in our tale and Kris Boyd does what Kris Boyd always does, he scores. Extra time. United take the lead again, Boyd equalises again. Penalties. Flood nets his but so inevitably does Boyd. Rangers win the cup.
Maybe United could have done with Barry Robson for just that bit more steel as the clock was counting down, but he was sold to Celtic a few weeks before the final. He’s the third player in our tale. Robbo, Boydy and – because he already comes with a nickname – William. In the years since ’08, these guys have travelled far and wide, exotic and obscure, in search of adventure and more games. Once, they all turned up together at the same club. But there were times when you’d have seriously doubted they would end up where they are right now.
Flood is back in another League Cup final and this time Robson’s at his side. They’re surely contenders for one of the Player of the Year bawbees, although there should be keen competition from that bloke Boyd.
Boydy, Robbo and Will.o.am. Forgetting about Kris Commons and the Dundee United superkids for a moment, are they not the stars of the season?
You can find connections between the triumvirate beyond the failed Middlesbrough experiment of Gordon Strachan who, like Tommy Burns, Bobby Williamson and Levein before him, pitched up in England mob-handed with players from the league he knew best.
I’m more interested in the simple, unfussy, no-nonsense approach favoured by our three. The world seems full of false nines, ghost nines, classic tens, guys who play in the hole and forwards who track back. But how many is too many? You can have too many strikers who don’t score, too many midfielders who shuffle the ball sideways, too many Frankenstein hybrid footballers who can boast of passes completed and miles ran, just not in the final third.
For Kilmarnock this season Boyd has demonstrated, rather charmingly, that systems and stats are all very well but you still need a guy to smack it in the net. In the midfield stramash, Flood has proved the value of a sweet-moving footballer. Robson isn’t so sweet-moving, indeed can be gallumphing, but those chunky hurdies of his are formidable weapons, both in tackling and shooting. Robson and Flood have been vital to Aberdeen’s charge this season, key witnesses for the prosecution as the club attempt to convince that at last the revival is here.
I’m not implying our three are too thick for trendy, modern tactics – rather that they’ve trusted their instincts and kept doing what they do best. After landing in some strange places where they might have wondered where their next game was coming from, never mind the prospect of another honour, they’ve repaid the faith shown in them and are playing as well as ever.
Boyd landed in Eskisehirspor in Turkey, only played 76 minutes, and from there moved to Portland Timbers in the United States. This club’s name makes me think of an assessment Ally McCoist is supposed to have delivered on a burly striker rumoured to be on Rangers’ radar: “Nah, he’s carrying too much timber.” On that occasion, it wasn’t Boydy.
Robson landed at Vancouver Whitecaps, which can’t have been a lofty peak in his career, not after scoring against Barcelona in the Champions League. But maybe these places allowed for career-wide reflection. Maybe Robson went all the way back to his beginnings at Rangers when he was a daft laddie and maybe Boyd remembered those times when he could have been fitter. Perhaps there were similar conclusions: time to get the finger out, give it one last go.
But are our three merely doing the things they’ve always done? Have they not, in fact, added to their games? For the winning goal in the Scottish Cup fifth round at Celtic Park, Robson popped a beautiful little pass to Peter Pawlett the likes of which I don’t remember him doing in other years. In a crowded penalty box, he adjusted his hurdies for a delivery of which the finest grace-under-pressure passer in football, Andres Iniesta, would have been proud. If Aberdeen go on and win that trophy, it might rate as the assist of the season.
Meanwhile, Rugby Park has this month been bearing witness to some astonishing sights: Boydy scoring against Hearts after a 40-yard run! Even more astonishingly, Boydy creating a goal against Hibs with a deftly-threaded pass – cue teleprinter-style shock-and-awe conformation: PASS – from inside the centre circle! He’s not supposed to do such things. But then he’s always been a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma hidden in an empty Monster Munch packet.
He can still do all the semi-legendary Boydy stuff, the dark goal-hanger arts. The peerless positional sense. The sly dunts and shirt tugs to maximise opportunity. A conjuring trick to cause further distraction. Then – you thought that trick was good – a headed goal without jumping. Now, instead of the conjuring maybe he’s telling jokes, because scowling is no longer his default expression. He’s smiling a whole lot more.
There’s been talk of Boyd returning to Rangers for their final push back to the top flight. There’s been talk of Flood getting a call up for the Republic of Ireland. Robson, the oldest of the trio at 35, can complete the set of domestic honours if Aberdeen win today. Whatever the outcome, and however the season shakes down, these three have made huge contributions. I’d have all of them in my team for sure.