Scott Binnie discusses the latest issues in Scottish football.
Celtic in Europe and a naughty banner
SPL champions Celtic made their return to the Champions League group stages after a four-year hiatus from Europe’s premier club competition with a 0-0 draw at home to Benfica on Wednesday night.
Neil Lennon’s side couldn’t have asked for a better opening fixture to their European campaign; a home game against a weakened Benfica team. The Hoops were drawn in Group G alongside Benfica, Spartak Moscow and Barcelona, so home form is paramount if the Glasgow club are to progress.
Barcelona will be expected to qualify from the group on top with ease, so Celtic will need to do all they can to get themselves ahead of the other two teams, teams that they will have fancied their chances against, at Celtic Park at least.
Following the summer sales of Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia, to Zenit St Petersburg and Man City respectively, and the suspension of captain Luisao, Benfica posed Celtic considerably less of a threat than they would have done last season or even three weeks ago. Unfortunately for the hordes of roaring fans inside Celtic Park, their team couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity and following an intense, fast-paced start from the hosts, the game fell away to a laboured midfield battle that saw neither side exert any real superiority.
Arguably with two points already dropped, Celtic will have to look to beat Spartak Moscow, the Russian side featuring ex-Hoops hero Aiden McGeady, at home as well as trying to get at least four points from their trips to Russia and Benfica. Earning any points at all from two games against Barcelona is always a huge achievement for a side outwith Europe’s elite clubs, so Celtic will have to aim for at least 7 points in their three other games.
Their draw with Benfica was far from terrible news, but the club did run into trouble when the SFA issued them with a Notice of Complaint in relation to an offensive banner displayed in a friendly against Norwich City at Celtic Park during the pre-season.
The banner depicts a human devolving into an ape wearing a Rangers scarf, which is then shown to die, as represented by a tombstone emblazoned with the Rangers crest, before a zombie rises from the ground only to be shot at by a sniper.
The connotations are clear – Rangers, the level of primates, died and came back from beyond the grave. The argument about ‘old Rangers’ and ‘new Rangers’ is one for a different article, but the biggest issue here is the depiction of a gunman on a banner created and displayed by a group of fans notorious for their support and love for the IRA. This is the latest in a series of banners flown by the Green Brigade that seriously push the boundaries of taste and humour, including their “No Bloodstained Poppies on our Hoops” banner just before Remembrance Day a few seasons ago. As Chief Executive Peter Lawell has said before, these fans need to stop this kind of behaviour because it is the club that suffers from it. A criticism often levied against the Green Brigade is that they hate Rangers more than they love Celtic, and if they persist in their hateful endeavours despite their club suffering, all they’ll do is prove that criticism to be justified whilst hurting their own club.
To clarify the tone of this part of the article, the above remarks are directed solely at the members of the Green Brigade, and of course other fans who indulge in such behaviour, that at times seem to be doing their best to destroy the excellent reputation that Celtic have earned themselves over the years. The loyal and well-behaved fans, who are the vast majority, deserve much better, as do the club as a whole.
Ally McCoist and Rangers still yet to get going.
Celtic’s fallen rivals Rangers are enjoying quite a poor start to their journey back to the top tier of Scottish football, only winning two of their five games in the Third Division so far. Rangers were put out of the Ramsdens Cup on Wednesday by Queen of the South on penalties, the latest in a string of dreadful performances by Ally McCoist’s side. So far Rangers have been excellent at home, leaving the pedestrian, narrow, long ball football to their travels, winning only one game away from home and drawing with Peterhead, Berwick Rangers, and Annan Athletic in the league. Their two away victories came against Brechin City, after extra time, and Falkirk, both in the Ramsdens Cup. Neither performance was a convincing one.
Before the game with Queen of the South, Rangers had tasted victory in all their home games, winning those fixtures 4-0, 5-1, 3-0 and 5-1. In the two 5-1 games they went behind to East Stirlingshire and Elgin City, but even then it was clear that the home team would run away with each game.
After each disappointing away performance, and now last week’s Ramsdens Cup exit, Ally McCoist and his players have been vocal in expressing their embarrassment and have apologised to their fans, vowing to deliver the performances that they feel the fans deserve after their unwavering support during the nightmare that began in February and ended with the liquidation of the previous holding company. As of yet, those performances haven’t appeared on the road and now it looks like the devastating home form could be on its way out.
McCoist said this week that he didn’t think he would or should be treated any differently for bad results because of his status as a club legend, and if Chief Executive Charles Green agrees with that, Ally might just be worrying about his employment status before too long if he can’t get things moving on the park. Admittedly he’s working with nearly a brand new team and a lot of youngsters, but the quality in that team, coupled with the full-time status of the club, means that they should still be doing a lot better than they have been.
Broken Hearts and empty bank accounts
Edinburgh club Hearts seem to have encountered cashflow problems yet again with six players and two members of the coaching staff, including manager John McGlynn, not receiving their wages for August on time. The payments were due last Monday but McGlynn and co. had to wait until Thursday to receive their pay.
This latest failure to pay the full squad on time comes after payments were late a staggering three times last season. Hearts were then charged “with failing to behave with the utmost good faith to the Scottish Premier League”, although no penalty was imposed. The club are still waiting for TV money from their recent Europa League tie with Liverpool, as well as the £300,000 still due to all SPL clubs from the league governing body, so hopefully this season won’t be like the last for players and staff that really do deserve better than the crazy ways of the Hearts owner, Mad Vlad Romanov.
No prickly start for Thistle
Jackie McNamara’s Partick Thistle were one of the fancied teams to challenge at the top of the First Division, probably Scotland’s most competitive league, and five games in they are already looking like a serious force in the season ahead. The Jags have won 9 of their last 10 games in all competitions, their only defeat coming after extra time in a League Cup tie against Hamilton. That record extends back into last season admittedly but they have won all five of their league games this season and they are favourites to win the Ramsdens Cup. Chris Erskine and Steven Lawless are leading the charge with 11 goals between the two of them already. If the goal-hungry pair and their teammates can keep up this kind of form, they’ll fancy their chances of returning to Scotland’s top tier for the first time since 2004.
Gunner leave our players alone?!
In Scotland we’re used to Premiership teams taking a look at SPL players for a bargain, like Nikica Jelavic and James McCarthy, but it’s very rare for a Champions League team to be targeting a player from the Second Division.
This week it was revealed that London giants Arsenal are interested in Alloa Athletic’s 16 year old striker Noel Makombo-Eboma. The French forward caught a lot of attention when he scored six goals on his debut for the Wasps’ U19s team earlier this season. Makombo-Eboma has joined the first team for Alloa’s game with Stranraer today, and if he does debut he will be Alloa’s youngest ever player. The hit-man has a huge amount of potential in his game, and studying under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger’s set-up can only be a good thing, but Alloa boss Paul Hartley will be hoping to hold on to the explosive forward for at least a while longer.