Scottish Premier League Update
Ali Hannah on the latest from the Scottish Premier League, February
Celtic | Rangers
Andrew Driver, the Hearts winger, has committed himself to Scotland
as Craig Levein's side bid to qualify for the 2012 European
Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
Craig Levein, the Scotland manager held face-to-face talks with
the 22-year-old over his international future and it is believed
that the Oldham-born player, who has been capped by England at Under-21
level, will pledge his future at senior level to the man who was
his first manager at Tynecastle.
Driver qualifies through the new residency ruling that states
players can represent one of the four home nations if they hold
a British passport and they have been educated in that country for
His decision is a huge boost to Levein just weeks after he succeeded
George Burley as national coach.
Driver, who was selected by England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce
in a European
Championship match against Germany last June, is rated one of
the brightest young players in Scotland.
Levein, meanwhile, has repeated his ambition to have Barry Ferguson,
Allan McGregor and Kris Boyd back in the Scotland team, even while
describing the antics of Ferguson and McGregor during the infamous
Boozegate saga of last March while members of George Burley's
squad as "sheer stupidity".
Levein wasn't sparing in his description of the behaviour
of Ferguson and McGregor, but insisted that neither he nor the SFA
were in a position to act in a draconian fashion over it. The Scotland
manager also insisted that the SFA itself had been partly culpable
in the debacle, while claiming that as many as seven other Scotland
players may have been lucky to have escaped censure on the night
of the binge.
"I think they [Ferguson and McGregor] were really stupid,"
Levein said. "I wasn't there at the time, so I don't
know the exact details of what happened, but whether, as I believe,
there were five, six or seven other Scotland players involved, it
was Ferguson and McGregor who ended up being the last two sitting
"In my eyes that shouldn't have happened. I don't
know why they were told that they could go and have a drink that
night [after the World Cup qualifier against Holland]. And then,
after it, came the V-sign business. If the drinking thing hadn't
happened, then the second thing wouldn't have happened, either.
For me that was the biggest mistake - and I am not making
excuses for the players' stupidity. But it was all a direct
consequence of them being allowed to go and have a drink in the
Levein dismissed the allegation that he was ignoring a principle,
whereby any Scotland player who acted in such a fashion did not
warrant an opportunity to return to the international team. The
SFA has been seen by some to have backed down on the severity of
the original punishment for Ferguson and McGregor.
"Look, hang on a minute," Levein said. "Things
have changed greatly in football - it is not the old draconian
way that it used to be. Society is changing. I feel I'm quite
a principled man but what I am saying to you is that a situation
arose with these two players where they had been told they were
allowed to go and have a drink. For me it was sheer stupidity sticking
V-signs up at the press - I've made that clear. But
please tell me what they have done that is so bad that you want
them banned forever from playing for Scotland?
"The way I looked at it is that for Scotland to qualify for
the next championship in Ukraine and Poland, we'll need all
our best players available. I think part of the reason George Burley
struggled in some of his games was that the best players weren't
there, and I think you need your best players available.
"Those two lads were 100 per cent wrong in what they did
- they were so stupid - but it is time to move on. Allan
McGregor has intimated that he's wanting to come back and
play for Scotland. Barry, who I also want back, I will find out
about in due course. Either way, I don't think they will do
any of that again." Levein said that in part it was through
his own experiences as a player - and in particular when a
member of Andy Roxburgh's Scotland squad at the 1990 World
Cup, when some drinking sessions occurred - that made him
want to right the wrong of what Ferguson and McGregor had done.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that when I played
in the World Cup in 1990 there were not a few guys who went out
and had a few drinks," Levein said. "But football has
moved on in the last 20 years. Nowadays the players themselves have
to be far more conscious about, first, their bodies, but also about
their behaviour. Because today you can't do anything without
it being in the newspapers."
Talk of a Treble always brings Scottish managers out in something
of a cold sweat.
Even so, the fact remains that all three trophies are alive for
Rangers after they progressed to the Co-operative Insurance Cup
final where they will face St Mirren in the final. They have a 10-point
lead in the league with 15 games left. Chat about a possible Treble
has risen given that they also remain alive and well in the Scottish
The problem that Walter Smith sees between now and the end of
the season lies in keeping enough of his players fit. If Rangers
are to win all three domestic trophies they will probably have to
negotiate 20 more league and cup games between now and the Scottish
Reaching the cup final without replays would mean they would have
played 54 games by the end of the season, 34 of which have already
been negotiated. That's a relatively low total for a team
going all the way in the cups. Pursuing the quadruple stretched
Rangers' season to 69 games en route to the Uefa Cup final
in Manchester two seasons ago. Smith has won only one treble and
that season, 1992-93, lasted 64 games.
He could win it after fewer matches this time, but that's
not the most significant change in circumstances. This time he has
had no opportunity to refresh his squad with new signings and give
it further depth. That's Smith's worry. Rangers will
not be able to negotiate those remaining 20 or so fixtures without
incurring further injuries and suspensions.
Smith's concern is that chasing three trophies could ask
more of the Rangers squad than it is able to give. That's
the message he has given out, at least. Privately, behind the gates
of Murray Park, he may be happier about his current resources than
he is letting on.
So far this season Celtic have played two games more than Rangers
and their squad seems larger and fresher because of the new blood
introduced by Tony Mowbray in the transfer window. Smith hasn't
had money to spend and rejuvenating the side with young players
has been limited to using Danny Wilson as a stand-in and John Fleck
and Andrew Little in cameo roles. Rangers have turned time and time
again to a backbone of senior players - Allan McGregor, Davie
Weir, Sasa Papac, Steven Davis, Lee McCulloch, Kris Boyd, Kenny
Miller, Steven Whittaker - who have started most of their
Rangers can only cross their fingers and hope that all of them
can continue the long march. But it need not be the end of the world
if one or two of them are absent. Rangers have had no incoming players
for a year-and-a-half, but before the signings stopped their squad
was not assembled cheaply. It may not be ideal, but Rangers do look
to have enough bodies to keep soldiering on to the run-in.
The men in the spine of the team have played a lot of football
in the past couple of years, of course, and in recent weeks some
have felt a sense of tiredness. "We have had a lot of injuries
for such a small squad," midfielder McCulloch said. "People
are starting to get a little bit leggy so I think it's important
that we do the leg work ahead of Saturday, which is going to be
a hell of a game. We just need to keep going. It doesn't matter
who we play or how thick and fast the games come, we've just
got to concentrate on ourselves, make sure we're right and
look after ourselves.
"The gaffer could rotate the squad and rest players but I
don't think any of us are likely to go into the gaffer and
say 'please rest me'. I think you want to play in every
single game and win every single game. They are helluva games coming
up, really important. I think the next four or five games could
make or break the season. It's important we look after our
Unless there is a cup replay, Rangers' next five games are
at St Mirren in the cup tomorrow and then league games against Motherwell,
Hibernian, St Johnstone and Celtic at Ibrox on February 28. By then
there will be a clearer picture of where the league championship
trophy is heading and Rangers will know if they are in the quarter-finals
of the cup.
"I think it's going to be a good end of the season,"
said McCulloch. "I think two years ago we were seven points
ahead and we threw it away. Last year Celtic were seven points ahead
and we ended up winning the league. So I think a 10-point gap or
a seven-point gap, whatever it is, isn't as healthy as it
sounds. It could still go either way. I see Celtic coming with a
late charge. They've signed eight players and we can't
sign anybody so they are in a position of strength.
"Celtic have made some fantastic signings but I don't
think it's about them. We have to be selfish and concentrate
on what we have to do. It's a good gap but I still see them
as favourites, to be honest, because of us not signing anyone in
the transfer and Celtic signing eight. In my book that makes them
favourites for the title.
"But we have boys who know how to win a league. We've
played a helluva lot of games. We're quietly confident."
Smith himself has admitted that he fears for Rangers' financial
future and expects the club's debt problems to worsen before
the end of the SPL season.
The Ibrox side are roughly £31 million in the red and are
seeking a new owner amid pressure from Lloyds Banking Group for
the deficit to be repaid.
Despite the manner of success on the pitch this term, Smith expects
their predicament to worsen in the coming months despite the January
sale of Pedro Mendes to Sporting Lisbon and no new players arriving
to take over.
"It doesn't take away from the fact that we have a
problem," said Smith.
"I think you need to be blind to think we don't have
a problem that for a team of our standing we should not have, and
my concern is that that will continue.
"We are only left to do what we have to do on the pitch and
try as hard as we can and we are doing that.
"Anyone that has seen us play would say that, for whatever
faults we all have from myself all the way down through the players,
they don't lack a desire to try as hard as they can to win
the game and they are managing to do that.
"But everything will not be all right at the end of the season.
It will only get worse.
"My concerns for Rangers for the long term - not even in
the long term, for the end of the season - are genuine concerns
as being a supporter as much as being a manager."
The old adage has it that Celtic and Rangers are only ever three
defeats away from a crisis but Celtic manager Tony Mowbray has already
reached the stage where one more loss may be enough to destroy his
credibility and leave Celtic on the hunt for a new manager.
Quite simply, it has been a month to forget for Celtic. Since
drawing the Old Firm game at the turn of the month - a game they
ought to have won by a considerable margin - it has been all downhill.
The Parkhead side approach February staring down the shotgun of
a ten-point deficit to Rangers and the cracks in the squad all too
The month closed with a 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock, a game that
essentially told the story of Celtic's season, with a disjoined
side losing out to journeymen as a consequence of poor defending
and finishing which was less than clinical.
Mowbray has transformed the squad he inherited, bringing in 13
new players while allowing 16 to leave. His team is a work in progress,
then, but they appear to be reversing into the future. They introduced
eight new players during the January transfer window, but the problem
for Mowbray is in how he can enable them to gel quickly since he
is almost out of time.
For the first time in their history, Celtic are by some distance
the wealthiest club in Scotland yet they are failing to make their
financial superiority count where it matters most and are currently
in danger of achieving the improbable feat of finishing third in
a two-horse race.
Robbie Keane was the marquee (loan) signing on Monday, designed
to address the problem of declining attendances for the remainder
of the season but, even though Tottenham Hotspur are understood
to be paying a sizeable chunk of the Irishman's £65,000 weekly
wage, the defeat at Rugby Park undermined that ambition.
There have been several baffling decisions from Mowbray recently,
not least handing the captaincy to four players in as many weeks.
Gary Caldwell had the honour for the Old Firm match on Jan 3,
even though he was about to be transferred.
Then Darren O'Dea, a defender considered surplus to requirements
for the first half of the campaign (most of which was spent on the
bench during a fruitless loan spell at Reading) was considered officer
material in spite of having gone three months without competitive
action. O'Dea went from being skipper in the win at Hamilton last
weekend to not even being stripped at Kilmarnock.
Defender Glenn Loovens, who has had a desperately poor season,
was next to be given the armband but when Scott Brown appeared for
the first time since October as a substitute at Rugby Park he took
it from the Dutchman.
Most perplexing of all, though, was the decision to deploy the
Scotland midfielder at left-back with Celtic trailing and in dire
need of a goal.
The manager, as so often this season, claimed afterwards that
he would take it on the chin: the problem for him is that a growing
percentage of the club's support now believes he is in possession
of a glass jaw.
Mowbray won nothing in four seasons as a centre-half with Celtic
during the club's wilderness years of the early 1990s.
Even so, he made a better start to his playing career at Parkhead
under Liam Brady than he has as the club's manager. The 46-year-old
has won fewer than half of his 35 matches since he replaced Gordon
Strachan, in spite of spending more money than every other SPL club
put together this season. With 23 SPL fixtures having been played
and 15 remaining, Celtic currently trail leaders Rangers by 10 points,
although the 20-goal advantage in goal difference enjoyed by Walter
Smith's side is worth another point.
It is the widest gap between the Old Firm at this stage of the
season since January, 2007, when Paul Le Guen resigned as Rangers
manager while 17 points behind Strachan's team.
The only SPL clubs Celtic have not dropped points to this season
are bottom-six outfits St Johnstone, St Mirren and Hamilton Accies.
Hibernian are currently two points behind Mowbray's team with
a game in hand, leaving Celtic in danger of missing out on a top-two
finish for the first time since Mowbray was a player in 1995.
Mowbray has lost 11 of his 35 competitive matches in charge of
Celtic. It took his predecessor, Strachan, 87 games before he racked
up 11 losses. Martin O'Neill, the manager Strachan replaced, went
91 matches before reaching that stage.