Which players shone brightest and who had a weekend to forget in Scottish football?
Robbie Neilson (Hearts)
On Friday night, the Jambos gaffer showed exactly why he’s the football manager and the rest of us are just a bunch of armchair experts.
With only 15 minutes on the clock in their match with Aberdeen, Hearts were 1-0 down and looked on the verge of total collapse as their visitors kept up constant pressure. Despite facing such a perilous situation, the hosts were able to turn things around and eventually win all three points. How did Neilson do this? Well, he did nothing.
Personally, I couldn’t believe the shape of the team wasn’t being altered after the opening exchanges. Graeme Shinnie and Jonny Hayes were murdering Prince Buaben and John Souttar down Hearts’ right side. In the centre Perry Kitchen and Arnauld Djoum were being overrun by the three-man Dons midfield, while Juanma and Jamie Walker were completely isolated in attack, especially as the defence were being forced to do little other than shell balls over their head.
However, Neilson had faith in himself that he’d set out the side in the right manner to win, meaning he also had faith in the players to get themselves out of trouble. Hearts kept their 4-4-1-1 shape and quickly managed to turn things around. The defence started to pass with confidence, Kitchen and Djoum lifted their energy levels and got to grips with the opposing, while Juanma began to bully the Aberdeen defenders and dragged the team up the park with some excellent hold-up play. Even prior to Scott Brown’s poor push out of Alim Ozturk’s shot, Hearts were growing into the ascendancy and there’s little doubt they were the stronger side from that point forward.
On second thoughts, to say Neilson did absolutely “nothing” would be a little misleading. He obviously made some subtle changes through the match, including swapping the wide players which helped quiet the influence of Aberdeen left back Graeme Shinnie, but he resisted the temptation to panic and kept his head when many around him were losing theirs.
Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)
New boss Lee Clark has tightened up the Kilmarnock defence in recent weeks. No longer are they shipping four goals in the blinking of an eye. However, there still remained one potentially fatal flaw – they couldn’t score any goals. That changed this past weekend when three (a whole three!) were netted against St Johnstone. To find the last time Killie netted three or more in a single league game you have to go all the way back to May 2015 and a 4-1 win at Partick Thistle, a match more famous for Josh Magennis and Jamie Hamill squaring up to each other near the centre circle. Perhaps Josh had a glimpse of the future and was, rightly, blaming Hamill for a lot of it.
In fairness to the angriest midfielder in Scottish football, who’s now on trial at Shrewsbury, there were many more problems throughout the team, including in attack. Magennis has improved this season but he remains a raw talent and relying on him to lead the attack for the entire campaign was likely to spell trouble.
Coming into this campaign, many Killie fans predicted that if Boyd, who’d returned from Rangers, could recreate the form of his last spell with the club then they’d easily avoid the relegation battle. It turned out to be an accurate observation. Boyd has four league goals and the team sit second bottom. It was presumed he was finished as a top flight striker prior to the St Johnstone clash but perhaps he just wasn’t used properly by Gary Locke. If Clark can get the best out of him, even if it’s just for the final five games, then they’ll have a great chance at securing survival.
Scott Brown (Celtic)
Finally, we got a glimpse of the old Scott Brown. The Celtic captain was a tremendous influence in the centre of the park during his side’s 2-1 win over Motherwell. Though the score-line was close, the balance of play really wasn’t as the visitors dominated for large spells. Brown had a key role in this by charging around the field in a manner we’re used to seeing him perform for club and country, something that’s been missing since his return from injury.
If he’s back to form this is an obvious boost for Celtic ahead of next Sunday’s game. More than that, it indicates he may yet have enough in the tank to continue being the talisman for another couple of seasons. This was in serious doubt in recent weeks as he put in a number of pedestrian performances, with the game often passing him by.
If he was just taking longer than usual, due to his advancing years, to get over the injury then this will obviously be a boost to Scotland and our chances of qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. There are a number of good midfielders coming through who could help us in the future, but we really need Brown to have one last go at it. Especially since Gordon Strachan will end up picking him regardless of form.
Andy Halliday (Rangers)
There was probably no-one on the Hampden Park pitch on Sunday enjoying themselves more than the Rangers’ fan living his boyhood dream by playing for his club at Hampden. Ok, his dream probably didn’t envision Peterhead and the Petrofac Cup factoring into the scenario, but with 48,000 in attendance there’s little doubt he had the time of his life, even managing to get himself on the scoresheet from the penalty spot after fluffing a couple of earlier chances.
Just imagine how happy he’ll be if they repeat the result this coming Sunday.
Gavin Gunning (Dundee United)
I’m not usually one to get on his high horse about footballers earning thousands of pounds per week and not giving it their all and cheating the fans out of their money and blah, blah, blah. Despite the lavish amounts of cash some footballers earn, they are still human beings and are therefore flawed, a fact many often forget. When you’re in the public eye it must be hard to stay professional and, essentially, boring all the time, and when you’re in a foul mood and you just want to lash out at the world it’s difficult to think of the bigger picture.
The exception to all this is Gunning. The bampot United defender decided 60 minutes in his side’s game with Inverness to pick up the ball and walk from the pitch. He may have been injured, but there’s no excuse for such arrogance and petulance. Even worse than that bemusing act, was that he followed it by sarcastically clapping the United fans when they booed his walk toward the tunnel. Normally you’d say a footballer retains the right to give it back to fans who slaughter them. Not on this occasion. He’s been so utterly awful this season that he should be made to get down on his hands and knees and kiss the feet of every United supporter who still had the loyalty to go along to Tannadice despite the crushing burden of having to watch him in action.
He’s been released early from his contract following the incident. The quality of Scottish football as a whole improved five per cent thanks to this decision.
Alan Stubbs (Hibernian)
Tomorrow will mark eight weeks since Hibernian defeated rivals Hearts in the Scottish Cup, seemingly moving boss Alan Stubbs from ‘hero’ to ‘untouchable’ status within the club. Yet here we are such a short time later and everything has changed dramatically. Now there is calls on message boards and social media from fans for the club to sack their manager.
So, what’s gone wrong with Hibs? It’s a combination of things that have contributed to the perfect storm. Fatigue is probably a factor. They’ve played a high number of games this season and, in recent weeks, the squad hasn’t been quite as strong as was once mooted. As a result, injuries have become more of a factor, with the defence missing Paul Hanlon prior to his return on Saturday and Dylan McGeouch being a huge absence in the midfield. The signings of Anthony Stokes and Kevin Thomson don’t seem to fit the needs of the team, while top goalscorer Jason Cummings has been badly out of form. There’s also Stubbs’ insistence on staying with the 4-4-2 narrow diamond which doesn’t seem to work without McGeouch. That was changed on Saturday but once again he was asking James Keatings to play a kind of midfield role. The former Hearts and Hamilton man is a striker, pure and simple, and Stubbs seems to have aspirations of turning him into a midfielder. Aside from a couple of great showings against St Mirren and Livingston, it’s just not worked.
Similar to the Inverness CT cup games, the next two matches are games Hibs could thrive in as they’ve generally played very well in big matches this season. If they do, Stubbs needs to figure out a way to channel it into some momentum as they head into the play-offs. Otherwise, Hibs are going nowhere.
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