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Wednesday, March 21, 2012
A sobering weekend

Neil White

This week's North of the Border tells of a heartbreaking tale that occurred at the Scottish League Cup final.


Kilmarnock won the League Cup by beating Celtic 1-0 at Hampden on Sunday. This is a pretty big deal. Since 2000, a club other than Celtic and Rangers have lifted one of the big three trophies only four times. None of them did it opposing an Old Firm team in the final. Kilmarnock and their supporters immediately had their achievement put into stark perspective, as were the unreal worries of all football fans. Moments after seeing his son win the cup final, the father of Liam Kelly, the Kilmarnock midfielder, collapsed from a heart attack. Jack Kelly, 59, died in hospital shortly afterwards. After a week in which mortality invaded the superhero realm of football, this was an intense tragedy, heartbreaking especially for fathers and sons whose relationship has this game as its anchor.


The match that would have made Mr Kelly so very proud was remarkable; Celtic's superiority was expected and illustrated by the man-of-the-match performance required by Cammy Bell, the Kilmarnock goalkeeper, to keep them at bay. It was, however, also one of the days when the finishers in this young Celtic team were not at their best. At the root of Kilmarnock's ability to get to the line was the possession game that has been their calling card since Mixu Paatelainen took over in 2010. His assistant then, Kenny Shiels, now runs the show and has maintained an admirable continuity of style considering that the element that gave Paatelainen's pretty passers penetration - the brilliant loan acquisition of Alexei Eremenko - is no longer a factor. The current manager's son, Dean, fills that No.10 slot now, and is having a sharp season himself. At Hampden, however, it was the team's organisation in maintaining possession for as long as possible that denied Celtic the time to build up those irresistible waves of pressure that usually break the resistance in games like these.


The major moment of the final came courtesy of substitute Dieter Von Tornhout, a journeyman striker last spotted in Cyprus after 73 minutes. It was Tornhout's birthday and, after 11 minutes in which he had contributed very little, he headed a gift-wrapped cross from Lee Johnson past Fraser Forster to ensure that he will never go thirsty in Kilmarnock. Without this bludgeoning header from close range, Von Tornhout would have joined a long list of signings made by this and other SPL clubs in modern times that achieve longevity only in meandering pub-based conversations. 'Remember Dieter Von Tornhout?' one supporter would ask another. 'No. No, I don't', his pal would reply. Instead, this Belgian bit-part player could well be elected to high office in local government, should he so wish. However, it is more likely that he will show up in the Portuguese second division next season.


The second snapshot of the final came in injury time. Anthony Stokes was ahead of Michael Nelson, the Kilmarnock defender, and facing Bell, inside the box. Nelson slid into a tackle, Stokes went down and Willie Collum, the referee, booked the Celtic striker for diving. Lennon called the decision 'criminal' and Stokes claimed that Nelson had confessed his own bewilderment at not being penalised. In the television studio, Scotland manager Craig Levein raised a point in the official's defence: Not one of the four angles covered by cameras revealed definitive contact by Nelson. The defender's movement and Stokes' success in keeping the ball well away from him put together a solid case for a penalty, but that analysis told us that, at the very least, there was more room for debate than there appeared at first glance.


The crisis at Rangers continues, both on and off the pitch; the Scottish champions lost again last weekend, 2-1 at Dundee United and their descent into administration has precipitated an atrocious run of form. Despite an injury and suspension epidemic that took out an entire back four and the continued absence through injury of their two best forwards, they fielded seven internationals in their starting line-up and, in a league where almost everybody else operates on budgets that can't be compared to those at the big two, Rangers now look unusually vulnerable. After their 10-point deduction, they are now level on points with Motherwell and are only second on goal difference. Where it really counts there was more bluff and counter bluff as the club's administrators, Duff and Phelps, ignored their own deadline by continuing to accept "indicative and conditional offers" after their own deadline of last Friday. The fourth arrived at the start of the week and a fifth is expected; both latecomers are believed to have their origins overseas, although that hardly accounts for their tardiness in this age of communication technology. The key line here from D&P, was that prospective purchasers were "looking for clarity on certain issues". These are the mortgaging of future season ticket sales to Ticketus, a creditor who is also part of one consortium's bid for Rangers; the ongoing tax case that could see Rangers saddled with a bill for over 40m; and the intention of Craig Whyte, still the majority shareholder and as easy to predict as a Scottish League Cup final.


Hibernian have now failed to win any of the last 10 Edinburgh derbies, after Hearts beat them 2-0 at Tynecastle. The Hearts players had only just learned that their wages would be delayed the fourth time this season. The man of the match and the scorer of the first goal was Craig Beattie. The former Scotland forward has been a transformative January signing by Hearts, but in a season when the governing bodies have faced more curveballs than baseball star Albert Pujols, the SPL may at some stage be asked to comment on the validity of a club who can't regularly pay their players bringing in a signing that was beyond the financial reach of all but two of their competitors. Hearts this week blamed the latest wage delay on "fringe players" who had failed to agree terms to mutually terminate the inflated contracts that the club had granted them when they joined the previously bloated squad of the capital club. This attempt to stick the bill for gross mismanagement on the players who accepted the best contract on offer, instead of some kind of mea culpa for year-on-year ownership of the league's highest wages-turnover ratio, may just have raised the bar for one-eyed bombast by Hearts' financier owners, who are in danger of giving bankers a bad name.

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