Brian Viner: Scots discover competitive spirit with the Old Firm under new management

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The Independent Football

A momentous convulsion is taking place in British football, a seismic disturbance akin to an earthquake, with the fault line roughly following the course of Hadrian's Wall. This convulsion may well end in the Scottish Premier League becoming more interesting than the English Premiership. It is already on the verge of doing so, and in the admittedly unlikely double whammy of Roy Keane going to play for Celtic and Sir Alex Ferguson going to manage Rangers, football's tectonic plates will truly have shifted.

There have been hints of this before. I have been reading a marvellous book by Harry Reid, a former editor of The Herald in Glasgow. It is called The Final Whistle? Scottish Football: The Best and Worst of Times, and it is marvellous for reasons other than that your columnist - described as "a perceptive commentator" with absolutely no evidence that the author had been at the Glenfiddich - is quoted at some length on England's dim regard for Scottish football.

For years, that dim regard has sprung from an innate sense of superiority: the belief, now reduced to a whimsical flight of fancy, that in England we have a genuinely competitive top-tier of football, and that in Scotland the Old Firm duopoly has made league football a joke. But this situation has not always been carved in stone: Aberdeen under Ferguson, and Dundee United under Jim McLean, for a while threatened the hegemony of Rangers and Celtic, while Graeme Souness as manager of Rangers briefly inverted the traditional southbound journey of fine Scottish footballers, bringing fine English players north. In the end, however, tradition was always restored.

This season, though, the SPL has been full of surprises. It practically contravenes the laws of nature for either Rangers or Celtic to be outside the top three as the snow falls on Sauchiehall Street, but that is the reality. I watched the film Touching The Void on telly the other night, and it occurs to me now that with Rangers lying a distant fourth in the division, their fans are like the chap sprawled powerless on a shelf of rock hundreds of feet from the summit. But maybe that's because I've been at the Glenfiddich.

Whatever, I can't remember a time when I've been so interested in footballing events beyond Gretna Green, from Gordon Strachan's wobbly start at Celtic, to the frankly bewildering turn of events at Heart of Midlothian.

And now there is the painful spectacle of Alex McLeish, a decent man, ekeing out his time on football's equivalent of Death Row.

The notion that he might seek solace from his old Aberdeen mucker Strachan makes it even more horribly compelling.

In truth, McLeish and Strachan are no longer the close buddies they once were, but they exchange Christmas cards and have a healthy mutual respect, which of course is more, much more, than can be said for the respective sets of fans. It would be nice if the more bigoted followers of Rangers and Celtic had watched the warm embrace between the two managers before the Old Firm derby, and realised that their own fierce enmity has nothing to do with football and no place in it.

Mind you, even south of the border it was ever thus. Ron Atkinson once told me that, while dithering over whether to sign Bryan Robson for Manchester United, he phoned the former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly for advice. Shankly told him to spend whatever it took to get Robson, and died not long afterwards. So one of Shankly's last acts as a football man was to help lay the foundation stone for a new era of Manchester United dominance. They should be made aware of that in the Kop and the Stretford End, as they howl their abuse at Mancs and Scousers.

To return to Ibrox, Rangers fans looking for warmth during this period of icy cold in more senses than one, can at least wrap themselves over the coming days in a Ready Brek-style nostalgic glow. A few weeks ago I wrote about Moscow Dynamo's four-match tour of Britain in 1945, which culminated in a match against Rangers on 28 November, 60 years ago on Monday. Dynamo had drawn against Chelsea, beaten Cardiff City and Arsenal, and arrived in Scotland determined not to lose their unbeaten record. So determined were they, in fact, that they threatened to withdraw from the fixture if Rangers selected a tricky outside-right called James Caskie, who was in the process of being signed from Everton. After a whole day of acrimonious negotiations, Rangers finally agreed not to play Caskie, but on the afternoon of the match a huge banner was held up at Ibrox: "Who's Afraid of Wee Jimmy Caskie?"

That story was told to me this week by Glasgow's former MEP, the redoubtable Janey Buchan, who was in the 90,000-strong crowd despite being a newly wed of just a few days. She remembered graffiti on the walls outside Ibrox, saying "Good old Rangers, Hammer and Sicken Them!", and the euphoria after the mighty Russians had been held to a 2-2 draw.

What Rangers fans would give for such euphoria now.

Who I like this week...

Apologies for being predictable, but I cannot see further than the late George Best as this week's object of affection. Unlike several esteemed colleagues, I never knew him or even watched him play. However, a brief encounter with him at Heathrow Airport a decade or so ago exemplified much of what was both good and sad about him. I was with some mates, on our way to Belfast for a golfing jaunt in County Down, and there he was, sitting on a bar stool in the departure lounge. We went over to say hello, and he was a delight; expressing what seemed like genuine interest in where we were going, and even how we had all met. When someone asked if he'd have his photograph taken with us, he looked almost flattered, as if it had never happened before. That's the good. And the sad? He posed for our cameras holding a glass of white wine. It was a 7.40am flight.

And who I don't

The Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric, a friend of George Best's from North American Soccer League days, visited his bedside at Cromwell Hospital on Thursday and afterwards told reporters tearfully that George had always been there for him, and he would always be there for George. Such loyalty is heartwarming. Would that Mandaric could show more of it to those he employs. Only hours earlier he had sacked the Portsmouth manager, Alain Perrin, having trumpeted him on his arrival as a coach of rare skill. Pompey's faithful fans, too, could do with a little more steadfastness from the chairman. True, his money helped steer the club into the Premiership, but his hand is too heavy on the tiller, and there are rocks approaching fast.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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