BY no stretch of the imagination could 2013 be regarded as a vintage year for Scottish football. But even when the product is less than select, the game has a seemingly endless capacity for delivering intrigue and incident.
The 12 months now coming to a close have seen further financial mismanagement blight some of Scotland’s biggest clubs; 123 years of history wiped out with the winding up of the Scottish Football League after a summer of bitter in-fighting; and yet another failed attempt by the national team to reach a major tournament finals.
Yet while it has been a year many will be glad to see the back of, there are some who will recall it fondly. Celtic supporters enjoyed a domestic SPL and Scottish Cup double and a second consecutive Champions League group stage campaign, while St Mirren fans will forever cherish 2013 as it brought their club’s first ever League Cup final triumph. Even for the long-suffering Tartan Army, there was at least hope to be salvaged from the wreckage of a 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which was already effectively beyond repair when Scotland named Gordon Strachan as the new national team boss in January. The wretched start to the group under his predecessor Craig Levein saw Strachan take charge with Scotland having slumped to 72nd place in the Fifa world rankings. His tenure got off to an understated but successful start with a 1-0 friendly win over Estonia at Pittodrie in February but it would not take long for the full size of the challenge facing him to become apparent.
He wore a shell-shocked look the following month when World Cup qualifying resumed, a woefully disjointed performance seeing the Scots lose 2-1 at home to Wales. A 2-0 loss in Serbia a few days later saw Scotland suffer the ignominy of becoming the first European nation officially eliminated from the World Cup. If things could only get better for Strachan from that point, they did. A trip to face Group A top seeds Croatia in June looked unappealing, but it brought rare delight when Robert Snodgrass scored the only goal of the game. Strachan’s maiden competitive win was the platform for steady further progress. He brought improved organisation and cohesion to the side who earned praise for their enterprising display in losing 3-2 to England at Wembley in August. For Kenny Miller, who scored a terrific goal to put the Scots 2-1 ahead at one stage, it was to be his international swansong as he announced his retirement shortly afterwards.
The mini-revival under Strachan stalled with a 2-0 home defeat to Group A winners Belgium but momentum was firmly regained with consecutive wins away to Macedonia and at home against Croatia to wrap up a deeply disappointing qualification campaign on a positive note. November friendlies, which saw a 0-0 home draw with the USA and a fortunate 1-0 win away to Norway, indicated that Scotland may also have the welcome knack under Strachan of securing profitable results while not at their best. It can only be hoped that theme continues when Euro 2016 qualification gets underway next September.
In club football, the first season of top-flight competition without Rangers saw a predictable procession to the championship by Celtic. Neil Lennon’s team were the best in the country by a distance, eventually finishing 16 points clear of runners-up Motherwell, who performed admirably to make the notion of a title race last as long as it did.
Having seen one Champions League adventure end at the last-16 stage with a 5-0 aggregate loss to Juventus in March, Lennon successfully guided Celtic through three qualifying rounds in July and August to secure another financial bonanza for the Parkhead club in this season’s edition of Europe’s elite tournament. It was not as rewarding on the pitch this time around as Celtic finished bottom of a stellar group behind Ajax, AC Milan and a Barcelona side who crushed them 6-1 on the final matchday earlier this month. Lennon can nonetheless reflect on 2013 as a year when he further enhanced his burgeoning managerial reputation.
His namesake Danny, meanwhile, made it a clean sweep of major domestic prizes for the Lennon clan with success in the League Cup Final at Hampden in March. St Mirren emerged 3-2 winners over Hearts in a thrilling contest with the celebrations in Paisley lasting long into the night as the Buddies relished a first major trophy triumph since lifting the Scottish Cup in 1987. For Hearts, the disappointment of losing a cup final was put firmly in perspective when the club was placed into administration in June. Vladimir Romanov’s vainglorious reign at Tynecastle ultimately placed Hearts’ very existence in peril. Their future is still not assured going into 2014, although there is cautious optimism that preferred bidder, Foundation of Hearts, can secure a CVA agreement with creditors.
On the pitch, relegation to the second tier of Scottish football in 2014 has seemed inevitable ever since Gary Locke’s straitened young squad began the season with a 15-point deduction.
There is the prospect that Hearts could find themselves joined in the Championship by both Rangers and Dunfermline, two other Scottish footballing institutions in attempted recovery mode following financial collapse. Having gone into administration in March, Dunfermline formally exited it this month with fans’ group Pars United taking control at East End Park.
The Ibrox club’s followers have endured another year of strife, their facile Third Division title win and then current romp through the rebranded League One overshadowed by further boardroom convulsions. Former manager Walter Smith came and went as chairman, while present boss Ally McCoist now seems to have few allies among the directors who comfortably survived a bid to overthrow them at the club’s annual general meeting earlier this month.
If that was perhaps the most talked about agm in Scottish football history, one organisation held its last such gathering in 2013. After initially resisting SPL proposals for reconstruction, the SFL effectively voted itself out of existence in June. It was subsumed into the new Scottish Professional Football League whose renaming of the four divisions as Premiership, Championship, League One and League Two we are just about being accustomed to.
As ever, there were no shortage of managerial changes throughout the year. Pat Fenlon guided Hibs to a second successive Scottish Cup Final, where their 3-0 loss to Celtic at least lacked the embarrassment factor of the 5-1 defeat against Hearts twelve months before. But the Irishman then oversaw a humiliating 9-0 aggregate Europa League exit against Malmo which was the final straw for most Hibs fans. Fenlon survived until November when he was replaced by Terry Butcher who has sparked renewed hope among the Easter Road faithful.
Scotland’s greatest ever managerial export, Sir Alex Ferguson, finally stepped back from the front line at Manchester United, signing off with yet another English Premier League title win and approving his compatriot David Moyes as his successor. The Old Trafford club were also the source of a positive story to end the year from a Scottish perspective, Darren Fletcher returning to action after successful surgery on his career-threatening bowel condition. The Scotland captain will be among those content to bid farewell to 2013 and wish for better things in 2014.