Motherwell make their move, Falkirk surge
In this week's North of the Border, Motherwell lead the chase on leaders Celtic as Falkirk continue their rise.
As Celtic accelerate away from the pack during their Champions League downtime, that pack below them is taking some shape at last. With one round of fixtures left in 2012, Motherwell and Inverness Caledonian Thistle are five points clear of the rest in the chase for a likely second-place finish.
The progress at Motherwell has been rock steady, illustrating a squad and a club that has been the most consistent of the supporting cast in Scotland in recent years. Under a rotation of managers and losing key players summer after summer, they have been dug in around the European spots in the top six.
This season they have tracked the pace setters, Hibernian, Aberdeen and now Inverness, before moving onto the shoulder of the leaders at the turn of the year, never looking like the red-hot team in the league, but always ticking over nicely. They have a very small first-team core, but they seem to be coated in tungsten, such is their durability.
However, this group is disintegrating in other ways. Almost an entire team is out of contract in the summer and their form at Motherwell will probably take all of them beyond the reach of their current employers. An even greater fear is that they will be picked off for peanuts in January.
After the latest big result for Motherwell - a 4-1 win over Aberdeen on Boxing Day - Stuart McCall, their manager, said he expects to lose one of his starters in the winter window - but only one. With so many out of contract, even he may not know the identity of that player at this stage. More likely, it has been agreed that the team can achieve its objective with the loss of one of the group and the sale - even with just months remaining on their contract - will improve the bottom line at the end of the season.
On current form, Jamie Murphy, the versatile forward player with eight goals in his last 12 games, would be the biggest loss, but also one that would recoup a good fee. Darren Randolph, second only to Fraser Forster as the league's outstanding goalkeeper, would take more points with him if he left Scotland during January.
In the First Division, Falkirk's winning streak is far more interesting than the mid-table posting it has taken them to. They had won twice in the league before November 24, but since then have stacked up five consecutive victories - four of them in the league.
Falkirk won their last one - a 1-0 victory in a festive derby at the home of their rivals Dunfermline Athletic - with seven academy graduates in the starting team and more on the bench. The one who scored the last-minute winner, Blair Alston, was the veteran of the gang at 20.
This is the only way Falkirk will operate and it is a financial necessity, as much as hiring out their stadium for pop concerts. After more than one dalliance with financial ruin, Falkirk are committed to playing their own and to playing them in a certain way.
A couple of years ago, they were in the same boat as the team they beat on the December 26. Dunfermline, relegated from the SPL last summer, were playing for the first time since their players were sent home from training by Jim Jefferies, their manager, after the club missed a deadline for salaries that were already delayed.
Dunfermline remain in bad shape and it is still less than clear how wounded they are from an ongoing slugfest with the tax authorities. Falkirk were similarly burdened after their own relegation, although they managed to plug the holes in the budget before the ship was sinking. Both clubs are witness to the unhealthy fiscal cliff from which the SPL looks down on the three leagues below it. Few are equipped to take the plunge, but if they survive the fall, they tend to come out of it wiser.
Queen of the South have done things differently. They dropped from the First Division to the Second after last season and decided to remain a full-time team. That gave them an advantage over their rivals, but also placed a lot of their chips on the single number '1' at the top of the table and the guaranteed promotion that comes with it.
They are currently nine points ahead of their valiant challengers, Alloa Athletic, themselves promoted from the bottom tier last summer. That gap would be wider had Alloa not snapped the last unbeaten record in British football earlier this month. Queen of the South are 18 points in front of the rest of them. A sizeable gamble looks like paying off. At the very least, the odds are in their favour.
The Dumfries club can take some inspiration from the pluck with which Alloa have hung onto their tails. The momentum of last season's Third Division champions has carried on this season and if Queens can maintain such a dominant winning habit, why not believe it can last into next season?
What happens after that may be shaped by the ongoing debate around league structures and the very future of the current system.