Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Accies spiralling out of control

Isn't it funny how I pay far less attention to the SPL's relegation battle now Inverness are not involved? Who'd have thought it?

Certainly, I'm sure that, the last time I looked, there were five teams looking nervous, plus Hearts, who had such a poor start to the season that you would think Stephen Frail was still in charge. Now, as we enter the latter stages of the season, the list of candidates for the drop is getting thinner. I'm delighted that St. Johnstone look to have enough on the board to guarantee their survival. The Perth side are finally getting their reward for being frugal after they were last demoted from the top tier - Derek McInnes is a talented young manager with a solid squad consisting of enough quality, experience and depth. I pointed out last year that Kilmarnock had been stagnating under Jim Jefferies, and a fresh start with Tangoman Jimmy Calderwood, plus some bright loan signings (Scott Severin and Chris Maguire) mean it is no surprise that they are rapidly heading in the direction of mid-table mediocrity.

So, then there was three.

It's no surprise that Hamilton, St. Mirren and Falkirk are in the mix. Again. All three were stuck in the battle with Inverness last season, and the latter two could hardly consider themselves to be stronger sides this time around. Everyone has been screwed by the Setanta fiasco, but both teams were already rumoured to have financial issues. St. Mirren have been in this position every February for the last few seasons, and Gus McPherson has, so far, been able to get his side to grind out points when it counts, late in the season. Last year, Andy Dorman hit form at the critical time, if he, or someone else does the same, they might escape oblivion again.

Predicting the future of Falkirk, meanwhile, is a tricky business, especially now they are under new management. I'm not convinced by the appointment of Big Elvis - is a relegation dogfight the right time to blood a complete novice? That said, Pressley conjured up a home win over ailing Aberdeen at the weekend, and he might end up repeating the feats of another former international centre-half turned manager - Richard Gough became Livi boss in similar circumstances and steered them to safety.

But if Falkirk are tough to predict, then that makes Hamilton as easy as picking the right number on a roulette table.

39 players. That is the number of men who have turned out in Hamilton colours this season. In 25 SPL games. If Hamilton have financial problems, it will be because they spend too much money on oiling the revolving door - already nine men signed in the last six months by Billy Reid have left - including seasoned SPL players like Guillaume Beuzelin and Gary Mason. The transfer window itself saw another six recruits - only one, Dougie Imrie, was signed for cash, whilst two (Brian Easton and Joel Thomas) return on loan after only leaving New Douglas Park for England in the summer. The chopping and changing is just astounding - the team every week seems to be goalkeeper Tomas Cerny, centre-back Martin Canning, midfielders Simon Mensing and James MacArthur, and Marco Paixao and (when fit) Mickael Antoine-Curier up front, plus a never-ending rotation of other players.

Reid has a propensity for signing players (presumably on short-term deals), giving them a few games and then dumping them - this is what happened to Beuzelin and Mason, and might well happen to the likes of Stuart Elliott, the former Motherwell and Northern Ireland midfielder who appears to have slipped out of first team contention within a month. Former ICT defender Richard Hastings is a case in point. An undisputed regular for the first half of the season, he appears to have sunk without trace since then.

The turnover of manpower is simply staggering - and presumably only affordable by giving short-term deals and through the big money sale of starlet James McCarthy last summer. But my probably inaccurate research has Hamilton having signed 23 players (plus eight loanees) since promotion in June 2008. 12 of them are still there...but that includes the six who only arrived since the turn of the year.

How on earth do you build team spirit and organization on that?

Billy Reid certainly has a bizarre way of operating. But it doesn't appear to be working well just now - 10 SPL games without a win are testament to that. Granted, St. Mirren are also in lousy form. and it will be interesting to see how long the Steven Pressley honeymoon lasts. But Hamilton Academical are in a bit of a pickle.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Wayne Rooney really is that good

So who else tuned in to the latest episode of The Wayne Rooney Show on Tuesday night?

For the first 45 minutes in Milan on Tuesday night, Rooney had to share the billing with other big names - Ronaldinho and Beckham to name a couple. But after the break, it was pure, glorious Rooney. As with the other episodes, his supporting cast added little to the spectacle, certainly not their Portuguese winger who had stolen the show at Arsenal last month, but had rapidly lost his mojo since. Nor United's over-priced Bulgarian striker, poached from the Tottenham Network in 2008 but hardly living up to his price tag. For the gazillionth time this season, Manchester United got away with a shoddy performance and a dodgy defensive display, thanks to their talismanic striker.

Wayne Rooney is in the form of his life, the sort of form that every footballer dreams of - where you expect to star and score in every game you play, and where you can impose your own will on a match, even in the presence of numerous other top players. The 25 goals so far this season tell only a part of the story; while there is no doubt that the Shrek-a-like's finishing has improved dramatically this season, he still puts in the incredible power of work that he always has. When Cristiano Ronaldo went through a similar purple patch two seasons ago, he had the benefit of sharing a teamsheet with Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Carlos Tevez, all significant distractions for any defence trying to keep tabs on the Portuguese forward. But Rooney has to do it with Nani, Berbatov and Park Ji-Sung.

It helps that he is more mature this season as well. Whilst a frustrating first half at the San Siro (no doubt down to Nani's inability to produce a half-decent cross ball) led him to pick up a yellow card for dissent. But instead of sulking, or lunging into daft tackles, as he so often did in previous years, he gritted his teeth, knuckled down, and came up with the goods. Big time. The greatest players can keep this sort of form going for two or three seasons at a stretch. Is he ready to join the ranks of Messi, Kaka' et al. Just maybe.

I wonder how many other Scots are keeking their pants at the thought of Rooney firing England to World Cup glory?


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Celtic have no case for the defence

Around the time of the Super Bowl, American Football pundits constantly trot out an old cliche - "defence wins championships". For all the offensive quality and razzmatazz on show from the household names, these pundits say, it is the defence (I will refrain from putting an 's' in the word as we are on the east side of the Atlantic) who are the critical factor; if they are rubbish, you simply can't win the big prize.

Sadly for Celtic at Pittodrie on Saturday, Edson Braafheid had a momentary brain fart with 15 minutes left and thought,j ust for a econd, that he was playing American Football. As Tony Mowbray lamented afterwards, the Dutchman's daft handball offence gifted Aberdeen a penalty when, at 4-2 down, they were completely out of the game. Fifteen minutes and another impression of the Keystone Cops later, The Dons had their equalizer and Celtic had dropped two more points. With Rangers having stretched their title advantage back into double figures by seeing off Hibs today, the Championship race is effectively over, unless there is an away win in the Old Firm derby at Ibrox in a fortnight.

The nicest thing you can say about the performance of Celtic's backline (Caddis-Thompson-O'Dea-Braafheid, for the record), is that they were utterly, utterly abysmal. There was less panic to be found on the sinking Titanic than there was when the ball was loose in the visitor's penalty area. Braafheid was clearly brought on loan from Bayern Munich for his abilities to attack from full-back; while he gets to the by-line effectively and appears to be capable of a good cross, his lack of positional sense was cruelly exposed by the space and time afforded to Darren Mackie for Aberdeen's second goal. Mackie, who had not scored at Pittodrie for 21 months, could have had a cup of tea and oggled page 3 of The Sun before bothering to lash the ball into the net. Paul Caddis, meanwhile, looks like what he is - a young man who has been stuck on the bench with almost zero playing time, then parachuted into a crisis situation and expected to be up to speed straight away.

But it was the central pairing that would have given Mark McGhee most cause for glee when he saw the teamsheets. Celtic are missing Glenn Loovens (who has been rank this season) and Jos Hooiveld (nobody actually knows if he is any good, nor how to pronounce his name correctly) who I guess would be the first choice pairing at the minute. But if Rangers were without David Weir and Madjid Bougherra, they could pick from Danny Wilson, Lee McCulloch, Kirk Broadfoot and Sasa Papac as decent stopgap options. Mowbray, having flogged Gary Caldwell and Steven McManus in the transfer window (yes, I know they were useless this season too, but at least we know they are capable of better) is left with Darren O'Dea and Josh Thompson. Thompson is only 18, with almost no previous pro experience, and lacks the assurance of the Gers' teenage defender Wilson. That might be because Wilson's matches have seen him babysat by David Weir, old enough to be his dad. Thompson, in contrast, has been stuck beside O'Dea, who has regressed horribly since two glorious performances against Milan in the Champions League in 2007. The stocky Irishman was so mediocre on loan at Reading this season that the struggling Championship club couldn't wait to get shot of him.

And to cap it all, the Celtic defence is devoid of protection from those in front of them. That's supposed to be Landry N'Guemo's job, I think. Yet whilst the Cameroon midfielder is in the lineup every week, I'm damned if I can ever remember seeing him on the pitch. He couldn't be more anonymous if he had been involved in a radiocative accident that had turned him invisible. So time after time, Thompson and O'Dea find themselves more overexposed than John Terry's wife in that bikini.

Let's face it, Rangers have hardly been great shakes since that ridiculous, and temporary, explosion of form in December. Today's victory over Hibs was much mopre workmanlike than 3-0 suggests. But the fact is that their defence barely broke sweat, that Lee McCulloch did a good job of tracking Hibs' midfielders, and that Steven Whittaker scored, yet again, from right back. Rangers will win the title because they concede so rarely. Mowbray's plan of packing his side with firepower might make them good to watch, but, by the time we get to May and Robbie Keane has legged it in the way Craig Bellamy left Celtic Park after a loan spell, I can't help feeling that Big Tone might wish that he hadn't shipped out McManus, or that he had spent Keane's extortionate wages on something vaguely resembling a decent centre-back.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dundee are stumbling, but not falling...yet...

Crisis! Crisis! Crisis!

In football, everything’s a crisis, and everyone appears to be having, about to have, or has just had, a crisis. John Terry scores away from home (and I don’t mean at Turf Moor last weekend) and it’s a crisis for Chelsea and England. “Rangers in crisis” was a prominent theme in this Hogmanay’s Only An Excuse?, but, despite having no cash, apparently being controlled by the bank and having to flog Barry Ferguson and Pedro Mendes in the last six months (except they didn’t; Walter Smith wanted rid of both of them), they seem to be doing all right, don’t they? Of course, Celtic are in crisis at the moment.

Dundee are not in crisis. They have no financial worries – as long as this bloke Calum Melville remains interested. They have, in Leigh Griffiths, the first division’s outstanding player. And, despite their defeat at home to Ross County on Saturday, they have a six point lead in the race for SPL promotion.

Thing is, a few weeks ago, the Dark Blues were 12 points clear and coasting. They came away from Inverness with a point on Boxing Day, having put in another Jekyll & Hyde performance (the complete opposite of the Alba Cup Final – this time they were immortal in the first half and a complete mess in the second), but since then, they have four points from four games – one win, with a late winner against Dunfermline, a draw in Dumfries where by all accounts Queen of the South deserved to win, and defeats, both at home, to Airdrie United and to County. Jocky Scott’s side lead the latter by six points, Inverness by ten, and QOS by 11. But County have three games in hand, Inverness two, and QOS a whopping four. It is all just a teensy bit interesting.

Dundee should run away with this division. They really should. The quality on display, compared to the sides which battled it out around a decade ago (when Inverness were last here), is much reduced. Jocky Scott went for promotion using the time-honoured method of Livingston and Gretna – buy the best players from the lower leagues (in this case Griffiths, Gary Harkins and ex-ICT cocaine sniffer Richie Hart), plus some who could probably be in the top division (Maros Klimpl, Brian Kerr). Of course, it’s worth pointing out what fate befell Livi and Gretna after they spent their way to the top. But Griffiths and Harkins have shared 21 league goals between them this season so far, which is what you get when you buy players for £125,000 each at this level. Only one other player (Inverness forward Adam Rooney) is in double figures for league goals so far. Dundee’s defence looks shaky at times, despite having veteran keeper Rab Douglas, plus a very solid centre-back in Gary MacKenzie, but they have only conceded 20 league goals so far. And they have depth, a commodity that all their opponents, except Inverness, are totally without.

However, there will be some nerves at Dens Park just now, in light of this poor run of form. The closing of the transfer window means they hold on to Griffiths, but it also prevents further reinforcements other than loan deals. Scott is an experienced, solid coach, but he has had remarkably little success in his career and accusations of a lack of tactical acumen are not unreasonable. If one of the star men gets crocked, it will get very, very interesting indeed. But has anyone got the appetite to challenge? Ross County seem the most likely, led by their extremely talented young boss Derek Adams, but their incredible luck with injuries this season (i.e. no-one out for a significant period) surely can’t last, and their bench is threadbare. Inverness have the quality on depth on paper, but whilst Terry Butcher has conjured up some consistency recently, you can’t help feeling that they lack the cutting edge required to defeat other top-half teams. Queen of the South have been most active in the January window, but they too will be a bit short if injuries stack up, and all three sides might yet be scunnered by having to play lots of midweek games in March and April. Dundee have got the points on the board already.

So, frankly, Dundee are not anywhere near a crisis. But they are rocking a little bit, and the first division is now a teensy bit interesting. At least for now.