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Feb 13, 2013

Hoops out but not down

In this week's North of the Border, Neil Lennon's gamble fails to pay off for Celtic and the financial dealings of Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov are back under the spotlight.

THE EFE WORD

Celtic were roughed up by the Old Lady in Glasgow this week, as Juventus left Scotland with a 3-0 lead to sit upon when the teams meet in Italy to settle the formalities of progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The Scottish champions do not lose often at home in Europe and against the leaders of Serie A they created enough chances to tell a different story. The narrative they clung to afterwards was the lack of control from the referee at corner kicks. Both Celtic boss Neil Lennon and his player Kris Commons had plenty of evidence for their complaint. Celtic players were wrestled out of position at almost every set play. Juventus defenders simply called the bluff of Alberto Uldiano Mallenco, the Spanish referee who warned them repeatedly, but could not bring himself to draw a line in the sand.

However, the irreparable damage done can be better attributed to another decision, one made by Lennon earlier in the day. Efe Ambrose was a key figure in defence for Nigeria in their run to become champions of Africa. He played in the final on Sunday and he celebrated with his team-mates afterwards. After a gruelling tournament in South Africa, he flew back to Glasgow, arriving on the day of the Juventus game. Lennon had a decision to make and resolved that Ambrose in this condition was a better bet than any other of his defensive permutations. He was wrong.

The Nigerian was at fault for the third-minute goal that changed the demands of the evening for Celtic and for the final goal that made the return leg little more than an exhibition game. He also missed a header from close range when his team were a goal down.

Lennon conceded that the selection of Ambrose had been "a bit of a gamble" and that he had been left with no alternative but to stick with the Nigerian throughout after the withdrawal through injury of Mikael Lustig. The make-up of his bench, which contained three strikers but only one defender, the full-back Adam Matthews, appeared to leave Celtic further exposed when the gamble did not pay off.

The fact that this tie has swung on one marginal decision is frustrating, as it fixes a ceiling on what this talented and youthful team, which Lennon has constructed with a budget far inferior to any of the teams they have played in the Champions League, can achieve.

Last weekend they rested almost every starter for a league match in Inverness that they won comfortably. They could do that because they had accelerated in the SPL during the winter break in European competition, earning their manager the luxury of protecting his players ahead of the visit of Juventus. Had rest, both physical and psychological, been given equal consideration in the selection of Ambrose, perhaps Celtic would go to Italy with a chance of staying on the ride. As it is, their ticket has been punched.

Their run and the sound decision making inside Celtic Park resulted in a profit of almost £15 million for the second half of 2012, the club announced this week. These are huge numbers in Scotland and set the table for Celtic to move up a weight category or two in Europe. They will win the SPL and enter round two of qualifying next season. They also hold several players whose value has increased exponentially in the previous two years and it is likely one will be sold at a big profit.

Celtic are as good as out, but not all that down.

RUN ON THE BANK

For the first time, North of the Border must report on Lithuanian financial news. Ukio Bankas, the financial house to whom Hearts owe part of their substantial debt, were this week placed into administration. Ukio Bankas is majority-owned by Vladimir Romanov, who also runs the show at Hearts. However, the majority of the debt apparently lies with Ukio Banko Investicine Grupe (UBIG) an umbrella investment group which also has Romanov's fingerprints on it but, as his people were quick to underline, is a separate entity to the stricken bank.

The reaction in Scotland was mostly befuddlement. The supporters group attempting to purchase the club from Romanov hoped that this would increase his need to sell on the cheap. One financial analyst said if Hearts owed significant funds to the bank, their stadium may be at risk. Most participants, in both countries, merely reminded us how little we have ever known about the spider's web of ownership between these three organisations.

Should Hearts be placed under renewed threat by the unfolding story in Lithuania, hopefully more will become known about the links between the arms of the Romanov business empire and the way incredible debts were so run up in quick time with the purchase of a carousel of players that seemed to operate at random.

RISING SONS

Dumbarton and Cowdenbeath might both remain in the First Division, notwithstanding the gerrymandering of the league system which continues to be debated by member clubs of the Scottish Football League. This would be an absolute coup for the two smallest teams in the second tier and their young managers, Ian Murray, in his first season, and Colin Cameron.

Both clubs are now six points clear of the automatic relegation spot and level with Hamilton Academical. Also in their sights are Raith Rovers and Falkirk. All of their competitors have history in either the SPL or the cup competitions. The tenacity of Cowdenbeath and Dumbarton might endorse their managers, but also talks to a level playing field for teams outside the top division. One of the reasons the SFL may push through reconstruction plans is the greater distribution of revenue from the SPL to the lower leagues. The financial divide between the top 12 and the rest in Scotland that any regeneration must remedy has created immense peril for relegated clubs and a funding desert for clubs in the SFL. Everything has plummeted: prize money, wage bills, attendances and the average age of starting players.

In this desolate landscape has arrived Craig Gordon, recently one of the best and certainly the most expensive goalkeeper in Britain. Released by Sunderland after injuries derailed his career, the 30-year-old has revealed he may never play again. He has joined Murray, his one-time cross-town rival when they played on opposite sides of the Edinburgh derby, as a coach at Dumbarton. Both former Scotland players can lead by example, although their careers must seem like fantasies to the part-timers they are inspiring in a relegation fight.

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