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Madjid Bougherra

The Copa del Rey – a bit bashed <em>Picture: Erik1980</em>

The Copa del Rey – a bit bashed Picture: Erik1980

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Semi-final weekend in the respective premier knockout cup competitions either side of the border, with one tie holding a slight advantage when it came to national interest. And you’ve guessed – it wasn’t Motherwell–St Johnstone.

On a day when Wembley was filled with the blue and red of Manchester, Hampden looked somewhat sorry only a quarter-filled – or, more noticeably, three-quarters empty – with the “hordes” from the shires of Lanark and Perth.

Motherwell deservedly won 3–0, with Saints ‘keeper Peter Enckelman the unfortunate recipient of the “Estate Agents Award”, presented to the man who did most to sell a semi.

But while Jamie Murphy and John Sutton scored crackers, you couldn’t help but notice the empty seats around Hampden, which raises the question – as ever – of why a match like this is ever taken to the National Stadium.

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Justification for building it appears to be the only answer. Because with just under 12,000 deciding the big day wasn’t that big in reality, Tynecastle or Easter Road would have made much better sense.

In the south, City shocked United. The next day, Aberdeen and Bolton were just shocking.

Sunday
From Steeltown to Steel City. I know it began yesterday, but given that it lasts a mere 17 days, there was always going to be time to catch up with the action from Sheffield and the Betfred.com World Snooker Championship.

Saturday brought two big stories. One came before a ball was potted in anger, and was so big it even made the front page of the Scottish Sun. It was the collapse, or near-collapse, of 110sport, snooker’s biggest management stable and a twice-former employer of mine. Indeed, in healthier times, I once was a board director there.

It is a sad state of affairs, which is about all I’m willing to say on the matter as I am restricted for space, something that won’t be a problem when my tale comes out in book form. Take that as the first plug.

Damned or doomed, 110sport’s demise was of their making, nothing to do with events conspiring against them, bad luck, chance or fate.

And certainly not a curse – although the second big snooker headline from the weekend could fall into the category.

No first-time winner of the world title had ever successfully defended the title in Sheffield, hence “the Crucible Curse”. And as if by magic, or other powers we cannot explain, title holder Neil Robertson crashed out, beaten 10–8 by Judd Trump, who this year looks to be fulfilling the potential everyone knew he had.

Speaking to Stephen Hendry last week, he believed Robertson could have been the one to break that trend. But he also conceded that few, other than the person who returned the cup from the previous year, could appreciate the enormity of the task and the expectation around being champion – because regardless of who you are, what you’ve done or how well you are playing, all anyone wants to mention is the dreaded curse.

So the next first-time champ, whoever you may be, be afraid… be very afraid!

Sunday also saw Mandy Fisher, who founded the World Ladies Billiards and Snooker Association 30 years ago, resign as chairman, chairwoman or chairperson (delete where applicable).

Fisher, 49, began the women’s circuit in 1981 and her commitment has been the main reasons it has survived this long. That said, it has always been the very poor relation in the snooker family. While the winner of the world title (an event open to men and women) pockets a quarter of a million, ladies winner Reanne Evans won just £1,000 for retaining her world title in 2010.

“Mandy’s heart was always in the right place,” said former WLBSA secretary and tournament director Jane O’Neill, “[but] there were always the knockers.”

Which many give as the reason why women can’t play…

Monday
And still in Sheffield, Barry Hearn, the Don King of snooker, unveils announcement after announcement for next season.

A ranking event staged in Australia in July (on the back of Robertson’s success), a World Cup in Bangkok, a biennial event where Scotland will be defending champions (and holders since 1996 when since the tournament has been absent never mind bi-anything), and a new format for the Premier League as it becomes a World Snooker event,

Sky Sports will broadcast an event for the next three years, prize money on the circuit will rise to over £6m (although it was once above that) and there will also be the Brazilian Masters, with traditional rules, namely unwaxed balls…

Hearn did however threaten that he wants players to come forward to record a new version of the Chas ‘n’ Dave “classic” Snooker Loopy, which reached number six in the chart 25 years ago.

Who will step up? Hopefully not some clown.

I can also exclusively reveal the song might be revamped to include an instrumental halfway through, just in case Ronnie O’Sullivan doesn’t turn up for his verse.

Tuesday
And the sale of Rangers takes another twist after the club’s chairman, Alastair Johnston, questioned the ability of would-be owner Craig Whyte to fund the reigning Scottish champions to the level required.

Whyte has been reportedly trying to purchase David Murray’s 85 per cent stake in Rangers since last November, thus wiping out their debt with Lloyds Bank.

However, Johnston and some of his fellow board members also want to see money spent on the team.

“Based on the documents we have only been able to review within the last week,” Johnston said, “we are disappointed that they ultimately did not reflect the investment in the club that we were led to believe for the last few months would be a commitment in the purchase agreement.

“Given the requirement to repay the bank in full under the proposed transaction, there appears to be only a relatively modest amount of money available that would positively impact the club’s operations, especially as it relates to an urgent requirement to replenish and upgrade the playing squad.”

As much as he is disappointed, there isn’t a queue outside Ibrox willing to part with £30-odd million to be then told what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their money.

Indeed, there is only one other offer on the table – this sees Rangers FC being exchanged for an apple, a kite (in good repair), a dead rat and a string to swing it with, 12 marbles, part of a Jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar (but no dog), the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel and a dilapidated old window sash.

That bid offer comes from a Mr T Sawyer, USA. Negotiations are ongoing, although they say there is nothing of significance in the last item listed.

On the field, Rangers ease past an equally dilapidated Dundee United 4–0. So easy was it that striker Nikica Jelavić had to amuse himself in other ways.

And this week’s competition is: from Paul Mitchell’s commentary, what would you pay good money for?

Wednesday
And as if nothing ever happened, Paul McBride QC will not now face legal action from the Scottish Football Association after expressing regret over recent criticism.

McBride had attacked the SFA after Rangers trio Ally McCoist, Madjid Bougherra and El-Hadji Diouf escaped further bans for their part the “Debacle of Parkhead XXVII” (as you can tell, there have been a few over the years).

McBride had represented Celtic boss Neil Lennon over his disciplinary charge and had accused the SFA of bias, publically stating they were “the laughing stock of world football” and “had been shown to be not merely dysfunctional and not merely dishonest but biased”.

Then he changed his mind, mentioning in his excuse note that he recognised “that offence has been taken to my remarks by the Scottish Football Association as an organisation, its council and its staff, and for that I express regret. I have a lot of respect for many individuals within the SFA…”.

What brought about that change of mind isn’t clear. Legal action, or of being reported to his bosses, who could say? Or did the threat of a parcel bomb just focus things a wee bit more?

I should say, I am not making light of what is a serious matter, and particularly dangerous series of events, least of all for the poor buggers collecting and delivering our post. But I’m surprised no one from the cry wolf brigade hasn’t commented on the potential of a conspiracy, given the Royal Mail have been entrusted with the safe passage of these unsafe parcels.

Terrorist officers from Strathclyde Police have conducted searches and enquiries into who is behind these threats, and have focused extensively on Ayrshire – where despite using ultra-modern and groundbreaking profiling techniques, they have been unable to track down the perpetrators as everyone in that area shares the same DNA…

Thursday
And in the wee small hours, Real Madrid return home from Valencia to triumphant scenes where the city celebrates their winning of the Copa del Rey after beating arch-rivals Barcelona 1–0.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s extra-time header gave Jose Mourinho his first trophy as Real Madrid coach. But it was more about what happened on the team coach – or, more accurately, what happened under it – that made this particularly memorable.

It brings back memories of other cup celebrations gone wrong, like the night in 1988 when Dean Richards and John Jeffrey took the Calcutta Cup for a walk down Rose Street.

Of course, Sergio Ramos will be reminded for evermore about dropping that cup off the bus.

But what is the best case of dropsy after a cup final? Steve Morrow, Arsenal’s League Cup goalscoring hero, takes some beating – or rather took a beating.

Friday
Two days to go to the final Old Firm game of the season and Strathclyde Police chief constable Stephen House believes everything from three league points, to the climate and a day off work could brew up mayhem in the west of Scotland.

“It’s a Bank Holiday,” House said, “it is the last meeting of the season – which is crucial for a result – and the weather forecast is hot. That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped, assaults go up and so does domestic violence.

“We do not see the clubs as the enemy. We do not blame Celtic or Rangers for the violence. The people who are responsible are those who use knives, fists or whatever other weapons on their fellow human beings.”

And I don’t disagree. I have seen the frightening aftermath of an Old Firm game first hand. But I’ve seen similar scenes throughout the country when there is not a Celtic or Rangers top to be seen.

Not meaning to trivialise in any way the concerns of some, but I do wonder on occasions whether all this reported serious crime is down to the factors the chief constable details, or the fact the same gentleman has vowed to put 1,000 extra officers on the streets.

More cops doing their job usually means more arrests and more frightening statistics. And more calls for more resources for more of the same and more overtime next time.

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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.

The drama was predictable. Several of the referee’s decisions were dwelled upon at Ibrox, while Rangers found the wherewithal to seize a late victory. The outcome was familiar because Celtic have been confounded by their Old Firm rivals all season. The title race, too, now seems routine.

Rangers are 10 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League, with a game in hand against St Johnstone to come. For Celtic, the 1-0 defeat felt like a devastating blow, particularly since the visitors must have thought they had endured. Scott Brown’s red card midway through the second-half diminished their ambition and as the game entered injury time, a draw would have seemed heartening.

Opportunities had been sporadic and Rangers’ attacking was anxious. The siege of Celtic’s goal looked hapless, but when Artur Boruc pushed Sasa Papac’s shot wide, there was a stir of urgency. From the resulting corner, in the 93rd minute, Boruc blocked from Kris Boyd, and Maurice Edu drove in the rebound.

Tony Mowbray conceded afterwards that the championship is Rangers’ to lose. The Celtic manager was circumspect, and he chose to deflect questions about Brown’s dismissal by saying he had not yet seen television footage of the incident. The midfielder certainly pushed his head into Kyle Lafferty’s midriff as the players tussled for possession, although the contact seemed meagre.

Dougie McDonald, the referee, was erratic. Brown forced him to make a decision, and he opted to be severe. Last week an anonymous source at Celtic was attributed with criticism of match officials this season, with the inference being that the Parkhead side are constant victims of poor decisions.

It sounded like an expression of persecution, and all SPL teams can point to incidents that tell of a decline in refereeing standards. Even Hugh Dallas, the head of Scotland’s match officials, spoke recently of his disappointment. Celtic will dwell upon the fact that Madjid Bougherra did not receive a second yellow card for various fouls, having been booked in the opening minutes, but mostly the contentious decisions were subjective.

Rangers prevailed by being sufficient. David Weir and Bougherra coped with Robbie Keane, while Kevin Thomson was the game’s outstanding player. There is no extravagance to the Ibrox side, but the reaction to the goal was telling. Every figure on the bench launched into celebration, with Walter Smith charging onto the pitch to punch the air, Ally McCoist gamboling down the touchline and Kenny McDowall raising a television microphone to wave it jubilantly.

Smith was more restrained afterwards, and spoke cuttingly about the added pressure on McDonald. He called for the critic to come out of the closet, and the sense was of a second blow being landed on Rangers’ opponents. But his mood was predominantly one of satisfaction. Rangers have lost only once this season, so their lead appears invulnerable. Smith will be baleful towards any notion of complacency, all the same, but he might reflect on the value of his work this season.

Rangers are beset by financial difficulties, and the team is often careworn, but they have shown a remarkable obduracy. Willpower alone has been potent. Celtic can still apply pressure, but their reliance now is on a fragility suddenly undermining their rivals.

The scrutiny, though, is on Mowbray. His team-building has been piecemeal and the lack of defensive security is a calamitous flaw. Keane can still bring glamour to the cause, and the back four will improve once injured players return and stability of selection becomes possible. But the season now seems relinquished.

This was Smith’s 26th Old Firm victory, equalling the records of Jock Stein and Scot Symon. His ability to rouse a team, to draw from it a compelling worth, has been vital.