False Nine editor, Andrew Belt, surveys the Premier League scene north of the border as embodied by the division’s most eagerly-anticipated fixture and is left dismayed by the state of Scottish football as compared to a decade ago…
The Scottish Premier League was notably absent from the roster of football fixtures last weekend.
Two weeks off are afforded in recognition of some sort of winter break in the SPL schedule but not before Hearts had hosted Hibernian live on Sky Sports last week.
With Rangers’s unceremonious expulsion from Scotland’s top division, there remain three derbies worthy of note in the SPL.
In a first for Scottish football (and there have been a lot this season!), there was a Premier League Highlands derby between the newly-promoted Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
This season has also seen the return of the Dundee derby, although the hastily shoved-in newcomers don’t look like hanging around long as United continue to reign in the city.
But, taking the mantle of the biggest game in the SPL in lieu of Celtic v Rangers, are the two clubs from Edinburgh; Hearts and Hibernian.
And a date live on TV, with so much debate about the national game ongoing, seemed like a good time to become reacquainted with the division.
Hearts had dominated the fixture last season, winning both league games, and had finished the season in fifth, earning them a place in the Europa League. Hibernian, on the other hand, were saved by a poor showing from Dunfermline Athletic as they edged away from the single relegation place in the standings; the Hibees’s worst finish since winning promotion back to the top-tier at the first time of asking in 1998-99.
To rub salt in the wound, a first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for 116 years was easily won by Hearts as they capped off a miserable year for their closest rivals.
In a continuing theme for the 2012-13 football season in Scotland, the state of affairs has been turned upside down and Hibernian are currently sitting prettier in the top division’s changed landscape.
The Hibees fourth in the table, amongst the congested queue of clubs behind runaway leaders, Celtic, as Pat Fenlon’s first full season in charge has gone well so far.
In contrast, Hearts are struggling in ninth and face a battle to make the top 6 when the division gets split into two, yet, a deficit of only six points separates the two Edinburgh clubs.
Off the field, too, more problems are apparent in the west of Edinburgh as Hearts battle closure with Russian-Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov, seemingly exhausted of all funds to plough into the club.
After failing to pay a tax bill last November, Hearts were issued with a winding-up order and Romanov called upon fans to come together to help the club’s finances and keep them alive.
But, as Portsmouth’s gradual disintegration has shown, shutting down a football club with a large fan base is easier said than done and the Jam Tarts motor on.
A division’s most anticipated game is usually a good marker of the levels that can be reached in a given league and it’s hard to pick a game with more spice and meaning than Hearts v Hibs in the SPL.
A near capacity crowd of 17,062 packed into Tynecastle and produced a rowdy atmosphere as the two sides did battle for Edinburgh. They had drawn 1-1 in August at Easter Road so the prize of striking the first blow of the season was still up for grabs.
All the ingredients of a fine derby spectacle were in place – a packed stadium full of noisy fans, strong challenges and 100% commitment from both sets of sides. The only thing missing was any real quality on the pitch and so, sadly, all watching were treated to a dour goalless draw.
Gone are the days when the likes of Mixu Paatelainen, fresh-faced newcomers to the scene, Garry O’ Connor and Derek Riordan, were contesting the fixture up against a combative Hearts side featuring Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon at the turn of the Millennium.
Around that time, stars like Henrik Larsson, John Hartson, Ronald de Boer, Mikel Arteta, Gennaro Gattuso and Shota Arveladze were bringing colour and prestige to the league.
A decade ago, swathes of fresh talent north of the border were coveted by Premier League teams; Barry Ferguson, James McFadden and O’Connor to name but a few. Now, one of the division’s best prospects, Jamie Murphy, will leave Motherwell for third-tier English football club Sheffield United.
Going back to last week’s game, Hibernian were boasting the joint top goalscorer in the division – Leigh Griffiths. His is not a name that gets pulses racing though he is only young and 14 goals from 20 appearances so far is a commendable return.
Most frustrating for the Easter Park club is that Griffiths isn’t even their player. The 22-year-old is on loan, initially until January, from Wolverhampton Wanderers and the new man at Molineux, Dean Saunders, was recently quoted as saying that he doesn’t know if he’ll be part of his plans.
Obviously, Hibernian hope Wolves will let Griffiths return for longer but it’s a worrying sign for the Scottish Premier League that a Championship club low on confidence and struggling for goals won’t want to hold on to the competition’s joint most-prolific striker.
Other interesting players were on show in the derby, maybe none more so than Tom Taiwo, who failed to make much of an impression in the middle of midfield for Hibs. A promising young player at Leeds United, he was sold the dream of playing at Chelsea and promptly left Elland Road at 16 along with now Doncaster Rovers player, Michael Woods, in a highly controversial deal that incited the wrath of Leeds chairman, Ken Bates, and cost the London outfit £5 million in compensation.
Seeking the bright lights of football at the top level, Taiwo’s story became one of disillusionment as he suffered rejections from Port Vale and Seattle Sounders from the MLS before leaving West London, without having ever played a game, for League One, Carlisle United.
He seemed to have found his level at Carlisle and enjoyed his most consistent spell whilst there before seeking pastures new last summer. And so he was captured by Hibernian. By virtue of the nationality of his paternal grandfather, he qualifies for Nigeria but whether the Super Eagles will ever exercise their right to include him in future squads is debatable.
Taiwo’s is a sad story and seeing him at Hibernian was surprising given how far he had fallen off the radar. His Wikipedia photo showing him in a Carlisle shirt features a man yawning in a sparsely-filled stadium – far removed from the thousands of crammed fans at Stamford Bridge – and his story a useful parable for any aspiring footballer who seeks the quick riches of going to a top Premier League club without having featured for their home town club. Taiwo, himself, has since expressed his regret at leaving Leeds.
On Hearts’s side was John Sutton whose older brother is former Norwich City and Celtic striker, Chris, and has taken in spells at Raith Rovers, St Mirren, Wycombe Wanderers, Motherwell and Central Coast Mariners after being released by Tottenham Hotspur as a youngster before ending up at Tynecastle.
Another of Hearts’s stars on show was Ryan Stevenson who failed to make it in England with Chelsea and Ipswich Town.
The more you look into the make-up of the footballers on show the easier it is to understand why the quality of football was lacking. Unfortunately, for the many devoted fan bases across the country, the pinnacle of their domestic product has been heavily diminished over the past decade.
With Rangers’s recent admission that they would consider leaving Scottish football if the proposed 12-12-18 set-up of the leagues go through finding sympathy from some of the game’s influential commentators, the country’s sport is in a terrible state.
This slump extends to the national game. Not since Craig Brown took Scotland to Euro 96 and World Cup 98 have the Tartan Army qualified for a major tournament. More damning was Alex McLeish’s decision to leave the post of national boss for the then middling Premier League club, Birmingham City, at the back end of 2007.
George Burley survived in the job for two years before being sacked and Craig Levein’s recent performances in World Cup 2014 qualifying made his position untenable. He left last November and, despite assurances that a new manager would be appointed soon after, the hotseat remains empty with so few managers of sufficient quality available, though the well-spoken Gordon Strachan appears to be the outstanding candidate out of all the potential suitors.
Maybe the one benefit the SPL is experiencing is a more competitive group of teams with a greater possibility of making it into Europe’s premier knockout tournaments while Rangers slum it with minnows such as Berwick Rangers and Annan Athletic.
However, despite Celtic’s success in this season’s Champions League, it’s unlikely Scottish football will make headway in Europe with the quality of football as it is. Twice in the past decade has Scottish football been represented in the final of the Uefa Cup, but those days are a world away now.
The Edinburgh derby demonstrated the great support Scottish football receives all over the country but, unless affiliated with one of their member clubs, it’s getting harder to see why football fans would bother keeping tabs on a competition that’s fast losing credibility.
The SPL used to contain some of the best footballers in the British Isles and that seems unthinkable now which is a great shame.
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