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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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North of the Border

Motherwell's steelmen and some tough breaks take centre stage in the latest edition of North of the Border.

Men of steel

Motherwell carry the nickname 'The Steelmen' on account of the town's historical connection with that industry, and despite its Ravenscraig plant being closed down in 1992, leading to the collapse of the local economy. Partly as a result, the team is one of those with deep roots in its community and that, combined with a recent habit of producing young, talented sides, makes their early-season form easy to like.

Stuart McCall was playing for Scotland and the dominant Rangers team of that era when the steelworks shut down, and is now the manager at Motherwell. However, their consistency under consecutive coaches - they were a winning team under Mark McGhee, Jim Gannon and Craig Brown before McCall - uncovers the cornerstones of their success: a productive academy and some astute purchases by those managers from the lower ranks of English football.

They hit the top of the Scottish Premier League with a win over Hearts last weekend and the stars of the show come from each of those streams. The headline act is Jamie Murphy, a versatile 21-year-old forward who is costing Motherwell a fortune in the free tickets set aside for scouts this season. Every time he plays, a row of the main stand at Fir Park is taken up by men in long coats with notebooks. The reports are always favourable and Murphy appears close to two giant steps: a move to a bigger club and his first Scotland cap.

However, there is something more impressive about the emergence of Darren Randolph, the goalkeeper they signed on a free transfer last summer and who broke the club's clean sheet record in his first season. Randolph's English club, Charlton, let him go at the age of 23, having shipped him around five clubs in four years on loan. Motherwell are getting the advantage of that experience, combined with a bit of stability and the confidence his form has generated.

Randolph has the stature and game to go to the next level and is already in the Republic of Ireland squad. Against Hearts, Murphy scored the winner, but Randolph's two assured saves to deny Andrew Driver - one a strong-handed dive to his right, the other a sprawling one-on-one block - made sure that goal was worth three points.

Runs like Motherwell's never last - 25 years of Old Firm championship wins tell us this - but they are worth your attention while they are up there.

Think globally, act locally

Murphy and Randolph also highlight the value that English clubs increasingly see in the SPL. Not every player that crosses the border is a success, but when it happens it is usually seen as an indictment on Rangers and Celtic's failure to pick up the talent that emerges right under their noses. With the possible exception of Hearts, who can outspend everyone else for out of contract players and have had their own success in the lower leagues in Scotland, nobody else can afford to make a play for hot properties at rival SPL clubs.

Sometimes this criticism is unjustified, but sometimes it is bang on the money, and the money is what it is all about. If the big two sign a player from an external market, sometimes for a substantial transfer fee and almost always on a higher salary than they would have needed to acquire a player from their own league, they should be reminded, when those moves don't work out, of the ones that got away.

Rangers' recent embarrassment over David Goodwillie, who left Dundee United for Blackburn Rovers despite the repeated insistence of the Rangers manager, Ally McCoist, that the striker was his top target in the summer market, could have been avoided had they gone for Goodwillie earlier in his development, when his value was way below the eventual £2.8 million Blackburn paid and the competition was not around. Goodwillie had a lot of off-field issues and perhaps a point to prove in the SPL, but nobody at United doubted his ability.

Earlier in the summer, Rangers tried to sign Craig Conway, also at United last season. They lost out on the winger, who went to Cardiff City on a free transfer for, it has to be assumed, better personal terms. Not only was Conway a stand-out as early as 2009-10, United had seen his potential when they signed him from Ayr United at the end of his contract there five years ago, aged 21. That is the kind of signing the Old Firm never make.

It is why they missed James McCarthy, who may well become the greatest talent to come out of Scotland in a generation (even if he has elected to represent the Republic of Ireland) and who was playing for Hamilton in the lower leagues from the age of 15. By the time he helped them into the SPL, the competition for him was getting hotter, but Celtic's attempt to buy him two years ago - they failed with a reported bid of £500,000 and refused to go to the initial £1.2 million Hamilton received from Wigan Athletic - will look foolish when McCarthy makes his next move, to one of the big hitters in England, for around ten times the fee he was available for two years ago.

This season, and back at Dundee United, Scott Allan is the summer's must-have midfielder. His case is a little different. He was loaned briefly to Forfar Athletic in the Second Division last season and only played his first 90 minutes for United last Saturday. However, with his appearances this season he has already attracted clubs of a calibre to compete with the Old Firm and Ipswich Town are reportedly trying to get a jump on the competition by making an offer in this transfer window.

Maybe the Old Firm have already lost the edge they once had, rarely exploited, in their own backyard.

Them's the breaks

This was a week when medical insurance premiums went up in the SPL. Over the weekend, three clubs lost important players for a large chunk of this season.

Celtic's left-back, the Honduras international Emilio Izaguirre, was named Scotland's Player of the Year last season. On Sunday, at Aberdeen, he fractured his ankle in an awkward landing after a clean tackle by Peter Pawlett and may be out for six months. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, immediately raised the possibility of going to the market for a replacement, but Izaguirre is in the very top class in his position and will be hard to cover for.

At Dundee United, 24 hours earlier, Scott Severin went into a 50-50 with St Mirren's Jim Goodwin and came out with a triple leg fracture. For the 32-year-old former Scotland cap, it is a career-threatening injury. For his club and his manager, Peter Houston, a lack of defensive cover is starting to look like a weakness that could lower their ambition this season.

Finally, Michael Hart, the Hibernian right-back, suffered a serious groin injury playing in a friendly against Sunderland and his manager, Colin Calderwood, expects to be without the 31-year-old in the long term. Tough breaks all round.

Captain chaos

Spare a thought for Richard Foster. The Aberdeen player was loaned to Rangers last season and got to play Champions League football there. However, there is a special enmity toward Rangers amongst Aberdeen supporters and upon his return, this pre-season, Foster, who had been given the captaincy by his manager, Craig Brown, was booed by his own fans during a friendly.

When Celtic visited Pittodrie in the SPL last weekend, their supporters booed Foster for the same reason. In response, Foster was vociferously defended by the home fans. Things were finally looking up for him.

Then, with the game at 0-0 and time running out on Celtic's hopes of piercing a resolute Aberdeen defence, Foster was caught in possession, an error that resulted directly in a winning goal for Celtic.

After the match, Brown compared the mistake to an act of suicide. After the summer his captain has had, he really shouldn't be giving Foster any ideas.

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