Why season 2017/2018 reaffirmed Scottish football as the best

Joel Sked recaps another unforgettable Scottish football campaign
Neil Lennon celebrates Hibs' last minute equaliser against Rangers. Picture: SNSNeil Lennon celebrates Hibs' last minute equaliser against Rangers. Picture: SNS
Neil Lennon celebrates Hibs' last minute equaliser against Rangers. Picture: SNS
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Conor Sammon stood over the ball 12 yards from goal. Could he net the penalty which would give Partick Thistle the slimmest of chances of surviving relegation after 180 minutes of gutless football, which followed 38 matches of ineptitude?

Of course not.

Neil Alexander went right to deny the on-loan striker and confirm Livingston’s unthinkable promotion and a place in Scotland’s top tier for the first time since 2006.

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It was the culmination of another year of the SPFL and the penalty miss was one of the few times this season Scottish football was quite so predictable.

And what a season it was.

From the outside looking in, critics, mostly based at TalkSport’s headquarters, could look at Celtic’s historic double treble as an indication that Scottish football is pointless, predictable and, to use one of the regular knee-slapping gags, a pub league.

Yet, that would be unjust on Celtic and Scottish football as a whole. A league is more than one team. Success and failure is only one aspect of a season. There are story lines and narratives at play throughout the season, from top to bottom. Some emerge from nowhere, others are manufactured, while there are those which confound even the most imaginative and creative of minds.

It’s dumbfounding that there is no one out there looking at this country and its madcap football, from the charlatans who are in position of power to the fans who revel in whataboutery and pettiness, to the protagonists, managers and players, and thinking it would make for the next great Netflix docu-series. Scrap that. THE great docu-series.

War and peace. Hate and love. Seriousness and comedy. Drama, tension, plot-twists, personalities and a goalkeeper being injured by a runaway cow.

Even with the written word it’s hard to explain the season past. With it being 2018, the shrugging emoji would be the most appropriate way to explain Scottish football.

Football in Scotland is esoteric, impossible to understand. Simply because there is nothing like it, original, unpretentious and diffident. It can feel like both a dream and a nightmare. Akin to being on an unstable rollercoaster, you’re travelling too fast, disaster awaits but you are having the time of your life.

This season has been no different.

When Rangers were getting knocked out of the Europa League at the first qualifying stage in the first week of July to a team from Luxembourg you knew it was time to wish your loved ones the best of luck for the next 10 or so months and immerse yourself in this chaotic realm of Scottish football, one even C. S. Lewis couldn’t imagine.

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As people unable or unwilling to comprehend just what Scottish football is, those that don’t understand, watched on quizzically, you knew your decision was going to be wholly vindicated when the Rangers manager is standing in shrubbery in Luxembourg arguing with irate fans.

It was merely a portent.

Nick Hornby notes in his seminal Fever Pitch that everyday life isn’t full of last-minute winners. If we rearrange that for this season, everyday life is full of pushing and shoving matches, the ball nowhere to be seen.

While actual football is the central element it is no more than an afterthought.

“Rangers really need to sort out the centre of defence , while reshaping the midfield to offer greater protection, what with such attacking full-backs.”

“Aye… But did you see that picture of Spongebob Squarepants with the Rangers team?! Weirdly, Dalcio looked happier than the sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. With his pet snail Gary.”

The desire to talk about anything except the football continued to persist. Speculation and conjecture trumped explanation and analysis. Sensationalism trumped reason. Argument trumped debate.

It may not be healthy for the Scottish game, again we saw Scotland fail to qualify for the tournament, and Scottish teams fail to leave their mark in European football, but it is understandable considering there are so many polemic and truculent figures.

No more so than the combustible but engaging Hibs boss Neil Lennon who noted that it should be about time referees were sent off following an argument with Kevin Clancy. An unworkable and nonsensical idea, but he had a point such has been the standard of refereeing that has beset the season.

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Pithy observations or throwaway comments from one manager is relaid to another. Arguments over the length of grass, the ‘natural order’ or one manager telling the referee on another. The back and forth, my dad is bigger than your dad, starts, continues and never ends.

And the clubs get in on the act themselves, this being the season of statements with 78 being issued by the 12 Premiership clubs.

Scottish football is such serious business that levity is the only answer, but only from those within the game. It has seemed that Scottish football is standing up for itself with a ‘the football may be s**t, but it’s our s**t!’ attitude.

However, the football hasn’t been s**t. It is not highly technical but it’s also not sterile. Games have been competitive, hectic and, at times, exhausting such has been the entertainment. The Hibs v Rangers fixture to finish the season encapsulated all the good and bad Scotland has to offer.

And it is not just exclusive to the top-flight, as seen by Livingston’s play-off success under David Hopkin. Like Motherwell, purists may not enjoy their style of football, but for this writer it is football closest to Scotland’s identity; aggressive, high-tempo and direct.

As well as Livingston, there have been other great, and not-so-great stories below the Ladbrokes Premiership. St Mirren’s stroll to the Championship title, Brechin City’s winless season, Ayr United and Raith Rovers’ refusal to win League One, Jim McInally’s refusal to get the most out of his budget at Peterhead, and Cowdenbeath’s refusal to be relegated to the Lowland League.

And, of course, Montrose’s League Two win meaning they will take part in a new division next season for the first time since 1996. When manager Stewart Petrie was appointed in December 2016 the club were bottom of the division.

Back in the Premiership Brendan Rodgers led a cast of impressive coaches, each with their own style, their own personality. His arrival in 2016 raised levels, especially tactically, and that continued this past season, managers attempting to play chess in a volcanic environment.

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This volcanic environment is also beginning to produce brighter talent, every club willing, rather than reluctant, to try and test young players. If they can survive the physicality and ferocity here they can thrive anywhere else.

From Rangers and St Johnstone’s early exit from Europe through to Livingston’s Premiership play-off win, this season has offered light when there has only been darkness, an escape from the mundane. Then, just as quickly, shut the curtains and blown a fuse.

One minute, Neil Lennon is careering off towards the Rangers fans or Willo Flood is telling the BT Sport cameraman where to go in no uncertain terms. The next, someone somewhere is writing an email to inform you that there is no ‘Old Firm’.

Regrets? No it was a good laugh wasn’t it?