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Aug 5, 2010

Distractions blur Old Firm focus

The Falklands conflict was once memorably described as "two bald men fighting over a comb" and cynics could offer the same critique of the Old Firm in the build-up to another SPL season where the Glasgow behemoths will dominate the headlines, league positions and viewing figures, without boasting anything near the quality they enjoyed a decade ago.

Indeed, it speaks volumes for the decline which has occurred throughout Scottish football that the prelude to the 2010-11 campaign has been overshadowed by the farce surrounding Stuart Baxter's role/non-role at Parkhead, the sight of tumbleweed rolling past Ibrox as nothing continues to happen at the once-prosperous club, and the sound of indignant supporters on both sides of the divide asking what the hell is going on.

In normal circumstances, the problems being experienced by Walter Smith and Neil Lennon would surely offer succour to their rivals, but the reality is that the days have long gone when the likes of Aberdeen and Dundee United harboured genuine ambitions of toppling the existing order, as they managed for a while with the help of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean in the 1980s.

Elsewhere, Hibs continue to promise plenty without delivering the goods over a whole season, while speculation swirls around Hearts as to their financial well-being, now that their owner, Vladimir Romanov, seems to have dispensed with his former conviction that the Tynecastle team would win the Champions League within five years of him taking control. Even at the time, it appeared a ludicrous ambition from one of the more eccentric characters in the often wacky world of Caledonia FC, but then again, Romanov is as entitled to his dreams as anyone else.

Essentially, though, the SPL battle will once again boil down to an almighty struggle between the veteran Smith, who is entering the final phase of his extended career at Rangers, and Lennon, a fellow who is young enough to be his son, but who lacks for nothing in terms of commitment or visceral attentiveness to the Celtic cause.

On paper, it is the defending champions who are patently the weaker for the loss of such individuals as Kris Boyd, Nacho Novo, Danny Wilson and Kevin Thomson and one has to wonder exactly how parlous the club's finances are when Smith, whose heroics have brought him six trophies in the last three seasons, is reduced to dealing in buttons and small change for the purchase of potential new recruits at the same time as Rangers supporters are being asked to invest in expensive season tickets.

Yet, even if the title-winners' squad has been pared down to the bare minimum, and Rangers are overly reliant on a combination of youngsters, a la John Fleck, Andy Little and Kyle Lafferty, and the likes of David Weir, Lee McCulloch, Sasa Papac and Kenny Miller, they will remain difficult to beat, domestically, and are capable of grinding out results for as long as the spine of their squad remains free of injury and/or suspension, and such shining lights as Steven Davis and Madjid Bougherra pledge their immediate futures to the club.

By comparison, Celtic are entering uncharted territory with the sure-footedness of Mr Magoo on a tightrope at the moment. It was bad enough that their board dithered horribly over the appointment of Lennon as Tony Mowbray's successor, but worse still that, even now, less than a fortnight before the launch of the new season - and with Celtic already dumped out of the Champions League - there are clearly people at the club who either lack faith in the Irishman or believe that he requires the football equivalent of a nursemaid to deal with his initial teething troubles.

The Baxter imbroglio could scarcely have been handled worse if it had been organised by David Brent or Basil Fawlty, and yet Lennon still isn't out of the woods, even as he attempts to facilitate the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscow, for a reported fee of £9.5 million. Obviously, this cash would enable him to further bolster his resources, and one suspects that new signings such as Efrain Juarez, Gary Hooper and Joe Ledley, will thrive in the often frantic realm of the SPL, especially once they have learned to recognise one another on the training ground, but Celtic are currently pulling in myriad different directions when their sole focus should be on offering a sustained challenge to their Old Firm rivals.

That lack of direction cost them dearly last year. It resurfaced in the days before the crucial meeting with Braga - and allowed the Portuguese side to orchestrate a decisive 3-0 home victory on the European stage - and unless Lennon is allowed to stand or fall on his own terms, free of any interference from mentors, directors or candlestick makers, the worry has to be for the Parkhead organisation that they will leak like a sieve, just as they did so alarmingly under Mowbray. If that happens, Smith and Rangers will be the sole beneficiaries. In the bigger picture, of course, the SPL will remain an impoverished relation of the cash-laden English Premier League and the soul-searching will doubtless carry on as to how a recovery is implemented. Yet, even if there has been a distinct lack of stardust about the few transfers which have occurred thus far in the summer - Juarez looks the cream of the crop, while Paul Hartley will at least guarantee that Aberdeen are no longer accused of the gutlessness which was so apparent last season - the situation isn't so bleak as it has been painted in some quarters.

Rangers, for instance, will be forced into selecting talented local players earlier than they might have wished; that could be to the advantage of club and country. Similarly, Motherwell have dispelled some of the gloom with a few spunky European displays and possess no dearth of callow potential.

The same could be said of Hibs, Dundee United and St Johnstone, while the return of Inverness to the top flight allows us to enjoy the company of Terry Butcher, a chap who came up here in a different climate - as part of Graeme Souness' Rangers revolution in 1986 - and who enjoyed himself so much that he has become, in many people's eyes, an honorary Scot. And if that is possible, then miracles do happen in football. The trick now is for the SPL to accentuate its strengths rather than dwell on its weaknesses. And for Rangers to avoid Barcelona when the draw is made for the Champions League!

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