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Mar 13, 2013

Over the line and an alternate ending

In this week's North of the Border, a potentially season-defining moment of goal-line controversy and why an alternate ending could be on the horizon.

OVER THE LINE! (MARK IT ZERO)

A drab Edinburgh derby last weekend was ignited by one moment of controversy that has smouldered on since to leave a reek that hangs in the air like the stench of the breweries for which that city is famous. Something was rotten about the call that denied Leigh Griffiths yet another big goal for Hibernian, this time against their big rivals Hearts.

Griffiths hit a free-kick from 38 yards that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced two yards over the line, before the spin on it took it out of the goal. It was reminiscent of Frank Lampard's strike for England against Germany in the World Cup of 2010, but further over the line.

The nature of the SPL table makes this a tough call to take for Hibs at this stage of the season, regardless of the opponents. Underneath Celtic, the race for the European places and membership of the top six following the split in three weeks is the best we have seen since the inception of this crazy league in 1998. Hibs are now five points off third, where they could have been a single result away. More importantly, their chances of making the Europa League now could be cut off with five games remaining, as they are only a single point in front of seventh-placed Dundee United, with Kilmarnock and Aberdeen a further point back.

Pat Fenlon, the Hibs manager, was understandably unhappy at the call and its implications and there was a wider call for the use of technology to copper-bottom these kind of decisions.

Kenny Clark, the former referee who now provides media with an official line on big calls, explained the positioning of the linesman - set up for an offside call and not the goal-line decision - as relating to the distance of the free-kick. However, this was Hibs and Griffiths. If we have learned one thing this season, it is that he will shoot. He must shoot. Without their ace, Hibs would have as much use for goal-line technology as a fish does a bicycle.

ALTERNATE ENDING

Speaking of the split and stunted charges for glory, Ross County beat Celtic in Dingwall last weekend and are third in the table, two behind second-placed Motherwell. Their Highland derby this weekend with Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who they lead by a point, could be a firecracker.

Yet it could all be so different. As the journalist Bill Leckie astutely illustrated in The Scottish Sun, County were 10th after 22 games, the point at which the new-look top division will split if proposals drawn up by the SPL are passed in their vote on April 15 and by SFL clubs at a later, as yet unspecified date. Instead, eight games later, last season's First Division champions, who were playing semi-pro in the Highland League 20 years ago, have a shot at Europe.

This is the fundamental sporting flaw in the new plan, or at least one of them. It is not league competition and there is no greater illustration of this than what we are currently watching.

Even with the existing six-six split, there will be at least one team - possibly three - who will be within striking distance of third place and European football when the door closes on April 6. They will lose out on income and glory and those experiences that may come to supporters of some of these clubs once or twice in a generation because of a league structure contrived to provide four Old Firm fixtures per season.

In case you haven't been paying attention to the recent history of Scottish football, that didn't work out too well.

ANNAN, OTHER THING

At the weekend, Rangers lost at Ibrox for the first time in their first and last season as a Third Division team. They now have six draws and two defeats on their record. At the start of the season, there were conservative odds on the rebooted giant of Scottish football going unbeaten all the way, or even winning every game. As it stands their lead in the Third Division is 17 points, three less than the edge Queen of the South have in the Second Division.

This shouldn't matter much. Rangers will win the title with comfort and should do the same next season, too, when the young players behind the experienced pros who are slumming it through the lower leagues on big contracts will have more miles on the clock.

However, before this embarrassing defeat, Charles Green, the chief executive with an unbeatable line in rabble-rousing, described the current team as the worst side in Rangers history. He did this while defending the position of the manager, Ally McCoist. I suppose you had to be there.

The conundrum facing the new company as it tries to grow into the corporate footprint of the behemoth that collapsed into liquidation is coming into focus. Rangers will win this league and the one after it. However, the brand is damaged if the club's supporters have to take such blows to their pride on the way. Above all, they must be in a position to win the second-tier championship when they reach that level, so spending and therefore risk will continue to rise.

Unless next season looks very different to this one, McCoist may not be in place to complete the climb through the divisions.

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