Money talks; Highland spring
In this week's North of the Border, Celtic resist an approach for Gary Hooper, Danny Wilson is back in the SPL and Terry Butcher continues to make waves at Inverness.
As the transfer window gets a little steamy, Celtic are finding exactly how much hitting power they have in their new position as Champions League last-16ers and the only show in town for the Scottish title. They turned down a £5 million bid from Norwich City for their No. 1 striker, Gary Hooper, and then rejected a further bid on Tuesday, but it's hard to see those responses as anything other than an opening gambit. Celtic can afford to play tough: they are in a rich profit stream this season, they have depth up front and they have Hooper under contract for another 18 months. Hooper hit his 20th goal of the season with a double in a 4-1 cruise against Hearts, he has four from nine starts in Europe and it is certain he will play in the English Premier League at some stage. Celtic's task is simple: extend his contract or sell him before its expiry date deflates the player's value. It is an art in which they have excelled recently.
The champions sold Ki Sung-Yeung to Swansea City last summer, almost tripling the £2.1 million fee for which they signed him in 2009. They spent only slightly more on Hooper in 2010 and he has scored over a goal every other game since then, while improving his support play. He is a far more important player for Celtic than Ki was, but at 24 and in his contractual situation, the time may be right to sell, if not now then in the summer, after the conclusion of a Champions League campaign that might be the greatest lure to the player to stick around.
Celtic appear to have a strong hand here. They can win the SPL with the forwards they have in reserve. They are outsiders to progress over Juventus in the Champions League. If Norwich, or another English top-flight club, table a bid of £8 million, Celtic will be asked to measure their ambition in sterling.
At the other end of the scale, Celtic wrapped up a £400,000 deal for the Australia midfielder Tom Rogic this week. The 20-year-old has all the hallmarks of the modern Celtic signing and may be a different type of player to those already available to Neil Lennon: his background is in futsal and Celtic have acquired him early in his development, with the potential for excellent returns on the pitch as well as in the balance books. Celtic are winning in both fields at the moment.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE LIKELY LAD?
One of the Hearts defenders Gary Hooper and his team-mates toyed with last Saturday was the first to arrive at Hearts since the club came out from under a transfer embargo - the result of late payments to their players. Continued restrictions mean they can register players on a one-in, one-out basis, with new signings paid no more than those leaving the club.
Danny Wilson was last in the SPL during a 25-game Rangers career that ended with his transfer to Liverpool, who have since loaned him out to Blackpool, Bristol City and now Hearts. Wilson was a tantalising prospect then, a mobile and intelligent defender, albeit in a winning team. His progress has been stunted since, although his earning power increased, at least for the duration of his Liverpool contract.
That expires at the end of his half-season loan at Hearts and Wilson's performances for the Edinburgh club and his next destination, aged 21, will stand as a signpost to other young Scots who can be so easily poached by clubs in England.
Perhaps the most depressing example of such a transfer was completed this week, when Ryan Fraser, the breakthrough act of this SPL season, left Aberdeen in a £400,000 move to Bournemouth.
Aberdeen should not avoid criticism for their failure to get ahead of the curve on Fraser's contract. Yet the reality of the financial advantage Bournemouth now hold over a club who were slugging it out for the big prizes when their current captain, Russell Anderson, began training with them in the 90s is one from which you want to avert your eyes.
Not all such advances are successful, however. Last weekend was the first game for Terry Butcher since he turned down the chance to manage Barnsley and increase his take-home in favour of continuing the best season Inverness Caledonian Thistle have ever known.
They beat Aberdeen 3-0 in the Highlands and have taken seven points from the three meetings between the teams this season. More of a landmark is the League Cup semi-final they play this weekend against Hearts, for which they are marginal favourites, even if they deserve a stronger position in the betting markets. This is as big as it has ever been for Inverness and Butcher stayed put partly because he felt compelled to find out where this season might end up.
The answer to that question may lie in their ability to shake off other predators in what is left of the transfer window. Billy McKay scored twice last weekend and is the top scorer in the SPL; Andrew Shinnie got the other and is out of contract at the end of the season. Shinnie is a true No. 10 and one of the most creative players in the league.
A win over Hearts could give Inverness not just a shot at their first major Cup final, but a reason to keep their best players for a run at second place that seemed ludicrous at the start of the season.