Scottish sports comment: When it became clear at the end of the summer that the reconstituted Rangers would not be invited back to the SPL one of the main questions was which of the remaining sides would mount a substantive challenge to Celtic?
Back then Aberdeen, Motherwell, Hearts and Dundee United sprang to mind. Not, it must be said, Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Yet here we are in mid-December with the Highlanders clear of their rivals in second place and just three points shy of the top spot.
Their manager Terry Butcher has described the run of form which has taken them to that lofty position as “fun and exciting,” as if it were just the stuff of schoolboy dreams.
Don’t be fooled. It comes from incessant hard graft, cajoling players, working on tactics and technique until they are able — as they have shown — to play the kind of football which has beaten both Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow this season.
More than that his side, which swept the board for sponsors’ awards in the SPL last month, amassed 23 points from the 30 on offer since the end of September.
Any coach in any division would be pleased with such a handsome return and though he would never say so Butcher must take much of the credit.
He seems to be a man at the top of his managerial game right now, happy in a familiar environment.
Indeed the former England captain is an adopted son, having been in Scotland so long he’s now in the Hall of Fame at Hampden.
There have been spells away — with Brentford and Sydney FC — with mixed results, but frankly that is often part and parcel of the ups and downs of managerial life.
Fans should be in no doubt that, should ICT finish runners-up in May, there are likely to be offers from other clubs.
Butcher, who’s in his early 50s, does not lack ambition but I would urge him to bear in mind what one of his predecessors, the highly likeable Steve Paterson, told me shortly after an away win in the Second Division nearly 15 years ago.
He was clear Inverness — a young club formed from a city merger in the mid-1990s — were going places and given time would become “a permanent fixture at the top of Scottish football.”
Paterson failed to see the wisdom of his prediction and eventually departed for Aberdeen, a move which didn’t work out for either party.
It is to be hoped Butcher himself realises that with his guidance Caley Thistle can continue to be SPL heavyweights for years to come.
There's little chance Neil Lennon will be afforded time to rest on his laurels after Celtic’s fine achievement in reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Their hard-won victory over Spartak Moscow last week ignited great celebrations among the freezing masses at Parkhead and spread a little festive cheer around the Scottish game.
Yet it’s the nature of the professional game that as soon as one hurdle is cleared a number of others hove into view.
After the razzmatazz of the Champions League draw a week tomorrow Lennon and his backroom staff will sit down and begin plotting the downfall of whichever of the seven possible opponents — Manchester United and Bayern Munich among them — they will meet in March.
Important work for sure but in the here and now domestic duty must take precedence given the all too inconsistent nature of Celtic’s form outwith the continental arena.
Victory at Kilmarnock at the weekend suggests a corner has been turned. Not so much in the 3-1 scoreline, but the commanding nature of the play shown by the SPL leaders.
On such a performance few would doubt they will retain their crown. However there is another matter which may yet come to define Celtic’s season — the transfer window.
The fact is beating Barcelona back in November is likely to have focused more than a few managerial minds elsewhere ahead of the great January jamboree.
We are told that Gary Hooper, Georgios Samaras and the Kenyan powerhouse Victor Wanyama (pictured) are all now in the sights of top English sides.
I strongly suspect that we will see all three in the hoops long into 2013. After all, who would want to miss out on a shot at further, reputation enhancing, European glory.
Professional sportsmen and women must take every bit of help which comes their way including the unpredictability of the elements.
Scott Jamieson was savvy enough to do exactly that by making the most of a saturated course in Durban to win his first European golf title — the Nelson Mandela Championship.
The 29-year-old from East Kilbride carded a 57 in the final round of the event amassing eight birdies and not a single dropped shot over the waterlogged fairways.
What a confidence boost to the young man. Not only that, Jamieson’s win is the fourth by a Scot on the tour in 2012, highlighting the fact that our golf is in a pretty healthy state.
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