It’s great to be back and I can’t tell you how excited I was to utter those words, as Sky Sports’ live coverage of the Ladbrokes Premiership got under way.
Celtic Park was the venue for the opening act… and, bhoy did Celtic and the SPFL put on a show, even before a ball had been kicked. We had lots to talk about on our programme, including a refereeing decision that had Neil McCann producing the Scottish FA’s own rule book to help him make his point.
The flashpoint which had tongues wagging – and rule books waving at the camera – occurred halfway through the first half when a slack pass by new signing Dedryck Boyata allowed Ross County to counter attack. Ian McShane’s pass fed Jackson Irvine, who eluded Scott Brown, forcing Craig Gordon to sprint out of his box to make a contentious intervention.
It was clearly a foul… but would the card be yellow or red? Whatever colour the referee chose, his selection was never going to please everybody. Willie Collum, who showed more than twice as many red cards as any other ref in the Premiership last season, on this occasion, chose yellow.
With the champions leading by just one goal, the decision was a critical one for the hopes of both teams, which added to both the volume of the complaints from Ross County and to the post-match arguments.
We set the tone for the debate with our half-time analysis.
The McCann view, emboldened by quoting from the ref’s guidelines, was simple: was the attack likely to produce a goal? Yes! Therefore, the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year should have walked, just as he did in the Scottish Cup semi-final in April.
Our special guest for the day, Charlie Mulgrew, was having none of it, offering up the covering Virgil van Dijk as a last line of defence for both the ref and the keeper.
The McCann-Mulgrew head-to-head was great television. If you haven’t seen their on air ding-dong, you can watch it here.
The officials I spoke to in the aftermath suggested to me that Collum made the wrong call and Gordon should have seen red. I’m glad I didn’t have to call it.
On the plus side, Willie has received strong backing from the home fans since Saturday – it’s not often referees at any game enjoy such public approval ratings. Through the week, Scotland’s top match official is a schoolteacher, so he knows how to do his job without any gratitude from those with whom he shares his work space.
I believe the SFA refs should be permitted to come out and explain their decisions publicly on the day after a game. It would provide clarity and fill the void which is currently the domain of speculation and most of that is wild.
Explaining the correct decisions or explaining the reasons for incorrect calls would serve to educate spectators… and players. If handled properly – and respected – it could also relieve the pressure on officials.
If there was any doubt about Collum’s ability to apply the rules, both sensibly and bravely, his appointment to the all-Spanish UEFA Super Cup should help provide some perspective. As Messi and Co play their first competitive game without Xavi, Willie will be in charge in the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi.
Best of luck to him and his SFA colleagues: assistant Frankie Conner, fourth official Graham Chambers along with Bobby Madden and Kevin Clancy, the two additional assistants for the match.
Hopefully, a good performance from Team Collum will be followed by a win by Team Strachan Scotland on the same pitch at Georgia’s national stadium next month.
The first roar of the afternoon in that opening fixture met the emergence of skipper Scott Brown from the tunnel, trophy in hands, followed by Lisbon Lion John Clark, given the honour of unfurling the Premiership flag. Clark, now aged 74, first signed for Celtic in 1958 and was later assistant manager during Billy McNeill’s first spell in charge.
For the last two decades, he’s been kit manager at the club. He’s a pretty good tour guide as well – he once led me and a Sky Sports camera crew around the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon. After most of Gordon Strachan’s Celtic squad had finished training (with the exception of Aiden McGeady who stayed behind for some private tuition on crossing from Tommy Burns), Clark retraced his own steps from 1967.
To make the most of the atmosphere on flag day and to help give you at home more of a flavour of the occasion, we chose to have our ‘studio’ outdoors at Celtic Park. This gave the fans seated near our corner the added bonus of seeing one of the club’s current stars having his make-up applied!
There was a massive cheer and plenty of wolf-whistling as Sam the make-up lady applied the brush to the handsome, and by now blushing, face of Mr Mulgrew. He may have felt a proper Charlie, but it’s all in a day’s work for the modern defender.
Our next live offering from the Ladbrokes Premiership is our second visit of the new season to Tannadice. Dundee United lost narrowly to Aberdeen in the opening weekend. From the New Firm Derby to the City Derby, United’s start to the season is box office.
Jackie McNamara’s side won four out of five derbies in league and League Cup last season… including all three at Tannadice, where the aggregate score in the two Premiership meetings was 9-2 to United. Five of those goals, however, were scored by the three players who are now with the champions, Nadir Ciftci having recently followed the lead of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong.
The question for United now is: where will the goals come from? Mario Bilate, who spearheaded the attack against Aberdeen on the opening weekend, is ruled out of the derby with a hamstring injury, and midfielders Ryan Dow and Rodney Sneijder are also missing.
Dundee have scored five goals in their opening two matches, with their three main attackers all scoring. New signing Kane Hemmings opened his account against Hearts on Saturday and Rory Loy managed a debut double the week before.
Loy is a doubt (groin) but the main goal threat posed by Paul Hartley’s side is Greg Stewart, who also scored twice at Kilmarnock. He turned full-time last season, at the age of 24, but shone on his debut campaign in the Premiership, getting on the score sheet in three city derbies. Look out for Gary Harkins, too, who has a habit of producing moments of old-fashioned ‘school playground’ skill in the areas it matters most to Dundee.
In my interview with Dundee captain Kevin Thomson – available to download now from your Sky+ box using the On Demand section – you can get a feel for just how confident the players are at Dens Park in their second season in the Ladbrokes Premiership. Oh, and having made the move from Hibs to Rangers, himself, in the past, you’ll be very interested to hear where he hopes Scott Allan will be playing his football after the current window closes.
I’m joined in the studio at Tannadice by two derby veterans: Dundee legend Neil McCann and ex-United favourite Christian Dailly. Christian has just graduated with a degree in Sports Science from Manchester Metropolitan University, which is a fantastic achievement for him.
He successfully balanced his studies with marathon training, so he’s in great shape both mentally and physically and he’ll need to be to sit in our studio! See you on Sky Sports 1 from 7:30pm for Dundee United v Dundee (Tuesday).
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