NINE in a row will take on a whole new meaning for Celtic in the weeks ahead. December has become the month Scotland’s footballers dread the most as the game’s organisers shoe in as many games as possible into the calendar ahead of the winter break.

Getting through the month unscathed has become a test of endurance and stamina as much as of talent and ability.

By the time the Premiership clubs head off for some much-earned January sunshine – well, the fortunate ones at least – the picture ought to have crystallised somewhat at both top and bottom.

Conspiracy theorists will note that Celtic play nine games in December, one more than Rangers. The decision to move Rangers’ game at Easter Road from the Saturday to Friday the 20th means there is no scope for them to also squeeze in a midweek match. Celtic, in turn, play Hibernian, Hearts and then Aberdeen in the space of just six days. Make of that what you will.

Regardless, both are heading into demanding schedules that will greatly enhance or reduce their prospects of concluding the season as champions.

They meet twice in December. The first won’t have any direct influence on the destination of the league title but will be hugely significant in other ways.

Victory for Rangers in the Betfred Cup final on December 8 will represent a first major trophy win since 2011 and a first honour for Steven Gerrard as manager. It will also break Celtic’s recent domestic stranglehold and imbue the Rangers players with confidence that they have what it takes to beat their rivals down the stretch.

A win for Celtic does the opposite; strengthening their superiority over their rivals and stretching their remarkable recent run of sweeping all before them. It would also be a first trophy overseen entirely by Neil Lennon since his return to the club.

They will do battle once more before 2019 is out at Celtic Park on December 29. Rangers, of course, won the corresponding fixture last year but failed to build on it once league action resumed in late January. But should both sides continue to chalk up league victory one after another against the other 10 sides then the outcome of the derby could prove pivotal.

Both play their final Europa League group stage matches in December, too. A trip to Romania to take on Cluj would normally be a fraught one but Celtic will reap the benefits of sealing their qualification early for the last 32. Should they clinch top spot on Thursday, Lennon will have the unaccustomed luxury of giving many of his star turns a mid-month breather against Cluj. And that opportunity doesn’t crop up too often.

Gerrard would undoubtedly love to do the same but needs a certain sequence of results to go Rangers’ way this week – a win in Feyenoord coupled with Porto not winning

in Bern, for example – to allow him to rest players at home to Young Boys.

Domestically, it is difficult to drag a finger down both teams’ SPFL fixture list and find an easy one. Rangers take on Hearts at home, Aberdeen away, Motherwell away, Hibs away and Kilmarnock at home – all top six contenders – before the Old Firm derby.

Celtic have the extra match but a marginally easier set of fixtures; Ross County away, Hamilton at home, Hibs at home, Hearts away, Aberdeen at home and then St Mirren away before hosting Rangers.

There is plenty, therefore, resting on next month’s matches. League titles may not be clinched in December but they can certainly be lost.


LAST weekend’s bantamweight bout between Kash Farooq and Lee McGregor was a terrific advert for Scottish boxing featuring two of the sport’s rising stars. What a shame, then, that the aftermath was marred by squabbling over the result

and the judges’ scoring of the contest.

It was an undeniably close fight – with McGregor starting and finishing strongly, while Farooq dominated the middle rounds – which meant the decision of one judge to mark it 115-112 in favour of McGregor, who had been deducted a point for persistent pushing, looked ridiculous.

Scoring remains such a subjective art that leaves boxing open to conspiracy theories and accusations of hometown or promoter bias. The three men or women sitting ringside are expected to judge each round with the naked eye and then mark their card and hand it over within seconds of it concluding. There is no scope for even the briefest of contemplation.

Given the growing use of video analysis and data measurement in sport, there is an argument for taking the human aspect out of it all together and settling the result based on technology, with the winner deemed to be the fighter who lands the most or cleanest shots as measured by ringside cameras and tracking devices.

If that seems a step too far, then giving the judges access to that data immediately after a bout’s conclusion to corroborate or amend their thinking can only help them arrive at the right decision.

Farooq, the brave and tenacious Glaswegian, will undoubtedly rebound from this setback to again fight for titles and honours, with promoter Eddie Hearn already keen to add him to his roster. But to see him lose his British belt in such a fashion was dispiriting both for him and the sport.