Wednesday, April 11, 2012
This week's North of the Border examines the league winners up and down Scotland as Ross County clinch a place in the SPL for the first time in their history.
Ross County wrapped up the First Division championship without kicking a ball on Tuesday night. Dundee, the team nearest to them, drew against Queen of the South and that franked a title that had been beyond reasoned debate for quite some time.
Ross County will play in the SPL for the first time in their history, becoming the league's most northerly team. They're straight out of Dingwall, a pretty small town about 15 miles north of Inverness, giving us a tasty new derby in the top division.
There is little question that County had the biggest budget in the league this season, but the gap was nothing like definitive. Their win is a triumph for Derek Adams, the young manager who took them to the Scottish Cup final in 2010 and in between times accepted and then resigned from an assistant manager's position at Hibernian, under the catastrophic management of Colin Calderwood. County lost the first game of the season, against Hamilton, but have been unbeaten since then.
After it was made official, Adams said: "To win the championship with five games remaining - there's not many teams can say that."
Adams chose a bad week to make that statement. Three days earlier, two of the other three leagues in Scotland had been clinched by big wins for teams that turned around big deficits mid-season.
Celtic won their first championship under Neil Lennon and lifted the trophy before the SPL splits into two sets of six for the final five matches.
They clinched the title with a 6-0 defeat of Kilmarnock, the team that beat them in the final of the League Cup. It was a performance worthy of the occasion and included two more goals for Charlie Mulgrew, an emblem of their season. The defender was called up by Scotland during a campaign that he began as a squad man and has ended as a contender for Player of the Year.
Lennon's team is young and improving and his hit-rate in the transfer market has been impressive. Rangers already have some work to do in catching up to their standard and we are a long way from discovering how able they will be to make up that ground next season.
In the bottom league, Paul Hartley, a player who replaced Lennon at the root of the Celtic midfield, won the Third Division in his first season as a manager, with Alloa Athletic.
They did it at home, with an 8-1 win over Elgin City, who lost their goalkeeper to a red card early on. Steven May, Alloa's pivotal mid-season signing, scored four goals to take his mark to 17 in 17 games. "He is too good for the Third Division," Hartley said of the striker on loan from St Johnstone in the SPL.
The only league still up for grabs is the Second Division. Cowdenbeath could have been celebrating a title win in that division this weekend had they defeated Arbroath at home when the top two met last weekend. Arbroath won 3-2 and Cowdenbeath have to close it out over the final stages, starting with a four-point cushion.
The administrators at Rangers, Duff and Phelps, are this week weighing up the three offers on the table for the Glasgow club. However, as they consider bids from Bill Miller, an American truck tycoon, Bill Ng, a Rangers supporting financier from Singapore, and the Blue Knights consortium fronted by former director Paul Murray, they admitted this week that any deal could yet be subject to a veto by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
The role of HMRC, who will soon send Rangers a tax bill for anything up to £75 million, remains central to the short-term future of the club. They have been far less visible than the three courters of Rangers, or even the incumbent owner, Craig Whyte, who was back in the media spotlight this week.
Despite the constant deadlines thrown up - and then frequently broken - by Duff and Phelps since they arrived at Ibrox, the bidding process appears to be taking place under the cloud of the tax case that could wash the entire procedure away.
The whistle blower
For the second time this season, a senior referee has retired citing his treatment by the Scottish Football Association as the reason.
Charlie Richmond, 43, followed Steve Conroy, who quit after he was dropped down the leagues after an SPL match in which he awarded Rangers a penalty. Sone Aluko was later deemed to have won the award with an act of simulation and Conroy was not seen in the SPL again.
Richmond claims his trouble started when he decided to watch his hometown team, Auchinleck Talbot, play the biggest game in their history, against Hearts in the Scottish Cup, turning down a refereeing appointment to do so.
In a radio interview, he also said that he was told he was "not a team player", that his demotion had nothing to do with his abilities, and added that remarks he had made in dressing rooms had been passed back to SFA HQ at Hampden.
Stewart Regan, the chief executive of the SFA, responded on Twitter, saying that "consistent underachievers should retire without feeling the need to blame others".