Fletcher's return, pistols vs pea-shooters
THE YES MAN
Just when Craig Levein thought he had got out of the Steven Fletcher debate, he was dragged back in. Fletcher was asked a question on the social networking site: Would you pull on your Scotland jersey next month if Craig Levein asked you?
He responded with a single word that became a story: Fletcher says yes to Scotland.
The back story, briefly. In 2010, Fletcher was critical of Levein's selection and tactics against Czech Republic, a game Scotland lost after having started without a striker in a move that Levein has since admitted he regrets. Fletcher was not named in the next squad, for a match against Faroe Islands. When he was included in the following group, he sent a text message to an administrator of the national team: "Tell him I don't want to play."
Since then, Levein repeatedly insisted that Fletcher had to reverse his decision and inform the Scotland team that he was available for selection. At the start of the current World Cup qualifiers, the national coach was unequivocal - no more questions about Fletcher, he would not be selecting him under any circumstances.
The incendiary tweet was followed by a story from Fletcher's agent, laying bare apparent back-channel discussions on reconciliation between these two hard-headed lumps. The Scottish FA had, last September, suggested a meeting. A date was set, but there was no follow-up contact to confirm a time or place. The implication was that Levein had turned down the meeting.
Levein was so firm in his position in May that it is very difficult for him to change his mind now. His reasons for trying to excise the Fletcher issue from preparations for the qualification campaign were understandable - he wanted to strengthen the players he knew he would have available to him in the months ahead.
However, we now know that the best striker available wants to play for Scotland. Regardless of who said what, when and to whom, that means that every time Scotland stumble, every time Levein's side appears punchless up front, the national coach will have to evade questions about the £12 million striker he does not want to hear about.
Motherwell top the SPL after another win, this time at Dundee. Michael Higdon scored two, giving him six for the season and five in two games to top the league's rank. He is one of 11 first-team squad members whose contract will expire in the summer.
It would be staggering if Motherwell retain any of them, such was the excellence of the recruitment job they did in putting together the team that finished third last season and has started so strongly this time around.
Darren Randolph was signed at the end of his contract at Charlton Athletic. The goalkeeper had become a regular starter there and the English club were entitled to compensation for a domestic transfer. Motherwell exploited a loophole to get him for free and since then he has become one of the most reliable 'keepers in the division and earned his first full cap for Republic of Ireland this season.
Tom Hateley was released by Reading but has developed into a versatile player with one of the best dead-ball deliveries in the SPL. Chris Humphrey and Higdon are having their best seasons for Motherwell as their contracts near expiry while Jamie Murphy, at 23, can now be considered a sure thing in the SPL after 160 appearances and has the pace, skill and range of finishing to attract clubs in a better league.
In all cases, these players' current worth far exceeds that when they played their first game for Motherwell. With no transfer fee due, that value will be represented in contract negotiations that will almost certainly exclude their current club. Already their manager, Stuart McCall, is talking about the importance of retaining them until the end of the season, instead of accepting a vastly reduced fee in January.
It looks like this season will be the last for this Motherwell team. It could still have a very happy ending.
Even when they were both in the top division, it was rare for both Old Firm clubs to fail to win on the same day. Now that Celtic are left as the only SPL superpower, with a budget dwarfing all opponents, and Rangers enjoy a mind-bending financial advantage over their part-time rivals in the Third Division, it shouldn't happen at all. Yet that was the case last Saturday, as Celtic lost at St Johnstone and Rangers drew their third successive away match in the bottom tier of Scottish football.
Celtic lost a top-versus-bottom fixture after an international break after they had taken an early lead through Kris Commons. They lost to two fine goals - from Gregory Tade and Rowan Vine - but the result left two big questions: when will they solve an apparent chronic softness in central defence and how much can they afford to focus on the Champions League?
Despite starting slowly, Celtic are 1/10 favourites for the title and there is a good reason for that. They have more valuable players and greater depth than any other team, by a mile. If they do not hit the front before Christmas, it will be a great embarrassment to the club, but they will remain ultra-short priced favourites to defend the championship until one of the other teams can put together the kind of dominant run that would separate them as singular contenders.
As for the centre of the Celtic defence, it's hard to see how that problem area won't lead to them focusing on the league before the knockout stage of either European tournament. For some time the starting centre-back pairing has been the most difficult to select for the Celtic manager and, in the Champions League, a defence that was stretched by Messrs Tade and Vine will be asked to cope with Benfica's Oscar Cardozo and some guy called Messi.
At Rangers, the end result of the championship is even less ambiguous. As strange as it is to see Ally McCoist's fallen giants in fourth position, below Queen's Park, Peterhead and Elgin City, it is all part of what is being framed as a grand adventure through the divisions. They could switch off every other week on this grand tour of Scotland and their performances in front of Champions League-sized crowds at Ibrox would still get the job done.
Francisco Sandaza, the Rangers striker, said that Third Division matches were more like war than football. For both of Glasgow's old rivals, these stumbles are skirmishes in a greater campaign for which they are armed with pistols against pea-shooters.