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Dec 19, 2012

A modern classic, the rise of Wanyama

In this week's North of the Border, Dundee United and Inverness played out an eight-goal thrilller and Victor Wanyama's star continued to soar.

DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK

The game of the weekend had, as Lord Melchett from Blackadder once uttered, more turns than a twisty-turny thing. It was a modern Scottish Premier League classic, full of heart and chances and goals, the kind of game of which the league should be proud. After eight minutes of it, the story was clear: Inverness Caledonian Thistle's incredible run was exploding before our very eyes.

Not only were they 3-0 down to Dundee United, the team they had dismantled at the start of their march up the table two months ago, but they had put on a masterclass in suicidal defending. The first was an own goal; the second was the closest thing you can get to an own goal as Graeme Shinnie, the left-back, hammered the ball off Jon Daly's instep and straight in; finally, they ushered the United attack through the centre of their defence to give them a two-on-one that was eventually converted by Rudi Skacel.

The Inverness players looked punch-drunk. Terry Butcher, the manager, was frantically redrawing his formation to get them off the floor.

They came back into the game not by taking over possession, or through a period of sustained pressure, but instead behind a mountain of self-belief, stock-piled during a sequence in which they had lost once in 16 games before this one.

Similarly, Billy McKay, whose own streak in front of goal was discussed here last week, does not seem to consider the possibility he may end a game of football without a goal at the moment. He scored two in two minutes, both from corners. When he completed his hat-trick from the spot, after the break, the story was once again obvious: it was only a matter of when Inverness would cement their credentials as the team of the moment with an impossible winner.

It came with three minutes of the 90 left and via the head of Gary Warren, a most unlikely route even before you consider that his header was launched from the wrong side of the penalty spot as United failed once again to deal with a cross ball.

Then, in injury time, the narrative flipped for a final time. United, in front of their own disbelieving supporters, won a marginal penalty when Richie Foran of Inverness was called up for handball. Jon Daly, captain of United, rolled it down the middle for 4-4.

It was a truce from which both teams could rescue their own wounded. Inverness had kept their run going, even if they had lost out on a victory that would have given it new momentum. United were spared the infamy of losing after a 3-0 start and, if they ever want to look at the game again, will find they created more chances than they have done in pretty much every game they have played this season.

For everybody else, this was a thriller that will live long in the memory.

TO THE VICTOR, THE SPOILS

There was more drama in the other SPL games: Aberdeen lost their goalkeeper, Jamie Langfield, to a red card and then two goals to Kilmarnock at Pittodrie; Hibernian chucked away a 2-0 lead as Motherwell won in Edinburgh. Chillingly for everybody else, the match with the lowest heart-rate was at Celtic Park, where the champions racked up the kind of regulation 2-0 win, against St Mirren, on which their likely title defence will be built.

At the heart of it - and not for the first time - was Victor Wanyama, the 21-year-old midfield colossus who has emerged as the greatest example of Celtic's transformative recruitment policy. Wanyama was signed from Beerschot for £900,000 in the summer of 2011. Many bigger clubs were watching him but Celtic played all their aces - they moved quickly and they offered him fast progress in the first team, domestic glory all but guaranteed, a shot at the Champions League and increased exposure not only to the clubs playing in that competition but to those in the English Premier League.

Wanyama has moved faster than anyone expected. He has excelled in the Champions League and has the kind of powerful game in midfield that would appeal to most managers in England's top division - and he is still developing.

Celtic know they have an asset in Wanyama and they are trying to maximise his value. That is why, despite being under contract until 2015, they are offering Wanyama extended and improved terms. The player and his agent may take some convincing, however, and it is likely the transfer that will give Celtic a huge dividend on their investment will happen sooner than manager Neil Lennon would like.

Wanyama scored the first goal against St Mirren last weekend. He is now the short-priced favourite to win the Scotland's Player of the Year award, and for good reason. However, he is not an isolated example. The value of Lennon's team is rising as fast as its stature in Europe.

These days there is no club in Scotland to compare to Celtic in corporate terms, but that should not prevent us from trying to quantify their bottom-line success, also unique in the modern history of Scottish football.

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