IN WHAT have proved difficult recent days for Scottish football, most – save for one group of fans, obviously – are dreading the prospect of another blow being administered to the reputation of the game this weekend.
That could arrive as early as around 2.30pm today if Celtic secure what would be a sixth successive league victory over Aberdeen, their supposed nearest challengers. That would, some contend, signal the beginning of the end of a title race before a harvest moon has risen.
On the back of Scotland’s now slim chances of qualifying for Euro 2016, there would be an understandable further drooping of spirits among those non-Celtic fans yearning for evidence that things might be different at the top of the league this time around. That maybe, just maybe, the yearned-for title race might be allowed to develop all the way to the finishing line. There were tantalising glimpses of one last season, when Aberdeen put in sterling work in games against nearly everyone else before floundering when it came to playing a certain team in hoops. And it isn’t only as far back as last season where we can trace the tread of failure versus the Parkhead club.
The statistics underling Celtic’s dominance over Aberdeen are startling. Inverness’ return of four points from Celtic last season – they also beat them in the Scottish Cup of course – is the same number as Aberdeen have taken from their Parkhead rivals in their last 17 meetings.
Of course, Derek McInnes is among those dismissing the notion that Aberdeen are already involved in a must-win game this afternoon. The Aberdeen manager can’t ask much more of his players than to win the opening five fixtures of their league season. Even Celtic cannot boast a 100 per cent record. McInnes’ side are bound to slip up sometime soon, and it could well be today. Talk of it being a “now or never” moment for Aberdeen is absurd, but McInnes must be aware of the need, even if only for psychological reasons, to register a first win over Celtic since February 2014.
That was actually Aberdeen’s second win in the same month over Celtic, the first being the Scottish Cup fifth round victory by the same 2-1 scoreline. So it isn’t true that McInnes has a blind spot when it comes to playing Celtic. He led his side to two wins in his first full season as Aberdeen manager. But, however much the results do not tell the whole story last season, the four defeats suffered were undeniably bruising ones. While not quite the difference between winning and losing the league – Aberdeen trailed Celtic by a surprisingly wide margin of 17 points in the end – these losses did firm up the notion that Celtic were able to prevail when push came to shove. They slipped up against lesser teams but when it came to Aberdeen, when they knew they would be severely tested, they made sure they were focused on the task in hand. Aberdeen can take it as a compliment.
A point today would represent a more than acceptable result for Aberdeen, particularly when another eminently winnable home fixture is so imminent. A draw followed by victory over Hamilton on Tuesday would ensure Aberdeen are top by next weekend. But, while not imperative in the way a win for Scotland is likely to be against Poland in that so-called “cup final” next month, McInnes has to recognise the motivational properties of wrenching three points from Celtic at this juncture. He doesn’t want to risk enhancing a reputation for being found wanting when these most critical assignments come around.
And there is another reason for willing an overdue win over Celtic. As McInnes seeks to climb out of the shadow of men who once guaranteed that Aberdeen were title contenders, a sixth win in a row would set a record for games won at the beginning of a league season. Even Alex Ferguson never managed that.
High Def Ally still facing a fight to restore his sheen
Ally McCoist, it appears, is coming to a TV screen near you, the cheeky chappie, bubbling personality re-booted in widescreen HD glory.
But how easy will it be for his reputation to be restored in the eyes of Rangers fans, whose dismay at his poor performance as manager was only exacerbated by what many felt was the excessive sum he was pocketing? This disenchantment grew yet more intense when he was put on gardening leave – on full pay.
Now talks have taken place with owner Dave King with a view to finally reaching an amicable settlement. McCoist is now expected to re-appear as a BT Sports pundit in what is perhaps his more natural environment of a TV studio (as opposed to dug-out).
But there has been much talk among Rangers fans as to how McCoist should be viewed following such a turbulent, often bitter last chapter at Ibrox – if it is indeed the last chapter. After 355 goals for Rangers, it seems incredible that the question of how he should be regarded has even become an issue. But McCoist can take heart. The simple passage of time heals many torn relationships.
Wayne Rooney’s return to play in an Everton shirt at the request of Duncan Ferguson in the recent testimonial match v Villlarreal saw him cheered every time he touched the ball – ample evidence that he’d been forgiven for the move to Manchester United, and what was described as the unforgivable act of kissing of the United badge after scoring at Goodison.
And yet, more pertinently, John Greig’s reputation emerged unscathed despite a wounding period as manager at Ibrox. Indeed, in years to come, and after potential courtroom revelations, McCoist might even be permitted some praise for somehow enduring the circus as long as he did.
Technically, there’s still time for Swanson
IT WAS a wet and windy Tuesday night in January five years ago, what feels like another age now. But there we were in the Byre theatre in St Andrews, for an audience with Craig Levein – “the new Scotland manager”, as he was correctly billed ahead of a question-and-answers session in aid of charity.
Among those subjects he was quizzed on – summer football, the restoration of the annual clash with England and why the hell are you considering picking international refusenik Kris Boyd? – was a question concerning the best player he had worked with to date.
This, remember, was before his Scotland reign had begun in anger. Indeed, the compere noted the “optimum conditions – Scotland have not yet played a match”. But Levein had already worked with some decent players at Hearts, Leicester City and Dundee United, perhaps even a few at Cowdenbeath.
But he was unequivocal with his answer. Danny Swanson, he said. He did add a caveat. “The best technical player I have worked with,” he added. Much lay in store for both Levein and Swanson, who was called into the Scotland squad by his mentor for the games against Spain and Liechtenstein the following year.
Not all their experiences have been positive ones in the time since. Indeed, in the case of Swanson, much of what followed has proved very trying indeed. But it’s good to see a clearly rewarding relationship has been rekindled at Hearts.
At 28, Swanson still has time on his side to live up to Levein’s words, which, if they did not quite raise a gasp in the theatre that evening, were certainly greeted with a measure of surprise.