BY CHRIS MARSHALL
Hello and welcome to another Sporadic Scottish Football Round Up from Meat Filled Pastries.
Well, what’s happened since we last spoke? The Hamilton bandwagon rumbles on although maybe not at quite as brisk a pace as before. Celtic eventually rise to the top, Rangers continue to lunge from one existential crisis to another, the Tartan Army still have cause for optimism despite a defeat against the Auld Enemy and there have been highs and lows in the women’s game. Oh, and some cup draws happened, nothing significant happened there though…
At the top is the now familiar sight of Celtic looking over the Scottish football plains like Simba at the end of The Lion King and while Ronny Delia hasn’t proved himself to be quite as magical as Rafiki, the lion cub’s red-posteriored guiding light, he has done enough to guide his team to the summit of the table – a place you would be very surprised to see them drop from. This has been no mean vintage stuff but with John Guidetti finally putting away the plethora of chances they have been creating, most of which coming from the continually impressive Stefan Johansen, Celtic were finally able to take advantage of blips in their rivals’ form. Hamilton, after a miraculous start to the season, hit a rough patch but have composed themselves and currently sit fourth in the table, while Inverness have also maintained their early season promise as John Hughes’ highlanders sit second level on points with the favourites. They’ve even managed to get last season’s scoring machine Billy McKay up and running again after an early season drought.
While Hamilton and Inverness were expected to drop off, the performances of Dundee United and Aberdeen have perhaps left most neutrals wanting a little, in terms of any kind of long term challenge to the Parkhead monopoly anyway. Dundee United and their seemingly never-ending supply of youngsters, most of which have spent a season or two at League Two Queen’s Park (such as the Scottish Roberto Carlos, Andrew Robertson) twice missed the opportunity to go top and as such currently sit third in the table. Aberdeen, whilst still look like the most likely challengers when everything is going right, have only had inconsistency as their only consistency through the season so far, although with Adam Rooney they have one of the form players in the country in their side. Derek McInnes won’t be happy with his side’s current position in fifth but it would be hard to argue that the sides above them aren’t so on merit.
Dundee look like a solid Premiership side while Bristol Rovers reject and former Scotland international David Clarkson has been on an impressive scoring run himself. Kilmarnock continue to surprise many with respect to how far they’ve stayed clear of the relegation battle and the early season wobbles of St. Johnstone, whilst not being a distant memory, certainly seem to be subsiding, although how much the ‘cheeky boy’ James McFadden has had to do with that really depends on how deep your love for ‘that’ goal in Paris runs. Motherwell parted company with Stuart McCall, a shock to pretty much everyone, with the feeling that the man who still hasn’t got the memo about mullets being a bit 80’s’ had built up a considerable amount of goodwill thanks to his continual overachievement in recent seasons. Perhaps his admittance that he had run out of ideas is a sign of a promising young manager who knew he had still some way to go. The Steelmen sit a couple of points clear of the bottom two but rather worringly have scored even less goals than a St. Mirren team who you feel would be bottom by some distance if the Adams Dynasty in Dingwall had departed earlier. New manager Jim McIntyre may not have Ross County lighting up the league but after finally getting the side off of zero points, he is slowly going about proving a few doubters wrong, although it is a job that is nowhere near completion at this stage.
In The Championship, Hearts continue to run the show, emphasised by a rather volatile 2-0 win over closest rivals Rangers. That victory left the Jambos nine points clear and what must be a concern to Rangers fans is that despite not looking like the same maroon juggernaut that took the opening few weeks of the season by storm, the men from Gorgie continue to pull away. Writing about the latest shenanigans down Edminston Drive way is a whole other issue, suffice to say that financial worries refuse to leave their side, while the acceptance of not one, but two loans from the secretive Mike Ashley has left almost as many questions as answers, especially with his easy return of the much vaunted naming rights to Rangers’ Ibrox home. On the park and Ally McCoist’s legendary status, while in no danger of being ruined, is on course to be tarnished should the team with the second biggest budget in the country fail to get promotion; something that many feel is now a real possibility.
Elsewhere in the league, Queen of the South have continued their measured progress up the division building on their work of previous seasons and sit third while Hibernian have moved up to fourth as Alan Stubbs begins to implement his methods in an attempt to bring the sunshine back to Leith, aided by perhaps having the best player in the division in Scott Allan – another one of Scotland’s bright stars who perhaps moved too soon. Even at this early stage it looks as if these four will be there come the end of the season as the likes of Falkirk and Raith Rovers struggle to compete when faced with their rivals from the top end of the league. Livingston have been cut adrift at the foot of the table while Dumbarton top the part-timer mini league within the division with Alloa and Cowdenbeath trailing behind.
In League One, Forfar split the two full-time sides with Morton moving to the top of the table after a slow start to the season, while Dunfermline and Stranraer trail behind the top two but only by a couple of points. With no side pulling away there appears scope for League One to perhaps show itself as truly the most competitive division in the country. Stirling Albion have struggled as expected while Airdrieonians haven’t shared the same success as their current tenants Glasgow City (more on that later) and currently occupy the relegation play off spot.
In League Two, it appears set for a three horse race with Arbroath, Albion Rovers and Queen’s Park all clear of the chasing pack. Elgin currently find themselves as the worst team in the country after recently parting with manager Barry Wilson and could find themselves in the inaugural end of season play-off as the Scottish Professional Football League trap door finally opens for business. Brora Rangers, as expected, continue to dominate in the Highlands with an incredible +78 goal difference from just 18 games whilst Edinburgh City continue to lead the way in the Lowland League, even if not quite as comprehensively as their potential future opponents.
In fact this moves us nicely onto the Scottish Cup as these potential play off foes met in the 3rd round of the competition with Brora coming out 3-2 victors in the capital. Whilst there were impressive results for non-league Spartans who put out Clyde and League Two Annan Athletic who knocked out Championship Livingston, the real stars of the round came in the form of Junior sides Hurlford United and Bo’ness. Hurlford having led on three separate occasions across both their ties with Stirling Albion finally bowed out after losing 13-12 on penalties, something that was breathtaking to watch roll through on Twitter. God knows how the fans in attendance coped. Not to be outdone though, Bo’ness overturned a 3-0 deficit against Elgin to draw 4-4 only to then beat their League Two opponents 5-4 in an equally incredible replay at their Newtown Park home. Their reward for this footballing hijinks, a home tie against Arbroath, which may not be glamorous but will be one they surely feel they can win. In fact the lack of glamour in Bo’ness’ draw was symptomatic of one of the dullest draws in history as it paired 14 of the top 15 ranked sides left in the tournament together, while Hibernian, the odd one out if you will, still ended up facing a divisional rival in the form of Alloa. Leaders of the top two divisions Hearts and Celtic were put together, however the pasting the Edinburgh side received in the League Cup earlier in the season should dampen any hopes of an upset at Tynecastle. Rangers tie against Kilmarnock will draw interest and those fond of a bit of broken-backed nostalgia need look no further than Motherwell’s home tie against Dundee United but overall a draw for the romantics this was not.
The draw for the League Cup semi-finals however brought the one thing that everyone has both wanted and dreaded since Rangers were thrown into the abyss with the announcement of a first Old Firm clash since relegation. A match destined to be hyped to the moon whilst the SPFL and the relevant authorities try to agree on exactly when is the best time for the game to be played in the hope of minimising any collateral damage. The slightly more subdued New Firm Derby between Dundee United and Aberdeen makes up the other half of the draw.
In the ladies domestic game, Glasgow City continue to sweep all before them with another League and Cup double, emphatically confirmed with a 5-0 win against Spartans in the Scottish Cup Final at Broadwood Stadium. The ladies in orange though made new ground in European competition reaching the quarter-finals of the Women’s Champions League for the first time, and in doing so become the first Scottish women’s side to do so. Their assignment against Paris Saint Germain is only dwarfed in magnitude by the prospect of having to play two-time defending champions Wolfsburg in the semi finals. While optimism will be the watch word, there must be a certain degree of hope that a comprehensive defeat isn’t on the cards. Internationally it was another case of so close, but yet so far, for the national side as they lost to an impressive looking Netherlands side at the play off stage of qualifying for the World Cup in Canada in 2015. On a path of continual improvement there is certainly a feeling that elusive next step will come one day.
Speaking of paths of continual improvement, the Strachan revolution is now in full swing for the men’s side. After a disappointing loss in Germany, compounded by the World Champions’ inability to beat both Poland and Republic of Ireland, a 1-0 win over Georgia was followed by a 2-2 draw in Warsaw against a very impressive Polish side. For many Tartan Army foot soldiers the home game against the Republic of Ireland would prove a true yardstick to the team’s qualifying ambitions. In a game of blood and thunder, where skill was at a premium it was Scotland, through the Malay Maestro Sean Maloney, who secured a 1-0 win with a goal that had some comparing it to that most iconic of Scottish footballing moments; Archie Gemmill slaloming his way through the Dutch defence and making us believe in 1978. Maloney’s goal was that good, I should know I was there. While a loss to England is never something a Scottish fan desires it was a willing price to pay for those three points against the Irish, in fact if I’m being honest, in the run up and aftermath it certainly felt like England had much more invested in the game than wee Gordon’s boys did even if come game time you wouldn’t have known it. Sitting on 7 points with Germany and Ireland and 3 points behind the Poles, the Scottish team are in as good as position as they have been recently to qualify for a major tournament, especially considering they are the only team of the big four in the group not to play whipping boys Gibraltar.
Whisper it quietly but being a Scotland fan isn’t too bad these days. Anyway that’s all from me, you can follow my views on football and, most importantly, pies at @MFPTasty and don’t forget to visit www.meatfilledpastries.com for all your sporting pie review needs. See you next time!