Friday, August 11, 2017

Caley Thistle's summer from hell (and how Ross County are making the most of it)

Invernesians tend to display a significant level of snobbery when it comes to Dingwall, a small town just to the north but which is rather less pretty and rather less affluent.  And as in life, so on the football pitch.  Caley Thistle and Ross County joined the Scottish Football League in 1994, and they have spent twelve of their twenty-three seasons in the same division as each other; however, it was always ICT who managed promotion first, who always seemed to be a step ahead.

Quite right too, their supporters would say; Inverness is one of Europe's fastest growing cities, while you could fit the whole population of Dingwall into the Global Energy Stadium (a ground named after a sponsor? Another reason to look down on them).  In fact, they would add, County are only where they are because they are bankrolled by Roy MacGregor, Scotland's 82nd richest man and the closest thing this part of the world has to Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly.

It's that sort of superior attitude that led Caley Thistle to arrogantly adopt 'Pride of the Highlands' as their motto.  Well, pride comes before a fall.  Caley Thistle are falling fast.

Relegation comes as a blow to any football club, but it has hit them far harder than most, and far harder than it should have.  'Turmoil' does not seem a strong enough word to describe their summer, which so far has seen the following:
  • the resignation of the chairman, Kenny Cameron
  • a subsequent delay of the inevitable sacking of manager Richie Foran, during which time he was making decisions on retaining and releasing players he wouldn't be coaching
  • the appointment of a new manager, John Robertson, who didn't even apply for the job
  • initially announcing season ticket prices were to be frozen (which meant, given there is one fewer home game in the Championship, that they were more expensive per game), coupled with a press release that seemed to suggest promotion was a certainty
  • the dismissal of stalwart youth coach Duncan Shearer by voicemail, followed by a cackhanded attempt to honour him by offering to hold a 'Duncan Shearer Cup' game between youth teams
  • trying to cajole a Highland League team into letting their best player sign for us for no transfer fee, and then suggesting that somehow they were the ones at fault
  • Twittergate, which would have just given a few folk a wee laugh had the club not decided to release a statement drawing the entire world's attention to it
  • oh, and don't forget the loss of several first team players
Caley Thistle's relegation was not bad luck, nor was it fate.  Bad decisions and a lack of leadership have led them into this mess, and recent events suggest plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  The only difference is that this year they will toil against Brechin and Dumbarton rather than Kilmarnock and Motherwell.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Kessock Bridge County have begun their sixth consecutive top flight season in rude health.  Their opening day win at Dundee bodes well for the weeks to come.  And their midfield has just been boosted by the £100,000 signing of...Ross Draper, erstwhile of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Caley Thistle are as the Carthaginians, who have spent too much time thumbing their noses at Ross County's Romans over the water and too late realised that the upstarts have superseded them in every respect. Not only do they not have a Hannibal to lead them out of their troubles, but they've just sold Draper, the closest thing Scottish football has to a war elephant, to their deadliest rivals.

Make no mistake, Draper is an excellent fit for Jim McIntyre's side and has been signed purely on footballing merit. But for County fans, and I daresay for the club, the opportunity to rub their neighbour's noses in it is a welcome bonus.  The numerous selfies posted online by supporters with Draper and Billy Mckay, another erstwhile Caley Thistle hero signed by County in recent weeks, have been like Harry Potter Dementors in pictorial form, sucking away our souls.  £100,000 has bought a very decent footballer, along with an opportunity to twist the knife a bit.

There has been little, if any, ill-will towards Draper, no crys of "Judas" or "Et tu, Ross?" If he was miserable at ICT it didn't reflect itself in the efforts he put in on the pitch.  Yet he had plenty of reason to be fed up.  For eighteen months he had been played mostly out of position, not allowed to display his qualities properly as a defensive midfielder and instead used as an offensive battering ram in the thoughtless assumption that a six foot five inch brick s**thouse of a player should always be deployed as such.  The nadir came when Foran inexplicably dropped him for a crucial derby in Dingwall late in the season.  The home team won 4-0.

Draper still had two years left on a lucrative contract at Caledonian Stadium, yet he could also be forgiven for wondering if Caley Thistle would let him see the end of it.  The admission that the six figure transfer fee will not go towards the playing budget also confirmed what many have suspected; that the club is struggling financially.  There was an EGM last week that somewhat flew under the radar - no gazebos in the middle of the pitch up here - the outcome of which is that a million quid's worth of new shares will be created.  The rumour is that these will be used to convert the soft loans keeping us afloat into equity further down the line.  This is not the most reassuring long-term strategy.

It has become increasingly apparent that too many players were receiving ridiculous remuneration.  Goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams has been frozen out.  Stalwart defender David Raven has been, for the second consecutive summer, invited to find a new club.  It was revealed that forward flop Scott Boden's release freed up enough wages to fund two new players, with some change left over; Boden had signed a three year deal, and scored a single league goal.  Whilst John Robertson had made it clear that Draper was factored into this season's budget, what about next year, especially if, as seems likely, there is no return to the Premiership?

And having watched so many of his teammates from the 2015 Scottish Cup winning side move onto better things, its no surprise that he jumped ship too.  And he is indeed moving onto better things - a better run club, a higher standard of football, probably a bit more money.  Not much more - one of the endearing things about County and Roy MacGregor is that his millions have been spent mainly on establishing themselves as a real Community Club.  MacGregor will come up with the funds when required to preserve their top flight status, but he's mainly worked on integrating the club with the locals.

Contrast ICT's botched season ticket launch with County's decision to offer cut price season tickets in the Jail End behind the goal.  Contrast the excellent communication with ICT's PR disasters and their lapsed June promise to have a fans/players/manager event before the season started.  Contrast County's Development League-winning youth squad with ICT's decision to pull out of the Development League altogether.

And going by Draper's own take - that the clubs agreed the fee but Caley Thistle insisted the player submit a transfer request before they would sanction the move, to try to deflect criticism for selling him - it seems that dignity is in rather short supply too.

It is said that it is always darkest before the dawn: the sun isn't rising over Caledonian Stadium anytime soon.  It's shining on the other side of the Kessock Bridge, and Ross County are using it to make hay.


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.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Partick Thistle

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundee; Hamilton AcciesHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangersRoss CountySt. Johnstone


Partick Thistle FC logo.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Seventh

LAST SEASON: 6th, 42pts

NOTABLE INS: Niall Keown (Reading, loan made permanent), Milan Nitriansky (Bohemians 1905), Jamie Sneddon (Cowdenbeath), Blair Spittal (Dundee United), Jordan Turnbull (Coventry City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: David Amoo (Cambridge United), Ade Azeez (Cambridge United), Liam Lindsay (Barnsley), Matthew McInally (Cowdenbeath), Mark Ridgers (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), David Wilson (Dumbarton), Jason Banton (Crawley Town, end of loan), Sean Welsh

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Cerny, Elliott, Keown, Lindsay, Booth, Barton, Osman, Edwards, Erskine, Lawless, Doolan


Last season was Partick Thistle's best in thirty-six years, as they deservedly broke into the top six (this is the point where I note that I predicted them to pull it off in last season's preview, and you all thought I was mad.  Mad, I tell you!!!).

And yet it actually could have been even better.  Thistle had their customary slow start to the campaign, and had a terrible tendency to concede late goals that cost them points.  Coming away with nothing from two home games against Rangers, having led both with ten minutes to go, was catastrophic.

But, especially in the second half of the season, they were a pretty decent football team.  And like most decent teams, it was because of a strong defensive backbone.  The loan addition of Niall Keown - Martin's son - to play alongside revelation Liam Lindsay in central defence meant that Adam Barton, one of the best signings in the league last season, could step up into midfield alongside Abdul Osman, where they formed the most muscular duo since the Legion Of Doom, but with rather more panache.

Add in a good goalie in Tomas Cerny, impressive form from Steven Lawless and Chris Erskine in midfield and Kris Doolan chipping in with enough goals to get by and you have a very tricky opponent indeed.  Add in some impressive off-field developments, such as the huge investment in their youth setup, and it's a very good time to be a Real Jag.

Lindsay has gone, which was expected, but Keown has returned permanently, which wasn't.  This writer thought the former was overrated and the latter underrated, so he thinks Alan Archibald is up on the deal.  Jordan Turnbull has arrived on loan from Coventry to fill the gap left by Lindsay; he struggled in English League One last season but Alan Archibald will hope to revitalize him.

Otherwise the first XI is pretty much as is, and new arrival Blair Spittal certainly has the potential to add to it.  Having missed last season, Stuart Bannigan is like a new signing too - though how he dislodges one of Barton, Osman and the busy Ryan Edwards is unclear.  So now the concern is depth.  Up front there's only Doolan and a couple of kids, since Ade Azeez - who seemed to miss three one-on-ones in every game - has left, and whilst Doolan's linkup play is outstanding his lack of physical presence means that he is only so effective as a lone striker, and his goalscoring form tends to be streaky.  Archibald would love a big powerful forward who can lead the line and score fifteen league goals, but wouldn't everyone?

Right-back is the other issue.  Mustapha Dumbuya is perenially injured, while Christie Elliott is serviceable in that role but is still basically a converted winger, and little is known of new signing Milan Nitriansky.

The trouble for Thistle is that convential wisdom (for what it's worth, which isn't much) is that there's only really one top six spot up for grabs as Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs all have such superior resources.  Certainly they need to move forward just to stand still.  But overcoming the likes of St. Johnstone, Dundee et al to be the 'best of the rest' is a tall order even if they continue where they left off last season.

But conceding fewer late goals would certainly do the trick.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Tomas Cerny, Ryan Scully, Jamie Sneddon
Defenders: Callum Booth, Daniel Devine, Mustapha Dumbuya, Ross Fleming, Niall Keown, Milan Nitriansky, James Penrice, Jordan Turnbull
Midfielders: Stuart Bannigan, Adam Barton, Ryan Edwards, Christie Elliott, Chris Erskine, Gary Fraser, Mark Lamont, Steven Lawless, Andrew McCarthy, Abdul Osman, Blair Spittal
Forwards: Kris Doolan, Neil McLaughlin, Kevin Nisbet

THE BEST XI?





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.

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Aberdeen

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundee; Hamilton AcciesHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwell; Partick ThistleRangersRoss CountySt. Johnstone


Crest of Aberdeen F.C.
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Third

LAST SEASON: 2nd, 76pts

NOTABLE INS: Kari Arnason (Omonia Nicosia), Gary Mackay-Steven (Celtic), Nicky Maynard (Milton Keynes Dons), Greg Tansey (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Ryan Christie (Celtic, loan), Greg Stewart (Birmingham City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Neil Alexander (Livingston), Jonny Hayes (Celtic), Ryan Jack (Rangers), Aaron Lennox (Raith Rovers), Niall McGinn (Gwangju), Peter Pawlett (Milton Keynes Dons), Cammy Smith (St. Mirren, loan made permanent), Ash Taylor (Northampton Town), Joe Nuttall, Lawrence Shankland

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Lewis, Logan, O'Connor, Taylor, Considine, Jack, Shinnie, McLean, Hayes, McGinn, Rooney


This time last year I suggested Derek McInnes' side had reached their peak, yet they went on to finish second again, with a comfortable cushion over Rangers.  I'm not going to make such a prediction this time; there is a quiet optimism at the club, and amongst the support, that they won't be dropping down the table any time soon.

McInnes' decision to turn down a move to Sunderland was an enormous fillip.  So too was news of investment from software entrepreneur Dave Cormack.  Both events have contributed to the club's summer transfer dealings.  At the start of June, the prospect of losing Jonny Hayes, Niall McGinn, Ryan Jack and Ash Taylor would have filled Aberdeen fans with dread.  Not so much now that Gary Mackay-Steven has been bought, Kari Arnason signed, and Greg Stewart brought back north on loan.

Crucially, Ryan Christie was also persuaded to extend his loan stay from Celtic; if the 22 year old plays like he did in the Europa League qualifiers then he will have a spectacular campaign.  Whilst the loss of McGinn and Hayes (for whom they reaped a very decent £1.3million) robs the Dons of some trickery and loads of pace, the former will certainly be compensated for by Christie, Mackay-Steven and Stewart, a triumvirate of attackers who could wreak havoc if McInnes gets the best out of them.  Reassuringly, Mackay-Steven has looked rejuvenated by the move.

Of course, it would help if there was a prolific centre-forward to take all the chances being created.  Adam Rooney's figures are inflated by the number of penalties he converts - take away the spot kicks and he managed just nine league goals from open play last season.  For reasons that are unclear to those of us with eyes, McInnes has often preferred Jayden Stockley for big matches, despite the fact that Stockley offers little other than an elbow to the chops of opposing centre-backs.  Veteran English striker Nicky Maynard offers another alternative, but missing out on Liam Boyce was a disappointment and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the boat pushed out to land Motherwell's Louis Moult this month.

But it feels like a regular goalscorer is about all they're short of.  At 34 Arnason is a stopgap solution in central defence, but Anthony O'Connor has shown signs of stepping up his game and - whisper it-  Mark Reynolds has given the odd glimpse of his form from a few years ago too.  A more reliable, long-term option at the position would be ideal though.  The full-back positions are sorted with Shay Logan and Andy Considine consistently excellent.

The latter's solidity has allowed Graeme Shinnie to develop into one of the country's finest central midfielders, and he should thrive with the added responsibility of being captain.  The loss of Jack removes a safety net in front of the back four, but McInnes will be unkeen to shackle Shinnie or Kenny McLean by forcing either of them deeper.  An alternative would be to throw Greg Tansey into that position, but that would involve removing one of the attacking players.  It's not a bad problem to have.

No Dons fan has realistic aspirations of a title challenge, though the disappointment at their Europa League exit gives an impression of how far expectations have risen.  But second in the table is theirs to defend.  They can't match the cash that Rangers are throwing at the problem, but so far Aberdeen have shown that a good manager with a decent team constructed with nous and thought can take you a long way.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Joe Lewis, Danny Rogers
Defenders: Kari Arnason, Andrew Considine, Daniel Harvie, Shay Logan, Scott McKenna, Anthony O'Connor, Mark Reynolds
Midfielders: Dean Campbell, Gary Mackay-Steven, Kenny McLean, Frank Ross, Graeme Shinnie, Craig Storie, Greg Tansey
Forwards: Ryan Christie, Nicky Maynard, Connor McLennan, Adam Rooney, Greg Stewart, Jayden Stockley, Miles Storey, Scott Wright

THE BEST XI?




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, August 4, 2017

2017/18 Premiership preview - Hamilton Accies

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundeeHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangers; Ross CountySt. Johnstone


Hamilton Academical FC logo.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Twelfth

LAST SEASON: 11th, 35pts

NOTABLE INS: Ryan Fulton (Liverpool), Xavier Tomas (Lausanne)

NOTABLE OUTS: Blair Adams (Hartlepool United), Jack Breslin (Clyde), Gramoz Kurtaj (Danang), Sean McKirdy (Selkirk), Craig Watson (East Fife), Remi Matthews (Norwich City, end of loan), Martin Canning (retired), Eamonn Brophy, Alex D'Acol, Jesus Garcia Tena, Danny Seaborne

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Matthews, Skondras, Devlin, Sarris, McMann, Donati, McKinnon, Imrie, Crawford, Templeton, D'Acol


Every year I tip Hamilton Accies for the drop, and every year they defy me.

Though how they managed it last season is beyond me; the 2016-17 vintage were surely the worst side of recent times to avoid relegation, doing so only because Inverness achieved a quite remarkable level of incompetence and because Dundee United were abysmal in the playoff.

This year, folks, this year.

Because Accies look even weaker than they did in May.  Ta-ra went their only decent forward, Alex D'Acol.  Their next best striker, Eamonn Brophy, has so far declined to sign a new deal.  And Mikey Devlin, who had improved so much that some people were making daft comments about Scotland call-ups, has wrecked his knee and won't be seen for a good while.

And what have they brought in?  Not much.  They made a big song and dance about paying a fee for French defender Xavier Tomas...but given that transfermarkt had already listed him as having been released by Lausanne, I imagine that fee consisted of little more than magic beans.  They've also signed promising young Scottish keeper Ryan Fulton, but Gary Woods was reliable enough between the sticks last season that it wasn't really an area of weakness.  Everywhere else on the park, on the other hand...

Martin Canning has insisted that he is playing the waiting game, gambling that good players will reduce their demands and expectations to Hamilton's level as the end of August approaches.  At the moment, it feels like a gamble.

As it stands, the erratic Rakesh Bingham is their only striker aged over 20.  Creativity depends on David Templeton - if he stays fit, which is very, very unlikely - Ali Crawford, who traditionally plays well till the turn of the year and then dips dramatically, and Dougie Imrie, now a sprightly 35 years of age.  Chances will be at a premium, goals even more so.

At the other end, Devlin will be badly missed.  Canning will pick from Tomas, Alex Gogic and Zangief-lookalike Georgios Sarris in the centre of defence; the latter two showed flashes of quality at times last season, but only flashes.  So too Scott McMann, the young left-back who is highly thought of but needs to step up his game.  Getting Greek right-back Ioannis Skondras to sign a new deal is their biggest offseason success so far; it had initially seemed that he preferred a return to Greece over staying in Lanarkshire (I can't think for a second why).

In the middle of the park there are plenty of options, but it feels like quantity over quality.  If Canning is lucky, Darian McKinnon will play like he did last season (when he was the club's player of the year) and not revert back to the thug of previous years that spent most matches prowling around the centre circle looking for a punch up.  And maybe Greg Docherty, the hero of the relegation playoff, will blossom.  But just as likely he will be the next Grant Gillespie, a guy who hangs around at the club as a fringe player forever, and wouldn't ever get a game for another top flight team.  Oh, and 36 year old Massimo Donati is still here.  He was okay last season, but he's not exactly likely to improve.

As it stands, Accies are going to be down with several games to spare.  But obviously there will be a number of new signings in the next few weeks - at least half a dozen, I would expect.  If they are successes, they might stand a chance.  But since Canning is the mastermind who signed the likes of Nico Sumsky, Kemy Agustien, Oumar Diaby, Christopher Mandiangu and Richard Roy, I'm not holding my breath.

There's no Inverness to save them this time.  This is Hamilton Accies' fourth consecutive top flight season; there won't be a fifth.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Ryan Fulton, Darren Jamieson, Gary Woods
Defenders: Michael Devlin, Alex Gogic, Jordan McGregor, Scott McMann, Georgios Sarris, Ioannis Skondras, Xavier Tomas, Shaun Want
Midfielders: Ali Crawford, Ross Cunningham, Greg Docherty, Massimo Donati, Grant Gillespie, Ronan Hughes, Dougie Imrie, Louis Longridge, Darren Lyon, Darian McKinnon, Daniel Redmond
Forwards: Rakish Bingham, Steven Boyd, David Templeton, Ryan Tierney

THE BEST XI?



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.

2017/18 Premiership preview - Ross County

Check out these other season previews:
CelticDundeeHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangers; St. Johnstone

Ross County F.C. logo.png
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Tenth

LAST SEASON: 7th, 46pts

NOTABLE INS: Sean Kelly (AFC Wimbledon), Billy Mckay (Wigan Athletic), Thomas Mikkelsen (Odense Boldklub), Jim O'Brien (Shrewsbury Town, loan made permanent), Jamie Lindsay (Celtic, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Liam Boyce (Burton Albion), Chris Burke (Kilmarnock), Jay McEveley (Tranmere Rovers), Chris McLaughlin (Dumbarton), Ian McShane (St. Mirren), Milan Lalkovic (Portsmouth, end of loan), Jonathan Franks, Oscar Gobern, Paul Quinn, Martin Woods

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Fox, Naismith, Fraser, Davies, Van Der Weg, Gardyne, Chow, Woods, Dow, Curran, Boyce


Everyone in this league wants a twenty-goal-a-season-centre forward.

Ross County had one.  And they've sold him.

It was no surprise that someone came calling for Liam Boyce, and £500,000 was a pretty decent fee for the Ulsterman.  But Boyce was not only County's biggest goal threat by a mile but also their best creator of chances.  Strikers like him do not end up at clubs like County very often.  Despite his goals, they came dangerously close to a relegation battle last season.  Without them, they might have gone down.

Jim McIntyre has brought in a replacement who has previously hit those heights in front of goal.  But Billy Mckay thrived in a Caley Thistle team that were good at getting the ball to him on the deck and taking advantage of his clever movement off a defender's shoulder, and floundered at Dundee United and on his return to Inverness as part of sides that couldn't do that.  In recent times County have very much preferred playing direct, with neither centre-back comfortable passing it out of defence under any pressure.  Can they modify their play to make the most of Mckay's abilities?  Their league position may depend heavily on it.

Mckay's best days have been as a lone striker, but it would be a shock to see them without two up top.  New arrival Thomas Mikkelsen would form a big man-small man partnership with him, but he might benefit more from the harrassing qualities of Craig Curran or the nous of Alex Schalk.  We'll see.

Regardless, County will struggle for goals unless the midfield display a bit more finesse.  The permanent addition of Jim O'Brien and the loan arrival of Celtic's Jamie Lindsay may help, but one is a converted winger and the other has no top flight experience.  The centre of the park has the potential to be a huge weakness, with only one of those two is likely to start alongside a more workmanlike player, either Tim Chow or Chris Routis.  Routis looks great on his day, but his day doesn't come round often enough.  Chow runs around a lot and puts in some vicious tackles but that's about it.  Martin Woods wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but given the alternatives it seems odd that he was forced out.  No wonder they've been heavily linked with ICT's Ross Draper; they should move heaven and earth to get him.

At least the defence looks solid, with Scott Fox in goal and a back four of Jason Naismith, Andrew Davies, Marcus Fraser and Sean Kelly.  But only Kenny Van Der Weg and youngster Reghan Tumilty offer any cover.  Fraser is a good defender, but will only manage at centre-back if Davies deals with the physical side of things alongside him.  And the captain almost certainly will; he is easily the best player left at the club and will be relied on heavily.

And sadly last year's Development Squad winners seem likely to make minimal impact on the first team.  A lot of cash has been spent on County's youth setup, yet like everyone else they are going to rely on tried and tested veterans as well.  That's a shame, but it's probably too much of a risk to throw the kids in to what could well be a relegation battle.  It wouldn't be a surprise to see County at the wrong end of the table, though as ever they can rely on their moneybags chairman to fund a new team in January if that's what it takes to stay up.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox, Aaron McCarey
Defenders: Andrew Davies, Marcus Fraser, Sean Kelly, Jason Naismith, Reghan Tumilty, Kenny Van Der Weg
Midfielders: Tim Chow, Tony Dingwall, Dylan Dykes, Michael Gardyne, Jamie Lindsay, Blair Malcolm, Jim O'Brien, Chris Routis
Forwards: Craig Curran, Russell Dingwall, Ryan Dow, Billy Mckay, Thomas Mikkelsen, Greg Morrison, Alex Schalk

THE BEST XI?




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, August 3, 2017

2017/18 Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

Check out these other season previews:CelticDundeeHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangers

StJohnstoneFC crest new.png
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: Sixth

LAST SEASON: 4th, 58pts

NOTABLE INS: Callum Hendry (Blackburn Rovers), Kyle McClean (Nottingham Forest), Stefan Scougall (Sheffield United), Scott Tanser (Port Vale), Michael O'Halloran (Rangers, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Michael Coulson (Scarborough Athletic), Tam Scobbie (Dundee United), Danny Swanson (Hibernian), Greg Hurst (East Fife, loan), Clive Smith (Preston North End, end of loan), George Hunter

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Clark, Foster, Shaughnessy, Anderson, Easton, Davidson, Millar, Swanson, Craig, Alston, MacLean


For years now, it seems like anything I write on St. Johnstone has adhered to the same template.  I'm fed up with finding alternative ways of saying "greater than the sum of their parts", "well-organized", "punching above their weight" and "not given the credit they deserve".  Last season they finished an outstanding fourth - their sixth consecutive top six finish - and managed their best ever top flight points total to boot.

But all good things must come to an end.  And how much longer can they keep this up for?

So much of St. Johnstone's success is down to manager Tommy Wright.  He is phenomenal at setting up a team.  Whilst the gameplan often seems conservative, the players are so effective at counterattacking that there is still plenty of entertainment value there.  But arguably Wright's bigger strength has been his ability to find good 'uns who will come to McDiarmid Park.  And it's been critical, given that every year one of his best players leave to try their luck elsewhere.  This summer it's Danny Swanson who has jumped ship.

Meanwhile age catches up with those who stay.  Of the six players left from the cup winning side of 2014, four are over 31.  Every offseason it seems to become that teensy bit trickier to fill the gaps.

Wright's frustration at criticism of their Europa League elimination in Lithuania had an element of 'thou doth protest too much' about it.  He made a big deal of his side's dominance of possession, but the lack of quality in the final third was concerning in both legs.  Deep down he must know that the dependence on Steven MacLean (35 in August) up front is unhealthy; Chris Kane and Graham Cummins are hard workers and good for the odd goal but are neither as prolific nor as capable of leading the line solo as MacLean.  They need to find an heir for the veteran, and they have been linked with Aberdeen's Miles Storey.

The loss of Swanson puts a bit of pressure on new boy Stefan Scougall to provide the creativity.  Scougall was considered a talent as a kid at Livingston and initially did well at Sheffield United before losing his way last season.  Wright excels at turning around players that have lost their way a bit, so hopefully this will be another example.  Ditto the returning Michael O' Halloran, who has come back on loan after a nightmare 18 months at Rangers.

If he gets back to his best, then arguably the first XI is stronger than last year.  It is depth that becomes the issue.  The rest of the midfield could do with keeping Chris Millar (now 35) and Murray Davidson (whose body must feel the same age) fit, though that might not be realistic; Paul Paton is an okay backup but offers little of Millar's clever positional sense.  The defensive reserves are even more threadbare; behind their very strong central defensive duo of Joe Shaughnessy and Steven Anderson are a bunch of untested academy products.  If  Saints have to rely on the likes of Jason Kerr and Ally Gilchrist for any length of time they could struggle badly.

But Saints will still fancy themselves to once more finish in the top six, though they will do well to top Hearts (again) and the returning Hibs - in turn leaving them only one place in the top half to aim for.  As I said, all good things must come to an end.  But for St. Johnstone, not yet.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Zander Clark, Alan Mannus
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Aaron Comrie, Brian Easton, Richard Foster, Ally Gilchrist, Liam Gordon, Joe Shaughnessy, Scott Tanser, Keith Watson
Midfielders: Blair Alston, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Kyle McClean, Chris Millar, Paul Paton, Stefan Scougall, Craig Thomson, David Wotherspoon
Forwards: Graham Cummins, Callum Hendry, Chris Kane, Steven MacLean, Michael O'Halloran

THE BEST XI?




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.

2017/18 Scottish Premiership preview - Celtic

Check out these other season previews:
DundeeHeartsHibernian, KilmarnockMotherwellRangers


Celtic crest
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: CHAMPIONS

LAST SEASON: 1st, 106pts

NOTABLE INS: Kundai Benyu (Ipswich Town), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), Olivier Ntcham (Manchester City)

NOTABLE OUTS: Efe Ambrose (Hibernian), Logan Bailly (Mouscron), Emilio Izaguirre (Al-Fayha), Saidy Janko (St. Etienne), Gary Mackay-Steven (Aberdeen), Eoghan O'Connell (Bury), Scott Allan (Dundee, loan), Ryan Christie (Aberdeen, loan), Jamie Lindsay (Ross County, loan), Patrick Roberts (Manchester City, end of loan), Kris Commons, Leo Fasan, Kolo Toure

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney, Armstrong, Brown, Roberts, Rogic, Sinclair, Dembele

As I've stated in previous years, writing a season preview for Celtic is a rather different proposition from doing one for other Scottish Premiership clubs.  The targets are so wildly different.

The bottom line is that they should win the league at a canter again, though finishing unbeaten two years running is unlikely simply because it is unrealistic for them to go another thirty-eight games without even suffering an off-day and/or terrible dose of bad luck.  Whilst the same risks apply in a cup competition, such is their domestic dominance that they will fancy their chances of becoming the first Scottish side to win back-to-back trebles.

That's just the way things are right now.  They have far more wealth than the opposition, which in turn means they have a stronger starting lineup and much greater depth, and unlike a couple of years ago they are not weakened by a mediocre manager.  The only club who could realistically hope to match them in the long-term resource-wise, Rangers, are so far adrift that they finished thirty-nine points behind Celtic last season.

So Celtic's aspirations are far higher: namely, the Champions League.  Making the Group Stage last season, for the first time in three years, was of great importance both financially and in promoting the image of the club.  Finishing bottom of an horrendously tough group was not a shock nor a letdown; whilst there will be dreams of making it to the last sixteen, a more realistic aspiration would be a third place finish which in turn would allow them a crack at the Europa League after Christmas.

The squad does, at this time, look a bit stronger than a year ago; whilst Kendai Benyu is one for the future and Jonny Hayes has been signed mainly as a backup, hopes are high for French under-21 international Olivier Ntcham, the club's most expensive signing for sixteen years.  A powerful, energetic midfielder who also has a superb range of passing, he should be unplayable in Scotland and boost their Champions League chances.

But most importantly the team is better in all areas than last autumn - and the credit should all go to Brendan Rodgers.  The list of players who have dramatically improved after a season of his coaching is long: Craig Gordon, Jozo Simunovic, Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic, James Forrest.  Even Scott Brown was revitalized and might have just had the best season of his career

On the other hand, a failure to get through the final qualifying round would be an enormous disappointment and would potentially put the mockers on the season even as early as August, although the Europa League group stage would be more than scant compensation; they are far more likely to go further in that tournament than they are to do so in its bigger, more glamorous brother.  But an early Champions League exit risks turning the head of a number of top players who might fancy bringing forward any plans for a move to a bigger league.

And there are a few with such aspirations.  Moussa Dembele remains the biggest playing asset, and his eventual asking price might be higher than Rangers' turnover.  Armstrong is attracting interest from England, especially with his contract running down.  Simunovic has a few suitors.  But the biggest risk is that, without a chance to test himself against the continent's elite, Rodgers might simply get bored.  Scottish football is not proving enough of a challenge.  He did sign a four year contract in the summer, but in reality all that does is give him a pay rise and guarantee Celtic a significant sum in compensation if he is poached.

That would be a shame, because Celtic's best chance of hauling themselves back into a position amongst Europe's great and good is holding onto Rodgers for the near future.  He has proven himself to be an outstanding coach - look how many players have pushed on in his twelve months in charge - and tactically he is well ahead of his local peers.  The team can switch formation easily at a snap of his fingers, and whilst they are impeccable in possession they are also excellent without the ball and can create a great variety of different types of chances.

And in the meantime, seven-in-a-row is an absolute cert.


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1996 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Dorus De Vries, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Kristoffer Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Cristian Gamboa, Mikael Lustig, Jamie McCart, Calvin Miller, Tony Ralston, Jozo Simunovic, Erik Sviatchenko, Kieran Tierney
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Kundai Benyu, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Jonny Hayes, Liam Henderson, Eboue Kouassi, Callum McGregor, Aidan Nesbitt, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic, Scott Sinclair, Joe Thomson
Forwards: Jack Aitchison, Nadir Ciftci, PJ Crossan, Moussa Dembele, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Michael Johnston

THE BEST XI?




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.