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Kenny Miller

<em>Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos</em>

Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Manchester, red or blue, had cause for celebration today. A point secured at Blackburn winning United the Premier League title, a goal at Wembley enough to give City their first FA Cup win since 1969. So all happy, then.

Well, not everyone. The last ten minutes at Ewood Park was a bit of a farce, as United settled for the point they needed and relegation-threatened Blackburn for the point they wanted. It was reminiscent of several years ago when Rangers won the title at Easter Road (or, more accurately, Celtic lost it at Fir Park) when Hibs didn’t want to concede another goal or they would have missed out on Europe and Rangers weren’t interested in adding to Nacho Novo’s strike.

City’s win over Stoke City gave them their first pot since the League Cup in 1976. Seems like yesterday!

Of course, if I’d spent £350 million assembling a team, and my goalscorer Yaya Touré was on £220,000 a week (mental arithmetic says that’s £10m a year, which is mental), I’d be expecting to not only win the FA Cup, but the Premier League, the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest, Horse of the Year Show, Crufts, a Grammy or two, an Oscar, the US presidential election and the National Lottery at least several times over.

Maybe that shows how easy pleased some people are…

Sunday
It was billed as “Helicopter Sunday”, a day when the ever-changing drama unfolding in Kilmarnock and the Parkhead area of Glasgow deemed air travel as the quickest form of transport.

But the reality was that the SPL could have saved themselves a small fortune in aviation fuel and delivered the silverware to Rugby Park on foot.

Those who had wondered all these years what was actually said in Celtic’s pre-match huddle will be keen to know that, on Sunday, the final words were “Rangers are one-up!”

Not true of course, as the games kicked off simultaneously just to add to the occasion, with the outcome also known simultaneously less than seven minutes later. The title was going back to Ibrox for a 54th time, making it three-in-a-row, and a fitting send-off for Walter Smith.

Kyle Lafferty, much maligned at times, grabbed the match ball with a hat-trick, taking his tally to seven goals in the last six games and maintaining his record of scoring on the last day of the season, just as he did at Tannadice and Easter Road.

Playing away on the final, title-deciding day of the season in three consecutive years? That might be considered cause for a conspiracy in some places.

Lafferty’s goals were important. But arguably no more vital than those from Kenny Miller who hit 21, a phenomenal contribution when compared to the SPL’s other goal machines, especially given that he only lasted half a term before bailing out of Ibrox for Turkey.

Celtic did pick up a trophy on Sunday evening, when Emilio Izaguirre – who already had the Scottish PFA and Premier League awards on his mantelpiece – was similarly honoured by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association. Better than Allan McGregor over a season?

I don’t think so. Not even by a point…

Monday
Honestly, you wait for one bus to run over a trophy, then two come along in the space of a few weeks.

Copying the example set by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who managed to get the Copa del Rey lodged under a double-decker, Ajax goalkeeper Marteen Stekelenburg fumbles the Eredivisie plate with similar consequences. Admittedly, it does look like a very ornate wheel trim, but there was no need to do this to it.

Stekelenburg is a target to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, which could force his transfer fee up by a few million. Not because he’s worth it, but with the number of trophies United win, insurance cover could be astronomical…

Tuesday
An historic day. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, visits Dublin – which, by chance, would also host the Europa League final the next day.

Not the usual thronging crowds around for a royal visit, and what did go on was kept in check by the Garda. Of course, if you look at the bigger picture, their job was made a lot easier, not by a lack of interest, or detailed intelligence, or assistance from their British counterparts, but by PSV Eindhoven.

Elsewhere, there appears to be some consternation emanating out of Rugby Park over the number of Rangers fans who filled the stadium for Sunday’s game.

I assume they were Rangers supporters, based on the attendance being 16,173 against a season’s average of just 6,427 (figures courtesy of the SPL’s own website).

Kilmarnock expressed regret at the number of away fans present in home sections at Rugby Park, putting their unhappiness down to safety, segregation and security issues.

It should be noted this had nothing to do with Kilmarnock being unable to charge Rangers supporters, who had bought empty “Kilmarnock” seats, an extra fiver. Of course it didn’t…

And talking of Old Firm fans, Celtic manager Neil Lennon urged supporters to stop offensive songs, saying: “In recent times, there has been a re-emergence, from a small minority, of some of the singing and chanting which is simply not acceptable.”

These songs have at times been inaudible to the human ear and can usually only be picked up by TV and radio effects microphones around the pitch.

BBC Scotland’s Bigotry, Bombs and Football documentary, scheduled for the following evening, highlighted the measures being taken by Strathclyde Police, and both Rangers and Celtic, to curb sectarian behaviour.

Reporter Reevel Alderson revealed that in three years, across their entire area, Strathclyde Police have arrested 800 people for sectarian behaviour. In the past seven seasons, Rangers have banned 548 supporters for a similar offence, and in the past five seasons, Celtic have banned six season-ticket holders for sectarian or offensive behaviour.

Does this mean that (a) Rangers should police Strathclyde, (b) Neil Lennon has drawn attention to a problem that doesn’t exist, or (c) Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) was right about lies, damned lies and statistics?

Wednesday
Talking of Strathclyde’s finest, their long-running investigation into alleged match-fixing allegations against snooker players Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett is at an end.

Bookmakers alerted authorities to “irregular betting patterns” around the match, which took place during the UK Championship in Telford in November 2008. They had taken numerous bets on the outcome of the match being 9–3 in Maguire’s favour.

Maguire won by that margin. But suspicion was raised by a black missed by Burnett which would have made it 8–4.

And since then, both players have been subjected to scrutiny, rumour-mongering and innuendo.

But all of that should now be put to bed. A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “Following a full and comprehensive investigation the case was reported for the consideration of Crown Counsel who, after careful consideration of all facts and circumstances, decided there is insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution.”

I spoke to both players ahead of the recent world championship, where it was plainly obvious that neither had anything to say, other than how sick they were, because they had nothing to say in the first instance.

I’m guessing here, but after two-and-a-half years, and regardless of the online accounts across Scotland opened on a particular day, you would have thought something would have come to light – if there was anything to come to light.

I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this news comes just a week after Taggart was made redundant.

Even so, you have to wonder what the game’s governing body is scheming up when WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson said; “We are treating this case very seriously. We will now be given access to the evidence connected with the case, and our disciplinary committee will review that evidence thoroughly.”

And who do they have on that committee. Hercule Poirot, Jack Regan, Miss Marple?

Or do World Snooker want to bid against Rangers to police Strathclyde?

Thursday
And it’s congratulations to Gary Anderson for winning his first televised PDC title, landing the Premier League with a 10–4 final win over world champion Adrian Lewis at Wembley.

Given the venue, and given the reception Lewis got in Glasgow a few months back, I’m sure he glanced over his shoulder a few times to see if there were any advanced divisions of the Tartan Army making a pilgrimage back to their old haunts.

Brilliant as Anderson did in winning, and in finishing runner-up to Lewis in the world championship final, it’s sad he maybe isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.

If you asked most punters to name a Scots darts player, how many would answer “Jocky Wilson”? But then again, he did make it big.

Friday
London 2012 organisers reveal that they have received more than one million requests for seat tickets for the Olympic men’s 100 metres final – yet only 8,000 will get to carry the Olympic torch for a mile on its journey around the UK. So further enhancing our reputation of being a nation of armchair sportsmen and women…

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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<em>Picture: Stuart Caie</em>

Picture: Stuart Caie

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
A phrase seldom heard in a football context these days is about anyone being able to name a team, one to 11. Even 30 and 40 years ago, not everyone wore the same shirt week in, week out or conformed with the norm. Johan Cruyff was always 14 when none of his mates got past eleven, and I recall Hans Gillhaus, Aberdeen’s Dutch striker, once wearing the No 3 shirt in a game I covered. But then was nothing to now.

Hamilton Accies forward Mickael Antoine-Curier has hit the top of the shop, No 99. Using the old boating lake joke, he has already been shouted at by one referee; “Get up 66,” only to be asked 10 seconds later: “Are you in trouble 99?”

No 99 is of course an interesting choice of number for Antoine-Curier, although it may have something to do with him being a wee bit Flakey …

Sunday
Snooker, and the Wembley Masters reaches its climax with Ding Junhui and Marco Fu making it an all-Chinese final. That earns them 100 million viewers back home, Ding’s victory earns him £150,000, but not his body-weight in pies that his 2009 UK victory brought him. Fu earns plaudits for getting to the final, beating Mark Allen in the semi-finals.

Allen, like many in sport, suffered the misfortune of doing everyone else’s hard work for them by beating the big names, namely Ronnie O’Sullivan in the opening round, and world champion Neil Robertson in the quarter-finals. But again, the Ulsterman failed to convert an appearance in the last four in to a final berth for the fifth time in a major tournaments.

He will crack it one day. But in the meantime, when everyone in snooker needs a nickname to be recognised, maybe he should change his from “The Pistol” to “The Estate Agent” – for all the semis he’s sold …

Monday
For a time it looked like Kenny Miller was Florence-bound. But that just didn’t happen. And none of the other Magic Roundabout characters wanted him either. Birmingham did happen either, but Bursaspor arrive to offer the Scotland striker his latest dream move.

One out, but these days at Ibrox, that doesn’t necessarily mean one in. Rangers are linked with a loan move for unwanted Sunderland striker David Healy, and Newcastle’s Alan Smith. The shock there would be a transfer window where that particular pairing isn’t mentioned in despatches with an Ibrox switch.

Tuesday
There are times, when, regardless of what you have seen or heard before, football still has the capacity to make you shake your head. Today, it was again in disbelief as word emerged that Darren Bent had just moved from Sunderland to Aston Villa for a club record £18 million, rising to £24 million should certain targets be achieved.

Bent’s strike rate isn’t bad. Only Rooney and Drogba are ahead of him in the scoring charts.

But how many think of him in that kind of company – and how many still think of Bent being ridiculed by Harry Redknapp who reckoned his “missus could have scored” following Bent’s glaring late miss against Portsmouth. I know what camp I belong to.

Wednesday
Samit Patel is an all-rounder, which in cricket terms means he bats and bowls, or according to England coach Andy Flower’s definition, is something to do with his physical shape.

Patel was first dropped for being overweight by England two years ago, but was in the running for England’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup squad until he failed a fatness, sorry fitness test.

“Samit was chosen in the provisional 30-man squad … but it was on condition that he improved his physical state for him to be in contention. He hasn’t done that,” said Flower.

Cricket like football, has evolved over the years. And in both cases, athletic prowess is often preferred to actual ability. God only knows what would have happened if Flower and his ilk had been in charge of cricketing policy when a certain Ian Terence Botham came on the scene.

The greatest all-rounder of all-time could have been lost, just because he was Beefy.

Thursday
Davis Love III is appointed captain of the United States team for the 2012 Ryder Cup. The 46-year-old – with six appearances as a player to his name – was selected to try and recapture the trophy lost to Europe at Celtic Manor in October.

No bad player Love. But any time I’ve heard mention of him it’s always made me wonder just what kind of golfers Love I and II were.

Friday
Multiple Majors winner Padraig Harrington is disqualified from the Abu Dhabi Championship after signing for a wrong score in his first-round 65 – all thanks to an eagle-eyed TV viewer.

Harrington’s hand brushed the ball on the 7th hole as he replaced it in front of his marker.

And someone sitting at home called the European Tour, alerting them to Harrington’s actions after the Dubliner had signed his scorecard, resulting in the disqualification.

This could probably only ever happen in golf, given the gap between rounds. Good every dodgy decision in football can’t be challenged by phone.

An Old Firm game would have the capacity to bring down BT’s network, the National Grid and this country’s satellite and digital infrastructure.

Not actually a picture of Scotland training... <em>Picture: Simon Crisp</em>

Not actually a picture of Scotland training... Picture: Simon Crisp

By Stewart Weir

To end a week when most of our clubs found the transfer window boarded up, Scotland’s national team will on Friday evening begin trying to unlock a door that might lead to Poland and Ukraine.

I know, it sounds a bit like an episode of Mr Benn. And there is even an element of dressing up, the costume of course being official SFA tie and blazer.

But this is all about whether a certain Mr Levein is up to the job. One dearly hopes he doesn’t follow the last incumbent, and gets to wear the rear-end of the pantomime horse …

If he is up to the task, the summer of 2012 could be spent visiting the delights of Warsaw and Kiev (which I’m guessing may have more delights than Donetsk and Gdansk) rather than watching some glorified sports day in London.

Just the four nations to see off; Spain, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Liechtenstein, which rather than being a Group of Death, has more a look of Slow Asphyxiation.

Believe it, or believe it not, to date a mere 14 years have passed since Scotland last qualified for the European Championship finals, then under the stewardship of another Craig, the Brown one.

Heady times back in ’96. Invading England (although with neither the numbers or carnage of a more recent visitation) , making up our own chorus to “Three Lions”, hammering the Swiss 1-0, Scotland’s “Player of the Year” scoring the goal of the tournament (eh, that was Paul Gascoigne for those who haven’t worked it out) and toppled only by the combined might of Seaman, who kept a clean sheet, and Uri Geller.

That was back in the days when Davie Weir was still a boy (although not in the squad). But then we did have McCoist, Hendry, McAllister and Collins. Sorry if mention of those names depressed you. I’m sure you could perm any four from the current crop to lift your spirits, slightly.

It’s just hard to lift yourself out of the malaise that has beset us as a nation for too long now. Okay, we get enthused by the odd big game and result. Beating France home and away was great, but the reality is we’ve been making up the numbers for too long.

It’s not for the lack of effort that we haven’t made major finals for a dozen years. We came close trying to reach Euro 2000 and would have beaten England 1-0 on aggregate if it hadn’t been for Paul Scholes (who like Weir is still Champions League material) netting twice at Hampden.

Brown, Vogts, Smith, McLeish and Burley all tried over the previous decade. Which leaves Craig Levein with nothing to beat. If only that were the case. But a new man, new outlook I say.

When the draw was made back in February, Spain were then only going to be defending European champions. Now they’ve added a world crown to their collection. But being positive and using Scots fitba logic, that means come October we could be the first to beat them in a competitive game. So we’d be champions of the world and that’ll be them dealt with.

The Czech Republic aren’t what they used to be, and anyway, when they were far bigger, as Czechoslovakia, and as champions of Europe, we beat them either side of that success to qualify for two World Cups. Thirty-five years ago I know, but hey. They’ll remember that?. So that’s two down.

Lithuania. They’ll have taken heart from watching us lose to Sweden, but that was before the SPL came alive. Scotland beat them the last time in Kaunas, with Kenny Miller scoring. He just can’t stop scoring for Rangers. And the same applies to his Ibrox team-mate Kirk Broadfoot when on the road at international level. Avoiding eggs, the job is as good as done.

Which in our section only leaves Liechtenstein, who we play host to at the National Stadium (how can it be called that when it’s smaller than our national rugby stadium?) on Tuesday. And that is the head-to-head that really worries me. Why?

You see, their national anthem, Oben Am Jungen Rhein sounds not dissimilar to God Save The Queen (or God Save The King for our older readers). Indeed, for not dissimilar, read the same, right to the last rallentando.

And you know what kind of reception that tune might get from the Tartan Army (which under Government restructuring should be referred to as the “Tartan Regiment (Football) of Scotland)”. As Bill McLaren regularly called it, “some ill-mannered jeering” might be picked up by trackside microphones.

Our “Fair Play” title ambitions could be completely wiped out if some over-zealous official deployed from UEFA’s HQ in the glowing city of Nyon gives us “no peas” (“nil pois”) for tact and decorum next Tuesday.

So please Scotland fans, polite applause from all at Hampden next week, regardless of what the band plays, or what happens in Kaunas on Friday …

Naturally enough, the predominant response among the Rangers players following their League Cup final victory over St Mirren was a sense of triumph. The circumstances at Hampden combined so that the win felt like an act of conquering, of prevailing over the kind of odds that would normally only prompt distress. But then the outcome could surely not conceal a greater truth, something that might yet impact on the Ibrox side’s ambition to gather all of this season’s domestic trophies.

During the first-half against St Mirren, when the game was 11 v 11 and what was at stake was a question of authority, of which team was prepared to engage fully with the obligation to be bold, Rangers were subdued. It was Gus MacPherson’s team who sought to be intrepid, and so they dominated long spells and their two robust strikers – Billy Mehmet and Michael Higdon – so bullied their markers that the Rangers defence ought to have been offered counseling at half-time.

Instead, what we saw after the interval was the clearest expression of Rangers’ alarm. Having been so overwhelmed by their opponents, in midfield and defence, Walter Smith altered the shape of his side to 3-5-2, so that they matched St Mirren’s formation. This is an act of concession by a manager, when he admits that his own side has to be changed to cope with opponents who are in danger of being implacable.

In recent weeks, Rangers have lacked that sense of purpose, of entitlement even, that brought such command to their play during spells this season. They fell behind at Ibrox to St Mirren in the league, before winning 3-1, and Dundee United in the Scottish Cup quarter-final, which ended 3-3 and so requires a replay at Tannadice on Wednesday. Smith identified the uncertainty as a hesitancy, as though the players are waiting for something to happen in a game before reacting.

Against St Mirren, this might have been acutely costly. Smith’s half-time address to his players was strict and emphatic, but any hopes of regrouping were dispelled by the red cards shown to Kevin Thomson and Danny Wilson. Reduced to nine men, Rangers reverted to the one quality that has sustained so much of their aspiration this season: resilience.

It was enough that the Ibrox side could contain their opponents (albeit the lack of a meaningful goal threat was always in danger of undermining St Mirren’s work), but the counter-attack that led to Kenny Miller’s decisive header was an indication of the sense of conviction that so shapes the players’ attitude. In the circumstances, the move upfield should have been considered an opportunity for relief, but the deft precision of Steven Naismith’s cross and the sheer persistence of Miller’s run and header spoke of a different faith, one that remained certain that despite being so diminished, this team could still triumph.

It will have felt exhilarating, but too often Rangers have been required to banish a sense of malaise before they could win recent matches. Eventually, that demand on the players’ resolve will prove too great. Smith, more than most, will understand this flaw, as it perhaps comes from the feeling of anxiety in a squad that has overcome its own limitations to move so close to a season of great achievement.

Against Dundee United – who are rejuvenated under Peter Houston – Rangers will be without Thomson and Lee McCulloch, who is also suspended, while Madjid Bougherra and Kirk Broadfoot are injured and Steven Davis is recovering from a virus. The squad is depleted, not so much in numbers, but by the sprightliness that is lost when limbs and minds begin to fatigue.

There is, no doubt, enough of a gap over Celtic in the Premier League for the title to remain safe, but on Wednesday night at Tannadice, Rangers cannot afford to waver.

An international manager is limited in the scope of his boldness. Craig Levein’s first Scotland squad is a combination of regulars, returning players, and a handful of individuals still to prove themselves at this level. The surprise was minimal.

Of the players Levein wished to restore to the squad, Kris Boyd and Lee McCulloch were recalled, but Barry Ferguson remains on the sidelines, albeit for now, and Allan McGregor was replaced by Neil Alexander, his Rangers deputy. The goalkeeper was injured in an alleged attack outside a Glasgow nightclub last Sunday morning. Already, the Scotland manager is learning that call-offs will never be a novelty.

Mostly, though, his selection for the friendly against the Czech Republic at Hampden on Wednesday, March 3, reveals a desire to quickly establish a sense of stability. Fifteen of the 24 players can be considered certain to feature in every squad, injury permitting, while the rest are subject to form.

Levein will hope to create a sense of unity and spirit around core figures. From Craig Gordon, Alan Hutton, Gary Caldwell and Scott Brown to Darren Fletcher, James McFadden, Kenny Miller and Boyd, the spine of his team seems evident. His approach will be to send out a side primed to be formidable.

Scotland are at their most effective in being obstinate. Levein will hope that combativeness and industry will become redeeming features. The likes of Andy Webster and McCulloch will further enhance this forcefulness.

Positions of doubt remain. Caldwell requires a settled partner (with Webster the most likely candidate), while left-back is an area of concern. Levein has opted for two players he has worked with in the past, Lee Wallace of Hearts and Paul Dixon of Dundee United, but both are callow at international level.

“We’re looking for someone to establish themselves as a permanent left-back for the national team,” Levein said. “Although Paul has had a fairly quick rise coming from Dundee to Dundee United, I feel he’s got attributes that would enable him to be at home at international level.”

The shape and substance of the midfield will be determined by the occasion, but Fletcher and Brown will remain mainstays, with Kevin Thomson, the Rangers midfielder, and Graeme Dorrans, who is earning a growing reputation as a creative force with West Bromwich Albion, providing different options alongside Paul Hartley and James McFadden.

In attack, Miller will remain the first-choice for the lone striker role, with Steven Fletcher as his deputy. Any partnership will always begin with Miller and Boyd, injury and form permitting. Relationships built at club level are always enticing to an international manager.

The squad may seem innovative because it is Levein’s first selection. Only the inclusion of Garry Kenneth appears unforeseen. Charlie Adam is included among the midfielders, but then he has been scoring, and performing impressively, on a regular basis for Blackpool. The omissions tell of the scarcity of choice.

McGregor apart, only Stephen McManus, the defender on loan to Middlesbrough from Celtic, and Ross McCormack, the Cardiff City forward, might be considered unfortunate. “There aren’t hundreds of players out there who are going to improve the squad dramatically,” Levein said.

With the draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers having spared Scotland a frightful assignment, the new manager will be keen to generate optimism. With the Czech Republic among Scotland’s opponents in Group I, a small psychological blow may be landed at Hampden. The aim, though, is to stir hope in the fans.

“I’m pleased everybody seems positive about the future and the way things are going, but we have to have our feet on the ground as well,” Levein said. “We’re looking at a team, here, that in the last two years has won only three matches.”

Scotland managers seldom find history is an ally.

The SPL title race is not over, but the wonder is if Celtic can muster the self-possession to make it competitive. Rangers restored a 10-point lead at the top last weekend with a 3-0 win over Hibernian, while their Old Firm rivals were held to a 4-4 draw at Aberdeen. It is a time in the season when results begin to look decisive.

An inability to defeat opponents is unsurprising in a campaign when Celtic’s authority has often been fragile. Three times they established a lead at Pittodrie, and on each occasion calamities in defence allowed the home side to recover. This was a game in which restraint was considered a quaint concept.

At Ibrox, Rangers eventually imposed themselves on a Hibs side that has maintained its relevance and could yet make a spirited attempt to finish second. There was an air of routine about the victory, though, as Walter Smith’s side have lost only once all season and possess the best defensive record in Britain.

There is nothing glamourous or distinguished about the Ibrox team – beyond the continuing prolific instincts of Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller – but then their assiduity is gathering sway. At its heart, this seems a contest between a team that understands its limitations and so plays to restrict them, and a side that is attempting to reach beyond its accustomed nature.

Tony Mowbray wishes to impart a sophistication to Celtic, a kind of heightened awareness, and the disruption to the squad as he seeks the players capable of playing to his vision has been significant. The contrast with Rangers is stark, as the Ibrox side has not signed anybody for 18 months. Stability has become a foundation of Smith’s team, and a significant influence – along with David Weir’s composure and vigilance – on its defensive accomplishment.

The 10-point gap is not insurmountable, but the doubt is if Celtic can find the consistency to persistently challenge it. The chasing team requires to be tenacious and dependable, but Mowbray’s team have not won more than three consecutive league games this season. Rangers have lost only once all season and have never conceded more than one goal in a league match.

Both sides face one more round of matches before meeting at Ibrox on February 28 for the third of four Old Firm encounters this season. For Celtic, the feeling is of time slipping away.