It was Sellout Saturday this weekend and a chance for clubs all over the land to let their supporters show just what they’re made of.
For some, that was a very good thing, as they were able to show they were created from fine, healthy ingredients. For others, it was all the bits that the fast-food chains won’t touch. For most, it was a convenient but not wholly satisfactory occasion, like having cereal for dinner.
Yet, we are, of course, but two weeks into the new season. It would be folly to the factor of Yoann to judge each competitor on just 180 minutes of football. Equally, six years ago it would have been ridiculous to suggest that guy off Have I Got News for You would be in charge of handing over the Olympics. So let’s get fired in.
Fortunes have been somewhat differing for Hearts and Hibernian in recent months. Well, let’s face it, years. While the Tynecastle side have generally reached a level of consistency and solidity that Gillian McKeith prescribes, their rivals have been a bit of a last-minute race against the clock in the curry house.
But, to raise the tone considerably, both sides had lost important players in the close season, and both were feeling their way through a somewhat hastily arranged re-build.
Hibs lost last season’s talisman, Garry O’Connor, to the lure of Siberia and Tom Tomsk. The former Scotland international was this week sent off on his debut against Baltika Kaliningrad. One can only hope that Russian referees knew how to spell “Johnston” when they took his name.
Hearts, meanwhile, were without four of the players which helped them record their famous 5-1 victory in the Scottish Cup in May. Ian Black opted for Links Park over Liverpool, Craig Beattie joined up with St Johnstone, Suso Santana fancied summer in the Canary Islands, while Rudi Skacel and Hearts parted company with the kind of “we’ll still be friends” look that suggests they’ll be back together sooner or later.
While the previous two paragraphs may appear pre-amble, the fact that both sides are so obviously reforming things was in fact the story of the game; the message was the medium. David Templeton may yet receive an unwelcome Lunny-Letter for his kick-out at James McPake, before Alan Maybury turned in his best derby performance for Hearts in seven years by allowing Andrew Driver the time to poke home the opening goal.
Still, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Hibernian’s prospects this season, they reacted far better to going a goal down than they did in May. Chief architect of hope was Leigh Griffiths, who first struck the crossbar and then nutmegged Jamie McDonald for a deserved equaliser.
The question everyone was asking (after just 180 minutes of football) was “what does this mean?”. The correct, scientific and sensible answer would be “we don’t know yet, let’s get more data”, but where’s the fun in that? Hibernian certainly looked a far better side than the one which so meekly surrendered to Dundee United last week. Then again, when you have been lost for a good wee while it is difficult to tell if any authoritative steps are in the right direction.
Hearts were cagey and unable to get the grip on midfield they’ve enjoyed in recent encounters with their rivals. Maybe that’ll change when Rudi and Hearts realise they really still love each other.
In the meantime, we can definitively say that the best side in the country at the moment are St Mirren, who beat Dundee 2-0 at Dens Park. After last week’s 2-2 draw with Inverness, Danny Lennon’s side comfortably dispatched of the newly arrived Dundee side, in front of 6,000 people.
Aside: Now, the following statement is not intended to take away anything from Kenny McLean’s 35-yard opening goal. That last sentence isn’t meant to be read in the way managers and commentators suggest “not to take anything away from the lad”, before taking away from the lad (see also, “I’m not a racist, but…”). This is just an observation…
Kenny McLean scored the kind of 35-yard goal that you used to be able to score in Sensible Soccer or the 1950s; where the goalkeeper dives too far, too late, and gets beaten by the surprise as much as the power or precision. It was a very Scottish kind of long-range strike. Sam Parkin doubled the lead, to leave St Mirren as unarguably the finest side in Scotland, nay, the UK at this moment in time.
Two teams looking for their first victory of the season were Inverness and Kilmarnock, whose 4 (four) matches against each other last season almost always required vidiprinter clarification.
Ever wary of the black magik of rival wizards, Kenny Shiels had suggested that Terry Butcher used an unorthodox method of “possession” football to motivate his team, pointing out: “they get into you and make life difficult”. Chilling.
Whatever form of voodoo it was that Terry Butcher employed, it seemed to work in the opening exchanges, with Andrew Shinnie scoring the opening goal after just eight minutes. On the half-hour Ryan Esson saved Danny Racchi’s penalty, but the resistance ended when Mani Pascali headed an equaliser on half-time, and celebrated with the kind of gymnastics that make Robbie Keane look like Louis Smith.
In keeping with the theme started last weekend, there was also time for a comedy red card, as the Blue Peter presenter-monikered Owain Tudor-Jones stuck the heed into James Fowler. Terry Butcher, meanwhile, conceded that a point was fair, and also suggested referee Brian Colvin had a very good game. Chilling.
St Johnstone and Motherwell were also hoping to get their first victories of the season, having been beaten by Hearts and held by Ross County respectively on the opening day. Anyone looking for a clue as to whether either side could repeat their feats from last season was to be sorely disappointed, as the match finished 1-1.
Not that the supporters were left wanting when it came to drama. Stevie Hammell was sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity, but Dave Mackay’s penalty was weaker than the SPL co-efficient, and was turned away by Darren Randolph. Murray Davidson did eventually give St Johnstone the lead, but Motherwell’s own holder of a thistle whistle, Bob McHugh, equalised.
The biggest crowd of the weekend was found at Pittodrie, where Ross County played Aberdeen for the first time ever. Derek Adams’ team managed to preserve a year-long unbeaten record in the league by holding their hosts to a fairly entertaining 0-0 draw.
That’s more than enough football to let us cast our judgement, right?