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Far From the Madden Crowd

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Morning everyone. I was going to wait until after our Inverness trip to pen my latest musings but seeing as those plans have gone down the shitter faster than half our playing squad could say “gastroenteritis”, I may as well take the opportunity to reflect back on Saturday’s defeat at Celtic Park.

On paper, a 3–1 defeat looks pretty comprehensive and many who hadn’t seen the game would be forgiven for instantly chalking this up to “another Robbie Neilson bottle job” against stronger opponents. However, the lack of points aside, there were probably more positives to be found in this defeat than in our previous two league encounters with Celtic, both of which ended in draws.

Quite often this season, Neilson has been criticised for his overly cautious approach to bigger games, and although the most recent encounters with Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup and Celtic in the league at Tynecastle showed signs of moving in the right direction, Saturday was the first time we’ve seen a Neilson side fly out of the traps so fervently from the first minute. Admittedly, when Jamie Walker opened the scoring so early on, my fear was that we’d revert to this season’s type by retreating into our own half for the remaining 85 minutes to see out a 1–0 win. Of course, such an approach may have worked, but given the quality of Celtic’s attack I wouldn’t have fancied our chances of weathering the storm.

It was pleasing, therefore, to see the players continuing to have a go, putting together a number of slick passing moves to carve the home side open. The midfield quintet of Buaben, Kitchen, Djoum, Walker and Nicholson absolutely dominated their counterparts throughout the first half, showing the kind of mobility, dynamism and creativity that had been virtually non-existent in the previous game against St Johnstone. Buaben and Kitchen worked particularly well together in the middle and to some extent looked like an upgraded version of last season’s Buaben-Gomis partnership, the American offering Buaben similar freedom to roam further up the park while providing extra protection for the back four.

And yet, despite our dominance, Celtic somehow led 2–1 at half-time.

Well…I say “somehow”, though that would suggest some inexplicable, cruel force of nature when in actual fact there were two distinct reasons why we trailed at the break, the first of which could be attributed to the difference in the teams’ respective playing budgets.

I sound like a broken record saying it, but our lack of potency in front of goal has been one of the recurring disappointments of an otherwise successful season and Saturday was another example of that. Even after Gary Mackay-Steven had cancelled out Walker’s opener, we had a couple of glorious chances to retake the lead that went begging, firstly through Juanma’s near-post effort and secondly via Juwon Oshaniwa, whose first touch let him down badly after he had ghosted into the box so intelligently.

Of course, Oshaniwa isn’t a striker and you can maybe excuse his lack of composure in that area, but Juanma should have done much better with his effort, one that he would arguably have converted with ease during his purple patch at the start of the season. By contrast, had both chances fallen to an attacker of better quality (say, a £12m-valued loan signing from Manchester City) the game may have turned out differently for us. As it happens, we don’t have such a luxury. We did, however, gift two such chances to Patrick Roberts and he converted both.

Our need for improvement in the final third has been abundantly clear for some time now and new strikers are widely reported to be at the top of Neilson’s summer shopping list. From that point of view, knowing that this is a squad still very much in transition, it is perhaps easier to forgive. The second contributory factor in this game, however, was (and still is) somewhat harder to swallow, that being the performance of referee Bobby Madden, particularly his decision not to punish Scott Brown for a two-footed lunge on Juanma. Afterward, Neilson offered his take on the incident:

“The referee has to make a decision but, believe me, it’s hard to make a decision at Parkhead. It’s a big environment, two minutes into the game. It’s a difficult one to make. In my opinion, it’s at minimum a booking and it doesn’t happen. We knew it was going to be a feisty game but it’s always going to be like that here.”

While the odds of a Celtic captain being given his marching orders mere minutes into a game at Parkhead were always going to be high, the lack of a yellow was as comical a decision as you’re likely to see all season which, by Scottish refereeing standards, is really saying something. Further up the pecking order, meanwhile, there is more chance of the Compliance Officer citing Neilson for his comments about Madden than investigating the challenge that provoked them; surprising, considering how quick he’s been to dish out retrospective punishment to some of our players in the past (see Ryan Stevenson’s similar challenge on James McPake circa 2013). Many other neutrals who witnessed and commented on the incident, however, felt Brown was lucky to stay on the pitch. Naturally, the Celtic captain did not share that view:

“In football, there is too much focus on a wee slide tackle here or there. We need to man up about it. Football is a contact sport, you have to deal with some tackles. And I am not saying mine was great, or a bad one.”

In an age where goalkeepers get wrapped in cotton wool and players writhe around in theatrical agony, Brown may have a point about football needing to toughen up. However, the Celtic captain doesn’t write the rules and by the letter of the law, he should have seen red. Unfortunately, when referees get it so spectacularly wrong, no amount of post-match analysis can reverse the adverse impact their decisions have had on the result. With the way the game had been going at that point, there is little doubt in my mind that had Brown walked, Hearts would have won comfortably.

That Madden saw fit to dismiss Oshaniwa in the 93rd minute for a tackle that (compared to Brown’s) barely registered on the scale of seriousness, not only compounded the sense of injustice but further illustrated an alarming lack of consistency from Scottish referees that many have highlighted in the past. Nevertheless, the lack of transparency and accountability remains and — unless we see a radical transformation in the appraisal of Scottish football referees — will do so for years to come.

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on April 6, 2016.

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