Joel Sked looks at the losers from the weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-finals and why there is an important summer ahead for each of them.
On Saturday, Aberdeen captain Scott McKenna sliced the ball high into the air behind him, setting in motion a comedic string of errors which put Motherwell 2-0 up at Hampden Park in the first Scottish Cup semi-final.
A little more than 24 hours later, Scotland international and Rangers centre-back Russell Martin cushioned a Kieran Tierney cross into the path of Callum McGregor who put Celtic 2-0 ahead on their way to a 4-0 dismantling of their Glasgow rivals.
Two snapshots from two different games. But each snapshot and each game painted the same picture: Aberdeen and Rangers remain miles behind becoming realistic contenders to Celtic’s Ladbrokes Premiership crown.
Celtic, with a landmark performance and result, are one step closer to a double-treble and the subsequent talk of a triple-treble, which sounds more like a Las Vegas drink than an unparalleled feat in Scottish and, most likely, world football.
At this point it is important to recognise Motherwell, who once again showed their progression under Stephen Robinson. They have the ability, the stamina, the power and desire to match Celtic and win. At this moment in time the bigger picture will be of little interest to Well fans looking forward to their fifth trip to the national stadium this season.
The bigger picture, however, is not the brightest.
On 4 March, the draw for the semi-final was made and Graeme Murty revealed that dressing room cheers greeted the pairing of Celtic and Rangers in the semi-final. Their confidence was understandable, even if, with the use of hindsight, it was misguided. With January recruits in tow the club looked to finally be making steady progress in the top-flight.
It led to some, including this writer, to not only talk up the prospects of Murty as the Rangers manager for the coming seasons but also Rangers as a realistic prospect to end Celtic’s pursuit of ten in a row. Within a week Rangers had given up the lead twice to lose to their ten-man rivals at Ibrox in the league, followed by a defeat to Kilmarnock and draw at Motherwell.
It was a case of two steps forward and one step back for this Rangers side. That was until Sunday.
There is a popular picture shared online of a cartoon dog sitting with a coffee in the middle of a room engulfed by fire. There is a sole speech bubble of the dog saying ‘This is fine’. That was Murty at the edge of his technical area at Hampden Park on Sunday.
His gameplan, one which didn’t make too much sense prior to the match, was unfolding in front of his eyes and he seemed paralysed until he made the lateral move of removing Andy Halliday with four minutes of the first half remaining. Making the change at such a time does not allow for any impact.
Aside from the tactical deficiencies - both at Hampden and at Ibrox when Murty was schooled by Brendan Rodgers’ proactive changes - the way in which the team crumbled perhaps says more about his readiness for a job of such magnitude. The team wilted.
When the going gets tough can he rely on his players and inspire them to stand strong? To show the character, the personality to work harder, run more, take pride in their work?
More often than not teams do that for good managers, ones which they respect. With their collective performance, the reaction by Andy Halliday and Daniel Candeias when being subbed, they showed their true feelings towards the man on the sidelines.
The players have to look in the mirror and the way they conducted themselves, during and after the match, but as Celtic waltzed through at will, Murty looking on helplessly, it was clear that they know he is not going to be around next season.
Which comes back to the decisions at board level at Ibrox, as it so often does. They have often embodied the organisation and decision making which was on show by their team on Sunday.
The decisions made in the coming weeks and months are crucial. A major rebuilding job is required. It doesn’t need £100 million as former Celtic player Kris Commons suggested - just look what competent coaching has done at Kilmarnock. But it does require a manager.
That manager is unlikely to be Derek McInnes, even if Aberdeen fans would have been indifferent to their manager departing for their rivals as they trooped from Hampden Park on Saturday.
The embarrassment served up by Rangers should not discard or hide the insipid nature of Aberdeen’s performance. Much was made about the unavailability of Shay Logan, Kenny McLean and Graeme Shinnie and the negative affect it would have on the team. The players appeared to buy into that narrative with a display oozing self-deprecation.
The loss of Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn last summer was always going to be pivotal to the Pittodrie side. They were being stripped of two players who were central to the club’s identity. McInnes looked to reshape the squad and seemed to do well with recruitment, on paper at least.
The team’s evolution has not looked like materialising at any point this season and, for the first time under McInnes, the Dons have simply stagnated, if not regressed. That was there for everyone to see against Motherwell - as it was in fixtures against Rangers and Celtic this season - before McInnes’ criticism of his own recruitment. Weirdly, Aberdeen’s best signing this season has been Kenny McLean on loan from Norwich City in January.
Like Rangers the day after, Aberdeen did not stand up to the Motherwell threat despite it being obvious how the Steelmen would play even if they too were missing key players. Not for the first time McInnes made baffling errors in judgement, both tactically and in terms of personnel.
The team were met with boos at the end of the first-half and conclusion of the match. It was something which drew criticism in some quarters with Dons fans being asked to remember where they were before McInnes. But on arrival he was inspirational and has continued to be ambitious with the team. He has done what he wanted and raised expectation. He will therefore understand he has to face the consequences when the team underperform.
Aberdeen are a step ahead of Rangers in that they have a competent manager, despite his foibles. Now, rather than steady squad development, there is a sense that both the squad and playing philosophy require rebuilding.
This was not a good weekend for the Ladbrokes Premiership title race in coming years. And despite all the talk of Celtic’s drop from last season’s lofty standards, after Sunday they remain in a commanding position over two rivals who have a big summer ahead.