Which players shone brightest and who had games to forget from the Scottish football weekend?
Kieran Tierney (Celtic)
To take advantage of some rare Edinburgh sunshine in early March (to underline this point, it was snowing three hours later) I decided to walk from The Scotsman offices at Orchard Brae to Easter Road for the Scottish Cup quarter-final between Hibs and Inverness CT. It did mean missing most of the Celtic v Morton match, but having already witnessed Leigh Griffiths putting the hosts and massive pre-match favourites a goal up, I figured there wasn’t going to be much drama.
In order to catch up with a game I’ve not seen, I often check out fans’ forums to see what supporters felt. They know their team better than anyone, so it’s a great source of information regarding which players are performing, which players need sold immediately (usually half the team after a poor result) and what part of the manager’s system is or isn’t working. On Celtic forum Kerrydale Street there is always a Man of the Match topic where fans are asked to rate their top three performers from the game. I needn’t have looked. Every week, every single week, Kieran Tierney’s name is mentioned in every post.
The 18-year-old is almost a shoe-in for Young Player of the Year. He’s been consistently great since he broke into the side and has made Emillio Izaguirre an irrelevance within the Celtic squad, especially since his fitness levels have improved to the point where he can last the 90 minutes without tiring badly. The most impressive thing about him isn’t his ability to get forward and impact the attack, which he is great at, as evidenced by another assist against Morton, but his work defending the left back position. In every match there’s a moment when the opposing winger squares up against Tierney. You can almost hear the winger’s thoughts: “Right, let’s see how good this young boy is”. Every time Tierney stops them in their tracks. His positioning and tackling abilities are scary levels of good for someone his age and he’s sure to have a terrific future in the game.
John Souttar (Hearts)
Initially, I wasn’t sure about Hearts’ capture of Souttar. He seemed to be what American sports fans call a “tweener”, meaning his attributes have him in between positions. This can be viewed as a strength as it enables a player to be versatile and, therefore, more chance of getting in the side. However, for young players it can often be a hindrance as they are unable to stay in one role for very long, stifling their ability to grow and learn as a player.
Hearts, to their credit, said from day one that Souttar would be viewed as a centre back and played there whenever possible. This certainly seems to be working for the young defender, who was one of Scottish football’s brightest prospects two years ago, and his new club
His pace in defence is what’s really benefitting the Hearts team at the moment. He’s also highly adept at bringing the ball out from the back. But while Blazej Augustyn and Alim Ozturk don’t quite possess the dribbling technique of Souttar, they are each capable of starting attacks. What sets the youngster apart from his experienced colleagues is his speed. Robbie Neilson wants his team to press the opposition high up the field and to do so effectively you need a high defensive line. Since Neil Alexander is hardly Hugo Lloris between the sticks, that burden falls on the defence, and Souttar’s inclusion means they can squeeze the pitch more. Hearts have yet to concede in any of his four starts thus far.
Henri Anier (Dundee United)
Finally, Dundee United fans got to see the Henri Anier they thought they were getting last January: the predatory striker who’d impressed during his time with Motherwell and looked a fine answer to United selling two of their best players to Celtic, and not the borderline imposter who could scarcely trap a ball nevermind score a goal.
There were mitigating circumstances in Anier’s fall from grace. He prefers to play up front with a strike-partner, while United stationed him alone in a 4-2-3-1, and didn’t look match fit when Jackie McNamara first threw him into the side last season. Those factors would have dented his confidence and, as we know, footballers are nothing without confidence.
He then went to Hibs where a combination of heavy competition and injury troubles limited his appearances, though he still made an impact off the bench, setting up two goals that won Hibs (what looked at the time) valuable points. Any notion he’d come back to United a new man seemed to be completely dispelled when he was sent off in a disastrous cameo against Hearts, but Mixu Paatelainen kept faith and granted him a place in the side for the trip to Dingwall.
Who knows what the future will hold for Anier at Tannadice. Throughout his career in Scotland he’s danced between both ends of the spectrum, so anything is in play here. But if he can get back to anything resembling his Motherwell form, then that will be a huge boost for United and their survival hopes.
Kenny Miller (Rangers)
Saturday was like a blast from the past as the former Scotland international rolled back the years to help Rangers dismantle Dundee in the Scottish Cup. With greater space afforded to him along the Dundee back-line than he’s used to against lower table Scottish Championship sides, Miller had a terrific afternoon using his movement off the football to link play, create space and tear the opposing defence to shreds.
For more on Rangers win over Dundee, be sure to read today’s column: Dundee win highlights evolution of Mark Warburton’s Rangers
(Non-Old Firm) Scottish football fans
There will be an Old Firm derby, the second since Rangers went to League Two, this coming April. Are you ready for it again? The constant wall-to-wall build up for six weeks. The personalities on both sides of the divide slinging mud back and forth, like it really means anything. The people in charge of the game cooing over the fixture beforehand and then brushing under the carpet of any trouble in the aftermath. Are you ready for all that? No, of course not. Nobody is. I’m not even ready for it and I’m paid to write about it.
The silver lining on this occasion is that, unlike last year, we’re only having to put up with six weeks of this, not two months, and the game might actually be worth watching. Still, that’s little comfort for those who have no interest in what either Celtic or Rangers get up to on a daily basis, and even less when they face off against each other.
Hearts fans capable of logical thinking
There isn’t much to be said on the Tynecastle “Neilson out” plane flying stunt that hasn’t been said already. It’s completely ridiculous to want a manager who’s led his team to a second tier title in his first season and third place at the highest level in his second season to be sacked, regardless of which team he’s failed to defeat in the last five attempts.
Of course, I don’t need to tell you this and the vast majority of Hearts fans (a poll taken by the Jambos Kickback account showed 96 per cent in favour of sticking with Neilson) don’t need to be told either. There were boos and chants of “there’s only one Robbie Neilson” around Tynecastle as the plane flew overhead. Hibs defeat aside, they are perfectly happy with the job their former captain is doing as head coach.
Unfortunately, because it’s become national news, in the eyes of other supporters, Hearts fans are being tarred with the same brush as the “splinter group”. And really, all the stunt really achieved was to create different factions among a single supporters’ base and have Hearts fans look like self-entitled headcases with no basis in reality.
Martin Canning (Hamilton)
The Hamilton boss is coming under increasing pressure as local rivals Motherwell won at New Douglas Park for the first time in seven years. It’s only four games without a win for Accies. However, if you look at the bigger picture, you’ll see it’s only one win in 13, a run stretching back to November. In that time they’ve suffered double humiliations of losing 4-1 to League Two Annan and 8-1 (E-I-G-H-T) to Celtic.
In response to the latter loss, Canning decided on a new gameplan for his side. Instead of showing the attacking verve they did earlier in the season, Hamilton have now become ultra cautious. The rationale is clear. With Kilmarnock looking no great shakes themselves, Canning is hoping to eek out another two or three 1-0 victories between now and the end of the season, just enough to keep the side above the relegation places. Hamilton lack a goalscorer and with enough capable defenders - Ziggy Gordon, Lucas Tagliapietra, Mikey Devlin, Jesus Garcia Tena - this may be the best strategy available, but it’s not carrying any favour with the support. Football fans want to see their side show attacking ambition. They’ll accept an approach to the contrary if the team is generating wins, but when it’s losing it becomes all the more galling in their eyes.
In the coming weeks, Hamilton play Inverness CT and Partick Thistle back-to-back, the two teams immediately above them in the league table. Both of whom have two games in hand over Accies. Failure to pick up even one draw from those two matches will see Hamilton cut adrift alongside Kilmarnock and Dundee United at the bottom. With United’s resurgence, the possibility of automatic relegation looms large over the club.
THE SCOTSMAN ON SOCIAL MEDIA