Tom English - Time to recognise Queen of the South play-off charge

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Queen of the South defeated Falkirk 1-0 to all but assure themselves of a play-off spot
Queen of the South defeated Falkirk 1-0 to all but assure themselves of a play-off spot

It is fair to say that in the race for the play-offs in the Championship, Queen of the South are flying under the radar, a veritable mile beneath the twin jumbos of Rangers and Hibs.

It's no surprise, given their size, that the Ibrox and Easter Road clubs command so much attention, but it's high-time now that James Fowler's team were given the consideration they so richly deserve.

Queens are sitting fourth in the Championship, tucked in behind Hibs and Rangers in the play-off spots and four points ahead of Falkirk with the added cushion of having a game in hand over Peter Houston's team, who they've just beaten 1-0.

In their last three games they have beaten Hibs, Rangers and Falkirk - the two teams directly ahead of them and the one side directly underneath them. They are motoring along serenely while Rangers and Hibs do their split personality routine.

One day Rangers look like they have turned the corner, the next day they don't, the next day they do again.

Hibs are similar. They win five in a row in the league, then lose three in a row, then win two in a row, including Sunday's much-warranted victory over Hearts at Easter Road.

Queen of the South defeated both Rangers and Hibs this season
Queen of the South defeated both Rangers and Hibs this season

Only a madman would call this play-off for one team or another, but it's a fact that there are three contenders to get to the final against the Premiership entrant, not two as so many of us had probably assumed all along.

It might still seem a bit improbable that Queens could overturn Hibs or Rangers over two legs and then beat Rangers or Hibs over two more legs to take their place in the play-off final, but their record stands up to all sorts of scrutiny.

They have played Rangers four times this season and have a winning record against them - winning two, drawing one and losing one. Their aggregate score against Rangers is 8-5 in their favour. They've scored in all four of the matches between the sides whereas Rangers went goal-less in two of them.

They also have a winning record against Hibs - winning two, drawing one and losing one. The fine margins are illustrated by the aggregate score of 2-2 over the four matches. Hibs went goal-less in three of those four matches.

What a story it would be if the small fry from Dumfries managed to upset the natural order of things in these play-offs. They may not, but they demand respect. You can be sure that Stuart McCall and Alan Stubbs are looking over their shoulder with some apprehension.

Player of the year

We're approaching the point of the season where the ballot papers for player of the year are sent out and the rows about who is deserving and who isn't begin in earnest.

Managers will moan that their club has been ignored (again). Supporters will rage about favouritism. A winner will be announced and the whole process will be deemed, on the one hand, a joke, a laughing stock, an embarrassment and on the other, a deserving honour for a supreme player who was the obvious choice to any right-minded individual.

That's usually the way of it. This year might be different, but I won't be holding my breath.

So, where do we stand?

Craig Gordon has had an impressive first season for Celtic
Craig Gordon has had an impressive first season for Celtic

Right now, I know where my vote is going. Unless something drastic happens, there's one guy who stands out just ahead of everyone else. I could list all those candidates who deserve mention but, frankly, that's a dangerous game. You pick five and then Twitter gives it to you with both barrels about the twenty that you shamefully left out.

So my choice of player of the year: Craig Gordon, for all sorts of reasons. For making a comeback when very few people thought he would, for coming back as good, if not better, than he'd been before and, most importantly, for returning to the game and excelling in European football with a string of outstanding performances. That's what elevates him. He did it at a higher level than domestic fare.

His poor night at Celtic Park against Inter Milan might be mentioned, but the fact is that without his sustained excellence in earlier rounds there would have been no game against Inter Milan. So, with tin hat on, Gordon it is.

Pro 12 needs Glasgow success

This is the time of year when you look at the Pro 12 and start to have fanciful notions about the competition's possibilities. The array of box office names on display in this weekend's matches was impressive. The cast of characters ought to be every marketing executive's dream.

Nobody will forget the breathtaking drama of the final Saturday in the Six Nations only a few weeks ago when Wales put it up to Ireland who, in turn, put it up to England who, in the greatest day of theatre in the old tournament's history, fell short against France, but only just.

Niko Matawalu in action for Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 12
Niko Matawalu in action for Glasgow Warriors in the Pro 12

Many of the Irish and Welsh players who lit up Super Saturday were in action in the Pro 12 this weekend. Five of the Irish squad that won in Murrayfield played for Leinster at the Dragons on Sunday, the home team having one of the Welsh side, Taulupe Falatau, that did such thrilling damage to Italy.

The Munster side that put Edinburgh to the sword in the same stadium where those remarkable scenes happened only a few weeks back contained Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray, three giants of their Six Nations triumph.

Against Zebre, Scarlets fielded four of the Welsh squad that featured against Italy. In the Connacht versus Ulster match in Galway, there were five of the champion Irish squad. In Ospreys' win over Treviso there were seven of Warren Gatland's squad playing. In Glasgow on Friday, Sam Warburton was in the visitors' team.

Of the Ireland and Wales line-ups from Super Saturday, 27 of them played in the Pro 12 this weekend, including the last two Lions captains, Warburton and Paul O'Connell.

If you factor in the intensity at the top of the league, where so little separates the top four, then you have the raw materials for a cross-border competition that ought to be making a lot more money for its clubs than it actually does. The sense of untapped potential in the Pro 12 remains, but so does the financial gap between it and the English and French leagues.

Of course, the gap is growing ever wider and all the while it threatens the bits of progress that have been made by the Pro 12. How long will it be before some monied English or French club raids Scotstoun and makes off with Jonny Gray or Alex Dunbar or Mark Bennett? Or, indeed, Gregor Townsend? Glasgow can only continue moving forward while keeping hold of its big names. The same can be said of the Pro 12 in general.

The television money in the Premiership and the Top 14 in France is bordering on the obscene in comparison to the relative pittance on offer in the Pro 12. The crowds are big and the heat of battle is red-hot. All the time. Some of it might be turgid stuff, but fear of failure can be a great attraction. Every game matters to the fans and, by extension, to the broadcasters who pay through the nose to cover it.

Peter Horne (2nd right) is mobbed by his Glasgow team-mates as they celebrate his hat-trick against Cardiff Blues
Peter Horne (2nd right) is mobbed by his Glasgow team-mates as they celebrate his hat-trick against Cardiff Blues

The Pro 12 is improving as a competition, but it still does not hold anything like the importance of a Premiership or a Top 14. Great swathes of the Pro 12 season go by without the big names appearing in it. It's really only now, when the cotton wool comes off the international players, that we see the competition in its best light.

This weekend has been interesting in that it has seen an increase in intensity. The top four needed to win and win big to maintain their position and they all did so, all four of them taking bonus-point victories. Edinburgh were in great mode ahead of their home game against Munster but they got put back in their place by a side that has cranked up its power now that we are at the business end of the league season. The cream is rising to the top.

It's not just those who follow Glasgow who will be hoping that Townsend's team can go one better than they did last season, it'll be everyone who holds the best interests of the Pro 12 at heart. For too long there has been a sameness to the winners' podium - Leinster, Leinster, Ospreys, Munster, Ospreys, Munster, Leinster, Ospreys. Eight seasons and only three different winners.

The Pro 12 needs Glasgow to come through and change the narrative and the good news is that they look eminently capable of doing it. It also needs the Edinburghs and the Llanellis and the Cardiffs and the Dragons to get their acts together and get competitive instead of being the also-rans they have been for too long.

A new champion is only the start of the work that needs to be done to capitalise on a competition that could be so much better.

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