Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Seven SPL clubs entered the Scottish Communities League Cup in this week's second round, all facing lower-league opponents. After a staggering series of upsets, only three of them progressed into the third round, where they will be joined by the top division's European representatives.
In a week that saw Celtic paired with Barcelona in the Champions League draw, this was a reminder of the eternal hope of the plucky underdog. Celtic found out all about that in this competition last season, when they lost the in final to Kilmarnock.
The holders were among the casualties last week. They lost 2-1 at home to Stenhousemuir, a part-time team from the Second Division.
Kilmarnock had five first-teamers out injured but made only one change from the team that had beaten Dundee United in the SPL the previous weekend. If any club knows of the rare chance for trophies this competition provides it is Kilmarnock, yet they lost a match for which they were short-priced favourites.
The SPL's newest members also lost their first match against lower-league opposition. Derek Adams, the shrewd Ross County manager, learned a thing or two about his back-up players. Adams used the League Cup to give starts to those players who had begun the season on the outskirts of his first team. His rationale was that they would be motivated by the opportunity to steal a shirt off one of the players rested by the manager. Instead they proved that Adams' judgment in selecting his best XI is bang on. County lost 4-1 at home to Raith Rovers of the First Division, a competition County dominated last season, losing only once.
This season they remain unbeaten in the SPL, yet without that hardy core of starters they gave up more goals in one game than they have in all five of their league fixtures combined. Adams got tough afterwards: "The players that came in missed a huge opportunity. They slide further down the pecking order."
Dundee took Rangers' place in the top division during the summer and they lost to a team in the bottom tier of Scottish football. The key here was a red card for Dundee's Neil McGregor midway through the first half and a converted penalty from the same foul. That levelled the score after Dundee had started well, but the colossal gap in resources could not make up for the loss of a player after that and the SPL team lost 2-1.
Finally, Hibernian, too, will sit the rest of this one out. They made very few changes to their starting XI but lost 2-0 away to Queen of the South, who have made a flying start in the Second Division after their relegation last season. The key change though was the one to rest James McPake, the centre-back and captain who wears his underpants outside his shorts for Hibs. The defender has transformed the personality of Hibs this season. Before his arrival on loan last season - he became a Hibs player for good in the summer - they were frequently bullied out of games and hardly ever came back after conceding. That happened again when he was absent in the League Cup tie.
For Hibs, it was the kind of result that would precipitate a crisis and draw a bull's-eye on the back of the incumbent manager. However, it came during their most promising league form since before the appointment of Colin Calderwood, one-and-a-half managers ago. Pat Fenlon's team ensured it was all but forgotten about by drawing at Celtic Park the following Saturday to remain level on points with the champions and one behind Motherwell. McPake was in the team for that one.
Finally, a mention for another upset. Rangers, of the Third Division, were 3-0 winners over Falkirk, two leagues up. As the SPL sides fall, the new club from Glasgow are emerging as quite a threat in this tournament.
TEMPLETON OF DOOM
Deadline day was pretty quiet in Scotland, but in the end, regardless of the gulf between them, the Old Firm dominated.
Celtic bulked up with a ruthless quiet. Having sold Ki Sung-Yueng, their Korean midfielder, to Swansea for upwards of £6 million earlier in the transfer window, they brought in two forwards - Lassad Nouioui and Miku, both from La Liga, where one played for Deportivo, the other Getafe - and Efe Ambrose, a 23-year-old defender who was playing in Israel with Ashdod.
The champions now have the capability to field different teams in the SPL before and after Champions League fixtures and still have the strength to defend their title at home.
A more salacious story unfolded in the final hours of the window at Ibrox, where the Hearts players Ryan McGowan and David Templeton arrived under the cloak of darkness. When it was all over, McGowan had decided to remain in the SPL and Templeton had become a Rangers player.
This was a move that sparked a debate more fierce than that surrounding the transfer of any of the other players who have chosen a big contract in the Third Division over top-level competition. Unlike Ian Black, Dean Shiels or Fran Sandaza, Templeton is a young, Scottish player who had the potential to break into the Scotland team and win a move to a big club in England in the very near future.
The winger received a lot of flak for his decision, but he will also receive a lot of money and a lot of love from the crowds that cheer him on at Ibrox and around the lower leagues as Rangers plough their way back to the SPL. However, he will be 26 by the time they get there, unless, as is widely suspected, some kind of league reconstruction creates a short-cut for Rangers.
Wherever you stand on the rights and wrongs of Templeton's move, there is something a little obscene about one of Scotland's most gifted young players scoring against Liverpool at Anfield last Thursday, and then scoring twice against Elgin City, in league play, three days later.