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Aug 17, 2011

North of the Border

Hearts' 'Battle of Britain' and Heffernan's horror miss take centre stage in the latest edition of North of the Border.

Border crossing

Hearts and Tottenham clash this week in the first leg of their Europa League play-off tie. This game has created a buzz in Scotland, despite the fact that the English club are huge favourites to progress over two legs.

In the most recent financial report on Scottish football, Hearts were reported to have the worst wages to turnover ratio in the SPL, standing at 115%, but their entire starting XI will earn slightly more than the £45,000 weekly wage that Luka Modric may be about to treble with a move to Chelsea. The hope of victory is a slim one, so what is the big draw?

European fixtures between Rangers or Celtic and one of the 'big four' of recent seasons in the Premier League had become stale by the time the Old Firm's attendance in the Champions League group stages ceased to be the norm. Their recent regularity should not diminish the memory of Scottish football's successes in 'Battle of Britain' matches of the past. Celtic's triumph over Liverpool on their way to the 2003 UEFA Cup final; Rangers despatching Leeds United in qualifying for the inaugural Champions League in 1992; Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen destroying Ipswich Town in the UEFA Cup that Bobby Robson's team were defending in 1981; Celtic's European Cup win over Leeds in 1970, the second leg of which drew over 135,000 to Hampden.

But what will make this one special? First, it is between two teams who do not usually carry their country's flag in these affairs. Secondly, the first leg is at Tynecastle, a unique theatre in Scottish football. Hearts' stadium will be crammed and the fans there are so close to the pitch that Gareth Bale will be able to read their match programmes as he marauds up the left wing.

That may well inspire Hearts to keep close enough to make a fight of it in London and it might be enough for a reminder of why this kind of match-up once gave us such epic encounters.

The numbers game

The accountancy firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, does an annual financial review of Scottish football; it rarely makes encouraging reading. This year, among the top lines was a decline in attendance of over 600,000 in a five-year period. The best news was that most teams in the SPL (a similar report does not exist for the 30 teams in the Scottish Football League) were close to breaking even or making a small profit.

The real problem with this report is that it takes so long to get all 12 clubs' figures through and then to assess them and put the report together, that it is outdated. The figures just published relate to season 2009-10. They make up a snapshot from the end of the season before last, but are most useful as a starting point to estimate the true state of play today.

For Falkirk, relegated at the end of the season in question, these figures are irrelevant. Their operation at the start of their second season in the First Division is unrecognisable to their time in the SPL. At the other end, these figures are a reminder of one of the key factors in the financial health of the Old Firm: sustained involvement in European competition. Rangers reported a profit of £4.2 million after playing in the group stage of the Champions League; had they not done so, they would have posted a loss of a similar amount.

Celtic have already released their figures for last season, on which the PWC report for next summer will be based. There is good news - debt reduced to around £500,000, small operating profit - but, after a season in which they lost their first matches in both the Champions League and Europa League, this is underpinned by the sale of Aiden McGeady for £9 million to Spartak Moscow. Without that, their debt would have gone up and they would have recorded a substantial loss.

It reveals a truth that can be scaled down to fit the vast majority of SPL clubs: hit your targets on the pitch or find a player whose sale can fill the gap in your balance sheet. If you don't, the wolves have never been closer to the door.

Attainable goals

In a climate of declining attendance, Aberdeen's failure to score in their first four matches of the SPL season is not good for business. Their manager, Craig Brown, began the season by claiming that Scott Vernon would be a 20-goal striker once he assumed penalty duties, and if he could remain injury-free. Perhaps he is pacing himself.

Aberdeen have very little depth up front. Beyond Vernon, who scored nine goals last season, there is Darren Mackie, a survivor who had a testimonial match this summer and has scored 57 goals in almost 300 games, and Josh Magennis.

Magennis gave a great interview this week. The fact that he had been on the bench for Cardiff City as a goalkeeper and only changed position at the age of 18 is staggering. That was two years ago and remarkably he is already an Under-21 international for the Republic of Ireland, for whom he scored last week. However, his game retains the rough edges of a late bloomer and he admitted that, "I know there will be games where you will see me play and wonder, 'How's he a professional footballer?' while other times I will do all right". Anyone who has seen the Aberdeen forward play will have appreciated his candour.

Hit and miss

It all clicked for Kilmarnock last weekend. In his 11th SPL game since taking over from Mixu Paatelianen, who he assisted for most of last season, Kenny Shiels recorded his first win as manager. He did it in style, his team sticking to their short game in a 4-1 win over Hibernian. One of his new signings, Paul Heffernan, even scored two goals of the kind that suggested he is the kind of attacking focal point a lot of pretty passing teams lack to make their possession count.

Then, with the game in the bag, Dene Shiels drew the Hibs goalkeeper, Graham Stack, and squared for Heffernan to tap in for his hat-trick from six yards. His miss was so horrible they should have taken one of his goals off him. Either way, Kilmarnock won, and if there is a time to commit the kind of error that would shame a pub leaguer, Heffernan picked it.

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