This week’s blog is dedicated to my pal and Grammar Cop Paul McGeary, who last week was diagnosed with leukaemia. He’s a young, fit man and started chemo this week. We’re all with you big fella #notoneinch

So that’s Inverness, St. Johnstone and most recently, Kilmarnock, all gone to Ibrox and been dispatched with a minimum of fuss. I was critical of Killie’s approach on Sunday as I felt they went down without as much as a whimper, but how much of it is down to the mental attitude of the players playing against Celtic and Rangers and, how much of it can be put down to the tactical approach?

The first thing everyone has to realise here is that more often than not, and it’s important to stress I am talking historically here and not necessarily about the current Rangers squad, Celtic and Rangers will have better players than every other club in Scotland. This is not to say that teams going to Ibrox and Celtic Park SHOULD have an inferiority complex, but the reality is, and human nature dictates, that they often do.

The stats

Plans will have been set out early in the week as to how to combat the “big” teams’ style of play and silence the fans. That was always something I found peculiar, this, “silencing” of the fans . I understand the principle behind it, keep the score to 0:0 for the first 20 minutes, let the game settle down and then the fans turn on the home team giving you a better chance of winning. Unfortunately it is flawed on two counts. The first, how often do you see the fans of Celtic and Rangers turn on their team? It rarely happens and it only takes a poor refereeing decision or a crunching tackle to galvanise them back into a frenzy. Secondly, what happens when you then lose a goal after 21 minutes? That, for me is the key aspect. It’s not about keeping them quiet for 20 minutes, it’s about not losing the first goal.

Did you know that statistically, of League matches won throughout the UK, 80% are won by the team that scores first?

Let that sink in for a moment, because i’m willing to bet the ratio is even higher when it comes to the bigger clubs. Something the gamblers among you might want to consider when placing a bet in-running. So for me, the most important thing about playing against the big boys is not about WHEN you lose the first goal, it’s much, much more about NOT losing the first goal. If you want to give yourself a chance.

The reality

I was fortunate to play in a very good Hibs side and we regularly gave Rangers and Celtic, a very tough game (although more often than not at Easter Road). I remember a game at Ibrox, were we had played very well in the opening 35 minutes. We were organised and disciplined and indeed could have scored from a corner (which I headed past) believe it or not. But the game turned a minute later as Rangers got two quick corners in succession at the other end. 40,000 spirits lifted and the noise, which, for the most part of the game, you are able to shut out as it becomes a secondary din, became a crescendo.

Standing in that penalty box at Ibrox and Celtic Park can be a lonely place. The noise in those moments of unexplainable calmness, as everyone waits for the ball to be swung in, is difficult to describe. The thirty seconds can feel just that little bit longer and not only can you hear it, you can FEEL it. Then, with each wave of attack you know what’s coming. Don’t let any player or coach tell you differently, you hope it’s not, but as I said, you can feel it. And then, the unerring inevitability of it all…41 minutes Hagen, 42 minutes Hateley and our half time team talk had gone from pats on the back to kicks in the guts.

But we had done our job, we had kept the crowd quiet for the first 35 minutes, hadn’t we?


So just how do you go about beating the big boys in their own backyard? Well in my opinion, you can forget the romantic, fan driven notion of “having a right go.” As I explained, the bigger teams have better players and, if you go “toe to toe,” the likelihood is you’ll be on the end of a drubbing. At any one time, the most players at any of the other clubs who could get into the Celtic team is one or two, so most teams, as Kilmarnock did on Sunday at Ibrox, will play with one striker.
You then need your players to be “brave,” but brave doesn’t mean in the sense of fighting and scrapping for everything (that should be a given). In football terms, when a manager talks about his players being “brave” he’s asking them to take the ball, to manipulate and to make passes.

I’ve touched on this before, but it is not only the ability to do that which separates the average players from the good ones, it’s the ability to do it under pressure. When you’re being pressed and hounded and you can still make the correct decision. Fortunately for me, we had players like Kevin McCallister, Michael O’Neil and Steve Archibald who could do that. I was there to give them the ball. The only decision I had to make was which one to give it to.


But what makes their players “better”? Most players will find their level and, will end up playing at a level their ability can handle. The “better” will move to the best level in this country (which is usually Celtic or Rangers). The barometer is ALWAYS how they can handle the ball and manipulate it. Can they slow possession down and dictate the pace of the game and speed it back up again with a forward, incisive pass when required. If they can, then they will have a chance of playing at the next level. If not, they will stay where they are or drift back down. This is a process that stands up wherever the player is playing.

A perfect recent example was the Scotland v England international match. Scotland get success as a national team by playing a high tempo, pressure “british” type game. Unfortunately they came up against Premiership players who could move the ball and slow play down, dictating the pace of the game and countering with quality and precision. There is no doubt Scotland “had a go”. But it was unlikely to ever result in a victory given the difference in the ability of the players. In my opinion, if you’re going to Celtic Park and Ibrox, it’s only better losing having a go at them, if doing that gives you the best chance of winning.

Good players not only need to handle the ball, but handle the occasion. Being able to play for the big clubs is about being able to manipulate the ball and do all those things i’ve talked about AND deal with the pressures of the crowd, the club and the occasion as well. It’s all part of the mix and one of the reasons why players are at YOUR club and not the Old Firm.
Killie’s players will have been well prepared and told to attack with pace and numbers when possible. They will have been told to be organised, keep their shape and discipline and to take their chances when they came. They will have been told to keep it tight (for 20 minutes). They did none of those and it looked like some of the players didn’t handle playing against the “big” club, as is often the case. That’s what will have disappointed Allan Johnston and the other managers the most. Will they ever be able to…?

Home or Away

I was fortunate to have played in a few big games and felt I handled the occasion’s reasonably well, but as I’ve said, I had the easy job, I won the ball and gave it to the guys on whom the pressure was to create and do the “magic.” Although there were times when keeping it simple was an art in itself. I also had the unusually quirky fact that I have played against Celtic at Hampden, Rangers at Celtic Park and Celtic at Ibrox, the latter being the Scottish Cup Semi Final which went to a replay and for which I was I was dropped (but that’s a story for another time). All of this meant that when we went to Ibrox for the third time in three weeks, a Rangers win meant they would win the League and, having been in the Home dressing room for the previous two games, this time we were back were we belonged in the Away. We put up a good fight although in the end we lost 3:1 and the celebrations began. I wanted to get off the pitch as soon as possible, but not before I shook every players hand (I wasn’t having anyone saying I had snubbed them). I raced off the pitch and straight down the tunnel, past the injured Stuart McCall and Ian Ferguson and turned left, heading for the HOME dressing room. The door opened and John Brown screeched “you better head back were you belong or you’ll not get back out of here” (although not so politely). I turned, head down, red faced and marched straight past the by now bemused McCall and Fergie.
So much for handling the big games reasonably well.

Onto this week’s Guest Tipster and whilst Willie McStay hit the bar with his Scottish Cup tips, at least it was better than his performance on Super Scoreboard’s quiz where he scored no points. This week it’s Sunsport’s resident horse racing expert and football pundit Robert Thomson who goes for Partick (5/4) to bt Killie, Forfar (13/10) to bt Stenhousemuir and Berwick (evs) to bt Clyde. He’s even putting up a horse for us – Kumbeshwar (each way) in the 2:15 at Wetherby. Good luck

And Finally I’ve been asked a lot about Virgil Van Dijk this week and whether he can play at the top level. Following on from the points I made above, every player finds their level and Virgil’s is certainly not the SPFL. He is finding playing for Celtic very easy and with his pace, power and technique I think he could cope well with the EPL. A top 4 side? I’m not sure yet. I think he would have to prove himself at premiership level first, a la Wanyama, before the biggest clubs come calling. As for Celtic, they are certainly not in a position to knock back £10m for someone the paid £1.5m for. Unfortunately for Scottish football, I don’t see him being here very much longer.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s