TWO weeks ago, the SPFL created a farce by dithering over the release of the post-split Premiership fixtures. The scenario of Celtic clinching their inevitable seventh title in a row against arch-rivals Rangers was the excuse used by the people who run our game as the reason to delay revealing the last five rounds of top flight fixtures.
It took them three days after the last pre-split fixture between Hamilton and the defending champions, and eight days after it was confirmed what teams would be in the top and bottom six, to confirm what the remaining fixtures would be. Typically, the SPFL scheduled the last Old Firm game to be in round two of the post-split schedule in hope of avoiding a scenario where one of them could win the league against their rivals.
After the first post-split weekend, Neil Doncaster and his incompetent board ended up with egg on their face as the scenario they, along with Police Scotland, dreaded became a reality!
Celtic’s 2-1 defeat to Hibs at Easter Road, followed up by wins for closest challengers Aberdeen and Rangers, means that Brendan Rodgers men will need to wait until Sunday before clinching the Premiership title.
It is no more than the SPFL deserve for their diabolical handling of the scenario and complete contempt for the supporters, and their refusal to apologise for taking far too long to release fixtures that should’ve been out minutes after the final whistle sounded at Hamilton. Their patronising tweet entitled “When you get the news that the fixtures are on their way” along with a GIF image of a Kilmarnock goal typified their snobbish attitude towards the supporters.
Scheduling Celtic to go to Easter Road first in a bid to avoid the potential car crash of an Old Firm Derby as a title clincher summarises in a nutshell how clueless the SPFL are. If they were desperate for Brendan Rodgers side to win the League against any other side than Rangers, there were better alternatives than send them to face, arguably, the hardest side they’ve faced all season. Two 2-2 draws that almost saw them lose either fixture followed by a narrow 1-0 win at Parkhead in January was evidence that Hibs were more than capable of ensuring Celtic’s title party didn’t happen at their ground. Add to that, Hibs went into the game on the back of a nine game unbeaten run since then that has catapulted into a position where they could steal second place ahead of Aberdeen and Rangers.
On evidence, the best fixture to avoid the so-called dreaded Old Firm title clincher, not decider as the media go on about, was Aberdeen at Celtic Park. Three wins over the Dons without conceding a goal or being properly tested suggests that this was the fixture to lead with and not against Neil Lennon’s resurgent Hibs side. Whilst fellow Aberdeen fans might think I’m being disrespectful, the clubs overall record against sides in the top six other than Kilmarnock, plus woeful displays in other big games in both Cups and the Europa League, is something that has been the subject of much discontent about the Dons all season.
Unlike the Dons, Hibs have not been scared to take on Celtic this season. They’ve had a game plan to nullify them in midfield and cause problems in the final third to get results. It was argued that they deserved more from the two draws earlier in the season but, on Saturday, they thoroughly deserved their victory through their hunger, desire and ability to take their chances. For most observers, it was not a surprise to see them take the three points that keeps them firmly on course for a Europa League position and postpone Celtic’s title celebrations by another week.
For Celtic fans, they weren’t too concerned at not winning on Saturday. Firstly, they know that title number seven, barring an almighty collapse, is on its way. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to them, they now get the chance to rub their greatest rivals noses in it should they win the final Old Firm Derby of the season, or draw providing Aberdeen don’t beat Hearts on Friday night.
Of course, it all means that the scenario the SPFL and Police Scotland have dreaded has now come to fruition. Their worries stretch back to May 1999 when Dick Advocaat’s Rangers went to Celtic knowing that victory would clinch them the title on their rivals own turf. The game was marred by unsavoury incidents on and off the pitch including referee Hugh Dallas being hit by a coin, fans getting onto the pitch to attack players and officials, three sendings off and a high number of arrests by rival fans attacking one another after the match.
What must be pointed out was that particular occasion was played at 6:05pm on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend, meaning most fans had been at the pubs for several hours before the game. The immediate aftermath resulted in the 6:05pm Sunday kick offs for Old Firm games being scrapped and most weekend derbies have kicked off between 12pm and 1pm ever since, restricting pre-match drinking that can fuel already high tensions for the crunch match.
Another fact that is conveniently forgotten by the authorities is that there has been another potential title clinching scenario between the two since the shame game of 1999. Six years ago, Celtic went to Ibrox looking to clinch the title in Rangers backyard with victory over their rivals, only to succumb to a 3-2 defeat. That occasion passed by without high profile incident, perhaps an indicator that lessons from 1999 have been learned.
It’d be foolish to say there are no Police concerns ahead of Sunday’s match, the potential for trouble is always going to be there for any Old Firm Derby let alone one where one could clinch the title by collecting three points and rub their rivals faces in it. However, there are occasions where it can’t be avoided and the authorities, despite their best efforts, now have to deal with this scenario. It should be a match to be embraced, like the recent Manchester Derby where United came back from two goals down to defeat City 3-2 on their turf to stop their rivals clinching the Premier League that day. That match passed by with very little post match trouble for such a high profile derby and, whilst the Old Firm Derby is more volatile, there is no reason to suggest why this Sunday’s match can’t do likewise, especially given the noon kickoff time restricting excessive pre-match drinking.
As for the Neil Doncaster and his bungling board, their delaying tactics to ensure their nightmare scenario didn’t occur has well and truly bitten them on the backside. All they accomplished was angering fans and damning their credibility further by using the Old Firm excuse to stop the post split fixtures being published a lot sooner than they should’ve been, as highlighted in my previous blog on the subject a fortnight ago (https://www.scottishfootballforums.co.uk/2018/04/time-for-to-end-the-annual-split-farce/).
Only in Scottish Football could a governing body make such a mess of this!