Monday, April 11, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Where does McGhee get his replays from?
Who would be a goalie?  Connor Ripley spent most of Saturday lunchtime putting on a Man of the Match performance which should have earned his team an unlikely point.  His skills even extended to intimidating Leigh Griffiths into taking a penalty that was as convincing as his hair.  Celtic looked very fluid in attack, a scary thought for Rangers fans worried about their defensive frailties ahead of next Sunday. But every time they carved out a shooting chance, Ripley was there to deny them.

Until the 75th minute.  There wasn’t much the on loan keeper could do about Griffiths’ opener, but the way he let Celtic’s winner squirm through his legs wiped out all the good work he had done up until that point.  Coupled with Aberdeen’s defeat on Friday, these three points mean that the post split fixtures should be nothing more than a formality on Celtic’s route to the League title.

Not that Mark McGhee was in the mood to celebrate with his former team.  The 'Well boss was irate that Scott McDonald had a goal chalked off for offside early in the second half...even though replays showed it was the correct decision.  Not according to the pictures McGhee saw, apparently - he inexplicably called it a “horrendous” decision.  In the interests of full disclosure, the assistant who gave the decision is a good friend of mine.  Nevertheless, it would have been nice if he’d taken the decision with a bit more, you know, dignity? IM

Hearts v Aberdeen was freaking awesome
Aberdeen fans are getting sick and tired of their opponents falling ill on the eve of matches.  Three weekends ago it was Motherwell coming from behind to beat the Dons 2-1 at Fir Park; this time around, it was Hearts repeating the feat at Tynecastle.

And yet, in the opening 15 minutes, it looked as if this game was going to be more reminiscent of Aberdeen's home game the previous Sunday against Hamilton.  The Dons dominated proceedings early, yet while they managed to kill off the previous match with three goals within the first 30 minutes, this time they were unable to capitalise beyond a clinical Simon Church strike from Graeme Shinnie's cross to the near post.  Many in the media have generously offered that Aberdeen's title push may have gone further had Adam Rooney remained fit, however that would be equally ungenerous to Church, who has been the signing of the season for the Dons.

This was a gut check for Hearts, both figuratively and literally, and in both cases they came through the challenge with flying colours. The Jambos were already imposing themselves on the match by the time Alim Ozturk strode out from his own half to fire a 35 yard shot at goal.  You can apportion blame to the outfield players for not applying more pressure, however any goalkeeper worth his salt will know that he either has to hold onto the shot or, if he can't do that, push the ball away from the goal mouth.  On both counts, Scott Brown was found wanting, and Jaunma reacted first to fire home the equaliser while the Dons defenders either claimed for a speculative offside decision or simply flailed their arms around in exasperation, perhaps secretly bemoaning Jurgen Klopp's decision to bring Danny Ward back early from his loan period. 

That goal turn the proceedings around 180 degrees.  The home support erupted, the players responded, and from the start of the second half it felt as if there would only be one winner.  The denouncement came from yet more self inflicted punishment, albeit perhaps more unfortunate.  One can only assume that when Kenny McLean looked to play out a swift free kick from his own half that he was unaware that Ash Taylor simultaneously prostrated with cramp and receiving assistance from Shinnie.  With Shay Logan, on the far right touchline, McLean's intended recipient, the errant pass left the Dons with three quarters of their defence effectively out of play.  Hearts reacted clinically, Buaben releasing a through ball behind the last defender, Mark Reynolds, who was left to either chase after Jamie Walker or track Jaunma's unchallenged run into the box.  He chose the former, but Walker did magnificently to chase down the ball, Reynolds couldn't block the cross, and Jaunma headed home the winner.

Result aside, this match was a brilliant advert for Scottish fitba' - a televised Friday night fixture showcasing an electric atmosphere at a sold out Tynecastle and thrilling, end-to-end game between two sides that both had to win for differing reasons.  On this night, the spoils went to Hearts, and deservedly so over the whole match.  If they win their game in hand at Inverness they will close the gap to second to just 6 points, with a further game against Aberdeen still to come after the split.  If that match is anything like this one, the fitba' fans will once again be spoilt. MI

Gunning's moment of glory
Caley Thistle looked far more impressive at Tannadice than they have done of late, but in truth the home side were so godawful that anything other than a comfortable win would have been a rotten result.  Dundee United's shoots of recovery appear to have been destroyed by a combination of weedkiller and steamroller.  With five games to play, they are now eight points behind Kilmarnock.  Even Lazarus would consider survival to be highly unlikely now.

The highlight of the game, without a doubt, was Gavin Gunning's incredible antics in the second half - the United defender picked up the ball during play, apparently in an attempt to get the game stopped so he could be subbed.  He then walked off the pitch, only to be ordered back on by his manager to lie down and get treatment because no substitute was ready.  The whole situation was so ridiculous that Craig Thomson failed even to book him for the handball or for returning to the field of play without permission.

It had to be seen to be thank goodness for the mischievous folk who run ICT's social media, who showed it as part of their YouTube highlights.  If Sportscene could be forgiven for not running a clip in their brief coverage of the match, BBC Alba's decision not to include it in their hour-long highlights of the game was a bit odd - there was certainly not enough incident in the match otherwise to justify excluding this You've Been Framed contender.  Whilst it isn't really very relevant to the narrative of the game, it was just the latest in a series of odd edits of highlights by the producers at the Beeb - Hearts in particular have been hard done by recently.  One wonders who on earth decides what goes on the TV, and if they have the slightest experience of watching footie. LS

Worrying harbingers for St. Johnstone
Despite this defeat, St. Johnstone made it into the top six for the fifth consecutive season - only Celtic can say they've done the same since 2011.  That's some feat; as Motherwell, Caley Thistle and Dundee United have proven in recent times, the high level of squad turnover that tends to follow success at provincial clubs can often lead to big dips in the quality of the team.

Mind you, Saints have largely avoided that high turnover, until now at least.  But there's no question that their form dipped drastically after the sale of Michael O'Halloran at the end of January.  And they lost this match whilst missing Steven Anderson, Dave Mackay, Murray Davidson and Steven MacLean - all seasoned veterans of Tommy Wright's.  Chris Millar and Simon Lappin, who both played, are the wrong side of thirty too.  The time for big changes in Perth is coming soon; if this horrendous defeat is a reflection of the depth currently at Wright's disposal, then he'll have to hit the jackpot with a lot of new signings to prevent Saints from being the next team to plummet down the table. LS

Dundee have underachieved
From a financial point of view, finishing in the bottom six may actually work out in Dundee's favour, as it should mean a home derby for the Dark Blues; the income from that may well be worth the equivalent of a position or two.  Plus I imagine the fans would enjoy another opportunity to bask in the troubles of their neighbours.

But being seventh at the split isn't really acceptable at all.  Paul Hartley has been given decent financial backing by Dundee's American owners - the fifth highest playing budget in the division, I would estimate - so this is a letdown...all the more so considering how outstanding they've played at times this season.  Their recent five goal haul against Ross County, and a Friday night walloping of St. Johnstone a couple of months back showed how formidable they are in attack; after all, Kane Hemmings has scored 20 league goals so far this season.

The problems have been at the other end.  Hartley brought in quality, but at the expense of squad depth, and this was especially apparent in the centre of defence when James McPake wrecked his knee at new year.  Darren O'Dea has been an okay replacement but lacks McPake's consistency and leadership, and whoever plays alongside him has been far more exposed.  At Hamilton it was Julen Etxabeguren who struggled, giving away a penalty (whilst lucky not to receive a second yellow card in the process) and also making a hash of defending Ali Crawford's opener.  But in other weeks Thomas Konrad and Kostadin Gadzhalov have been equally mediocre.

Hartley has already moved to improve the depth in other areas by signing up Danny Williams and James Vincent from Inverness.  A new centre-back or two are badly needed though.  But to be honest Dundee should have been in the top six regardless. LS

McLaughlin is one for the future...and the present
I think it's safe to claim this is the greatest season in Ross County's history - a top six finish and a League Cup triumph will take some beating.  The big surprise is that it took so long for them to guarantee a finish on the right side of the split; last week was the lowest they'd dropped in the table since the opening day of the season.

It helps to have Roy McGregor's budget, of course - Jim McIntyre has constantly paid tribute to his chairman for a reason.  But Saturday's sighting of a homegrown player (from the start, no less!) was a rare and welcome one.  Chris McLaughlin is a left-back by trade but started this match in a left midfield role in front of Ricky Foster and excelled in his second appearance for the club.  The 18 year old looks robust and strong, yet showed considerable confidence in possession and took control of several set pieces - a welcome sight for County fans who have endured dreadful deliveries from Martin Woods this season.

McLaughlin looks like he could become a stalwart next season.  County could do with a few more coming through the ranks to ease the pressure on McGregor's cheque book.  With Tony Dingwall's progress having seemingly stalled this season, you have to go back to Don Cowie (who left in 2008) to find the club's last quality youth team product. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He 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.

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