Aidan Smith: Brilliance deserves a full audience

Gordon Strachan used James Dayton's silky goal for Kilmarnock against St Mirren in 2012 to illustrate how top football is being played in empty stadia. Picture: Sammy Turner/SNS
Gordon Strachan used James Dayton's silky goal for Kilmarnock against St Mirren in 2012 to illustrate how top football is being played in empty stadia. Picture: Sammy Turner/SNS
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I KNOW what Gordon Strachan means by “manipulation” but maybe he’s getting his teams and his leagues mixed up. The Scotland manager suggests that the Scottish Premiership undergoes some kind of on-the-spot reconstruction to let Rangers, Hibs and Hearts back in. Surely England’s finest are wondering if the same kind of stunt could be pulled to ensure their progress in the Champions League.

Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal may yet qualify for the knockout stages by traditional means, everything above board, but last week’s results amounted to a bonfire of the vanities for them. City’s performance, for a team with aspirations to be toppermost in Europe, was toweringly awful, the sense of entitlement in the lashing out just cringeworthy. Liverpool saddened those who regard Europe as the club’s birthright by fielding the reserves in the Bernabeu. Arsene Wenger’s obsession with collecting all of the daintiest midfield butterflies was surely exposed to its greatest ridicule when Arsenal and their non-existent defensive cover blew a three-nil lead. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s draw with lowly Maribor, a side who appear to have in their ranks the last surviving member of crimplene disco troupers, Tavares, resembled a defeat.

Joking apart, I’m much less concerned with English pretensions to greatness than I am with a genuine England great. OK, maybe that’s too grand a description for James Dayton, but the goal he scored for Kilmarnock against St Mirren in September 2012 was certainly great, as Strachan readily acknowledged.

Great cut-in from Rugby Park’s left flank, great acceleration, great touch in the box to enable him to blur past the last man, great finish from a tight angle. Great beard, too, and wasn’t Dayton the first in football to get himself a backwoodsman’s beaver? The only thing that wasn’t great was the crowd.

“The boy scored a wonder goal, the left winger with the beard,” said Strachan. “But he ran behind the goals and there was nobody there. I think that’s the only goal of the season you will see in any league in the world where a player can run behind the goals and there’s nobody there.”

The Scotland manager’s point is that such brilliance deserves a full audience, a delirious reaction, seats popping in unison and, for old time’s sake, one of Mr Izal’s finest bog rolls to cascade over the crossbar. There’s no doubt that it does and, sadly ever more so, bonnie strikes like Dayton’s are being denied the canvas they merit.

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Goals by JMW Turner, backdrops by Rolf Harris. I was reminded of another when I interviewed St Mirren’s Steven Thompson. This was his overhead kick against Ross County last season, a goal which I suggested he wouldn’t have scored in his galumphing youth. One to show his football-daft son, I said. “I have done,” he said, “because it wasn’t just a spectacular goal. It won us the game 5-4 in the very last minute.” Young Master Thommo’s reaction? “Why’s there only a 
ball-boy jumping up and down, Daddy? Where are all the fans?”

There’s a real poignancy about this. In days of limited TV coverage – there would be Beeb Scotland’s wooden tripod at one match and STV’s at another and that was your lot – wonderful moments went unrecorded for posterity. You had to be there in the raw and crowds were good. Now TV captures every goal but, unfortunately, every yawning stretch of coloured plastic emptiness as well. Sportscene can make for a chastening watch last thing on Sunday night, just before you climb into your hair nightshirt.

But is bringing back the Absent Three the answer? There’s no doubt that this triumvirate – among the five best-supported clubs in Scotland – are missed from the top flight when the concerns are for the lack of competition, crowds and melodrama and a certain madness. What would we lose, though, if they were to return before medicine had been properly administered? Credibility, for sure. We’d end up with another unfortunate claim to fame. Not only would Scotland be the place where the greatest goals are greeted with what to any outsider must look like epic indifference, but it would also be the football nation where clubs can sneak in the back door after being booted out the front for financial mismanagement and not being able to hold on to a two-nil lead against Hamilton Accies.

We like to think in our superior way that the South American leagues are where a certain madness is de rigeur. Sex-change goalies kidnapping referees while the managers, gripping tommy-guns in a macho, one-handed way as if they were Willie Miller and had just been presented with a trophy, blow holes in stand roofs. That sort of madness. But where is the league which fatuously splits in two shortly before its conclusion? Where is the league where “reconstruction” – a drastic reduction in the number of teams, requiring those who remained to play each other four times – was really a cunning plan to solidify the Old Firm brands?

If you don’t accept that, you must agree that resistance to every subsequent attempt to build the division back up again has been about preserving four editions of a fixture its protagonists like to believe is the greatest of its kind.

The derby was going quite well for Celtic and Rangers until the latter’s recent difficulties. But some would claim that the top flight of Scottish football was going quite well until Glasgow’s internecine nearest-and-dearest were pulled out of a bunnet together and the return of the fixture was held up as the cure for all football’s ills.

St Mirren winning the League Cup and Inverness Caley Thistle very nearly doing the same thing. St Johnstone lifting the Scottish Cup and Motherwell twice coming second in the league. In all probability none of this would have happened without the fall from grace of Rangers, Hearts and Hibs and who could argue these events haven’t been good for our game. The Absent Three will be back eventually. Until then, rev up YouTube and remind yourself of the pluck and daring of Dayton and Thompson. An increase in viewings will never compensate for absent fans but those goals deserve so much more than a ball-boy’s isolated yelp, or a stand so quiet you can hear a pie drop.

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