Greetings. Here is this week’s Sporting Takeaway, my non-partisan look back at the sporting landscape. With me on the couch this week are Alfredo Morelos, Neil Lennon, Steven Gerrard, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Brendan Rodgers and the Night’s King from Game of Thrones. As always, feedback welcome in case I’m talking balls. Thanks for your support.
Reversal of Celtic’s fortunes means it’s now Steven Gerrard’s turn to fight fires on all fronts
Brendan Rodgers and Stevie Gerrard – going to get burned.
Popularity contests and football managers go together as well as petrol and a blowtorch. But the one thing they can guarantee is that at some point they’re going to get burned.
A few weeks ago Brendan Rodgers was feeling the heat after Celtic’s stuttering start to the season on the domestic and European fronts.
Off the pace in the Premiership, the Parkhead side crashed out of the Champions League. Not even the parachute of the Europa League failed to produce a soft landing after an opening-match win over Rosenborg was marred by back-to-back defeats at the hands of FC Salzburg and RB Leipzig.
Meanwhile, Rangers were showing serious signs that a shaft of light was at last visible down a long, dark tunnel. The Ibrox side defied the odds to hit top spot in their Europa League group while still finding consistency hard to come by in the Premiership. So far, so unpredictable.
Fast forward to the here and now, however, and suddenly Celtic have found their mojo. Thirteen goals in their last three wins over Hearts (twice) and Dundee points to a team that has rediscovered its self-belief.
They are now nipping at the heels of a Tynecastle outfit that has sat proudly at the summit since day one. But the sight of Rodger’s freescoring side in his rear-view mirror must be disconcerting for Craig Levein, already beset by injuries to key players.
Across town, Rangers’ wounds are still raw from their Betfred semi-final loss to Aberdeen and a lacklustre draw against Kilmarnock that took the shine off an excellent home record.
Saturday’s lumbering 2-0 league win over second-bottom St Mirren did little to quell the nagging feeling that Steven Gerrard’s side are still acutely short of being a team that can mount a proper assault for silverware this season.
Which means it’s now the Ibrox manager’s turn to feel the flames of fan disapproval lapping around his feet, despite climbing to third place just four points behind Celtic and clear evidence of a club moving forward. The honeymoon may be over but that doesn’t mean the former Anfield star isn’t still feeling the love. However, he needs to inject a little more passion into the play.
Pressure is, of course the price Gerrard is paying for swapping a cushy job with Liverpool’s kids for the job of reanimating a moribund Rangers.
Both teams return to the European arena on Thursday. Rangers’ mission to Moscow to take on Spartak carries with it even more importance. Protecting an unbeaten 11-game run, victory would place them on eight points and out of Spartak’s reach for one of the two qualification berths. Defeat, however, would plunge them fully into a ‘Group of Death’ type scenarion, bunched tightly alongside Villarreal and Rapid Vienna.
Continental opposition this season has repeatedly dug a sharp object into Celtic’s Achilles’ heel. Rodgers has an opportunity on Thursday to avenge the 2-0 defeat meted out by RB Leipzig in Germany – and prove that his side can maintain their improving domestic form against much better overseas opposition. Both teams are locked in a battle for second place in Group B – RB Salzburg, who take on group makeweights Rosenborg, are already galloping out of sight.
The Germans let Celtic off the hook two weeks ago – and could pay the price in any defining head-to-head. It all adds up to a fascinating night as the Old Firm are charged once again with keeping Scotland’s fortunes high in the Euro zone.
Lunatic fringe could kill our game – the stakes really are that high
Hibernian manager Neil Lennon (right) was struck by a coin thrown from the crowd. Pictures by Bill Heaney
It was all going swimmingly, wasn’t it? At last we had a genuine Premiership title race, a league worth talking up. A fairground attraction where every week was a helter-skelter ride of thrills and spills. A carnival that provided the perfect blend of edge-of-the-seat drama and disappointment for supporters. A big-top where the ringmasters included Brendan Rodgers, Steven Gerrard and Steve Clarke, Derek McInnes, Neil Lennon and Craig Levein – all names worthy of seeing their names lit up in neon. It all helped to make our game an easier sell to the commercial suits we desperately need to stay financially onside.
Then a few knuckle-dragging clowns shamefully turned the whole thing into a real circus and opened the door to a chamber of horrors.
Suddenly we are once again shining a torch into the darkest corners of Scottish football and society at large. It would burst your happiness.
Lennon is a deeply polarising figure. Always has been and he makes no apologies for that. But no genuine football fan can condone the lunacy of a manager being struck by a coin, a cowardly action thrown under cover of darkness from a football stand.
Neither should Hearts keeper Zdenek Zlamal have been the victim of punches from faceless Hibs fans during the same Edinburgh derby – a fixture that remarkably is now perhaps more poisonous than the Old Firm.
On Saturday, Alfredo Morelos, pictured above, was quite entitled to celebrate his goal for Rangers against St Mirren without having to dodge a 50p hurled in his direction by disgruntled Paisley fans. A copy-cat crime that was more than coincidental.
But just think of the publicity fall-out had any of these individuals been seriously harmed – or even maimed? The damage would have been irredeemable. Potential sponsors would flee for cover. Millions would have been lost to the game and clubs at every level would suffer the financial consequences.
All because of the actions of the low-hanging fruit that football seems to attract. The pitchfork wielding nut jobs that are putting our game in deadly peril. The stakes really are that high.
Self-policing sounds good in principle but the reality is altogether more sobering. Be honest…how many decent-minded fans are going to take on the lunatic fringe to put their own well-being at risk?
Punishing the clubs also seems extreme, but perhaps that’s what is needed. Strict liability might be the nuclear option but maybe we have reached the tipping point of forcing clubs whose fans behave like this to play games behind closed doors.
All things considered, however, that’s the kind of own goal Scotland can ill afford.
Breakaway European Super League is a form of ethnic cleansing – and a middle finger to ordinary fans.
Winter is coming in football’s game of thrones – and it should send a chill through every football fan.
The idea of a breakaway European Super League should be kicked into the long grass and denounced for what it really is.
An exercise that reeks of self-serving greed and unbounded arrogance. A private members club where the rich get richer and the rest can eat cake. A kind of ethnic cleansing dressed up as progress. Conservatism cloaked as advancement.
Imagine the scene in a smoke-filled room of plutocrats pulling on the finest Cuban cigars and quaffing Chateau Latour as they awaken this dormant proposal from its cryogenic chamber.
Five English clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – would take their rightful places among the continent’s elite. The usual suspects such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and AC Milan.
And here’s an even better idea, the league’s ‘founders’ would be exempt from relegation for 20 years. Not so much founders as untouchables.
But we’ll invite guest clubs from some of Europe’s bigger cities such as Marseille and Roma to leaven the load.
Naturally, the idea – driven by Bayern chief Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, masquerading as the Night King – is motivated by filthy lucre – the tempting gazillions offered up by the relentless march of new media and TV deals.
But it could easily sound the death knell for football and tear down its traditional pillars. Sky and BT would surely pare back – if not abandon completely – their commitment to the game in England and possibly Scotland, backsliding us further into football’s backwaters. And suddenly all that golden harvest disappears.
There will be no European bounty on offer as a reward for winning the title for the likes of Leicester – or even Spurs – because they simply don’t fit the glamorous profile of football’s nouveau riche. No more high-octane Merseyside derbies. Or Tottenham taking on Arsenal in the North London showdown.
And in Scotland, the prospect of elite European football for the Premiership champions and runners-up would be choked off. Forever. Don’t think for one moment that Celtic or Rangers would be given a free pass to this new land of milk and honey. Won’t happen.
But, of course, the biggest slap in the face is reserved for those who shell out their hard-earned to watch the teams they support scrapping for points every week.
How the hell are they supposed to afford away games to the likes of Spain, France or Italy every second week? The truth is the clubs behind this simply don’t care.
Sporting integrity, that phrase so loved by Old Firm fans, would be cast forever into football’s fiery pit. The answer to the European White Walkers looking to usurp football’s iron throne should be plainly spelt out – no risk, no drama, no credibility, no thanks.