Passions at play, super sell-out
In this week's North of the Border, Neil Lennon threatens to resign, Elgin oversell their match with Rangers and Gary Mackay-Steven's fractured hand is a blow to Dundee United.
PASSIONS AT PLAY
Welcome to the crazy world of Neil Lennon: 17 days after defeating Barcelona, with his team top of the SPL and with a great chance of reaching the Champions League knockout stages, the Celtic manager was getting into it with some unhappy supporters at the side of the pitch.
The champions – a point clear at the top of the table with a game in hand over their pursuers – had lost at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It completed a sequence of three home league games that had produced a single point, earned when a 2-0 lead was surrendered late to Dundee United. The other defeat was inflicted by Kilmarnock.
A factor in all of this is that European run. There is a stark correlation between Celtic's slips in the SPL and their performance in the Champions League. They have played six times this season immediately after Champions League fixtures (including the play-off round) and have taken eight points from a possible 18. These European challenges are the most important matches in Celtic's season and as long as they are in a position to close out the league once they are done in Europe, they will have successfully balanced their ambitions.
This story would have been invisible had it not been for Lennon, whose gnarly persona from his playing career radiates from his matchday tracksuit. First, he chose to respond to criticism from the stands, when most managers would not have. Then he spoke to media and when he could have played it all down, raised the issue of possibly leaving his post when he said: "I understand supporters' frustrations. If they're not happy with me and want me to go, I'll go, simple as that."
Charlie Mulgrew, the Celtic defender, described the incident as evidence of the passions of all parties and he was right. Lennon's fire, it appears, is not always easy for him to quell and part of that makes him a far more interesting and insightful presence than the majority of managers, while his achievements so far with the team he has constructed suggest he can be all this and successful, too. However, should things get sticky down the stretch this season, he may have handed his critics a stick with which to beat him. Not literally, of course.
Elgin City's home match against Rangers in the Third Division was cancelled by police on safety grounds after it became apparent that the Highland club had oversold the capacity of its Borough Briggs stadium by more than 1000 tickets.
The news came 48 hours before the match was due to be broadcast live on ESPN, and the board of the former Highland League club were meeting on Tuesday to discuss the fiasco, with the position of chairman Graham Tatters reportedly on the agenda. As well as financial cost and great embarrassment to Elgin and the Scottish Football League, this provided a new angle on Rangers' presence in the bottom tier of Scottish football, just as that story threatened to be exhausted of anything interesting.
It even has a ready-made coda: the two teams meet on Sunday at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup. The 50,000 capacity there should just about do it, though.
Dundee United finished the weekend in seventh position but just five points off Celtic at the top. Kilmarnock are a point further back.
So far this season any club down to that point appears capable of putting together the run of three wins that can catapult them to the front of the pack, or perhaps even better. This raises the threat of the nightmare scenario for the creators and advocates of the always-entertaining SPL split.
After all teams have met three times, the league will split into two groups of six, those teams then meeting once more.
This season, that looks like it may well close the door on at least one team who would otherwise have a run at European football. Instead, sixth place will represent the ceiling on their achievements and they will have no threat of the single relegation place that is the only driver for the bottom-six competition. Instead it is more than likely that the best team in the bottom six will outscore the teams at the low end of the top six over the course of the season. Unless, of course, those clubs have to play direct competitors three times away from home and only once on their own patch – another product of the split.
The SPL meet on Monday to discuss changes to the structure of Scottish football. The bar is not set high.
Gary Mackay-Steven had scored three goals in four SPL games after recovering from what was described as a "clean-up" operation on his knee. The winger is one of the most dangerous players in the league on his day and his return was a factor in Dundee United's own recovery from an autumnal nosedive. Yet now they may not see him until 2013.
The good news is that there is no recurrence of the problem that required surgery, nor of any other injury that suggests the kind of chronic problems that slow down so many players of the kind of pace Mackay-Steven travels at. He fractured a hand during United's 2-1 win at Ross County and will be out for between four and six weeks.
On the scoresheet in Dingwall was Johnny Russell, who has four in his last eight, another big component of the form that has seen United move to within striking distance of the teams at the top of the table.
In the summer, both players were courted and United turned down a joint bid by Huddersfield Town which valued them at a combined £1.25 million. If they can keep both of them on the pitch, the signs are that United could be rewarded for that decision in the second half of the season.