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Feb 22, 2012

Second thoughts for Rangers

Could Rangers end up hoping for a Celtic victory? This week's North of the Border enters strange territory.

SECOND THOUGHTS FOR RANGERS

It is not often that any Rangers supporter would contemplate the idea that a Celtic victory may not be an entirely bad thing but, after another turbulent week for the stricken giant of Scottish football, that scenario presented itself.

After Rangers, deducted ten points after entering administration last week, lost at home to Kilmarnock and Celtic extended their winning streak to 15 SPL games with a 5-0 mismatch against Hibernian, the following weekend's fixtures threw up an anomaly. A win for Celtic over Motherwell would move them closer to the championship and keep alive the prospect of their reaching the finish line at Ibrox in the penultimate Old Firm derby of the season. The Scottish title has not been decided in a Glasgow derby since 1999, when violence on and off the pitch led to police suggesting that the removal of the fixture from the sporting calendar would be of benefit to society.

However, Rangers supporters already looking toward next season, and hoping that their club begins it free from the shackles of administration and with their licence to play in Europe granted, may consider the value in a Celtic win.

The top two teams in the SPL enter the qualifying stages for the Champions League and a Motherwell win at Celtic Park will move the third-placed team to within three points of Rangers, ahead of possible redundancies on the playing staff of the Glasgow club. Motherwell's 3-0 win over Hearts at the weekend ended any debate about which other SPL club stood to gain most from Rangers' problems. Motherwell's manager, the former Scotland midfielder Stuart McCall, has issued a three-line whip against any of his players publicly entertaining the notion that they may be serious contenders for second place, but the shake-up from perhaps the biggest story in the history of this league is not done yet.

As each day brings another terrible revelation of mismanagement at Rangers and the extent of the consequences they may now face, the impact of all of this on the competition is also coming into focus.

OUT OF TUNE

Ibrox was packed to capacity for the defeat against Kilmarnock. What began as an emotional show of support from the fans there soon turned into something that could increase the penalties that will weigh the club down in this season and those to come, and raised some unwelcome spectres of a different kind of trouble.

Anti-Catholic songs came across loud and clear inside the stadium and on broadcasts of the game. Such songs are now illegal in Scotland and can result in a club being fined and deducted points.

The action or otherwise of the league, possibly later this week, will be telling. If this took place under normal conditions, it is certain Rangers would be in deep trouble over the behaviour of their supporters. The connection between what is happening to Rangers as an institution and the collective behaviour of those supporters who crossed the line at the weekend is interesting, as will be the reaction of Scottish football's governing bodies.

CHARLIE'S ANGLES

Celtic continue to impress as their chase of a first league title in four years turns into a procession, following the ten-point penalty for Rangers. Their 15-match winning streak has included 11 clean sheets, despite full-backs who contribute as much to the attack as they do to the protection of Fraser Forster, their goalkeeper.

This week was a good one for one of those. Charlie Mulgrew, the left-back, scored in the rout of Hibs - the Edinburgh club are level on points with the SPL's last-placed side, Dunfermline - and was then selected for the Scotland squad for the friendly against Slovenia on February 29, his first international call-up.

Mulgrew has taken a rare route to success. He emerged from the Celtic academy, but was first loaned to Dundee United and then sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers in exchange for Lee Naylor, a direct replacement at left-back. The English club also loaned him out, to Southend United, before he returned to Scotland with Aberdeen. His form there encouraged Celtic to bring him back on a Bosman free transfer in 2010, a decidedly low-key transfer at that time.

Since then, Mulgrew has proven a serious asset at either left-back or centre-half, particularly for his distribution and the long-time signature of his game, piercing set-pieces. He has scored five times already this season, and his latest was another whipped free-kick. If Emilio Izaguirre, last year's SPL player of the season, had remained injury-free, Mulgrew would have been cover at left-back and one of a cluster of players scrapping it out for the centre-back slots. Instead he is breaking new ground at the age of 25, and at the club who rejected him as a teenager, no less.

LEAGUE RECONSTRUCTION

Ross County lead the First Division by three points with two games in hand over their nearest rivals and this week announced plans to develop their stadium, Victoria Park, to meet SPL criteria should they close out the championship and earn promotion. County are based in Dingwall, 12 miles north of Inverness, and will be the northernmost staging post in the history of the top division if they make it.

The club insist achieving promotion will be far more difficult than sprucing up their ground, claiming they can replace standing areas with permanent seating during the ten-week summer break.

County get 10% of their local population into the ground on a Saturday. While that doesn't suggest a huge potential for growth in the SPL, theirs is a model of a community-based club that provides something of an antidote to the corporate vandalism that has brought one of Scotland's two giants to its knees.

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