Friday, November 13, 2020

At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure

 To be honest, I was ready to just pack it in.

When Luka Jovic's header flew into the net, it felt like one heartbreak, one Glorious Failure too many. I just could not do it anymore.

As Jovic celebrated, my mind was already racing ahead. The heads would be gone. We'd get creamed in extra time. If somehow we didn't, we'd screw up the penalties. I just couldn't be having with the agony of supporting Scotland any more. My wife is Northern Irish - perhaps I could just bring up my boys to support them instead, and they might get the joy of qualifying for something occasionally? Heck, I've got a mate from Gibraltar - they might lose all the time but I bet they don't care about it.

You'd like to think that had we lost I would have got over the misery and been ready to do it all again for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Thankfully, we'll never know...


For the first 89 minutes in Belgrade Scotland produced their best team performance in over a decade. It was clear from the early stages that Steve Clarke had got his tactics spot on and from front to back the starting eleven were tremendous. 

At one end of the pitch Lyndon Dykes, the Australian who was playing for Queen Of The South eighteen months ago and who looks more like one of the 'pre-cogs' from Minority Report than a centre forward, gave a marvellous throwback performance of shoulder barges, deft flick-ons and runs into the channels that will still have the Serb defenders looking over their shoulders this morning.

At the other end a back three consisting of Kieran Tierney (a natural left-back), Declan Gallagher (of Motherwell) and Scott McTominay (a natural midfielder) looked every bit the equal of the great Boyd-Calderwood-Hendry trinity of the mid-nineties. Any pre-match doubts I had about Gallagher's merits have well and truly evaporated; it was nice of him to let Aleksandar Mitrovic out of his pocket for long enough to take a penalty in the shootout.

Between defence and attack there was Callum McGregor, so often underwhelming at international level but here playing more like the Celtic version from the last few years than the one of the last few months, demanding the ball at every opportunity and directing play,. Ahead of him was the whirling dervish that is John McGinn, covering every blade of grass, bouncing off opponents with that magnificent arse of his.

And the rest were great too. At half-time some moron suggested Scotland would benefit more from having a natural striker on the pitch than Ryan Christie.



The fact we played so well - so much better than the Serbs - made it worse. It's glorious failure if you're the plucky underdogs that have been unluckily thwarted, not when you're the better team by miles. 

Even in despair I couldn't bring myself to turn off the TV. Loyalty? Masochism? A tiny grain of hope? Make up your own mind as to the reason. The extra time purgatory was only exacerbated by Clarke's substitutions which were made with the intention of protecting our lead and beefing us up on defending set pieces (that went well...) but left the team dreadfully unbalanced and unthreatening. Oli McBurnie, who had replaced the spent Dykes, was utterly awful, the ball bouncing off him repeatedly as if his whole body was just one big shin. Another sub, Callum Paterson, started up front and ended up going out to the right flank, which suddenly looked more vulnerable than when only Stephen O'Donnell had been protecting it.

Yet with Scotland against the ropes with wobbly knees and eyes out of focus, Serbia failed to land the knockout blow. Only once was David Marshall seriously threatened, the veteran keeper pulling off a wonderful fingertip save from Nemanja Gudelj. At the interval in extra-time not only captain Andy Robertson but also McGregor, Marshall and Ryan Jack could be seen trying to lift their comrades. Scotland had bent, but they were not broken.

But penalties would surely be our undoing, right? In Christie, McGinn and Dykes we had substituted three potential takers. For every Scotland player who stepped forward and grabbed the ball, I convinced myself it was their destiny to miss. Leigh Griffiths was brought on as a sub just to take a penalty, which seemed to make him a hostage to fortune. McGregor's performance, his best ever in a Scotland shirt, seemed too good to be true. McTominay was the man who should have been marking Jovic for the goal and who seemed to be setting himself up to be the goat of the game. McBurnie, so often a disappointment, had the pressure of knowing that if he missed he would be derided forever. And was it not too much to ask for Kenny McLean, hero against Israel, to reprise his role of iceman once more?

Yet they all held firm. Griffiths' penalty was the diciest of the lot but still went in off the goalkeeper's hand. McGregor dispatched his expertly. McTominay smashed it into the bottom corner like a man who had completely forgotten his role in the equalizer. McBurnie sent the goalkeeper the wrong way. McLean surely deserves a promotion from Mayor of Norwich to Duke of Edinburgh.

And then there was Marshall. Whenever he is mentioned I still mentally picture the 19 year old teenager who in 2004 single-handedly repelled Barcelona at the Camp Nou for Celtic. His subsequent career, though very decent, has never hit such heights again. Until now, sixteen years on. I never thought for a second that Aleksandar Mitrovic, an accomplished penalty taker, would miss. And yet he was the one who cracked. It wasn't a dreadful penalty but Marshall moved as if he had springs on his feet to make a terrific save to his left.

Of course, then there was that awful split-second where Marshall had to look to the referee, to confirm VAR wouldn't spoil this golden moment. But as the goalie said afterward, what's another four or five seconds when you've had to wait 22 years?


While all that was happening, I had somehow gone from pacing the living room anxiously to being on my knees, fists clenched, arms in the air, biting my lip partly to stop me from screaming out and waking my wife and small children and partly to stop me from crying. I was 14 the last time we qualified for something. It has been a hell of a long time. I am going to savour this all the way until June. Erect a statue of Steve Clarke, build another one of David Marshall, give Andy Robertson a knighthood. As far as I'm concerned, it's the least they deserve.

Something changed last night. You could already feel it in the build up that this country, from the younger generation who have never seen us at a tournament and think of the national team as one big joke, to the older, increasingly weary, cynical and apathetic Tartan Army veterans, were just about ready to let the national team back into their hearts. Man, we had to suffer for it. But this extraordinary, terrible, beautiful suffering has always been what supporting Scotland is about. Right now those 22 years all seem worth it. At last, Scotland are glorious without the failure.

We are back.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Ten In A Row is in jeopardy - must Celtic switch manager to save it?

The last time Celtic lost three consecutive home matches, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Kylie Minogue was at number one with 'Tears On My Pillow' (no, I've never heard of it either) and Rangers were on their way to Two In A Row.


Admittedly in the subsequent thirty years there won't have been many times when Celtic played back-to-back-to-back games at Celtic Park against teams of the quality of Rangers, Milan and, um, Sparta Prague, but still.


How has it come to this?


Yes, Rangers have improved. We're yet to find out whether yet another post-New Year slump will derail their title push, but it would obviously be foolish for Celtic fans to pin their hopes on that. Steven Gerrard's side are playing with confidence and no little skill. It's worth remembering at this point that, for all the spending down Govan way, Rangers' budget is still way behind Celtic's. For them to be so superior at this point is quite startling...and the way they are going about it is also exposing Celtic's problems for all to see.


The bottom line is that Rangers have a plan, and Gerrard's squad has been built with it in mind. In contrast, if Celtic's grand strategy for 2020-21 was all about the switch to three-at-the-back, it made no sense to this blogger. Playing three central defenders in the Premiership against teams who sit back and soaked up pressure just unnecessarily robs the team of an attacking or creative player...even more so given Lennon's insistence on deploying Scott Brown at the base of midfield as well.  In Mohamed Elyounoussi, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston they have three wide players who don't obviously fit into that system, though the injuries to the latter two have made this less of an issue than it might have been. Ditto the more natural number tens like Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic.


The Shane Duffy factor has been thoroughly dissected elsewhere, but the bottom line is that this is not a player that fits what Celtic need in central defence - either in a back three or a back four - in the slightest. Duffy is not a bad player, but his weaknesses are woefully exposed and his qualities are rarely on show in this situation. It is a failure of recruitment. 


And it isn't the first one. Celtic have signed three left-backs in fifteen months. Greg Taylor and Boli Bolingoli cost £3million each and whilst Kieran Tierney's shoes were always going to be impossible to fill the bottom line is neither player can hold a torch to Rangers' Borna Barisic. Nor were they especially well suited to playing as a wing-back; ironically, as soon as Lennon signed a player tailor-made for the left wing-back role - Diego Laxalt - he reverted back to a back four which currently makes Laxalt look very uncomfortable.


Meanwhile, the list of players currently out on loan and with no future at the club includes Bolingoli, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Jack Hendry and Maryan Shved. It's not clear who is leading transfer policy at Celtic, but it does seem that folk are not all on the same page.


As for the coach himself, it is increasingly tempting to wonder whether Lennon's first spell at Celtic Park was really all that. After all, his three league titles came when the closest opposition were a Rangers side on the brink of liquidation, Motherwell and Motherwell respectively; to be frank Celtic would have won those leagues with you, or me, or even Ronny Deila in charge. In continental competition, take away Tony Watt's goal against Barcelona - bear in mind that Celtic, with 11% possession, rather rode their luck that day - and results were not impressive; they finished rock bottom of their Champions League group in 2013-14 after nearly losing in the qualifiers to Shakhtar Karagandy, while they missed out on both the Champions League and Europa League groups in 2010-11 and only got into the Europa League groups the following year after Sion were disqualified.


His return in early 2019 as a stopgap made a fair bit of sense given Brendan Rodgers' sudden departure, but in truth the team's form for the rest of that season was hardly all that and they huffed and puffed their way past a pretty putrid Hearts side in the Scottish Cup Final. It was not a performance that justified offering Lennon the job permanently after the match, but it was the romantic option and perhaps the easy one too. It was probably cheaper also in terms of wages, but it could be argued that the European qualifying failures of this season and last have made appointing him very expensive indeed for the club.


The fact is that since Rodgers left Celtic have largely coasted, as if they feel they are untouchable. In fact, 'stagnated' may be a more appropriate term. On the pitch, there is very little sign of tactical imagination. The formation may have changed recently but in the final third the strategy seems the same; to rely for moments of individual brilliance to unlock defences. It's worth noting that both they and Rangers have endured their star player and talismanic striker suffering a collapse in form this season. Rangers have barely missed a beat despite Alfredo Morelos' struggles; Celtic simply do not look the same without a potent Odsonne Edouard.


Edouard isn't the only one out of sorts. After the Sparta game, Lennon didn't hold back. He accused the players of being 'lazy' of 'lack of application', 'lack of hunger' and suggested they weren't working hard enough in training and that there was a need for a 'culture change'. The obvious elephant in the room there is the question of who is responsible for working them in training. After all there is precious little evidence during matches that they have worked on anything particularly intricate tactically. Heck, back in August Kieran Devlin at The Athletic reported that a number of players employed their own fitness coaches because they were unsatisfied at what the club was offering.


There's still time to turn this around - two-thirds of the season in fact. And the Celtic squad has more than enough quality to do so. But it is fair to say we have reached the point where you'd be surprised if Neil Lennon was still in charge by the end of the season. And it's also fair to note that if you're going to change manager, an international break - like the one coming up next week - would seem like the least painful time to do it. Do they take the plunge and sack a manager for the first time since Tony Mowbray? The fate of their Ten In A Row dream may well depend on what decision they make.


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Friday, October 16, 2020

2020/21 Scottish Championship preview

 I did kinda already look at the Championship sides a month ago.


What's changed? Not a lot.


Hearts should stroll this. Even if their entire starting XI were ruled out with Covid the next eleven players up would still be stronger than everyone else. There has been a worrying hint of the same trait that dogged Robbie Neilson's Dundee United team last season - doing just enough to win and not a lot else, rather than blowing away opponents - but if that's the most negative thing I can come up with then you can tell they must be good. Craig Gordon at the back, Stephen Kingsley, Craig Halkett and Michael Smith in the defence, Peter Haring and Jamie Walker in the midfield, Liam Boyce up front; no-one else should even be in the same postcode by May.


Simply going by budget, Dundee should be the best of the rest. Too often last season they looked limited by the tactics (or lack of) used by rookie manager James McPake. Either he has to improve, or new signings like marquee man Charlie Adam and the 150,000 (give or take a few) forwards they've brought in need to overcome his deficiencies. I got slaughtered on Twitter for claiming that the club had no obvious recruitment plan, but the fact remains that a team intent on playing a back three has only three centre-backs on the books, and whilst Adam, Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan will make pretty passing patterns when they have the ball, who is going to do the running?


As for the rest, I think it's anyone's guess. Inverness Caledonian Thistle were second when play stopped in March but they've lost lots of first choice players and now have a completely different back four from the one that they could deploy as recently as December. Players like Robbie Deas and Wallace Duffy are the sort of talented youngster and reclamation projects respectively that have done well under John Robertson in recent years, but for a team whose defence was a strength in recent years they don't half look vulnerable there now. At the other end it's not clear who will get the goals, or even who will start up top: Nikolay Todorov as the replacement for fellow target-man Jordan White, or pacey Miles Storey in a complete change of style? They'll hope on loan Rangers winger Kai Kennedy can be a wild card. This team could finish top three again, but there could also be a 'Peter Houston at Falkirk' sort of collapse.


If ICT are weakened, so you could argue that most of the other full-time clubs are in the same situation. Dunfermline Athletic's new German investors haven't found them any players from the continent yet, but their finance is probably why things look a lot better than when they butchered the playing staff in May. Kevin Nisbet will be irreplaceable but Stevie Crawford has done his best to plug the gap with Ross County's Declan McManus and Kevin O'Hara who was super for Alloa last year. Tying up winger Dom Thomas on a permanent deal was a great move too. All in all, they've probably managed to come up with a squad close to the level of last year's, which is no mean feat in the circumstances.


Ayr United's strategy has been to try and amass as much talent in their starting eleven at the possible expense of depth, So whilst newbies such as Patrick Reading and Jack Baird in defence, Joe Chalmers and Michael Miller in midfield, Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta out wide and Bruce Anderson up front look like terrific signings there isn't a huge amount on the bench especially now Craig Moore is out long term.  If everyone else stays fit I think they could do really well; if the injury bug bites they could be in a hell of a lot of trouble.


Greenock Morton are very bullish about manager David Hopkin's ability to build a team, and they will need him to live up to that billing. They lost their most dangerous creator, Nicky Cadden, and too many players - Aiden Nesbitt, Robbie Muirhead, Craig McGuffie and Gary Oliver spring to mind - have yet to live up to their potential. This could however be the perfect place for loanee Josh McPake to kick on and watch out for left-back Lewis Strapp developing into one of this division's best players this season.


If I was to pick a dark horse though it would be Raith Rovers. Newly promoted sides tend to have few problems making the step up and it's not long since Livingston managed back-to-back promotions. The additions that John McGlynn has made have been astute and focussed at the side's weaknesses. Manny Duku already looks impressive up front and if Lewis Vaughan can stay fit they should be really dangerous up top. Regan Hendry should establish himself as one of this level's pre-eminent midfield players and having the experienced Jamie MacDonald between the sticks will do them no harm too. I certainly don't see them in a relegation battle.


Queen of the South, in contrast...their early League Cup results were far better than I anticipated but the fact remains that but a handful of players remain from last season, Stephen Dobbie will be 38 in December and they really will rely on Wullie Gibson, who is 36 and hasn't played at this level for five years, to contribute. On the positive side Joe McKee deserves one more crack at full-time footie and Aidan Fitzpatrick is an exciting loan signing from Norwich. But QOS were on the slide back in March and will need yet more Dobbie miracles to avoid a dogfight at the bottom.


I've left the part-timers to last for good reason, and that's not because I think they'll be bottom. Arbroath in particular are an intriguing prospect. Dick Campbell has kept together his solid backbone and once more augmented it with loan players - what on earth is Miko Virtanen doing playing at this level for another season? If one of their strikers can score regularly - probably either Luke Donnelly or Michael Ruth - then they could spring many a surprise.


As for Alloa Athletic, I'm tired of getting slagged off by @AlloaStats at the end of every season for having predicted they'll go down. The news that Iain Flannigan had retired might have tempted me to do so again - hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day - but incredibly they managed to replace him with Stefan Scougall. If Edin Lynch can fill the CB slot vacated by Robbie Deas, they'll do fine.


So here's my inevitably wrong predicted table:


1. HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN


2. DUNDEE

3. AYR UNITED

4. RAITH ROVERS


5. DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC

6. INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE

7. ARBROATH

8. GREENOCK MORTON


9. ALLOA ATHLETIC


10. QUEEN OF THE SOUTH


Feel free to bookmark this to use against me in May (I'm sure @AlloaStats will...)


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

2020/21 Scottish League One preview

 To be blunt, League One should be a two horse race.


That's not being harsh on the other eight clubs; there are plenty of dangerous teams and quality players elsewhere in this division. But Falkirk and Partick Thistle have so much more to throw at this league than any of the others. As Ray McKinnon discovered at the former last season, struggling to make the top two is not an option.


David McCracken and Lee Miller have been the Bairns' co-management team since November 2019 and were unbeaten in the league between then and lockdown. That record surely won't last, but given they've been able to sign Blair Alston - Blair Alston! - Aidan Keena, Callumn Morrison and Scott Mercer to play in League One they have every right to fancy their chances.


The problem for them is that like last year with Raith Rovers, they aren't the only big fish in this pond. Ian McCall has won at this level before with Ayr United and will feel he can repeat that feat with a Thistle squad that retained impressive strikers Zak Rudden and Brian Graham and quality midfielders Stuart Bannigan, Shea Gordon and Joe Cardle. A defence containing Thomas O'Ware, Darren Brownlie and newbie Ciaran McKenna should be solid enough and the arrival of Salim Kouider-Aissa and Blair Spittal on loan means depth shouldn't be a problem.


Airdrie are the other full-time(ish) club which should mean they are the best bet for third spot. Griffin Sabatini (an Argentinian loaned from a Ukrainian club, as you do) and Thomas Robert (son of Laurent) are surely the most curious signings in the SPFL this summer but they have held onto most of the squad that had got into the playoff places last season. Manager Ian Murray has plenty of quality up front with Calum Gallagher, Dale Carrick, Ally Roy, Eoghan Stokes and Kyle Connell so how far they can go will depend on how well they defend.


Montrose again did an amazing job of punching above their weight last season - apparently the reason that esteemed boss Stewart Petrie hasn't gone on to better things is that he has a plush day job - and have performed the remarkable feat of not losing a  single senior player from last season (other than loanees going back to parent clubs). The return of Blair Lyons to Partick is somewhat offset by the homecoming of Martin Rennie, and this experienced, well-coached and well-drilled bunch will again look to put 'bigger' clubs to shame.


Further north, Cove Rangers are not simply aiming to make up the numbers in the third tier after two consecutive promotions. Paul Hartley's side are ambitious, signing Motherwell duo Adam Livingstone and Jamie Semple (on loan) and bringing Leighton McIntosh back to Scotland. Of course, Fraser Fyvie, Mitch Megginson and Rory McAllister are still here too. It would surprise few people if they ended up closer to the top than the bottom.


East Fife have finished between fifth and seventh in four straight seasons but it seems like Darren Young's job is getting harder every year. Highly-rated striker Anton Dowds has moved onto full-time football but that may be offset by the loan signing of Livingston's Jack Hamilton. Veteran Danny Swanson should have enough nous to shine in the third tier and joins an already experienced bunch that includes Chris Higgins and Stewart Murdoch at the back and blogger extraordinaire Danny Denholm on the wing.


In contrast Clyde clearly aim to push on in their second season back in League One. Bringing back defender Tom Lang and midfielder Ross Cunningham permanently looks like a coup for a team that will always be dangerous as long as David Goodwillie is up front. He scored twenty league goals last season but no-one else managed more than two. Whilst there has been a lack of attacking reinforcements, Lang, Jamie Bain and Matthew Shiels should strengthen the backline.


It was a tumultous offseason at Dumbarton, where Jim Duffy had a heart attack in June (he has thankfully recovered) and budget decisions were put off longer than most. That meant the exit of regulars like Joe McKee and Kyle Hutton, but they still have Ross Forbes pulling the strings and he now has Denny Johnstone leading the line in front of him. Getting Sam Wardrop back permanently at right-back was a boost and young Hearts defender Chris Hamilton could do very well on loan.


Arguably Peterhead had the trickiest summer of the lot; a club that in the past offered better part-time wages than most found themselves being gazumped somewhat by others; a number of players left for League Two or ambitious Lowland League sides instead. Evergreen centre-back Gary McKenzie and forward Isaac Layne are the names that stand out amongst the new boys, while they have taken a chance on futsal star Derryn Kesson and will need big contributions from young loan players from the Dundee clubs.


And finally Forfar Athletic have been super busy in the last few months as Stuart Malcolm looks to put his stamp on a squad he inherited in November. The pick of the twelve new signings are midfielder Mark Hill, ex-St Johnstone skipper Steven Anderson and attacking trio Jordan Allan, Archie Thomas and Scott Shepherd who step up from League Two. Malcolm will hope that he can prove his success in charge of East Kilbride was no fluke.


So here's my (inevitably wrong) prediction of how the table will finish:

1. PARTICK THISTLE


2. FALKIRK

3. AIRDRIE

4. COVE RANGERS


5. MONTROSE

6. CLYDE

7. FORFAR ATHLETIC

8. DUMBARTON


9. EAST FIFE


10. PETERHEAD


Make sure you take a screenshot so you can remind me of this in May...


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

2020/21 Scottish League Two preview

It's no secret that the Covid pandemic has hit football clubs hard. With fans unable to attend games, income is down and chairmen are having to be very frugal indeed.


Except at Queen's Park.


Having decided that they could no longer continue as amateurs, they have decided that, if they're going to have to pay players, then they're going to pay them. So the squad is filled with folk who were playing full-time last season, some of whom - Bob McHugh and Lee Kilday, for example - were regulars in the Championship. Most remarkably they've signed Simon Murray, the former Dundee United and Hibs forward who returns from two years in South Africa. Anything other than the title for the Spiders and manager Ray McKinnon would be a catastrophe.


Their closest rivals are most likely to be forever-bridesmaids Edinburgh City, who were promotion challengers in each of the last two seasons and have kept together a squad that includes prolific striker Blair Henderson, fellow attackers Danny Handling and Alex Harris and seasoned defender Conrad Balatoni. Wideman Danny Jardine looks like a good signing from Stirling too. Expect them to be up there but they may yet again lose out to a side with even more megabucks than they do (Cove last year, Peterhead the year before).


After that duo, it's hard to say who might be the third-best side in this division; however one would assume that as the side who have dropped down from League One, Stranraer will have aspirations of at least making the promotion playoffs. They stood behind boss Stevie Farrell despite relegation and shouldn't be short of goals with Joao Victoria and veteran Darryl Duffy up top and Andy Stirling providing ammunition. Certainly they should not emulate previous relegated clubs such as Cowdenbeath, Albion Rovers and Brechin by slumping straight to the bottom end of this tier too.


Elgin City were third in the table when the action was halted in the Spring, and their manager Gavin Price has concentrated on keeping together as much of that squad as possible. But they lost star striker Shane Sutherland and winger Rabin Omar to Championship sides and have been remarkably quiet on the signings front so far. It will be hard for them to emulate last season's success, even though Conor O'Keefe, Kane Hester and Smart Osadolor provide plenty of quality.


Cowdenbeath, who were fourth when play stopped, have also chosen to mostly stick rather than twist, but will miss the departed Jordan Allan and Archie Thomas. Like any Gary Bollan side they will be tough to break down - not least with the legendary Craig Mango Barr in the backline - but goals may prove tough to come by unless loan striker Olly Hamilton proves an astute signing.


Amongst those with genuine promotion playoff aspirations are Stirling Albion, who stood by manager Kevin Rutkiewicz after a poor start to last season and whose 2020 form was pretty decent. They've backed their boss well with striker Andy Ryan joining from Dunfermline and midfielder Jack Leitch from Peterhead. Certainly the club will be expecting an improvement on last season's sixth spot.


Stenhousemuir, who had a rough first half of 2019/20 but seemed to have finally turned the corner just before lockdown, look intriguing. Manager Davie Irons has been well backed and has essentially revamped the squad since his arrival early last season. Defender Creag Little and midfielder Callum Tapping look the pick of the bunch that have pitched up this summer, joining a squad that contains former Falkirk and Swansea City prospects Ryan Blair and Botti Biabi and seasoned strikers Mark McGuigan and Greig Spence.


It seems like every season Annan Athletic lose most of their best players to other clubs, yet Peter Murphy still finds a way of putting out a competitive team. Can he do the same this year? Getting forward Aidan Smith back after a year away at Peterhead will give them a boost, while Jack Purdue and Aaron Splaine could improve their midfield. But it could be tough to keep those standards up.


There was also considerable turnover at Albion Rovers, including in the dugout where Brian Reid has replaced Kevin Harper. Reid has a young squad aside from Paul Cairney, who has come out of retirement, and relying on youths such as Finn Ecrepont and Scott Glover at the back feels like a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Midfielder Callum Wilson was highly-rated a few years ago at Partick and has the chance to jumpstart his career.


And lastly, Brechin City got to avoid an inevitable relegation playoff after the last campaign ended early. Can they avoid such a fate this time around? Two heavy League Cup beatings - albeit to top flight opponents - suggest that manager Mark Wilson still has his work cut out, even though new signings such as Rory Currie, Michael Paton and Connor Coupe should do very well at this level. At the time of writing Wilson has won 3 out of 26 matches in charge of Brechin and unless something changes there those iconic hedges may drop out of the SPFL.


So my (inevitably wrong) prediction for how the season will finish:

1. QUEEN'S PARK


2. EDINBURGH CITY

3. STENHOUSEMUIR

4. STRANRAER


5. STIRLING ALBION

6. ELGIN CITY

7. COWDENBEATH

8. ALBION ROVERS

9. ANNAN ATHLETIC


10. BRECHIN CITY


Feel free to bookmark this to point out my mistakes come May...


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The state of play in the Scottish Championship

The Scottish Premiership has been back in full flow for sometime, but we're now just a month from the Championship, League One and League Two restarting (though the League Cup begins a week and a half before that). These clubs last played a competitive game in early March, and a lot has happened since then. 

Here's where the ten Championship clubs are currently at. With the transfer window still open till 5th October and loan restrictions eased there will be plenty of signings at each club in the coming weeks. Each Championship club's current squad list can be found here. For more details on transfer moves so far check out the SPFL transfers page.


ALLOA ATHLETIC

STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Parry, Taggart, Graham, Deas, Dick, Cawley, Flannigan, Hetherington, Banks, Trouten, O'Hara

Peter Grant looks set to follow the template that has previously worked well for both him and predecessor Jim Goodwin: keep the core of the squad together and supplement it with clever loan moves and one or two permanent signings. The snag is that his two best players have left - Kevin O'Hara returns to full-time football with Dunfermline, while the delightful playmaker Iain Flannigan surprisingly chose to retire at age 32. Of the players retained, that ever-reliable backbone is another year older; Andy Graham (36), Liam Buchanan (35) and Alan Trouten (34) cannot go on forever. So far Grant has brought in Hibs winger Innes Murray on loan, along with Nicky Jamieson (who played in League Two last season) and his own son Ray. Expect more new faces, with a further centre-back and striker a must.


ARBROATH
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Gaston, Thomson, O'Brien, Little, Hamilton, Stewart, Virtanen, Whatley, Linn, Wighton, Donnelly

See Alloa's plan for success...except Dick Campbell has held onto everyone he wanted to keep, convinced the outstanding Tam O'Brien to sign a new contract, and got the impressive Finn Miko Virtanen back for a second season on loan from Aberdeen with another Don, forward Michael Ruth, in tow. Clearly Premiership managers trust Dick Campbell to develop their players. With a very solid back four, Campbell can concentrate what remaining resources he has on bolstering his midfield and attack. Though Luke Donnelly and Dale Hilson are busy and Kris Doolan and Bobby Linn offer veteran nous, a prolific goalscorer would be a gamechanger.


AYR UNITED
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Doohan, Houston, Bell, Muirhead, Harvie, Malley, Kelly, Kerr, Forrest, Drinan, Moffat

This looked likely to be a transitional summer at Somerset Park, given that most of the remaining Ian McCall All-Stars moved on. But instead Mark Kerr has been pretty bold so far, and I'd say that procuring wingers Tom Walsh and Dario Zanatta, defenders Jack Baird and Patrick Reading (who you haven't heard of but has a Scotland under-21 cap) and midfielder Joe Chalmers counts as a statement of intent. The big question marks remain up front - where they'll be looking for a better option than Craig Moore or 35 year old Michael Moffat - and between the sticks, with perennial backup Ellis Hare-Reid the only goalie under contract at the time of writing. Kerr made excellent use of the English loan market in January and expect more of that in the coming weeks.


DUNDEE

STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Hazard, Kerr, Berra, McGhee, Marshall, Elliott, Byrne, McGowan, Dorrans, McDaid, Hemmings

It's been an eventful few months at Dens Park. First there was the bizarre no-then-yes vote to ending the season (for motives that remain unclear). That was followed by staff redundancies and player wage-cuts, with striker Kane Hemmings refusing the pay cut...then agreeing to it...then cancelling his contract after all. And now we have Charlie Adam rocking up at the club he left seventeen years ago for a last hurrah. With Graham Dorrans and Paul McGowan already at the club they will not be short of midfield creativity, but it'll be interesting to see how McPake fits them all into the team, and who will do the leg work for the trio of veterans. We'll also find out if the manager has learned from his difficult rookie year in the dugout and can at least make his lineup equal to the sum of its parts on a consistent basis. Even though Hemmings and Andrew Nelson have left, replacements Alex Jakubiak and Danny Mullen should offer more than enough quality up top (then again, we said the same about Hemmings, Nelson and Danny Johnson last year). And the defence and midfield should be good enough on paper - though the thought of Jack Hamilton being first choice goalkeeper will give Dundee fans the boak.


DUNFERMLINE ATHLETIC
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Fon Williams, Comrie, Ashcroft, Martin, Murray, Dow, Ross, Paton, Thomas, Nisbet, Afolabi

The summer began with a lot of pessimistic noises coming out of East End Park about budget cuts and player releases, segued into a nice windfall from selling Kevin Nisbet to Hibs, and finished up with significant investment in the club from Germany. The club has stressed that there won't be significant cash-splashing but one would assume the new investors have plans for bringing in players (and at least stretching the club's scouting network beyond Kirkcaldy). Meanwhile Stevie Crawford has already tied up goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams and winger Dom Thomas after brief but impressive loan spells pre-Covid, and with Nisbet gone he'll be looking to Declan McManus (returning for his second spell at the club) and Kevin O'Hara (a rather controversial signing given his ban a few years ago for taunting Dean Shiels about his eyesight) for goals. I also have high hopes for ex-Killie midfielder Iain Wilson. However the Pars' squad may look quite different come the end of the window...


GREENOCK MORTON
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Rogers, Tumilty, McGinty, Baird, Strapp, Nesbitt, Jacobs, McAlister, Cadden, Orsi, McHugh

Morton have been very bullish publicly about how they feel things are going under David Hopkin, but unless there's a lot of business still to come the current window feels like a costcutting one. It was no surprise to see Nicky Cadden leave but he was excellent last season and it's still a massive blow. One suspects Hopkin might have wanted to keep John Baird and Reghan Tumilty for this season, while Bob McHugh chose to leave for Ray McKinnon's Queen's Park project. So far the only signings are the returning Gary Oliver and Elgin wideman Rabin Omar. So that means currently the club have no senior goalkeeper, no right-back and just one out-and-out centre forward. Not ideal.


HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Zlamal, Clare, M. Smith, Halkett, Souttar, Hickey, Bozanic, Haring, Walker, Naismith, Boyce

Hearts' hopes of a relegation reprieve came to nothing in the end but it would be a shock if their absence from the Premiership lasted beyond this campaign. New boss Robbie Neilson certainly has an affinity for this division, having won it twice before (including last season with Dundee United). And even though they have moved on about a gazillion players - some of whom they probably wished they could keep - this squad was already probably strong enough to walk this league before Neilson started adding to it. Craig Gordon will surely be an upgrade in goal, while he's brought in three wide players - Jordan Roberts, Josh Ginnelly and Elliott Frear - to improve a real area of weakness. Aaron Hickey's imminent exit and John Souttar's injury hurt the defence but - if Christophe Berra is still up to it - the Jambos should have plenty of cover there. And that strike force of Liam Boyce and Steven Naismith should score for fun.


INVERNESS CALEDONIAN THISTLE
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Ridgers, Rooney, Toshney, McKay, Tremarco, Vincent, Welsh, Walsh, Keatings, Doran, White

John Robertson recently lamented that every year seemed to be a rebuilding year. With four first choice players and midfielder Charlie Trafford away, along with the two centre-backs he lost in January, it'll be hard to keep Caley Thistle 'best of the rest'. Whether they have the cash to find replacements is unclear - last year there were concerns re their finances and they kept their players on furlough longer than most but the club have spoken positively about where they are going forward. That said, Robbo's claim that ex-Elgin forward Shane Sutherland could score 15 goals seems very optimistic indeed. The club have high hopes than youngster Cameron Harper can fill the Carl Tremarco-shaped hole at left-back and Robbie Deas could be the next Jamie McCart, but the other defensive options (Lewis Toshney, Brad McKay, Danny Devine) look dicey and they still don't have a natural right-back. Robertson has previously plucked players from the English lower leagues and I'd expect a few signings from that market in the coming weeks.


QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Stewart, Mercer, Kilday, Ledger, Holt, Murray, Pybus, Osman, Wilson, Oliver, Dobbie

As of May, the Doonhamers had just three players under contract - Stephen Dobbie (who will be 38 in December), Kevin Holt and backup goalie Jack Leighfield. Dan Pybus has subsequently signed on again but Holt has left for Cyprus so Allan Johnston has a huge task on his hands. It's got to the point that 36 year old reserve coach Wullie Gibson - who hasn't played at this level in five years or at all since November 2019 - has signed a playing contract. Loan signing Aidan Fitzpatrick looks like a good addition and Joe McKee deserves another shot at the Championship, but one feels it'll take a lot of work to get QOS up to standard. And bear in mind that last season was halted with them only two points above bottom spot, having played a game more than Partick Thistle and having picked up three points out of thirty.


RAITH ROVERS
STRONGEST XI AT END OF LAST SEASON (departed players crossed out): Munro, Miller, Anderson, Davidson, Benedictus, MacDonald, Matthews, Hendry, Spencer, MacLean, Bowie

Newly promoted sides are always competitive in this league and Raith will be no exception. John McGlynn has been quick to strengthen his weak areas with Jamie MacDonald joining in goal and Reghan Tumilty at right-back. His other signings so far are from down south with Gozie Ugwu, who scored 15 goals in the National League last season, an intriguing addition up front. If Lewis Vaughan can successfully return from a third ACL rupture then Rovers will be very dangerous.


If you were to ask me to predict the outcome of the season right now I'd say...there's no chance I'm going to fall for that. The shortened season makes things far less clear-cut and as stated above squads may look very different come early October.

Then I'd say "Oh, and Hearts are going to walk it..."


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Premiership season preview (of sorts)

In years gone by, I've knocked off individual previews for each top flight club and published them in the days leading up to the new campaign.

Obviously, this hasn't happened this time around.

There are reasons for that. These include personal circumstances, a lack of a League Cup group stage to give pointers on how clubs are doing, the fact that the extended transfer window is likely to mean big changes between now and October, and definitely an element of 'I just can't be a***d'.

However I am honour-bound to make some sort of prediction for how the Premiership is going to go, because I know from past experience that people take great joy from pointing out several months later how completely and gloriously wrong I was.

So let's take a rather briefer look at the twelve sides, and how I think they'll finish in May,


FIRST - CELTIC
This time last year I said Celtic were 100% certain to win the title. By January I was wavering considerably, but I shouldn't have. Providing their new Greek keeper isn't a total haddy they still have the strongest starting lineup and squad in the league by some distance (as they should; their wage budget is still about twice that of Rangers). I'm not the only one who expects Mohamed Elyounoussi to set the heather alight, and holding onto Odsonne Edouard - at least so far - is a massive boost. Their biggest weak spot will be in defence if Kristoffer Ajer goes, but that shouldn't hold them back enough. The bottom line is that missing ten-in-a-row would be a shock and a catastrophe.


SECOND - RANGERS
Bear in mind that at lockdown Rangers were still acquitting themselves well in Europe but had won just two of their last six games against domestic opposition. Have they improved much this summer? The back line should be capable but what they really need is the attackers to turn it on. Ianis Hagi showed flashes but will need to perform far more consistently to be worth the faith shown in him. Ditto Ryan Kent who wasn't nearly as good last season as the year before. And if/when Alfredo Morelos leaves, it will leave an enormous hole up front that 37 year old Jermain Defoe can't fill on his own. I just can't see how they can make up the gap to Celtic. Even if they are closer to their rivals, it will be very hard for Steven Gerrard to carry on if he can't win a trophy this season.


THIRD - MOTHERWELL
I'm sure Stephen Robinson is a very good coach, but it's recruitment where I think he really excels. Motherwell seem to come into every transfer window with a plan; whilst they lost outstanding keeper Mark Gillespie, they have improved the central defence and lured Jake Hastie back on loan. David Turnbull will be practically a new signing too, given he has barely played in a year. Up front, Tony Watt and Chris Long were forming a fine partnership before Covid and it would be great if this was the year that the former finally lived up to his potential. This is a super squad given the budget they operate on and a repeat of last season's third is perfectly possible.


FOURTH - HIBERNIAN
Hibernian have plenty of attacking options now they've added Kevin Nisbet up front and Drey Wright out wide, but they haven't done much about a defence that looked flimsy last season. Keeping Ryan Porteous fit for more than five minutes will help, as will new sitting midfielder Alex Gogic. With Scott Allan and Martin Boyle also providing ammunition and Christian Doidge to take advantage of it, the Hibees should at least be fun to watch, though one suspects consistency will be an issue.


FIFTH - ABERDEEN
The lack of transfer activity may be down to financial prudence, or may be because the Dons think there will be bargains to be had in the coming weeks. But at this time an Aberdeen side that seemed to be stagnating last season haven't been freshened up. The loss of Sam Cosgrove to injury is a big blow for a forward line which is otherwise pretty goalshy. Derek McInnes also needs the rest of his midfielders to step up like Lewis Ferguson has, and for other creative players to share Niall McGinn's workload. I'd expect a few new faces in the coming weeks, especially if there is a slow start to the season.


SIXTH - DUNDEE UNITED
Micky Mellon has been around the block and should prove a shrewd appointment as manager; even as they strolled to last season's Championship United often looked like they were less than the sum of their parts and there was plenty room for improvement. I'm anxious about their defence, with Mark Reynolds' lack of pace likely to be exposed, and aside from Calum Butcher I'm not hugely convinced by the midfield. But up front Louis Appere is a real prospect, Paul McMullan's pace will worry any full-back and I can't wait to see how Lawrence Shankland does at this level. The momentum from their promotion should take them a long way.


SEVENTH - ST JOHNSTONE
I think it's okay to be a bit sceptical about any rookie manager, but to be fair Callum Davidson ticks a lot of boxes and was a logical successor to Tommy Wright. St. Johnstone were a lot better in 2020 than 2019 with their defence decidedly sturdier following the acquisition of Jamie McCart and the emergence of midfielder Ali McCann and striker Callum Hendry. Hendry has the tools to be one of the Premiership's top scorers this season. Other than McCann the midfield is a bit too 'experienced' for my liking and it could all fall apart very quickly if Davidson isn't up to the job but I think they are more likely to be top six than relegated.


EIGHTH - KILMARNOCK
Alex Dyer is very much following the Steve Clarke playbook, which is probably a smart move. Killie were still inconsistent even after he replaced Angelo Alessio though and it's no surprise that they have been busy in the transfer market given how thin the squad was. The spine of this side - Stuart Findlay at the back, Gary Dicker and Alan Power in midfield, Eamonn Brophy up top - remains good and the partnership between Brophy and Nicke Kamamba looks promising. It would be great if Greg Kiltie - so good on loan at various Championship clubs - finally got the chance to show what he can do this season.


NINTH - LIVINGSTON
It seems inevitable that Lyndon Dykes will go and for that reason alone Livi will find it hard to repeat last year's top six finish. Losing Ricki Lamie and Steven Lawless is also far from ideal but they have still have a decent defence marshalled by Jon Guthrie and Efe Ambrose, and Robby McCrorie will excel in goal. They'll need new boy Matej Poplatnik to fill Dykes' shoes though. Like pretty much everyone else over the last three years, I'm probably underestimating them.


TENTH - ST. MIRREN
I actually feel like Jim Goodwin is doing a good job and the Buddies are on an upward trajectory. Goodwin was very successful in the loan market last season and I expect more moves like that in the coming weeks. But they badly need to reduce their dependence on Jonathan Obika up front and they're essentially putting together a brand new defence containing one proven newcomer (Joe Shaughnessy), one on the decline (Richard Tait) and one who has rarely looked up to this level (Marcus Fraser). Hopefully Ryan Flynn and Kyle Magennis will return from injury soon and this should be a breakout year for Cammy MacPherson.


ELEVENTH - ROSS COUNTY
County have surely improved their dreadful defence with the signings of Alex Iacovitti and Connor Randall and the arrivals on loan of Stephen Kelly and (in the next few days) Ross Doohan are coups. If one of their strikers can score consistently then this should be a decent squad. The trouble is that left-back still looks like a dodgy position - Carl Tremarco, 35 in a few months, is not the answer - and they have a million midfielders but none who look like sure things at this level. I also remain unconvinced by Stuart Kettlewell as a manager and that alone makes the Staggies look vulnerable.


TWELFTH - HAMILTON ACADEMICAL
It's been a few years since I last tipped Accies for the drop, but at the time of writing this does not look like a squad with much quality. They've essentially lost their best keeper (Luke Southwood), best defender (Aaron McGowan), best midfielder (Alex Gogic) and best forward (George Oakley) and are putting their hopes on a player who scored goals in England's seventh tier, a player who wasn't always first choice at Inverness and cast-offs from Livingston, St. Johnstone and Dunfermline. Brian Rice will get the best out of them but I don't believe their best will be sufficient.

As ever, feel free to point out my spectacular errors come May...


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.