Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Loove and let die, Dons upset again
The Old Firm derby, Aberdeen's poor cup form and the Arbroath success story feature in this week's North of the Border.
HEED THE BEAR
Despite all their off-field problems, Rangers won the first Old Firm derby of the season 4-2 at Ibrox. The SPL champions had not scored more than three goals in any of their ten games prior to the derby and so it was not surprising that Celtic's defence was battered relentlessly even after the final whistle had sounded.
Some of the weightiest knocks came from Roy Aitken, their former captain. Aitken, currently coaching in Dubai, crashed into Neil Lennon's centre-backs with all the gusto with which he used to eviscerate opposition attackers. "Celtic could not defend crosses and they paid the price," the man they used to (and perhaps still do in some quarters) call The Bear said.
Aitken linked this failing - all four Rangers goals came from balls into the box from wide positions - to the number of changes Celtic have made in central defence. They have had a high turnover of centre backs, but the reason for that is that none of the players they have put in there have been much good.
Since Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell played together for Celtic and Scotland during Gordon Strachan's management, Celtic have failed to find a single centre back worth sticking by. Kelvin Wilson and Glen Loovens were culpable at Ibrox, while Daniel Majstorovic, Charlie Mulgrew, Victor Wanyama, Darren O'Dea, Thomas Rogne and Jos Hooiveld are among those to have tried and failed to earn the trust of Hoops boss Lennon.
For most of the time in the SPL, that's a fault Celtic can mask with the talent they have in attack but for European competition and these Old Firm matches - so influential in the championship race - it takes something a little more sturdy.
TWITTER YE NOT
Not in action at Ibrox was Kris Commons, the Celtic and Scotland midfielder who has featured only intermittently this season.
His manager, Neil Lennon, told us he was not fit to play before the game, but Commons used Twitter to tell us that he was "fit and available for selection". He went on to say it was up to him to regain his place and praised Lennon, before announcing his retirement from the social network site amid a volley of abuse.
Compared to the mis-tweets of other sportsmen and women, this was, as Lennon rightly judged in a press conference on Tuesday, no big deal. However, this is the Old Firm, where the slightest transgression is placed under a magnifying glass, beneath a burning sun.
Some teams are described as cup specialists, but few can match Aberdeen in terms of the consistency with which they produce results that defy the odds in knockout competitions. The SPL team, the last to break the Old Firm's grip on the championship and winners of two European titles in the 1980s, have now been defeated by lower league opponents six times in six seasons.
On Tuesday night at Pittodrie, they lost to East Fife, the part-timers lying bottom of the Second Division. The manner of their defeat exemplified the vulnerability of this team. After losing the first goal, they recovered to lead 2-1, a position from which they should have made the gaps in quality and fitness tell. Instead, they conceded twice and needed an injury-time penalty to force extra-time.
Now, with their part-time opponents cramping and clinging on, the home team failed to score in the additional 30 minutes and it came down to penalties.
A shootout is a test of mentality as much as technique. Aberdeen failed to score from 12 yards on three occasions, twice when the ball was in the hands of strikers - Rory Fallon and Josh Magennis. In all three cases, the kicks were saved by Mark Ridgers, reminding us of the other side to the story. East Fife, on current form the worst team in the third tier of Scottish football, produced a performance their players and supporters will remember forever.
RED LICHT ZONE
Championship wins, eh? You wait 133 years for one, then two come along at once.
Arbroath is a town on the North-East coast of Scotland. It is famous for its smokies: delicious smoke-cured haddock that carry its name across the world. Its football team is famous for achieving the biggest victory in world football, a 36-0 win over Bon Accord in the 1885 Scottish Cup. On the other hand, until last season they had never won a single senior trophy.
Last year was Paul Sheerin's first as player-manager and the former Inverness, St Johnstone and Aberdeen midfielder stopped that barren streak in its fossilised tracks, leading the 'Red Lichties' (named after the light that guided fishing boats to harbour from the North Sea) to the Third Division title.
This season, they top the Second Division (they are even better than East Fife) despite starting out as 16-1 outsiders for the championship.
Arbroath, like all of the clubs in the third tier, are a part-time team and Sheerin delivers flowers on the side. If he pulls this off, he'll be the one receiving roses, from clubs further up the food chain. Maybe even Aberdeen.
In a country where the only media-visible football crowd disorder relates to the sectarian issues around the Old Firm, the police force of Fife played a blinder with a plain-clothes sting that led to the arrest of a 20-year-old man for a racially-motivated breach of the peace at the Dunfermline v Hibernian match last weekend.
The operation showed that, here at least, incidents of racism are not being ignored. A spokesman for Fife police spoke of the deterrent value of the operation but, providing the case is prosecuted successfully, it also shows how simple it can be - with a handful of strategically-placed under-cover police - to punish racism and other hate crimes at football matches, wherever