Long suffering Aberdeen fans could have been forgiven for releasing a sigh of release when Craig Brown took over from the disastrous tenure of Mark McGhee.
Under McGhee, the Dons found themselves as prime candidates for relegation from the SPL, after winning just 3 games from the opening 15 of the season. This horrendous run reached its’ destructive epicentre in a 9-0 drubbing at Celtic Park. Aberdeen’s biggest problem has been a lack of cohesion in the squad, and a failure to competently handle simple set piece situations like corners and free-kicks. Despite Brown’s vast experience, and fantastic time of it at Motherwell, it looked at one point as though he’d never get it right at Pittodrie.
Although Brown’s arrival failed to reverse the club’s fortune’s initially, it now appears, after just over a year in the job, he’s finally starting to get it right. The Dons are currently sitting 6th in the table, and have lost 10 of the 25 matches they’ve contested in the league this season. However, of those 10 losses, just two of them have been more than a single goal (3-0 loss to Hearts and 2-0 loss to Kilmarnock earlier in the season)
Given the high number of narrow losses, Brown’s men were again faced with the very real threat of relegation. Losing three matches in a row at the start of the season, and a run of no wins in 4 matches in October left the Dons rooted to the bottom of the SPL. Despite the short term nature of their time at the bottom of the league, it looks as though alarm bells began to ring, and an inspirational, but simple transfer policy was to ensue for the approaching window.
Far from the notion of the ‘marquee signing’, Brown entrusted his transfer budget and the hopes of the Aberdeen to a quartet of journeymen, a quartet that I believe will cement the club’s position in the top 6 of the SPL. In came ex-Motherwell starlet, Mark Reynolds, former Aberdeen hero Russell Anderson, the once forgotten man of Rangers, Gavin Rae, and another ex-Ger, Stephen Hughes.
Mark Reynolds has been loaned back to rejoin the man who brought him through at Motherwell. Reynolds, despite still being a young at 24 years old, played 166 times for Motherwell, was on the verge of a Scotland call up, and attracted serious attention from both halves of the Old Firm and a couple of Premiership clubs. Somehow the move to Sheffield Wednesday didn’t quite work out for the player, but under Brown, only a fool would bet against him recapturing the form that led to the player being proclaimed by many as one of Scottish football’s hottest prospects.
A somewhat surprising homecoming for Russell Anderson was also arranged by Aberdeen’s wily manager. Anderson is no spring chicken, but the likelihood is that his vast experience will shore up the defence and help eradicate the aforementioned defensive frailties that have been synonymous with the Dons in recent years. 33-year old Anderson returns to the north of Scotland, where he played 280 times before. He has experience at the top level, playing for Sunderland in the Premiership, as well as Plymouth, Burnley and Derby down south too. Deservedly, he’s picked up 11 caps for the Scottish national side, a figure that many believe should be considerably more given the player’s formidable record.
Brown made another unexpected swoop for Dundee’s Gavin Rae. After a failed spell at Rangers and a productive time at Cardiff, many expected Rae to see out the remainder of his career, quietly playing in the Scottish First Division. However, anyone who’d took the time to watch Gavin Rae in recent times will have observed his resolute positional sense and shrewd passing ability. Rae, at 34, has perhaps lost a yard of pace, but again his experience and ability to retain possession against the very best opponents that the Scottish league has to offer will surely make him a hit at Pittodrie.
Last but not least, industrious midfielder Stephen Hughes. Still under 30, Hughes burst on to the scene at Rangers, and was a surprise departure for many of the Ibrox faithful as he went to ply his trade at Leicester City. Hughes also spent time working under Brown at Motherwell, in arguably his most successful spell of his career. More experience in England came for the player at Norwich for two years, and a short spell at MK Dons brought the player’s time down south to a halt. Hughes failed to make an impact under Stuart McCall in a second spell at Motherwell, before Craig Brown made a move to bring the player to Pittodrie. Hughes will no doubt slot nicely into the Dons’ midfield, as Brown again opts for something of a safe, ‘tried and tested’ player to plug the gaps in a once leaky and inefficient midfield.
These four experienced signings will make up a significant portion of the collective group that’ll galvanise Brown’s Aberdeen side; the remaining key factor in my opinion is the goalscoring prowess of Scott Vernon. It seems to be overlooked by many that Vernon has made the net bulge on 10 occasions this season, a figure that’s no mean feat for a side who’ve been languishing in the bottom half of the table for much of the season. Vernon will no doubt see his spirits lifted by the arrival of the three journeymen, and things are indeed looking up for Aberdeen, as the club remain unbeaten in the month of January.
A further cushion this season for the Dons will be the continuing shambles that is the league form of Hibs and Dunfermline. They’ll be the two clubs who’re fighting it out for the drop this year, not Aberdeen. Brown’s transfer strategy will tide them over this season, and perhaps another, but if Aberdeen are to become the club they have the potential to be, their strategy of player development and transfers will need to change again. The Dons will weather this storm and in my opinion, hang on to the top six place that has eluded them in recent years, but Brown’s biggest challenge will be to propel this sleeping giant of Scottish football back to its’ rightful place, up knocking on the door of the Old Firm for honours.
Rangers fan Ewan McQueen explains why Sone Aluko could be an unlikely hero for Ally McCoist’s men
It’s fair to say that since his arrival at Rangers in November, Sone Aluko has rarely been far from the headlines in the world of Scottish football. Even before his arrival, Aluko was surrounded by controversy as rumours flew around the Scottish media world that the former Aberdeen star had paid for his move to Rangers out of his own back pocket. Whilst there was conflicting reports over that, most Rangers fans including myself were pleasantly surprised to see Aluko at the club. Yes, it was a gamble that was being taken by manager Ally McCoist, but on a personal level, I always rated Aluko at Aberdeen. His trickery and eye for goal was impressive; but others did label him as lazy and inconsistent. Having lost Steven Naismith to injury a few weeks earlier, in a match against Aluko’s former club Aberdeen, McCoist recognised he needed someone to give his team the energy and drive that Naismith had provided in the first few months of the season.
Whilst Aluko was and never is going to be a like-for like replacement for the Scotland star, everyone associated with Rangers could clearly see that since Naismith’s injury, the Ibrox side had been extremely sluggish and devoid of ideas. Three days after signing, Aluko was thrown in from the start against Kilmarnock, where he showed in glimpses what he could bring to the team. During the first half in particular, he attacked the Kilmarnock defence and just before half-time was arguably denied what looked to be a stonewall penalty. However, he was to play a significant role in handing Kilmarnock a 1-0 victory and condemning his new side to their first SPL defeat of the season. As Kilmarnock put the ball back into the box, Manuel Pascali headed home from what looked an offside position, but infact Aluko had failed to rush out the box along with his teammates, therefore the goal stood.
This spoiled what was otherwise a very good debut by Aluko. The following week against Dunfermline, the Englishman was yet again at the centre of the action. He showed in patches what he could bring to the Rangers team over the course of the season. This was shown when he attacked the Dunfermline defence and won a penalty which was duly converted by Nikica Jelavic. However, after the match Aluko was found guilty of diving to win that aforementioned penalty and was banned for Rangers next two games.
Despite Rangers winning their next two games, Aluko’s absence was keenly felt. Against Hibs and Inverness respectively, Rangers were once again devoid of ideas and energy just as they had been before Aluko’s arrival at the club. The match against Terry Butcher’s men was torturous viewing and Rangers really got out of jail with a winner from Kyle Lafferty in the 83rd minute. Already Rangers fans could see that Aluko was a big player for them in an attacking sense. I don’t wish to gloss over the Christmas period defeats to St Mirren and Celtic that Rangers suffered, but in these games avoidable red cards and errors in defence were the reasons for Rangers surrendering their lead at the top of the table.
Once again though, Aluko showed that he was just about the only player in the Rangers team with perhaps the exception of youngster Gregg Wylde that was willing to run at opposition full-backs. Indeed, his cross in the Glasgow derby game that picked out Lee Wallace almost gave Rangers an early lead. But it has been in the first three games of 2012, where Aluko has taken his game to a new level and really stamped his influence on the Rangers team.
In the first match of the year against Motherwell, Aluko scored his first goal for the club and produced an all-round display that regularly got fans out of their seats in admiration and he was a constant menace for the Motherwell defence. Next up was a tie against Arbroath. Perhaps routine on paper, but Rangers were yet to win a cup game under McCoist and needed to avoid a further embarrassment. Aluko was key to doing this and his shining moment was when he showed great skill to set up Jelavic for a killer third goal.
And last weekend against St Johnstone, he was once again the key man for Rangers. He set up Jelavic for both his goals; one a bursting run into the box and the other a superb free-kick delivery. And once again he tormented the Saints fullbacks with his level of skill, pace and trickery and this made sure Rangers saw out a vital 2-1 victory in Perth. Despite a lacklustre draw most recently against Aluko’s former club, again the Nigerian looked lively and was a shining light in an otherwise dark and dank Rangers line-up.
Some would argue that keeping Nikica Jelavic at the club (however unlikely that may seem), as well as Allan McGregor and Steven Davis will determine whether or not Rangers are to secure a fourth SPL title on the spin, but perhaps it’s not as clean cut as that.
It’s no mean feat to endear yourself to the Ibrox faithful, yet Aluko has managed this in no time at all. He’s had little or no time to settle, and I for one believe, particularly at such a young age, that Aluko’s form could be the paramount factor in Rangers’ title hopes this season, and for seasons to come.
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Given the financial difficulties facing current SPL champions Rangers, football fans from up and down the country have been speculating ‘where’ and ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ talisman Nikica Jelavic will be departing the club. During the transfer window, it’s open season for ‘red-top’ journalists to pen tales that’d be more suited to Jackanory than the back pages of their downmarket publications. Before the transfer window even opened, Rangers fans have been conditioned to believe that their most prized asset will be headed for the exit. However, after a little statistical analysis, to my mind Rangers have no option but to retain the services of their leading scorer.
Look familiar? This is the SPL table as it stands:
5 St Johnstone
7 Dundee Utd
8 St Mirren
10 Inverness CT
Currently, the SPL title look as though we could be in for another nail biting crescendo at the end of the season. Celtic hold a narrow lead at the top of the table, and Rangers’ are close behind. Everyone knows that Rangers’ title challenge so far has leaned heavily on the abilities of the aforementioned Nikica Jelavic.
So where would Rangers be currently without Jelavic? This is hard to determine. He’s scored 14 goals in the 23 matches the Gers have played so far this season, as well as providing several assists. Let’s take a look at how things would look if we remove the contributions of the former Rapid Vienna hitman. Of course Rangers would have had another player in Jelavic’s place who’d have impacted positively on the team, but for argument’s sake, let’s deal with the cold hard facts of Jelavic’s impact on the SPL this season.
After reviewing in detail, each of Rangers’ 23 SPL encounters this season, it turns out that Jelavic’s contributions have been critical in gaining points on 7 occasions.
Result without Jelavic
St Mirren @ Ibrox
1 Goal – 48th minute
Aberdeen @ Pittodrie
1 Goal – 70th minute
Dundee United @ Ibrox
2 Goals – 19th & 63rd minute
Dunfermline @ Ibrox
1 Goal – 29th minute
Hibs @ Easter Road
2 Goals – 61st & 69th minute
ICT @ Ibrox
1 Assist – 55th minute
St Johnstone @ McDairmid Park
2 Goals – 24th & 81st minute
How would this affect the current table? Take a look:
5 St Johnstone
7 Dundee Utd
8 St Mirren
10 Inverness CT
Of course, just to reiterate, this is all a hypothetical worst case scenario for Rangers, but it does make for interesting reading. Rangers are not alone in their heavy dependency on one or small number of players. (i.e Celtic – Hooper/Stokes, Barcelona – Messi, Arsenal – Van Persie, Man Utd – Rooney etc)
Perhaps coincidence, but perhaps not, that 6 of the 7 crucial Jelavic matches occurred after Rangers lost Steven Naismith for the season to that horrific injury against Hearts. This would imply that Jelavic has stepped up to the mark and carried Rangers through, again highlighting his paramount importance to the team. This poses the question, who, if anyone at Rangers could step up to the mark to replace Jelavic?
Rangers have been fortunate in recent years, that when they’ve lost a prolific goal scorer, another one has emerged from within the squad. After Kris Boyd moved on, Kenny Miller couldn’t stop scoring. When Miller was sold, in stepped Steven Naismith and latterly Nikicia Jelavic.
But who, in a such a threadbare Rangers squad, could step up to fill Jelavic’s boots? – Lafferty? Healy? (Really?)
The names that have been thrown around as potential replacements for Jelavic are unlikely to fill the Ibrox faithful with much hope. The return of an overweight and out of touch Kris Boyd or Nacho Novo is not what the fans want, or the team needs. Even the likes of Garry O’Connor, despite his impressive goal scoring record this season, has neither the prowess or finesse to replace Jelavic.
So in this myopic and seemingly inevitable shifting of Rangers’ top scorer to pastures new, I wonder if the money men at the club have considered weighing up the potential benefits of keeping him against selling him?
The benefits of keeping him are clear, having top-drawer goal scorer like the big Croatian in the team could be the difference between Rangers winning or losing the league. This in turn affects the chances of Rangers qualifying for the lucrative Champions League next season.
So what of the benefits of selling him? Transfer fees of between £7-£10m are being batted around, but in the grand scheme of things, does that money really dig Ally McCoist’s men out of any kind of trouble? Supposing Rangers do flounder in the conclusion of the HMRC tax case, and end up owing the tax man in the region of £50m, does selling your star man to pay off just a fraction of a mammoth debt seem like shrewd business? For me it doesn’t.
To my mind, Rangers currently have 3 top drawer players in their team: Alan McGregor, Steven Davis, and Nikica Jelavic. Now, tax case or no tax case, if Rangers are to survive this difficult spell in their history, this solid core unit of players has to be kept together.
Even for Celtic fans, or fans of any other team in the SPL, the retention of Jelavic should be a concern. The SPL is constantly under fire for being poor in quality, with very few real stars. To lose yet another one to the Premiership or beyond would be a real kick in the teeth. Obviously scoring 30 times in 44 outings for Rangers is going to attract attention, but for the good of Scottish football, and their own future, the Ibrox club must fight valiantly to keep Jelavic.
As much as Celtic fans would love to see their side win the league, given the choice, would they rather beat a strong Rangers side, or a significantly weakened one? The classic Old Firm battles throughout they decades have been when both sides have been at their strongest, with a spattering of world class players dawning both famous jerseys. Although Jelavic perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the Gascoigne’s, De Boer’s or Laudrup’s of the past, he’s the best they have, and as such, is invaluable.
Only time will tell as Scottish football fans look on anxiously, peering through the smoke and mirrors of the Craig Whyte regime to see if he’ll hold on to Jelavic and try to steer Rangers to glory; or cash in on the player in order to make the club’s accounts look a little more robust.
For as long as Celtic and Rangers have held their seemingly relentless stranglehold on Scottish football, fans both north and south of the border have speculated as to how the Glasgow giants would handle themselves against the top clubs in the English Premiership. The Old Firm over the past decade to 15 years or so have regularly met with English opposition in European competition. These battles of Britain have rarely led to the Glasgow clubs taking a real heavy defeat, which does indicate that they can rough it up with the best, but how would the Old Firm do if English opposition was on the fixture list on a weekly basis?
The truth is we can only speculate, as there is little we can do to identify any kind of common denominator to allow a clear, direct comparison.
The first, well documented factor that puts the respective leagues at polar opposites in terms of stature is TV and prize money. Celtic or Rangers can expect a paltry £2.7m for winning the SPL title this year, while the teams who’ll suffer the cruel fate of relegation from England’s elite division can be comforted by a ‘parachute payment’ of £48m over 4 years. The same disparate revenue totals are echoed when it comes to TV money. The Old Firm will pick up a reasonable few million pounds per year for their troubles in the SPL; but some of the top English clubs are raking in up to £4.3m per televised game!
This almost embarrassing difference allows teams who’re far smaller in stature than Celtic or Rangers to make significant inroads in the transfer market. I’m sure all readers would unanimously agree that the Old Firm dwarf clubs like Bolton, Fulham, Aston Villa or Stoke to name but a few – but just look at the money these ‘wee English teams’ can throw at players.
Bolton sign David N’Gog for £4.5m
Fulham sign Bryan Ruiz for £12m
Aston Villa sign Charles N’Zogbia for £10.8m
Stoke City sign Peter Crouch for £11.3m
The Old Firm, and Scottish clubs in general can only dream of these budgets. The truth of this hits home when you see Dundee United, one of Scotland’s biggest clubs, bid a miserly £25,000 for Hamilton’s Dougie Imrie, without the means to increase their bid to capture the player’s signature.
Another prime example is the once legendary Fernando Torres. Chelsea splashed an exorbitant £50m on their misfiring striker; a fee that if levied to Rangers in the ongoing HMRC tax case could be enough to force the club into liquidation (hypothetically speaking of course).
I firmly believe that if given the lavish financial buoyancy aids that come along with the Premiership, the Old Firm would be a force to be reckoned with, but again, it’s just a speculative thought in the seemingly infinite cyberspace cosmos that is the football forums of Twitter, Facebook and social media in general.
So, an alternative means of comparison is necessary. An altogether more simplistic one. The crystal clear comparison created by the monitoring of clubs’ ability to put bums on seats.
In Scotland, England, and across Europe as a whole, for decades upon decades, the clubs with the highest attendance figures tend to celebrate more domestic success than those with smaller crowds. This direct correlation is not relative to circumstance, and does stand up to our cross border comparison.
Celtic and Rangers, despite the shocking state of Scottish football, are still pulling in crowds at a remarkable rate, so much so that the average gates would currently put Celtic and Rangers 3rd and 4th in the English Premier League table in this respect.
However, the statistics also bare out that Celtic and Rangers would see a significant rise in attendance figures if they ever did play in the Premiership. Looking at the SPL as a whole, on average, a whopping 43.6% of seats are empty. This figure is heavily skewed by the smaller clubs in the league; if we judge it purely on matches at Celtic Park and Ibrox, the empty seats figure shrinks to just 14.4%.
The story in the Premiership is somewhat different as you’d expect. Across the board in the EPL, you’ll find just 8.8% of seats are empty. If we assume that by playing in the Premiership, the Old Firm saw a similar level of ticket uptake (conservatively estimating the aforementioned calculated 5.6% increase between the leagues) the approximate average attendance at Celtic Park would jump to 52,232 with fixtures at Ibrox being 48,007. These figures put the Glasgow clubs even further afield of the likes of Manchester City, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Chelsea; but still considerably short of Manchester United and Arsenal at the summit of the Premiership. Surely it’s more than just a coincidence that those clubs with the highest attendance figures are the clubs who, buy in large, are fighting it out for the illustrious crown that is the English Premier League title?
Supposing entry was ever granted to the Premiership, Celtic and Rangers would be given an equal share of the over inflated TV money, putting them on an even financial playing field with the rest of the teams. This would make the Glasgow clubs a much more viable option for the top players in Europe and beyond, as the Old Firm could engage in an evenly matched bidding war with any of the other English Premiership club, with the added draw of the huge crowds, legendary atmosphere, adoring fans, and largely incomparable history.
The international brand identity and marketable commodity that Celtic and Rangers possess perhaps may not be as grand in scale as Manchester United or Liverpool currently; but it dwarfs the bottom 10 clubs in the Premiership, and is at least on a par with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs, and Arsenal in my opinion.
Given the opportunity to compete in what’s billed as ‘the greatest league in the world’ by many, would see the Glasgow clubs (after a few years of bedding in) replicate the attendance table positions in the actual league standings.
The Old Firm have everything that a global footballing giant would need, except the financial galvanising that a league like the Premiership offers. The remarkable history and the passion of the adoring fans who turn out in phenomenal numbers, together with the abundant budgets that come as part of the EPL, would almost certainly see Celtic and Rangers challenge for honours with the very best England has to offer.
Sadly though, it’s not as simple and as straightforward as this. Now, and for the foreseeable future, Sky television hold all the cards in this stagnant game of poker. As the Scottish game continues to dwindle and the English game reaches financial saturation, we can but hope that those who call the shots at the television companies come to realise that the royal flush they’re in search of, lies north of the border in the heart of Glasgow.
Have your say – vote in the poll or comment below.
Hitthebyline introduces our latest contributor, Rangers fan Chris Mason. In his debut article for the site, Chris explores the optimistic notion that Rangers may well be back on the road to success after suffering a purple patch at the tail end of 2011.
Rangers Talisman – Nikica Jelavic
January is typically a depressing month, and this January is no exception, particularly for Rangers fans. After witnessing what seemed like an unassailable lead at the top of the SPL cut back due to an alarming loss of form, then losing top spot to Celtic in the festive Old Firm clash, there feels little to be cheery about. On top of this, there is the re-opening of the transfer window, where Rangers will be faced with the all too familiar daily speculation about the departure of our best players. Then there is the looming dark cloud that is the clubs ongoing tax battle with HMRC.
First let’s take a look the end of 2011. A poor run of results at the end of the year was difficult to take. So many key players seemed to be playing within themselves, in particular, the usually stellar Davis and Jelavic. Defeats to Kilmarnock and St Mirren were embarrassing, with the lack of fight and creativity difficult to understand. Narrow victories over Dunfermline and Caley Thistle at home did little to build confidence and the team went into the Old Firm game as underdogs. The game itself was stifled by the bad weather and although Rangers lost, the defeat was by virtue of the narrowest of margins, and I take comfort in the fact that there really isn’t too much between the two sides at the moment.
A negative start to this article I know, but let’s try and take a positive outlook for 2012. The club could badly do with a bit of optimism. After coming off a run of terrible results including an Old Firm defeat and losing top spot, there was anxiety at how the team would fare when the best of the rest in Motherwell came to visit Ibrox in the first fixture of the New Year. Things weren’t looking good when early in the match Kyle Lafferty pulled up with an injury and was substituted, leaving David Healy as the only striker on the park. However this turned into a blessing in disguise, as the team abandoned punting aimless long balls up field and actually played some impressive pass and move football, sweeping aside a lackluster Motherwell side 3-0 with an excellent team performance.
It was a confidence boosting result and Ally McCoist showed this was no time for messing about as he put out a strong side against Arbroath and the team eased into a 5th round tie at home against Dundee Utd. It was important to get back to winning ways, regardless of the quality of the opposition as too often Rangers have struggled against lesser teams this season. The winning trend continued of course as the Gers scraped past a formidable St Johnstone side at McDairmid Park, with Nikica Jelavic again proving how invaluable he is by netting a brace and ultimately securing the victory.
If the team can continue playing like this there is no reason why they cannot continue on this run of victories and put the pressure back on Celtic. However, consistency is the key to this.
That said, the nature of recent performances has been encouraging, with Lee Wallace and Sasa Papac developing a dangerous combination on the left wing and Allan McGregor proving again and again why he is easily the best keeper in the country. It’s also nice to see lifelong Gers fan David Healy getting a run in the team, a chance he hasn’t really had since joining the club. However, Sone Aluko deserves to be singled out for praise. He is a real creative spark for the team at the moment with Davis currently stuck in a rut. His enthusiasm to take on a man and beat him is refreshing, and he certainly gets the fan off of their seats. He was badly missed during his suspension and after making such a positive impact it is hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve a new two year contract.
The limitations of this positive aura around Rangers could of course be hampered by the club’s dealings in the transfer window. As usual, our prized assets have all been linked with moves away, but it is almost halfway through the month and so far the only concrete bid has been one for Mo Edu. Rightly or wrongly, many people would like to see this player leave the club, but the Rangers fans are united in support of the club’s plight to retain the services of the talisman Jelavic.
Undoubtedly he has the ability to play at a higher level, and deserves his chance to test his skills in a higher quality league, however it’s difficult to see the team winning the league without him. Hopefully the board realise what a negative message it would send out by selling him. The situation bears stark resemblance to the Kenny Miller fiasco this time last year. In that instance, McCoist’s men managed to do without the striker and go on to win the league, but given the threadbare nature of the attacking options available in reserve this time, it’d be a far more daunting task to repeat the process by allowing Jelavic to leave.
It would make more sense to keep him now, give Ally the best shot possible of winning the league, then let him go to Euro 2012 with Croatia and hopefully impress, adding a few million to his price tag before s then looking to sell him. Sadly though, money talks, and a sizeable bid could see the Croat leave for pastures new before the end of the month, with little realistic hope of seeing any transfer fee received for Jelavic being reinvested into the team.
For the same reason, expect to see few arrivals this January, instead younger players like John Fleck and Kyle Hutton will be expected to step up and impress.
These obstacles alone would be trying enough for most modern day football clubs, but when you throw in the current HMRC tax case, the situation becomes all the more perilous.
It’s difficult to discuss this in any real detail, with cowboy blogger’s, continual whispers of administration and innuendo in the media the only real information to go on in the place of cold hard facts. To put it plain and simple, no one really knows what’s happening, how much the club could owe, and what outcome is likely to happen. It is an ongoing case, neither party will discuss the facts and so fans unfortunately are left to feed on scraps and half truths. It’s infuriating for supporters, given how serious a matter it is. I feel that all we can really do is sit back and wait for the judgement in the coming months. This is far from ideal, but there is nothing left to do but stay positive and focus on the team’s performance on the pitch, as has been standard for the past three or four years. This isn’t the “burying your head in the sand” attitude that plenty of Rangers fans have been accused of over this issue, I accept how serious the situation is, but with little real facts to go on what else can fans do other than get behind the team?
So, what to make of all this then? It’s hard to ignore the off field issues, transfer talk and general negativity surrounding the club, but we’ve been here before year after year and every time we have defied expectations and won the league. I’m trying to be as optimistic as possible for the year ahead for Rangers. If we can keep our best players at the club and maintain our recent league form then it will be a close title race. As for the bigger issues, all we can do is continue to support the team and deal with any further issues that may come our way.
Introducing the newest opinion columnist here on Hit The Byline: Ewan McQueen. Have a read below at Ewan’s first piece, as he asks if St Mirren could be a leading light for the SPL.
It cannot be denied that Scottish football is facing a crisis and has been for some time. Fans are drifting away, the quality of players on show and the standard of play in general has considerably decreased in the last few years. Needless to say, once again our national team won’t be at a major finals this summer either.
However, amidst the darkness shines one beaming light. St Mirren football club.
No, you’re not dreaming, you have just read that. This season for me, the usually unfashionable Paisley side have led the way in trying to kick and drag Scottish football into a new way of playing and thinking.
Despite sitting 8th in the Scottish Premier League, I have been thoroughly impressed with how Danny Lennon’s side have gone about their business this season. Come May, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints sitting in the top six of the SPL.
And how will they achieve this? Simple, by sticking to the easy on the eye football that’s been a joy to watch for football fans across the board. The attacking style has clearly found favour with the St Mirren faithful, but has also won plaudits from fans from all corners of Scottish football.
When Danny Lennon was appointed St Mirren manager before the start of last season, many eyebrows were raised as he had only ever managed Cowdenbeath in the lower leagues and many questioned whether he could make the step up to Scotland’s elite division.
That said, he had led the Blue Brazil to successive promotions, and with St Mirren having stagnated somewhat under Gus Macpherson, some saw it as a fresh and bold appointment.
But in his first season (2010/11), Lennon struggled and just as under Macpherson, the Saints once again found themselves in the relegation mire, with only Hamilton saving them from a return to the First Division.
Last season, Lennon won just 8 games. This season in only 22 he has already won 6 and that number is unlucky not to be significantly higher. So what has changed?
To put it simply, last season Lennon didn’t have the quality of players to allow him to play slick, attractive football. Now, having made some shrewd summer signings, Lennon’s original vision of where he wanted to take the Paisley club is starting to become a reality.
Although there have been inevitable disappointments along the way, Lennon has started to dramatically reform St Mirren during 2011/12, and all of Scottish football could learn something from his team.
In every game this season, no matter who they have played or what the conditions have been, thanks to their manager, St Mirren have attempted to play a passing game. Of course, there have been some high-profile errors by doing this. (Such as Craig Samson, the goalkeeper, even trying to play football and letting Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths nick in for a goal)
However, it is has been very pleasing to watch. Along with Kilmarnock and to a certain extent Motherwell, it’s good that teams in Scottish football’s top league attempt to play ‘The Beautiful Game’ the way it was intended to be played.
But for me there are other aspects of St Mirren that make them the so-called leaders of this small ‘revolution’. As I pointed out before, in the summer Lennon made some excellent signings that took me and many other Scottish football observers by surprise.
Lennon blended the mix of youth and experience perfectly. He signed experienced former Scottish internationalists Steven Thompson and Gary Teale, whilst picking up promising youngsters Paul McGowan and Nigel Hasselbaink in other pieces of good business.
What Lennon also did, was get rid of players that clearly weren’t going to fit into his new vision for the club such as club captain John Potter and strikers Craig Dargo and Michael Higdon. Ruthless and brave, yes, but he has been proved right in doing so.
As well as this, Lennon brought through one of the hottest young talents in Scottish football, Kenny McLean. Along with Paul McGowan, McLean has terrorised defences with marvelous trickery and creativity. Both are now said to be on Craig Levein’s Scotland shortlist and in my mind that is well deserved.
Let’s not forget that McLean and McGowan are what you term in Scotland “wee men”. They could be seen as the Xavi and Iniesta of the Buddies, by some at least.
Now before you say the men in white coats should be coming for me, I’m not saying they are as good as the Spanish duo; merely more managers should be giving young players with the ability to out-fox defences rather than just lumping it to a 6ft 4 targetman all the time. Only then in my view, can Scotland start to have a bright future.
Let’s not forget Danny Lennon is a young manager, at the age of just 41. Experience can be so vital in the game, I won’t deny that (Lennon himself made a very good move by appointing 61 year old Tommy Craig as his number 2). But the SPL was beginning to stagnate under the constant revolving door of management opportunities for outdated and exhausted managers like Gus McPherson, Craig Brown and Jim Jefferies to name but a few.
That raw energy of young managers can also help players who take that out onto the pitch. That has happened this season with Lennon, who always promotes a positive message and through the aforementioned McGowan and McLean plus other such as Aaron Mooy and Jim Goodwin (also both his signings), St Mirren are a real threat to any defence in the SPL, as the current Scottish champions have found out the hard way.
It would be criminal not to mention the Saints superb team goal at Ibrox, where despite being 1-0 behind in the last minute, they stuck to their passing principles right from the goalkeeper Samson to the striker Thompson – where the rewards were justly reaped.
Samson started the move and after a couple more passes it was moved out to David Van Zanten on the right wing who crossed for Steven Thompson who swept home against his former club. It’s well worth a watch if you haven’t done so already.
So I say, let’s hear it for St Mirren and their new found philosophy. Long may it continue and I hope it spreads throughout Scotland. In a time of constant re-invention of the Scottish game, the teams in the top flight could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of the Buddies’ book.
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You’d think that there’d be no better judge of striking ability for Celtic to call upon than the Swedish sensation, Henrik Larsson. Larsson’s name will forever echo throughout European football as a great of the game, but did Celtic’s ‘magnificent’ no.7 get it wrong when it comes to the signing of Mohammed Bangura?
On the 30th of August last year, Neil Lennon’s side splashed the cash to the value of £2.2million on AIK’s highly regarded Sierra Leone international, Mohammed Bangura. The Parkhead faithful salivated at the thought of another forward with the guile of Larsson, but 4 months in Bangura has yet to find the back of the net.
Ironically, at the time of his signing, AIK also had another ‘Bangura’ on their books. Teteh Bangura (no relation) plays the same position, is the same age, and the same nationality as Mohammed. However, the similarities end when it comes to on the field matters.
Both Banguras played together at Kallon, and remarkably, Mo was the more prolific of the two, netting a remarkable 39 times in 58 appearances. Mo, after a semi-successful spell at AIK, made the move to Celtic, while Teteh proved to be the Bangura who was ‘banging’ in the goals.
Teteh scored a superb 15 goals in 17 appearances for AIK this season, before making the switch to Turkish top-flight club Bursaspor. Since his switch to the Super Lig, Teteh has managed 3 goals in 9 appearances. This clearly is a dip in conversion, but given that Bursaspor are fighting against relegation, his haul for the season still remains decent.
Mohammed however, looks as though he’s finding it a little tougher to find his form. He’s turned out on 12 fruitless occasions for Celtic (granted that only 1 of these has been a start). Altogether, he’s played 5.5 hours of football for the Glasgow giants, and it would seem as though he’ll not have long left to convince Neil Lennon or the Celtic fans that he’s the man for the job.
Time on the field
4-0 win over Motherwell
4-2 loss against Rangers
2-0 win over Ross County
2-0 win over ICT
1-1 draw against Udinese
2-0 loss against Hearts
3-3 draw against Killie
1-1 draw against Rennes
5-0 win against St Mirren
1-0 win over Hearts
1-1 draw against Udinese
2-0 win over St Johnstone
Total : 330 minutes (5.5 hours)
Points can be made for and against Mo Bangura’s performances. He’s young, and has a history of goalscoring. Perhaps Celtic’s style of play isn’t utilising his ability in the best way? Take the recent form of Giorgios Samaras for example. Six months ago, the Celtic support were almost unanimous in the opinion that the player wasn’t a valuable asset to the club. Now, after a stint as more of a floating left-sided forward, he’s scoring goals and causing problems to top clubs in the Europa League. I also seem to remember John Hartson taking around 8 or so appearances before he got that Parkhead goalscoring monkey off his back.
On the negative side, even the most run of the mill Celtic strikers throughout the ages have managed a decent goal scoring record. Andy Paton, Darren Jackson, Tony Cascarino, Marc-Antoine Fortune, and even the much ridiculed Harald Brattbakk notched up a decent tally – so why is this £2.2million acquisition seemingly incapable of doing the same?
The clock is ticking for Bangura. As a Celtic striker, the pressure is on, by hook or by crook to score goals. Not all strikers get to make a dream start, in such a way that the likes of Jorge Cadete did in his debut against Aberdeen. The approval of such a legend as Henrik Larsson doesn’t come lightly, but with the SPL title looking to go down to the wire, and with Lennon in the market for another striker, Bangura’s time to find his form is of the essence.
As the ever controversial Vladimir Romanov era erupts again with stories of unpaid wages and players going on strike, the Jambos fans could be forgiven for reminiscing over happier times. The club’s last major coo was securing the 2006 Scottish Cup. Hitthebyline takes a look back at that successful Hearts team, and reveals where they are now.
Goalkeeper – Craig Gordon
The biggest success in this Hearts team; and the most expensive Jambo in history, Craig Gordon’s career continued to flourish after the success of 2006.Gordon played 139 times for Hearts, and is the youngest player ever to be named in the club’s Hall of Fame (aged just 24 at the time). The year after the Scottish Cup triumph, Sunderland broke the UK transfer record for a goalkeeper by signing Gordon for £9million. He’s been capped for Scotland 40 times, and played 87 times for Sunderland, despite falling out of favor on occasion. Serious injuries have hampered his career progress (in particular an 8-month layoff as a result of knee surgery) and the player has found himself surplus to requirements with the Black Cats. The arrival of Martin O’Neill at the club may positively impact his fortunes, but as it stands, the player’s contract is due to expire in the summer. Celtic and Arsenal are known to be interested in the player, and at just 28-years of age, Gordon’s best years are clearly still in front of him.
Defender – Robbie Neilson
After 13 years and 200 appearances for the Gorgie club, Neilson set off in search of a new challenge in 2009, ending up at Championship club Leicester City. Neilson was at the mainstay of Sven Goran Eriksson’s promotion challenging side in his first year at the club, making 19 starts that season. However, things too turned sour for Neilson as his first team opportunities were restricted to just a handful in the coming years.In February of this year, he was loaned out to League One club Brentford, where he made 15 appearances, the highlight of which was the Football League Trophy final (where the London club narrowly lost to Carlisle). Neilson was released by Leicester in May, and trained briefly with Falkirk and Burton Albion before making a welcome return to the SPL, joining Peter Houston’s Dundee United. The experienced defender has failed to capture the form at Hearts that endeared him to the fans and saw him capped for Scotland, but at 31-years old the player does have a few years left in him at the top level. Away from the field, Neilson has recently been banned from driving after being clocked at 106mph.
Defender – Steven Pressley (c)
The Scottish Cup victory proved to be the swan song of Pressley, as the infamous spat with Vladimir Romanov came to a head in the months that followed the final.After a phenomenal 271 appearances for Hearts, Pressley made the surprise switch to Celtic, having rejected offers from Championship sides Derby County and Charlton.Pressley was a formidable presence in the Celtic back-four, and went on to captain the side on several occasions.The highlight of his time in Glasgow’s East End was a Scottish Cup win in 2008. This etched Pressley into the history books as the first player to win the Scottish Cup with three different clubs. When his contract expired at Celtic, Pressley trained with several clubs to keep up his level of fitness, before signing a short-term deal with Falkirk. Upon his retirement as a player, he was handed the assistant manager’s job at Brockville, and eventually became the manager. ‘Elvis’ has had his ups and downs as a manager, but now seems to have turned the corner. In his first season he saw Falkirk relegated to the Scottish First Division, but he now has assembled a young team playing attractive football and challenging for promotion. Pressley is now regarded as one of the up and coming Scottish management talents, with many a close eye watching his progress.
Defender – Ibrahim Tall
This big Senegalese defender’s move to Tynecastle was fraught with controversy, as then manager George Burley had the player added to his squad against his wishes by owner Vladimir Romanov. Despite earning a huge £8,000 per week at the time, Tall spent much of his time on the bench or in the stand, appearing just 35 times in 3 years. In the 2005-2006 season he formed a strong central defensive partnership with Steven Pressley. Despite the relative success, the player was released in 2008 and signed for newly promoted Ligue 1 side FC Nantes. Tall was a regular in this side before making the move to Greece in 2010 to play for Larissa (not long after another SPL export, Maciej Zurawski, had parted ways with the Greek outfit.) Tall remains with Larissa to this day and is a regular starter under manager Chris Coleman .
Defender – Takis Fyssas
The capture of Fyssas’ signature was indeed a signal of intent as a resurgent Hearts then aimed to break the stranglehold of the Old Firm in Scottish football. The big Greek defender made a surprise move to Hearts from Benfica in 2005, at a time when clubs in the Bundesliga and English Championship were interested in the player. Fyssas was an integral part of the remarkable Greek triumph at Euro 2004, making his signing all the more impressive. He arguably peaked during his time at Tynecastle, both in terms of the standard of football he was playing at club level, and also that the player earned the majority of his 60 caps for Greece around that period of time. In 2007 he left the Edinburgh club in favour of a move to Greek giants Panathinaikos. After only a handful of games, Fyssas decided to retire and take on a coaching role with the Greek national side. He is currently the technical director of the Greek Football Federation (Hellenic Football Federation) based in Athens.
Midfielder – Deividas Česnauskis
A popular trait of the Romanov early years was to import several players from FBK Kaunas, one of which was Česnauskis. The Lithuanian’s contribution to the successful Scottish Cup campaign was notable, in that he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win over Partick Thistle in the quarter final. Česnauskis appeared 68 times for Hearts in 4 years, but fell out of favour towards the end of his time in the capital.Due to injuries and poor form, the player found himself not featuring for over a year at Hearts, andeventually chose to leave in 2009, signing a two-year deal with Greek minnows Ergotelis. After a year there, he switched to Aris FC (also of Greece). The move again didn’t work out for the player, who’s since made an unusual move to the Azerbaijan Premier league outfit FC Baku. Česnauskis’ Scottish Cup winners medal has proved to be just the second honour of the player’s career, after winning the Russian Premier League with Lokomotiv Moscow in 2004.
Midfielder – Bruno Aguiar
Another Kaunas import, Bruno Aguiar, made his move to Hearts after finding himself bereft of opportunities at Benfica, and failing to secure a permanent move after a couple of loan deals in Portugal. Aguiar played an important part in the 2005/2006 SPL campaign run-in, having only joined the club in January 2006, he strung together several impressive performances, assisting Hearts to narrowly secure 2nd spot in the SPL, displacing Rangers by a single point. At the start of the following season, things soon went wrong for Aguiar. The midfielder was sent off in the Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens, and only weeks later he suffered a horrendous ankle injury that kept him out the game for 18 months. Aguiar was told he may never play again, but still managed to return and champion the Edinburgh club’s cause. The Portugese playmaker returned to action in October of 2008, managed to win the SPL player of the month award for December, and ended up as Hearts’ top scorer for the season with 7 goals. In 2009 his contract expired and he joined Cypriot side AC Omonia, where he’s become a fantastic success to this day. Aguiar has continued to endure injury problems, but played a huge part in helping Omonia to win the Cypriot League and Cup double last season.
Midfielder – Paul Hartley
Industrious midfielder Paul Hartley became a household name during his time at Hearts (2003-2007) after moving from St Johnstone on a free transfer. His tenacious, rugged style of play attracted plaudits from the Old Firm, major clubs in England, and kick-started his international career. The player went on to play 25 times for Scotland, and appeared 118 times for Hearts, scoring 31 times in the process. Although usually a reliable player, Hartley found himself on the receiving end of a red card in the 2006 Scottish Cup final. Possibly his most memorable match for the Jam Tarts was the Scottish Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Hibernian, as the Scotsman scored his first hat-trick as a professional footballer in a 4-0 mauling at Hampden. Another impressive year was spent at Hearts before Celtic took the plunge and purchased the player for £1.1million. Then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was a huge fan of Hartley, usually deploying the player in a defensive ball-winning midfield role. His highlight in Glasgow was helping to guide the club to the SPL championship in the 2007-2008 season, where the Bhoys had to (and subsequently did) win all of their remaining 8 league fixtures, two of which were against Rangers, to clinch the title. In 2009, new Celtic manager Tony Mowbray released Hartley, and the player joined Bristol City for a single season. Hartley scored in his debut and held his own for the Championship club, but cited a desire to return to Scotland as the catalyst to join Aberdeen the following season. At 34-years old, time was against Hartley, but he was nonetheless appointed club captain, and scored a hat-trick of penalty kicks in his debut for the Dons against Hamilton in a 4-0 win. He turned out 24 times for Aberdeen during the 2010-2011 season, but decided to retire from playing after suffering a medial knee ligament injury. Hartley is currently the manager of Scottish 3rd Division side Alloa Athletic. He’s guided the team to the top of the league after 17 games, having lost just twice, and has registered himself as a player (despite as yet never picking himself, and previously saying he’d retired), so the fans of the Wasps met yet see Hartley pull on the boots in their fight for promotion into the 2nd Division.
Attacking Midfielder –Rudi Skacel
Cultured Czech international Rudi Skacel is the only player of the 2006 starting XI who currently still plays his football at Tynecastle. The Scottish Cup final win was to be Skacel’s last game for Hearts before joining up with former Hearts manager George Burley at Southampton, after his stellar form attracted a £1.6million bid from the Championship club. Skacel found himself being deployed mostly as a left-back to fill the void filled by the departure of Gareth Bale to Spurs. He appeared 81 times in 3 seasons for Southampton before three somewhat fruitless transfers to the continent. The first of which was a loan deal, taking him to Hertha Berlin. Here the talented attacker played 16 times but didn’t convince the Germans to splash the cash and bring him in on a permanent basis. Southampton found themselves relegated, and to save cash, Skacel was one of many players who was released. Next up was a move to his former club Slavia Prague, but Skacel made just 5 appearances before being released, and picked up by Greek side Larissa. This deal too didn’t work out for the Czech as his chances were limited to just 7 appearances before Hearts made the bold move to resign the player for an undisclosed fee in 2010. A return debut made in heaven was to ensue, as he scored against Rangers. Since then, he’s been a regular in the Hearts team and recaptured the form that attracted a wide range of attention in the first place. The long term future of Skacel looks extremely unclear, as Hearts financial problems continue to mount up, and the player’s contract is due to expire in the coming weeks – it may well be the case that Rudi Skacel’s time at Hearts is about to come to an end.
Striker – Roman Bednar
The tall figure of Roman Bednar was a revelation during his time at Tynecastle,finding a knack of scoring in big games regularly. Bednar netted on his debut against Kilmarnock, scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Rangers, and netted a brace against Celtic at Tynecastle in a 2-1 for the Gorgie club (to name but a few scalps of his). The Czech international played another season at Hearts after the Scottish Cup win, before being snapped up initially on loan, then on a permanent basis by Championship promotion hopefuls West Bromwich Albion. The striker spent 3 seasons at West Brom, one of which in the Premiership, making over 100 appearances, and finding the back of the net 34 times. Bednar fell out of favour at the Hawthorns last season, and made a short-term loan move to fellow Championship side Leicester City. Following this, a £1.2 million offer from Bristol City was accepted for the tall forward, but he failed to agree personal terms and joined Turkish side Ankaragucu for the remainder of the season. Surprisingly, despite not being a regular starter, he’s agreed a contract extension at West Brom until the end of the current season. At just 28, there’s much hope yet for Bednar to make as big an impact on the game in England as he did in Scotland.
Striker – Edgaras Jankauskas
This well travelled striker didn’t stay in the one place for too often at all. His time at Hearts was a two-season long loan from FBK Kaunas, but this doesn’t begin to tell the story of his wealth of experience. Jankauskas turned out for no less than 16 different clubs in his professional career, including CSKA Moscow, Porto, Benfica, Nice and Real Sociedad. His experience and guile helped to no end during the 2005-2006 season, as the player, alongside the powerful Bednar, steamrollered through defenses regularly. His time in Scotland proved to be the last, significant length of time the player seemed settled at any club. At 6ft 4, his stature made him an ideal target man, but he only managed 9 goals in two years at the Gorgie club. The Scottish Cup winners medal belonging to Jankauskas will be dwarfed in terms of importance next to the Champions League winners medal he obtained during his time at Porto in 2004, and the Uefa Cup winners medal he won in 2003. His success with Porto to this day makes Jankuskas the only Lithuanian ever to have won the Champions League. His international career too was remarkable, representing his country regularly over a career spanning 17 years. After departing Hearts in 2007, he played half a season for Greek side AEK Larnaca. This was followed by more short term moves to Belenenses of Portugal, Skonto Riga of Latvia, Vilnius of his native Lithuania, New England Revolution of the USA, and finally FC Fakel Voronezh of Russia before retiring. It could be said that Hearts parted company at the correct time, as the striker managed on average less than 10 appearances per club, and less than 3 goals per club after leaving the SPL. Jankauskas now holds the rather unusual role of Assistant Manager/Translator for Lokomotiv Moscow, who finished 6th last year in the Russian Premier League.
At a time for Celtic when Neil Lennon was new to the dugout, a replacement for the recently departed maverick goalkeeper Artur Boruc was top of the agenda. After several trials and tribulations with transfer negotiations, Lennon opted for a short term solution in Newcastle’s highly rated youngster, Fraser Forster, on a one-year loan deal.
Forster came with a glowing reputation. At 6ft 7, and having just won Norwich’s Players’ Player of the year award under the guidance of former Parkhead favourite Paul Lambert, Lennon had every reason to believe he’d completed a shrewd deal by securing the 23-year-old’s services.
However, despite statistically being a success in Glasgow, and managing to secure a second season at the club on loan, the keeper has never really lived up to the billing he was given upon his arrival at Celtic. Forster regularly showed lapses in concentration, committed calamitous errors, lacked conviction, lacked confidence and generally looked clumsy. That said, in his last three matches, the goalkeeper looks like the model professional goalkeeper Celtic have generally been bereft of throughout the years, so is Fraser Forster finally coming of age?
Lennon put his faith in the recommendations of ex-professionals he knows only too well, namely the aforementioned Paul Lambert of Norwich, and then Newcastle coach Alan Thompson, who also raved about Forster’s potential. On paper he’s been great, with 20 clean sheets in 40 appearances at Norwich, and at Celtic he managed 24 from 44, but now it would appear he’s finally puffing his chest out and believing in his ability.
For the first time, against Hearts at Celtic Park recently, I saw a Fraser Forster with conviction. In what could be a season-defining moment for the Bhoys, the giant keeper pulled off a miraculous save from the spot in the dying embers of the SPL encounter, preserving a crucial three-points for the home side.
This proved to be a spring-board for Forster heading into the next match. Next up, Serie A high-flyers Udinese. Many tipped the Glasgow club to take a hiding on the continent, as before the match, Scottish sides had won just 1 of the last 32 competitive fixtures on Italian soil. True enough, Celtic failed to win the match, but left Udine with their heads held high after recording a respectable 1-1 draw. Forster was in his element, unleashing breathtaking saves that Dino Zoff would have been proud of. Throughout the match, save after save was produced; Forster looked unbeatable. Had it not been for a poor defensive decision on the part of Cha Du Ri, he would have been. A matter of weeks earlier, the Spanish media referred to Forster as being ‘as graceful as a hippopotamus’ in Celtic’s home defeat to Athletico Madrid, but after his showing in the Stadio Friuli, the big ‘keeper correctly received plaudits across the board.
With his confidence surely at an all-time high, the Geordie approached Celtic’s next SPL match at McDairmid Park with an air of inevitability about the clean sheet that was to ensue. The 2-0 Celtic win won’t go down as a classic by any means, but on closer inspection, Forster perhaps is due more credit than originally given. Holding shots he’d previously have palmed, catching crosses he’d previously have punched or flapped at, and generally commanding his area in a way that exuded confidence for the defenders to gorge themselves on and feed off of.
In the goldfish bowl that is Scottish football, every move you make is scrutinised beyond belief. Every mistake is exaggerated and covered in-depth by the controversy-hungry sporting media; while every good performance spawns ‘red-top’ newspaper hype that is exponentially proportional to the credit that is truly deserved. Therefore, Forster’s recent exertions could well be blown out of proportion, in the same way that any errors in recent month have conversely been, but one thing is clear, the youngster is playing the best football of his Celtic career at the moment.
Broadly speaking, goalkeepers do of course peak later in life than outfield players. The true greats of recent times, Peter Schmeichel, Oliver Kahn, Gigi Buffon, David Seaman, and in Scottish football, Andy Goram and Jim Leighton, were all playing at their very best between the ages of 31-38. Forster has a fair way to go at just 23-years of age, but it’s now clear what Paul Lambert and Alan Thompson seen from the young man on the training ground each day.
If Forster can maintain this level of form, it would go a long way to seeing the SPL trophy making its way to Celtic Park in May. Although the issue that’ll no doubt be creeping into Neil Lennon’s mind is what’ll become of Forster in the summer. If the goalkeeper plays well for the rest of the season, Premiership clubs, including his own Newcastle United will take interest. It’s unlikely that Celtic would have the option of a third season-long loan, so Lennon may have to decide if Fraser Forster’s recent coming of age merits a plunder of a few million pounds to secure his services on a permanent basis. Forster himself has expressed a desire in making the switch a long-term one, but given the stringent financial limitations imposed on Scottish football at the moment, the complexity of the transfer could be increased despite Celtic’s need to galvanise the team with a steady goalkeeper in the squad for years to come. Time will tell if Fraser Forster is the man for the job.
As Rangers new signing Sone Aluko looks to kick-start his Rangers career after a despicable diving incident, the Nigerian international appears to have shot himself in the foot again. The forward was banned for three matches following a clear dive to win Rangers a penalty (and ultimately the match) against Dunfermline; and was handed an opportunity to the media today to come clean and condemn his deception of the game’s officials.
Instead of doing so, Aluko has brushed off the incident, and likened diving to other foul play or stoppages of play in the game (namely, offside decisions, handball incidents).
He said: “Everyone has had an opinion. There were seven-page spreads and every ex-pro had this and that to say.
“It was three weeks ago, let’s get on with it. It’s football, it happens.”
The correct thing to do would have been for Aluko to stop here. He’s committed a footballing felony, he’s served his punishment, and should now be free to press on with making a name for himself at the Ibrox club.
However, Aluko continued on, defiantly absolving himself from any wrong-doing.
Aluko said: “People have handballs, people are accused of diving. Those are football incidents and people like to talk, that’s what’s beautiful about the game.”
“Every player would be a cheat. If you get caught offside, that’s cheating, it’s not in the laws of the game. If you handball it that’s cheating. Who’s not a cheat in football?”
“I’m just going to carry on playing the way I do and everyone else will talk.”
“I’ll keep playing in the same way. I’m not going to change because there is a new panel or whatever.”
Perhaps the increased media spotlight that comes with the move from Aberdeen to Rangers, coupled with the player’s inexperience could be to blame for these ludicrous comments, but either way, the club must issue a statement to counter Aluko’s opinions.
Diving is in no way like being caught offside or touching the ball with your hand. If a player dives, they are trying to deceive the match officials to gain an advantage in the match. The case of the Rangers player is worse yet, as the simulation in question was the deciding factor in an SPL victory for the Glasgow club, providing three valuable points in a title race that is expected to go to the wire. Does the average Old Firm fan or SPL neutral want to see the championship be decided in such a way? – Clearly not. In a time of proposed reform for the Scottish game, when every aspect of it is under the microscope for scrutiny, this kind of attitude to diving is not acceptable. On a global level, diving (or ‘simulation’ to give it it’s euphemistic FIFA title) is regarded as one of the biggest problems in the modern game.
Rangers, as with Celtic in the SPL, are huge clubs who’re leveled with the expectation to win with style, not by virtue of diving. Scottish football fans don’t want to pay to go and watch over-paid players diving to earn success in an unwholesome manner.
The baton of responsibility is now passed to the Rangers officials, and the manager Ally McCoist to quash this moment of madness from Aluko. The time is now for the club, and the SPL as a unit to take a firm and unequivocal stance on diving in the game.