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Spiers on Saturday: signs of a revival outwith the Old Firm

As someone who severely doubted that the top flight in Scottish football could have any vitality without Rangers, I have to say these recent festive days have been a pleasant surprise.

For those of us who too often see Scottish football through a west of Scotland prism, events in the east and the north have been very uplifting.

Easter Road was bulging on Thursday evening, with 20,106 attending the Edinburgh derby.

On New Year's Day, for the Dundee United-Aberdeen match, Tannadice was a near sell-out. Decent crowds at St Johnstone and Kilmarnock also spoke of an enduring interest, for all its setbacks, in the oft-derided SPFL Premiership.

The demise of Rangers, as they were, proved damaging - there seems little point in denying it. Arguably, more than anyone, Celtic have suffered the most from the Ibrox fallout, with reduced crowds taking in the non-event of their title chase.

Elsewhere, however, many good things have been happening. Much of the focus has been

on a revived Dundee United and Aberdeen but, almost out of nowhere, Terry Butcher and Hibernian have embarked on the long road back to respectability.

Just imagine if Butcher can turn Hibs around; imagine the force this Edinburgh club could be once again. It is still a long way off, and we have witnessed many a false dawn at Easter Road, but Thursday night's jangling excitement during the 2-1 win over Hearts only whetted the appetite of some long-suffering fans.

Mike Riley, the chairman of the Hibs Supporters Association, who has been watching his team since 1955, insists there is a vast Hibs support just waiting to be roused once more.

"That crowd shows the potential there is at Hibs," says Riley. "The fact is, if the manager is the right choice, and if the team on the park is doing it, then the Hibs support will be there in big numbers. There could be regular 15,000 gates at Easter Road if the club gets its act together.

"I think Terry Butcher alone put 7000 on that gate on Thursday night. I don't want to get ahead of myself but the turnaround since Butcher arrived has been tremendous. He seems to have a bit of the magic about him."

Butcher himself told me recently that the size of Hibs had actually taken him aback. "This is a big, big club - you realise it more once you are in the door," he said. "This is a huge challenge for me, but if I can get it right . . ."

Scottish football would certainly welcome a revived, restored Hibs, taking their big following around the country.

In the north-east, Aberdeen and Dundee United have also shown that the Scottish top flight has more spice to it than many had imagined. These two proud clubs, with impressive European pedigrees, who had become crushed in recent decades by the Old Firm's monied machinery.

Aberdeen claim they could have brought 7000 fans with them to Tannadice on New Year's Day. "Our crowds have definitely gone up this season, and there is a far, far greater enjoyment in going to games," says Chris Crighton, editor of The Red Final fanzine.

"Aberdeen fans are able to laugh at their own misfortunes but, after 15 years of basically being crap, we are now watching entertaining football under Derek McInnes. It has made a massive difference to the supporters. We are now going to games knowing we are going to be entertained.

"I think our fans feel a cautious optimism. Our League Cup semi on February 1 [against St Johnstone]

is massive for us - it is a huge opportunity to get the chance to end 18 years without a trophy."

The late 2-1 win for Aberdeen at Tannadice proved quite a relief for McInnes but, oddly, given all the hype around his team, it was a third successive league defeat for Jackie McNamara and United.

Nonetheless, Bryan Orr, who runs the "Glenrothes Arabs" Dundee United supporters club, believes the turnout at Tannadice for the Aberdeen game was testament to the feeling of football revival being felt in Scotland's other cities.

"The atmosphere at Tannadice for the Aberdeen game was electric," said Orr. "From a United point

of view it was also pretty special, as our fans filled three of the four sides of the stadium. The Aberdeen allocation, which is normally pretty healthy, was cut back because so many Arabs wanted to be there.

"Our attendances this season have been pretty good. Before Christmas, for instance, there

were over 8000 at Tannadice for the Ross County game, which we won 1-0. Last season, I don't think there would have been anything like that for a game against County over the festive period."

In United's case, Orr adds, the healthy crowds have been spurred on by two things: first, the constant "Armageddon" talk following the liquidation of Rangers, and second, the emergence of a brilliant young United team.

"I think our fans, like those at many clubs in Scotland, wanted to prove to people last season that there could be life without Rangers in the top flight. Folk got fed up with all the Armageddon stuff. So last season there was an increase in United season-ticket sales, and this season, with this young team, the crowds have remained very healthy indeed."

The Scottish game has many faults and Celtic and Rangers both have their problems to resolve. Elsewhere, though, there is exciting evidence of revival taking place.

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