A Polaroid Moment in the Scottish Premier League
Photographs capture specific moments in time, with the more iconic ones representing certain splendors or symbolizing tumultuous events. The New York Times Square photo of an American sailor sealing victory with a kiss stands out as one of joy at the end of major hostilities following World War II. South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan firing his pistol and executing a Vietcong operative in close range of a photographer’s lens endures to remind us of just how close the horrors of war could be while still being thousands of miles away. Images of the mangled remains of Princess Diana’s limousine inform us on the tragic pitfalls of a modern public life and how quickly we lose something so dear.
The same can be found in football. Bobby Moore sitting on the shoulders of his teammates as he lifts the 1966 World Cup trophy aloft in triumph has to be one of English football’s most iconic national images. US women’s player Brandi Chastain stripping to her sports bra and falling to her knees celebrating the winning penalty kick for the 1999 Women’s World Cup embodies the unexpected boldness that can be seen–as many discovered this summer–in today’s women’s game. John Terry’s tears in the rain upon missing his penalty in the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final suggest even tough guys can get a tad weepy.
Either that, or it teaches us that even rich footballers do not always get their way.
If snapshots can speak to so many different things, what does the image of Motherwell FC sitting atop the Scottish Premier League table almost a month into the season say? A cursory glance tells us the North Lanarkshire side has played one match more than Celtic and Rangers, with each having cashed in the SPL’s “get out of one league match” card to play friendlies instead. Despite this, the general thinking going into this previous weekend was that the Steelmen would likely be overtaken by Celtic, so seeing themselves leading the league would be but a one week affair. As Celtic were sending Dundee United away from Parkhead empty handed with a tidy 5-1 win, Motherwell looked set to begin their descent down the table by drawing at St. Mirren Park heading into the 90th minute.
Then, Tom Hateley scored with practically the final kick of the match to give Well a 1-0 victory and another week atop the table. While the young midfielder has only been good for around two goals a season since leaving the English game for Scotland, he is developing a habit of making those few odd scores truly mean something, and that has been a running theme among Stuart McCall’s squad that would not have been noticed just by a simple image of the current SPL table. In the opening match of the season against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Motherwell fullback Steven Hammell began Motherwell’s campaign on this track by scoring the opening goal in a comfortable 3-0 start, notching only his third score in 386 matches played for the side and his first since 2004.
Perhaps there is such a thing as a seven year itch?
While observers of the SPL might have expected Motherwell to begin their season reasonably well (no pun intended) considering they retained most of the previous year’s squad that had a respectable top half finish in the league, it is nonetheless notable regarding how the Fir Park side have taken their early lead in the SPL. They have earned points in varied ways, from the confident three taken off Caley, to the opportunistic ones taken off a Hearts side shorn of a hot-headed Ian Black halfway through the game, to this weekend’s snatch and grab in Paisley. In between the Steelmen gutted out a goalless draw with Kilmarnock, highlighting GK Darren Randolph’s quality between the sticks and extending Well’s stinginess when it comes to goals allowed. Thus, the image of Motherwell looking down upon the Old Firm–for now, at least–could be considered of a club that knows how to take what the opposition gives them and earn vital points any way possible. As Well see the Old Firm in two of their next three matches, accumulating as many points now gives them a bit of breathing space before getting into the thick of their fixture list come October.
Further, Motherwell’s early success this season might speak to some value being had in the Scottish FA’s continued drive at having more of Scotland’s U-21 players populate Premier League playing squads. The most recent SFA scheme, which also comes with SPL Chief Neil Doncaster’s endorsement, provides a financial incentive–albeit a somewhat nominal one–to clubs starting two or more U-21 players in a competitive match. Before Steven Saunders suffered an unfortunate season-ending injury while on duty for the U-21 squad’s most recent match with Norway, Stuart McCall’s side looked set to be in line for such rewards, with Saunders preparing to feature more often along the defensive back line and 21 year old Jamie Murphy guiding Well’s attack in the front. While McCall has veterans such as captain Stephen Craigan and Keith Lasley to fall back on, it appears his plan in the main has been to integrate these Scottish youth products along with the likes of young Englishmen Nicky Law, Michael Higdon, and Hateley into the regular XI and absorb more of the minutes during a Premier League campaign that at times can be taxing on old legs.
And, particularly in the case of Craigan, old legs that could have been meant to have spent more time under a desk while he interviewed with BBC Scotland during this testimonial season.
The focus on youth at Motherwell, however, does not appear to be part of some plan to remain in the good graces of the Scottish FA but borne more so out of financial necessity. While the most recent financial report on the SPLshows an overall profit was made by the clubs, the numbers are misleading. The £1 million profit noted by PricewaterhouseCooper’s audit of the 2009/10 SPL still illustrated that nine of the twelve Premier League clubs during that period reported a loss and a collective profit might have been realized simply by a club owner like Vladimir Romanov writing off debts owed to him by Heart of Midlothian. Also, revenue in the form of gate receipts for SPL clubs–even Celtic–has declined as fewer fans are showing up at the park to make their voices heard. Motherwell’s separate audit saw the average attendance at Fir Park drop by over 1,600 since the club’s days of administration in the middle of the previous decade. The Steelmen, along with the other Scottish clubs, have had to keep wage bills tight in light of this, and rely more heavily on talent being brought up from the reserves to fill out their rosters cheaply while at the same time selling on their best to the highest bidder in order to remain a going concern.
This, of course, leads into a final tale the picture of Motherwell as leaders of the top flight can tell. The Old Firm are no longer the first choice destination for many of Scotland’s youth as they once might have been. While a lad like Gregg Wylde of Rangers has played sparingly as a substitute, youngsters like Well’s Murphy and Saunders can already point to considerable amounts of playing time in the Scottish Prem on their CVs, and the exposure they receive–even without playing every weekend in one of Glasgow’s amphitheatres–can catch the eye of the more wealthy clubs in England. Sadly, English Premiership clubs and even some in the second division English Championship can offer a more lucrative transfer package to those Scottish clubs selling their talented youth and healthier contracts that come with more actual playing time to the lads being sold than Celtic or Rangers would be able to provide.
Former Dundee United striker David Goodwillie’s protracted transfer saga between Rangers and Blackburn typifies such a scenario. While manager Peter Houston–who is himself an assistant coach for the Scotland national team–urged Goodwillie to look south for better opportunities rather than remain in Scotland, the club was receiving offers from Rangers less than the £2 million they considered was the minimum valuation of their star goal scorer. Only when Steve Kean and Blackburn’s owners came in with offers above United’s minimum asking price–effectively beating Rangers and possibly Cardiff City to Goodwillie’s signature–does it appear that the Glasgow side stopped trying to get the player on the super cheap. By this time, however, Goodwillie was already undergoing medicals and making travel arrangements with the Lancashire club, and he settled the matter over where he would prefer playing by saying, “When you come here [Blackburn]…you understand why players would turn their back on the Old Firm.”
Ally McCoist and Craig Whyte must now beat back the likes of Bolton Wanderers for their own youngster’s services, as Wylde is rumoured to be ready for a move south of the border too. Meanwhile, Celtic have done well to involve young winger James Forrest into their regular rotation, but with seemingly so many international players throughout the squad, Hoops manager Neil Lennon is afforded little space on his roster to bring up and develop young talent. Simply put, neither Old Firm manager has the type of financial largess behind him to make a young player’s wait worth his while nor does he possess much time to allow raw young players with potential to develop their skills on the pitch, making the occasional mistake here or there.
Neither McCoist nor Lennon would keep their jobs very long were they to do it.
So, the snapshot of Motherwell enjoying another week as the leaders of the top flight captures several moments in the life of Scottish football, with most observing it will be but a fading image once Celtic and Rangers make up their games in hand. The overall focus on youth, the dour financial outlook for the league, and the loss of an Old Firm preference in the minds of Scotland’s future stars will not be lost to overexposure, though, and these are issues yet to be fully addressed. Still, to the Fir Park faithful, it demonstrates a strong start to the 2011/12 campaign and represents hope that the club might return to playing in Europe if they can remain in the top half of the table by the close.
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