Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Caixinha's cushty start
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

A comfortable 4-0 home win is as much as can be expected for a new manager in his first game. Even Graeme Murty managed to put six past this shower, although getting a hat-trick out of Joe Garner might be evidence that he was some kind of managerial savant.

 Pedro Caixinha made one change from the team that started the Old Firm game last weekend but it takes more than a few days of training for a manager to impose his own philosophy and style on to the team. Rangers set out to attack to Accies from the start, but that’s a no-brainer of a tactic when playing such a poor team at home. The international break has come at the perfect time for Caixinha, allowing him some quality training time with the players and it will be interesting to see how they approach the game against Motherwell on April 1st. The short term goal will be to try and overhaul the eight point gap to Aberdeen, a target that will be very difficult but not impossible. Caixinha will have done an excellent job if he gets this group of players into a position where they are able to capitalise if Aberdeen do end up dropping points unexpectedly.

 As for Hamilton, since their very creditable win against Aberdeen they have lost their next three games by an aggregate score of 14-0. They will have got some small comfort from Alex Schalk’s late equaliser in the Highland Derby which means that they are only bottom on goal difference, but Martin Canning will have to somehow pick his players up introduce some defensive solidity if the are to survive what promises to be an incredibly low quality relegation battle. IM

Aberdeen attackers impress again
It may be interesting to note (...well, interesting to me at least...) that when Niall McGinn's quality cross from the left was headed home by Shay Logan, it meant that he joined teammates Adam Rooney and Jonny Hayes on the same aggregated number of goals plus assists (15 in totalin Scottish Premiership play up to that point.  It demonstrates not only how influential each man is to the Aberdeen cause, but also how evenly spread their contributions have been across the front three positions this season.

Of course, Hayes would later move himself clear of his compadres in the second half, but this would not be courtesy of an assist from a teammate but rather an abominable attempt at a back pass by Anastasios Avlontis. Tasos was one of the players brought in by Ian Cathro last January; perhaps Director of Football Craig Levein- a former centre back himself - will be passing his manager a future note to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The Premiership fixtures now go on hiatus for the latest international break.  Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland - nations that qualified for the last major international tournament and are currently well placed for a run at the next one - have welcomed Messrs McGinn, Rooney and Hayes into their latest national squads.  Scotland, by contrast - a nation that hasn't qualified for a major tournament since the turn of the century and has virtually no chance of ending that barren run in this campaign - have decided they can do without other regular performers in the Aberdeen team such as Kenny McLean, Ryan Jack and Graeme Shinnie.  Plus ├ža change... MI

A manager under pressure
There was a manager under severe pressure at the Highland Derby, but not the one you'd expect.  In the home dugout, Richie Foran watched his side's rotten run extended to a single league win in eighteen games since October after Alex Schalk's late but deserved equalizer.  That's a run which would have got many a boss the boot, but the Irishman remains relatively untouchable.  There hasn't even been an iota of speculation regarding his future - this may be partly because Inverness don't sack managers willy-nilly, and may be because most Scottish football journalists can't really believe that a Caley Thistle squad who won the Cup less than two years ago could actually go down.

Well, they could.  Even though they moved off bottom spot on goal difference, there remains little evidence of a corner being turned.

However, it was his counterpart Jim McIntyre, who is apparently beginning to feel the heat.  Ross County are only a year removed from winning the League Cup, but there's no question they are underachieving this season with an operating budget that is a fair bit higher than that of St. Johnstone or Partick Thistle.  They've won just once since beating Inverness at home on Hogmanay and would be bottom themselves but for their two victories over their nearest rivals earlier in the campaign.  Whilst it might be stretching it to say that Schalk saved his manager's job, he's on a bit of a shoogly peg.  It is a minor miracle that Foran isn't yet. LS

Celtic look knackered
It's maybe not surprising that Celtic are beginning to look jaded.  It's been a long season that started in July and could finish with as many as 59 matches played, and the league is all over bar the shouting; the only thing left to motivate them for the run-in is the symbolism of going unbeaten.

But Dundee have shown the way for the champions-elect's opponents for the rest of the season - basically that you can't necessarily outplay Brendan Rodgers' side but you can probably outrun them now.  And the way that Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele toiled was striking; had Jozo Simunovic not benefitted from a lucky deflection for the opener it's not that easy to see where a goal was coming from.

Perhaps the international break will prove revitalizing.  Or perhaps Rodgers could do with rotating in some fresh legs a bit more, as for the first time this season Celtic actually look beatable domestically. LS

Why can't Partick Thistle see out games?
There are certainly reasons to be positive down Firhill way.  Thistle remain sixth; they're unbeaten in five league matches; only the top three have conceded fewer goals, and they've conceded twice in the same match just once since 9th December.  And yet they have exactly the same number of points as they had at this stage last season.

If only matches were 80 minutes long.  Seven times this season they've dropped points because of goals conceded in the final ten...including in the last two games.  Had they won both of those they'd be just two points behind Hearts.

This one was even harder to take because of a terrible blunder by Tomas Cerny; the normally outstanding Czech keeper let a tame effort from Connor Sammon go straight through him, a blunder that any Sunday League keeper would be horrified by.  It's uncharacteristic of Cerny, but not of Partick - too often there is a lapse of concentration, or a panicky mistake.  It is the difference at the moment between them being nailed on for top six, and being not quite safe from a relegation battle yet. LS

Sneaky Steven McLean
There wasn't anything especially new to report from Fir Park.  St. Johnstone did what they do so well away from home - absorb pressure whilst conceding relatively few chances, and counter-attacking effectively.  Motherwell, as ever, were let down by piss-poor defending.

So instead a wee mention for referee Craig Aitken, whose name is new to me.  Not that his performance was anything out of the ordinary, but he deserves credit for at least being clued up a bit.  Saints striker Steven MacLean, savvy as ever, spent the last five minutes of the match trying desperately to get booked - as it would mean he'd be suspended for a game at Hamilton which he wouldn't play in anyway, what with his knee problems on astro.  Foul after foul after foul...yet Aitken didn't fall for it.  What would you have a ref do in the circumstances? LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It will be impossible for Caixinha to succeed at Rangers

Well, Pedro Caixinha is an interesting name, and not just because it has an 'x' in it.  I look forward to the sophisticated tongues of Sportsound's motley crew of Proper Football Men trying to pronounce it.

But it's mainly interesting because it has, to excuse the pun, come out of the blue.  The Portuguese coach is not a well-known figure in these parts, given that he did very little of note in his playing career, his previous successes as a head coach were mainly in Mexico, and that he has spent the last fifteen months managing a club in Qatar.  His resume also isn't what one would expect from a prospective Rangers boss, in that it doesn't contain 'proper Rangers man' in it.

However it is a surprise that he's been given an easier ride by the media than Ian Cathro got when he joined Hearts.  No, actually, what's that word that's the exact opposite of surprise?  Caixinha could have shown up with three laptops, an iPad and a ZX Spectrum under his arm and the headlines would still have been overwhelmingly positive.  That of course is how Scottish football journalists do things.

That's not to say it's a bad appointment; after all his countrymen Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas also had no playing career of note, and also focused on coaching from a young age.  They've done alright.  And I understand that Caixinha's achievements in Central America were pretty impressive - reaching the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, for example.

But there are still question marks over the move.  The first is why a whole month passed following Mark Warburton's 'resignation' (the inverted commas will remain until his tribunal is sorted out).  Leaving Graeme Murty in charge of the first team for that long has been hugely damaging - perhaps irreparably so - to the club's chances of finishing second in the table this season.  Under his management, they lost at Dundee for the first time since dinosaurs walked the earth, and were then defeated by a Caley Thistle side which would be improved by deploying five wheelie-bins as their goalkeeper and defence.

Another is the mooted appointment of a Director of Football, which seems on the face of it to be a good idea - and one that should have been implemented in 2012 - but which is still to happen.  Surely the DoF should be appointed before the coach?  Now Rangers need to find a DoF who is happy to work with Caixinha and who shares his philosophy; given the Portuguese's career path it is unlikely the appointee will have ever met him before now.

Still, with Rangers third in the league, eight points adrift of Aberdeen, that should temper expectations...right?

Or maybe not. "We are talking about European trophies", he said at his unveiling.  That's awfully bullish.  Of course it's what the supporters want to hear - according to fans group Club 1872, the Chief Executive Stewart Robertson himself said ""Being second isn't good enough...Rangers is all about winning" - but it is pie in the sky.  They are no likelier to win such a competition than they are to eradicate sectarian singing from Ibrox for more than a few weeks at a time.

Hell, winning the Scottish Premiership is grossly unrealistic in the short-term, unless Celtic lose Brendan Rodgers and decided to replace him with Mark McGhee.  The gulf between the sides, both on and off the pitch, is as vast as ever.  Even if Moussa Dembele is sold this summer - for a fee that will probably be higher than Rangers' annual turnover - that cash will be reinvested in the squad to aid another pop at Champions League qualification...which in turn would put another £20million-plus in the coffers.

Meanwhile in Govan the last set of accounts revealed that extra cash would be needed just to get through 2016-17 in one piece.  They also admitted that the players' wage bill for the current campaign is upwards of £10million, which is horrendous value for the quality on show.  Every area of the team except goalkeeper needs overhauled: the only central defender they can rely on, Clint Hill, is 39 later this year; the only striker they can rely on, Kenny Miller, is 37; there are no natural wide players bar Barrie Mckay; there is no proper defensive midfield player; the most impressive midfielder, Emmerson Hyndman, is only on loan.

Only Hill, Miller, Philippe Senderos (and of course the long departed Joey Barton) are out of contract and can be removed from the payroll easily.  And bringing in quality reinforcements will be expensive - Celtic's staff costs last season were 250% higher, and you get what you pay for.  But given the aforementioned fiscal issues, there's no reason at all why there will be more money on the table for Caixinha than there was for Warburton, especially if the latter is successful in his case for unfair dismissal.  And no, there won't be £6million coming in for Mckay; they'd be lucky to get even half of that from a prospective buyer.

There is also the new spectre of Dave King's investigation by the Takeover Appeal Board, who have demanded that the and club chairman make a takeover bid for the club; that would cost £14million just for the shares.  Given the South Africa-based businessman's general reluctance to splash the dough to the extent he claimed he would a few years ago, it seems unlikely he would be willing - or able? - to come up with the cash.  Even if he is forced to make a bid, the whole process will be expensive.

While the gap to Celtic can hardly get any bigger, it will in the circumstances be a huge success if Caixinha manages just to make it significantly smaller on his watch.  But l suppose realism rarely sells season tickets.

Sadly, Caixinha will surely be left regretting his crazy comments in the long run.  One suspects that his inevitable failure to live up to them will be used as ammunition against him when his new employers decide the time has come to try to get him to 'resign' too...

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Dundee Divide

Image result for dens park tannadice
One city, two clubs - but it's Dundee who are on the up, while United are in the doldrums

There might only be 200 yards between Dens Park and Tannadice, but increasingly Dundee's two clubs are streets apart.

Both announced significant losses in their 2015-16 annual accounts this week.  Dundee, who finished eighth in the Premiership last season, were £500,000 in the red.  Dundee United's, meanwhile, were positively eye-watering; they were down £1.5million in a season where they were relegated.

For Dundee, there seems to be plenty of reason for optimism.  Their American owners, John Nelms and Tim Keys, had budgeted for a repeat of 2014-15's top six finish and their deficit could be largely attributed to the drop in prize money from finishing lower in the table and the increasing cost of maintaining Dens Park, a stadium which looks like a flashback to the 1980s.  So the owners have only gone and bought a significant amount of land over at the Camperdown Park area of the city, with the aim of building a new stadium there.

On the pitch, Paul Hartley's side have recovered from a poor start to the campaign to haul themselves up into a comfortable mid-table position, with almost enough points on the board now to stop worrying about relegation.  And even if they miss out on sixth again, the early season sales of Kane Hemmings and Greg Stewart will make the next balance sheet look rather better.

What the duo see in the club isn't exactly clear to this blogger.  There is no realistic prospect of Dundee challenging for regular honours in Scottish football; how they expect to make a profit in the long run is not clear at all.  But with Nelms and his family settled in the City of Discovery, they appear to be around for the duration - music to the ears of fans who have endured administration in both 2003 and 2010.  It's incredible how much has changed since the latter - the same year that United won the cup, their neighbours were staring into the abyss.

Now it's United who are suffering.  It became apparent a year ago that their business plan was to run at a loss, offset by the sale of talented players...which was fine until the family jewels were all gone and there was no-one decent left to sell.  That £1.5million loss is despite seven figures being raked in for the transfers of Nadir Ciftci, Ryan McGowan and John Souttar - that's how much of a basket-case they are.

Their income had already dropped significantly as a result of their poor league position and the knock-on effect on attendances.  This season they are of course in the Championship, denting revenues even further.  Chairman Stephen Thompson has said, over the course of 2016-17, £1.5 million in cuts were being made to operating costs, but that surely will still leave them running at a loss for this campaign too.

To make matters worse, a return to the Premiership is hardly a given.  Under Ray McKinnon, United lie second in the table, seven points adrift of leaders Hibs but only two points better off than Falkirk and Morton who both operate on shoestring budgets in comparison.  Whilst a place in the promotion playoffs seems assured, their current run of just one win in eight league games doesn't bode well.  There has been precious little to suggest the current squad would beat Premiership opposition in that playoff.

And if United don't go up this season?  One shudders to think.  At the very least there would be more cuts, though rumours of future administration appear malicious.  But the longer it takes United to return to the promised land, the harder it will be.  There's no sign of a knight in shining armour coming to rescue them.

That's probably because he's already across the road at Dens.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

ICT and Rangers heading in different directions
"What is it they've sent us?"

So ends Star Wars: Rogue One; so begins - maybe - Caley Thistle's revival?  The Highlanders fairly rode their luck in the second half against Rangers, but having squandered a golden opportunity to win by missing a late penalty, they somehow conjured a second chance out of nothing.  Billy Mckay's performance had been outstanding even before his moment of magic, as he harrassed and harried Rangers' central defenders and did a remarkable job of holding up the ball against men twice his size.  His winning goal came because he was somehow able to back into Rob Kiernan whilst the ball bounced to a suitable height for his audacious bicycle kick.

ICT's other goal was also pretty special; Greg Tansey's strike was heading for the centre of the goal when it left his boot, but he applied some Sensible Soccer aftertouch which sent it into the far corner.  Tansey looked liberated by having Ross Draper beside him in a deep midfield role rather than Iain Vigurs; one hopes this wasn't just a performance for the TV cameras.

If Inverness have hope, Rangers have precious little...at least under Graeme Murty.  The delay in appointing a permanent successor to Mark Warburton is difficult to explain; in the meantime the side are floundering.  Whilst professional pride dictated a fast start to both halves there was precious little sign of a plan beyond hoping that Barrie Mckay could produce something out of nothing.

Admittedly, there was little Murty could do other than send his XI out in a 4-3-3, as he hardly has alternative options available.  The need for a defensive midfielder and a powerful centre-back has been apparent for months, yet January saw the arrival of neither.  Kiernan and Danny Wilson, who gave away a spot-kick ,are nowhere near the standard required at the back, while the lack of protection offered by Andy Halliday, Jon Toral and Emmerson Hyndman was reckless, but also the norm - all are attack-minded midfield players.

So plenty for both clubs to ponder.  Inverness need to hope their momentum isn't derailed by Celtic next week.  Rangers need to get back on track pronto, partly to preserve a top three position and partly because they are at real risk of a shellacking at Celtic Park in a fortnight. LS

Motherwell are in a mess

Firstly, it should be pointed out that Steven Hammell, Steven McManus and Richard Tait, three of the first choice back four, were missing.  And also credit must be given to Dundee, who were bottom in September and whose storm up the table coincides with Marcus Haber's arrival; the big striker is worth his weight in gold, not just goals (he now has six after his double at Fir Park).  With the industrious Mark O'Hara and Jamie Vincent both fit for a change and scurrying over every blade of grass, and Paul McGowan pulling the strings, Dundee look like the top six team that, on paper, they should have been all along.

And yet, Motherwell.  I challenge anyone to watch the first half highlights without covering their faces and screaming "My eyes!  It burns!".

Less than a fortnight after shipping seven at Pittodrie, they let in five at Fir Park to Dundee...in the first half.  And had the visitors not squandered several great chances and taken their foot off the gas after the break, it would have been a number that the videprinter would have needed to state in (CAPITAL LETTERS) to prove it wasn't a mistake.

Perhaps Ben Heneghan, unable to cover for so many haddies, and young Jack McMillan, a left-back playing on the right (where none of the goals came from) can be let off with a caution.  Zak Jules and Joe Chalmers, on the other hand, should have been arrested without bail on charges of "Impersonating a defender".  Rarely has a left-back looked so unsure of how to play left-back as Chalmers, which is disturbing because he has played that position his whole life.  Jules, on loan from Reading, scored the most delightful own goal; his back header had so much power on it that it would have troubled Craig Samson even if the keeper had been properly positioned.

Samson was hardly blameless either; after two of the goals he must have checked his gloves to make sure there weren't massive football-sized holes in his hands.  'Well fans have known he was a problem for months; however, Mark McGhee refused to even give Dean Brill a chance before chucking him, and now has stuck Everton loanee Russell Griffiths on the bench whilst Samson flaps week after week after week.

Ah yes, McGhee.  Fresh from the infamous "get that tae f***" moment, one wonders if he will last long enough now to actually serve his upcoming touchline ban, or whether the sixth sacking of his managerial career is imminent? LS

Rory McKenzie makes a name for himself
It's not that uncommon a sight, a sliced clearance from the goalkeeper which goes straight to an opponent who is forty-five, fifty yards from goal and who might, if they hit it first-time, be able to lob the goalie before he gets back between the sticks.

And yet many a top class player sclaffs their effort just as badly.  Many more, probably the majority, eschew the opportunity, even at the highest level.  Kilmarnock's Rory McKenzie however casually returned Zander Clark's scuff with interest; the ball returned to ground level almost at the goal-line.  On a weekend filled with tremendous goals, this was probably the best.  But for ex-teammate Souleymane Coulibaly's bicycle kick against Dundee earlier in the campaign, it would be goal of the season.

McKenzie is just short of 150 first-team appearances for the Killie, at just 23 years old.  No fewer than five managers (if you count Lee McCulloch as one) have played him regularly, so clearly there's something about him.  And yet I've never seen it.  Not quite a midfielder and not quite a striker, he neither scores enough nor assists enough.  He looks neat and tidy but never seems to have a lot of impact.

Well, now McKenzie has scored two in two games.  He's having impact now.  Maybe it's because he's finally surrounded by some decent players after the Johnston and Locke eras?  Or maybe he's a better player then I've been giving him credit for. LS

Cathro feels the heat
Even by football’s standards, the polarisation of opinions on Ian Cathro are stark. Either he’s a visionary who has come to drag Scottish football kicking a screaming out of the dark ages, or he’s a fraud with a laptop.

 This week in Gorgie has been has been a good one for the Proper Football Men who distrust anyone who might have working knowledge of Excel. A hiding from Hibs on Wednesday night was bad enough without being followed by this defeat at Firhill. More worrying than the result was the lack of any evident desire to make up for the derby defeat. Hearts were insipid up front, only having one shot on target, and shambolic at the back, with a red card thrown in for good measure.

 The Jambos have two winnable home games coming up against Ross County and Hamilton, and they should be helped by no longer having to play on a ploughed field. If they don’t win those games, Cathro will be in the uncomfortable position of needed positive results from a trip to Pittodrie and and visit from Celtic.

 No doubt the success or otherwise of Cathro will be used by many to support their own views of what a football manager should be. I personally hope that he gets through this difficult period and makes a success of the job. Not because I have any great affection for Hearts (if he was doing a better job then my beloved Gers would be in even more trouble than they are), but because he’s different. Ann Budge has been a breath of fresh air in Scottish football since she took over at Tynecastle and appointing a young manager with fresh ideas is a risk that I’d like to see pay off. Remember, this is a club not that far removed for having Gary Locke as the manager. IM

Boyce needs to be up front
Ross County have had mixed luck with three at the back this season, but it was a tactic that worked very well against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.  One suspects their future opponents will be making notes; the Dons had lots of possession but not that many chances before Adam Rooney nicked the only goal.

Jim McIntyre's side looked quite aggressive on paper with Liam Boyce, Alex Schalk and Craig Curran all starting.  Boyce however lined up in a deeper role behind the front two, where his industry and skill could help keep the ball and create chances for his teammates.  In recent months, the Ulsterman has often been seen playing off the front; last week he was the 'number 10' in a 4-4-1-1, whilst before that he spent a number of matches drifting in off the right flank.

The trouble is that, whilst Boyce is County's best player and actually the one most likely to create chances and make space for others, he also happens to be their most consistent goalscorer.  He's gone six games without a goal, and County have managed a solitary draw in those six.  In their five league wins this season he's scored nine goals; they haven't won one without him hitting the net.

In short, no-one else is taking the opportunities that Boyce is creating.  The sooner he goes back up top the better for County. LS

It's too easy
It's just getting boring, to be honest.  Another team - this week it was Hamilton Accies - pitched up at Celtic Park looking primarily to avoid a humiliating thrashing that might wreck morale in the long term.  I don't blame them; the gulf in class between the Champions-elect and the rest of the league is so huge that anyone who tries to give them a game is going to be embarrassed.

Meanwhile, with the title already sewn up and very little to motivate the players other than Scottish Cup ties and the remaining games against Rangers, it's no surprise that Celtic are going through these matches in second gear, temporarily upping their game for long enough to make sure of a comfortable win whilst breaking no more sweat than is necessary.  I don't blame them either.

But in the long run, what does it mean?  It's not much to watch even in victory for the home support.  And the complete lack of competition - a situation which will continue for years to come - is hardly going to entice the likes of Moussa Dembele to stay for long...and the same might be said of Brendan Rodgers.  It's so easy.  In fact, it's too easy. LS

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Tommy Wright is amazing
Missing your most creative attacker (Danny Swanson)?  No problem.  Lose your best midfielder (Murray Davidson) to injury?  Ditto.

It's like St Johnstone can just plug anyone into the gaps and be confident they will be filled adequately.  Most of this game was spent with David Wotherspoon out of position on the left wing and Ricky Foster deputising on the right, yet it was the same old Perth Saints.  Robust defensively, able to disrupt Ross County high up the pitch without ever seeming to leave space in behind to be exploited; dangerous and clever on the break, with Steven MacLean once more giving a clinic on how to play as a lone striker.

MacLean might have been the standout player at Victoria Park but it was his late replacement off the bench, Chris Kane, whose sensational strike on the turn gave the visitors a deserved win.  Ross County had no answer to their opponent's organisation, with the extra man in midfield limiting them to long balls.  Craig Curran's equaliser was the result of a lucky ricochet they scarcely deserved.

But St. Johnstone showed remarkable character to bounce back and find the winner.  Of course they did, because it's what they do.  This team has no stars, and a wage bill that's probably well below many Premiership teams, including County.  Yet they'll finish top six.  Again.

And that's how it's been ever since Tommy Wright became manager here.  Because he's a really, really, really good manager.  Surely a bigger club is going to notice eventually? LS

Addison costs Killie precious points
I think it's fair to say that Miles Addison ruined many a Killie fan's Sunday afternoon; they may well have still been having nightmares about it in the middle of the night...

You could look to the more positive outlook on the game's late substitutions and credit Derek McInnes for bringing on Jayden Stockley and Peter Pawlett, who would go on to score the late goals that would overturn Kilmarnock's first half opener - Rory McKenzie firing a low shot beyond Joe Lewis after the Dons defence couldn't get the ball clear - but it was either a stroke of genius or a Jedi mind trick to Lee McCulloch to put on Addison as well.

The defending for the first goal was horrific.  Although successfully backing off Jonny Hayes inside the penalty area, he clearly expected that Freddie Woodman should be coming off his line to collect the ball when the keeper didn't appear to have any intention to do so; in the ensuing confusing, Stockley blindsided him to poke the ball into the net.  The second goal was more unfortunate; a botched headed clearance fell to Pawlett, and while he did his best to charge down the shot he only succeeded in deflecting it beyond his keeper's reach.

For all that, Miles should probably still have earned his team a shot at redemption when he had his shirt pulled back in the box by Ash Taylor in the dying minutes of the game, but referee Andrew Dallas waived away the appeal.  

It must have been a tough loss for McCulloch to take in his first game in charge following Lee Clark's departure the previous week, although he must have been encouraged by the performance of his team overall.  Remarkably, had Killie held on for the win they would have risen into the top six of the table; as it is, they remain 4 points away from the relegation play-off place.  Where Kilmarnock ultimately ends up may go a long way to deciding whether McCulloch remains first team manager beyond the end of this season. MI

Murty isn't a long term solution
After only one win in Mark Warburton’s final five games, interim coach Graeme Murty made the not unreasonable decision to shake things up by setting the team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and playing a more direct style at Dens Park. Paul Hartley, presumably having watched a lifeless performance against Morton last week, instructed his players to go at the visitors from the start, looking to take advantage of fragile confidence and an even more fragile right wing of James Tavernier and Martyn Waghorn.

Dundee were well worth their win; Rangers looked lost - not surprising perhaps given Murty's lack of experience.   He has been installed "for the foreseeable future", a situation reminiscent of Kenny McDowall's two years ago when he succeeded Ally McCoist because he was pretty much the only man left.  McDowall was quickly found out, but he lasted 10 matches which just compounded the mess he inherited and derailed any hope of success that season.

As regards this campaign, Rangers are in danger of allowing Aberdeen to drift out of sight in the race for second place. Perhaps that would be no bad thing; the difference between finishing second and third is not significant enough to justify rushing into any managerial appointments (especially when the current boss finds the job so easy that he can do it standing on his head!). But under Murty, you wouldn't rule out a big enough slump that they ended up even further down the table. IM

Doolan is Thistle's best hope up front
Whisper it, but Partick Thistle look to be the likeliest of the bottom seven to sneak into sixth place (just as well, given yours truly predicted it back in July).  After a mediocre start to the season, they've improved over time, ironing out their defensive problems with the addition of Adam Barton and cutting down on the mistakes.  The midfield is pretty decent too with Abdul Osman, Chris Erskine and a resurgent Sean Welsh.

As has been the case for the last three and a half years, Thistle's one big issue is up front.  This season Ade Azeez was brought in to solve that problem; he currently has just a single league goal despite starting 15 games.  So back to Kris Doolan they turn; it was the wily forward's double from the bench that beat Accies, moving him onto seven goals for the season and ninety-seven as a Thistle player.

The trouble with Doolan is that, clever as he is, he isn't quick enough or strong enough to get much joy as a lone forward.  Azeez is big, powerful and fast, but unfortunately is a haddy in front of goal.  Alan Archibald would be better sticking with Doolan for the run-in, but his repeated failure to snap up a goalscorer is the one thing holding Partick back. LS

Easy street for Celtic
3pm kick-offs at home on a Saturday have been a rare treat over the past few years for Celtic fans, this one saw a 2-0 win over Motherwell  that may end up the most routine win of their season.  Mark McGhee's side were not expected to trouble the Champions-elect after their humbling in Aberdeen during the week and they never really offered anything to set your heart racing, their agenda clearly being to keep the score down. 

A first-half penalty from Moussa Dembele broke the deadlock and you would have been excused at that point for thinking that he was on his way to a third consecutive hat-trick but it wasn't to be but that wasn't due to lack of effort from the Frenchman.  But by half-time James Forrest, who chipped in with another, for me, man-of-the-match performance, scored the second goal with ease as he cut inside to find the far corner.

The second-half came and went without very much incident at all.  You'd think Brendan Rodgers' men were saving themselves for challenges to come...were there actually any.  For Celtic are 27 points clear and 31 games unbeaten domestically. The only blip remains that draw in Inverness; you would be surprised to see another one before the end of the season. PF

Can Caley Thistle kick on?
Inverness really need some sort of big result to kickstart their season; a win at Tynecastle would have fitted the bill, and time will tell whether this battling draw will have the desired effect.

It was at least Caley Thistle's best result and performance in some time.  Richie Foran called it "the old Inverness", and he was spot on - there was an energy and determination, especially in midfield (is it a coincidence that Iain Vigurs was absent?) that has been rare in recent months.

So can the Highlanders kick on?  The trouble is that the next couple of games don't get a lot easier - a wounded Rangers on Friday, then Celtic at home.  Any momentum could dissipate depressingly quickly. LS

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Mark McGhee embarrasses self, club again

Poor Mark McGhee.

The Motherwell manager was really rather upset with fourth official John McKendrick on Wednesday night.  So much so that he threatened legal action against him; having told the press post-match that he was "disgusted and horrified by the attitude of the fourth official" and accused him of having "an agenda" against McGhee, he then added "I'll be speaking to a lawyer".

What McGhee expects from his counsel is unclear.  For a start, it can be reasonably pointed out that most of us would have said 'agenda' with any grown man who is behaving like a complete bellend.

The legal threat was just about the most ridiculous of McGhee's post-match comments, just ahead of his claim that "I wasn't even getting excited about the fact we were losing the game...I was having a bit of a laugh actually" when he was sent to the stand.  Motherwell were 6-0 down at the time.  As you can see from the video below, McGhee did indeed take it all in good spirits.

All right, he was being goaded by Dons fans who, recalling the humiliating period when he managed their club, thoroughly enjoyed his terrible night.  But the "get that tae f***" at the end will be remembered and treasured by Scottish football supporters for a long time to come.

The 7-2 humiliation at Pittodrie comes on the back of a 3-0 drubbing at home to Hearts in their last league match, where 'Well midfielder Carl McHugh was given his marching orders with the game goalless and his side promptly went to pieces.  McGhee was not exactly gracious after that match either: "It's never a red card in a million years.  It's an embarrassment...I think every single player on the pitch was astonished".


Erm, aye.  Those Hearts players who went mental at the challenge were clearly astonished by the decision.  And whilst Andrew Dallas is a honking referee - he booked a Hearts player in that game when one Motherwell player tripped over another - it's hard to argue with a dismissal for a challenge where one player catches the ankle of another with his studs.  Unless you're McGhee, who in his current mindset would probably abuse a referee who claimed that the sky was blue.

Motherwell didn't even appeal the dismissal, though they did release a rather whingy statement requesting "clarity on the guidelines surrounding serious foul play and in particular 'excessive force'.  This writer's own opinion is that hacking an opponent's ankle with your studs showing is probably 'excessive force', but then what do I know?  'Well also made reference to their failed appeal of Scott McDonald's red card against Rangers the previous week, which they clearly thought was unreasonable even though McDonald had, er, hacked an opponent's ankle with his studs.

Of course, it's coincidence that the officials got such stick on two occasions were Motherwell got thumped.  Their performance with ten men against Hearts was shambolic, not least because of the double substitution McGhee instantly made which handed all initiative to Hearts and left him without sufficient attackers to get his team back into it after they fell behind almost instantly.  And conceding seven in a single game tells its own story.  Lucky for McGhee that both times he had other subjects he could complain about, rather than having to take awkward questions about his team's horrendous catipulations.

Managers behaving like twats is hardly a new thing; blaming referees for their own mistakes isn't exactly original either.  But this particular manager is actually on the SFA payroll, for he moonlights as Gordon Strachan's assistant manager.  Perhaps given his status a bit more decorum might be appropriate?  I would imagine the 'lawyer' comment was just petulance rather than a genuine threat, but if McGhee was indeed to get a solicitor involved I don't imagine his paymasters would be impressed.

Hell, I hope they throw the book at him anyway; it's just as well that all the payoffs he's had from clubs that have sacked him over the years (Aberdeen included) mean that he can probably afford the hefty fine that's coming his way...

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic go through the gears when it matters
Celtic made it 29 games unbeaten in domestic competition and if you look at the scoreline without watching the highlights, you would be excused for thinking it was another stroll in the park for Brendan Rodgers' men.

At half-time the online chatter was pretty much focused around whether St Johnstone would be the first team in the country to beat Celtic since, well, St Johnstone did at the tail end of last season. 
An early goal from Liam Henderson settled the nerves that I had pre-match but a Bitton masterclass in how not to defend a header and a Dedryck Boyata OG made it 2-1 to the hosts at the break. 
A lacklustre Gary Mackay-Steven was replaced by a returning Moussa Dembele on 59 minutes and thanks to that terrible refereeing decision from Craig Thomson he had an opportunity to level things up from the penalty spot, he duly dispatched it and the result was only ever going one way after that.  A Dembele strike put the Bhoys 3-2 up, the league's top scorer, Scott Sinclair, made it four before the big French striker finished off a fantastic team move to make it a five-star performance from the Champions elect.

It's now 95 goals for the season from Celtic and 23 of them from the 20-year-old Dembele. 
Who can stop this ever improving juggernaut that is Celtic under Brendan Rodgers? Inverness in the Scottish Cup at the weekend? I wouldn't think so...PF

Foran's stay of execution
It's actually questionable whether a loss to Dundee would have meant the end for Richie Foran - the Caley Thistle board do not rush to dismiss managers - but the question would have been asked rather loudly, especially after a dreadful first half in which Inverness picked up where they left off at Hamilton on Tuesday, and not in a good way.

But the comeback from two goals down, on the back of an outstanding performance after the interval, at least allows one to use the narrative that 'the players are still playing for the manager' and that there's still the chance to turn this around.  But that would be a big conclusion to jump to.  Caley Thistle's last three games were all winnable - against Partick, Accies and Dundee - and they managed to pick up as many points (two) as they missed penalties.

And just look at the upcoming fixtures.  After Celtic away in the cup next week, they have Hearts away, Rangers at home and Celtic at home.  It will be a shock if they are still within three points of the sides above them after that.  Their next winnable fixture is not till 11 March.  And if ICT are still in the mire at that point, surely there isn't enough time for Foran's successor to rescue them.  In hindsight, they might wish they had lost to Dundee and got a new boss in who had enough time to change things and prevent relegation. LS

The biggest "embarrassment" was McGhee
Despite the best hopes of referee Andrew Dallas, the sending off of Motherwell's Carl McHugh didn't sufficiently distract from his earlier decision to book Hearts' Malaury Martin for the heinous crime of being a yard away when one Motherwell player tripped over his own teammate (No, I'm not kidding).

That's partly because the McHugh decision was right - he hacked Don Cowie with his foot raised and his studs showing, catching the Jambo on the ankle.  It was dangerous and wild.  This author has very little time for those sort of challenges - in all his years of playing in kickabouts he's never fouled anyone like that, nor seen a foul like that.  Jumping in with studs raised or two feet is a deliberate decision by a player, not a natural movement.

So for Mark McGhee to label the decision an "embarrassment" was almost as remarkable as his "never in a million years" rant that it was part of.  Whilst Dallas is a dreadful ref, he got this one spot on.  One wonders whether McGhee was looking to deflect blame from his side's latest poor result at home (no-one has conceded more goals on their own patch this season), their lacklustre performance with eleven men or his immediate tactical changes to try and hold out for a draw...which allowed Hearts to turn the screw and score jjust six minutes after McHugh's dismissal, as well as making sure that there was no chance of a response.

And so presumably Motherwell will put their money where McGhee's mouth is and appeal the decision?  It turns out they won't.  Given they already wasted several hundred pounds they don't have last week fruitlessly contesting Scott McDonald's Ibrox red, the 'Well board thankfully aren't as stupid as their manager is. LS

Aberdeen have depth...up to a point
Partick Thistle were stubborn, stuffy opponents at Pittodrie; for long periods it looked like Aberdeen might not manage to break them down, until substitutes Jayden Stockley and Ryan Christie struck in the last quarter of an hour to give the Dons a precious victory that moves them into second spot.

Expect to see more of Christie in the coming weeks; Derek McInnes will likely use him in a similar manner to how he deployed James Maddison - often nominally on the left but with licence to drift inside and take advantage of whatever space is available.  Christie is particularly adept at this and will prove a real asset.  Stockley is a fine backup option at centre-forward, not quite consistent enough to frequently dislodge Adam Rooney but good at holding the ball up and capable of getting some goals.

Aberdeen will feel pleased about the strength of their bench - Peter Pawlett, Miles Storey and Anthony O'Connor were also amongst the subs.  But whilst that seems like impressive depth, there is precious little beyond the matchday eighteen - teenager Frank Ross would have been next man up.  If the Dons were to suffer a few injuries, particularly in midfield, then they'd have a problem.  Keeping everyone fit is crucial to their hopes of holding off Rangers and Hearts. LS

Brophy's time to shine
This was supposed to be the season that Eamonn Brophy pushed on; now 20, the Hamilton striker showed plenty of flashes of his potential in the second half of last season, including a great goal against Celtic last February.

One year on, and he hasn't really made much progress.  Brophy has been largely confined to the bench not so much because of the excellent form of teammates but because he hasn't impressed when the opportunities have arisen.  But Alex D'Acol's early injury meant an introduction after 15 minutes against Kilmarnock and a lovely shot on the turn earned him only his second goal of the season.  Just as well really, as he'd earlier spurned a glorious opportunity.

Whilst D'Acol has been decent in spades, Hamilton really, really, really need a regular goalscorer if they are to finish above eleventh.  This is Brophy's time to shine. LS

Rangers struggle against mid-table opposition again
We’re a long way from the days where teams like Ross County would be content to get away from Ibrox without a sound thrashing, but Rangers still have aspirations to be challenging for the league in the near future.  If that’s the case, a game against a team with two wins in their last ten should at least be fairly routine.  While defeats to Celtic and Hearts are painful, it is results against the likes of Ross County, St Johnstone, and Kilmarnock that show that this Rangers team isn’t much better that the one that was in the Championship last season.

Even though they’ve won more than they’ve lost, few mid-to-lower table teams have been dismissed with the ease that a good team should expect.  Mark Warburton pointed to the number of shots Rangers had on Saturday, suggesting they were unlucky not to win.  On another viewing, Ross County were unlucky not to be out of sight by half time.  And even when they did create chances, the home side lacked the quality to finish things off; this was exemplified by one Joe Garner chance in the second half where he found himself one-on-one with the keeper but looked like he’d never been in that situation before. That’s "One Point Five Million Pound Striker Joe Garner", to give him his full name.

Things are drifting at Ibrox and it’s clear on the pitch but Warburton shows no sign of being able to change things.  He wants to play a game based on passing the ball out of defense, but when you have Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos at the back then maybe that game plan needs to be adjusted.  Enough money has been thrown at the problem to pretty much guarantee a top four finish, but currently the team looks as far away from Celtic as it has done since 2012.  The problem with rebuilding the team, from the manager down, is that it’s been a long time since Rangers have a had an ownership that would suggest such a project could be competently executed. IM

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.