Highs and lows of the Scottish football season

 

The Scottish Premier League played out in a largely predictable fashion at the top and bottom, with Celtic running away with the title and Dundee relegated, despite a stirring late rally.

Celtic added the Scottish Cup and raised flagging European spirits with a memorable run to the last 16 of the Champions League.

Motherwell continued their good form under Stuart McCall to finish SPL runners-up, but there were a few surprises in the chasing pack, with St Johnstone, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County outperforming their central-belt rivals.

Only Aberdeen let the side down for the north of the country.

St Mirren celebrated Scottish Communities League Cup success and there were title wins for Partick Thistle, Queen of the South and Rangers.

Of course, there were disappointments along the way, with sacked managers paying the price, but the seriously bum note came in Scotland's dismal World Cup qualifying campaign.

Here is a quick look at the good, bad and the ugly from the 2012-13 campaign.

Match of the season

The Scottish Cup semi-final weekend conjured up two incredible games at the national stadium - both going to extra-time and both being settled 4-3.

Tony Watt scores for Celtic against Barcelona

Tony Watt scored what turned out to be Celtic's winner against Barcelona

Hibernian staged a remarkable comeback from three goals down to sink Falkirk, while Anthony Stokes headed in the winner as Celtic got the better of Dundee United in a ding-dong battle.

The SPL also featured a few thrilling 4-3 scorelines, with Celtic hitting back to deny Aberdeen in Glasgow, St Mirren beating United at Tannadice and Inverness edging out Motherwell.

United and Inverness shared eight goals in a crazy match, while the highest-scoring match was settled by a last-minute overhead kick from Steven Thompson as St Mirren beat Ross County 5-4.

But the honours must go to Celtic for their 2-1 win at home to Barcelona in the Champions League. Goals from Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt and a ferocious defensive effort toppled one of the best teams to ever grace the pitch in any era.

Best manager

Neil Lennon deserves enormous credit for wrapping up a domestic double and taking Celtic beyond the group phase in the Champions League.

Inverness manager Terry Butcher and Ross County boss Derek Adams

Butcher and Adams led their sides to top-six finishes

Allan Johnston picked up the PFA Scotland award for manager of the year, but Queen of the South, like Rangers in the division below, were expected to clean up as the only full-time side in their league.

McCall again worked wonders at Fir Park and Steve Lomas has done a wonderful job in securing Europa League qualification for St Johnstone in successive seasons after a major squad revamp.

This one is really too close to call, so we'll let the Highland rivals duke it out for top dog after a couple of heated touchline scuffles. Terry Butcher claimed a first top-half finish for Inverness on a tiny budget and Derek Adams steered Ross County into fifth place in the Staggies' debut season in the top flight.

Player of season

Kris Commons, Victor Wanyama and Joe Ledley shone as Celtic wrapped up the SPL title, Andrew Shinnie did much to inspire Inverness and Niall McGinn banged in the goals as too many of his Aberdeen colleagues underperformed.

Motherwell's Michael Higdon was the SPL's top scorer and shares this accolade with Leigh Griffiths, who hammered in a host of spectacular strikes for Hibernian. The 22-year-old just doesn't do ordinary goals.

Queen of the South striker Nicky Clark deserves a mention for his staggering 41 goals.

Biggest disappointment of the season

The long wait for Scotland to qualify for a major finals continues with the national team missing out on the next World Cup set-piece long before the end of the qualifying campaign.

Scotland players Charlie Adam and James McArthur

Scotland have lost their last four competitive matches

That had begun with Craig Levein in charge, a 3-1 win over Australia in a Hampden friendly having raised spirits after a 5-1 drubbing over in the United States at the end of the previous season.

However, home draws with Serbia and Macedonia piled pressure on the Scotland coach and defeats away to a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales and Belgium all but ended hopes of qualifying from Group A after only four games.

It led to Levein's departure and, while friendly wins over Luxembourg and Estonia papered over the cracks, defeats by Wales and Serbia under new manager Gordon Strachan were proof that this Scottish squad was just not good enough to grace Brazil next summer.

Squabble of the season

The R-word. Restructuring.

Stewart Regan, Neil Doncaster and David Longmuir

Stewart Regan, Neil Doncaster and David Longmuir have tried to re-model Scotland's league structure

Our season is over and we still don't know what shape Scotland's professional leagues will be taking come the start of the new term.

A proposal for a revamp that would have reduced the present four tiers to three of 12, 12 and 18 teams was rejected thanks to opposition within the SPL from Ross County and St Mirren.

Those two clubs have backed the latest plan, but gone is the idea of a mid-season split into three sections of eight in the top two tiers.

However, the haggling continues over proposals to merge the two parent bodies - the SPL and Scottish Football League - play-offs between the top two tiers and, in particular, how wealth would be redistributed from the top-tier clubs to those below.

Now there's a threatened breakaway of Division One clubs to join the SPL, plus talk of legal action, and the heated arguments will continue long into the summer.

Best stand-out performance

Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster was outstanding in both Champions League group games against Barcelona, while team-mate Kris Commons turned in a number of man-of-the-match performances in the latter half of the campaign.

Michael Higdon and Inverness striker Billy McKay each netted two SPL hat-tricks, which is pretty special, while Kilmarnock duo Cillian Sheridan and Paul Heffernan also bagged three goals apiece in separate victories over Hearts, while a Leigh Griffiths treble helped sink Killie in the Scottish Cup.

We'll give this one to Johnny Russell for a dazzling hat-trick at Rugby Park - one with his head, one with the left foot and one with the right.

Best signing of the season

Hibs finally found a good goalkeeper in Ben Williams, while Radoslaw Cierzniak has impressed between the sticks for Dundee United.

Aberdeen forward Niall McGinn

McGinn was Aberdeen's top goalscorer

Gary Warren and Ross Draper excelled for Inverness and full-back Mihael Kovacevic combines solid defending and an attacking outlet for Ross County. His Victoria Park team-mate, Ivan Sproule, was the best bit of business done in January as the winger exploded into life to help propel the Dingwall side up the table.

But Niall McGinn must go down as the shrewdest investment, with the former Celtic midfielder picked up on a free transfer and enjoying a central attacking role at Aberdeen and chipping in with 21 goals.

Worst signing of the season

Every season results in a few turkeys in the transfer market and this term was no different.

Dundee United had snapped up free agent Gregory Vignal hoping that the 31-year-old would repeat the form that led the former France Under-21 defender would repeat the kind of displays that made a Rangers regular on loan from Liverpool eight seasons earlier.

Hibernian forward Shefki Kuqi

Kuqi struggled to make an impact at Hibs

However, the former Rennes, Espanyol, Portsmouth, Lens, Kaiserslautern, Southampton and Birmingham player brought in as defensive cover in September was himself bedevilled by injury problems and left Tannadice two months later without playing a game for United.

Like Vignal, one-time Scotland international Craig Beattie has a history of fitness problems and, after the former Celtic, West Brom and Swansea striker joined St Johnstone having rejected a reduced contract with Hearts, he exited McDiarmid Park and ended up at Barnet after making only four substitute appearances.

Shefki Kuqi was another whose pedigree in the upper echelons of English football was no guarantee of success in the SPL. True, at 35, the former Ipswich, Blackburn, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Newcastle striker was already past his best when he joined Hibs, but the roly-poly former Finland international only started twice in his 14 non-scoring appearances.

Nicolás Ladislao Fedor Flores will not be a name long remembered in SPL history, not even by his chosen nickname, Miku. The Venezuela forward joined Celtic with a reputation forged in Serie A, but the 27-year-old made only 14 innocuous appearances during his season-long loan.

Best emerging talent

Ryan Fraser lit up the SPL in the early months of the season, but the 18-year-old disappeared, in more ways than one, to Bournemouth in January. Since then, the winger hasn't exactly been flying and has made only five brief substitute appearances in the relative obscurity of League One.

Dundee United midfielder Ryan Gauld

Gauld has broken into the United first team

Fortunately, there have been plenty more bright prospects on show, albeit because the troubled finances of many clubs have led to the blooding of young talent long before they would normally be considered for first-team football.

Senior Dundee United team-mates have waxed lyrical about the skills of 17-year-old forward Ryan Gauld, while a cute back-heel under pressure by Jon Souttar in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic showed that the 16-year-old defender has some cool ball skills of his own.

Jamie Walker's superb long-range strike against St Mirren earlier this month showed the 19-year-old Hearts midfielder has finishing power as well as box-to-box pace.

Strong and skilful, John McGinn followed a family dynasty into the St Mirren first team, while the more direct Alex Harris has been on fire at the end of the season for Hibs.

Another 18-year-old midfielder, the diminutive Chris Johnston, has burst into the Kilmarnock side looking like a cross between Lionel Messi and George Best.

However, the most memorable bullet to be fired by one of the SPL's young guns came from the boot of Tony Watt, the 19-year-old Celtic striker who has since found it hard to live up to the reputation built on that famous winning goal against Barcelona in November.

Panto villain

There have been a few candidates, particularly within Scottish football's governing bodies.

SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his counterparts at the Scottish FA and SFL, Stewart Regan and David Longmuir, are regarded by some fans groups and sections of the media like the Three Stooges, whether it be for their handling of Rangers' financial collapse, the restructuring of the leagues or general state of the game.

However, for players and managers alike, the one they least welcome on their doorstep is one Vincent Lunny. The SFA's compliance officer is the man whose love letters you least want to wake up to on a Monday should your on-field misdemeanors or off-field chat lead to the "offer" of a spell in the stands.