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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Enjoy Champions League nights while they last

Tonight Celtic play their second Champions League Group Stage match, away to Anderlecht.  Given that their other group opponents are powerhouses Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain, the clashes against the Belgian champions may turn out to be little more than a two-legged tie for a Europa League spot next spring.

But that's okay for Celtic.  Because what mattered was getting to the Group Stages and getting their hands on that lovely £30million or so that comes with it.  Just look at their final results for the 2016-17 season, announced last week; Turnover rose impressively to £90m, and pre-tax profits were up to £6.9m.  Both of those increases can be put down to their return to the continental promised land, after two barren years under Ronny Deila.

But you can see that profits are rather dependent on that UEFA cash.  The club's accounts from this season and the last two years show that the club's business plan requires them to either reach the Champions League or sell a star player - Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk moved on for eight-figure fees after Deila's two European disasters - to avoid running at a loss.  And as I've commented on before, it's not a bad plan...providing Celtic make it to the Champions League on a fairly regular basis.  And given that there have never been more than two consecutive seasons without a Scottish club in the Group Stage, there's been little reason for concern there.

Until next season.

Because 2018-19 sees some big changes to the Champions League, big changes that could give Celtic a real problem.  Most Scottish football fans think having to get through three qualifying rounds is already grossly unfair; next season the Scottish champions - who will be Celtic, by the way - will have to play four rounds.  They will be amongst 44 domestic champions battling for just four places in the Group Stage.

For comparison, Celtic are one of five sides (Olympiakos, APOEL, Qarabag and Maribor are the others) to reach this year's Group Stage via the 'Champions route'.  Not only are there fewer places to play for, but the Dutch and Swiss champions - who qualified for the groups automatically this year - will drop into the qualifiers too.  So there are effectively only four places for these clubs, when there were effectively seven this season.

That is going to make it really, really difficult.  Whilst Celtic are hardly minnows in this pond, four matches gives lots of scope for bad luck and disaster.  And their club co-efficient score is high enough that they would be seeded throughout.  But imagine if you had seen off the likes of Astana (who they beat in the final qualifying round this year) or Maribor (who put them out at that stage two years ago) and there was an even harder game to come against the champions of Holland or Greece.

Success propagates success - the Champions League money helps Celtic attract better players and improve their squad, and year on year they should get just that little bit stronger and that little bit more competitive on the continental stage.  But failure propagates failure - no Champions League football means players leaving either for financial reasons or because they want to play at that higher level, and there is less money to replace them.  Celtic were dangerously close to being stuck in the lateral spiral during Deila's tenure, and in the next few years they could end up back in it through little fault of their own.

Plenty of fans of other clubs would no doubt rub their hands at the thought of such a prospect.  After all, if Celtic had to cut their cloth, then the gap between them and the rest of Scottish football would surely narrow?  And yes, that is true.  The idealists amongst us dream of a league sufficiently competitive that, for the first time in three decades, a non-Old Firm team could win it.  For my generation (I was born in 1984), Scotland's European successes are something our elders talk about.  Emulating them is not only pie in the sky, but it also feels completely unimportant.

The clubs themselves would be more wary.  After all, Celtic's qualification for the Champions League means 'solidarity payments' for the other Premiership clubs, to the tune of £365,000 this season.  For Motherwell, for example, that's an eighth of their annual turnover.  Of course it's buttons compared to what Celtic are getting, but other Scottish clubs operate in a different financial universe.  (For the record, Motherwell CEO Alan Burrows suggested that it might be up to 20% of some clubs' turnover, while for Aberdeen it is only about 3%).

So if Celtic - or, I am duty bound to say, no other Scottish club - can no longer reach the Champions League as often, then there may be a knock-on effect that means other clubs have to cut their cloth.  Given that there's no sign of any significant improvement in TV or sponsorship income on the horizon, that would be a major concern.

Maybe, just maybe, I am being too pessimistic (it has been known!) about Celtic's future success in Europe.  But given their excellent reputation for financial management, I would be amazed if their board hasn't already contemplated their future income streams, and trembled just a little.


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, September 12, 2017

We'll always have Paris: that James McFadden goal, ten years on



Ten years ago today, James McFadden made himself a Scottish footballing legend.

Hyperbole?  I don't think so.

The first sixty-four minutes at the Parc Des Princes were a siege around Scotland's goal.  Not that the French had created much, but the 2006 World Cup finalists were absolutely dominant.  No doubt seeking revenge for a smash-and-grab defeat at Hampden a year earlier (Gary Caldwell!!!), it was only a matter of time until Ribery, Trezeguet, Anelka et al made the breakthrough.

Starting McFadden up front on his own had seemed an odd decision, one that might not have been made had Kenny Miller been available.  He was hardly going to hold the ball up, or run the channels.  Maybe Alex McLeish's logic was that Scotland would be devoid of possession anyway and it was worth shoehorning in the one player who could conjure something magic out of nothing.  Maybe it was just that the only other option was Garry O'Connor.  Maybe it was just a roll of the dice.

Regardless, a Craig Gordon goal kick cleared the midfield and McFadden dropped off the French defence to take the ball down, a good thirty-five yards out.  He turned and shifted the ball out of his feet.  Still thirty yards or more away from goal, no-one made much effort to close him down.  So he had a pop.  It was so ambitious that the xG rating was probably minus something.

The ball was hit well, with plenty of power and a decent amount of swerve, but it wasn't heading for the top corner.  The French goalkeeper, Mickael Landreau got into a decent position to turn it over the bar but his left hand inexplicably diverted the ball sideways instead of upwards, and into the back of his own net.

Cue pandemonium.




Keen to sell as many tickets as possible, and aware that the Tartan Army were hardly likely to cause trouble, the French had been extremely relaxed about segregation; this meant that, in addition to a huge contingent of Scots in the away end, large numbers were dotted around throughout the stadium.  Almost everywhere one looked, there were Scottish fans going mad.

On Sky Sports News, Gordon McQueen lost his s***, yelling "I don't believe it!  I don't believe it!  Jay-sus, what a goal fae Scotland!" on live telly.

And in my flat in Aberdeen, four of us went absolutely berserk, the euphoria enhanced by the complete lack of anticipation, the total shock.  We all just jumped around, screaming incomprehensibly.  My closest friend Iain let out what I assume is the closest thing going to a primal scream.  He then managed to kick the TV control and change the channel...putting celebrations on temporary hold as I fumbled to change it back.  Then we all kicked off again.

It's ten years, and yet I still remember it vividly.  I'm pretty certain every other Scottish football fan remembers exactly what they were doing, and what they did, when James McFadden scored that.

And of course that was the only goal of the game.  Scotland had beaten the French again, and on their own patch.  And stuff the dodgy keeper; it was an unbelievable goal.  I could barely sleep that night, high on ecstasy (no, not that sort!).  I found myself phoning my parents late at night to share the joy with them.  My mum answered the phone with "you'll have to wait a minute.  Your father's trying to find the expensive whisky."  My dad then came on the phone trying to sound indignant: "what on earth could you be calling about at this time?"  But there was so much happiness in his voice that it gave the game away.

On Sky Sports, they showed the highlights of the game first, before England's win over Russia.  That's how big a deal it was.  And the panel of Englishmen couldn't have been more chuffed for us.  When it comes to football, the England-Scotland rivalry really does only flow in one direction.

A friend of mine who was at the game reminisces of how the bars in the French capital stayed open for hours afterward; bar owners from former North African colonies were keen to celebrate along with the Tartan Army.

Of course, it can be argued that it was all for nowt in the end.  Scotland didn't get to Euro 2008, with McFadden of all people missing a glorious chance that might have beaten Italy.  And since then we've not got remotely close to qualifying for anything.  McFadden was only 24 when he scored that goal, but his career never quite hit the heights it once threatened to.  Within a couple of years, even a Scotland strip stopped having a Superman-like effect on him.  His last cap was in 2010.  Constantly dogged by injuries, he has just signed for Championship Queen of the South.  Given he is 34 and has played only rarely in the last two and a half years, it seems a lot to hope for that there are many glory days left.

But moments like that are what football fans live for.  The nil-nils in wintry weather, the disappointing defeats, the relegations, the anticlimaxes...the hope that another one of those moments might be around the corner is what keeps us all going.  And when it happens, we treasure it forever.  Just writing this gives me goosebumps.  There is a giant blowup photograph of the goal at the front door of the Scottish Football Museum; as if visitors need to be reminded!

People don't forget moments like that.  In 2013, I was fortunate enough to witness a virtuoso performance from McFadden in Inverness, where he scored twice for Motherwell in a 4-3 defeat.  Even in the home end, we were all chuffed to bits for him, and felt privileged to have got to see him put on a show like that.  For anyone else, we might not have been so magnanimous.  But James McFadden had built up an awful lot of credit.

He'll always have Paris.  And we'll always have Paris.  Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman?  The romance between James McFadden and Scotland is greater even than that.


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, September 11, 2017

Five years on, the Rangers saga might yet do for Stewart Regan and his SFA cronies

It's been more than five years since liquidation, newco and all that.  But the whole Rangers thing just won't go away.  And this is becoming a problem for SFA Chief Executive Stewart Regan.

Since 2012, Scottish football's powers that be have resisted any pressure for an enquiry into how the fiasco was managed, mostly by using the ongoing Big Tax Case as an excuse to repeatedly kick the can down the road.  Well, the Big Tax Case finally concluded at the end of the summer, with confirmation that EBTs really were unlawful.  That can has got stuck in a drain and ain't going no further.

The SFA still wants to hide behind the Nimmo Smith verdict - that Rangers were guilty of improperly registering players (and the newco fined as a result) but that they did not gain any sporting advantage as a result.  That bit, of course, is ludicrous; of course Rangers gained a sporting advantage as the use of EBTs meant they were able to pay higher wages and therefore attract better players.

That sticks in the craw with many fans - despite Regan's claim that "the final decision in the Big Tax Case signalled closure for many involved in the game", and is the reason for continued calls to strip titles.  This author couldn't give the tiniest damn about that; I'd love to believe the main motivation for doing so is justice and fairness, but I'm pretty certain its just so Celtic supporters can get it up their Rangers equivalents by overtaking them as the winners of the most league titles, and by smashing the nine-in-a-row record.

Of course, if titles were taken away then cups would be too, but what would retrospectively declaring Queen of the South as 2008 Scottish Cup winners do?  The players don't get to lift a trophy; the fans don't get to celebrate the greatest day of their football lives.  Nobody feels better...except those who get a rather unhealthy kick out of schadenfreude.

The matter of SFA governance, on the other hand, is a more significant issue and easily justifies calls for an enquiry.  After all, the organization was not completely oblivious to the existence of EBTs - Campbell Ogilvie, vice-president of the SFA from 2003 to 2011 and then president till 2015, was a secretary and director at Rangers during the EBT era.  Hell, he even had his own one!

We also know that, because of unpaid tax, Rangers should not have been granted a licence to play in Europe in 2011/12, but the SFA gave them one anyway.  Regan has tried to appease by detailing his Compliance Officer to look into this, but that has satisfied no-one.

Regan's big advantage is that his organization is not really accountable to anyone - fans, clubs or otherwise.  That's how he has managed to survive as Chief Executive for seven years despite a tenure known more for big dinners than big achievements.  And given that the leadership of SFA generally operates like an old boys' club, it suits those next in line for the status quo to remain.

Which is why Celtic's decision to throw a spanner in the works came as a bit of a surprise.  Their chief exec, Peter Lawwell, is on the SFA board (he was appointed in 2013).  And yet his club stuck the boot in on Saturday with a statement criticizing the SFA's decision not to commission an independent review.  Moreover, they said that failure to do so would "represent a failure in transparency, accountability and leadership".

This is surely not too far away from being a vote of no confidence.

It also puts Regan in a terrible bind now.  Agreeing to the enquiry now looks like capitulating to the thrall and influence of Scotland's biggest club; conversely, rejecting Celtic's demands makes it look like they have something to hide.  As much as we all love a good conspiracy, Duncan Mackay on Twitter made an excellent point:
But even if Regan and his cronies simply screwed up big-time, that would be a huge issue in itself, one that would make his position untenable.

That said, what is Celtic's motivation here?  They could simply be playing to the gallery, sating the appetites of their diehard supporters who demand Rangers be crushed for all time as punishment for their tax-avoiding sins.  Or this could be out of genuine concern regarding the governance of Scottish football (being a cynic, I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes as I typed that sentence).

A more likely reason may be that the club have scented the huge weakness in the SFA and see this as the perfect opportunity to try and elicit greater influence - whether that is for Celtic alone, or for all Scotland's clubs in general (after all, the SPFL have also agreed that a review is required), is unclear.

What is certain though is that, for the first time in his seven years in charge of the Scottish Football Association, incompetence may actually be close to costing Stewart Regan his job.  And it's difficult to see how he can wiggle his way out of this situation.


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, September 2, 2017

Talking points from Vilnius

Pace to burn
During the home draw with Lithuania last year, Scotland's play was so pedestrian it could have been in slow motion.  That was because Chris Martin was up front and, Oliver Burke (who didn't seem to know what position he was playing) aside, there was no threat of anyone getting in behind or stretching play.  So the visitors pressed high up the pitch and the Scots couldn't get anything going.

Contrast that with last night, when Gordon Strachan fielded a front three of James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths and Matt Phillips.  It could be argued that none of them were outstanding; Griffiths did have two assists but looked increasingly frustrated as the match went on and his linkup play dipped in quality as a result, while Phillips went on some great dribbles but didn't offer that much of an end product.  Meanwhile, I have a theory that the 'threat' of James Forrest is often worth far more than the player himself - the Lithuanian left-back stayed deep throughout because of the constant worry that Forrest would fly into the space behind him and do some damage, even though we all suspect that all he'd do is run the ball over the byline and fall over.

In fact the best work the trio did was without the ball.  Their pressing play on the Lithuanian defence and goalkeeper in the first half was outstanding and frequently allowed possession to be won back easily.  But their presence - and Griffiths' ability to hold the ball up against bigger defenders - was crucial to the gameplan.

Outstanding Armstrong
Of course, everyone else put in a shift too.  And the epitomy of the 'energy' that Gordon Strachan raved about was, of course, Stuart Armstrong.  The Celtic midfielder even risked messing up his immaculate hair to head in the opener; not a hair was put out of place, of course.  Heck, if Armstrong was stuck outside in the midst of Tropical Storm Harvey for three days, I bet it would still look great.

The man himself contributed far more than the goal.  His relentless running provides an invaluable link between midfield and attack and his willingness to get on the ball and drive at the back four was a delight.  To be honest, it's got to the point that, if a Scotland fan came home to find his wife cheating on him with Stuart Armstrong, he'd probably consider it a privilege.

Centre-back still a concern
The Lithuanians did have a handful of decent chances, with the one that Arvydas Novikovas spurned at 0-0 particularly crucial.  Novikovas turned his ex-Hearts teammate Christophe Berra inside out on the way, just one of a few times that Berra's limitations were exposed.  There was another moment in the second half where he made a mess of shielding a ball out of play and got caught out.  Charlie Mulgrew hardly breezed through the game either.  It doesn't help that the gallivanting full-backs can leave the centre-backs exposed, but there's no question that this position is the achilles heel.  As ever, there is reason for significant concern when we play a team that can press us the way we pressed Lithuania.

As for the future, I can't help feeling that Kieran Tierney's long-term role for the national team will be in central defence, especially if as expected his club team-mate Tony Ralston emerges as a quality right-back.  Tierney's height isn't ideal for the position - though he is marginally taller than Fabio Cannavaro was (no, I'm not comparing Tierney and Fabio Cannavaro).  But it is astonishing that a lad of 20 can look so comfortable playing out of his best position at this level.  His last three caps have come as a right-back, a right sided centre-back and as a right-back again.  This boy is something special...and therefore I'm continually filled with dread that someone is going to injure him badly and stop him becoming the world class player he seems destined to be.

No problems on plastic
The players were right to largely shrug their shoulders about the playing surface pre-match, and the fact that it had been heavily watered clearly benefitted the Scots' passing and made conditions far more similar to grass (Kilmarnock and Hamilton take note please!!!).  But it was amusing to watch players from both sides frequently checking their thighs for rug burn after various slips and slides.  Not so to see Matt Ritchie lose his footing as he tried to round the keeper for a late fourth goal.  Ritchie had admitted a few days ago that he had never played a competitive game on such a surface; if he had, then maybe he'd have worn the correct studs.

What next?
Malta at home on Monday should be a banker - anything other than three points and the country should just give up football and replace all the stadia with tennis courts instead.  The bottom line is that we're going to have to win the two other games (Slovakia at home then Slovenia away) to get a playoff.  So if Gordon uses the term 'not a must-win' again, we are all entitled to hit him very hard with sticks.

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 26, 2017

Solidarity payments: helpful or harmful?

Let's play a game.
Suppose you conditionally receive a sum of money - let's say £100. You have to propose how to divide that sum between yourself and another person. The other person chooses to either accept or reject this proposal. If the other person accepts, the money is split according to your proposal. If the other person rejects, neither of you receive any money.

How much money would you propose to offer that other person?

********************************************************************************************

As expected, Celtic secured their Champions League play-off victory against Astana last Tuesday with their 8-4 aggregate victory over the national champions of Kazahkstan. In doing so, they can expect to earn over £25m in central distributions from UEFA for their participation in the group stage of European football's premier tournament.

Those central distributions comprise a 'participation bonus' of at least £12.5m for qualifying for the Champions League group stages, plus a share of the 'market pool', which will be distributed according to the proportional value of that country's TV market. (While the market pool is shared between the Champions League participants from each country, since Celtic are Scotland's only participant in the Champions League they will receive the entirety of that share.) In addition, Celtic can boost their earnings by bonus payments of £1.5m per win and £500,000 per draw in the group stages.

As part of Celtic's Champions League qualification, a further £3m will be shared between the Premiership's other 11 clubs in solidarity payments from UEFA. This means that each individual club will receive around £270,000 as a result of Celtic's progress to the group stage.

Last week, BBC Sport Scotland ran an article on its website on how Celtic's Premiership rivals were welcoming the potential Champions League 'windfall', with Partick Thistle boss Alan Archibald and Hearts interim head coach Jon Daly both saying this was "great" for their clubs, while Aberdeen assistant manager Tony Docherty said that this "can only benefit the clubs and the standard of Scottish football."
But is that really the truth?

********************************************************************************************

Let's return to the game I mentioned at the start of this article.

Now let's suppose that the Scottish Premiership conditionally receives a sum of money of £30m and UEFA get to propose how to divide that sum between Celtic and the other Scottish Premiership clubs. The Scottish Premiership clubs have to either accept or reject this proposal. If the clubs accept, the money is split according to UEFA's proposal. If the clubs reject, none of the clubs receive any money.

In this game, you are no longer the proposer but are now the responder. If you represented the Scottish Premiership clubs and the proposal was for Celtic to get 90% (£27 million), with the other eleven clubs getting 10% (£3 million) to share between them (roughly £270,000 per club) should you accept this proposal? In other words, is it better for the Scottish Premiership clubs to receive this money as currently apportioned, or for none of the clubs to receive any money at all?

(Note that the question here is whether this money better or worse for the Scottish Premiership clubs; this issue often gets conflated with whether this money benefits Scottish fitba' as a whole, however given that 32 of the 42 SPFL clubs will receive SFA – as with the SFA itself – any benefits they would receive can only ever be incidental at best.)

Now, from an objective (albeit restrictive) perspective, your initial response may be to accept the proposal. All but the most avaricious of Celtic supporters would surely be happy with getting 90% of a £30 million pot of cash. Supporters of other clubs may also be happy with getting £270,000 (just less than 1% of the total amount) for their own club as it's still more directly beneficial to their club than receiving no money at all. For example, Aberdeen – the second placed team in the Scottish Premiership for the last three seasons – reported a turnover of over £13.4 million for the year ended 30 June 2016; an additional £270,000 would represent an additional 2% - not a future altering figure for the Dons, but not an amount to be sniffed at either. By contrast, Inverness Caledonian Thistle – who finished bottom of the Premiership last season – had a turnover of around £4.35 million in the year to 31 May 2016; an additional £270,000 would represent over 6% additional revenue. For a club that has subsequently been relegated to the Championship and is currently struggling financially to the extent that they recently held an EGM to create £1m worth of new shares, this is the kind of cash that could make a hell of a difference.

However, while the Scottish Premiership (or, indeed, the Scottish Professional Football League in its broader context) is a collective, the main objective of the SPFL is to operate its league competition. It is here, when we come to the 'competition' aspect of the league, that the current distribution of payments from UEFA sees its league champions get exponentially richer than its fellow Premiership clubs; competitively, every other club in the Premiership is losing out to Celtic by a factor of 100.

Also, this 'game' is not played only once; it is replayed on an annual basis, with the most successful club in the Premiership receiving the opportunity to compete for qualification to next season's Champions League and - if successful in that subsequent venture – entitling it to the lion's share of any subsequent central payments from UEFA; this is where the lack of reciprocity in the benefits that Premiership clubs receive from these payments becomes far more apparent. To witness the deeply corrosive effect this has on national competition, it is worth looking at the impact that UEFA central payments has had on other mid-ranking domestic leagues in Europe.

*******************************************************************************************

As of 2009, the UEFA Champions League began with a group stage of 32 teams which was preceded by two qualification 'streams' for teams that did not receive direct entry to the tournament proper. The two streams were divided between teams qualified by virtue of being league champions, and
those from top-ranking domestic leagues which finished in Champions League qualifying positions from their national championships.

Between the 2009-10 to the 2017-18 competitions, with the format of two qualifying route – the Champions Route and the League Route – in place, the clubs listed below qualified on more than one occasion from the Champions Route:

Multiple 'Champions Route' Qualifiers between 2009/10 & 2017/18:
APOEL; BATE Borisov; Celtic; Dinamo Zagreb (4 times)
Basel; Copenhagen, Malmo, Maribor, Olympiacos, Ludogorets, Victoria Plzen (2 times)

In that same time period – between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons to date - here is how those same teams have fared in their own domestic league competitions:

Domestic League titles since 2010:
Basel (Switzerland); Celtic (Scotland) (8 titles each)
BATE Borisov (Belarus); Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia); Olympiacos (Greece) (7)
APOEL (Cyprus); Ludogorets (Bulgaria), Maribor (Slovenia) (6)
Copenhagen (Denmark) (5)
Malmo (Sweden); Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) (4)

You can clearly see from the above information that there is a clear correlation between the number of times that national champions have gained qualification to the group stages of the Champions League qualification – and the riches associated with this – and the dominance they have concurrently exerted over their own domestic competition. Nor does it seem to be a fluke, given that the same effect can be seen – to a lesser or greater of lesser extent – in each of these mid-ranking European leagues impacted.

Of the eleven examples listed above, Basel from Switzerland, BATE Borisov from Belarus and Olympiacos from Greece have won every domestic league title since 2010, while APOEL & Ludogorets have been reigning Cypriot & Bulgarian champions, respectively, since 2012. (Remarkably, Ludogorets won their first title in 2012 during their inaugural season in the Bulgarian First League and have retained the title ever since, displacing traditional powerhouses such as CSKA & Levski Sofia.)

Meanwhile, in Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb's run of eleven consecutive league titles was only ended last summer when HNK Rijeka won their first ever championship. Aberdeen fans will fondly remember their historic 3-0 win at Rijeka during Europa League qualifying. They would not lose another home game in either domestic or European competition for over two years, finally losing that record just a fortnight ago in a Croatian First League fixture – to Dinamo Zagreb. In Slovenia, Maribor – who knocked Aberdeen out of the Europa League qualifying last season and have also previously ousted Celtic, Rangers and Hibernian from European competition – have won the PrvaLiga 6 of the last 7 seasons, rectifying their only blip (losing out in 2015/16 to Olimpija Ljubljana) by regaining their title last season and parlaying that into a return to the Champions League group stages this week.

While the Scandinavian representatives have been less dominant in the above context, they have still won their respective domestic leagues more often than not - Copenhagen have won the Danish Football Championship in 5 of the last 8 seasons, while Malmo currently have a 10 point cushion in the 2017 Allsvenskan (which is 20 games into their summer league) that would also be their fifth title in 8 seasons.

Even the 'least' dominant example, Viktoria Plzen of the Czech Republic, is a textbook example of the extent to which the inadvertent timing of a club's success with the exponential rise of Champions League riches available to league champions in recent years has led to the skewing of a domestic competition that is entirely out of proportion to historical results. Viktoria Plzen, a club from the fourth largest city in the Czech Republic, bounced between the Czech First League and 2. Liga for most of its history. In 2010, they recorded their joint highest league finish (5th) and won their first ever Czech Cup. The following season, they won their first ever league title and, with it, entry to the Champions League, where they qualified for the group stages at the first time of asking. Since then, Viktoria Plzen have won 4 of the last 7 Czech titles and are the earlier pace-setters again this season with 4 wins out of 4.

As for Scotland, Celtic have won the last six Scottish Premier League/Premiership titles and have used the 'Champions Path' during that spell to enjoy smooth passage to the Champions League group stages in four of those six occasions. (The consecutive failures under Ronny Deila proving the exceptions to the norm.) However, they were not originally occupying the box seat...

For the 2009/10 season, Scotland was ranked as high as number 10 in the Association Ranking and had two teams in Europe's premier competition. In the first couple of seasons of the 'Champions Path' era, Rangers actually received direct entry to the Champions League group stages, while Celtic twice tried (and failed) to qualify through the 'League Path'. By 2011/12, Scotland had dropped to number 16 in the Association Ranking, meaning only got to enter one team via the 'Champions Path' - Rangers failed to qualify, going out to Malmo before the play-off round before subsequently going out to Maribor in the play-off round for the Europa League. 2012/13 was the last time Scotland had two entries into Champions League qualifying. Celtic, taking their first opportunity through the 'Champions Path', qualified; Motherwell, taking the place of Rangers following in the 'Non-Champions Path' following Rangers' administration and eventual liquidation, did not.

Which brings us to now. Champions League qualification is set to be reformed for the 2018/19 season, with the number of qualifying rounds that next season's Scottish title winners will have to
negotiate likely to be increased, while the number of teams qualifying from the champions play-off route are likely to be reduced. However, the distorting effect of the Champions League 'windfalls' have already taken root. Celtic now enjoy the pre-eminent position in Scottish football, with Brendan Rodgers' recent successes in qualifying for the last two Champions League group stages meaning that the club today holds a financial foothold so secure that its domination over its domestic competition is effectively unassailable for the foreseeable future.

********************************************************************************************

This brings us back to the original question: is it better for the Scottish Premiership clubs to receive Champions League 'windfall' payments, even if those payments benefit one club a hundred times more than any other club?

The game that I introduced to you at the start of this article is an economic experiment that is used to work out whether an offer represents a 'fair' or 'unfair' proposal; the more 'fair' the proposal, the more likely the responder is to 'accept' the proposal.

The most 'fair' result would be a 50:50 split between all of the interested parties. Before Celtic fans berate me here by saying that a 50/50 split wouldn't be 'fair', seeing as it is Celtic that earned the Champions League windfall by qualifying for the Champions League group stages in the first place, let me be clear that I am looking at this purely in terms of distributive justice (i.e. who gets to decide who gets more money, and on what basis) and there are many different schools of thought here.

During the same Radio Scotland interview where Tony Docherty said the Champions League windfall "benefits everyone in Scottish football", he went on to joke that while the £3 million will be shared between the Premiership's other 11 clubs, he'd prefer the £3 million just for his own club and went on to discuss the difference this kind of cash would make to other Premiership clubs. Imagine the benefits to domestic competition if instead of Celtic pocketing their prize money, that cash was redistributed evenly? What difference could £2.7 million make to the playing resources of the likes of Hamilton Accies, for example. Indeed, taking that example even further, imagine of that cash was redistributed evenly across all the SPFL clubs? A windfall of over £700,000 per club would make a radical difference to virtually every semi-professional club country in the country, and be a boon for most fully professional outfits too.

Too radical? OK, how about something a little more tempered, then? Well, when the aforementioned game was carried out in real life between members of social groups, offers of less than 30% were more often than not rejected. (It should perhaps be source of embarrassment for the Directors of other Scottish clubs that even members of remote villages and tribes have routinely held out for better offers than the amounts that they seem more than happy to accept in solidarity payments.) Taking 30% as an arbitrary benchmark, how about if Celtic – as a gratuitous gesture for the benefit of improving our domestic competition – agree to release a further £6 million pounds of its own prize money to the SPFL to redistribute to the rest of its clubs in a manner that was agreed to be fair and equitable amounts by its own members?

Just last month, Brendan Rodgers suggested that a lack of competition in Scottish football may stop him from adding a third "top striker" to his squad; on the more recent evidence of last Tuesday, an extra central defender or two wouldn't go amiss either. Brendan wasn't suggesting that Celtic's current resources were an issue to procuring another top striker – this view was expressed before Celtic had even negotiated their previous qualification round against Rosenborg, so Celtic have presumably now secured an additional £25 million that they won't be spending on bringing another top striker to Scotland.

I may be monumentally na├»ve, hopelessly unrealistic, or indeed a combination of both, but it seems there is a 'middle-ground' that could be reached whereby improving the resources available to Scottish clubs would lead to an improvement in the level of competition in this country, which in turn would embolden the top clubs in this country to improve their own playing squads, which in turn should improve the chances of those top clubs to perform better in Europe and potentially earn more prize money that could be invested back into Scottish football clubs as further cash windfalls.

Is anyone else interested in playing this game?

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