The SPL wrap: close encounters, Perth’s Super Mario…

The SPL wrap: close encounters, Perth’s Super Mario and Aberdeen’s alchemy

A look back at the weekend’s action in the Scottish Premier League.

Close is an odd word. Paradoxically, it can mean both emotionally and physically near, bound by some common link, and can also suggest overcrowding or that two bodies are uncomfortably near.

We want to get closer to each other, but things can be too close for comfort. It can suggest both a level of intimacy and an awkward level of proximity. Metaphorically speaking, being close is a long distance from being too close.

Get your head around that on a Monday morning. Now that I have successfully made the word “close” feel like a hairball in your mouth every time you say it, let’s apply this same logic to the Scottish Premier League.

Rangers are but tiny specks on the horizon to the rest of the SPL, having opened up a nine point lead on second placed… eh… Motherwell? Between Stuart McCall’s side and bottom side Inverness there are 11 points.

Any side from 11th upwards could find themselves in fifth within one match, depending on results. Whether this is a cuddly and jovial proximity, like a well humoured pub, or a packed claustrophobia, like an over-subscribed lift, depends entirely on your allegiance.

Celtic, for example, will not be filled with the joys of the season by watching their great rivals dance merrily off into the distance as they are squashed between the shoulders of Motherwell and St Johnstone.

Neil Lennon’s side travelled to Tynecastle on Sunday, aiming to gain some momentum against a Hearts side that are as predictable as a Vladimir Romanov whim. When Hearts are bad they are atrocious, as St Johnstone discovered last weekend. However, when they are good they are very, very good. Unfortunately for Celtic, this was one of the latter days.

Hearts thoroughly deserved their 2-0 victory, with goals from Rudi Skacel and Ryan Stevenson. Kris Commons, who had taken to sending 140 letter complaints concerning his omission from the Celtic starting XI, allowed his enthusiasm to get the better of him. The winger was sent off to further compound Celtic’s misery. Neil Lennon’s side are as close to Rangers as they are to Inverness.

This meant that St Johnstone’s 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock on Saturday kept them within three points of the Hoops. Francisco Sandaza and Cillian Sheridan scored either side of a Manuel Pascali goal.

If the SPL season is a race then St Johnstone are driving it like Mario from Mario Kart: solid, likeable, dependable and a good all-round choice, but without some of the bells and whistles of other competitors. If they were an ice cream it would definitely be vanilla, but at the moment you’d certainly get a flake with it.

On Friday night, Aberdeen took on Dunfermline in the “experimental” fixture that had been moved forward to test fan reaction to an end-of-week kick off. Credit has to go to the SPL for trying something different, but reaction to the fixture itself looked like it would show a false negative.

Dunfermline had the second worst defensive record in the division, while Aberdeen had managed half the amount of goals Steven Naismith had recorded this term. The unseasonably hot temperatures were not caused by fans rubbing their hands together with glee.

Quite obviously it had not just been the SPL experimenting during the week. Craig Brown had been at the alchemy himself, turning the lead-footed players of recent weeks into something altogether more sparkling. The Dons won 4-0, with Scott Vernon scoring a hat-trick and Fraser Fyvie getting his first of the season.

The score could have been significantly greater were it not for the heroics of Paul Gallacher. While all the talk this week was of Garry O’Connor’s omission from the Scotland squad, it is perhaps a far greater oversight that the Dunfermline goalkeeper was overlooked.

Gregory Tade is a very difficult player to judge the ability of. Blessed with more pace than The Two Rons, he has the strength and athleticism to cause any manner of headaches for defenders. Sensing a caveat? However, his finishing could best be described as erratic. If great strikers are said to finish with aplomb, Tade often finishes with a raspberry.Inverness refused to let any kind of significant gap open up between themselves and the rest of the division by beating St Mirren in the Highlands. Caley had started the game well, but fell behind to Football Manager 2011 star Marc McAusland’s header after 23 minutes. Andrew Shinnie equalised for the home side less than 10 minutes later.

Sometimes you earn yourself the rub of the green. Having missed a number of good chances, Tade was in the right place at the right time to allow Andrew Shinnie’s cross to hit his feet and give Caley their second win of the season.

Motherwell pushed themselves into second place with a convincing 3-1 win against Dundee United. To borrow a phrase, Houston clearly has a problem at United, as the visitors were able to secure their win with the minimum of effort.

The departure of a number of star players appears to be taking its toll and only this week Keanu Marsh-Brown was recalled to Fulham to help battle Agent Smith and aid in the gathering of historical figures for a school project.

Keith Lasley scored his second league goal of the season, before Michael Higdon doubled the lead after a superb assist from Dusan Pernis.. The aforementioned Mr Kenneth tripped Nicky Law to allow Michael Higdon a second, before Jon Daly pulled one back for United

In the league of one, Rangers had to work a little harder than they might have hoped to see off an improving Hibernian side. Gregg Wylde sounds as if he should have been the bassist in a glam-rock band, but the youngster has been one of Rangers best performers in recent weeks.

The same cannot be said of Steven Whittaker, whose penalty kick would have been of great use to Andy Robinson. Graham Stack kept Hibs in the contest until 20 minutes from time, before Kyle Lafferty scored the only goal of the game.

In Brief

Rangers are heaps of points ahead at the top of the division. Celtic fans rightly say that their opening fixtures may have been slightly more favourable – they have not travelled to Celtic Park or Tynecastle yet – but that statement is drowned out by the sound of straws being clutched at.

Motherwell are nine points behind Rangers on 19. Celtic are a point further back and must improve quickly.

St Johnstone are fourth on 15 points, with Hearts in fifth position on 12. St Mirren are also on 12 points.

Dundee United and Kilmarnock both have 10 points, with Aberdeen, Dunfermline and Hibs a point further behind. Inverness are bottom with eight.

Good week: There were excellent results for Terry Butcher, Craig Brown and Paulo Sergio, but all credit must go to Derek McInnes who has taken St Johnstone to the top four in the SPL ahead of the international break.

Liam Craig was the top scorer in Perth last season with five goals. So far this season both Sheridan and Sandaza have excellent results for Terry Butcher, Craig Brown and Paulo Sergio, but all credit must go to Derek McInnes who has taken St Johnstone to the top four in the SPL ahead of the international break.

Bad Week: It’s hard to say anyone but Neil Lennon. After being robbed of a victory against Udinese by a soft penalty decision, the way in which his side were outplayed by Hearts will have hardly lightened his mood.

For the first time there have been vocal queries around his position. The word “close” can also mean “bring to an end”.


(source: Thom Watt – STV)