Here’s what to look out for this weekend in the SPFL.
The beginning of the laptop revolution
Ian Cathro will take charge of his first game as Hearts manager when the Tynecastle club travel to Ibrox on Saturday. Behind the bare facts, this contest is about much more than three points. The Scottish football narrative over the past week has been dominated by debates around the merits of Cathro being a suitable candidate for the top job at Hearts. While it’s perfectly reasonable to be sceptical of any manager, the naysayers - namely Kris Boyd and Jamie Fullarton - took things to the extreme by painting Cathro as some geek locked in his mum’s basement with only pimples for pals and the inclination to rise from such hermitage solely when nature called. It was even stated that he never actually coached the first-team players at Newcastle United, a claim which sits snugly within the post-truth rhetoric of 2016. It led to quite the backlash and, before long, every football commentator and his dug had an 800-word say on the Cathro experiment. It felt like a distinct minority, including a nonplussed Cathro himself, were the only ones surveying the landscape and thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’
Unfortunately, it is bound to continue past this weekend, regardless of the result. Hearts win and it’s all hail Fidel Cathro, the laptop revolutionary who’s going to drag Scottish football kicking and screaming out of the dark ages. Hearts lose and he gets painted as a wee laddie outside the comfort zone of his aforementioned squalor and was obviously bound to fail because he’s ‘no a proper fitba man, ken?’ It does feel like those calling for a changing of the tide in Scottish football have more to lose. That if Cathro fails, it will dissuade those in charge of our game from thinking outside the box in future.
As for those sick of the narrative already, a drab and fairly even 0-0 or 1-1 draw would be the best result, and for something else exciting to happen over the next few days. Then it will all fade into the background and Cathro might actually be allowed to get on with his job without his every move being scrutinised. (Aye right.)
It’s great to be bottom of the league
Even Ian Cathro’s spreadsheets would be unable to decode what on earth is happening at the bottom end of the Ladbrokes Premiership. Below St Johnstone in fifth, league positions are almost arbitrary as teams crawl over each other from week to week like rats in a box. In fact, the only decipherable pattern further highlights the league’s randomness. That is, for the past five weeks the team who’s entered the weekend bottom of the table has managed to avoid defeat, winning four of them. Here’s the evidence:
Dundee - bottom on 28 October - beat Hamilton (a) 1-0
Dundee - bottom on 4 November - beat Motherwell (h) 2-0
Ross County – bottom on 18 November - beat St Johnstone (a) 4-2
Dundee - bottom on 26 November - beat Inverness (h) 2-1
Partick Thistle - bottom on 2 December - drew at Hamilton (a) 1-1
After last weekend’s results, Inverness CT slipped to foot of the table and have an entirely winnable home game coming up against Hamilton. If they win they could go as high as seventh. Of course, now the football gods know we’re on to them, they may twist it in another direction out of spite. Therefore, don’t be too surprised if Inverness CT lose this match, then their next five, before going on a 16-game unbeaten run to end the season.
• UPDATE: Ok, the most interesting storyline about Inverness CT this weekend is that they’re without a goalkeeper. Owain Fon Williams is struggling with an injury, Ryan Esson is a long-term absentee, and they sent young Cameron Mackay, who filled in for Fon Williams in the 3-3 draw with Hearts, on loan at Elgin. It means their only fit stopper is a under-16 level player. So, yeah, that streak of the league’s bottom club avoiding defeat may come to an end.
St Johnstone’s Pittodrie hex
Since St Johnstone won promotion back to the top flight in 2009, they’ve enjoyed a strangely good record away at Saturday’s opponents Aberdeen. Of the 14 league games, St Johnstone have won six, drawn four and lost only four. This made sense when Aberdeen were a struggling side at the wrong end of the table, but less so since Derek McInnes has taken over. Under the current Dons gaffer, Aberdeen have emerged victorious in only two of their seven home meetings with Saints, which is strange when you consider Aberdeen have finished above St Johnstone in each of those seasons.
Having climbed to within two points of Rangers in second, with a game in hand, the pressure will be on them to reverse the trend on Saturday. However, St Johnstone will be equally desperate for a result, as they are currently the only inhabitants of a secluded island hidden between the two land masses of the clubs fighting relegation and those looking to finish second.
Will Dundee United’s nerve hold?
Following their underwhelming start to the campaign, United were understandably written off as title contenders in some circles. Many assumed Hibs would romp away with the division and, to keep pace, United would have had to get off to a flyer, which they did not. Since then they’ve quietly amassed points and went into last Friday’s fixture with the Hibees armed with a “nobody believes in us” mentality. Now that they’re joint-top it’s a different outlook. The pressure, while not as intense as that felt by Hibs, has certainly increased.
The good news for United is that they travel to Ayr. On paper, it may appear like a potential banana skin, especially on a day where Hibs host Dumbarton, who’re fresh off losing to Bonnyrigg Rose in the Scottish Cup. However, Ayr have been distinctly poor at home this season, amassing just as many points on their travels (eight), and are currently in possession of a five-game winless streak in the league.
Will Queen of the South win another game, ever?
It’s just the nine league games without a victory for the team who once led the Ladbrokes Championship table and remained undefeated from their first two meetings with Hibs. The latest loss occurred this past midweek when they ignominiously handed St Mirren their first win victory of the season despite leading twice at home. In Championship terms, that’s almost a guarantee of victory. I’m sure if the analytics guys ran the numbers the likelihood of a Queens win, once 2-1 up, would have been something like 97.5 per cent. Having failed to secure the three points from such presentable circumstances, the question then becomes ‘who can they actually defeat?’ This weekend they travel to Falkirk, so the elusive victory is unlikely to come any time soon.
Bonus storyline - Celtic’s pursuit of invincibility
Tonight’s contest with Partick Thistle is secretly interesting. Seeing the league leaders pulverise Premiership opponents was in danger of becoming tedious, then Motherwell gave them a bloody nose in last week’s thrilling 4-3 Celtic victory at Fir Park. Furthermore, the game comes just three days after Celtic fielded a full strength XI away to Manchester City in the Champions League. Brendan Rodgers and his team are heavy favourites, and rightly so, but this should be a tougher contest than people may expect.