Craig Fowler recaps round one of the Ladbrokes Premiership season by looking at the winners and losers from opening weekend’s action.
Scottish football drama/patter
Many looked on in intrigue as Rangers’ Europa League campaign gave us all a chance to see Steven Gerrard in his new role. What was the Liverpool legend going to be like as a manager? How would he set his team out? How would he approach talking to the press? Would he be guarded or honest?
At first the 38-year-old appeared very measured and professional. He spoke calmly and expertly about the challenges his side had faced in those opening games. To be honest, it was rather disappointing. After Mark Warburton’s blatant misuse of the word “respect”, Graeme Murty’s “I’m just the guy that stands at the side of the pitch” and the general Pedro Caixinha-ness of Pedro Caixinha, this would not do for entertainment.
Turns out we only had to wait for the first dodgy decision to go against his side. This, combined with an undeserved last-minute equaliser for Aberdeen, had Gerrard firing off shots left, right and centre in his post-match dissection. After saying that his side were a class above Aberdeen, he then insisted that Rangers had been on the receiving end of unfair refereeing decisions for a number of years.
Let’s deal with the former first. To be fair, what Gerrard said wasn’t inaccurate. On Sportscene, Michael Stewart and Steven Thompson pointed to Aberdeen’s best-of-the-rest dominance over the past four seasons before wondering whether what Gerrard said would come back to haunt him this season. With all due respect to those two, Gerrard’s comments had nothing to do with the past or the future. He said: “We showed today we were a class above Aberdeen.” They were. They had a one-man disadvantage for all but 12 minutes of the match and were still the better team.
However, we all know that, regardless of accuracy, managers don’t tend to say they were a “class above” opponents, especially in their first league game. Because we all understand the subtext: “we were great and they were s***.”
As for the comments about decisions going against Rangers... well, it’s singing to the choir, isn’t it? Most Rangers fans will be in full agreement. The rest of us will think it’s madness.
But that’s not important. What is important is that Gerrard is not afraid to speak his mind. He’s already fired out some great ammunition to inspire debates up and down the country, and it’s only week one! Can you imagine what he’ll be like if the same happens in an Old Firm game? This season is going to be great.
Chris Burke (Kilmarnock)
Having struggled with fitness problems last season, and not even considered a first-choice selection when fit, it was somewhat of a surprise when Killie gave the veteran midfielder a new deal this summer. However, he’s already begun paying it back after a man-of-the-match showing against St Johnstone on Saturday. Using his experience and impressive stamina for a 34-year-old, Burke influenced the game at both ends of the field as he charged up and down the right wing in the 2-0 victory.
Hibs striker Oli Shaw’s career prospects
You could have argued that earlier this week Shaw could have been on the “losers” side of this article, seeing as Hibs managed to secure the re-signing of striker Jamie Maclaren, who’s likely to take the youngster’s place in the team as soon as he’s fully up to speed.
But with neither Jamie Mac nor Flo Kamberi at 100 per cent fitness, Lennon trusted the 20-year-old to lead the line against Motherwell and he paid back him back in spades.
Shaw has always looked a goal threat since breaking into the Hibs side last season and this was on evidence again on Sunday as he netted his side’s second with an elusive run to the back post. But if he wants to push on and one day become a regular in the starting XI then he’ll need to develop his all-round game, and there were signs against Motherwell that he’s already managing to do just that.
He was calm and composed in possession: taking it into feet, keeping his head up and looking for the pass. He wasn’t trying to turn the defender or do too much with it. He was keeping it simple, knowing full well that with the likes of John McGinn and Martin Boyle in the team, he isn’t needed to create 30 yards away from the opposition goal.
His movement off the ball, as it usually is in the final third, was also on point. But what was most impressive about his showing was the way he stood up to the Motherwell defenders. Stephen Robinson’s men are known for their physicality, but Shaw won that particular battle despite his slender frame.
He’s got a very bright future ahead of him.
Tom Rogic (Celtic)
Celtic defeated Livingston on Saturday in a match featuring Big Tam Rogic performing Big Tam Rogic kind of magic. Can we, just once, have a season where he doesn’t suffer a semi-serious injury that causes him to miss three months of the season? Just this one time? Please?
Jonny Hayes (Celtic)
Prior to Celtic’s flag-raising celebrations and 3-1 win over Kenny Miller’s side, it was a surprise to see Hayes back in the starting XI, seeing as the winger hasn’t played since Boxing Day when he sustained a broken leg in an away victory over Dundee.
He’s a winner not so much for a stand-out performance, but more that he didn’t look out of place given the circumstances: over eight months out, pitched right into the starting XI, and burdened by the fact he failed to set the heather alight after his initial move from Aberdeen. The injury at Dens seemed to signal the end of his Parkhead career before it had even really started, but perhaps we wrote off the 31-year-old too soon.
Beaten Lanarkshire strikers
It wasn’t the best of weekends for Hamilton and Motherwell as both tasted defeat before their Lanarkshire derby next week. However, there were a couple of positives to take away from each side, mainly the performance of two strikers.
Mickel Miller continued his fine start to the new campaign for Hamilton by netting the opener in his side’s 4-1 defeat to Hearts. The 22-year-old was alert to react to Aaron Hughes’ dithering inside his own penalty box, and that confidence boost helped him to impress throughout the match, even as his team-mates’ collective performance dropped off a cliff.
Motherwell supporters, meanwhile, were heartened by the display of substitute Danny Johnson in their 3-0 defeat at Hibs. The summer signing from Gateshead provided a real burst of energy from the bench and managed to fashion a few chances for himself, even though he’ll be disappointed he didn’t get himself on the scoresheet.
These two should be the ones to watch in next week’s derby.
Hope for St Johnstone being entertaining
As Stewart said on Sportscene, St Johnstone seemed to line up at Rugby Park like they were facing Celtic, not the side who tallied just three more points than them last season. The visitors adopted a five-at-the-back approach, which is fine if the wing defenders spring forward when their team has the ball, but Saints left lone striker Tony Watt completely isolated throughout most of the match.
It’s only one week in, but it was a pretty big disappointment for those who hoped Saints would be a little more exciting to watch after a largely turgid 2017/18 campaign. In fairness, Wright probably moved away from the 4-4-2 he utilised in the Betfred Cup because Aaron Comrie was lining up against Jordan Jones with Richard Foster suspended, and wanted to give the young full-back more protection.
It didn’t work.
Jack Hamilton (Dundee)
Hamilton’s position as Dundee No.1 was already under threat as Elliot Parish was allowed to start the latter two games in the Betfred Cup group stages, and that was before the ex-Hearts keeper performed his best Randy Wolters impression in his own six-yard box. While it wasn’t the greatest of passes to play from Cammy Kerr, nobody would have expected the keeper to try and take on St Mirren midfielder Ryan Flynn, let alone stand on the ball, fall over and allow his opponent to square for Danny Mullen to win the match.
His manager refused to throw him under the bus after the match, but it would perhaps be best for everyone involved if Hamilton was taken out of the firing line for a couple of weeks and allowed to rebuild his confidence.
Steven MacLean doubters
“Get it up them,” said the Hearts striker of his doubters after an excellent performance against Hamilton Accies, a match where the veteran netted his side’s fourth in a 4-1 defeat.
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Craig Levein decided to sign the St Johnstone attacker, especially as he was coming off a season where his powers seemed to be waning. It didn’t do much for enthusiasm around Gorgie when Levein then said he liked MacLean because he’s never been able to run.
It’s only a few games in but we’re starting to see exactly what Levein meant. Though his physical powers may be on the wane, MacLean never had to rely on them much during his peak years, and his football mind is as sharp as ever. Through the season so far he’s probably been Hearts’ best player (he missed the farce that was Raith Rovers 1-1 Hearts) as he brings in-game intelligence and decision making to a team that badly lacked it throughout most of last term.
Celtic in their pursuit of Jonn McGinn
The reigning Ladbrokes Premiership champions would have preferred their interest in John McGinn to completely mess with the player’s mind and, more importantly, his form. Had this occurred then the rest of his Hibs’ team would have suffered, they might already be out of Europe, and the board might have been persuaded into agreeing to a cut-price offer for their talisman.
Instead, he’s been incredible, starring both at home and on the continent. McGinn has said in the past he’ll be happy to see out the rest of his contract at Easter Road. His actions would indicate he’ll be true to his word if it comes to that.
Stephen Robinson for his post-match comments
After seeing his side beaten 3-0 by a Hibs team without its starting strike-force, Robinson chose to focus on referee Bobby Madden, whom he blamed for putting Motherwell on the path to defeat.
According to the Fir Park manager, there was nothing in the match until the referee (in his opinion) wrongly blew for a handball by Peter Hartley, which enabled Stevie Mallan to score from the resulting free-kick.
It’s a bit of stretch to say there was nothing between the sides in the opening 30 minutes. Hibs looked threatening every time they went forward, while the visitors had just one header over the bar to show for their efforts. But the worst comment was the one about the official.
Perhaps Robinson was only going from the view he had at the time, because from the main stand angle it didn’t look like much of a handball. However, the replay behind the goal clearly shows Hartley poking his arm out as John McGinn’s shot edges closer to him. It was a stick-on foul and the hosts took full advantage.
Officials get a hard enough time in football when they make a genuine mistake, so it’s ridiculous they have to put up with similar criticism when they get the decision right.
Stevie May’s Aberdeen prospects
Even prior to Sunday’s match the former St Johnstone hero couldn’t get into the starting XI as Sam Cosgrove, an awkward target man with one career goal to his name, was preferred for the two ties against Burnley. Things then went from bad to worse when 19-year-old Bruce Anderson (just to make you feel old: he was born after the 1998 World Cup) came off the bench to net the equaliser against Rangers.
It’s not so much that the teenager scored, it was that during his time on the park he looked much more menacing than his more experienced team-mate. In fact, May hasn’t looked like a regular scoring threat since he notched three in his first five games following his £500,000 move from Preston.
There was a hope that, after a full season under his belt following the horrific knee injury he sustained down south, May would be up to speed and back to his best. That does not appear to be the case, and with Aberdeen desperate to bring in another striker, the situation only promises to get worse for the Scottish international.