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Parkhead Paranoia

Scotland v Iceland











This website has been unstinting in its praise for Celtic's magnificent UEFA Cup run this season. And despite the disappoinment of only drawing at home with Boavista, the Bhoys remain just 90 minutes away from their first European final since 1970 and the first by any Scottish side since 1987. Theirs has been a superb effort and, irrespective of what transpires in Portugal in their semi-final second leg, all of Scotland can be proud of their achievements.

But Celtic's attitude towards the fixture with Rangers three days after their return game with Boavista has revealed that old attitudes die hard with the Parkhead club virtually accusing the SPL of conspiring to hand the League flag to their Ibrox rivals.

Basically, Celtic are saying that they should not play Rangers on this date. They are not asking for a postponement of this fixture, simply requesting that they play another team. The SPL's refusal to allow Celtic to pick and choose their opponents has been met with fury from club officials. Chief Executive Iain McLeod has suggested that the SPL will be responsible for any violence taking place that day, saying "The SPL's decision will inevitably be regarded amongst Celtic supporters as a biased one." Manager Martin O'Neill has said that if it was Rangers in the same situation then the SPL would have bowed to their wishes.

This is Parkhead Paranoia at its worst. Exactly what do Celtic think is unfair about playing this game on this day?

Following the disturbing scenes after Rangers won the League at Parkhead in May 1999, including referee Hugh Dallas being felled by a missile, the SPL and Strathclyde Police recognised the dangers inherent in an Old Firm game becoming a title decider and resolved to do their best to avoid this in the future. The following season the final Old Firm game was played as early as March 26th.

But since adopting the ludicrous 'split' it is inevitable that the two rivals will clash in one of the final five games of the season (the 1999 game was the fourth last match), thus increasing the possibility of it being a title decider. Fortunately, from the point of view of public order, Celtic have been so far ahead of Rangers in the past two seasons that the flag has been secured prior to the last meeting of the clubs.

This term it is different. The only date available when it is statistically impossible for the championship to be decided is April 27th. And that is the date the SPL have chosen.

McLeod says Celtic have suggested four alternative dates. These are the succeeding weekends when it is possible that the flag may be at stake. The official Celtic view appears to be that they would rather play Rangers at a date when the potential for violence is greater!

Nor do Celtic have a case for suggesting they play another team on April 27th. Their thinking is that this is too important a game to face three days after an away European tie.

Firstly, this is grossly insulting to other Scottish clubs who have played League games on a Sunday after playing in Europe. This season alone Aberdeen had to play Partick Thistle on a Sunday after returning from Moldova - a far more arduous journey than a trip to Northern Portugal. Maybe McLeod thinks Aberdeen's games are not as important as Celtic's? But what if as a result of losing to Partick, Aberdeen had been relegated? That would have been a far more catastrophic consequence than Celtic failing to win the League.

Consider also what clubs in other countries have to face. Both Milan clubs had Champions League ties against Ajax and Valencia then played each other in the League. Is the Milan derby any less intense than the Glasgow one? Barcelona had to face Juventus then Deportivo. And if any team has cause for complaint surely it is Manchester United. They face seven games in three weeks and three of these inside seven days are all away games - Real Madrid, Newcastle and Arsenal respectively.

Yet, despite his well-known penchant for mind games, there has been nothing from Sir Alex Ferguson to suggest that the English authorities have ganged up on his team.

This is the level, we are told, that Celtic aspire to. If they can't handle Boavista and Rangers how could they possibly cope with the English Premiership?

The whole affair also reeks of condescension to the four other teams - Hearts, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline and Dundee - that have made the top six. Celtic haven't said they are unwilling to play on April 27th, just that they don't want to go to Ibrox. This suggests that the others are regarded as an easier bet - a risky assumption coming just after Celtic dropped points at Dundee and were knocked out of the Cup at Inverness.

It hands a psychological advantage to Rangers who, while publicly saying nothing and indeed abstaining on the vote on deciding the date, must be privately delighted that their rivals appear to be afraid to play them. And O'Neill's suggestion that Celtic are receving inequitable treatment will only serve to fire up that sizeable element of the Parkhead support who need little encouragement to believe that the rest of Scottish football is in a permanent conspiracy against them.

As for Celtic, if they do end the season without a trophy they should look no further than their manager if they are looking for someone to blame. O'Neill has done a marvellous job in transforming the club but his decision to field eight reserves in the Cup at Inverness led to his team's elimination from that tournament. And deservedly so. That also meant that fourth in the SPL no longer merited a European place, thus reducing the incentive for the rest of the top six for the remainder of the season.

If McLeod gets his way and this fixture is changed then it will be another nail in the coffin of the discredited SPL. One good thing might come out of the affair though and that would be the end of the crazy 'split.' We are stuck with it for another season but surely now even the SPL will recognise the stupididty of a format that offers nothing to clubs and is hated by fans who spend money on season tickets not knowing exactly when fixtures will take place or how many their ticket allows them to see.

We may also be entitled to ask why there is such a furore now when it has been clear since day one of the season that this was the most likely date for the final Old Firm match. The answer, sadly, is this: when compiling dates for this season no one in authority, including the Old Firm, thought for one minute that a Scottish team would still be involved in European competition at this stage of the season.

On Ice

Scotland's nervy but merited victory over Iceland takes us a step closer to Euro 2004. And with Germany dropping points against Lithuania the unexpected bonus of winning the group suddenly becomes a real possibility.

Berti Vogts sent out what was probably the strongest line-up at his disposal, given the absence through suspension of Maurice Ross and Steven Thompson. In-form Kenny Miller lived up to his recent form with Wolves by scoring the opening goal. And despite another bad defensive error which led to an Icelandic equaliser, Lee Wilkie's header secured the three points which put Scotland top of group five.

The player many considered to be the one with least claim to be on the pitch - Graham Alexander - laid on the first goal and started the move which led to the second. Another welcome, if unanticipated occurrence.

But our defence still has work to do. Every single goal Scotland have conceded this season has come from either set-pieces or defensive lapses.

However the qualifying situation is very much within our own control and failure to make at least the play-offs would be disastrous.

Speaking of disaster, whither the SPL? They have abandoned the winter break for next season - a welcome move as A) nobody can be quite sure when winter in Scotland is at its worst and B) it will reduce the number of midweek matches played in December and January.

But the powers-that-be seem intent on more disruption to the season. This term we have to endure two unofficial spring breaks in the schedule. The lunacy of the 'split' after 33 games and a pause before resuming matches is still with us. And in additon to that almost the whole of March has been an SPL-free zone.

There was a full set of fixtures on the weekend of March 8th/9th and the next full card isn't until April 5th/6th. This came about as the Old Firm contested the League Cup Final, the next weekend was taken up by the Scottish Cup quarter-finals and the one after that the match against Iceland. There are then two weeks of action before the 'split' and another break.

Surely this must be the only League in Europe with such a crazy set-up. No wonder crowds are falling. The title race is neck-and-neck, a spot in Europe is at stake below that and the bottom is the closest it has been for years. Yet some clubs will have gone a month without playing a League match.

Now the international match takes precedence of course and the cup competitions must be played too. But it is surely not beyond the wit of fixture compilers to come up with somethng better. For a start the League Cup could revert back to being finished by October. Again, there were complaints over the size of the semi-final crowds. What does anybody expect when these are played in midweek in February?

Then again we are dealing here with people who thought that it was a good idea last season to have no fixtures at all over the Easter weekend.

At least this Easter the SFA have demonstrated a modicum of common sense. Originally they wanted Inverness Caley Thistle to come down to Glasgow for a 7.45 semi-final kick-off on a Monday night! That has now been changed to 3pm on Sunday. Would it be asking too much for the authorities to take a further logical step and, if Dundee win their replay with Falkirk, move the semi-final to Pittodrie?.


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