Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Scottish football finances

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I'm a bit geeky about the financial side of Scottish football. That's partly because it is a simple way of judging who is over- and under-achieving, as well as being a pretty good indicator of which clubs are well-run and which aren't.

Moreover I increasingly worry that it is only a matter of time until another Scottish football club ends up in an administration event. Very few are self-sustaining. As I previously blogged it feels like most Championship clubs are getting by on donations and goodwill. Meanwhile the clubs at the lower end of the top flight are rather dependent themselves on a combination of overachieving (higher league positions and cup runs) and selling players. In fact, even Celtic and Rangers, despite having budgets that dwarf the rest, face their own challenges.

For comparison though, only three Scottish clubs - Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen - have turnovers higher than the bottom end of the English Championship. Celtic's turnover is lower than that of all 12 Premier League clubs who have published figures for last season. Rangers' wage bill would put them in the bottom half of the Championship, and Aberdeen's is lower than all Championship clubs.

That's what Scottish football is up against.

So let's look at all the info we have on Scotland's top clubs...

(This is the point where I should really shout out to Kieran Maguire, whose analysis of football club accounts is invaluable reading when it comes to this)

TURNOVER: £15.4m (2016/17 - £15.3m)
LOSSES: £800k (2016/17 - profit of £500k)

Did Aberdeen really spend £1.3m on new players last season? Apparently so. Hopefully they'll be better value than Paul Bernard and Robbie Winters were. Despite posting a loss for 2017/18 the Dons seem to be in a perfectly decent position due to a turnover that is the third highest in Scotland. The question is how to increase income further - cup runs this season may help - and also how much prudence will be required in the coming years as the club (subject to about the gazillionth appeal by opponents) build a new stadium at Kingsford with the aim of moving there as soon as 2021.

TURNOVER: £101.6m (2016/17 - £90.6m)
PROFIT: £17.3m (2016/17 - £6.9m)

Celtic's status as an enormous fish in a small pond domestically, but as a relative tiddler in the continental ocean (oof, you've pushed that metaphor far enough - Ed) presents them with unique challenges. For a start, making the Champions League is worth a huge amount of money; missing out leaves a large hole in their finances...as seen in their interim results from the first 6 months of this season where turnover dropped by £20m compared to the same period of the previous year.

This gap in the past has been easily filled by selling a player (see: Fraser Forster, Virgil Van Dijk, Moussa Dembele). The quandary is whether to save money for those years where they miss out on the Champions' League, or to invest it to increase their chances of getting through qualifying.

From a domestic point of view however there is no comparison. Their turnover is roughly equal to the other 11 Premiership clubs put together.

TURNOVER: £4.6m (2016/17 - £3.9m)
LOSSES: £425k (2016/17 - £350k)

Dundee are in their sixth season since being taken over by FPS, their American backers led by John Nelms and Tim Keyes. The first five years have resulted in combined losses of £2.3m...despite about £1.3m from selling Kane Hemmings, Greg Stewart and Jack Hendry. Their wage bill is more than 70% of turnover, which is far from ideal.

This season is likely to follow that trend following the sacking of Neil McCann and a plethora of new signings for successor Jim McIntyre. Obviously there would be a huge problem if FPS stepped away, though there are no signs of them doing so even if the club are relegated this season. The bigger concern is if the stalled plans for a new stadium come to nothing, because that seems to be the key to the business plan going forward.

TURNOVER: unreported
RETAINED EARNINGS: £502k (2016/17 - £968k)

Accies don't report turnover, which only tells us that it is less than £6.5m. In reality it will be much smaller than that, the lowest in the top flight by a pretty significant margin. This was a dreadful year financially for Hamilton because of the Vishing scam in 2017 which cost the club £700,000. Even though they sold Greg Docherty and Mikey Devlin they have now ended up with £450,000 of bank debt that they didn't have before. Things should be better this year though with them still in the top flight and having sold Lewis Ferguson.

TURNOVER: £12.1m (2016/17 - £11.3m)
PROFIT: £1.8m (2016/17 - £2.3m)

Interpreting Hearts' situation is tricky given they got £2m donated towards the new stand and another £1m donated towards player costs. The previous year's profits came after £2.5m of donations. And they got another £3.25m of donations in the first quarter of 2018/19! Now the new stand is completed it'll be interesting to see where turnover is at going forward. Still, it's a far cry from the Romanov days...

TURNOVER: £9.5m (2016/17 - £7.6m)
PROFIT: £214k (2016/17 - losses of £263k)

On returning to the top flight, Hibs posted the fifth highest turnover in Scotland and finished an excellent fourth in the league. It's interesting to note they spent £500,000 in transfer fees for players during 2017/18. . Given the club's wages/turnover ratio is a solid 56%, things have come a long way since seven figure losses during the 2013/14 relegation season and the subsequent campaign. The sale of John McGinn will make this year's filings look quite decent.

TURNOVER: £5.1m (2016/17 - £5.1m)
LOSSES: £180k (2016/17 - profit of £960k)

Killie's increased success on the pitch came at an increased cost as the wage bill went up by nearly £1m; some of that may be to do with the dismissal of Lee McCulloch. (Of note, this increase came after several years of costcutting. Wages and income are still lower than five years ago) It's curious that turnover was static despite finishing three places higher in the league. The increased optimism - and crowds - at Rugby Park this season should make this season's figures more impressive.

TURNOVER: £6.8m (2016/17 - £4.2m)
PROFIT: £1.7m (2016/17 - losses of £181k)

Two cup finals, you say? Decent fees for Ben Heneghan and Louis Moult, you say? It all added up to a bumper year for Motherwell. Staff costs were the sixth highest, but a wage/turnover ratio of 57% is sustainable enough. That said, this campaign's turnover is bound to dip because of a lack of cup income - Motherwell's gate receipts had more than doubled last year - though the sale of Cedric Kipre will cover some of that. And luckily the £1.7m of ongoing interest-free loans show no signs of being called in.

TURNOVER: £4.5m (2016/17 - £4.1m)
PROFIT: £343k (2016/17 - £97k)

Thistle had broken even for years, and last year managed a nice wee profit on the back of larger gates - they played Celtic and Rangers twice at home despite finishing bottom six. Relegation is an expensive business though and they were quick to wield the axe and cut costs - so much so that the outcome is that they are now in danger of dropping to League One, which would be catastrophic. But if they stay up they should be in reasonable nick going forward though this year's results are likely to be impacted further by the need to dismiss manager Alan Archibald.

TURNOVER: £32.7m (2016/17 - £29.2m)
LOSSES: £14.3m (2016/17 - £6.7m)

*Opens can of worms* Rangers, on the face of it, remain a financial basketcase. An optimist would say that now the whole Takeover Panel thing is out of the way and there appears to be a settled management team things should finally improve. And the interim results for the first 6 months of 2018/19 showed a healthy profit.

The flipside is that said profit was almightily dependent on European qualification, and at the same time last year they claimed they had broken even up to that point...and finished the year £14m in the red. Add in the estimate in the 2017/18 accounts that they would need a £4.6m cash injection just to get through the year and yet another loan from financial house Close Brothers last week and it seems that things are not rosy yet. But as much as many fans of other clubs are hoping for it, there are no signs of an administration event in the near future.

TURNOVER: accounts not filed yet (2016/17 - £3.8m)
PROFIT: accounts not filed yet (2016/17 -debt of £1.4m forgiven)

County's situation is unique amongst the clubs on this list, given they have the unconditional support of Global Energy mogul Roy MacGregor, one of Scotland's wealthiest men. With his ongoing input, County don't really need to worry about money.

TURNOVER: not reported (2016/17 - £4.9m)
LOSSES: £258k (2016/17 - profit of £49k)

St. Johnstone noted in their annual accounts that their losses pretty much reflected the consequence of missing the top six for the first time in years; These were the poorest financial results since Steve Brown became chairman in 2011, but this can probably be forgiven it was a season of transition for Tommy Wright's side. And, you know, they're not too bad, really - there's still £2m in the bank! The Perth Saints are the model example of what a well-run small club in Scotland can accomplish.

TURNOVER: £3.2m (2016/17 - £3.5m)
LOSSES: £219k (2016/17 - £1m)

Thank goodness for the new American owners. United sold their training ground for £1m and made £1.4m from the sell-on clauses of Andy Robertson and Stuart Armstrong and still ran at a loss. That's after losses of £2.5m over the previous two seasons. United would be in a proper help-ma-boab situation had Mark Ogren not completed his takeover.

TURNOVER: £2.7m (2016/17 - not reported)
PROFIT: £140k (2016/17 - losses of £300k)

Falkirk arrested a run of loss-making seasons partly by closing their youth academy, having reasoned that they couldn't pay for it unless they made £400k of transfer income annually. One suspects the dismissal of Paul Hartley and the fine for tapping up Ray McKinnon will badly affect the balance sheet for 2018/19

TURNOVER: £2m (2016/17 - £3.6m)
LOSSES: £810k (2016/17 - £400k)

Relegation hit Caley Thistle like a sledgehammer. Turnover nearly halved and despite dramatic costcutting and loans from directors totally around £400k they still made a high six-figure loss. Whilst there has been further pennypinching since then and the run to the Scottish Cup semi-finals will be a welcome boost, that's still a heck of a hole to fill.

TURNOVER £2.8m (2016/17: £2.4m)
PROFIT £77k (2016/17: £15k)

How much does promotion cost? Well, St. Mirren only made a profit because they sold Lewis Morgan for £700k.

As for the other 2017/18 Championship clubs, Dunfermline made a very small profit but admit to being dependent on £300k of annual donations. Queen of the South made a £200k loss despite having a tiny squad and relying on local businessmen to pay the wages of Stephen Dobbie. Livingston haven't filed their accounts for last season yet, but the previous ones contained a going concern as liabilities were worth £700k more than their assets. Promotion will certainly have helped things though. Dumbarton's accounts were hard to read but it seems like they made a significant loss (correct me if I'm wrong). There wasn't much info to note on Morton's accounts, and Brechin City don't seem to publish any.

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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

You can't take your eyes off the Scottish Championship

I know I keep banging on about it, but the Scottish Championship really is a compelling league. As we enter the final quarter of the season, all ten clubs have something to play for.

Inconsistency has been the dominant theme as teams go from periods where everything goes in to ones when they seem to have smashed a mirror over a black cat whilst walking under a ladder, or vice versa. The table is so tight that some teams who were in the promotion playoff hunt a month ago are now looking over their shoulders with trepidation, whilst others who appeared set for a relegation dogfight are now dreaming of nicking a top four spot.

The latter group include Dunfermline, who in mid-February lay seventh, just three points above bottom spot in a total mess following Allan Johnston's departure. Luckily for them his replacement, Stevie Crawford, has proven the most unlikely saviour since the disciples went to the wrong stable at the start of Life Of Brian. It also helps to have a centre forward in form; step forward Aberdeen loanee Bruce Anderson, clearly scarred for life by his parents' decision to give him a name that it is impossible to say without putting on a dodgy Australian accent. Young Brucie, as surely everybody must refer to him by law, is taking his revenge on society, or at least that part of it that stands between goalposts in Scotland's second tier.

An in-form striker can only take you so far though, particularly when the rest of the squad is so thin that home fans at Palmerston have started taking their boots with them in case they are required on the bench. I give to you Queen of the South, who as recently as the end of January bodied Dundee out of the Cup on the back of Stephen Dobbie's goals. It's tough enough for any forward to score more goals than his age; for a 36 year old one to do so two months before the clocks change is mental. A fifty goal campaign for the veteran wasn't just a possibility at that point, it was odds-on.

And then it all went, er, south. An extraordinary 4-0 demolition of Ross County in mid-January has been followed by seven straight league defeats; Dobbie's last league goal came in the first of those seven. Saturday's loss at home to Caley Thistle was marred by goalkeeper Alan Martin giving home fans the bird when the half-time whistle went. He was substituted at the break because "of a back injury" according to manager Gary Naysmith. Aye. Sure.

So the Doonhamers have essentially swapped places in the table with Dunfermline. The problem is that, at the business end of things, there are now teams directly below them that have form and momentum. Falkirk and Partick Thistle are both finally reaping the rewards of their 'sign an entirely new team for our entirely new manager strategy'. If they haven't quite reached Dunfermline's Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds levels of giddiness, those two have at least moved into It's Getting Better territory, though with the duo set to clash next weekend somebody is going to suffer a rotten climbdown.

There are exceptions to the incredible ups and downs that has permeated this division, all of which seem to exist north of the Tay. Caley Thistle are so determined to become the definition of mediocrity that physicists are concerned the universe could implode with shock if they moved either above fourth or below sixth in the table. They last won consecutive league games in September and have mastered the unfortunate habit of playing up to strong opposition and down to weaker ones. The trouble is that whilst they could argue that they have deserved at least a draw in all six league games they've played against Ross County and Dundee United, they haven't actually won any of them. They have knocked both out of the cup at least, so if John Robertson manages to drag them into the playoffs after all - by no means a certainty if Dunfermline keep going like this - and cons the players into thinking it is a knockout competition, they might pull off a miracle after all.

As for their neighbours, "County have been crap for months" bewailed one Staggie friend of mine recently...with his team sitting top of the league. The thing is, the concept of form doesn't seem to have actually reached Dingwall. If football is indeed a results business, Ross County have got it down to such an extreme art form that Tracy Emin is nodding with approval. It's not that they haven't been playing well at times, it's just that it seems that ninety per cent of the time it doesn't matter. After an hour and a half of football each weekend, it turns out they've won. It's just one of life's certainties and there's no point fighting it.

You just know that every single person in the country put Ross County 2-0 Greenock Morton on their pools coupon last weekend, though part of that is because Jonatan Johansson is so risk-averse away from home that even Jose Mourinho would accuse them of being too negative. They've actually scored more than once in only three of the Finn's twenty-four league games in charge. Boring your way to survival is certainly a bold strategy, Cotton. We'll see if it pays off.

And then there's the tangerine-coloured elephant in the room. While many of the other Championship clubs have more highs and lows than the characters in Trainspotting, Dundee United fans are the ones most likely to be found on the Scottish moors lamenting the hand life has dealt them. "It's s**** supporting United! We're the lowest of the low! The scum of the f***** earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever s*** into civilization! Some people hate Dundee. I don't. They're just w*****s. We, on, the other hand, are a division below w*****s."

Win, lose, draw or whatever, United seem in a state of perpetual crisis regardless. Given that Rangers: The Banter Years has dropped markedly in quality during its seventh season, we should be grateful that its Tayside-based spinoff continues to trundle along nicely despite yet another overhaul of the cast. Replacing Csaba Laszlo with Robbie Neilson was expected to result in a change of direction but the decision to stick with the tried-and-tested formula has proved a ratings hit.

The games United do win seem to be mostly the result of collective embarrassment, as if the players' own self-respect forces them to occasionally perform somewhere close to their potential. However the shame wears off after a while and then it's back to their baseline, which appears to be to play as if everyone is still at the stage of needing nametags so that their teammates remember what their name is.

To be fair, Neilson did sign eleven players - literally a new team - in January. But six weeks on from the end of that window one is entitled to suspect a degree of coherence. Instead United fans have been 'treated' to two weekends of watching their team toil for an afternoon, somehow against all reason find themselves in a drawing position, only for the football gods to take offence to this and part their central defence like the Red Sea to gift first Caley Thistle and then Partick Thistle deserved injury-time winners.

Whereas Partick made a plethora of signings because they gutted their squad after relegation, and Falkirk brought in a gazillion new players to replace the donkeys that Paul Hartley had rounded up, United's squad is striking for the number of players under contract who have in the past few years been very competent at this level or above, but who have been discarded by Neilson in favour of new recruits. The temptation to spend those shiny American dollars was maybe too much to resist, but it might not have been unreasonable to look to the new coach to coax these players back to their best, rather than chuck them on the scrap heap.

And sure, it might be that a Govan Witch Doctor cursed Tannadice in 2015 so that any player that wears the strip instantly becomes a haddie, but it's more likely that Mark Reynolds lost a yard of pace a couple of years ago and can't manage without it, and that Mark Connolly was only good when Manu Pascali babysat him through games at Killie. Neither have improved on United's previous options in central defence; after they were schooled by the just-out-of-retirement Scott McDonald at Firhill there was sufficient evidence to suggest they are actually a downgrade.

Meanwhile further up the pitch United added to their attacking options with Cammy Smith, Aiden Nesbitt, Peter Pawlett and Osman Sow. All players with a bit of pedigree, but how do you play all four in the same team? Your guess is as good as Neilson's, which tells you that not nearly enough thought was put in to the recruitment drive.

At least having new American owners means they probably don't need to worry about the financial implications of a fourth successive season at this level, but whilst a playoff place is pretty much a certainty getting through them is another matter. There's still the enticing prospect of a final between them and their struggling rivals from along the road, where we can be certain that the most positive thing that could be said about the victors would be 'that they were the least crap'.

Neilson still has eight games to mould United into a decent unit and to build up enough confidence to put them in good stead for the postseason. But as it stands Arabs have good reason to fear they're headed for another year in this particular circle of hell, or at least for two more trips to Dumfries, which is pretty much the same thing.

For the rest of us, it is compelling viewing, even if it is in the same way that you can't take your eyes off a crashing car. And if that doesn't sum up the Scottish Championship then I don't know what does.

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, February 14, 2019

Is the Championship a ticking time bomb?

It may not have Rangers or Hearts or Hibs in it any more, but the Championship is still a league worthy of plenty of attention.

Firstly, there's a title race (no, there isn't one in the Premiership. Rangers being six points behind does not a title race make). Whether Ayr can sustain a challenge is unclear but Ross County are good value for top spot and Dundee United have used their new American money to buy an entire new team in January as they look to pull back the current six point deficit to the Staggies.

Secondly, there's a bona fide relegation battle. As the division's only part-timers Alloa were meant to give a far better account of themselves than Brechin's wretched squad last season, but were still certainties to finish bottom. Except someone forgot to give Jim Goodwin the script; his Wasps currently lie in ninth.

Their position actually looked stronger a fortnight ago but Falkirk and Partick Thistle - both of whom made an insane number of signings in January - seem to have found form and pulled themselves back within touching distance. Now only three points separate the bottom four with Dunfermline having being dragged into a relegation dogfight.

Yet the middle of the table is so close that the Pars are just eight points off a promotion playoff. On any given Saturday, anyone can beat anyone else. This league has been busting coupons all season long.

So it's all rather exciting. So exciting that...pretty much everyone wishes they weren't in it.

Alloa are the exception to that statement; the second tier is realistically as high as they can aspire to and staying up should be sufficient to make Goodwin a Manager of the Year candidate. But the other nine teams all have aspirations to go up. Inverness, Dundee United, Ross County and Partick Thistle have all been in the Premiership recently; Dunfermline and Falkirk have plenty of history at the highest level; Morton, Queen of the South and Ayr can all point to Livingston's recent success and ask "why not us too?"

The other problem is that the Championship is not a very good place to be from a financial point of view, particularly since the big fish of recent years (and their enormous away supports) have left the pond. In recent years, the biggest financial concern for Scottish football has been top flight clubs spending outwith their means. Right now, it is smaller full-time clubs finding that is increasingly hard to make ends meet.

For those relegated to the second tier, turnover drops by more than £1million in the first season following the drop, not least because the prize money for even winning the Championship is just half that of the figure for finishing bottom of the Premiership. In recent years relegated clubs have lost a third of their annual turnover as a result. This means huge cuts in the playing squad and elsewhere, making it very hard to bounce back.

Dundee United's losses for last season, their second back at this level, were £200,000 - which sounds acceptable until one discovers that they had to sell their training ground for £400,000 and made £1m from Andrew Robertson's move from Hull to Liverpool. Without this they would have lost £1.6m, following on from £1.5m in 2015-16 (when they were relegated from the Premiership) and £1m in 2016-17. Their annual turnover of £3.1m is also down a third of what they were making two years ago. Without the Robertson money and the new investors they would be in what Scottish accountants (probably) call a 'help ma boab' situation.

It's not just the 'bigger' names who are suffering. Queen of the South are a very solid fifth in the table and were comfortably mid-table last year too. And their star striker, the freewheeling and free-scoring Stephen Dobbie, has his wages subsidized by local businessmen. Their austerity state is summed up by a near-weekly failure to completely fill the subs bench. Yet last week they announced losses for 2017-18 of £200,000. That's twice as bad as the year before, which the club described as "difficult and challenging".

Dunfermline, who enjoy a relatively healthy support, managed a profit for 2017/18 of all of £5,000, and noted they get approximately £300,000 per year in donations. The Pars were of course in administration only six years ago.

So why don't these clubs live within their means? The problem of course is that in football you have to run just to stand still. Fail to invest in the playing squad and you'll quickly get flushed down the toilet and into the seaside leagues where income will be even more sparse. Clubs have to take a financial risk just to stay in this lousy division; the consequences of ending up in League One are for many not worth thinking about.

But of course this is Scottish football, where the attention of the fans, the media and even those in charge of the game is focused on and devoted to only the biggest and strongest. Of course, if asked those people would say that anything other than a full-time second tier would be a disaster for the game in this country. But by the time they notice, said disaster may already have happened.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Martin Canning and Hamilton. Being crap is bad enough, but being boring is unforgivable

After Brendan Rodgers told the media that Martin Canning "has done a wonderful job" at Hamilton, one couldn't help thinking of the bit in Return Of The Jedi when Obi-Wan Kenobi tries to convince Luke Skywalker that his claim that his father was dead "was true, from a certain point of view".

That point of view is certainly held by Canning's employers. They are quick to point out that this is the fifth consecutive season that Accies have spent in the top flight, no mean feat considering that as recently as 2001 they were fighting it out in what is now League Two. This is the longest run they've managed at this level since the Second World War.

And they've been doing it on a shoestring. That's inevitable given their average attendance has been bottom of the pile in each of those five years they've been back in the Premiership. Said shoestring has become even tighter after the club lost £700,000 in a vishing scam last year; now saddled with £450,000 of bank debt, goodness knows what might have become of them had they been relegated last season.

But they weren't. In fact they went one better than they did in 2016-17, finishing tenth ahead of Partick Thistle and Ross County and so avoiding a second consecutive relegation playoff.

When I say 'one better', I mean their league position. They finished with one fewer point than in 2016-17, when they had to beat Dundee United to secure their status. Most seasons, 33 or 34 points gets you relegated. Accies have been extraordinarily fortunate to enjoy three straight campaigns - including this one - with extraordinarily inept teams; ICT in 2016-17, Thistle and County last time out, Dundee and St. Mirren this season.

The final league positions in Canning's three full seasons in charge have been tenth, eleventh and tenth. His initial half-season saw them come seventh...after they plunged down the table as they won three of his first eighteen games in charge.

I know I've made this quip before, but Accies are Scottish football's Theresa May - consistently hopeless, yet somehow still surviving thanks to the unimaginable incompetence of others. But it makes for a grim spectacle, often not helped in the past by an artificial pitch that on many occasions seems to slow down the ball far more than it should. The surface was improved last summer at some cost; the quality of play has not improved with it.

The supporters are tiring of it all. I suspect you would too if your team had won just nineteen home games in the league in four years, just one in every four played. The closest thing they've come to a spectacular result at the Hope CBD Stadium is a couple of derby wins over Motherwell. Away from home there's been a win at Ibrox, but it's Canning's only victory against either of Scotland's biggest clubs in twenty-three attempts. Twenty of those games, including Saturday's reverse at Celtic Park, were defeats.

Nor have there been cup runs to crow about. They managed the last eight of the 2016-17 Scottish Cup...only to be thumped by Rangers. That's the only year Canning has won a Scottish Cup tie. They've been eliminated in the first knockout round of the League Cup four times in a row.

In short, there has been a complete dearth of euphoria moments, or results to be proud of. Add in a turgid style of play which contrasts badly with the swashbuckling attacking play of his predecessor - but so resembles that of the much deplored (outside Hamilton at least) Billy Reid, who signed Canning for Hamilton as a player - and it's no wonder fans are losing the rag. Once the novelty of playing the best clubs in the country every week wore off, what was left?

It's not often that one can try to compare the plight of Hamilton Accies with that of Tottenham Hotspur. But when Mauricio Pochettino dismissed the thought of winning a cup as not nearly as important as Spurs' league form, I imagine Accies fans could relate to the feeling of deflation amongst the White Hart Lane faithful. Watching football is supposed to be a form of entertainment. We enjoy watching good football.  We really enjoy lots of goals. We really love it when our team wins. And those moments when something really special happens - I think of them as 'McFadden in Paris' moments - these are the ones we cherish, the ones that make up for a hundred shitty nil-nil draws in horizontal rain.

Trophies, promotions, victories against the odds - these are what football fans live for. But those who run the clubs prioritize other things - mostly the bank account. And of course they have to, because if that bit is screwed up then you end up without a club at all. And that's fine until the fans revolt and stop spending their money. Following Hamilton currently requires a quite remarkable amount of loyalty.

So that's the tricky situation Accies find themselves in. Canning has produced just enough on the pitch to keep his employers onside...but not nearly enough for the supporters. But Canning could argue that it's becoming ever harder to come up with a decent product for them. The five most talented players in his squad from just over a year ago - Michael Devlin, Ali Crawford, Greg Docherty, Lewis Ferguson and David Templeton - have all moved on. None have been adequately replaced.

Ferguson, the one bright spark in a relatively barren period at the club's famed academy, chose to leave for Aberdeen rather than sign a new deal. The £240,000 compensation was critical in the context of the recent financial issues but given the teenager's outstanding form in the North-East it now looks like daylight robbery. The current youth side have impressed this season but aren't apparently ready for promotion to the first team; in the meantime only two youth products, Scott McMann and Ziggy Gordon, have started more than half the club's matches this season. And Gordon doesn't really count given he has just returned from a two year spell away.

Of course in football you often have to run just to stand still, but its harder to do so with such a tight budget. For every David Templeton that pops up there has been a Fredrik Brustad, a Marios Ogkmpoe (who has been out injured for a year), an Oumar Diaby or an Antonio Rojano.

And the risk of replacing Canning is that, instead of finding the next Alex Neil, his replacement turns out to be even worse. St. Mirren fans could testify to that - when they tired of Danny Lennon, their decision to replace him was followed by relegation and three hellish years. Relegation has done considerable harm to much bigger clubs than Accies, ones with far more capacity to absorb disaster than they do.

Canning made 250 appearances for Hamilton as a player. He needs to last another couple of years in the dugout to beat that tally as a manager. The chances of that are looking pretty slim.

  • February 2008 - joined club as a player, made over 250 appearances over 10 years
  • 2012/13 - started coaching under-17s
  • January 2015 - became interim manager and then permanent boss after Alex Neil left for Norwich.
  • Accies were third in the league at the time. They won three of their last 18 games and finished seventh.
  • 2015/16 - Tenth in the Premiership, seven points clear of the playoff spot. Knocked out of the cups by Raith Rovers and Annan Athletic respectively.
  • 2016/17 - Won only seven league games all season and finished eleventh. Avoided relegation by thumping Dundee on the final day of the season and then beating Dundee United in a playoff.
  • 2017/18 - Won nine league games and finished tenth, ahead of Partick Thistle on goal difference.
  • 2018/19 - Only four wins in twenty-three games so far but still just ahead of Dundee and St. Mirren. Have scored fewer goals and conceded more than any other Premiership side so far.
  • Overall record - Played 178, won 42, drawn 43, lost 93, scored 185, conceded 102
  • Overall league record - Played 155, won 34, drawn 37, lost84, scored 154, conceded 270, 139 points

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, January 11, 2019

How to fix Scotland's referee crisis, in several hard steps

Who'd be a referee?

The aftermath of the Old Firm game and the treatment of John Beaton - regardless of how you felt about his performance - has not been a proud moment for Scottish football. And it follows on from four months of seemingly endless refereeing controversies and criticisms. According to several managers and clubs, there is a real problem with the standard of officiating. According to the officials, it is harder than ever to do their job right, and they are being given an unfairly hard time...as well as being put at risk of harm.

And as ever there are lots of complaints and very few suggestions for improvement. That's because there is no easy fix. To be frank, it's not just referees who are to blame for this. Not by a long shot.

If Scottish football is indeed motivated to sort this problem out, it needs to deal with several different groups and the problems they have created. Let's go through them, one by one...

They make mistakes. Apparently this is news to many people in football, despite the fact that it is a pretty common occurrence amongst human beings in many other walks of life. Is this is down to bad luck, incompetence, or some sort of bias? That, I suppose, is open to debate.

So is the widely-held belief that officials have never been as bad as this. I myself often hark back to a 'golden era' 20 years ago. Back then, Hugh Dallas' gravitas (he was fourth official in a World Cup Final, after all), the possibility that John Rowbotham might abduct dissenting players and take them back to his home planet, and the beaks' annual fiddle of Willie Young's fitness test results (so he could continue exuding his wonderful command of games even when several yards behind the play) gave the impression that our referees were decent.

But the fact is that back then, and even earlier, newspaper columnists decried the standard of officiating. And twentieth century refs didn't have to cope with the forensic examination of their decision making that there is now.

That said, there hasn't been a Scottish referee deemed worthy of a World Cup since 2002, though there has been one at each of the last two European Championships.

So how do we stop them making mistakes? Apart from suggesting they need to get better - which is not particularly helpful - the best way to avoid this will be to give them more support, which we'll come to.

I'm not up for asking officials to explain decisions post-match...simply because no answer they give will actually satisfy those who feel wronged. Besides, they have enough on their plate without having to worry about media training as well.

It's easy to forget that in any given match there are many players - possibly a majority - who will actively attempt to deceive the officials. This may range from claiming a throw-in that isn't theirs to Darren O'Dea's disgraceful antics, with a heck of a lot of other incidents inbetween. If there are a million and one attempts to con the ref over the course of ninety minutes, is it any surprise that even a handful of them succeed?

Moreover there is the constant badgering and harrassing of referees by players. There's constant appealing and questioning of decisions, often in an aggressive or confrontational manner. It would require an iron will to not be discomforted by this.

Making it easier for the referees to do their job would certainly help. Sadly, it seems unrealistic to stop Ryan Christie appealing for a foul whenever he feels the slightest gust of wind on his back though. A good start would be putting the kibosh on dissent once and for all. There is no good reason why football can't copy rugby and have a system where only captains can talk to officials, with any backchat at all deemed worthy of a card. In one televised game recently Rangers' Ryan Jack could be seen shouting "f*** off" at a referee who was booking him for a foul. That can't be right.

Post-match interviews are wonderful entertainment, but it's actually pretty unfair to stick a manager in front of the cameras/microphone straight after a stressful match. Inevitably they will say things that, in the cold light of day, they probably wish they hadn't, or at least that they had phrased better. And often that includes slagging off referees. As one wit put it on Twitter recently: "a common side effect of a bad performance is blaming the officials."

But coaches and their clubs making statements insinuating conspiracies is inappropriate and embarrassing. And don't try to persuade me that there are sincere motives behind doing so. If there were, they would be suggesting changes that might help. And don't dare forget that all these moaning clubs have had representatives in high places in the SPFL and SFA in recent years ,yet have shown no interest in doing anything about these issues. The aims are simply to deflect from their own problems, appease the lowest common denominators amongst their support, and to put pressure on officials going forward.

And they forget that said lowest commond denominators include a tiny minority of Grade A morons who will be incited to do stupid things like, say, threatening John Beaton...

As ever, the sage Old Firm Facts sums it up perfectly.

There's a bloke who sits near me at Caley Thistle games who accuses the officials of being biased against Inverness every single week, regardless of who they are, what they've done and what the score is. And I'm pretty sure it isn't tongue-in-cheek.

Let's face it, rocks will melt in the sun before Aberdeen fans stop singing their infamous ditty "referee, you're such a f****** p****. Referee, you're a horse's a***". But social media now gives the real nutjobs a loud voice, as well as an echo chamber for encouragement. That in itself is a societal issue, so expecting football to sort it out is not realistic though.

Here's how I'd like the SFA to handle things:

- Be completely transparent over who is on the panel that decides what happens to players that get cited. In fact, make them all referees. Whisper it, but the panel doesn't actually have referees on it. And yet, when they change the decisions everyone assumes the match official is the one who got it wrong.

- Force said panel to publish reasoning behind the decisions they make. This makes it harder for them to be inconsistent.

- There's a stupid FIFA directive that stops a decision being changed if the ref 'saw it at the time'. It's a stupid directive. Find a way of circumventing it. By all means re-referee all games, like in rugby, if the footage is there to do so.

- I'm a bit of a VAR sceptic, but officials and clubs want it and there's a way of paying for it, then go for it. It can't be any worse than what we have.

- And finally there needs to be a change in how referees are picked for matches and rise up the rankings. Because if Andrew Dallas is refereeing a League Cup Final then something is very, very wrong.

But how motivated are these different groups to change?

I'm sure for a start that referees would prefer to be as accurate and fair as possible. But they are a convenient scapegoat - for clubs, for players, for fans and even for the SFA. That's been the case for a long time. The current situation, one of coin throwing, death threats and police protection, should surely focus some minds. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

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 21, 2018

Looking ahead to January

The January transfer window always seems a bit mental. With it being the last decent chance to bring in new players, we often see managers panic and bring in an entire team of players, the footballing equivalent of throwing a ton of stuff at a wall and hoping some of it will stick. There are also inevitably some unexpected arrivals, and some unexpected departures too. So frankly, predicting what will happen is a mug's game.

But we're going to do it anyway, because, you know. Let's have a look at who each Premiership side might punt, and which areas they need to strengthen in...

Outs? Have the Dons given up on Chris Forrester already? The midfielder has made just a single start for the club after joining for £150,000 in the summer, though he did make his first appearance for more than two months against Dundee in midweek. Derek McInnes will have been gutted that Max Lowe, the loanee who has excelled in recent weeks at left-back, has been recalled by Derby County. However he may well look to end James Wilson's spell at the club early with the Manchester United forward having failed to impress. Oh, and don't forget Greg Tansey who has been out injured but was out of favour anyway.

Ins? A left-back to replace Lowe is a necessity unless the Dons want to play Andrew Considine there for the rest of the year. Central defensive reinforcements may be needed if Michael Devlin can't get over a foot problem. A pacey wide player would add a new dimension. And of course a centre-forward who scores regularly - unless Sam Cosgrove can keep up his recent form.

Outs? The recent injury crisis may mean Brendan Rodgers has to hold on to some players just for the sake of having numbers. But there appears to be no future at the club for Marvin Compper, Cristian Gamboa, Scott Allan or Kundai Benyu. Might they try to cash in on Dedryck Boyata before his contract runs out in the summer?

Ins? Rodgers has intimated he wants to upgrade three or four positions in January. Another option up front is a necessity. Right-back has looked like a weak area all season too.

Outs? This is Jim McIntyre's chance to move on anyone he inherited who he doesn't rate. That group will probably include midfielders Karl Madianga and Elton Ngwatala and forwards Sofien Moussa and Jean-Alassane Mendy. Adil Nabi's contract is up in January and unlikely to be extended, while Andy Boyle's loan also runs out; it's unclear whether he and Ryan Inniss (who could be sent back south early) have done enough to impress the new boss.

Ins? Aside maybe central midfield, the Dark Blues could justifiably seek reinforcements in every position. There is a dire need for new central defenders.

Outs? Summer signings Sam Kelly, Aaron Smith and Kieran Monlouis have barely registered on the radar so far this season so one wonders if they have any future at the club.. It wouldn't be a surprise to Mason Bloomfield's loan terminated early. Jan Mucha is only on a short-term deal but given he is already first choice keeper you'd expect Accies to try and extend his contract.

Ins? Martin Canning has already stated his intention to sign a couple of players. It wouldn't be January if Hamilton didn't sign a Dutchman or Greek who went on to barely play for the first team...

Outs? Danny Amankwaa appears to be completely out of favour after a brief return to the lineup in the Autumn. However, the Jambos will hope to extend the loan contract of Jimmy Dunne, which runs out in January. Expect a number of young players to be loaned out.

Ins? Czech striker David Vanecek will join on after signing a pre-contract in the summer.

Outs? Charis Mavrias' short-term contract will be up. However they will hope to extend Emmerson Hyndman's loan deal.

Ins? Given that Neil Lennon pulled a few rabbits out of the hat this time last year, it wouldn't be a surprise if there were one or two interesting new faces. Gillingham striker Tom Eaves has recently been linked.

Outs? Jack Byrne has already left for Shamrock Rovers. The loans of Bright Enobakhare and Mikael Ndjoli are both up in January but the latter has proven a useful squad player and might be kept on. Ross Millen's short-term deal also runs out.

Ins? Steve Clarke may find it hard to improve on his current best XI and though he has a great track record of convincing decent players to join his project he may feel that any depth concerns can be dealt with by youngsters returning from loan spells.

Outs? Egli Kaja has returned to parent club AFC Wimbledon. Otherwise expect Gary Holt to try and keep the squad he has.

Ins? Could ex-Lion Stefan Scougall come back for a second spell? Otherwise the club will think hard before risking disrupting the current team with newcomers.

Outs? Andy Rose will join Vancouver Whitecaps once the window opens. Forward George Newell's development seems to have stalled and it would be no surprise to see him leave, at least on loan. Connor Sammon's spell at the club has gone as well as most predicted, but it may be that Hearts refuse to take him back early!

Ins? Unless Trevor Carson's return is well before the end of the season they may look for an experienced keeper to compete with Mark Gillespie. The Steelmen would probably also prefer not to need to play Richard Tait out of position at left-back if they could avoid it.

Outs? Umar Sadiq's exit was hardly a surprise. But Ovie Ejaria had started 23 games this season before he returned to Liverpool. Though his performances had dropped off, it leaves Rangers short in that area. Further departures will surely only be the result of unrefusable (is that a word?) offers for the likes of James Tavernier or Alfredo Morelos.

Ins? Steven Gerrard has already made it clear he wants several new faces in this window, though Dominic Solanke and Kieran Dowell seem optimistic targets. Steven Davis has been linked with a return to Ibrox having captained Rangers prior to liquidation.

Outs? Stefan Scougall has been told to find a new club after failing to live up to expectations in his 18 months at the club. Greg Hurst can go too. Tristan Nydam has confirmed he will return to parent club Ipswich, while young midfielders Kyle McClean and Ali McCann will be loaned out.

Ins? Whilst Saints have managed much better than expected after losing Drey Wright for the season, they could do with finding a pacy wide player to take over his role in the side. Tommy Wright might also look for another striker to take the pressure off Tony Watt.

Outs? This will be Oran Kearney's chance to clear house and get rid of a bunch of has-beens and never-weres signed by Alan Stubbs. Matty Willock is already gone, and expect Josh Heaton, Alfie Jones, Cole Kpekawa and Cody Cooke to be moved on if possible. Goalkeeper Dean Lyness and midfielder Adam Hammill are both out of contract next month, though the club will be desperate to keep the latter.

Ins? Expect the Buddies to be very active; frankly, it's hard to think of an area of the park they wouldn't consider strengthening.

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, December 17, 2018

In defence of Liam Polworth

In the Spring of 2015, I was lucky enough to be on a city break in Barcelona right on time to take in the second leg of Barca's Champions League Quarter Final against Paris St. Germain. You may well remember the home side's opening goal; facing his own goal, midway inside his own half, Andres Iniesta took a pass into feet with a PSG player steaming in to close him down. The crowd collectively took a deep breath, only for Iniesta to spin 180 degrees and leave his opponent for dead. The 80,000 cheers that greeted the audacious skill were followed quickly by two louder ones as Iniesta then danced past two flailing tackles and over the halfway line. With everyone already on their feet, he then played Neymar clean through with the perfect pass, and the Brazilian went round the keeper to score. The actual celebrations for the goal were relatively short, the subsequent chants of "INIESTA! INIESTA!" that went round the ground went on far longer.

You may think it is a little bit of a stretch to segue from one of the greatest players of the last decade to Caley Thistle midfielder Liam Polworth, but bear with me. Against Dundee United on Saturday, Polworth played in Tom Walsh to open the scoring. It was an exquisite through ball into the inside-right channel, and was in fact identical to goals set up and scored by the same players in each of Caley Thistle's previous two games. In the second half there was a moment where Polworth was trapped by United's Billy King against his own corner flag, only to outrageously nutmeg him before galloping up the pitch.

That's not to say Polworth was especially outstanding in the match. He was as guilty as many teammates of giving the ball away cheaply, though his forwards too rarely got into space to receive the ball from him. But nor was he one of the poorest players. And what always makes him stand out in this Inverness side is that he always looks to get on the ball, though this may be a reflection on his teammates' timidity as much as anything.

And that makes the crowd's reaction to him all the more curious and, frankly, nauseating.

For what it's worth, Polworth's bit of skill near his own corner flag brought barely a murmur from the home support. But they did attract their attention, though, was a shanked cross. Polworth himself showed frustration at his error. However, he was quickly drawn to the loud catcalls and booing coming from the main stand. With as much subtlety as a brick, he turned towards them and shouted something which I suspect probably was a bit less polite than "sorry about that, I'll do better next time".

Now, a common criticism of Polworth in these parts is that he has 'lousy body language'. Of course, that is entirely objective. When an on-form or well-liked player gets frustrated at the mistakes of himself or others, it's because he cares, because he wants to win, because others aren't as switched on as he is. When an off-form or unfavoured player does so, it's because he's a whinger with lousy body language. Of course, if said player doesn't react at all, it's because he doesn't care. Isn't it great how you can prove that the player you don't like has the wrong attitude, whatever his actions are?

And it gets extrapolated. Social media and online forums are filled with complaints that Polworth doesn't get back into position, or goes missing, for no apparent reason other than that these traits would fit the ongoing narrative. I have urged other fans to actually watch him, not where the ball is, for 5 minutes at a time; then they would see a player constantly on the move both when Caley Thistle have the ball and when they don't, a guy who does a really impressive shift compared to some of his teammates. But they don't - either because the rest of the match is too distracting or, more likely because it's far easier and more reassuring to have a convenient scapegoat to blame for the fugue that has enveloped the club in the last couple of years.

Polworth got the same criticisms last season, a campaign which finished with him credited a whopping 25 assists, 15 of which were in the league. When the SPFL Twitter account declared that statistic, it was met with scepticism because the number was more than double that of the next best. Whatever you think of 'assist' as a stat, the bottom line is you must be a pretty decent player to set up that many goals.

And yet the consensus view then was much the same as it is now. After all, it's only four months since he was 'punished' with abusive chants about his family from the home end during a clash with Ayr United - all because he missed a penalty. Some so-called fans were banned as a result, but depressingly it seems the respite for the player was only temporary.

In the final moments of the Dundee United match, Polworth was announced as the sponsors' Man Of The Match. It was a slightly bemusing decision, given that Walsh and Mark Ridgers had clearly been Caley Thistle's best two players, but usually an odd MOTM pick is met with shrugged shoulders and a collective "you what?" In this case, it was met with more boos.

For what it's worth, the same fans who largely ignored Polworth's corner flag nutmeg, berated his lousy cross and booed the decision to make him MOTM reserved much of their applause and acclaim during the game for midfielders slide-tackling the ball out of play, or defenders heading the ball really hard. It is a peculiar thing, perhaps a British thing. That sort of stuff doesn't get a cheer at the Camp Nou. A nutmeg by your own corner flag might, though.

Ultimately, Polworth will have to leave Inverness to get the acclaim he deserves, and he will; his contract is up at the end of the season and it is common knowledge that it won't be renewed unless he takes a pay cut. One suspects he won't have to go as far as Spain to find someone who appreciates him though, as most coaches and scouts are surely more insightful than the football neanderthals that populate Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. As for said neanderthals, their views on his attitude and body language probably say a lot more about them than it does about him.

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.