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Spiers on Sport: by winter break, SPL has been surprisingly good

Every time I see Terry Butcher I am reminded that, in fact, the Scottish Premier League is not a bad table to feast at.

Butcher, capped 77 times for England, and having played in front of huge crowds in some of the greatest football arenas in the world, can hardly stop raving about SPL life this season.

"I love it," the Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager breathlessly told the BBC. "I think it [the SPL] is a fantastic product."

In truth, Terry, I wouldn't go that far, but your enthusiasm is encouraging. And you remind us that our cynicism is often misplaced and sometimes even corrosive.

The fact is that in the wake of the demise of Rangers - and all of that saga's unleashed bickering and poison - there has still been much to savour about the SPL this season.

Rangers, due to their liquidation and having to start afresh, have left a gaping hole in the SPL terrain. For many of us, the sooner the club clambers back to the top flight, the better.

But there is no more to be gained from continually straining at the SPL through an Ibrox prism. That damage has been done. Life moves on.

In one sense I know exactly where Terry Butcher is coming from. For the first time in 20 odd years I am taking in a non-Old Firm SPL campaign, and have been pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it has been.

Having done the Ibrox/Celtic Park beat incessantly for two decades, this season I've gone to games at Hibs, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Mirren, and enjoyed a lot of what I've witnessed.

And I've discovered something. The SPL, beyond the Old Firm narrative, is competitive, eye-catching, and (in relative terms) filled with players of no little skill.

Motherwell, having waged a terrific campaign so far, are a case in point. Jamie Murphy and Henrik Ojamaa are fine footballers to watch. I also remember Walter Smith once describing Keith Lasley as "a really good SPL player who is terrific for his team".

St Johnstone, save for listening to Stuart Cosgrove haver about them, are a team I never thought I'd have much time for. Yet players like Murray Davidson, Liam Craig, Gregory Tade, Rowan Vine and Stevie MacLean have made McDiarmid Park a highly enjoyable trip on a Saturday afternoon.

As for the two Highland clubs, Caley Thistle and Ross County…who isn't thrilled by their progress? A generation ago it would have been inconceivable that these two northern clubs, just 14 miles apart, could be gracing the SPL like this. It has been very refreshing.

The SPL table – as it stands in early January 2013 – is testament to a pretty decent product. Yes, Celtic are going to win the league but, thus far at least, not by the embarrassing margin that many (including me) had predicted.

Arguably, the greatest quality the SPL has going for it this season is its erratic appeal. Even Celtic have discovered that teams will inflict unseen, random damage on one another.

If you can live with the reality that this is not the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, or La Liga, there is much to be enjoyed.

No-one need have any illusions about the SPL. In terms of football and finance, Rangers are sorely missed. Many attendances also seem sparse, and the political infighting over Rangers has become tedious.

There is little doubt that, compared to 10 years ago, the SPL has less sheen and prestige about it. It is hard to imagine a Dick Advocaat or a Martin O’Neill being enticed to this environment in its current condition.

On the other hand, 10 years ago the SPL was a financial house of cards, fit only for impending crisis. Today, better late than never, the league is at least trying to live within its means.

Terry Butcher certainly has no doubts about Scotland’s top flight. "The SPL is a great league. Every team is capable of beating the others. I can't remember enjoying it so much. Long may it continue."

There is contentment to be had in just accepting the SPL for what it is.

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