Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Wright and St. Johnstone are at a crossroads

When I wrote a season preview for St. Johnstone back in August, I finished with the following:  "all good things come to an end...but not yet."

Aye, so about that.

The Saintees lie eighth in the Premiership, but they are as close to bottom spot as they are to sixth. Their impressive run of six straight top six finishes is in peril.

But it is worse than that. They haven't won (or led in) any of their last eight home games. They have picked up just 12 points in 17 league matches since September. And last weekend their Scottish Cup run came to an end at Tynecastle.

No shame in that, you might think, but the 3-0 defeat came along with a performance that was anathema to the St. Johnstone of recent years. A side for so long notoriously damned with faint praise as "organized", "hard-working", "difficult to break down" and other similar adjectives now look leaderless, unsure and bereft of confidence and ideas.

Their league position is heavily distorted by their outstanding start to the season that was fuelled by the return on loan of Michael O'Halloran who not only rolled back the years to the performances he produced during his first spell in Perth, but seemed driven on by the desire to prove wrong those who had written him off at Ibrox.

Unfortunately, his form dipped like the value of the pound during a Theresa May Brexit speech, leaving them woefully impotent in attack as the years finally seem to be catching up with veteran striker Steven Maclean and a succession of strike partners/replacements have failed to score more than the odd goal here and there.

It's not like there's much being created either. The summer's big signing, Stefan Scougall, has struggled in an unfamiliar role out wide but so soft is the team's centre that he simply cannot be deployed in his preferred role there.

Worst of all, the defence, once a byword for reliability, has completely cracked. The continued absence through injury of Brian Easton hasn't helped, but his replacement Scott Tanser has struggled while linchpin Steven Anderson appears to have been robbed of all his defensive knowledge by one of those memory-wiping devices from Men In Black. Anderson was relieved of the captaincy earlier in the season, but removing the metaphorical weight of the armband hasn't been made him literally less sluggish.

Manager Tommy Wright's decision to take the responsibility away from Anderson so publicly seemed rather unbecoming, and a contrast to the 'hard but fair' persona that the Northern Irishman has displayed during his time in charge at McDiarmid Park. But Wright has not been himself this season. Whilst he has never been shy of criticizing players when necessary, he has hung the squad out to dry rather often this season.

Whether that is a symptom of the current problems, or a cause of them, is unclear. He has also been known to have the odd moan to the media about a lack of transfer funds, but this campaign Wright has been a picture of petulance at times when it comes to the (lack of) backing he feels he gets from the hierarchy. That said, his transfer dealings of the last few years have not been an overwhelming success, a factor that has certainly contributed to the ongoing decline.

His loud, public complaint about his chairman's refusal to pay for warm weather training during the January break was also surprising. Steve Brown played it down to the press, whilst also sticking to his usual narrative of how the first priority is to balance the books and run a tight ship. That's great when the manager and team are far beyond the sum of their parts, as they were when they finished third in the league in 2012/13 and won the Scottish Cup the following year. But when things are so bad that relegation becomes a genuine worry, then it doesn't wash.

It does feel increasingly like there is a "mutual consent" on the horizon.

St. Johnstone will probably stay up; after all they have more points than four teams, and they have games in hand. But the worry is that this is the start of a decline, one that fans of many other clubs should be wary of.

There has been a power shift in Scottish football over the last few years. Prior to Rangers' liquidation in 2012, the top flight was a two horse race and third place was largely up for grabs. Now of course it is a one horse race, but whilst there is a chasm between Celtic and the chasing pack, Aberdeen (who got their house in order), Hearts (who got their house in order after administration and relegation), Hibs (who got their house in order after relegation) and Rangers (whose house isn't in order but still have remarkable resources at their disposal) are in a tier of their own.

That leaves the rest with one top six spot to fight for. And there is very little between the remaining seven Premiership clubs, and indeed the sides at the top end of the Championship. So through a combination of factors such as injuries, loss of form, poor management, poor recruitment and stalwarts getting too old, a slide down the table can happen surprisingly quickly. Just ask Dundee United and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.  St. Johnstone fans will themselves remember their relegation from the SPL in 2002, just a few years after they were playing Monaco in Europe. They spent seven years toiling in the second tier before they got back.

Conversely, a club that has good luck with injuries, key players in form and a good manager who recruits well - say, Kilmarnock or Motherwell in the current instance - can move from relegation strugglers to a comfortable mid-table slot with ease. And the way that both have bounced so impressively under new management in the last year will not have gone unnoticed by other clubs at that end of the table.

The short-term priority for St. Johnstone is now to make sure they are still in the top flight for 2018/19, and then re-evaluate. Whether Wright, for all his qualities and achievements, is the man to take them into the future remains to be seen, as does whether his relationship with his boss is reparable.

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

Are Ross County doomed?

Admittedly, Ross County have been in this sort of trouble before.

Only a strong finish to the season and St. Mirren's remarkable incompetence saved them from the drop in 2015. The year before that, Derek Adams had brought about a gazillion (give or take a few) of January signings - Jordan Slew and Yann Songo'o spring to mind - to turn them around.

Usually at the first sign of catastrophe the club's owner and Sugar Daddy-in-chief Roy MacGregor busts out the cheque book to sign whoever it takes to salvage their top flight status. Such is his overwhelming love for the club that MacGregor would undoubtedly see relegation to the Championship as a personal failure.

He would be wrong to do so; he has yet again funded a posse of new additions - seven in the January window in fact, including former Liverpool striker David N'Gog and (on loan) Aberdeen midfielder Greg Tansey. Many central-belt journalists have continued to bemoan the dismissal of manager Jim McIntyre in September, based on little more than the belief that anyone who wins the League Cup with such a provincial club should get a job for life, but it was the right decision by a chairman who does not have an itchy trigger finger. County had been guff for a year, and were looking even more so after the sale last summer of Liam Boyce.

Moreover, appointing Owen Coyle as McIntyre's replacement looked like a coup at the time, similar to Steve Clarke's arrival at Kilmarnock. Coyle's successes at Burnley are still memorable though they were several years ago; perhaps his poor record in more recent posts at Wigan, Houston Dynamo and Blackburn Rovers should have sounded alarm bells, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. And within weeks players were extolling his training to the press; "it was like Barcelona", Chris Eagles, the veteran winger signed by Coyle for the third time in his career, claimed on his arrival in November.

Unfortunately, on the pitch it has been more farce-a-lona than Barcelona.

Eighteen league and one cup game into Coyle's reign, County have managed three wins - all in his first six matches - and last won on 4th November, thirteen games ago. His league record of thirteen points in eighteen matches is dismal. They are six points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership, and the teams immediately above them all have at least one game in hand.

For comparison, Staggies will remember how dire Caley Thistle were last season, as they were relegated from the top flight. Well, ICT were actually two points better off at this stage last year. That's how dreadful the situation is.

That's not to say it isn't salvageable. But County will surely need to at least double their current points total in the remaining thirteen games just to get to eleventh spot and a playoff to survive. Their best hope is that one of the sides above collapses; Hamilton would seem the best bet, though they have past form for proving doomsayers wrong.

But recent viewing has been grim. It's quite clear that Coyle wants his players to pass their way out of trouble, a marked change from the direct style that was employed by his predecessor. The trouble is that very few of the squad he inherited have the quality to do so. The others are, as would be expected, shorn of confidence.

In pretty much every match there is an individual error that results in a goal conceded, whether it be a goalkeeping blunder like Aaron McCarey and his limp wrists against Rangers, or Scott Fox's attempt to dribble round Kenny McLean three days later (what do you do when neither of your keepers can be trusted?) or Harry Souttar bulleting a header into his own net at Fir Park, or Andrew Davies' short backpass at Firhill. These are the sort of disasters that plagued Inverness last season and Dundee United the year before that.

Add in the fact that the Global Energy Stadium pitch, whilst in much better nick than a few years ago, is hardly a bowling green and one wonders whether Coyle is being stubborn and foolish by sticking to his principles in this situation. He will be praying that Greg Tansey hits the ground running when he returns from injury, but whilst the Englishman is an excellent passer and can dictate a game he needs his side to dominate possession and attackers in front of him who can stretch play and find space.

Tansey's former Inverness teammate Billy Mckay has proven himself more than capable of the latter in the past but has done nothing during his spell in Dingwall to justify a sustained run in the team. Given there is still a lack of pace in wide areas - it was bizarre that this wasn't addressed in January - the best hope is that N'Gog hasn't lost a step. If once fully fit he proves to be anywhere near the player that Coyle once signed for Bolton for £4million, then the situation looks rather more rosy.

Otherwise, there is a dreadful feel here not so much of round pegs being put in square holes, but of a jigsaw puzzle being constructed with a mixture of pieces from different boxes. Unless there are signs of life soon, County's five year stay in the Premiership will end, and Coyle will be back where he started his managerial career, in Scotland's second tier...if he lasts that long, of course...

(with thanks to John A Maxwell for his input)

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Colt teams need to go in the bin

You can see why they chose the word 'Colts' for the under 20's sides. It conjures up an image of a graceful, quick yet powerful young horse capable of all sorts of athletic feats. With this being Scottish football, a cruel person might suggest that 'Donkeys' would be a more realistic description.

Anyway, after two years of Colt teams in the Challenge Cup, we are now faced with the prospect of them being parachuted into Scottish League Two. For clarity, it is a proposal that has been put forward for discussion by Rangers and Celtic, which the clubs would have to vote in favour of.

It's no surprise to those of us - for that, read pretty much everybody with enough brain cells to rub together - who assumed that the whole Challenge Cup idea was simply the thin end of the wedge.  And it must be said that their involvement in said tournament was an unequivocal success, if by 'unequivocal success' you mean lousy results and even lousier crowds. 

And yes, the teams tended to get beaten even by League Two opposition. In 2016-17 five lost at the first attempt and only one made it to the Third Round (where Celtic, after beating two League Two opponents, got scudded by Livingston). So this season they decided to reduce/increase (delete as you feel appropriate) the farce by allowing two overage players to be involved for each Colt team. This meant that 32 year old Steven Smith could play for Kilmarnock under 20s, and 29 year old Billy Mckay scored the decisive goal in Ross County's first round match.

This time even fewer Colts teams went through the first round and this time none of them got to round three.

Despite all this, it is being mooted that Rangers and Celtic should have Colt teams in League Two as part of a two year trial. This appears to be all part of the Project Brave bandwagon.

So why should we want Colt teams?

Elgin City helpfully/naughtily (delete as you wish) published the entire proposal on their website. I've extracted a few snippets, and commented on them below...

The ‘B’ team concept works successfully in many other countries and this paper is designed to challenge the barriers which seem to exist in Scotland to the implementation of ‘B’ teams which are the same ones as they have managed to overcome in many other countries who as a consequence are more successful when developing talent.

Interesting start. Can you give some evidence of how it 'works successfully'? I also love the use of the word 'barriers', which is an effective euphemism for "you small clubs are getting in our way".

Scotland perform exceptionally well at U16, U17 and U19 level. 37% of the players who match Europe’s best at these ages are lost to the 21’s, where success significantly declines, as a result of not playing first team football. The 37% tend to come from Rangers and Celtic and are replaced with lesser potential Scottish talent who are playing 1st team football at a smaller club where they may access the 1st team earlier. Can we maintain the performance of the 16’s, 17’s and 19’s at 21’s by exposing our top potential Scottish talent to 1st team football against men earlier.

You'd expect a professional document to have been written by someone with a basic knowledge of grammar. 'The 37% tend to come from Rangers and Celtic' is not the same as saying they all come from those clubs - it would be straightforward to find the exact statistic so why haven't you done so? Is it because it doesn't support the argument well? 

Also, is this suggesting that players not from Rangers and Celtic are 'lesser potential Scottish talent' (I'm not sure about the grammar there either!)? Can it really be extrapolated that the drop off success at u21 level is purely due to lack of first team football?

‘B’ teams work, this is not a new concept. 84% of the German national ‘A’ squad have played in ‘B’ teams during their development years (86% of their 21’s). 48% of the Spanish national ‘A’ squad have played in ‘B’ teams (84% of their 21’s). In comparable sized countries such as Norway, Holland, etc. it is normal practice and operates with great success. The research has shown it works

Remember that in these countries B teams exist instead of reserve and u20 teams, so yeah, nearly all of them play in B teams because actually there isn't an alternative option. And given their current travails, is comparison with Norway and the Netherlands really wise?

Also, what does 'great success' mean in this context, other than being further evidence that this was written by Borat?

This proposal has the full backing of the SFA Performance Director, Malky Mackay.

Oh good.

Guaranteed purchase of 250 tickets per match @£10 per head by colt teams - £15,000 of guaranteed income per club.

250 tickets at £10 per head is £2500. I don't understand how the sums add up here at all. And most League Two clubs charge more than £10 for a ticket these days, so they're being sold short by this proposal. (Edit: it has been pointed out that if all the Colt teams' games are away from home, everyone will play them at home six times, which explains the sums. How would you feel if six of your club's home games each season were against either Rangers or Celtic Colts?)

Additional income from match day walk ups, hospitality, additional sponsor income via increased TV and media coverage, catering, etc.

Given that Rangers and Celtic fans aren't apparently fussed about supporting their Colt teams, I don't see why this would be the case. TV won't even cover the Scottish Championship anymore; why would they pitch up at Montrose v Rangers Colts?

Based on the 33 game proposal each League Two club would have a minimum of 1, maximum of 2 more home games. A minimum of 4 less away games. This would further increase income and reduce costs.

This seems to be suggesting Colt teams play all their matches away - a nice saving in the long run for Rangers and Celtic as they wouldn't have to pay to hire out Forthbank or Cappielow multiple times.

With three less games overall it would allow fewer midweek games, increasing attendance figures and / or reducing the length of the season resulting in reduced length player contracts saving money over the summer. This money and more importantly significantly increased media interest will inject exciting new life into SPFL League Two football.

Except the existence of the promotion and relegation playoffs means contracts have to run till the divisions above and below have finished as well, so no dice there. And again, why will the media suddenly give the tiniest s*** about the Colt teams? 

A pilot, no permanent league structure changes.

So does that mean the whole thing can be expunged and the Colts chucked out after two years if the clubs don't like that? If so, what is the mechanism for this?

Colt teams cannot take promotion or relegation places from League Two teams.

Why can't they be relegated? In the other leagues cited as shining examples, Colt teams can be relegated all the way down the league ladder.

The criteria for staff is very high in order to provide the elite young players with the correct environment equivalent to other countries who successfully produce players and will require clubs to make a significant financial contribution and have these staff available at the same time as their first team play on a Saturday at 3.00pm. This expense along with the need to underwrite 250 tickets for every match @£10 per ticket will restrict the number of clubs participating and ensure that the lower leagues are not flooded with Colt Teams.

Why go to this trouble? Surely the easy option would be to give only the eight clubs with the highest Project Brave status the opportunity to field Colt teams. Or do you want to make it prohibitively expensive for every other club bar Rangers and Celtic?

An opportunity, while the pilot is operating for two years, for discussion to run concurrently on league reconstruction options for season 2020/21 onwards. This would allow the views of the lower league teams to be heard and considered in full.

I think what you meant to say was "an opportunity, while the pilot is operating for two years for discussion to run concurrently on league reconstruction options that get our Colt teams playing at a much higher level."

One other detail worth noting - "The squad would predominantly consist of under 21 players (born on or after 1 January 1998) with the possibility of 2 over age players (not from the 1st team but
actually registered in the squad list to help guide and teach the young players). The overage players would count towards the minimum squad requirement."

So they'll get to play overage players as well. How exactly do they guide and teach young players during a match? Is this not a cynical attempt to use a couple of proven senior players to make the Colt team more competitive, especially in light of their poor results in the Challenge Cup?

Of course, Rangers and Celtic wouldn't be pushing for this if it didn't benefit them. Having Colt teams would of course allow them to develop their youngsters, some of which might augment their first team but more of which would be sold on for profit. It can also be used as bait to lure youngsters from other clubs, and gives them a place to hoard them too.

Apparently representatives of Rangers and Celtic are to meet with League Two clubs to discuss this proposal. If I were one of the League Two sides, I would ask the following questions:

1) What benefit will Colt teams bring to Scottish football and what evidence - that's evidence, not conjecture - is that based on?

2) On what criteria will this pilot be judged a success or a failure? What targets need to be met to prove it is working? Possible examples include the number of players who go on to play for the first team or the number of players who go on to represent their country.

3) If the pilot fails to meet the targets above then will the Colt teams be automatically removed from the SPFL setup?

4) Why can't the Colt teams be relegated to the Lowland League if they prove to be sufficiently weak?

5) What is the long-term vision for the Colt teams? Is the plan for them to be eligible for promotion from season three onwards? If so, where will their ceiling be?

These questions all need answered. If the Challenge Cup was the thin end of the wedge, this two year pilot is pretty much the entire doorstop.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Championship is worth watching

Compared to the last few seasons, the Scottish Championship isn't getting much love right now. That's probably - okay, definitely - because Rangers, Hearts and Hibs provided rather more glamour (or, rather, bigger potential TV audiences) than the clubs currently occupying Scotland's second tier.

That's a shame, because this season it's been a nostalgic, direct football, Ron Manager jumpers for goalposts beans on toast for tea sort of way..

That's mainly because on any given day any team can beat anyone else. Unless you're Brechin City, that is. Promoted via the League One playoffs despite finishing closer to bottom than second place and with a negative goal difference, Brechin were earmarked at the start of the season as the whipping boys. Still winless after 20 matches and already 13 points from safety, even Theon Greyjoy glanced up at the league table from his torture rack in Game Of Thrones Season 3 and thought "this must be hell for them."

Aside from Brechin, Dumbarton are the only other part-time club in the Championship and probably the only other club not to have any realistic designs on trying to get promoted. But the Sons have survived in this division for five and a half years - an extraordinary achievement given that they basically have to bring in a completely new squad every summer - by taking advantage of those who think they are Brechinesque cannon fodder. After Caley Thistle lost there in September one sympathetic Dundee United fan told me "you don't realize you're in the Championship until you've been bodied by Dumbarton". Basically their role seems to be to induce a bit of humility in the Wannabes and Hasbeens that they play most weeks, like a Liberal Democrat MP before the 2010 coalition.

The other eight have much loftier ambitions. Three have been in the Premiership within the last three seasons. Another three have been in the promotion playoffs in one of the last three seasons. The other two have been in the top flight themselves in the not-too-distant past. So they all think that, if they sign some decent players, have a decent manager and bring through a few decent youngsters, then it might be their year.

The flip-side is that it's very easy for it to all go very wrong very quickly. Just take Falkirk: 2015 Scottish Cup finalists; within 90 minutes at Rugby Park of promotion in 2016; second in the table and another playoff spot last May. Currently they are ninth, well clear of Brechin but three points behind Dumbarton. Survival is now their aim. Whilst you'd fancy them to outdo Dumbarton over the remainder of the campaign (especially now they've signed almost an entirely new team since bringing in Paul Hartley as boss) would you really put your mortgage on it?

St. Mirren were in the Bairns' shoes only this time last year, winning only two games before mid-February and seemingly headed for a second relegation in three years. Having showed no signs at all of turning things around after being hired in October, Jack Ross then did indeed turn things around and dragged them to safety. Now they're top of the table thanks to some very sensible acquisitions of players proven at this level and a string of talented academy players. Whether they would thrive in the Premiership, particularly once Lewis Morgan falls permanently into Celtic's clutches, is a matter for debate - the likes of Craig Samson, Gavin Reilly and Cammy Smith are in the Championship because they weren't good enough for the higher level - but understandably St. Mirren would really rather get promoted first and worry about that later.

And it's not as if having a squad filled with guys who have recent Premiership experience is an enormous boon, as Dundee United and Inverness are discovering. Both face uncertain futures if they remain here beyond May 2018; Caley Thistle already need investment from directors to cover the shortfalls from relegation and further costcutting will follow if they don't go back up at the first attempt. The only possibility of that is via the playoffs, a prospect that at least looks a lot more realistic than it did three months ago as John Robertson has finally put together a side capable of getting results. Mind you, ICT are still only seventh just now, albeit within touching distance of that crucial fourth spot. And they've already achieved the biggest miracle of the season - to the disbelief of United fans - by transforming Coll Donaldson into a competent 'baller.

United are second, but given the investment in several players who could probably do a job for a top flight club it feels like anything other than top spot would be a disappointment. And yet despite punting manager Ray McKinnon in October they haven't looked any more dominant than they did last season. The arrival of a competent coach, Csaba Laszlo, should have been enough to drag them across the line but St. Mirren have proven resilient and won the clash between the sides at the end of December.

United's recent catastrophe at Falkirk Stadium, losing 6-1, may turn out to be a blip but with talented midfielders Scott Fraser and Fraser Fyvie potentially out for the season the Arabs have cause for concern that, like a year ago, they may limp into a playoff and come up short again. It's no secret that United's financial situation is not great - the money from Andy Robertson's sell-on clause made a big difference to their budget for 2017/18 - and a third straight season in this division would be a disaster.

Dunfermline are currently third in the table, though only five points separate them from Caley Thistle. Nearly five years since their administration, the Pars have got their house in order under Allan Johnston who got them promoted back to the Championship two summers ago. Their form in the second half of last season and the first quarter of this was that of promotion challengers, but the flip side of having attacking talents such as Joe Cardle, Kallum Higginbotham, Nicky Clark and Declan McManus is that there isn't much spare cash for squad depth. Only in the last few weeks have they managed to start stringing wins together again.

Like Dunfermline, Queen of the South also have a relatively threadbare squad, going for quality rather than quantity - and how! 36 year old Stephen Dobbie is doing his best impression of a Dumfries And Galloway Teddy Sheringham and is arguably the best player in this league, already notching 20 goals to go with the 26 he managed last season. Queens' season depends heavily on keeping him fit, and on trying to augment the least experienced squad in the Championship with good loan players. St. Johnstone pair Jason Kerr and Chris Kane have impressed...but both will return to Perth next week leaving gaping holes that Gary Naysmith has to fill if they are to remain in the top four.

And if they slip, Livingston are next in the wings; whilst they were never likely to be relegation candidates, Livi are doing remarkably well for a newly promoted side which is testament to the good job that David Hopkin (who I still have a soft spot for because he was an absolute demon of an AM RC in Championship Manager 96/97) is doing in charge. Losing striker Danny Mullen to St. Mirren wasn't ideal, mind, but Hopkin has altered the dynamic from last year's gung-ho attacking play to a well-organized setup led by veteran keeper Neil Alexander and an excellent set of central defenders in young Craig Halkett and (whatever you think of his previous off-field issues) Declan Gallagher. Whether they have the attacking talent and experience to see them through to May is uncertain.

And last but not least (sixth, if you look at the table) are Morton, who are probably overachieving given they also have a pretty thin squad that depends on the ageing Gary Harkins for creativity. However, since Chic Young thinks Jim Duffy should be the new Scotland manager (no, really!) maybe a comfortable mid-table spot is the least we should expect, especially since they made the playoffs last year. In Jai Quitongo they have one of the most exciting young talents around, though he hasn't really kicked on this year. If he's half as fun a player as his dad was then he'll do okay, though.

Morton are just one of many sides in this battle who could with a little luck make it into the postseason fixtures and yet would be crippled by a lengthy casualty list. It may be injuries which prove the deciding factor for who finishes in the top four..and even, were St. Mirren to lose any out of Morgan, Cammy Smith and Gavin Reilly, top spot.

But my take-home point is that this league is a highly entertaining and competitive one with pretty much everything but tenth place still very much in the balance. Sadly Sportscene don't care any more since Rangers aren't there...and the BBC didn't even bother doing a live commentary game last week during the Premiership's winter break. But it's a much more level playing field and it has more quality than you think. How things will pan out by mid-May is just about anyone's guess. Viva Le Championship!

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

An ode to David Raven

In their short history, Caley Thistle have had their share of cult heroes at right-back.. 

As they climbed the divisions, there was Mike Teasdale, a gritty, combative player with long messy hair and occasionally a ponytail that borderlined on offensive. He chipped in with a few goals too, including one beauty in a derby win in Dingwall - the one where Ross County's Alex Bone got shown three red cards.

After that there was Ross Tokely, who looked more like a henchman from a Bond movie than a footballer. Tall, built like a house and blessed not so much with pace than momentum, he defied my own father's certainty that every year ICT were promoted he would be found out at the next level to represent the club in all four divisions. He holds the club's appearances record by absolute miles; it'll probably never be broken.

And then there was David Raven.

When Terry Butcher was in charge of Inverness, he had a knack for finding gems in the lower leagues of England - Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Dean Brill, Marley Watkins, Greg Tansey, Ross Draper and Billy Mckay to name a few. Raven arrived in the summer of '12 from Tranmere Rovers, but his background was different. I thought I recognised the name from somewhere, and I was right: he had been in Pro Evolution Soccer 4! For Raven actually had a pedigree -  he had been in Liverpool's academy and made a handful of first team appearances for them, as well as representing England at several youth levels.

He certainly didn't look like a pedigree, more a cross-breed between a philosopher from Ancient Greece and a Tour De France cyclist. Still just 27 at the time, Raven's almost total baldness and a lithe figure that from a distance looked positively skeletal made him look so much older and frailer. And when he, like many of his teammates, started the 2012-13 season slowly there was a fear that we had signed a dud. That couldn't have been further from the truth.

Raven wasn't the biggest, or the quickest, or the strongest, or the most skilful. But he was reliable - a rare attribute that managers must crave, particularly in their defenders. Mistakes were rare. It was unusual for him to be caught out of position. Whilst like any full-back he could look vulnerable against a talented winger he could be left on an island against them and still win his share of duels. And whilst his attacking prowess was nothing compared to that of Graeme Shinnie on the opposite flank his timing for forays forward and his delivery from wide areas was very underrated. He was a seven-out-of-ten-every-game player.

That in itself does not make one a cult hero. Scoring the winner in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic certainly helps, though. He was certainly not a frequent goalscorer, managing only five in five and a half years; this writer hasn't witnessed any of them first hand. His first for the club came in gloriously appropriate fashion at Ross County, where he literally slide-tackled the ball into the net from a yard. The second was a year later at Hampden.

Celtic fans will of course remember that game for the infamous Meekings handball. Down to ten men themselves, a John Guidetti free-kick had levelled things up in extra-time at 2-2. Given their experience of big occasions, they'd have been overwhelming favourites in a shootout. It says something about the way Caley Thistle played under John Hughes that season that in the 117th minute one full-back (Shinnie) got to the byline and fizzed the ball across for the other to tap-in from six yards out. Actually, that makes it sound easier than it was. The angle was narrow, and Raven had to adjust his stride in order to make proper contact with the ball - easy enough maybe for a seasoned striker, but for a right-back near the end of extra time?

Raven would subsequently claim that he had a premonition that day that he would score. It was as important a goal as the one by James Vincent that won the final itself. Without it Caley Thistle probably wouldn't have won that semi-final...though a calf injury would keep him out of the final. He at least got to take centre-stage in the celebrations in Inverness the next day, taking his guitar up on stage to play Oasis' Stand By Me to a crowd of supporters. Raven's musical prowess was already well-known - at a Christmas do he had once serenaded fans at a grand piano, taking request after request after request.

His absence from the Falkirk game was kept secret from the press right until the teamsheets were released, and understandably so; with Shinnie moved over to the right to replace him, and Carl Tremarco coming into the side and having a nervous nightmare that culminated in a red card, he was dreadfully missed. To be honest, he always was missed when he wasn't there. That's why the way he dropped dramatically out of favour the next season came as such a shock. In 2015/16 Hughes often left Raven on the bench and played Josh Meekings at right-back, a plan that simultaneously weakened the team in that position and central defence as well. When it became clear that Hughes wouldn't be offering Raven a new deal, the fans revolted by naming him their Player Of The Year at the final game of the season even though he'd started less than half of the matches. Handed a microphone in front of the support, he looked embarrassed; later he would insist that he bore no grudge towards Hughes and understood that it was a business decision.

But of course Yogi left and Raven was offered a new contract after all which at the time was rumoured to have been funded by a board member. Injuries held him back last season - he wasn't one of the reasons why ICT were relegated - and then he suffered the ignominy of another manager, John Robertson, trying to get rid of him this year. Raven didn't budge - and then found himself back in the team every week after his replacement, Collin Seedorf, got injured. And once more he has been the seven-out-of-ten-every-game least until his red card against Morton last week.

But Raven's contract is up in January and the match against Livingston on the 2nd will be his one-hundred and eighty-sixth and last for the club- if he can get his place back in the side. He was belatedly offered new terms on a reduced wage but declined them, apparently more out of pragmatism rather than pride. His ambition is to get into coaching, and there won't be many opportunities in this part of the world for that. With his oldest child due to start school in 2018, better to get settled down south again.

I'm not the only one who will lament his departure. He might not be the most talented footballer in the world - or even the most talented one at his club. But you could do an awful lot worse than have a team of David Ravens. Thank you, goodbye and good luck.

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Looking ahead to the January window

Trying to predict what will happen in the January window is a bit of a mugs game - there will be left-field signings, loan moves from England, players we've never heard of up here. About the only certainty is that Rangers will be linked with big money moves for players (or for their own - £6m for Barrie McKay!!!) which come to nothing.

But still, let's look ahead anyway...

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Derek McInnes wants to 'freshen up' the squad, according to his chairman, and apparently will be given money to do so. Despite the emergence of Scott McKenna and the improved play of Kari Arnason, I bet a commanding centre-back would be welcomed. They could also do with a sitting midfield player, having not properly replaced Ryan Jack.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Aberdeen actually have just about the smallest squad in the Premiership so there's unlikely to be many exits. Perhaps Nicky Maynard, third in the centre-forward queue, will be allowed to return south. Craig Storie has been out of the first team picture after injuries and might benefit from a loan move.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Centre-back is an obvious weakness, and 32 year old German Marvin Compper is set to arrive from RB Leipzig for £1m. Time will tell if he upgrades the position sufficiently to allow a Europa League run. There has been talk of other signings, but they are more likely to be youngsters brought in with the future in mind. Lewis Morgan, set to arrive from St Mirren and immediately return to Paisley on loan, is one example.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Erik Sviatchenko is out of favour and seems certain to depart, possibly for the English Championship. Given the potential for fixture congestion in the spring, Brendan Rodgers will be loathe to let too many others leave, but several of the youngsters would surely benefit from loan spells and Liam Henderson, out of contract in the summer, surely has no future at Parkhead.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Another keeper to compete with or provide cover for Elliot Parish. The squad is already bloated but more quality in midfield and attack would be extremely welcome...especially in the shape of a proven goalscorer.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Neil McCann is likely to try and shift as much dead wood as possible. Danny Williams was let go last month'. Scott Bain, who has been binned after a row with McCann, has been linked to Hearts. Randy Wolters has also apparently fallen out with the manager. It's not clear if Jon Aurtenetxe's contract or AJ Leitch-Smith's loan will be extended past January. Other candidates to be 'mutually consented' include Julen Etxabeguren, Kostadin Gadzhalov, Nicky Low and James Vincent.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Martin Canning doesn't have a great January window record (Kemy Agustien! Oumar Diaby!). He'll be surely up for bringing in anyone who can improve his defence or midfield.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Botti Biabi's loan from Swansea ends during the window and it seems unlikely to be extended. Steven Boyd has already been loaned to Livingston.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Gabriel Somi of Ostersunds seems set to be the next proposed solution to the never-ending problem at left-back. Though Jon McLaughlin has been solid enough in goal, Hearts have been linked with Dundee's Scott Bain. Craig Levein has suggested he wants more new faces, but that would depend on getting players out.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Viktor Noring and Malaury Martin clearly have no future at Tynecastle. Perenially injured Ashley Smith-Brown probably doesn't either, but its unclear whether his loan from Manchester City can be terminated in January or if he is stuck till the summer. If a new keeper does come in then surely Jack Hamilton will be loaned out.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? An upgrade in the full-back positions would be useful, especially as Steven Whittaker has been a bit of a disappointment. Neil Lennon criticized Ofir Marciano recently, so it wouldn't be surprising if they made a move for a new keeper.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Deivydas Matulevicius is only a quarter of the way into a two year deal but the Lithuanian striker is well down the pecking order. The main worry is that someone makes an offer for John McGinn that the club can't refuse.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? Steve Clarke has worked wonders with the squad he inherited, and this is his first big chance to put a stamp on it. Having already brought in Youssouf Mulumbu, they have ex-Spurs and Norwich centre-back Sebastien Bassong on trial. Another striker would be tempting, despite the recent good form of Kris Boyd and Eamonn Brophy.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Brad Spencer and Alex Samizadeh are obvious candidates to be binned, with neither Lee McCulloch signing anywhere near the first team. Steven Smith has been injured but doesn't look like he has a future at the club.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? A replacement for Louis Moult is the overwhelming priority.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Moult's £450,000 move to Preston will go through as soon as the window opens. Keeper Gennadio Xenadochov is only on a short-term deal. There are so many midfield options that loan moves away for Shea Gordon, Ross MacLean and Liam Brown are possible.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? To improve the defence, either through getting players back from injury or new signings. The question is whether to bank on the likes of Callum Booth and Abdul Osman providing sufficient reinforcement, or whether new faces need to be brought in regardless.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Thistle's back line has been rank for much of the year, yet Milan Nitriansky still can't get a game. If they don't need him for depth purposes, he'll be away.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? The situation is complicated by the lack of a permanent manager at this point - if they appoint one then he'll want to bring in his own players; if not, then any new signings will be presumably controlled by the Director Of Football, Mark Allen. They have been linked with Brighton attacker Jamie Murphy.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? How many Caixinha signings will want to leg it from Glasgow? Eduardo Herrera and Fabio Cardoso may not be happy with spending the rest of the year on the bench. Dalcio and Aaron Nemane will surely go if their loan spells can be terminated in January.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? One suspects Roy MacGregor will have another busy January bringing in the reinforcements required to maintain County's top flight status. Another centre-back would be helpful, and a regular goalscorer is a priority too (yes, I know that's the case for everyone).

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? There are already four centre-forwards but none have scored frequently; Thomas Mikkelsen and Billy Mckay haven't done enough to justify even a run in the team and could be moved on. Tim Chow is also on the fringes.

WHAT DO THEY NEED? After the win over Rangers, Tommy Wright talked of his intention to bring in a few new faces, and how this week he would find out if he was shopping for "new cars or used cars" (not the greatest analogy, but you know what he means). A deal has already been done for Dundalk forward David McMillan.

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES? Not Chris Millar, who seems to be back in favour. It's unclear if Michael O'Halloran's loan deal will be extended, while Chris Kane may stay out on loan at Queen Of The South. Graham Cummins has been linked with a return to Ireland.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

McInnes fiasco is just a symptom of Rangers' bigger problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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