FOR half of the premier division, football has been almost literally on ice since Christmas, but the good news for this weekend is that this winter's hibernation should end (for the time being), and the lads will be able to make some use of the training drudgery that has been their lot for a few weeks.

All four matches in the top division (the other, Hibs v Aberdeen, is on Monday night) seem certain to take place on Saturday which, if nothing else, will allow some battle-hardened fans the chance to resume normal Saturday kit, and give the good ladies, or good men, a break.

So far in the ice and thaw period, five teams have managed to get serious action, Rangers being the most fortunate, in that two of their matches were at home, where their under-soil heating proved, again, well worth the investment.

They played three times, against Kilmarnock and Hibs at Ibrox and Celtic on their protected surface at Parkhead. Only the Easter Road club came close to that record with two games, the second one against Hearts.

None of the following has come close to putting on the boots, Falkirk, Motherwell, Aberdeen, Raith Rovers, and Partick Thistle, but they are about to re-emerge from the tunnel.

The bad news is that they all will be facing up to a fairly hectic programme, during which their fates might well be decided.

Motherwell, for instance, find themselves in the unique position of having played against one of the Old Firm in their last game and now, in their first after the enforced rest, meet the other half. The Fir Park side did well to hold Rangers to a no-scoring draw and, if offered, might well take the same result in advance against Celtic.

The Motherwell management and their fans had hoped the good show against Rangers was the start of something big, or at least the beginning of a real climb away from the bottom of the table.

``At least we didn't have to sit inside for a fortnight after a bad performance,'' was the comment of assistant manager Andy Watson, ``but it is a bit rough having to take on the other half of the Old Firm right away. Still, the break has allowed some of the lads who had knocks and bruises to heal, and they are itching to get going again.''

Unfortunately, the break has not made a great deal of difference to the long-term absentees, Tommy Coyne, Chris McCart, John Philliben, and Mitchel van der Gaag, all of whom will be some time yet before returning.

However, players who did come back recently, like Eddie May, Rob McKinnon, and Shaun McSkimming, have been given time to get set for the next stage of their comebacks, and could be the better for the gradual progression.

Motherwell's programme in the next couple of weeks will go a long way to determining their future. After Celtic they meet Hearts (a), Partick Thistle (h), Falkirk (a), Hibs (h), and Kilmarnock (h), and if they came through with a reasonable set of points from that lot, they could have put the relegation worries behind them.

Unfortunately, at least three other sides will have similar game plans and, so tight is the contest at the bottom, the struggles could go on well into the spring.

Probably involved in that will be Partick Thistle, whose fans have become used to the annual scramble. For one man who had hoped to be at Firhill to help the cause, Steve McMahon, the freeze-up has been particularly frustrating.

The 25-year-old striker, just back from a two-year spell in China with Foshan, had hoped to impress in trials and settle a permanent deal but, with frozen pitches and a flooded ground to contend with, manager Murdo MacLeod hasn't had a chance to judge him.

MacLeod said: ``It's been very disappointing for Steve, because we've not had a chance to play any games. We've also found it difficult to train properly, so it's been impossible for me to make a full assessment. Hopefully, that should change now.''

Thistle defender Steve Pittman will be absent from Firhill for a fortnight on international duty with the USA in the CONACAF Cup, but he is already suspended from club football.

q FORMER Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield is poised for a return to football as assistant to Colin Todd at troubled Bolton.

Todd, in sole charge in the wake of Roy McFarland's sacking as joint-manager on Tuesday, will name his assistant shortly and 49-year-old Porterfield is favourite for the post.

A team-mate of Todd's in their playing days at Sunderland, Porterfield is understood to have discussed the possibility of taking the job at Burnden Park.

Experienced coach John Pickering and former Manchester United star Frank Stapleton have also been linked with the vacancy.