With the Cup Final and the play-offs finishing at the weekend – and no Scottish involvement in any other football that may be taking place in the next few weeks – that’s another season over. It’s been a year that’s seen more nationl team failure, the depatures of George Burley and Gordon Smith, and even more soul-searching than usual about the future of the domestic game. So what’s been happening and where does it all go from here?
The National Team
Once again Scotland set up a grand finale by having possible qualification still in their sights in that final home match against Holland. But where, two years earlier, narrow failure in a group containing Italy and France had restored some national pride, this time there was no doubt that finishing third in a group without an outstanding second placed team felt very much like failure. It’s difficult to judge whether it was really Burley’s fault – there are so few critical games that your reputation can hinge on a little bit of luck here and there, and maybe Burley’s hinged on that dodgy sending off in Oslo. But the general feeling, and mine too, is that the team is in better hands with Levein in charge. The resources are still limited, and now that Scotland are always third seeds in qualification draws, it’s still going to be tough to break the cycle, but Levein seems as likely as anyone to get the most of those resources. There’s room for cautious optimism.
The Old Firm
Like many, I got this wrong. Early season form seemed to confirm suspicions that Rangers were the team in decline, for all the previous season’s title. With no new signings, they went into the first derby of the season in third place, on the back of three goalless draws, and if anyone looked vulnerable to a charge from a third party it seemed to be them. Yet by the spring they were sailing to a convincing championship win and Celtic were the team in crisis, a terrible run of form being topped off by that four goal defeat at St Mirren and then embarrassment in the Scottish Cup at the hands of Ross County. It’s difficult to know why – putting it down to the respective managers seems too easy an answer but I don’t have a better one.
At any rate, Smith’s continuous mircale working can’t be put down to luck, clearly the man is an outstanding manager. He can’t keep doing it forever without signing a few players though, and with the club’s ownerhship still unresolved they remain the team at more of a crossroads. Celtic have a big decision to make over their next manager, and life has been made harder for them by their being unseeded in the Champions League qualifying round (meaning they’ll face a tough tie just to get through to the play-off round in which they lost to Arsenal last year) but they’ll regroup and be back.
The rest of the SPL
Dundee United finally fulfilled their promise this season to finish a convincing third – topping it off with Saturday’s Cup win for good measure, and thoroughly deserved it was too. It would be lovely to think they could go on from here and mount some sort of challenge for second place, but it’s not going to happen. Their own financial situation remains precarious, and it’s going to be difficult for them to hang on to their good young players should they start getting bids from Championship-level sides down south – David Goodwillie is already the subject of some speculation. Hearts and Hibs maintained their top six places but Aberdeen had a miserable season and prospects for improvement don’t look that bright. Good seasons for Motherwell, who made it into Europe after the season ended when United won the cup, and St Johnstone who survived their first season comfortably and stayed clear of the relegation scrap. Disappointing seasons for Falkirk and St Mirren, though Gus McPherson’s departure from the latter still came as a surprise given the job he’s done there over the past few years.
Inverness’s title was the first success for Terry Butcher in a twenty year management career – a stopped clock or has he finally come good? Maybe next season will tell us, but meantime there was no doubting their right to promotion, finishing the season with a 21 game unbeaten run after a stuttering start. That left Dundee a little embarrassed, having spent big last summer and opened up an apparently comfortable lead at one stage. Even then, they never quite looked convincing, and it wasn’t that big a surprise when they changed managers once the lead had dwindled away to three points in March. I expect them still to be the team to beat next season though.
But maybe the most significant feature of the first division this season was the performance of several of the teams in the cups. Most notably Ross County’s run to the final, supported by Raith Rovers reaching the semis. Coming at a time when expansion of the top league was back on the agenda, this demonstration of the strength of the league below may prove significant.
The second division had the most fascinating ot the title races, it was a genuine four horse race for much of the season. Alloa looked to have hit form at just the right time and seemed to be pulling away, only to blow up with three straight defeats near the death, and allow local rivals Stirling Albion to pip them to it. Cowdenbeath were the real story of the season though, promoted from the Third Division only a few days before the season following Livingston’s troubles, they thrived in the higher league and eventually won promotion through the play-offs. It’s a mild curiosity that both promoted clubs have been featured on this site during the course of the season for their financial troubles, and both situations remain unresolved for the longer term: Stirling’s octagenarian owner is still running things his own secret way, still apparently wants to sell but not to the Trust, and they were back in court the other week for debts owed to the council but we assume nothing has come of it. Cowdenbeath’s owners, the Brewster brothers, have been more forthcoming of late – following a meeting last week they’ve agreed to work together with the Cowden Action Group, and while the problems remain, they have confirmed they will remain at Central Park for at least next season.
At the other end of the league, Clyde suffered their second successive relegation, having sacked their squad the previous summer and scratched together a squad on minimal wages to avoid meltdown.
Which brings us to Livingston, under new ownership following a second collapse into administration. They were demoted from the first division to the third just a few days before the season started, due to the inability of the administrator to guarantee they would finish it. For all the talk of turning over a new leaf and living within their means, they did not take Clyde’s route, instead maintaining a full time squad on three figure crowds. It doesn’t take very many minutes with the back of an envelope to realise this doesn’t stack up, and the club have confirmed what everyone knew – that they have run at a loss again this season. The new owners are wealthy enough to cope with it, but what’s not clear at this stage is whether they’re being exceptionally generous or whether the club is simply running up debt again. There was also the controversy caused by their failing to fulfill the opening day fixture at East Stirlingshire – in the circumstances I, personally, didn’t feel this issue was as serious as some others did (the SFL also took a pretty lenient view) but whatever the rights or wrongs, few in the third division seem sorry to see the back of them.
Dundee United’s Scottish Cup win has already been mentioned, they were due a pot. St Mirren’s failure to beat nine-man Rangers in the Co-op Insurance Cup was sort of funny, sort of tragic, sort of humiliating. If only it had happened the other way round it would have been so much more of all of those things.
The structure of Scottish football
We have these discussions every year, but the call for league reconstruction has been louder than usual this year, and it appears currently that there may be a prospect of the SPL voting to increase to fourteen teams from 2011. My own views on such ideas have been aired in previous articles – in isolation it will achieve nothing – and the fourteen team plan, still with a split but now with an unbalanced split of six and eight, looks particularly unwieldy. It’s very difficult to see what this is intended to achieve. More hopeful are the reforms proposed in the McLeish Report on the reform of youth football in particular. We await the second part of the report later in the year to see if he’s going to suggest any more revolutionary shake-ups.
It only remains to hand out a few end of season awards. Choices are, of course, purely personal.
Divisional managers of the year – Walter Smith (Rangers), Derek Adams (Ross County), Danny Lennon (Cowdenbeath), Gary Bollan (Livingston)
Divisional players of the year – David Weir (Rangers), Adam Rooney (Inverness), Gareth Wardlaw (Cowdenbeath), Liam Fox (Livingston)
Game of the season – Motherwell 6 Hibernian 6
Goal of the season – Paul Lawson (Ross County) v Dunfermline, it’s the third goal in this clip but it’s worth watching the whole thing as there are at least a couple of other candidates within the same game.
Save of the season – David McGurn (Raith Rovers) v Ayr. I’m going shamelessly to my own club for this one, watch out for the triple save starting from about 1:25
Worst prediction of the season – Me, for tipping Montrose for promotion from Division Three (they failed to win a league game untl 30th January and finished ten points adrift at the bottom)
Special award for contributions to Scottish football – a Dundee fan whose name I know only as Barry, for writing this inspired blog, purporting to be penned by Dundee forward Leigh Griffiths. The “real” blog that Griffiths himself was writing for the BBC website quickly fell by the wayside, but this one made quite a splash, and many of its most popular lines have been heard at grounds around the country – and further afield – during the closing weeks of the season. If you haven’t read it yet I suggest you go and make yourself a cup of tea, sit yourself down then start from the beginning.
To next season then. Our first friendly is the day before the World Cup final so at least we don’t have to go without football for long. Or indeed, at all. I’m looking forward to it already.