Stuart Bathgate: SPL is proving the futility of premature judgments

THE next time someone tells you the league race is over before either Rangers or Celtic have officially become champions, take a look at the fixture list. If there are more than a couple of games left, feel free to dismiss them as just another case of Scottish football’s tendency to rush to premature judgment.

We all suffer from it, supporters and reporters alike, and you can understand why. If a journalist decided that nothing could be concluded from any given game, they would not have much of a match report to write. If supporters thought along similar lines, they would have little or nothing to argue about over a drink afterwards.

So instead of waiting until all the evidence is in, we jump to conclusions on very partial grounds. And the conclusions we reach often say more about our own characters – defeatist, triumphalist or somewhere in between – than they do about what is actually going on in the fight for the title.

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This tendency was displayed at its most glaringly absurd on the first day of the season back in 2002, when a friend decreed that Celtic would be champions, because Rangers had dropped two points at Rugby Park. Celtic themselves had enjoyed a less than convincing 2-1 win at home to Dunfermline, but the gentleman in question believed that the Old Firm were so superior to the rest that any slip-up from either of them would be fatal.

Needless to say, he is himself an Old Firm supporter, with the habit of presuming that no other team in the country is capable of getting a decent result on their own merits against either of the Glasgow sides. But the rest of us are almost as culpable of magnifying each slight advantage one team gains over the other until – despite any arithmetical evidence to the contrary – it appears insurmountable.

So this October, when a group of us were in France to watch Celtic’s Europa Cup tie with Rennes, we really should have known better than to hold the discussion we did. Even if, at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable.

Just days earlier, Celtic had saved Neil Lennon’s job by clawing their way back to a 3-3 draw at Kilmarnock after being 3-0 down at the break. They were ten points behind Rangers as a result – not to mention a point behind Motherwell – and they just weren’t playing well.

So when one of our number announced over dinner that Celtic had no chance of winning the league, almost the only objections were of the hypothetical variety. “What if Dermot Desmond gave them the funds to bring in a couple of world-class players during the January window?” I asked.

“Don’t be daft,” I was told. And even if that did happen, the problem was the manager, who did not know how to get the best out of his players.

“Well,” I persisted, “what if Lennon were replaced by someone with more experience of management and a better grasp of how to make his players rise above their limitations?” That was daft too, because those players were an ill-assorted bunch who had too many flaws of their own.

Ten weeks or so later, we no longer need to think up hypothetical ways in which Celtic might mount a challenge. There they are – same inexperienced manager in the dugout, same bunch of misfits in the hoops – just a point behind their old rivals. In a couple of days, they might even be two points ahead.

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So if Lennon and his squad are the same, what has changed? They have been playing far better, of course, but at the same time Rangers have been displaying the sort of fallibility which we hardly thought possible when all the attention was on Celtic’s failings.

And it’s not all about the relative merits of those two teams. There are ten other clubs in the SPL, and, while none is coming close to mounting a title challenge, all are capable of having a say in the destination of the championship.

Because although Rangers and Celtic remain markedly better than the rest, they are no great shakes themselves at the moment. Both are all too beatable by a number of other teams. And so, while we will scrutinise every aspect of Wednesday night’s match at Parkhead in the hope that it will provide irrefutable proof of who will win the league, let’s admit that it is far more likely that the race for the championship has a few more laps to go yet.

Even those of us who avoid cliches like the plague have to recognise that many of them contain more than a germ of truth. Especially, in this context, that tired old phrase which reminds us that the league is not a sprint, but a marathon.