Sutton contrite over outburst as Celtic rue week of woe

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The Independent Football

Post-match television interviews in the tunnel are never a good thing. Physically drained, emotionally strained, players and managers can easily fall victim to an outburst they regret. Chris Sutton joined Kevin Keegan's ranks yesterday, but right now the Celtic striker would love it, just love it, if he had kept his mouth shut.

Sutton apologised yesterday for his outburst on BBC television barely seconds after watching his and Celtic's season disintegrate at Rugby Park on Sunday. To lose the Uefa Cup final in extra time was numbing, but to lose the title by a mere goal was simply too much to bear.

The former Blackburn Rovers striker accused Dunfermline of "lying down" to Rangers in the 6-1 defeat at Ibrox that rendered Celtic's 4-0 win at Kilmarnock useless. After 38 games, a long season had seen the Scottish Premier League crunched down to the smallest fraction on goal difference.

Sutton faces a charge of bringing the game into disrepute, according to the Scottish Football Association, which pledged yesterday to deliver a verdict during the summer break on his comments. The Celtic forward apologised yesterday through his agent, John Viola, who said: "Chris regrets any offence his remarks have caused. They were said in the heat of the moment after an extraordinary week."

Few could disagree with that summation. The idea that Celtic would finish the season empty-handed when they had raised themselves twice inside four days to unknown peaks would be laughable, were it not down in black and white.

Martin O'Neill's team reached Celtic's first European final in 33 years and contributed to one of the most dramatic in ages when Porto snatched the trophy with a winner five minutes from the end of extra time in Seville. "Failure" to retain their title boiled down to the late goal conceded in stoppage time 10 days ago in the victory over Dundee, or, more pointedly, the 'goal' from Bobo Baldé in the 1-1 draw on their previous trip to Rugby Park that was overruled, although television replays showed that the ball had clearly crossed the line.

Never has the margin between success and failure been so painfully thin. Yet, given that Celtic have enhanced their reputation in Europe this season, it rightly follows that Rangers must be accorded some genuine respect for the way they clawed back power.

Alex McLeish moulded a side in his own spirit. When he arrived in December 2001 to take over from Dick Advocaat, a number of Rangers fans questioned the move. Yet McLeish has turned a spineless group of players who finished 21 and 15 points behind Celtic in the last two campaigns into one which displayed all the fighting characteristics he showed as a player under Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen.

Rangers had not lost a single league game until they went down at Motherwell on Boxing Day. Ibrox was a fortress until Celtic stormed it on 27 April to keep the Old Firm title duel alive. Though O'Neill's side closed the gap completely, in points and goal difference, Rangers regained their composure and came through their final three games unbeaten.

Mickey Mouse league? That is what the cynics down south suggest. Except that the Premiership is also a two-horse race, and while the cluster of clubs below them possess the millions of pounds to offer a sporadic threat, they still cannot get the keys to the magic kingdom that are held exlusively by Manchester United and Arsenal.

It is said that Hearts are the measure of the poverty of the SPL. The Edinburgh club finished third, 34 points behind the Old Firm. Yet they inflicted defeat upon Celtic just four weeks ago, something Blackburn and Liverpool could not do in four games in the Uefa Cup. All three clubs will be in the same competition next season. And if the SPL is weak at the bottom, then how have Motherwell managed to beat both Rangers and Celtic?

Celtic and Rangers may dominate a very small pond, but that should not detract from their own quality. O'Neill's team not only saw off the Premiership's Uefa entrants, they jettisoned Spain's fourth-best, Celta Vigo, and Stuttgart, who have just finished runners-up in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich. Not unnaturally, both sides are now looking towards the Champions' League next season.

Rangers, after years of transfer largesse, have had to temper their spending recently. McLeish's only acquisition last summer was the £6m paid to Barcelona for the midfielder Mikel Arteta, whose stoppage-time penalty against Dunfermline on Sunday was all that separated the Old Firm. "We need four or five players to strengthen the squad," said captain Barry Ferguson, "and hopefully the manager will get a few million pounds to spend so we can make an impact on the Champions' League."

Across at Celtic, Paul Lambert was equally optimistic. "I'm sure the manager will bring in one or two big players to build on the season we've had in Europe and I'm sure the board will back him. We'll be back."