The end of season drama at Easter Road proved that Scottish football is not dead yet according to Aidan Smith
WHEN you share a house and a life and TV remote with a woman, you’ve got to know when is a good time to strike – “Big game tonight, really important” – and when to hold back. The other evening seemed to be one to let her take charge and resume with the boxset because, as my best beloved put it: “The season’s almost over. You always knew who was going to finish top and who would be at the bottom. What’s left to get excited about?”
So Breaking Bad was cranked up again, the saga of a bored, broke – and dying – high school chemistry teacher down Albuquerque way who becomes a drugs lord. Before too long I was back in the New Mexico desert, watching him make small explosions. Then during a lull – Breaking Bad is one of those dramas you’re obliged to watch to maintain your social status but it’s bloody slow – I checked my phone: Hearts had just scored against Partick Thistle. Five minutes later I checked again: Kilmarnock 1, St Mirren 0.
I knew these scorelines meant something; just not what exactly. I flipped open my laptop and called up BBC Sport in time to see the league table being re-configured, Killie jumping from 11th to 9th. I put the laptop down and tried to fix my gaze on the Breaking Bad anti-hero’s baldy heid but it was no good: the computer kept popping with the ever-changing events at Tynecastle and Rugby Park. Was that a desert snake I saw out of the corner of my eye, slithering under a cushion? No, only Thistle equalising, lifting them one point above Hibernian.
So I stopped watching the drama and concentrated on the real drama. Football! Can you ever forgive me for forsaking you? Hearts scored again, then Thistle equalised again. I was staring at a still image from Tynecastle and could flick to one from Rugby Park for variety but no real need: the action was happening under the perforated line denoting the bottom six. I willed there to be more snakes and ladders and sure enough there was, with Thistle going into the lead. “What are you watching?” asked my wife. “Oh nothing,” I said, which was kind of true, but boy was it hypnotic.
The Scottish Premiership this season was supposed to be a desert like in Breaking Bad. But, like in Breaking Bad, small explosions have been going off everywhere. The predictable thing would have been Aberdeen promising one of their long-overdue revivals and failing to deliver. That didn’t happen – they did deliver. The predictable thing would have been the Hearts kids ending up traumatised by having to hold their breath under water for so long as their points tally stayed in the negative. That didn’t happen either; they grew up, turning in a storming finish and were a credit to themselves and their club. The season was supposed to be drab, tedious, gloomy. Just about the only predictable thing which did happen was Celtic winning the league, but they didn’t do the treble (nothing like), didn’t go the whole campaign unbeaten, didn’t make 100 points. Fraser Forster broke Bobby Clark’s shut-out record but nearly all of the notable stories happened away from Celtic Park.
The gloominess was supposed to lift at the end only to reveal clunky confusion: the play-offs. They’ve been tried before for the top league and rejected. The mechanism is unwieldy. They’re weighted in favour of the Premiership. They’ll drag on beyond even the Champions League final. All of this was said before the season started and all of it is true – but consider the tumultuous events for the bottom six these past few weeks, all the twists and turns, all the – cliche alert – intimations of “This is our cup final” and yet the games being exactly that, as first St Mirren saved themselves, then Ross County, then Thistle. I’ve slagged off the league split since it came into operation but this season it was almost perfect. Nice if the top six had had even a whiff of these desperate thrills, but we can’t be too greedy.
Consider, too, the sub-plot offered up by the Championship, and the mad scramble to get out before Rangers rumble into town, Hearts with them. So far, Dundee have made it but not without a final few minutes last Saturday when it rained goals elsewhere, testing even that city’s tolerance for far-fetched, comic-book daftness.
Back among the top flight, the predictable thing would have been Aberdeen, still high on League Cup success, once again romping past St Johnstone to reach the Scottish Cup final. That didn’t happen. The predictable thing, it seemed at one point, would have been Danny Lennon suddenly no longer being around to refer to himself in the third person. That didn’t happen, at least it hasn’t yet, and St Mirren and Partick Thistle, who couldn’t win at home for yonks, kept faith with decent football rather than switch to the dire, attritional fare that had been predicted for many in the league.
It was entirely predictable that Dundee United’s superkids would suffer a slump, like when you move from first year to second and the homework piles up, but weren’t they great either side of it? And then there was Hibs. Greater predictability surrounded them at the time of Terry Butcher’s appointment than about any other team, any other issue. Butcher getting them top six was a sure thing, everyone agreed. When that didn’t happen, the season shifted into another dimension, and a separate hyper-drama began to unfold, centred on Easter Road, involving haunted, goal-shy strikers, persecuted, clodhopping defenders and the word “malaise” appearing in every article written about the club. This has been the biggest story of the past few months, maybe the whole season. All in all, given 2013-14’s need for such, that’s a pretty selfless act performed by the Hibees.
Poor Terry was heard to yearn for a throwback footballer, one who had no need for affectation and who shunned tattoos. Ironically, two of the stars of the season were the multi-painted Kallum Higginbotham of Partick Thistle and the equally-inked Stevie May of St Johnstone. It’s been that kind of campaign. The kind where Ryan Gauld and Jim Badwin – sorry, Goodwin – co-exist. So there you have it: Scottish football – not dead yet. And not quite (Breaking) Bad enough to make you resort to methamphetamine.