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The SPL basement battle

Chick Young | 16:10 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009

In Grangemouth, even the birds cough. But the clearing of throats in nearby Falkirk has nothing to do with the chemical works.

It is a nervous wheeze you hear, deepened by the rapidly lengthening shadow from the Highlands.

Like a child scared of bogeymen, that will be the spectre of Inverness coming to terrorise the Bairns.

It was grim up north for most of the season. Craig Brewster's return was initially welcomed like that of the Prodigal Son. But, in the end, the supporters cast him out like an orphan in the storm.

Fans can be fickle, but this lot, it seems, had a point. And now, in territory where once they cursed a Butcher from England, they laud big Tel.


If he asked them to forgive the Duke of Cumberland and explained that Culloden Moor was just a wee misunderstanding by his countryman all these years ago, he might just get away with it.

Inverness Caledoninan Thistle were my pre-season forecast to be relegated. I just thought they had lost a little of their Highlands swagger.

Maybe privately, I was fed up staring at the rear end of caravans on the A9.

But, in any case, I saw little to the turn of year and beyond that suggested I had got it spectacularly wrong. And then Terry Butcher arrived.

Or, rather, Butcher and Maurice Malpas arrived.

Theirs is the opposites-attract kind of deal; Big Tel with his propensity to create work for joiners, given as he is to taking dressing-room doors off their hinges, Mo the quiet thinking man with the dry sense of humour.

One with the rousing sense of motivation: the other the shrewd tactician.

Together, they have breathed life into the relegation battle.

They have immersed themselves in the mission, although quite what this is doing for Butcher's attention to the Scotland cause as George Burley's assistant and his ability to watch players is another matter.

I am still ill at ease with that one. But that is to debate another day.

Meanwhile, in Falkirk, they are breathing uneasily.

There is a feeling there that they have been living above their means for some time and that they will have to take a scissors to the cloth they are cutting.

They are shopping in a different market place now and this summer, no matter what division they are in, there will be an exodus of players.

Boss John Hughes has openly admitted that he would mind a crack at a job in England and that hardly makes him a man alone among coaches in Scotland.

But it still added to the cracks in the enamel: you can't help feeling it's not the happiest household in the land.

Not that Falkirk are alone in Caley Thistle's sights. I suspect they smell blood elsewhere and the bottom six - which will embrace the two of them, St Mirren, Kilmarnock and two from Hamilton, Motherwell and Hibs - will be a hell of dogfight after the split.

In fact, here's the truth: I have not been enamoured by the quality of the game in Scotland this season.

The measure is our embarrassing assault in Europe.

It has not been sweet on the eye and the few moments of genuine pleasure have been glimpses of sunshine in darkened skies.

But its salvation is yet to come, a climax to a season that may go to its dying breath for the championship itself and, now, in that battle to beat the drop.

And, indeed, in the No Man's Land of the league's middle ground where the battle for Europe could be equally intense.

Good; if you're going to watch average stuff, at least make it competitively average. I think we may at least have achieved that.


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