At last, the Old Firm make the right sort of headlines
Celtic's defeat at Inverness was the latest twist in a title race which draws attention back to the pitch and away from troubles off it
Friday 06 May 2011
At least it will come back to football. A season that has exhibited the rawest excesses of the Scottish game will be decided in the final straight, with Rangers and Celtic separated by just one point with three games to go. After their draw at Ibrox on Easter Sunday, Celtic looked to have pulled clear in the Scottish Premier League title race. Their dramatic 3-2 defeat at Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Wednesday though, gave Rangers the advantage, and revives the chance for Walter Smith to end his managerial career with a 10th Scottish title.
It is a certain relief that there is a good story at the end of such a contentious year. There was the referees' strike in November over a perceived lack of respect – the SPL programme only went ahead with foreign officials in charge. Then much has been made of the stormy nature of this season's games; especially Celtic's 1-0 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay win in early March, when three Rangers players were sent off and the Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, had to be separated from Smith's assistant Ally McCoist on the touchline at the final whistle. Some of the condemnation, though, has been misdirected; with the Old Firm, a degree of unpleasantness and contention is rather the point. The spat between Lennon and McCoist made for interesting theatre but it was nothing unique: there was a similar incident between Manchester City's Roberto Mancini and the Everton manager David Moyes in England last season, with little follow-up.
But while the conduct of the players and coaches has not been worse than before, that of some supporters certainly has been. In January Lennon and two Northern Irish Celtic players, Niall McGinn and Pat McCourt, were sent bullets in the post. Last month, Lennon and two figures associated with Celtic were sent parcel bombs. This was a horrible new low.
The shaming of Rangers continued last week when Uefa banned their supporters from their next European away game due to the continuing sectarian singing. There is also a suspended ban hanging over Ibrox should the songs continue.
With three games left, then, Scottish football fans have the novelty of a championship should they want distracting from the associated froth and noise. Rangers, one point ahead of Celtic, are marginal favourites, and have a slightly easier run-in. They host Hearts tomorrow lunchtime, before welcoming Dundee United to Ibrox on Tuesday night. On the final day, a week on Sunday, they travel to Kilmarnock. Celtic also travel to Rugby Park, and do so on Sunday. They then play Hearts, although unlike Rangers they have to go to Tynecastle. Celtic finish with a game at Motherwell whom, six days later, they meet in the Scottish Cup final in what may give them a shot at a Double.
While Rangers are now favourites, Celtic will surely pounce on any further stumble. Some of their football this year has been exceptional, and they have done much for the quality of the division. The SPL has been slowly haemorrhaging its better footballers for some time: Kenny Miller, Nacho Novo, Scott McDonald, Charlie Adam, Kris Boyd and Alan Hutton have all left in the last few years.
This season, though, Celtic have imported a set of impressive new players. Emilio Izaguirre, the Honduran left-back, has been the brightest. Beram Kayal, signed from Maccabi Haifa, has been a tidy addition to Lennon's midfield. Gary Hooper, bought from Scunthorpe, has scored enough to force his way into the England Under-21 set-up.
Celtic's footballing regeneration under Lennon brings hope for future seasons, and, perhaps, a better run in Europe than they managed this season. Rangers' main summer import, Nikica Jelavic, has not been quite as prolific as Hooper but has gifts and the Croatian striker did score the winner in the Scottish League Cup final against Celtic.
Although Rangers need to embark on a refreshing of the squad similar to the one Lennon has given Celtic this season, they are on the brink of a renewal off the pitch. McCoist is set to take over as manager from Smith in the summer after a long apprenticeship as assistant. Financially, the takeover of the club by Craig Whyte is a fingertip away from the line. Smith may or may not leave with his 10th title, but there should be a sporting finish and a brighter future after such an ugly season.
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