Friday, April 24, 2009

St. Johnstone set for SPL struggle

It may yet be that, a few weeks down the line, St. Johnstone completely blow their run in, and end up pipped to promotion by Partick Thistle. Last Sunday, when the Saints overcame a two goal deficit at home to Queen of the South only to concede a late winner, did a lot to suggest that there will be squeaky bums yet down Perth way. But if Derek McInnes' side do hang on to top spot, they will return to the top flight for the first time since 2002. Note, though, that even if they win their last three matches, they will have the lowest points total of any side to have won the first division since the return to a ten team league in 1994.

This season's Scottish First Division has, like the English Championship, an air of "anyone can beat anyone else". Don't take that to mean the quality is high, though. The Saints are only 13 points clear of eighth place Ross County, and don't try to tell me that County are only five wins in a season away from being SPL material. It is a division where the hoof-and-hope tactics increasingly associated with the top division are universally employed. It is also a division filled, as all second tiers in world football presumably are, with players who just couldn't hack it in the top flight. Think Graham Bayne at Dunfermline, a lanky, hard working but technically bereft striker with just 19 goals in 4 SPL seasons in Inverness. Think Colin McMenamin, a division one goal machine for Gretna, for whom a phrase involving the words "cow's", "banjo" and "backside" was often used during his encounters with the elite.

The trouble for St. Johnstone is that McDiarmid Park is full of these players. There are the veterans, like keeper Alan Main (now 41), well past their best. There are guys like Stuart McCaffrey, a great division one centre back in Inverness who found that his pace did not compensate for his lack of physical strength and his inability to dominate opponents, or Kevin Rutkiewicz, an Aberdeen youth product who did not have the power or aerial prowess to make it as a centre-back, nor the pace or technique required of the modern full back. There are guys who are both past it and who were never, erm, "not past it", like Martin Hardie, who while at Partick and Kilmarnock looked all the world like a first division player trying to punch above his weight, and Paul Sheerin, a legend in the Highlands for scoring a penalty in the famous Caley Go Ballistic win, but who toiled in midfield for eighteen months at Pittodrie.

Last year, Hamilton got promoted on the back of a bunch of hungry players eager for their first chance to prove themselves at the highest level (at least in Scotland), with possibly only Simon Mensing having had some SPL experience. And they had the likes of James MacArthur and James McCarthy. Their predecessors at Falkirk, St. Mirren and Inverness had that same motivation, though perhaps lacking in the quality of the Accies' midfield duo. But while St. Johnstone definitely have a few guys who will be eager to show what they can do, one suspects that, assuming they hang on and win the first division, they will be a far weaker team than Hamilton were, and it will take a lot of investment for them to avoid returning to where they came from.

Considering how long it has taken them to get back towards the summit, though, good luck to them.


Friday, April 17, 2009

SPL Team of the year - part 2

And here's the rest of the team...

MIDFIELD: Scott Brown (Celtic), Bruno Aguiar (Hearts), Pedro Mendes (Rangers), Andrew Driver (Hearts)
Honourable mentions: Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United), Scott Robertson (Dundee United), James McCarthy (Hamilton), James McArthur (Hamilton), Andy Dorman (St. Mirren), Ian Black (Inverness), Stephen Hughes (Motherwell)

Scott Brown, for me, has to be the leading candidate for player of the year, simply because Pedro Mendes has dropped off a bit since January. I have, however, slotted Brown in on the right in order to accomodate Bruno Aguiar, who has made a stunning recovery from knee surgery and has run the Hearts midfield, offering a goal threat to boot. Clubmate Andy Driver gets in as well, as despite his habit of diving, he has been the outstanding winger of the campaign. Had Dundee United's Scott Robertson and Rangers' Kevin Thomson not been out injured for long periods, they would have been real candidates. But why on earth is Steve Davis up for player of the year? I can't remember him contributing anything notable at all this season.

STRIKERS: Kris Boyd (Rangers), Scott McDonald (Celtic)
Honourable mentions: Lee Miller (Aberdeen), Francisco Sandaza (Dundee United), Steve Lovell (Falkirk)

Some might say that, with a strike rate of 25 goals in 29 league games, that Kris Boyd should be player of the year; certainly the fact he wasn't even on the shortlist is a total joke. McDonald has scored fewer this season than Georgios Samaras, but Samaras does my head in because, for all his ability, he never seems to be on his game when Celtic need him to be. In contrast, McDonald's goals have been critical to Celtic's run of wins in 2009. No surprises that there is no Hearts forward in my list, but I defend the absence of Steven Fletcher, who hasn't lived up to expectations at Hibs this year - he's gone a bit stale and I think he needs a move.

A reminder of last year's team: McGregor, Hutton, Cuellar, Wilkie, Naylor, Robson, Hughes, Ferguson, McGeady, McDonald, Fletcher.

I note that, from my 07/08 vintage, only Wilkie and McDonald make my team two years running. Congrats, lads, I shall buy you each a beer if I ever meet you. Which I won't. And even if I did meet you I wouldn't tell you who I was, so I wouldn't buy you a beer anyway, to be honest.



SPL Team of the year - part 1

It's that time again, folks. Yes, for the second year, I intend to extol my wisdom regarding the top performers of the season. And you guys get to shoot down my suggestions and arguments in flames. Bring it on!

Anyway, I shall limit it to just a few posts this year, rather than drawing out for weeks like last Spring. So we shall start with the SPL, and with the goalkeeper and back four...


GOALKEEPER: Lukasz Zaluska (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Tomas Cerny (Hamilton), Jamie Langfield (Aberdeen)

Couldn't face putting in an Old Firm goalie here, with blunders haunting Boruc and McGregor both on and off the field. But Zaluska has earned his summer move to Parkhead with consistency and solidity in the United goal. Cerny, meanwhile, is likely to leave Hamilton for more prestigious pastures at the end of the campaign.

RIGHT BACK: Andreas Hinkel (Celtic)
Honourable mentions: Jamie Hamill (Kilmarnock), Robbie Neilson (Hearts)

Hinkel walks it. The big German has been in excellent form all year, from both an attacking and a defensive point of view, and is even back in his national squad. Hamill has been a rare shining light for Killie, despite preferring to play in a midfield role.

CENTRE BACKS: Gary Caldwell (Celtic), Lee Wilkie (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Majdid Bougherra (Rangers), Zander Diamond (Aberdeen)

As much as it pains me to say it, Caldwell has been fantastic, completely outshining McManus at the heart of Celtic's defence. A mate of mine pointed out that you can barely call Wilkie a footballer, but his lack of sophistication has not exactly counted against him this campaign. Meanwhile, Bougherra has been solid for Rangers, and, when he's fit, Diamond continues to develop into a fine young defender.

LEFT BACK: Sasa Papac (Rangers)
Honourable mentions: Paul Dixon (Dundee United), Steven Hammell (Motherwell)

No arguments here, as Papac, always solid defensively, has added a bit of attacking nous to his game this season. Dixon has made the step up from the first division easily and looks like he could still improve.

I look forward to hearing your opinions...


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Killie in the cack as relegation plot thickens

I would probably be enjoying the SPL's relegation battle rather more if it wasn't for the fact that ICT are firmly embedded in it, but this year's dogfight is without doubt the most exciting, and the most difficult to call, since 04/05, when Inverness (back in those hard-to-believe days when Craig Brewster seemed like the next big thing in Scottish football management) hit an absurd run of form post-xmas and, rather than returning straight back to the first division from whence they came, instead nearly nicked a top six place. In the end, Livingston produced a great escape under Richard Gough, Dunfermline did the same with Jim Leishman at the helm, Dundee United came into the final day on the brink of being downed, and in the end it was Jim Duffy's Dundee who slid down a tier. Just like every team to finish bottom since 2001 - with the exception of Motherwell, who came last in a season when no-one was promoted, and Gretna (the less said the better) - Dundee are still in division one, along with Dunfermline, Livi, St. Johnstone and Partick Thistle.

If that doesn't tell you how catastrophic relegation can be, I don't know what does.

This year, the pendulum has fairly swung back and forth between potential candidates. Back in August I had newly-promoted Hamilton, along with Caley and St. Mirren, as the likely bottom three. The Buddies were the first in trouble, but by November it was the Accies, who had started the season so strongly, who were on the skids. Inverness' malaise around the turn of the year saw them as the first team to get properly distanced at the bottom, but 14 points from 8 matches under the messiah that is Terry Butcher upset the apple cart once more. Falkirk were the next to hit bottom, but are hanging onto the rest with their finger nails. Hamilton (1 win in 7) are suddenly only six points clear of the drop, despite being eighth, while Inverness have only 4 points leeway despite being the form team of the bottom six (the gubbing by Falkirk not withstanding).

St. Mirren and Kilmarnock, meanwhile, have chosen without doubt the worst possible time to well and truly hit the skids. The Midden have gone ten without a win, though six of those have been draws. If you think that's bad, then check out how Killie are going; Jim Jefferies last saw his side win a league game thirteen games ago, when with ten men they came from behind to beat Hibs at Easter Road. How they are crying out for that sort of backbone now, after a tame defeat at Hearts left them tenth and without a league win in this calendar year. This is the same team who, in mid-September, went to Ibrox in second place in the league. Ten points from the first four games, only twenty (including just five wins) from the next twenty-seven. They have the worst home record, a heck of a feat considering ICT have until recently been incapable of stringing two passes together on their own turf.

Jim Jefferies' tenure at Rugby Park is now into its eighth year, quite a feat. But last year they finished eleventh, and with a budget that now rivals that of a 17 year old mother of three for frugality, added to the fact that star young players like Steven Naismith and Kris Boyd are long gone, has meant that the holes in the team have had to be filled by players like Gavin Skelton, Grant Murray, Craig Bryson and Allan Russell - not bad players, but guys who don't really belong much higher than the first division. The biggest problem is up front, where David Fernandez's record in blue-and-white of 6 goals in seventy-three appearances tells you everything, and the top scorers are Danny Invincibile (a wide midfielder) and Jamie Hamill (a full-back). Even Caley's forwards score more goals.

Quite frankly, Kilmarnock are the "sleepers" of this battle; no-one has really noticed them sliding into the mire, but they are the ones who are struggling most for any sort of result. They have Falkirk at home on Saturday; talk about a six pointer! And considering it is public knowledge that the Rugby Park finances, for all their prudence, do not look good on the balance sheet, you wouldn't be surprised if they were the latest prisoners trapped in the Scottish Football League, along with the rest of them.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

And now Scotland are bare too!

Jeez, I go to work for a bit and come back to hear Ferguson and McGregor have been dumped by Scotland too. Couldn't the SFA have had the decency to give me heads up so I could have written about it earlier?

Anyway, it's late, and I'm too knackered to say anything other than they are a couple of muppets, but is the punishment not a wee bit harsh? Although if all boozers were ostracized in the same way I would be a much cheerier person...


Friday, April 3, 2009

Rangers left bare after Ferguson stripped

I know Barry Ferguson has had a pretty guff season. I know that every Rangers fan I have spoken to in the last few days had very little to say about the little nyaff that was good. But who the heck is Walter Smith going to replace him with?

In hindsight, Kevin Thomson's season-ending knee injury saved Smith a massive decision - there just isn't space in the same team for Thomson, Ferguson and Pedro Mendes. And on form, the erstwhile skipper was very much the odd man out.

The last month or so, though, had probably seen his best efforts of the season, though Mendes looks nowhere near as comfortable without Thomson mopping up after him. But who replaces him? Let's face it, the remaining midfielders on the books at Ibrox are not quite up to scratch with the Advocaat days, where trying to fit Van Bronckhorst, McCann, Kanchelskis, Reyna, Albertz and Ferguson into the team was a real struggle. Instead, Wattie will have looked at his options today and discovered that they are Maurice Edu (who has so far proven to be America's answer to Bob Malcolm), Lee McCulloch (a wide midfielder or forward who in previous goes this season has shown as much resemblance to a defensive midfielder or centre back as I have shown to Russell Crowe) and Brahim Hemdani (who has not kicked a ball in anger all season despite being generally excellent last year whenever he got a shout - does he have leprosy?).

Alternatively, he could shift Steven Davis infield, but that leaves Rangers without a ball winning midfielder. I suspect Smith will go for McCulloch. But a midfield line against Falkirk of, say Davis, McCulloch and Mendes, looks pretty darn unimpressive. And surely one of them will miss a game or two at one point because of injury. I bet Bazza still sees a few minutes playing time before the summer.

Look at it this way - Barry Robson and Shaun Maloney have barely played since Xmas, Nakamura had his injury troubles and McGeady got banned by Strachan for a bit. Yet Celtic can still call on Brown, Crosas, Hartley, Mizuno, Flood and Donati (all right, scraping the barrel a bit, but you know what I mean). Frankly, even Massimo Donati would improve that Rangers midfield just now. Well, maybe.

I'm going to put my Narey's Toepoker neck on the line here; Celtic will win the SPL. Rangers simply do not have the depth, and they do not have the flair or quality. I will quite happily perform some sort of forfeit if I get this wrong - any suggestions?

Oh, and by the way, I note nobody seems to feel it particularly weakens the team to have Alexander in goal instead of McGregor. Not that I'm disagreeing...


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Panic postponed - for now

I missed Scotland-Iceland because of work, and my carefully laid plans to avoid the score and watch it on Sky Plus when I got home were ruined when a loud-mouthed English nurse, doing her bit for Anglo-Scottish relations, waltzed into A&E at 9-15 to proudly announce, with much joy, that Iceland had equalized. I could have slapped her silly little gob, I honestly could. Actually, she had a very slappable face, come to think of it.

Anyway, at least we won. According to what I've heard, we were not exactly impressive, but in international football performances mean nothing as long as you win. Besides, we were missing so many players, not least thanks to the, er, "extracurricular" activities of Ferguson and McGregor. I can't help feeling that it came as a welcome excuse for George Burley to drop the both of them. It was also quite touching to see the Tartan Army show their views on the matter by roundly booing the players' names when they were read out - though there is just the slightest whiff of hypocrisy in the thought that Scotland fans are criticizing folk for boozing!

Burley seems to have managed things pretty well - he has hardly cast either of them into the international wilderness, and the punishment seems to fit the crime. Will he now strip Ferguson of the captaincy, though? That's going to be a tough one. You can't help feeling that if Bazza loses that title, he might do a Kris Boyd and chuck it all in a fit of pique. And while he is not the player he was a few years ago (and never has been the player he threatened to become as a youngster) we need all the quality we can get, even if Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown are more than capable of stepping into his shoes.

On the bright side, Scotland don't have a qualifier in June, when all the players will be knackered, and by the time we travel to Norway in August everyone else will have played two more games. If the Dutch continue to wallop everyone (most importantly, if they gub Norway at home) then we might well go to Oslo knowing we are a shoo-in for second, and have a slightly better idea of how many points we need - a minimum of five from the last three, but maybe seven. Let's face it, if you had offered us a playoff place at the start of the campaign, we would not only have bitten your hand off, but we would have attempted to cannibalize your elbow as well.

And the way the other groups are going, we could end up taking on the likes of Bosnia or Northern Ireland, or, god forbid, France, Turkey or Russia. But let's just get our names in that hat, eh?


P.S. Apparently the whole Alan Shearer to Newcastle story was not the best April Fool's joke ever?! I suspect I may have to touch on it at some point...