Thursday, December 18, 2014

Between Ashley and the deep blue sea

A work colleague of mine happens to be a Rangers fan.  Now, it's a given that all Rangers fans answer any awkward question about the club with a loud shout of "We are the people!", but he's one of an increasingly large bunch of them who say it with an ironic grin.  He told me the other day how his oldest son, brought up as a Teddy Bear, has told him that he'd rather support Caley Thistle, as it was more enjoyable.  What an age we live in!

My colleague bought some shares in the club when they had that IPO a couple of winters back, the one that raised much of the money that has been subsequently pissed up against a wall.  His motivation for this was not profit (though that was his motivation when, several years previously, he actually bought Celtic shares!).  Part of it was loyalty.  Part of it was the opportunity to pitch up at the annual AGM.

He's taken a day off work to travel down from Inverness to Glasgow for this year's event, scheduled for Monday.  He did the same last year and had a whale of a time.  He's been looking forward to this one for weeks.  The entertainment on offer beats any Christmas pantomime.

And a pantomime it is...except, of course, for the lack of a hero.  There are, however, plenty of villains to go round, as I detailed in my rather successful 'A to Z guide to Newco Rangers' from a few weeks ago.  Auditioning for the role of Abanazar, whether they like it or not, are the current board, particularly the Easdale brothers, and Mike Ashley.

With most of the more dubious board members of the past two years having left the stage, James and Sandy Easdale seem, in the minds of the fans, to be the public face of the club's ownership...though, of course, the major shareholders are offshore hedge funds and companies who we know little or nothing about.  They are certainly the ones who stick their necks above the parapet most often.  And they put their money where their mouths are - Sandy provided an interest-free loan to help get the club through the summer.  Unfortunately, their reputation precedes them; Sandy was convicted of VAT fraud in 1997, and let's just point out again that, if you put "Easdales Rangers" into Google, one of the search engine's suggestions is 'gangsters'.

Whilst they've helped provide a life support machine for Rangers, the Easdales do not have sufficient cash to keep it going until the club has finally stopped haemorrhaging money; they need £8million of external funds to keep them going till the end of 2015, according to their recent accounts.  This is where Ashley, Sports Direct mogul and owner of Newcastle United comes in.  The regime at Ibrox previously gave Sports Direct a ridiculously favourable merchandizing contract which remains a nice little earner.  If he wants to continue milking that particular cash cow, he needs to prop the club up.

And so far, the evidence is that he is willing to do so - he increased his shareholding in October, and provided a recent loan to get Rangers through to the New Year in one piece.  A billionaire, he has more than enough cash to rescue them.  But the fans, who have so long hoped for a rich sugar daddy to come in and lavish his untold wealth on the playing squad (a la David Murray), know that this isn't Ashley's game.  That's because, at Newcastle, he's proven himself to be in it for the money.  If I was to guess, I'd say that, under Ashley, the Rangers team would be just strong enough to finish a distant second to Celtic in the league.  If that got 30,000 punters through the Ibrox turnstiles, and kept the shirt sales ticking over, that'd probably leave him with a nice wee profit.

But it probably wouldn't result in 'Zadok The Priest' being played over the tannoys in the near future.

But it's not a given that Ashley will take control; for a start, the SFA are already unhappy with his influence, which goes far beyond his 9% shareholding.  Their rules state that no-one can have significant influence over the running of two clubs.  Therefore, whilst he rules the roost at Newcastle, he can't do the same in Govan.  But one imagines that, if Ashley wants his way, a team of high-priced lawyers may be able to beat our governing body into submission.  And, if Rangers claim that Ashley is the only man who can prevent administration, would the SFA really put their foot down and potentially contribute to their collapse?

Add in the supporters' overwhelming hatred of him, though, and the cost of turning this shambles into a functioning business, and he may yet walk away.  Then what?  Who will save Rangers then?  The only other man wealthy enough to save the day, Dave King, has plenty of issues of his own, though his previous convictions in South Africa for tax evasion don't seem to upset Rangers fans particularly much.  It's worth noticing that, for all his bluster, King has never actually bothered to buy any shares - a simple, straightforward and, at the moment, cheap (18p each!) way to gain some influence.

So Rangers are, in effect, caught between Ashley and the deep blue sea.  Either he has his way, or there's probably no way back from the abyss.

So next week's AGM will be a hell of a show.  And that's without even mentioning, the warm-up act, a certain Mr McCoist, who will be worth the admission fee alone.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Under Pressure - dum dum dum da da dum dum...
Four-nil to Partick Thistle!  

It was a scoreline that no one saw coming, a result that saw ICT lose their unbeaten record at home and bust many a coupon up and down the country.  Some punters were so agitated by the result that they took to phoning up Caley Thistle to scream abuse at their staff!

Partick Thistle just seem to have the edge over Inverness.  The result on Saturday made it an "aggregate" score of 7 - 1 in favour of the Glasgow Jaggies after two meetings this season.  In both matches Partick have been nothing short of magnificent.  Why don't they play like this against anyone else?

Partick stop ICT playing by pressuring them, and they do it far better than any other side in the league.  The style of football John Hughes likes to play is well known but ICT have been so good at passing the ball about, and doing it quickly, that not many sides have gotten near them.  Partick however were not just pressuring them when they had the ball but they were on top of them almost before they received the pass.

At goal kicks Dean Brill likes to play it short to a centre-back or knock it wide to a full-back. Thistle knew this and kept no fewer than six men inside the ICT half to stifle them.  The second goal for Thistle typified this - ICT conceded possession high up the pitch thanks to the harassment, leading to Ryan Stevenson's second of the day.  ICT seldom had a chance to release the ball from defence and start an attacking move with their opponents swarming all over them. 

It is almost impossible to maintain a high tempo pressing game as Partick did on Saturday, certainly not for 90 minutes anyway. But if sides can force errors from ICT and capitalise on them to score early to build a respectable lead before half time then Caley Thistle will struggle to recover. AS

Dundee United are not title challengers
There were some crazy folk out there who said last week that Dundee United might be good enough to challenge Celtic for the league.  These people probably also believe Elvis is still alive and wear tin-foil hats to prevent the government reading their thoughts.

United have been scintillating at their best, but had lost four league games even before they crashed to Aberdeen at Tannadice.  In fairness, they were put on the back foot early on by Radoslaw Ciernziak's early blunder (if I had dropped that shot during five-a-sides, I'd have been slaughtered), but they managed only a single shot on target.  Hardly the efforts of title challengers.

But, when you look at the teamsheet, there's remarkably little to choose between the sides.  Aberdeen, certainly, are as worthy of labelling as 'dark horses'.  That is, they're not worthy either.

Jackie McNamara will be concerned by his side's second half performance though - at 2-0 down, they offered nothing.  This comes only a week after they downed tools with 20 minutes left in Dingwall and nearly squandered a 3-0 lead.  They don't seem to realize that matches last 90 minutes, and too often this season they have given up when the going has got tough.  That's got to change if United, and not Aberdeen, are to finish second, which is a very realistic ambition indeed. LS

County can't afford such profligacy
Surely events at Fir Park on Saturday were enough to make a nominative determinist out of even the most ardent skeptic. By all accounts young Tony Dingwall was the outstanding player on the park, and two goals against relegation rivals will do more to ingratiate himself with the fans than sharing a name with their home town ever could. With a clear bottom three beginning to emerge, earning a point away to one of your rivals with a last minute goals should only be really looked at as a positive.

Yet County really should have won this game quite comfortably. I imagine professional footballers have nightmares about missing open goals against their former clubs, a nightmare that Paul Quinn lived at the weekend. Who knows how Michael Gardyne managed to smash the ball against the keeper from two yards out, and those were only two of the twenty shots County had in this game, eight of which were on target.

And they weren’t much better better at the back where some very stand-offish defending allowed Motherwell to score from two of their meagre three shots on target. New ‘Well manager Ian Barraclough was watching from the stands before taking charge of the team this week and no doubt would have been disappointed to see his new team come back from a goal down only to concede an equaliser with the last kick of the game. But what should be of much greater concern to him is the fact that they were so comprehensively outplayed at home to one of their closest rivals.

Both these teams know that every point will be precious over the next few months, especially now that they can’t rely on the one things that will have helped them sleep at night so far this season - for Tommy Craig is no longer the St Mirren manager. IM

St Mirren aren't worth getting out of bed for
You can only beat what's in front of you.  St. Mirren had pretty much given up on this game already, given that they chose last midweek to sack Tommy Craig and start looking for a replacement; if this match was an audition for Gary Teale, it would be like asking an actor to play the role of Hamlet without a script in front of him.

But whilst Thursday's defeat in Zagreb could be partly blamed on rather mediocre motivation amongst the Celtic squad, this was a fully professional performance - though scoring three times in the opening twenty minutes helps.  Those who turned up to cheer them on were treated to yet another virtuoso performance by Norwegian midfielder Stefan Johansen, an excellent turn by James Forrest and a standout effort by Anthony Stokes, who is beginning to revel in his 'wide forward' role.

Unfortunately, not very many turned up.  The official attendance figure was 44,827 - absolutely laughable going by the TV pictures, unless everyone was sitting on the roof.  Maybe half that?  At most?  The apathy is worrying, particularly given this game wasn't even on television.  And it's a shame, because Celtic are playing some very decent football right now.

What will it take for the seats to be filled again?  Sadly, I suspect only the return of their beloved Rangers to the top flight will do it.  And that might be a while yet... LS

Killie in a tailspin
It's now one point out of the last eighteen available for Kilmarnock (which of course doesn't include their humiliating cup capitulation at Ibrox), who dropped out of the top six and below St. Johnstone after losing at home to them.  Going by Killie's current form, it's hard to believe that we ever contemplated that they might finish higher than the Perth Saints, who have dragged themselves up the table in recent weeks.

Allan Johnston picked an experienced side for this one - a recurrent theme whenever his side hit the rocks last season - but one wonders if he would be better going with his youngsters.  Robbie Muirhead, unquestionably their most dangerous player in this match, was the only Academy product to start, with five others on the bench.  Certainly there's no discernible reason why Johnston prefers the likes of Darryl Westlake (who gave away a penalty) and Manuel Pascali to the youthful Lee Ashcroft and Ross Barbour, or why Craig Slater, outstanding last season, can't get a game.

Of course, the current absence of Alexei Eremenko doesn't help.  With a busy but limited midfield duo of Jamie Hamill and Sammy Clingan, the team inevitably become more direct, but the inclusion of Lee Miller as a target man hasn't made them more dangerous.  They've scored only three goals in their last seven matches.

Certainly Kilmarnock are a bottom six side.  But they do have enough points on the board to avoid a relegation battle...don't they? LS

Neil provides some steel
Accies' player-manager Alex Neil has been more manager than player this season - the win over Dundee was only his fourth league start of the campaign - but I imagine that, with his side going through a rocky patch, he might have included himself for this one even if Jon Routledge hadn't got stupidly sent off at Pittodrie last week.  His young team needed a bit of experience and know-how in the centre of midfield, and Neil certainly provided it.  At 33, and with a lengthy history of injuries, he won't be involved every week, but he's still good enough to do a job at this level.

As an aside, is it just me or does Mickael Antoine-Curier only ever break into a sprint when he's celebrating a goal?  He never seems anywhere near as quick in open play.  Mind you, his volley was a strike worth celebrating... LS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taxi for Tommy!

One typical Tommy Craig pose...

At least Tommy Craig avoided the ignominy of having the shortest reign of any St. Mirren manager, but then it will take some doing to wrest that particular title away from Iain Munro, in charge for just 24 hours in September 1996.

In the end, Craig lasted less than seven months as boss in Paisley, presiding over just nineteen matches.  His record?  Three wins, three draws, thirteen defeats, thirteen goals scored, thirty-three goals conceded.  One of those wins came against League One Dunfermline in the League Cup.

Nineteen games doesn't seem like very long.  Yet it is a rather damning indictment of his reign that it feels like he could have been dismissed much earlier.

Part of that is because his appointment in the first place was utterly stupid.  Danny Lennon's departure in the summer was not unexpected, nor was it unjustified; whilst he had won the League Cup in 2013, St. Mirren never finished higher than eighth in his four seasons.  Until a very late resurgence in form at the end of last seasons, they were not so much flirting with a relegation playoff as inviting it around to the house for a nightcap.
and another typical Tommy Craig pose...

The Buddies seemed to have gone stale under Lennon, a likeable man (despite his weird references to himself in the third person during interviews) who got the team passing the ball around, but who struggled badly in the transfer market, too often bringing in players who should have been in the bin rather than the bargain bin.

St. Mirren needed new men and new ideas - and instead they went for Lennon's assistant, a man linked to the previous failed regime, whose managerial CV was not worth speaking about.  Sure, he had a good reputation as a coach, having previously assisted Billy McNeill at Celtic, Roy Aitken at Aberdeen and John Collins at Hibs, as well as seven years as first team coach at Newcastle.  As a manager, not so.  Aside from five years in charge of Scotland's under-21s in the nineties, the only other club he had managed was Belgian side Charleroi.  He only lasted nineteen games there, too.  At Charleroi he won only two.

...and another typical Tommy Craig pose...
His transfer market record has, unsurprisingly, been reminiscent of his predecessor's.  Whilst some of this is down to bad luck - Ellis Plummer has been injured, while former Derby prodigy Callum Ball has to spend more time getting his weight down than practicing his shooting - others certainly weren't.  The injury-prone Isaac Osbourne can't be trusted to play very often.  Meanwhile, anyone who has watched forward James Marwood (signed from Gateshead) will agree that he doesn't belong at this level, for example.  But Marwood's dad is the Chief Exec of Manchester City, who have loaned the club a few youngsters.  Coincidence?  I couldn't possibly say.

Meanwhile, on the field, they've been dreadful.  Of course, the injuries to talismanic forward Steven Thompson haven't helped.  Thompson has started only two league games, and was withdrawn at half-time due to injury in both.  Craig has sounded like a stuck record in interviews, blaming Thommohawk's absence for their impotence up front (only three league goals at home!).  But relying on a 36 year old striker was always going to be a risky strategy.  Craig didn't help himself with a curious announcement at the club's AGM a fortnight ago where he held up a piece of paper with, he claimed, the names of several strikers that he had tried and failed to sign in the summer.  But he refused to let anyone actually see the piece of paper!

Tactically, his master plan has not been clear.  I can't tell whether he wanted to them to play at a fast or slow tempo, with a direct style or a passing one, with an attacking or a defensive mindset, simply because they were so poor at keeping possession or holding their shape anyway.  Meanwhile, his recent decision to blood youngsters Jack Baird and Stevie Mallan was not a courageous move but a desperate one.  Neither looks ready for first team action, and many fans felt that, by playing them, Craig was trying to protect himself from criticism for bad results, as he could say "well, I'm playing a bunch of kids".  But debuting them away at Hamilton Accies, where the side were thumped 3-0, had a feeling of lambs to the slaughter about it.  And playing Thompson, just back from three months out, three times in eight days, resulting in another muscle strain this weekend, was a recipe for disaster, but that's how desperate things were at St. Mirren Park.

...and...well, you get the picture!
If there is one silver lining to be taken from this sorry situation, it is that St. Mirren are, remarkably, not adrift at the bottom of the table.  In fact, they're not even bottom, with goal difference keeping them above Ross County.  Motherwell are only two points better off.  But, having seen all three teams in recent weeks, there is a spirit and scrap about the other two clubs that St. Mirren simply don't have.  Craig's replacement has a job on his hands.  His first task must be to strengthen the squad, particularly in central defence and up front.  There are two very special players at the club - Kenny McLean and John McGinn - who have regressed this season, and who need to be revitalized.

But expect Motherwell (under a new manager themselves) and Ross County (with the benefit of their chairman's cheque book) to improve during the transfer window too.  Will St. Mirren's board be able to provide the funds required to build a squad capable of remaining in the Premiership?  Tommy Craig's terrible tenure has left St. Mirren in a terribly deep hole, which will take some climbing out of.  To most, and with justification, they are favourites for the drop.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Orchestrator Johansen on song again
I've often been critical of Celtic this season for their failure to win by convincing margins (seven of their eleven league victories have been by the odd goal), but this game was 1-0 going on 11-0.  The champions' attacking play was a joy to watch at times, with repeated flicks and backheels and dummies.  Stefan Johansen was a particular joy; the Norwegian has been terrific this season and orchestrated proceedings so effectively that one expected to see a baton in his hand.  He should now probably join John Guidetti and Virgil Van Dijk in the 'far too good for this diddy league' category.

But Celtic's finishing let them down, and whilst Dan Twardzik had an excellent game in goal for Motherwell, the truth is that many sitters were passed up - John Guidetti (twice), James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre were particularly guilty.

So too was 'Well sub Lee Erwin though, who managed to head wide late on; his team, under the cosh for the whole match, could have nicked a point.  It was an ignominious cameo from Erwin, who then got himself booked for an embarrassing dive.  His day maybe wasn't quite so bad as teammate Simon Ramsden's - partly to blame for the goal, the English central defender chased shadows all afternoon until he eventually decided to hack one - and 'hack' does not quite do his red-card-inducing assault on James Forrest.

And even then, neither had the worst game of any Motherwell player.  Fraser Kerr was the main culprit for the goal, with a terrible backpass, and then spent half an hour being skinned down the Celtic left before, on his first venture forward, he twisted his ankle.  Heck, even his single attempt at a long throw-in was rubbish.  LS

Jack inspires Aberdeen revenge over Accies
Back in warm, sunny October, there was no finer team in the land than Hamilton Academical.  After starting the season as relegation favourites, and playing like it in their opener against Inverness, they went on a stunning eleven game unbeaten run.  It all came to a head when they picked up three points at Parkhead and followed that up by blowing Aberdeen away 3-0 at home.

But they have gone on to win just one game since them, and as it was against St Mirren it barely counts.  Normal service has been resumed and there was a nice symmetry to the score on Saturday in a game that was a pretty good example of what these teams are; a pretty good home side that will be pushing for second place come May, and pretty average visitors that are on slide and lacking confidence but won’t be in any real danger of relegation.

Aberdeen fans, being Aberdeen fans, spent a lot of time complaining that it wasn’t more, but this was a very efficient victory with Ryan Jack impressing in particular.  Jack has established himself as an important part of this team and it will be interesting to see how he develops, and Gordon Strachan should be keeping an eye on him.

Hamilton were pretty awful and their “defending” for Niall McGinn’s goal was a particular lowlight, although Jon Routledge getting a red card for either wiping two Aberdeen players out with one terrible tackle or for punching Jack for having the audacity to be one of said two players was also quite spectacular. IM

County's late rally doesn't disguise their failings
My word, Jim McIntyre's an optimist.  The Ross County manager bemoaned Yoann Arquin's decision to stay on his feet when clipped by Radoslaw Ciernziak, thus apparently denying them a penalty which would have been a critical turning point in this match.  Except County were already 3-1 down at that time, and, frankly, the 'contact' was so minimal that I'm not convinced that Arquin's minimal stumble before losing control of the ball justified a foul anyway.

To be honest, County's late rally allowed McIntyre to claim that his side had played well and been let down by poor finishing; the BBC report's claim that 'The Staggies produced a fine display against Dundee United' was clearly written by someone who thought the home side were wearing orange.  From the moment that Paul Quinn gifted Nadir Ciftci the opener till the Turkish forward struck his second and the visitors' third, there was only one team in Dingwall.  County were a defensive shambles - Quinn and Lewis Toshney made up their ninth (!) different central defensive partnership of the season, and it showed - whilst in attack Jake Jervis got no service, whilst Joe Cardle always gives the impression of a winger who can make something happen...but then never actually does.

That said, County showed enough heart and scrap that they were able to yank themselves back into the contest when United downed tools at 3-0.  But for the previous 40 minutes they were outstanding, with Chris Erskine and especially Stuart Armstrong absolutely flying.  After a poor patch earlier this season, Armstrong is back to his best, producing a trademark lung-busting burst from midfield to score.  His side certainly look very good bets for 'best of the rest', whilst County, at least, still look a hell of a lot better than Motherwell or St. Mirren. LS

Forward thinking needed
Even Barry Hearn couldn't have talked up proceedings at Firhill, where both teams managed a solitary goal and very little else of note, other than an amusing little contretemps between teammates Mark Connolly and Jamie Hamill.  Throw in some clothes made of animal skin and a couple of wooden clubs and it could have been two male neanderthals having a spat.

The lack of goalmouth action wasn't surprising really, given the forwards on display.  Partick's crop are so inspiring that they played midfielder Ryan Stevenson (no league goals in 12 games this season) up front, with Kris Doolan (1 goal in his last 11 games) only a sub.  For Killie, winger Tope Obadeyi notched up his fifth of the season, but up top they had Lee Miller (yet to score for the club) and Josh Magennis (2 goals in his last 17 appearances for club and country, both of which came in the same game).

This game at least ended Kilmarnock's run of five consecutive league and cup defeats.  And, remarkably given their recent run, they are back in the top six.  I can't help feeling that it'll be temporary though.  Their lack of confidence was obvious in this game; they were on top in the early stages and deservedly in front, but retreated into their shell after conceding,  Partick, meanwhile, have won only one of eight in the league, and only one of their league wins has come against a team above them in the table.  So their current ninth spot feels rather appropriate. LS

St. Mirren couldn't score in a brothel
Certainties in life include death, taxes, Nigel Farage saying at least one stupid thing a week, and St. Mirren failing to win at home - they've picked up only one point out of a possible twenty-four in Paisley this season, with St. Johnstone the latest beneficiaries of some Greater Glasgow generosity.

To be honest, the game was up as soon as Michael O'Halloran blasted the Perth Saints into an early lead.  That's because, in six of those eight home games so far, St. Mirren haven't even scored a goal.  Two of their three strikes on their own patch barely count, since they came against a Ross County defence that outdoes Santa at giving away gifts.

Tommy Craig has been saying all season that he needs talismanic striker Steven Thompson back.  Well, Thommohawk returned last weekend in the cup, played in the midweek replay, and then started this game...only to be subbed at half-time with another injury.  In hindsight, Tommy, maybe you shouldn't have made a 36 year old play three games in a week  immediately after a long layoff? LS

ICT can win ugly
Caley Thistle have won admirers for their football this season but the 2 - 1 victory against Dundee marked a different side to the team - when it came down to it, with Inverness not hitting the heights that they have already this season, they were still able to win, and win ugly.

The victory on Saturday meant ICT are now undefeated in their last seven visits to Dens Park.  Both sides largely cancelled each other out with defences very much on top.  David Clarkson was unable to net his ninth goal in nine games and ICT were left attempting long range efforts for most of the first half.

In the second half, with Dundee leading 1 - 0, Inverness drew level with a fortunate goal from Billy Mckay and just before 90 minutes were up Ryan Christie started and finished a fine counter attacking move to secure the win. 

People often say winning when playing poorly is the mark of champions. This might not be entirely applicable to Inverness who are unlikely to keep pace with Celtic at the top of the league for the entire season.  Nonetheless, with each passing game the confidence grows and grows and fans start to believe that they may just hang on to second place and secure European football at long last.  AS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cup tickets a step too far

There were some delicious ties in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup this weekend; no fewer than five all-Premiership clashes, plus Hearts v Celtic and Rangers v Kilmarnock.  As is the way with football, some of these lived up to the hype - the match between Dundee and Aberdeen was pulsating, whereas Sunday's games were a let-down thanks to Morgaro Gomis' early misdemeanour and an effort from Killie at Ibrox that only amounted to slightly more than lying down to their opponents.

Regardless of the quality of the action on display though, there was a worrying trend on show this weekend - crap attendances.

Tynecastle, sold out for league games against the likes of Cowdenbeath, had plenty of empty seats for the visit of the champions.  There were less than 2,000 hardy souls at St. Mirren Park for a game against ICT, and only a few hundred more at St. Johnstone and Partick Thistle.  Even Dundee's home gate was vastly inflated by a travelling support which actually made up more than half the crowd.  (I'll not mention Ibrox because there are a gazillion other reasons why three men and a dog turned up there)

Caley Thistle and St. Mirren will replay their tie in the Highlands as soon as tomorrow - apparently because John Hughes "wants it out of the way".  So, with a couple of days notice, on a cold Tuesday night in December, the entrance fee for adults will be £18.  If this paragraph were a tweet, I'd finish it with #ripoff.

It's unclear who is to blame for this craziness - after all, ticket prices for cup ties have to be agreed between the two teams.  St. Mirren, whose travelling support will be virtually nil, would presumably prefer that everything be done to milk as much money out of the home supporters as possible.

But the attendance figures will be embarrassing.  Supporters are already paying through the nose to watch their side play in the flesh.  My season ticket at Inverness costs £340 a year.  I took my father-in-law to the recent home match with Hamilton. His ticket?  £26.  Heck, my income puts me in the top tax bracket, and I still vomited a little into my mouth at that.  God knows how the majority of supporters feel.

As this weekend proved, there is only so much that clubs can squeeze supporters before their wallets say "no more".  But it's simply a prominent symptom of a wide problem.  Football is too expensive to watch in Scotland, and it's turning people off.  But instead of trying to attract fans back, which will surely help in the long-term, the clubs are focussed on simply fleecing the die-hards who still wouldn't dream of missing a game.  There's no future in this strategy that simply drains the goodwill from the mugs who go along every fortnight.

Well, folks, even mugs like me have to draw the line somewhere.  £18 for a cup replay against St. Mirren on a cold Tuesday night in December seems like a good place.