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Top 5: First XI costs in Premier League

Transfers 5 hours ago
Read
Dec 30, 2011

Swing City, Hearts still beating

Swing City

In the final game of the year, Celtic went to the top of the SPL for the first time with victory in the Old Firm derby against Rangers, the team they displace. Seven-and-a-half weeks earlier, they had trailed by 15 points. This win, at Celtic Park, was their ninth successive victory in the league.

Should Celtic hold their position across the second half of the season, the snapshot that will accompany images of their championship celebrations will be from Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, in October, when, at half-time, Celtic trailed 3-0. Had they not rallied to save a point, manager Neil Lennon has acknowledged that it may have been his last match in charge.

This phenomenal turnaround was completed by a Joe Ledley goal and a performance by Rangers that spoke far better of the reasons behind the shift in power than anything Celtic could do.

After they were defeated by St Mirren in a game they ended with nine men, and after they appealed one of those red cards, ensuring Lee McCulloch could play against Celtic, Rangers were toothless for much of the derby.

The champions have long appeared vulnerable. Ten points have been dropped in seven games and more than one of their wins during that period have been fortunate. Since the season-ending injury to the Scotland forward Steven Naismith, they have been far easier to contain. Nikica Jelavic, their ace, has the look of a player who believes he will be sold in January, when the extent of Rangers' need to raise transfer revenue will be revealed.

The power of Celtic's momentum and the disarray that Rangers find themselves in are illustrated by the point of view of the bookmakers, who tend to take a cold-blooded view of such things. Celtic lead the SPL by two points with 17 matches remaining, a virtual dead heat, yet they are 2/5 to win the division. Very few neutrals would bet against them.

Hearts still beating

Despite the uncertainty at Rangers, no club is at the mercy of the market during the January transfer window more than Hearts. The Edinburgh club exist under a 'for sale' sign - in the last three weeks they have seen three of their best players excluded from action. First, Andrew Driver left Tynecastle early on matchday after reports broke that he was to hand in a transfer request (he returned to the team but is still seeking a move) and then Eggert Jonsson, the Iceland international, agreed a transfer to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Finally, Ryan Stevenson said he would not play for the club after wages were delayed for a third successive month.

Despite all of this, Hearts ended the year in defiant form on the pitch. They took Celtic closer to the wire than any other team in their incredible run, denied a point at Parkhead only by a late penalty save by Fraser Forster; they defeated Dunfermline 4-0 and then they shut down Motherwell, the team on their own in third place in the SPL, in a 2-0 victory at Tynecastle. They ended 2011 with a 0-0 draw at Aberdeen.

Hearts may lose more players in January, but they have revealed in this sequence of results a spirit within that group of players, disowned by their employers, that should see them safely through the season. For that, credit should go to a man whose influence during a traumatic time has been cloaked by a media ban enforced as this all began. Paulo Sergio, the manager, accepted in the first weeks of this season a job that was very different to the one it has since become. It is impossible to imagine this kind of reaction in such pressurised circumstances without rock-solid leadership from the manager.

Northern Lights

Ross County end 2011 with the biggest lead in any of the four divisions in Scotland. They are six points clear, having just completed a double-header away to both of their nearest challengers for a place in the Scottish Premier League, Dundee and Falkirk.

Those games both ended in draws, hard-earned points both after the kind of games that frank championship seasons. However, any examination of their promotion credentials has to go a long way further back, to the first two weeks of the season. Ross County started their season with a 0-0 draw at home to Morton. They followed it with a 5-1 defeat at Hamilton. It is their only defeat in this cut-throat division to date, and since that day they have conceded three goals on the road.

Their manager, Derek Adams, took them to the Scottish Cup final before accepting the offer of an assistant manager's position at Hibernian, under Colin Calderwood. He returned to Dingwall in the summer, constructed an experienced and deep squad, and has since elevated his reputation to new heights.

This season he has been unmasked by rivals as having the biggest budget of the managers in the First Division. Whatever, the smart money is now on the Highland team moving the boundary of the SPL north next season.

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