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May 29, 2013

Superior Celtic lead the way

In this week's North of the Border, Celtic end the season a long way ahead of the chasing pack while Rangers splash the cash in an attempt to catch up.

Final Word

With the exception of the continuation of a World Cup campaign that now seems like a distasteful joke, the season ended with a Scottish Cup final that told as much of its story as one match could be expected to. No sooner had that book been closed, the theme of the summer was set, as out-of-contract footballers (and there are lots of them in Scotland) were acquired, under-contract ones had a price placed on their heads and one manager was lustily wooed by an old flame.

Let's start where it all finished up, at Hampden. Celtic always looked like red-hot favourites to complete the double and Hibernian didn't put up much of a fight. Neil Lennon's team won 3-0, with two goals from Gary Hooper, one from Joe Ledley and a man-of-the-match performance by Anthony Stokes.

Hibs started the season with promise but ended up doing a decent impression of the teams that have taken the heart out of Easter Road in recent seasons. The importance to the team of Leigh Griffiths, who ended the season with 28 goals and awards from the SPL, the football writers and his fellow professionals, is such that, should Wolverhampton Wanderers take up the 12-month option they have on him in the summer, the consequences may be dire. Hibs could lose the on-loan Ryan McGivern and Jorge Claros; Kevin Thomson, whose short-term contract has expired, and Eoin Doyle, the forward, has agreed a transfer to Chesterfield in League Two. The manager, Pat Fenlon, began his time in Leith with a redraft of his starting XI and may now find himself back to square one.

Celtic's superiority in both the league and Scottish Cup, allied to their excellent run to the last 16 of the Champions League, makes this a remarkable season. Hooper remains one of several players likely to be the subject of multi-million pound transfer bids in the summer and provided two trademark one-touch finishes. The supplier on both occasions, Anthony Stokes, has had a far more turbulent season but his late-season form earned him a new contract and he remains a star turn in Scotland.

Fraser Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper, dropped a few hints after the final that he wants to move up the England roster and is prepared to leave Scotland to do so. Along with Victor Wanyama, a midfielder who answers the prayers of more than one English Premier League manager, he joins Hooper at the top of Celtic's list of saleable assets.

We should not omit the manager. Lennon has developed in a difficult, at times unreal environment. One more big show in Europe and he will be more convincing still for chairmen looking for a young coach with personality, intelligence and an excellent track record in the transfer market.

At the end of the season, the top team look a long way ahead of the pack, with more money coming in from football and player sales than anyone else could dream of.

Talent Drain

That includes Rangers. There is a weird dynamic about their rise through the divisions after being rebooted in the bottom tier last summer. Rangers simply can't wait to get back to where they were, yet the money they are spending and the brutal politics at Ibrox may eventually delay this process.

This week, they started to tool up for the part-time Second Division by hiring some of the better players from the SPL, draining talent from the top division that may prove hard to replace. This was the strategy employed last summer, when their recruits included David Templeton, Kevin Kyle and Ian Black, from Hearts, Dean Shiels, of Kilmarnock, and Francisco Sandaza, from St Johnstone. While Kyle and Sandaza didn't make it to the end of the season, the rest, are part of the team preparing to steamroller the next level.

This week, they signed Cammy Bell, the Kilmarnock goalkeeper and a Scotland squad player; Jon Daly, centre-forward, back-up centre-back and captain of Dundee United; Nicky Law, for two years one of the league's most intelligent and productive midfielders, and Nicky Clark, a Second Division champion with Queen of the South this season.

In an interview with Gavin Berry of the Sunday Mail, the Queen of the South chairman, Billy Hewitson, said the wage bill behind their title win - achieved with more goals and more points than the totals Rangers amassed in the Third Division - was £350,000. Any two of the players acquired by Rangers in these splurges would comfortably bust that budget. They are unnecessary in sporting terms, and as a spectacle few Rangers supporters will remember the 2012-13 season as one of their more memorable campaigns.

Law and Clark signed three-year contracts, perhaps taking them up to the end of Rangers' first season in the SPL. Daly, aged 30, joins for this campaign and a likely scrap to win the First Division, while Bell signed a four-year contract. All will only become Rangers players once a registration ban ends on September 1. If there are questions over the acquisition strategy from an economic perspective, the questions asked of the players this week related to ambition.

In all this unreality lies a true sporting story of romance and redemption. Clark, the son of Sandy Clark, a former Rangers and Hearts No.9, was released by the Ibrox club as a child, then by Aberdeen, whose academy he had joined. He played in the bottom tier with Peterhead, then moved up with Queen of the South. In one destructive season, at the top of a full-time team in a part-time division, he scored 40 goals and earned his return to Rangers, still aged only 21.

Rangers are almost certainly not done yet, but they are already the shortest-priced certainties in sport as Second Division champions. This is a long game, in some ways, but in close-up it has often seemed a little grotesque.

Money Talks

In another life, three years ago, Rangers sold an 18-year-old centre-back to Liverpool for £2 million after half-a-season in which he had played in the Champions League and for Scotland. Danny Wilson looked like the next Alan Hansen.

Now, at 21, he has signed a three-year contract at Hearts and it's hard to work out which side of that arrangement is more strange. No, wait, it's Hearts. Of course.

Wilson was asked, as the news was announced, about any issues he had over the continued uncertainties around his new club's future, given that the two businesses to which they owe a combined £25 million are in various states of explosion.

"You wouldn't imagine they would offer you a contract if there wasn't some certainty there," he said.

There are a lot of variables there, and a double negative, and a distinct lack of confidence, as if the interviewee has just realised he FORGOT TO ASK ABOUT INSOLVENCY. He looks at the back of his hand at the word written in blue biro: INSOLVENCY. How could he not remember?

Stuart McCall did. The Motherwell manager was courted by Sheffield United, a club he served as a player and coach. The League One club's financial position is unstable - perhaps not as much so as Hearts - and McCall decided to turn down that offer and remain at Motherwell for a crack at the Europa League qualifiers.

Motherwell lost Law to Rangers and Jamie Murphy, mid-season, to Sheffield United. They have Chris Humphrey and Michael Higdon, their top goalscorer and the PFA Scotland Player of the Year, among their out of contract first teamers. It seems like a good time for McCall to cash in on back-to-back second-place finishes, but if he is to do so, it will be with another club and later in the summer trading which lies ahead.

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