Festive joy for Celtic and Hibs as Hearts despair
The Christmas cards are down and the trees are in the gutters. Some clubs may feel in a similarly dispirited state at the end of the Scottish Premiership’s festive programme of matches, while others can look back on the past fortnight as a time of celebrations on the park as well as off.
The period from Boxing Day to Sunday 5th was a hectic one, with all but two of the division’s 12 clubs playing four games. Motherwell and Inverness were the exceptions, as their game was called off because Fir Park was waterlogged.
The postponement of that match robbed Stuart McCall’s side of the chance to emulate Celtic and make it four wins out of four over the Christmas period, but it was a highly successful period for Motherwell all the same. Since their nightmare Scottish Cup defeat by Albion Rovers and a 5-0 league thrashing by the champions, Motherwell have won all five of their games, with a for-and-against record of 15-2. They have been displaced from second place by Aberdeen, who have played a game more, but they look set to compete for that best-of-the-rest berth all the way to the end of the season.
As Celtic last dropped a point at the start of November, their perfect Christmas record came as no surprise. The debate now is not when they will next lose a match, but whether they will do so this season. Given they are likely to retain their title with six or seven games to spare, that could depend on the extent to which Neil Lennon opts to give some of his fringe players a run out during the club’s dead rubbers.
While Celtic and Motherwell were the only clubs with perfect records, Hibernian came within a few minutes of emulating them. After impressive wins over Ross County, Kilmarnock and Hearts, Terry Butcher’s team were 2-0 up going into the last ten minutes at Tannadice on Sunday only to be pegged back by two late goals.
Even so, ten points from four games is a highly respectable haul, and the confidence with which they are now playing is in stark contrast to the hesitancy they often displayed under previous manager Pat Fenlon.
Asked after the Tannadice match what had changed since Butcher took over, midfielder Scott Robertson was in no doubt. “Just the positivity,” he said.
“Everybody’s on the same wavelength with regards to how we’re going to play. The effective play we’re having is by playing in the opposition’s half. It’s not rocket science: the manager and Maurice [Malpas, the assistant manager] have said that passing in your own half is all well and good, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere as effectively as getting the ball up front and playing from there, which is where it hurts teams.”
Robertson and his team-mates were disappointed not to hold on for the win against United, but he accepted that they had a lot to be content with. “The lads have all admitted that we were a wee bit tired towards the end,” he added.
“It’s four games in 11 days, there was the emotional side of [the Edinburgh derby on] Thursday night as well, and we had a day’s less rest than United. Maybe that told in the end.
“If you’d said before the game we’d get a draw here, we probably would have said ‘fair enough’. But to be 2-0 up late on and them to come back is disappointing, because we had a couple of chances to get a third goal and that might have been it.”
United themselves had a dismal time over Christmas, and were within minutes of making it four losses from four games before that late recovery against Hibs. But they are still odds-on to stay in the top six, and with the talent at his disposal, manager Jackie McNamara will not be unduly concerned by what should be a very temporary loss of form.
David Goodwillie and Brian Graham scored the goals that grabbed a 2-2 draw on Sunday, and the latter said the squad were sure they would recover quickly from their current poor run. “We had a six-game unbeaten run and it came to a halt,” he said. “But we believe in our ability in that dressing room, so we feel confident of getting something in every game.
“The young boys got a lot of press and rightly so. But us older guys need to support them as much as we can.”
Goodwillie is due back at Blackburn next week after his loan period comes to an end, and McNamara will try to get cover up front. But even if he fails in that respect, the manager seems sure to be deemed an outstanding success at the end of his first full season at Tannadice.
Aberdeen can be at least as enthusiastic following the gain of nine points that has lifted them up to second place, while in the lower half of the table several clubs have pulled further clear of Hearts. Kilmarnock’s six points has taken them up to eighth, with Kris Boyd’s last-gasp winner against St Mirren having proven especially valuable.
Ross County are second bottom, but after a lean spell they will be pleased with the six points they took from their four games. Partick Thistle and St Mirren got four points each, but they still seem sure to be in a four-way fight with the Dingwall club and Kilmarnock to avoid the play-off spot.
St Johnstone are down to seventh after taking three points from their four games, but they have a game in hand over Hibs, who are three points in front. As long as they hang on to Stevie May for the time being, they have a hope of getting back into the top six. Caley Thistle took just a single point, from a goalless draw with Thistle, yet, having played fewer games than anyone else, and with an eight-point advantage over St Johnstone, they should stay safely within the upper half. But they have had some perturbing results since John Hughes took over as manager from Butcher, particularly the 4-3 loss to Aberdeen four days before Christmas, and they badly need a good performance at home to United this Sunday.
Hearts could have ended up with a better record than Inverness over the holiday period but for the last-minute save by their former goalkeeper Marian Kello than denied them a win at St Mirren.
As it turned out, that point was the only one they got from their four games. Just as there is speculation as to when Celtic might lose again, so there is a real question about when Hearts will win again. Any uncertainty about their being relegated surely evaporated when they lost to Thistle on Sunday.