Friday, December 8, 2017

McInnes fiasco is just a symptom of Rangers' bigger problems

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a football club without a manager must be in want of a manager.

Six weeks down the line from the 'mutual consenting' of Pedro Caixinha, Rangers will still have Graeme Murty in the dugout for this weekend's game against Ross County...and, according to yesterday's statement, till the end of December. This means he'll be in charge for another five games after that till the winter break, taking him to a total of twelve at least. Some clubs keep permanent managers in their posts for less time than that.

Given that Caixinha's jacket had been on a shoogly peg since the failure to Progres (sic) in Europe back in July, it seems quite remarkable that the club hadn't already started quietly sounding out alternatives in advance of his inevitable exit. Delaying the start of that process till he left the building was either incredibly honourable or incredibly incompetent; I'll leave you to decide which of those descriptions to delete as applicable.

The Rangers board contains a number of successful business folk, and there is also a managing director heavily experienced in the ways of football (Stewart Robertson) and a Director Of Football too. And yet a thousand monkeys attending a thousand board meetings would have been more effective than this.

There has been a lot of conspiracy talk about Rangers trying to use the media to tap up McInnes and destabilise Aberdeen.  And we know there are a depressingly high number of Scottish football journalists who would happily report that "the sky is green and grass is blue" if Jim Traynor sent that to them in an email titled 'Today's Rangers Press Release'.

But forty days passed between Caixinha leaving and an approach being made to Aberdeen for McInnes, and another two before he actually turned them down. The club's claim that "there was no outstanding candidate among those who applied for the position" is almost certainly true, but it seems crazy to have waited several weeks to confirm that is the case. If McInnes was earmarked early on as the leading candidate, the suggestion that Rangers wanted to wait until the double-header against the Dons was out of the way is laughable; five weeks passed between Caixinha going and that first game at Ibrox, plenty of time to sort things out.

It seems more likely that the board's strategy was as detailed and well thought out as David Davis' Brexit impact assessment files, and so the media simply filled the information vacuum as well as they could. And with little to go on other than a link to McInnes which certainly seemed plausible, they regurgitated it again and again like Roman nobles at a 1st century AD banquet. The speculation probably did unsettle McInnes and Aberdeen, but to suggest it was all part of a cunning plan gives the impression that Rangers operate with more nous than Baldrick.

One thing it has accomplished, however, is to distract supporters - and, either wilfully or otherwise, the media - from two far more significant issues surrounding Rangers. The first was their recent accounts which stated that £4m was required for working capital by the end of November - November! That's less than halfway through the season before they basically ran out of money. In fact, it's possible that the long delay in moving for McInnes is because Rangers couldn't meet Aberdeen's compensation demands until that cash injection.

That £4m, plus another £3.5m next year, will apparently come in loans from a company called NOAL the holders of the shares bought by Dave King's family trust, which leads me onto the second issue - the ongoing battle between King and the Takeover Panel. King has bascially admitted he can't actually afford to bid for Rangers (his lawyer's claims that he is "penniless" and that he hasn't got any sort of control over the actions of NOAL seem interesting in the context of the loans that have gone the club's way). Just being in conflict with the Takeover Panel is unheard of (this is the first time someone has fought a ruling from them); losing would put King in a very precarious position indeed.

Those are probably the reasons why McInnes felt staying in the North-East was a better career move than going to Ibrox. And this embarrassing affair may well bring that into the conscience of even those with the bluest-tinted spectacles.

In the meantime, Murty will plug on. By the end of December he will have, in two spells, managed Rangers for eighteen matches. Caixinha was in charge for only twenty-six. Murty is clearly not a viable long-term option; whilst his tactical changes for the games against Aberdeen were impressive they came on the back of embarrassing losses to Hamilton and Dundee. If Rangers choose to stick with him into the new year, they will not finish second. But by confirming him in the role till the winter break they have conceded that they are yet to devise a plan B, after seemingly taking a month to come up with a Plan A that was so simple that even Kris Boyd had thought of it.

On the bright side, they do apparently have Alex McLeish's phone number...

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

We need a revolution, but Project Brave feels like the wrong one

It's hard to feel optimistic about Project Brave.

Part of that is due to the corny name - even thinking about it makes one cringe inwardly. Part of that is the thought that Malky Mackay is it's figurehead. But most of it is due to the fact that the SFA have done little in recent years that justifies ever giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Still, they've recognised that the failure to produce talented players for our national team is a huge problem, and this is their revolutionary plan to fix that. And sure, revolutions always upset lots of people.

The concern is that the criticisms so far have been pretty reasonable.

To recap, eight clubs are given Elite status, which means extra funding. Another eight have been put in a second tier with a bit less funding, and four more are a tier lower. The elite eight are Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs, Hamilton, Motherwell and Kilmarnock. That's just one club north of the Firth of Forth.

As you'd expect from any organization who uses the word 'transparency' often, there's been a fair amount of secrecy about the criteria used. In fact, much of the detail has only come as a result of some clubs publicly explaining why they are not at Elite level.

Dundee United revealed that because there are no adequate indoor training facilities in Tayside, they had no chance (presumably St. Johnstone suffered from the same problem).

St. Mirren would have had to hire five new members of staff - including a head of recruitment, a sports scientist and a performance analyst, which wasn't financially viable.

Partick Thistle, whose youth academy is financially backed by well-known Euromillions winners Chris and Colin Weir, released a beautifully written statement which was a tactful way of saying "we think it's all bollocks". They would have increase their overall outlay on the youth setup to £600,000/year - 20% of their annual budget. As they pointed out, they've been doing pretty well at producing players via their own methods.

Greenock Morton, stuck in the third group, were marked down simply because they've only had an academy for five years - apparently history matters more than actual quality (insert Rangers joke here).

And finally Ross County are appealing against missing out on Elite status despite apparently meeting the criteria; chairman Roy McGregor fired a pre-emptive strike last month by claiming the club's refusal to make primary school-age kids travel 200 miles to the central belt and back on Sundays was being used against them.

Of the eight clubs picked as Elite, five were shoo-ins: the Gruesome Twosome, the two Edinburgh clubs and Aberdeen. The Dons don't even have their own training ground let alone indoor facilities, but being able to access the local University's sports village is apparently good enough. That's despite stories that their kids' teams have to do a tour of local parks to find ones to train on.

The other three have clearly taken a wee bit of a financial risk in order to be deemed Elite. And since Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Motherwell all have a good recent record for developing and playing their own products it is hard to begrudge them. But is there really a need for five of the eight clubs to be within 30 minutes' drive of Hampden Park? The SFA's own annual performance review from earlier this year uses Keiran Freeman, a youngster signed by Southampton last summer, as evidence of the benefit of the Performance School model it is looking for clubs to adopt. Freeman is from Dundee. The next Tayside tyro will have to travel all the way to Edinburgh and back at least to train with an Elite setup.

As for the other five, what has actually changed that will improve the calibre of Scottish player being produced? There's no disagreement that the quality is insufficient, but its the clubs that produce the players, not the SFA. And these five clubs already hoard significant numbers of youngsters. How many so far are going on to be first teamers? Well, counting only players who have been in their academy setups in the last five years - so guys like Andrew Considine and Lewis Stevenson don't count - Aberdeen, Hibs and Rangers have between them just three players who have started Premiership matches this season. Hearts and Celtic can at least boast far more.

The main motivations for youth setups in the past have mostly seemed to be a combination of creating links with the local community and the hope that you'd be lucky enough to find the next superstar. So when in a couple of years Kieran Tierney gets to the point that playing in Scotland is holding him back the transfer fee will pay for many, many years of Celtic's setup. On a smaller scale the £1.5million Hibs got for Jason Cummings more than justified two or three completely stagnant years of production.

But the big clubs have always done their best to hoard the youth talent. Getting them to play the kids and give them the chance and experience they need has always another matter. After all, what First Team Manager is going to risk results and his own neck by playing youngsters and benefitting only a successor several years down the line? After their Euro 2000 disaster, Germany forced Bundesliga clubs to put six homegrown players in their matchday squad every week; only by introducing rules like these, rather than relying on the clubs looking past their own short-term selfishness, will progress be made in that area.

But my biggest bone with Project Brave is that I feel like the whole problem has been approached from the wrong angle. The biggest problems we have as a footballing nation are a lack of facilities and a lack of coaches. The first is not being addressed - clubs are just accessing what is already there - although it seems like coach numbers will be on the rise, albeit only at these Elite clubs. But it costs a fortune to get that qualification.

Given their recent successes Iceland are in vogue, and quite right too. Their achievements stem from building loads of indoor facilities (with government support) and subsidizing coaching qualifications, whilst refusing to allow anyone to coach even a four year old without some sort of UEFA licence. Said four year olds get access to said facilities and said coaches. Even though the vast majority are no more talented than you or I they get high quality coaching and, more importantly, exercise; the whole thing is a significant public health benefit. And as a bonus, fifteen years down the line there are far more international-class footballers per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

Maybe its a pipe dream to think the Scottish Government would have been amenable to such a scheme. But there's nothing to suggest the SFA even thought about it. Project Brave seems to instead do little more than give Elite clubs a badge that gives them even more chance of hoarding the kids who look the most talented, without actually giving them a carrot or a stick to get them to improve their output.

Plus ca change...

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, November 13, 2017

Dundee: stand by your man, or can McCann?

If there was one obvious lesson to be learned from Inverness Caledonian Thistle's relegation from the Premiership last summer, it was this: showing too much faith in a struggling manager is laudable, but it also often leads to complete disaster.

The ability of the manager/head coach/caretaker kept on as the cheap option because of all the money wasted on a Portuguese bloke (delete as applicable depending on the management structure of the club in question) is of course important at any club, but the smaller the club and their playing budget, the bigger the difference that the quality of the coach makes.

Whether through astute tactical acumen or just having an eye for (and contacts to find) a decent player, it can be - to use Caley Thistle as an example again - the difference between being the third best side in the country to being in the division below.  Richie Foran had neither quality.  His predecessor John Hughes couldn't tell the difference between the next Lionel Messi and the next Lionel Blair, but was outstanding at improving the players he inherited, which is why ICT won the cup.  Before that, Terry Butcher displayed little tactical nous beyond "let's get into 'em" but managed to find and attract several gems to the Highlands and create one of the best half-dozen squads in the country.

Of course, Foran had no experience as a manager and precious little as a coach, and within six months it was clear he was out of his depth.  Neil McCann has been at Dundee for a similar period.  Last weekend's defeat at Hibernian was his eighteenth league game since taking over in May, so that's nearly half a season as a sample.  The stats: four wins, two draws, twelve defeats, eighteen goals scored and thirty-four against, fourteen points out of a possible fifty-four.

Now it must be pointed out that McCann was appointed because the Dark Blues were already spiralling hopelessly out of control.  Paul Hartley's last seven matches in charge were all defeats, which means that rotten league record can be extrapolated to fourteen points from twenty-five games, a figure which would normally be acceptable only if the club had picked up one of its once-a-decade points penalties for administration.  So there was certainly something very wrong to begin with.  But can McCann put it right?

Already this season four Premiership clubs have pulled the trigger and changed manager.  Rangers obviously don't belong in a conversation about sides at the bottom, but Kilmarnock and Ross County certainly do, and Hearts were so bad under Ian Cathro (league record: 5 wins, 4 draws, 13 defeats) that they were heading in that direction sharpish.  Both they and Killie, with Lee McCulloch (league record: 4 wins, 9 draws, 11 defeats), had appointed managerial rookies, and they were correctly dismissed because it had become clear that they were out of their depth.

Circumstances at Ross County were rather different; to uninformed outsiders - and there were depressingly many occupying sportsdesks in the central belt - sacking Jim McIntyre just a year and a half after winning the League Cup was scandalous.  Yet County had been honking last season and heavily reliant on Liam Boyce, and despite significant backing McIntyre had brought in lots of players who didn't even remotely look like replacing him.  Much like when they punted Derek Adams a few years earlier, a change had to be made to preserve their Premiership status.

In came Steve Clarke at Rugby Park, and Owen Coyle at the Global Energy Stadium, two coaches with rather excellent pedigree compared to the ones who usually pitch up in the bottom half of the Scottish Premiership.  Both have made very decent first impressions, and have both started getting points on the board.

Dundee had the chance to move for a coach with that experience and calibre at the end of last season, because of course McCann initially declined the opportunity to stay on after seeing the team to survival - which he managed by winning his first two games before the players downed tools for the last two matches, embarrassing defeats to Inverness and Hamilton.  The club made overtures towards St. Mirren's highly-rated Jack Ross that were not welcomed, before McCann had a change of heart and chose not to return to the Sky Sports studio after all.  That initial lack of enthusiasm seemed to bode ill even then.

Still, its not as if he isn't trying.  The dramatic change in playing style shows that.  Last year the plan A was to punt the ball up to Marcus Haber - one could imagine Paul Hartley on the touchline yelling "HIT MARCUS!", Graham Taylor-style - and plan B was, erm, to punt it up to Marcus Haber.  Now there is a conscious effort to build from the back with the goalkeeper rolling it out to the centre-backs when possible.  That goalkeeper, incidentally, is currently Elliot Parish, as longstanding number one and former Scotland squad member Scott Bain has been dropped after a bust-up with the boss.

Falling out with arguably your best player isn't an ideal strategy when confidence is rock bottom.  Neither is passing the ball around at the back.  Inevitably there are blunders which result in cheap goals being given away and heads dropping further.  There is also an element of bad luck.  Dundee's xG conceded from open play is 17.4, well below the real total of 22 goals let in...but that xG is still the worst in the Premiership (thanks to The SPFL Radar for those stats).

At the other end, Haber's recent return to the lineup shows that at least a little pragmatism has been allowed for, as Sofien Moussa, Faissal El Bakhtaoui and AJ Leitch-Smith have all completely failed to be a consistent goalscorer.

There's certainly an overall lack of quality, which is rather concerning given that quantity is not an issue.  No-one, not even Celtic or Rangers, has as many players aged over 21 on their books as Dundee - enough for two starting XIs plus a couple spare, and that's not counting youngsters such as Kerr Waddell, Lewis Spence and Jesse Curran who are very much in the first team picture.  The club's American owners have backed McCann just as they backed Paul Hartley, and not unreasonably they expect at least a top six finish for their bucks.  They missed out on that in each of the last two seasons and will surely do so this time round as well.

Even at this relatively early stage, the name of the game is survival.  There has been surprisingly little chat about the possibility of Dundee being relegated, which is not dissimilar to how things played out at Inverness last year; on paper they seem far too good to go down, but that of course is not how football works.  McCann has also largely dodged criticism so far - possibly protected by his own links within the media?

But they need wins and points pronto.  Sadly for McCann, the upcoming fixture list is not reassuring - a resurgent Kilmarnock at home, then Rangers at home, then Ross County away and Aberdeen at home.  It wouldn't surprise anyone if they didn't win any of those four games...and a failure to do so would surely force the issue on the manager's future.  McCann may be left hoping that they're just keeping his seat warm for him in the Sky Sports studio.

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.

Friday, November 3, 2017

McInnes should run a mile from Rangers

The Caixinha era was extremely costly for Rangers, both literally and metaphorically.

It would have been unrealistic to expect the Portuguese to turn the mediocre and unbalanced squad he inherited from the third best team in Scotland to title challengers in the seven and a half months he spent in charge.  But, given the amount of money spent signing the players he wanted in the summer, it is a catastrophe that they have not made any recognisable progress towards the level of Aberdeen, let alone Celtic.  Roughly £8million was paid out on the likes of Carlos Pena, Eduardo Herrera, Fabio Cardoso and others, and that isn't including signing on fees and wages.  Rangers also paid Caixinha's previous club, Al-Gharafa, £300,000 to procure him, and £500,000 to pay him off.  His successor will now inherit a squad built in Pedro's image with a number of players for whom "could they do it at Kilmarnock on a wet Tuesday night?" is less a borderline-racist cliche and more a genuine question.

If those in charge at Ibrox have any sense at all, they will do all they can to ensure that said successor is the man that has made Aberdeen so superior.  And Derek McInnes ticks the boxes: a successful, proven manager at this level, and he qualifies as a 'Rangers Man', the quality that Barry Ferguson has deemed so important to this appointment (possibly because poor Bazza wants a job there rather badly).  Admittedly, McInnes played only 53 games in four and a half years, and no-one remembers any of them except the times Dick Advocaat played him as a holding midfielder against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League - with great success - and in the next game against Valencia - with great failure.  But he pulled on the blue strip, and left the club on relatively good terms, so, yeah, Rangers Man.

And one can imagine McInnes being tempted.  Domestically, it feels like the only way is down for the Dons.  They've hit a glass ceiling that's about 30 points thick and there's no way they'll break through to Celtic.  He accomplished a minor miracle to overcome the loss of several important players this summer, but will have to face the same dilemma at the end of the season - Kenny McLean has already indicated his intention to leave - and probably every other year after that.  His stock can't really go any higher whilst he remains in the North-East.

And of course Rangers should have great potential with their enormous support and funding that dwarves Aberdeen's,  The right manager, with sufficient resources and adequate time, could in a few years turn them into title challengers again.

But whilst McInnes is certainly the right manager, the other two conditions do not look likely to be met.  For a start, telling the supporters that it'll take two or three seasons before they can at least give Celtic a half-decent challenge would go down like a Union Jack ban at the Loudon.  Ibrox has always become very toxic very quickly when there's no success on the immediate horizon.  Unless the new boss can turn water into wine - or, even more impressively, Fabio Cardoso into a competent defender - the required overnight turnaround will be impossible.

And as for resources...well, Deek took one look at Sunderland in the summer and said "naw".  One the basketcase scale, Sunderland are Bomber Brown (who, incidentally, got appointed to Rangers' scouting team this week; one hopes his reports are more eloquent than his speeches).  But on that scale, the Gers are probably Terry Hurlock.

As mentioned above, they bet the house on Caixinha.  Chairman Dave King wasn't kidding when he claimed that the season ticket money was being spent on new signings - it's quite possible that it all was.  And now what?  That's the main income stream for the entire season blown already.

The club's annual accounts are due imminently; in fact last year's were published by the end of October so these are a bit later than expected.  Is that reason for concern?  Well, its no secret the club were managing with soft loans from directors more than a year ago.  In those accounts they also felt the need to boast that the player wage bill for 2016/17 was projected to be £10.3million.  The current figure is unlikely to be any lower and in fact is likely to be higher.

Meanwhile no banks will touch them with a barge pole and their chairman is currently the first person to ever be taken to court by the Takeover Panel...where, in an attempt to get out of being forced to bid to buy the whole club (a bid worth 'only' £12million) his lawyer actually described him as being "penniless".

Aberdeen would demand at least £1million in compo for McInnes - which is what they would have got from Sunderland, and that was before he signed a new contract - which may or may not be tricky to raise.

McInnes showed with Sunderland that he's not for being set up to fail.  Taking over at Ibrox would surely be a similar scenario.

It wouldn't be at all surprising if the board are praying for Graeme Murty to be a success - and he should be given he has back-to-back home games against Partick Thistle and Hamilton coming up before the international break.  Whilst he clearly isn't a long-term solution, he'd be cheap, and could buy the powers-that-be sufficient time to come up with a better option for when he inevitably fails.

But if they do come calling for McInnes, he should run away.  Very quickly.

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, October 24, 2017

Dundee United can't afford to get this appointment wrong

This week Dundee United are going to sack manager Ray McKinnon.  (In fact, I understand they already have done, but it's Tuesday morning and there's still no official word from the club.)  A home defeat to struggling Inverness leaves United fourth in the Championship, five points behind leaders St. Mirren.  Had they won, they would be just two points off top spot.

Under McKinnon, United narrowly missed out on promotion last season via the playoffs, going down 1-0 on aggregate to Hamilton Accies.  Despite a few rocky results this season, you'd still have heavily fancied them to at least stay in the top four and get another crack at the playoffs this time around.

But that isn't sufficient.  One season outwith the Premiership was far too much.  For a club, and support, of this size being outside the top flight is unacceptable; worse, the club's financial situation means that staying in the second tier for a third straight year could have horrendous consequences; things would already be dire but for £800,000 received as part of ex-player Andrew Robertson's move to Liverpool.

Robertson was of course part of a United side that reached the Scottish Cup Final in 2014.  Not a single member of that matchday eighteen - that included Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci, Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Gauld and John Souttar amongst others - is still at Tannadice.  In fact, only Sean Dillon remained two years after the event.  Seven months later United defeated Celtic at Tannadice to go second in the league at Christmas, just four points off the top.  With Ronny Deila toiling at Parkhead, some crazy people even wondered if United were a dark horse for the title.

Just sixteen months after that, they were relegated.  And things haven't got any better - unless you count the Challenge Cup; United won that at their first attempt, which is more than Hearts, Hibs and Rangers managed.  So I suppose there's that.

McKinnon seemed a sensible appointment at the time, a manager who had overachieved with Raith Rovers at Championship level and with Brechin City before that, and a former United player to boot.  And given the mess he inherited, a little leeway was given in the early stages.  After all, it took Rangers two years to get out of this very competitive and under-rated division (look, that's the excuse I'm using for Caley Thistle's struggles, and I'm sticking to it) and Hibs three.  But United only came third in the table, before winning two playoff games.  They then went down to a Hamilton side who were surely the most dreadful team not to be relegated from the Premiership.

And the quality of reinforcement brought in during the summer meant that there were no excuses left.  Scott McDonald turned down a new deal at Motherwell to join up; James Keatings has won promotion from the Championship with three different clubs; along with Keatings, Fraser Fyvie went up with Hibs last season; Paul McMullan and Sam Stanton impressed on loan spells with Dunfermline and Dumbarton respectively; Paul Quinn and Tam Scobbie added top flight experience to the back line.

Yet it all felt cobbled together.  McDonald and Keatings have six league goals between them but don't look like a partnership - in fact winger McMullan looked more effective up front than either of them when pressed into the role during an early season injury crisis.  The midfield lacks solidity, with Jordie Briels struggling as a holding midfielder and Willo Flood a shadow of the player he was in his first Tannadice spell now his legs are going.  And in defence there is only one out-and-out full-back, youngster Jamie Robson.  Sure, Scobbie, Lewis Toshney and Stewart Murdoch can all play there if necessary, but none of them offer any sort of attacking threat.

If chairman Stephen Thompson was looking for a sure sign that McKinnon was out of his depth, it came in the middle of the second half on Saturday.  Two down at home, and with two forwards on the bench, he moved Mark Durnan up front.  That's Mark Durnan, the central defender.  The ridiculousness was not lost on the supporters, and was exacerbated by the contrast with his direct opponent, ICT centre-back Coll Donaldson.  Donaldson was the epitomy of United's struggles over the last two years, a youngster who was supposed to be a great talent-in-waiting and who was paid as such, only to flop spectacularly.  Let go in August, Donaldson has moved up the A9 and looks rejuvenated by his move to the Highlands.  He breezed through the match, looking far more relaxed, composed and able than his former teammates.

So McKinnon had to go.  And United need to replace him with someone who can guarantee promotion, if such a thing is possible.  It's no surprise to see Jim McIntyre in the frame, a former United player who won the Championship in charge of Dunfermline.  John Hughes has also been mentioned - Thompson is known to be an admirer, and unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to replace Jackie McNamara (talk about a Sliding Doors moment for United and Caley Thistle).  But Hughes would take time to implement his passing style, time that United probably don't have.

The big worry is that everything has just gone rotten.  Hibernian's relegation in 2014 was the culmination of years of stagnation where everyone walking through Easter Road's front door seemed inflicted with the opposite of the Midas Touch.  It didn't matter how good a player (or coach) you were, you would become guff if you joined Hibs.  Especially if you were a goalkeeper.  Only a radical overhaul of the club, along with a spell in the Championship, cleansed them of this curse.

United aren't big enough or stable enough off the pitch to have the time for that, though the fans would welcome Thompson's exit.  But given the struggles of their bigger names, one worries that, if Leo Messi pitched up in tangerine, after a month fans would be muttering "this guy's not exactly Ralphy Milne, is he?"

But if they are to have any hope at all in the short-term, they need to get this appointment right.

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, October 19, 2017

An out of contract XI

We're beginning to see a few new contracts being ironed out, particularly with up and coming youngsters. With pre-contracts signable from January, expect more action in the coming months. Here, for your amusement is a starting XI with one out of contract player from each Premiership club (bar one, of course). Each of the eleven players is one who I think is reasonably likely, for one reason or another, to move on at the end of the current campaign. See what you think...

GOALKEEPER: Scott Bain (Dundee)
Coming up for 26, it seems likely that this will be Bain's fourth and final season at Dens Park; he's been coy about his future, which is surely a sign that he's considering his options. If he's to get himself back in the Scotland squad, he probably needs to move to either a bigger Scottish club or to England.

Other Dundee players out of contract: Jesse Curran, Julen Etxabeguren, Kostadin Gadzhalov, Kevin Holt, Nicky Low, Paul McGowan, Josh Meekings, Mark O'Hara, Elliot Parish, Lewis Spence

RIGHT BACK: Marcus Fraser (Ross County)
Fraser has been a bit of a conundrum for County - a very decent defender who is not quite athletic enough to be the type of right-back they want, nor quite physical enough to be the type of centre-back they want. Deploying him alongside strongman Andrew Davies sounds good in theory but hasn't worked in practice. Fraser signed a one year deal last year to keep his options open; unless Owen Coyle can get the best out of him he might be on his way.

Other Ross County players out of contract: Craig Curran, Russell Dingwall, Dylan Dykes, Michael Gardyne, Davis Keillor-Dunn, Blair Malcolm, Aaron McCarey, Christopher Routis, Alex Schalk, Reghan Tumilty, Kenny Van Der Weg

CENTRE BACK: Liam Fontaine (Hibernian)
When fit, Fontaine seems to be in the team most weeks for Hibs, but an ankle injury has sidelined him until around Christmas and he's probably down the pecking order now Paul Hanlon is fully fit again. 32 in January, Neil Lennon probably sees him as a squad player in the long-run - whether that is enough to satisfy the player or not remains to be seen.

Other Hibernian players out of contract: Lewis Allan, Andrew Blake, Callum Crane, Dylan McGeouch, Innes Murray, Sam Stanton

CENTRE BACK: Danny Wilson (Rangers)
Injuries haven't helped, but Wilson is now firmly a backup at Ibrox. 26 in December, it feels like aeons since Liverpool paid £2million for him...perhaps because it is. Thought to be one of the higher earners at the club, he's not good enough value for money right now to hang on to.

Other Rangers players out of contract: Jamie Barjonas, David Bates, Myles Beerman, Kyle Bradley, Liam Burt, Ryan Hardie, Niko Kranjcar, Kenny Miller, Jordan Thompson

LEFT BACK: Callum Booth (Partick Thistle)
Booth really broke through last season, only to injure his knee in August. Thistle can't get him back quickly enough given their current woes. If Booth gets back to last year's form, he might fancy his chances of a move to a bigger club. If - god forbid - Thistle go down, he'll definitely justify an offer from another Premiership side.

Other Partick Thistle players out of contract: Stuart Bannigan, Daniel Devine, Mustapha Dumbuya, Ross Fleming, Mark Lamont, Steven Lawless, Paul McGinn, Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet, Milan Nitriansky, Abdul Osman, James Penrice, Ryan Scully

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Gary Dicker (Kilmarnock)
Now they have a decent coach, maybe Killie will be organized enough to cope with Dicker's longstanding stomach injury. Up till now his absence has been glaring, both in terms of leadership qualities and ability to break up the play and protect the back four. His future is in flux until he gets back to fitness and we find out if Steve Clarke fancies him.

Other Kilmarnock players out of contract: Kris Boyd, Scott Boyd, Chris Burke, Gordon Greer, Dean Hawkshaw, Greg Kiltie, Jamie MacDonald, Rory McKenzie, Alex Samizadeh, Steven Smith, Brad Spencer

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
McLean is apparently coveted by Rangers, which isn't surprising. Changes to the Dons' tactics this season have perhaps reduced his influence a little but he remains a real talent at this level. Can Aberdeen pin him down to a new deal, or will he leave in search of new challenges (and a bigger pay packet) in Glasgow or elsewhere?

Other Aberdeen players out of contract: Kari Arnason, Daniel Harvie, Nicky Maynard, Connor McLennan, Anthony O'Connor, Danny Rogers, Frank Ross, Craig Storie

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Liam Henderson (Celtic)
Might Henderson move as soon as January? His progress at Celtic seems have stalled considerably over the last year and a half, which is a shame given how well other youngsters have done under Brendan Rodgers. Still only 21, there is real potential and talent here and hopefully it can be realised...but it'll have to be away from Celtic Park.

Other Celtic players out of contract: Dorus De Vries, Jamie Lindsay, Jamie McCart, Joe Thomson

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Jamie Walker (Hearts)
Walker's head was seemingly turned by Rangers' advances in the summer transfer window, along with disillusionment at his role under Ian Cathro. His focus seems to have returned since Craig Levein returned to the dugout. Unplayable on his day, the question remains whether he is consistent enough to star at a higher level, or whether he would be too much of a luxury?

Other Hearts players out of contract: Angus Beith, Jamie Brandon, Prince Buaben, Euan Henderson, Aaron Hughes, Jon McLaughlin, Callumn Morrison, Viktor Noring, Krystian Nowak

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Ali Crawford (Hamilton Accies)
It seems like we've been expecting Crawford to ascend to the next level for about three years...and it still ain't happened. At 26, surely the time has come for him to try his luck elsewhere, because he isn't getting any better at Hamilton.

Other Hamilton Accies players out of contract: Rakish Bingham, Michael Devlin, Grant Gillespie, Alex Gogic, Dougie Imrie, Darren Jamieson, Louis Longridge, Darren Lyon, Jordan McGregor, Danny Redmond, Georgios Sarris, Ioannis Skondras, David Templeton, Xavier Tomas, Shaun Want

STRIKER: Louis MOULT (Motherwell)
It would be a shock if Moult remained at Fir Park beyond next summer; he was clearly receptive to Aberdeen's summer overtures even if his current employers weren't. Reassuringly for 'Well, he has got his head down and continued doing what he does best - scoring goals. That attitude will further endear him to the long list of likely suitors.

Other Motherwell players out of contract: Ryan Bowman, Liam Brown, Charles Dunne, Shea Gordon, Russell Griffiths, Liam Grimshaw, Stevie Hammell, Adam Livingstone, Louis Moult, Deimantas Petravicius, Andy Rose, Luke Watt

Oh, and there's St. Johnstone.  But none of their out of contract players quite fitted into this as well as the eleven I selected. 

The list, for what it's worth: Blair Alston, Steven Anderson, Graham Cummins, Murray Davidson, Ally Gilchrist, Callum Hendry, Greg Hurst, Alan Mannus, Kyle McClean, Steven MacLean, Chris Millar, Paul Paton, Scott Tanser, Craig Thomson, Keith Watson.

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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Strachan: stay or punt?

So that's another qualifying campaign done and dusted.  And another Scottish failure.  That makes it twenty years since, at the age of 14, I watched us get gubbed by Morocco in our last major tournament appearance.

And so that means another post-mortem.  And that starts, inevitably, with the question of what do with our manager.

The only reason this needs to be done quickly is that the current incumbent's contract is up at the end of next month.  Euro 2020 qualifying doesn't actually begin until March 2019; before that we have the confusing and convoluted UEFA Nations League which will be critical to our Euro 2020 qualification/just a bunch of glorified friendlies (delete as applicable).  So if the SFA and Gordon Strachan do part ways, the decision to appoint a replacement could be put off for the best part of a year...especially as friendly matches tend to harm our FIFA Ranking and future seedings rather than benefit us.

Amongst the support, there seems to be an overwhelming feeling that it is time to move on.  After all, Strachan has managed for two full qualifying campaigns, the first Scotland manager since Craig Brown to do so.  In both we have come up short.  I would suggest that failing to make Euro 2016 was a bigger crime than missing out on the 2018 World Cup, but it is failure nonetheless.

My own feelings on the matter are far less strong than they were a year ago, or even two years ago.  I wanted Strachan's head on a plate after we finished fourth in our Euros group, and felt even stronger about it after our lousy World Cup start.  At the end of 2016, we had won only 3 out of our previous 10 qualifiers, and those victories were against Gibraltar (twice) and Malta.  That run included defeat in Georgia and a lucky home draw with Lithuania.

The turnaround in this calendar year has actually been remarkable.  After starting with four points from as many games, ultimately Scotland needed five wins and a draw from the remaining six matches to finish second...and they came up agonisingly short.  Those six games included excellent home performances against Slovenia and Slovakia - even though the decisive goals came late - and a very impressive win in Lithuania.  Under ordinary circumstances an away point in Ljubljana would be considered decent too.  And whilst we weren't great for 85 minutes against England at Hampden, we still could and should have won.

So whereas we finished the Euro qualifiers on a bad run, we conclude the World Cup qualifiers as an in-form team.  But how much credit Strachan should get for that is certainly open to debate.  There was a drastic change in philosophy from the Slovenia game onwards, moving from a slow, possession style to a strategy of, basically, "fill the team with Celtic players and hope their ability and mentality rub off on the others".  A tad harsh?  Maybe, but concentrating on getting the most out of Leigh Griffiths was crucial to Scotland's upturn; Strachan's decision to resist starting him for so long seemed foolish to the extreme at the time and is even more so with hindsight.  As Evan MacFarlane wrote for The Terrace, "we'd have failed earlier if Brendan Rodgers hadn't shown up at Celtic and properly coached half our national team".

Any lingering goodwill further evaporated with those ridiculous 'genetics' comments after the Slovenia game.  Even taking into account that Strachan was clearly tired and emotional - in the literal sense, not the Private Eye one - it deserved the mockery it got.  Scotland are not 'too wee' in that manner or any other.  It was a time for humility, for admitting that we'd been lousy in the second half and asking for another chance to take the team forward.  Instead his flippancy raises concerns that he genuinely thinks he can't make this team any better than they are.

If that is the case, then he has to go.  Sure, Scotland have terrible weaknesses at centre-back and out wide which are difficult to compensate for.  But if Iceland can qualify for a World Cup then we certainly can. 

If he is to be replaced, then I would urge the SFA to take their time.  Even if the Nations League is to be taken seriously, Scotland do not have another competitive game till September 2018.  Use the November international break either for a training camp or to give the players a wee break.  Instead of headhunting, draw out the application process for a month or two and see what interest there is from these isles and elsewhere.  The current available candidates of note - David Moyes, Paul Lambert etc - are not very likely to find employment in the near future anyway, so they'll still be available in the New Year.  Alternatively, go to the other extreme and offer Michael O'Neill that huge pot of money that was generated by fleecing the Tartan Army with £60 tickets.

And most of all, for the love of God don't appoint Malky Mackay.  It's embarrassing enough that the SFA felt he was worthy of such a prestigious role as Performance Director.  Making him the national team's figurehead would be a disgrace.

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.