Craig Fowler looks back at the winners and losers from the Scottish football weekend.
Tony Watt (Hearts)
Love’s great, isn’t it? It rescues you from the mundane, injects excitement and security, all the while encapsulating your whole being with a nervous restlessness as you ponder the endless possibilities. If this is just the start, what could possibly follow? Can it truly get better than this? It’s a question that thrills and frightens in equal measure, because we know everything must come to an end. So we bargain with the universe. Can this be the one thing that lasts forever? Surely that isn’t asking much?
This is how Hearts fans feel about an on loan forward from Charlton.
It would be disingenuous to anoint Tony Watt the single saviour of Hearts’ season. He wasn’t even the best player on Saturday - an honour that went to the increasingly impressive John Souttar - while other players (cough, Don Cowie, cough, cough) have really stepped up. What he does represent is the line in the sand between the good and bad, between the fearful and the optimistic. Just a few short weeks ago, Hearts were a sluggish, underachiever with a manager some fans wanted gone. Now they’re a vibrant attacking team. And no player plays with a more exciting style in the line-up than Watt, what with his flicks and step-overs, two skills powered by an unwavering confidence. Having added his first goal for the club, a last minute winner no less, there’s an expectation he’ll only go from strength to strength.
Ross Draper (Inverness CT)
Inverness CT last minute winner against St Johnstone was the perfect manner for the Highland club to notch their first victory of the campaign. It was all about determination. It was a frenzied goalmouth scramble in which they threw everything they could at St Johnstone before finally breaking through. It was a refusal to take a draw, to settle for remaining winless. It was about taking on the hardest working team in the league and wanting it more than them.
This isn’t intended to do Inverness CT’s football ability a disservice. Like the previous week at Hearts, they passed it around nicely. Unlike the previous week, they added steal and hard graft into the mix and they got their reward.
In Draper they have a midfielder that contributes to both. His lanky frame often makes him look awkward in the centre of the park, but he is deceptively effective. He throws his weight around but knows exactly where he should be throwing it, both with and without the football. Along with Iain Vigurs and Greg Tansey, they make up a well balanced and experienced midfield trio. Maybe we shall see Caley Thistle begin to climb up the table.
Gary Locke (Raith Rovers)
One of many cultural differences between Scottish and Italian football is how managers are perceived when they’ve been sacked by a couple of clubs. In Italy, you’ll often find managers who’ve failed and failed again being offered roles at other top sides. The way some chairman see it, you learn from your mistakes, and these men are therefore better equipped than someone entering their first job in management. Typically, we would interpret the opposite. A rookie manager is not tainted by a previous failure, and the unknown seems the more attractive proposition.
It certainly came as a surprise to many when, so soon after leaving Kilmarnock, the second time in succession he failed to stay at a club for longer than 16 months, Gary Locke was appointed Raith boss this summer, but so far it looks like a shrewd bit of business. Not least because he does appear to be a man who’s learned from errors of the past.
Last season, roughly around this time, Kilmarnock were embarrassed with a 4-0 home loss to Ross County. During the game, Locke walked up to the edge of the pitch and put both his hands out in a expression that said “what’s happening, lads?” For those cynical of his stewardship, it was a confirmation. He didn’t have the answers. He lacked the insight. He needed to go.
Saturday’s game with Dundee United seemed to be heading in a similar direction for Raith, until Locke found a way to turn things around. Playing in a flat 4-4-2 that had served them well in their three previous league wins, Raith couldn’t live with the United trio of Willo Flood, Cammy Smith and Simon Murray. The former two found all the gaps in the midfield - with Flood in the centre of the park and Smith as the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1 - which opened up space for Murray in and around a stretched Rovers defence. After the hosts raced into a 2-0 lead, Locke decided to change things around, going for a midfield three of his own and matching his opponents. With the powerful Ross Callachan charging down the United double pivot as the most advanced of the central trio, Flood and Stewart Murdoch could no longer control possession, while Smith was well shackled by Ross Matthews and Jordan Thompson. Both of these factors then cut off the service to Murray.
From that point forward, Raith were far and away the better side, and although they needed a couple of world class strikes to get back into the game, they richly deserved their point.
Craig Gordon (Celtic)
There’s a lot of talk about kicking ability with regard to the Celtic goalkeeper’s position, which I suppose is fair enough as Brendan Rodgers drew attention to it when he first signed Dorus de Vries, and then again when he picked the Dutchman over Craig Gordon for Saturday’s visit of Aberdeen.
However, there’s a very good chance this has all be overplayed. Rodgers probably does want his goalkeeper to be comfortable passing the ball out from the back, but like any manager he just wants the guy who’ll deny opposing strikers with greater regularity. The ugly truth of Gordon being dropped from a Scottish perspective, could well be that Rodgers just doesn’t rate him as highly as his new recruit.
There is still time for Gordon. De Vries is more comfortable with the ball at his feet, but he sure didn’t look that way on Saturday. He explained the many errant passes as him trying too hard to impress. This would indicate he’s a little nervous playing for Celtic, and therefore a mistake or two could be on the horizon. Gordon may yet get another chance.
Joey Barton (Rangers)
Where does he fit in? It was a question relevant at the time of his signing and ever more so now. The same goes for Clint Hill. The same goes for Niko Kranjcar. Good pedigrees, but in their advancing years, where do they belong in Rangers’ 4-3-3?
I had assumed Mark Warburton was going to change his system. It seemed the natural progression. Kranjcar couldn’t do the running of a Jason Holt, Barton wouldn’t be much of a defensive upgrade on Andy Halliday in front of the back four, and while Hill would add leadership and organisation to the defence, surely it would be offset by his lack of pace, which would be exposed by Rangers’ high defensive line. To date, there has be no change. It’s the same system Warburton used for the majority of last season, only with famous square pegs shoved into round holes.
Barton is caught between two positions. He wants to drop deep, take possession from the centre backs and get his head up. The problem is that it should be Jordan Rossiter’s job when they play together. It leaves the last remaining centre midfielder - Harry Forrester on Friday - too far from his partners, and Rangers struggle to replicate the kind of intricate passing we saw last term.
In that case, why not station him as the defensive midfielder in front of the back four? Well, Greg Kiltie, that’s why.
The Kilmarnock youngster ran rings around Barton on Friday, including ghosting past him like he wasn’t there at the opening goal (also note: Kris Boyd outpacing Hill). There are other midfielders in the league who can replicate such a performance. It’s not so much of a problem at Ibrox, as opposing attackers, even playmakers, are tasked with defending for the majority of the match, leaving Barton to do his thing, but it will be against Celtic. Whatever Warburton decides to do to solve the problem, he’d better figure it out quickly.
Erik Cikos (Ross County)
Play to the whistle. It’s a common one-size-fits-all piece of advice regarding the claiming of infringements while the match is still going on. Don’t assume the referee is intervening, keep going.
Sometimes it’s a little too simplistic. If a defensive unit stops because they see a linesman’s flag, only for the referee to keep playing going, it’s not really their fault. They are programmed to expect play to stop with the flag. Saying you would react differently is a big fat fib.
However, in the case of Erik Cikos, the advice couldn’t be more relevant. My god man, play to the whistle.
The incident is included in the picture above and can be viewed here. As Darian McKinnon fails to get his feet straight for a shot and allows it to drift to Dougie Imrie rushing in, Cikos puts his hand in the air, and actually slows down. The ball is right there. Just clear the danger and ask questions later.