SCOTTISH Football has had an eventful calendar year. It started with egg on the face for Stewart Regan delivered by Michael O’Neill, followed swiftly by a P45 from the SFA board, and ended with poo on the pitch at Spartans, followed by a swift denial by Gary Lineker that he repeated his Italia ’90 incident.
Our game has its critics but hasn’t been short of entertainment in 2018, much of it covered by the guys on the Scottish Football Forums Podcast. Barring late call offs, or a sudden immediate break from recording duties to focus on other activities, this weekend will be the 40th episode over the past twelve months and will no doubt be reflecting on the good, bad and ugly of this year. But enough about the three hosts!
So who have prospered in 2018 and who can’t wait to see the back of this year and start afresh in 2019?
The SFA, as usual, will look back at the year like a bad hangover, cringeing at some of their antics. The farcical, half-hearted approach to get Michael O’Neill was a PR disaster as the Northern Irishman declined the chance to manage the country he resides to stick with his home nation, costing Regan his job after seven dreadful years as Chief Executive. After another SFA employee leaked to the media that they were looking to approach Walter Smith, seven years after he retired, they secured another former Scotland manager to come in for a second stint in Alex McLeish.
Not content with just the handling of the appointment of National team manager, the SFA also made a pigs ear out of the decision on whether to buy Hampden once the lease ends in 2020 or relocate to Murrayfield, the home of Scottish Rugby. They got themselves in such a fankle that they extended their own deadline so they could buy more time to think. In the end, the expected decision to stay at Hampden was confirmed with the financial backing of Willie Haughey and Sir Tom Hunter, which sums up the problems of the organisation that they pleaded for help so they don’t have to move. On the back of Haughey and Hunter’s backing, new CEO Ian Maxwell has publicly said that there will be redevelopment work after Euro 2020. It will be interesting to see where they get the cash for such a big rebuild job to bring the home of Scottish Football up to scratch.
Domestically, it’s been another year dominated by Celtic, who cleaned up the three major prizes on offer. A seventh straight title was won in spectacular style, by demolishing arch rivals Rangers 5-0 at Parkhead, followed swiftly by an easy 2-0 Scottish Cup Final win over Motherwell to become the first Scottish side to complete back-to-back trebles. They then made it seven consecutive trophy wins by defeating Aberdeen 1-0 in the League Cup Final four weeks ago, equalling a record held by Rangers from 1992-1994, emphaisising the dominance they’ve enjoyed under Brendan Rodgers.
On the other side of the City, Rangers went through yet another change of manager. Former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard was lured to Ibrox for his first managerial job on a four year deal with the task to build a team capable of stopping the Rodgers machine. Improvements have been evident in his short reign so far, particularly in Europe where his team came through four Europa League qualifiers to reach the group stages, and yesterdays derby win keeps them well in the title race, level on points with their rivals, albeit having played a game more. However, it is widely acknowledged that Gerrard still has a lot to do to wrestle the title back to Ibrox.
Staying in Glasgow, it was a year that Partick Thistle will be glad to see the back of. There was the sad news that one of their greatest ever managers, John Lambie, passed away in April. Shortly after, the club endured the humiliation of relegation to the Championship via the playoffs. Expected to challenge to come straight back up, Thistle have had a terrible start to the season, culminating in the sacking of Alan Archibald, and are in another relegation battle to stay in a division they expected to get out of at the other end. Gary Caldwell will be hoping that he can turn things around in 2019.
Whilst Partick have plummeted, the side who beat them in that playoff, Livingston, have gone on from strength to strength. Having overcome the blow of losing Manager David Hopkin, and the experiment of Kenny Miller as Player/Manager not working out, Livi have excelled under Gary Holt, beaten Rangers, Hearts and Hibs at home and are very much in contention for a top six and European place going into the winter break. Considering their managerial issues and that they were relegation favourites, the fact they’ve carried on momentum from back to back promotions is remarkable.
Of course, new year brings change and one man who is likely to be changing clubs at some point is Ayr striker Lawrence Shankland. His 42 goals this calendar year helped The Honest Men win promotion to the Championship and put them very much in contention for a place in the Premiership. Unsurprisingly, his form has lead to interest and the big question is whether he will be sold in the January transfer window to bring in some cash to Somerset Park or if he’ll depart at the end of the season, either on a Bosman or if a buying club loans him back, alas Lewis Morgan from St Mirren to Celtic last season. A repeat of the Morgan case would certainly suit Iain McCall as he pushes his team for the chance to dine at the top table in Scottish Football.
With one team who started 2018 in League One having Premiership aspirations for 2019, another is just hoping to still be in the SPFL setup this time next year. Albion Rovers had a dreadful twelve months, being relegated to League Two after falling bottom of the table for the first time of the season on the last day, sacked two managers and sit bottom of the bottom tier with just five points. New manager Kevin Harper has his work cut out trying to halt the decline and prevent Rovers tumbling into the Lowland Leagues, either by avoiding bottom spot or winning the end of season playoffs. They can’t rely on the fact only one occasion out of four playoffs since its introduction in 2014/15 has seen the Highland or Lowland League team prevail over the League Two bottom dogs. Should their 2018 form continue then their long existence in the Senior Setup will come to an end.
On the international scene, there was much to be proud of, thanks to our Women’s side. Whilst the men watched the Russia 2018 World Cup in envy for the tenth major tournament in succession, Shelley Kerr masterminded the Scotland Women’s first ever qualification to a World Cup with victory over Albania in September that saw them top their group. On the back of participating in their first European Championships in 2017, it’s a remarkable rise for the Scotland Women’s National Team and is great reward for the work that is being done to make their game grow. They can now go to France with ties against England, Argentina and Japan to look forward to, confident that they can do something their male equivalents have failed to do and reach the knockout stages.
The men have went through a testing twelve months under the second spell of Alex McLeish, who has found life much more difficult than his first in 2007. Four wins and six defeats this calendar year doesn’t make for great reading, nor does the International retirements or breaks requested by the likes of James McArthur, Matt Ritchie and Robert Snodgrass. However, three of those wins came in the inaugural Nations League campaign, two against Albania and last months game against Israel, which secures a Euro 2020 qualification playoff against Finland to look forward to in March 2020. This is a safety net in the event of not finishing in the top two of our Euro 2020 Qualifying campaign, which starts in March, and with Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino to overcome, it might well be required. However, with a young team gaining more experience game by game and McLeish picking more players on form than squad fillers and reserves at English Championship clubs, there’s reason for optimism that Scotland can end their 22 year tournament hoodoo by qualifying through the conventional method.
So that’s 2018 in a microcosm, and there’s no space to fill in the poor standards of refereeing, the emergence of Premier Sports in picking up the domestic cup competitions, the rapid improvement of Kilmarnock under Steve Clarke and the fact 18 clubs changed their manager this calendar year. 2019 has much to look forward to and there will be many talking points throughout the course of the next twelve months.
Just remember to download the Scottish Football Forums Podcast for the teams honest views on everything that is going on with our beautiful game.