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Dec 5, 2012

Fishy tales

In this week's North of the Border, there's cup fever as part-timers Arbroath stun Celtic and a clash of the SPL's Highland clubs.

FISHY TALES

The fourth round of the Scottish Cup presented us with some big stories and no little drama. This is the first stage at which the SPL clubs join in the fun and can often resemble a free pass when, for example, European high flyers like Celtic draw a part-time side such as Arbroath. This year? Not so much.

Arbroath's late equaliser at Celtic Park rates as one of the biggest shocks in the recent history of the competition and a host of top headlines around the fact that the Angus town of Arbroath is best known for the production of smoked fish.

The impact of the result may be diluted by relatively recent defeats by Clyde and Inverness Caledonian Thistle when the latter club was in the First Division, but this was still a seismic shock, once again reducing football economics to so much rubble.

As you might expect, the 1-1 draw was played out largely in and around the Arbroath penalty box, but Fraser Forster, Celtic's impeccable goalkeeper, still had work to do. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, had to hold this week's Champions League decider in mind when preparing for this game and his teamsheet reflected that. However, the result - and dropped points around other European matches - are a pretty damning indictment of the back-ups who get game time in these matches.

Last week, Lennon spoke about his willingness to tie his fate as Celtic manager with the wishes of the supporters who follow his team. It still seems absurd to speak of Lennon working under any kind of pressure on his job while his team remain in a strong position in every competition they entered. However, the margins between a season of game-changing success and the kind of landmark defeats that change the tide are narrowing at this pivotal stage of the season.

HIGHLAND FLING

The pick of the round resulted in another draw, between the SPL's two Highland clubs, Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

This is an intriguing rivalry. The Inverness club is the result of a merger between former Highland League teams upon entry to the Scottish Football League. Ross County, from Dingwall, a short drive north over the Kessock Bridge, made the same step up at the same time and last season completed a long trawl through the divisions to join Inverness in the SPL.

The novelty of a derby in the Scottish Cup produced a packed house in Dingwall and a nationwide audience live on the BBC. And what a game they got. Inverness took the lead through Billy McKay, a striker with whom they have shown considerable patience and for which they are now being richly rewarded. Nine in 12 for him.

County are building their case for survival in the SPL on some gnarly defending, but their response was just as pretty - a fine curling shot from Rocco Quinn, a technician of a midfielder.

Inverness got back in front, County came back again and then they scored again. It was a goal that felt like a winner: the BBC called it like that and Derek Adams, the County manager and not one prone to touchline theatrics, celebrated like they had won a classic. There was time for one more attack and it produced another equaliser. This came from Richie Foran, the Inverness captain, who is a driving force of their success this season.

The whole thing was wonderfully old school. The Scottish Cup should feel different from the other stuff, but it doesn't always remember how to use its magic. Last weekend, we were charmed all over again.

CRIMINAL FINISHING

The match that was meant to top the bill was the Edinburgh derby, but in the end it was a bit drab, won by a deflected goal from David Wotherspoon, one of the many Hibernian players whose human form appears to have been inhabited by another spirit this season, such is the transformation in his performances.

Also at Easter Road, where he was a starting centre forward last season, was Garry O'Connor. He is now a player at Tom Tomsk in Russia, where he previously played for Lokomotiv Moscow. O'Connor also played for Birmingham City and 16 times for Scotland. His era was one where quality forwards were in short supply for successive Scotland managers, but O'Connor's talent was never mined to its full potential.

After the derby on Sunday, he was arrested on drug charges outside a bar near the stadium. Earlier, he had angered supporters who once sang his name by reportedly jumping a lengthy queue at the stadium bar to buy drinks.

It's not the first controversy in which O'Connor has become ensnared. It's not even the first drug charge he has copped. At 29, a renaissance is possible but appears unlikely. Whatever the consequences of his latest mis-step, in judicial or employment terms, it seems that O'Connor is further away from the player he could have been than at any point in his career.

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