North of the Border

Big Ben the hero; Hooper stays

February 6, 2013
By Neil White
(Archive)

In this week's North of the Border finds some cup success for Hibs and St Mirren, while Celtic's resolve is firm over Gary Hooper.

SUPER SAVER

Ben Williams
PA PhotosBen Williams started his career as a Manchester United trainee.

The last-16 of the Scottish Cup played out over the weekend and Hibernian made it to the quarter-finals mostly because of Ben Williams. The goalkeeper, signed in the summer, has been a big player for them all season.

He is much loved at Easter Road partly because he is the first in a generation to get the better of a curse on the No. 1 shirt that saw some memorable gaffes from a series of goalkeepers. However, he has also got serious chops, especially when looking at a penalty taker, and he went and saved another with his team 1-0 up against Aberdeen. That is four saves from six penalties this season; another went over the bar. Hibs defenders are starting to see a foul inside the box as the percentage play in dangerous situations.

In this game, Williams did much more, making five fine saves as Aberdeen pushed hard to get back into the tie.

He's 30 and after a traineeship at Manchester United that saw him loaned out three times, he served time in the lower leagues in England. That's a CV that matches with the markets in which most SPL clubs look for English players now, but is perhaps particularly profitable as far as goalkeepers concerned. These are the guys who tend to improve most with experience and play deeper into their 30s at their peak. This season Williams has perhaps been worth as many points to his team as Leigh Griffiths, their ace forward.

STREET FIGHTERS

Hibs will go to Kilmarnock for their quarter-final next month. There is also a rematch between Celtic and St Mirren after the in-form Paisley side defeated the league champions in the semi-final of the League Cup in January.

The pick of the ties is a Dundee derby after the clubs at either end of Tannadice Street came through difficult games with landmark wins. Dundee United were 3-0 winners at home to Rangers, with Johnny Russell scoring twice. United knocked back a bid of £400,000 for the forward at the end of the window and if he takes care of their neighbours in similar fashion, that will look like a valuable decision.

Dundee are bottom of the SPL and Morton are top of the First Division. Dundee constructed a First Division team for the SPL during the summer, while Morton have built an experienced squad for a promotion drive. All things considered, Dundee's 5-1 win at Dens Park may be the result of the round and could resuscitate their season.

The other quarter-final will provide us with the only First Division semi-finalist and whoever wins between Hamilton Academical and Falkirk will have their end-of-season financial report transformed by a trip to Hampden in the final four. If that sounds unromantic, it needn't be: there is plenty of time to get misty-eyed before either Hamilton or Falkirk walk out with a place in the final of the Scottish Cup to play for. It just means they will be doing so while banking a cheque that should keep them competitive in the second tier next season.

NOT FOR SALE

Gary Hooper
PA PhotosGary Hooper, Celtic's leading goalscorer this season, is likely to be rested ahead of the Juve clash

The closing days of the transfer window were a crashing bore in Scotland. The best fun was watching the ping-pong match between Norwich City and Celtic: the English club sending ever-increasing offers for Gary Hooper over the net, the SPL champions batting them back with mounting disdain.

In the end Celtic's play reads very strongly. They have their striker for a Champions League double-header with Juventus that could bring them greater riches than were on the table from the Canaries. Then they have a half-season to convince Hooper to extend a contract that runs out in summer 2014. If they fail in that, they will still have plenty of bidders in the close season and will probably be able to raise at least the same kind of fee Norwich were waving around.

Scott Robertson, the central midfielder who left Dundee United in the summer, terminated a two-year deal at Blackpool and joined Hibs. Last week it was a low-key signing, but Robertson, now 27, remains a player whose best may still be to come. He was dogged by injuries at United and, if he is fit, could add an attack from central midfield which has been missing from Hibs this season - notwithstanding Gary Deegan's fierce winner against Aberdeen this week.

The January signing generating the most heat is still Esmael Goncalves, who started out by scoring as St Mirren beat Celtic at Hampden. He hit another two in their Scottish Cup win over St Johnstone and now has four in three games. There is more to St Mirren's dramatic turnaround in form than the on-loan Portuguese, but Celtic will be hoping the heater he is on burns itself out before they meet again.