Thursday, August 26, 2010

A cushty Caley season depends on Rooney's goal-den touch

First things first...90 minutes viewing at Tannadice on Sunday offered sufficient proof that, if Garry Kenneth is an international defender, then I am a baked potato.

Yes, Caley Thistle were simply fantastic when they demolished Dundee United 4-0, but one must take into account that, well, the Arab performance was a great big pile of steaming s****. It really was. And at the centre of it all was Kenneth, who showed a complete inability to deal with the ball other than when it was six feet in the air. I've seen double decker buses with smaller turning circles, and they were less lumbering as well.

It's only two matches into the SPL season, but there is an awful lot of hype flying around about ICT on the back of that one performance (plus a good first half against Celtic too). Suddenly, our strikers are being lauded as dynamite, our relegation credentials have been revoked, and there is talk of the Top Six being thrown about with more recklessness than a BMW being driven on the A9.

After two games. And only three points. Let's not get carried away, folks.

It was back to normality at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium on Wednesday night, with the home side huffing and puffing for the first half hour before eventually breaking down second division Peterhead on the way to a routine 3-0 win; the most important thing to take from match is that Irish centre forward Adam Rooney is a man on fire right now, even if two of his four goals in four days were from the spot. Such is the importance of confidence in this sport - Kenneth looks he's been destroyed by the criticism he suffered following his Scotland debut, while Rooney can do no wrong right now.

Rooney got more praise than anyone after the United game, and rightly so - even if the opposing defence offered less resistance than a row of traffic cones. The Irishman was lured north two years ago from Stoke City for £50,000 (actually a tidy sum for a club like ours) and the then-manager Craig Brewster talked him up massively - before constantly rotating him in and out of the team as we dived towards the drop that season. Even when Terry Butcher replaced Brew, Rooney saw action mostly as a sub, and he started the last campaign on the bench as well. But when he got a run in the side the goals started coming - 24 in the first division - and any fears that he might not be able to score at SPL level were at least partly allayed by his brace at the weekend.

Even if he stops hitting the net, he has made himself almost indispensible to the Caley team with his ability to successfully operate as a lone frontman in a 4-2-3-1 system where, inevitably, there will be times when he is very isolated. In the SPL, his 6ft 2in frame means he still often lscks inches on centre-backs, but he has the bustle to hold off defenders, and hold up the ball, when it comes to him at neck height or below. Moreover, his willingness to run the channels, and press defenders, is admirable and offers an outlet when his own backline are beleaguered. In short, he has a work ethic and engine that makes him a very, very good lone striker, and one whose presence will lead to goals for others, even if he loses his current scoring touch.

That said, it is worth noting that Inverness' best finish in the SPL came into 2006/07, spearheaded by 16 league goals from Craig Dargo. 2008/09 was the first SPL season where Caley's top scorer had fewer than 9 league goals - it was Rooney himself, with just 5. The last striker to be relegated despite scoring double figures was Dundee's Steve Lovell in 2004/05 - which tells you that your chances of surviving are a damn sight better if you have a centre forward hitting the target regularly.

So if Inverness are to be allowed to believe the hype, they need Adam Rooney's stonking form to continue. Not only that, but they need to avoid tripping up in matches like the upcoming home game with Hamilton - having failed to win any of the four previous SPL encounters with Billy Reid's side. But win that, and win some more, with the no.10 still striking rich, and Caley might quickly find themselves a long way away from any relegation dogfight.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

An "apology" from Scottish football to the Old Firm

Dear Rangers and Celtic,

After reading the papers this week, I feel obliged to apologize to each of you on behalf of the rest of Scottish football. Obviously, life for each of you has been extremely difficult to bear over the last year or so, and it is only beginning to become apparent that this is entirely the fault of the Scottish game, and Scotland itself.

I was most horrified to hear that Celtic can no longer attract renowned players such as Craig Bellamy to the club because, according to Chief Executive Peter Lawwell, Scottish football is of such poor quality. Not only that, but agents are disparaging about Scotland to their clients. Oh, how you must hark back to those wonderful days when players like Henrik Larsson, John Hartson and Neil Lennon himself could be signed and paid high wages - incidentally, I haven't got the mental agility to understand why you could afford high wages then, but not now, since your income is exactly the same (because obviously you were only paying what you could afford back then, yeah?), but I guess this is because us mere mortals are not bright enough to get our heads round that sort of thing.

Why, I even had the daft idea that Celtic might have wasted huge amounts of money over the last few years on players (though I'm sure, ultimately, that Massimo Donati, Juninho and Glenn Loovens will take their places as Celtic legends) and on the whims of managers (perhaps Tony Mowbray might have made a slightly erroneous buy or two - still, at least you didn't have to give him a massive payoff or anything).

It's not terribly rosy on the other side of Glasgow, either; I understand the turnover at Ibrox is now less than the TV money received by sides at the bottom of the English Premier League, and debts remain at £35 million despite the impressive cost-cutting of the last two seasons. How relieved I am to hear that enough loose change was found under the sofa in order to purchase James Beattie; I didn't realize that businesses in such huge arrears could still spend (I hardly think you can call a veteran such as Beattie an investment) £1.5m on new assets, but I'm obviously delighted that normal financial rules don't apply to you - though obviously it would be far preferable if you were allowed to, for example, splurge £12 million on a demotivated Norwegian centre-forward as you could a decade ago without fear of repercussion.

Of course, this rather disappointing state of affairs is completely due to the failures of the rest of us in the country - our lack of towns or cities that can support huge attendances and gate receipts, our inability to produce an endless conveyor belt of quality, yet cheap, footballers for you to purchase at knockdown prices, and our inexplicable failure to turn our modest budgets into playing squads capable of competing with you over a league season (though obviously we would also have to apologize if one of the other sides denied either of the Old Firm their divine right to Champions League proceeds). And, believe me, we are most sorry for the fact that we are mind-numbingly boring, what with the fact that you have to play all the diddy sides up to four times a season - obviously I assume you have tried on several occasions to come up with ideas to arrest this (though, curiously, I can't find any record of this in the press - but surely, as our
champions and protectors, you would have taken the lead in this rather than sitting around sulking, right?)

And of course, we should take into account that both sides have been moral guardians of our game for so long. Thank goodness we have never had a situation where fans of one of these clubs have caused drunken havoc or distruction whilst travelling for a major European final - otherwise we would be far less marketable. Equally, imagine if these two venerable clubs were associated with something like, say, racism, or perhaps sectarianism? It is hard enough to find sponsors as it is, during the times of the Credit Crunch, let alone if the sport was blighted in such a way. I shudder to think of the state we might be in but for the shining light of Rangers and Celtic.

So, in conclusion, I acknowledge completely that the current problems that both sides of the Old Firm face are not in any way due to financial mismanagement and over-spending from the two clubs, a complete lack of new ideas and initiative on their behalf to improve our national game, an absence of foresight regarding development of young players or remedies for potential future problems, or . They are entirely down to the other teams playing rubbish football, having a rubbish attitude, having rubbish attendances, and not coming up with any solutions by which Rangers and Celtic can become more wealthy. Oh, and Scotland being a bit of a crap country, apparently.

Because, obviously, if you yourselves were in any way to blame, you would acknowledge it, instead of tactlessly trying to deflect criticism onto everyone else. As you would agree, anyone behaving in that way should be told to stick it up their own backsides.

So, once again, I apologize for the way Scottish football is letting you guys down.



Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts from the weekend

1) Liverpool are harder to crack

After having Joe Cole sent off (even I thought it was a bit harsh - and I'm usually in favour of draconian punishments for bad tackles), hands up who expected Liverpool to push on and come so close to beating Arsenal? Looks like Roy Hodgson is already having an impact.

2) Blackpool rock, but Wigan do not

Blackpool will still go down, but every neutral in the country must have been cheered by the way they stuffed Wigan. I'd like to describe the Latics' defending, but "pathetic" does not quite do it justice. With Charles N'Zogbia heading for the exit, I'm fairly certain they will join the seasiders and a third team (West Brom?) in the relegation places come May.

3) Dundee are dicing with disaster again

It's too early to press the panic button at Dens, but a 1-0 defeat at Partick (abject when hammered by Raith last week) comes only a few days after a stunning cup humiliation at the hands of Stenhousemuir. There has been little so far to suggest Gordon Chisholm has stamped his authority on the Dark Blues, who, in an ultra-competitive first division, cannot afford to be dropping points too early.

4) Patchy start for both sides of the Old Firm

Rangers and Celtic both had to grind out wins; the latter took half an hour to get going at Inverness, though it seems that they managed to take the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half. At Ibrox, meanwhile, Rangers were gifted their first goal by presumably the same linesman that gave Hungary's goal at Wembley last week; if that was over the line then I'm a banana. The margin of victory over relegation candidates Killie was not impressive, and Walter Smith's bench did not exactly give him alternative options. That said, James Beattie looks like an absolutely magnificent signing - on paper, anyway.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The (anything-but) definitive 2010-11 Scottish Premier League preview (part 2)


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Nauris Bulvitis (end of loan), Kyle Allison, Lionel Djebi-Zadi, Jamie Duff, Robert Eagle, Daniel Stratford
FIRST TEAM INS: Gil Blumenshtein, Kenny Gillet, Chris Innes, Jonny Tuffey, Kevin McCann (loan)


PROSPECTS: Hooray, my specialist subject..well actually, if I went on Mastermind, my specialist subject would probably be Terry Pratchett's Discworld, but swiftly moving on...St. Johnstone proved last season that if a newly promoted side keeps its squad together, makes one or two decent signings and becomes particularly difficult to beat at home, relegation need not be a worry.

So obviously Terry Butcher will be looking to emulate this; it was a pleasant surprise that forwards Richie Foran and Jonny Hayes chose to sign new deals despite the admiring glances of bigger clubs, and the players brought in give ICT enough depth to withstand anything other than a Somme-like casualty list. The big worry is up front, where Adam Rooney, scorer of 25 first division goals last season, may not be able to turn that into SPL bounty. But I'd be devastated if we finished bottom, and am quietly hopeful we might even find ourselves as high as seventh.

LIKELY LINEUP: Ryan Esson - Kevin McCann, Ross Tokely, Grant Munro, Kenny Gillet - Lee Cox, Russell Duncan - Jonny Hayes, Eric Odihambo, Richie Foran - Adam Rooney


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Rob Kiernan (end of loan), Chris Maguire (end of loan), Scott Severin (end of loan), Jamie Adams, Mark Burchill, David Fernandez, Iain Flannigan, Simon Ford, Kevin Kyle, Ryan O'Leary, Lee Robinson, Allan Russell, Gavin Skelton
FIRST TEAM INS: Kyle Letheren, David Silva, Ben Gordon (loan)


PROSPECTS: Picture yourself, not in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies (a point for anyone who got the Beatles reference), but as a club chairman at the end of a difficult season where your team avoid relegation by just a point. What do you do to improve your hopes for the following campaign? Well, you probably don't do what Killie have done - replace Tangoman Calderwood with Big Mixu, and slash your minimal budget even further.

The fans might have briefly got excited when they heard David Silva had signed, until it turned out that it was not the Spanish World Cup winner but a Portuguese winger who couldn't cut it in the Bulgarian League. Paatelainen needs to keep Craig Bryson out of Hearts' clutches, and make some massively clever loan signings, or Kilmarnock are basically screwed.

LIKELY LINEUP: Cameron Bell - Tim Clancy, Frazer Wright, Manuel Pascali, Garry Hay - Craig Bryson, James Fowler, Liam Kelly, Mehdi Taouil, Danny Invincibile - Connor Sammon


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Lukas Jutkiewicz (end of loan), Michael McGlinchey (end of loan), John Ruddy (end of loan), Giles Coke, Jim O'Brien, Darren Smith
FIRST TEAM INS: Angelis Charalambous, Lee Hollis, Darren Randolph


PROSPECTS: Whisper it quietly, but Well might not miss their two Everton loanees from last season, Ruddy and Jutkiewicz, as much as expected, especially if Jamie Murphy scores in the SPL like he does in the Europa League. Craig Brown may be ancient, but it seems young footballers are as willing to receive his wisdom as young women are willing to receive his...erm, never mind (this is a family blog, after all).

The Steelmen are still vulnerable to transfer window pickings, particularly regarding Mark Reynolds in defence. But expect players like Steven Saunders and Tom Hateley to continue to develop, and barring a spate of injuries Motherwell should be a top six team again.

LIKELY LINEUP: Darren Randolph - Steven Saunders, Stephen Craigan, Mark Reynolds, Steven Hammell - Steve Jennings, Tom Hateley, Keith Lasley - Chris Humphrey, Jamie Murphy - John Sutton


FIRST TEAM OUTS: DaMarcus Beasley, Kris Boyd, Nacho Novo, Steven Smith, Kevin Thomson, Danny Wilson
FIRST TEAM INS: (none yet)


PROSPECTS: If Rangers make two or three half-decent signings over the next few days, I will happily retract this - but they simply have got rid of so many folk that it would be reckless to assume that, at the time of writing, they could retain the title. But I expect Walter Smith to be as motivated as ever for his final year in charge, and I can't see him going out with the whimper that Alex McLeish did.

Whatever Smith's transfer activity, the huns will be more dependent on their younger players than ever - he needs the likes of Steven Naismith and John Fleck to stay fit and to realise their potential. But he has (so far) held on to McGregor, Bougherra and Davis, and because of that they should be expected to be, at worst, very close to Celtic.

LIKELY LINEUP: Allan McGregor - Steven Whittaker, Andy Webster, Majdid Bougherra, Sasa Papac - Steve Davis, Lee McCulloch, Maurice Edu - Kenny Miller, Kyle Lafferty, Steven Naismith


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Cillian Sheridan (end of loan), Kenny Deuchar, Josh Falkingham, Gary Irvine, Euan MacLean, Alan Main, Filipe Morais, Paul Sheerin, Gavin Swankie
FIRST TEAM INS: Jamie Adams, Scott Dobie, Peter Enckelman, Sam Parkin, Cleveland Taylor


PROSPECTS: I'm not convinced "second-season syndrome" exists, and, if it does, I expect Derek McInnes will be well vaccinated against it. Saints have made some sensible transfer market moves, plugging the gaps in their squad in goal, on the wing and up front - and all the while with a fairly modest wage bill. And whilst playing some really quite entertaining football.

I'm particularly impressed by the fact that so many experienced players from down south have been tempted to the club (and that veteran Michael Duberry has been tempted to stay). The biggest obstacle to the Perth side moving forward is the possibility of McInnes himself moving on to better things - which will surely happen sooner or later. But the later it happens, the more chance there is of St. Johnstone breaking into the top half.

LIKELY LINEUP: Peter Enckelman - Graham Gartland, Michael Duberry, Dave Mackay, Danny Grainger - Cleveland Taylor, Jody Morris, Murray Davidson, Chris Millar - Sam Parkin, Scott Dobie


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Graham Carey (end of loan), Rory Loy (end of loan), Tom Brighton, Andy Dorman, Mark Howard, Chris Innes, Allan Johnston, Billy Mehmet, Stephen O'Donnell, Jack Ross, Chris Smith
FIRST TEAM INS: Sean Lynch, Marc McAusland, Darren McGregor, Paul McQuade, Craig Samson, David Van Zanten, Gareth Wardlaw, Paul McGowan (loan), Jure Travner (loan)


PROSPECTS: Gus McPherson wasn't the most popular manager in the world (right out of the Billy Reid mould) but he had kept St. Mirren safe in the SPL without breaking the bank. I don't see how the Buddies expect to achieve more having replaced him with a far less experienced coach (Danny Lennon) who has to operate within tighter financial constraints. Especially since his two best players, Andy Dorman and Billy Mehmet, have legged it.

Lennon's philosophy appears to be to use journeymen from the lower leagues to fill out the squad, whilst investing more in one or two higher quality players. It's a bit of a risky philosophy, and it doesn't take too much imagination to see it all go up the swanny. Who knows, Lennon might be worth the faith put in him, and guide his side to mid-table safety. But a relegation dogfight seems far more predictable.

LIKELY LINEUP: Paul Gallacher - David Barron, Lee Mair, John Potter, Jure Travner - Steven Robb, Steven Thomson, Hugh Murray, Paul McGowan - Michael Higdon, Craig Dargo

Anyway, that's my two cents. It will be entertaining to see just how wrong I am...


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The (anything but) definitive 2010-11 Scottish Premier League preview

Thought I'd go into a bit more detail for the top flight, and separate it into two parts. Hope this is of interest to you, dear readers...

NB - As regards ins and outs, I've limited it to first team players, as I've put in enough detail as it is!


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Steven McLean (end of loan), Jim Paterson (end of loan), Stuart Duff, Davide Grassi, Mark Kerr, Gary McDonald, Charlie Mulgrew, Stuart Nelson
FIRST TEAM INS: Yoann Folly, Paul Hartley, Mark Howard, Josh Magennis, Rory McArdle, Scott Vernon


PROSPECTS: Mark McGhee, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to guide this team back into the top six and avoid a cup exit to a lower division team, whilst keeping the fans happy. In order to accomplish this, you will have the experienced backbone of your team (Charlie Mulgrew, Mark Kerr, Gary McDonald) removed, and will have to rely on English lower division castoffs, youngsters, and Paul Hartley.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure even Ethan Hunt would take on such a challenge. But to challenge for the top half, Aberdeen need to keep Zander Diamond fit, and find someone who can score goals - there is nothing to suggest Darren Mackie or Chris Maguire provide enough of a threat. Lower mid-table seems a reasonable estimate, but would not be enough to keep McGhee at Pittodrie. While it's not beyond the realms of possibility to see them in the top half, you could say the same about their chances of being dragged into a relegation battle.

LIKELY LINEUP: Jamie Langfield - Rory McArdle, Zander Diamond, Andrew Considine, Richard Foster - Fraser Fyvie, Paul Hartley, Yoann Folly - Chris Maguire, Scott Vernon, Darren Mackie


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Edson Braafheid (end of loan), Diomansy Kamara (end of loan), Robbie Keane (end of loan), Landry N'Guemo (end of loan), Artur Boruc, Paul Caddis, Simon Ferry, Stephen McManus, Koki Mizuno, Lee Naylor, Zheng Zhi, Graham Carey (loan), Paul McGowan (loan)
FIRST TEAM INS: Cha Du-Ri, Gary Hooper, Efrain Juarez, Biram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Charlie Mulgrew, Daryl Murphy


PROSPECTS: "Baptism of fire" doesn't quite seem to do this justice. He might be about to lose Aiden McGeady, but Neil Lennon has had much more financial backing this summer than his bluenosed counterpart, so, frankly, a John Barnes-esque start will result in an awful lot of pressure, particularly as fans and media will keep alluding to a certain former manager who is now available. (no, I don't mean Barnes!) On paper, at the time of writing, this might be the weakest Celtic team in a decade, but such is the opposition they should win the title anyway. With Rangers having made no signings at all, I'm obliged, right now, to put Celtic as SPL favourites.

Lennon has put up with so much s*** as a player that you feel any criticism will be like water off a duck's back; the question is more over whether he has the experience, nous and man-management skills to get the job done, particularly away from home. Opening day at Inverness will be a real acid test, especially if Celtic don't get an early goal to settle the nerves. But while he has made a lot of signings, only Joe Ledley adds any midfield creativity to the side. Can he replace Aiden McGeady? The jury is out on that, and on the Lennon appointment.

LIKELY LINEUP: Lukasz Zaluska - Cha Du-Ri, Jos Hooiveld, Glenn Loovens, Charlie Mulgrew - Joe Ledley, Efrain Juarez, Scott Brown - Georgios Samaras, Gary Hooper, Shaun Maloney


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Andy Webster (end of loan), Lee Wilkie (retired), Greg Cameron, Pavels Mihadjuks, Kevin Smith
FIRST TEAM INS: Barry Douglas, Filip Mentel


PROSPECTS: Let's face it, it was actually quite nice to see the Arabs win the Scottish Cup last season. They have an intelligent, outspoken manager, a bunch of hard-grafting players (I'll be amazed if Buaben and Gomis don't go on to better things, and Scott Robertson's return from injury gives them a very classy midfield) and flair players who are good to watch - if David Goodwillie stays for another year, he could really star at Tannadice. Out of the cup-winning squad, only Andy Webster has gone, though he leaves an enormous hole in the centre of defence which I'm not convinced Peter Houston has filled yet.

But I have United down to be the best of the rest simply because they showed last season that they can grind out results in a way that, for example, Hibs and Hearts didn't. Can they split the Old Firm? Probably not, but I feel they are best placed to take advantage of a catastrophe for one half of Glasgow. One Webster-like centre-half might be all they need to challenge for second, but a spate of injuries (or August sales of Goodwillie and Craig Conway) could leave them abck in mid-table.

LIKELY LINEUP: Dusan Pernis - Keith Watson, Darren Dods, Garry Kenneth, Paul Dixon - Danny Swanson, Morgaro Gomis, Prince Buaben, Craig Conway - David Goodwillie, Jon Daly


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Brian Easton (end of loan), Mickael Antoine-Curier (end of loan), Joel Thomas (end of loan), James Wesolowski (end of loan), Richard Hastings, James McArthur, Trent McClenahan, Stuart Mills, Nicky Riley, Tony Stevenson, David Van Zanten, Grant Evans (loan)
FIRST TEAM INS: David Buchanan, Andy Graham, Jim McAlister, Gary McDonald, Jack Ross, Gavin Skelton


PROSPECTS: The Hamilton story has been pretty much the same over the last two seasons - start slowly, then grind out a few results with mind-numbing football, then hit form post-xmas (with mind-numbing football) and end up with a bit of a cushion over the bottom three. It's not a very fun story, but Hamilton's budget is tight, and manager Billy Reid knows he is in the results business, so I'm trying not to begrudge them anything, honest!

However, the star of the show the last two seasons has been a young central midfielder - first James McCarthy, then James McArthur. Reid doesn't have either to call on now. But, as always, he has been busy in the transfer market, mixing experience (Jack Ross from St. Mirren, Gary McDonald from Aberdeen), with potential (Morton winger Jim McAlister). They might dice with relegation a little bit this season, but I think they have enough quality and depth to keep their SPL place for just a teensy bit longer.

LIKELY LINEUP: Tomas Cerny - Jack Ross, Martin Canning, Mark McLaughlin, David Buchanan - Gary McDonald, Simon Mensing, Gavin Skelton - Dougie Imrie, Jim McAlister - Marco Paixao


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Jose Goncalves, Laryea Kingston, Christian Nade, Michael Stewart, Rocky Visconte, Ryan Wallace
FIRST TEAM INS: Darren Barr, Stephen Elliott, Kevin Kyle


PROSPECTS: Shock horror as Hearts make intelligent, thoughtful signings! Try not to choke on your coffee, but they have even resisted the urge to loan some random Lithuanian. After being told by every manager since Graham Rix that a half-decent striker is needed - no, Christian Nade wasn't even quarter-decent - Vladimir Romanov has finally relented and allowed the arrival of Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliott. At the back, the signing of Darren Barr from Falkirk gives the side a very secure look indeed.

My prediction is largely based on two assumptions - firstly, that Jim Jefferies probably can't make this side more than the sum of their parts (sorry, I'm just not a fan of him) and secondly that Andrew Driver will inevitably get injured at some point. If those two assumptions are wrong, the Tynecastle side are good candidates for third. Certainly anything other than top six would be a surprise.

LIKELY LINEUP: Janos Balogh - Craig Thomson, Darren Barr, Marius Zaliukas, Lee Wallace - Suso, Eggert Jonsson, Ruben Palazuelos, Andrew Driver - Stephen Elliott, Kevin Kyle


FIRST TEAM OUTS: Alan Gow (end of loan), Abdessalam Benjelloun, Patrick Cregg, Yves Ma-Kalambay, Darren McCormack, Kurtis Byrne (loan), Kevin McCann (loan)
FIRST TEAM INS: Edwin De Graaf, Michael Hart, David Stephens


PROSPECTS: As the weeks go by, I feel less and less confident about Hibs - hard to believe that in February they took on Rangers at Easter Road knowing a victory could put them in position to split the Old Firm. Since then it has been a shambles, and Euro thumping by Maribor doesn't inspire belief in John Hughes at all. The board have given him enough of a wage budget for the likes of Liam Miller, Anthony Stokes and Derek Riordan, but I wonder whether he can juggle their egos effectively enough.

I don't want to wish evil on the Hibees - they are great fun to watch when they are in the mood. But when the going gets tough, I can't see the likes of Riordan getting going. The arrival of Michael Hart and the retention of Sol Bamba means they will probably leak fewer goals, I guess, but you have to allow for the fact that all Hibs keepers appear to be cursed (Graham Stack and Graeme Smith follow in the footsteps of Malkowski and Ma-Kalambay). They might prove me wrong and fight for third again, but I just don't see it.

LIKELY LINEUP: Graeme Smith - Michael Hart, Chris Hogg, Sol Bamba, Ian Murray - John Rankin, Liam Miller, Edwin De Graaf - Anthony Stokes, Colin Nish, Derek Riordan

The second part will be up when I get round to it.

Feel free to abuse me if you disagree!


Friday, August 6, 2010

The (far-from) definitive 2010-11 scottish first division preview

This is how I see the first division finishing -

1. Dundee
2. Dunfermline
3. Falkirk
4. Ross County
5. Greenock Morton
6. Raith Rovers
7. Queen of the South
8. Partick Thistle
9. Stirling Albion
10. Cowdenbeath

I think it's fair to say that you can divide this league into three "mini-leagues" - the top four will battle for promotion, the bottom two seem inevitably drawn to the relegation and playoff places, and the other four are too good to go down, but not good enough to go up.

DUNDEE were most people's tip for the title last season - including mine. And it looked a pretty safe bet at New Year, only for Jocky Scott's side to collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane and end up a distant second. The squad still looks like the strongest in the division, even without further bankrolling - the likes of Gary Harkins and Leigh Griffiths are still there. Just like last season, though, the doubts are over the coach - Gordon Chisholm did well in Dumfries, but has never won anything in management. Can he get the best out of his bunch? Anything but first will result in his dismissal.

I have a sneaky suspicion that DUNFERMLINE might be their main challengers - I saw them a couple of times towards the end of last season and Jim McIntyre's side looked very slick, even without star striker Andy Kirk. Now he is fit again, and will be well supplied by Willie Gibson and David Graham. The defence looks solid enough too, and they should be there or thereabouts.

Having just been relegated, FALKIRK will look to follow in Inverness' footsteps and win the title. Young winger Ryan Flynn will be, I think, the best player in the division, and Kenny Deuchar, signed from St. Johnstone, should provide a decent goal threat. Their main problems are a failure to adequately replace captain Darren Barr (who moved to Hearts) and question marks over the prowess of coach Steven Pressley, who won few friends last season with his confrontational attitude and who has done nothing yet to show he can take this side back up.

Along with those three, ROSS COUNTY must feel they can push on from their cup run last year and put in a tilt at the title. In contrast to Pressley at Falkirk, Derek Adams has shown real tactical nous and can get great things out of his players. And Michael Gardyne has stayed. County's main weakness is a lack of depth - just like last season, it will only take two or three injuries to put them in a pickle. They can beat anyone in this division, though.

GREENOCK MORTON fans will be just grateful their team aren't in a lower tier, after scraping out of a playoff place on the final day of last season. After the mediocre tenures of David Irons and James Grady, they have turned to Stirling's Allan Moore to take charge, and hopes are a lot higher. Forward Stewart Kean (QOS) and defender Marc Smyth (Airdrie) look like shrewd signings, and expect a comfortable mid-table finish.

John McGlynn's RAITH ROVERS continue to make slight, but constant, improvements each season, making up for a small budget with clever loan signings. French forward Gregory Tade looked good last season and should star again, while defender Mark Campbell has recovered from the car accident that ended his season prematurely. They probalby aren't ready to push for promotion, but a relegation battle would be a disappointment.

In contrast to Raith, QUEEN OF THE SOUTH are probably heading backwards, even though they have held on to their best player, defender Bob Harris. A more frugal budget means a fairly threadbare squad, and coach Kenny Brannigan has been quite outspoken about this. Brannigan himself has no coaching pedigree, and I expect the Dumfries team to be dragged into the lower echelons of the table.

Ditto PARTICK THISTLE, who with the retention of veterans Simon Donnelly, Ian Maxwell, Jackie McNamara and Craig Hinchcliffe, are resembling a bit of an old mans' team. Partick were guff in the second half of last season, and are increasingly dependent on raw youths to make up the numbers. They appear to be stagnating under the stewardship of Ian McCall.

That said, there appears to be a sizeable gap between Partick and the two promoted sides, of whom STIRLING ALBION should finish higher. It will be difficult for the Binos after coach Moore left for Morton, and while John O'Neill has solidified the defence, the new manager starts the season with only two strikers in his squad. Evern further reinforcement is unlikely to save them from at least a relegation playoff.

The favourites for automatic relegation, however, have to be COWDENBEATH, after two consecutive promotions. Manager Danny Lennon left for St. Mirren and took all his best players with him. His replacement, Jimmy Nicholl, has plenty of experience and contacts, but the club's well-documented financial problems mean he is resigned to signing players from the Juniors. Good enough? Unlikely.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

SPL Sackability

Last season in the SPL, no fewer than half the clubs changed manager during the season - with only Dundee United's Craig Levein leaving to go on to better things...though these days the Scotland job probably has him working with inferior players than he had at Tannadice.

In contrast to Levein, P45s were handed out to, in order, Motherwell's Jim Gannon (sacked in December), Kilmarnock's Jim Jefferies (left by that strange thing called "mutual consent" in January - mutual consent sounds like the defence argument in a rape trial), Hearts' Csaba Laszlo (sacked in January), Falkirk's Eddie May (resigned in February) and Celtic's Tony Mowbray (sacked - far too late - in March). So, as the new campaign approaches, lets have a look at the job security for the current crop of coaches. After all, all coaches are sackable, but some are more sackable than others.

Do I get a gold star for a not-very-subtle Animal Farm reference there? Anyway, moving on...


Mark McGhee (Aberdeen) - turns out Jimmy Calderwood was pretty good after all, eh, Dons fans? McGhee has had precious little funding - the fact that Gary McDonald has left Pittodrie for a better deal at Hamilton tells a tale about the club's finances - but McGhee couldn't get the best out of his players last season and is unlikely to fare better with a weaker crop this time around. The fans will bay for his blood very early if the opening games don't go well.


Neil Lennon (Celtic) - a lot of goodwill from the support will have evaporated after an early Champions' League exit. Celtic need to get to New Year within touching distance of their Old Firm rivals or he may last no longer than Mowbray; I have my suspicions that some dropped points away from home in the first few months could turn him into a green-and-white Paul Le Guen.

Danny Lennon (St. Mirren) - if there was justice, the former Cowdenbeath man would get at least a couple of years to sort out his new side. In reality, the honeymoon period will be short if the Buddies emulate Falkirk's start from last season - and then the board will be under pressure to find someone with more experience.

John Hughes (Hibernian) - the Hibees had a shocker of a climax to last season, and there are elements amongst the fans (and, possibly, the dressing room) that are turning against him. Top six is an absolute minimum, so if Hibs find themselves 9th or 10th by October there could be trouble.

Jim Jefferies (Hearts) - are Hearts coaches ever comfortable these days? All we need is a strange whim from Romanov and JJ will be gone. Since he didn't seem to improve the results after replacing Laszlo, I can see him being chucked if they aren't in a top six position by xmas.


Walter Smith (Rangers) - since Wattie is already down to go in summer 2011, it would probably take something quite dramatic to see him booted out and Ally McCoist installed during the current season, especially since more time for Coisty under Smith's tutelage can only be beneficial.

Mixu Paatelainen (Kilmarnock) - Killie do not have a penchant for sacking managers, nor do they have the money to pay them off, so despite a huge risk of relegation I expect big Mixu to get more leeway than Danny Lennon in Paisley.

Craig Brown (Motherwell) - appears to have Well punching above their weight, so even a lower mid-table spot should not have him under any pressure. The younger players should prosper under his command.


Peter Houston (Dundee United) - stabilized the ship after Levein's exit and the Tangerines' cup final win has made him very popular with the orange half of Tayside. I know Ivan Golac was sacked the year after winning the cup with United, but unless history repeats itself (i.e. relegation) Houston will be fine.

Billy Reid (Hamilton) - I loath Reid and his dull, time-wasting Hamilton side, but you can't argue with his results - or the profits from transfer fees. Their chairman has said he would stay coach even if they were relegated and I suspect this would be true.

Terry Butcher (Inverness) - ICT have only sacked one coach in their 16 year history - and there were an awful lot of reasons to sack Craig Brewster. As the newly promoted team, Butcher is entitled to plenty of leeway even if his side struggle.

Derek McInnes (St. Johnstone) - has achieved so much in Perth that he is likely to leave only because he has been offered a more exciting post. Surely the most secure of all the managers in the top division.

I can't help feeling that I will look back on this post next summer and realize (again) that I know absolutely nothing about Scottish football. Still, that's never stopped me writing this drivel in the past...


Monday, August 2, 2010

SPL power rankings - start of August

As far as I'm concerned, this is how the SPL teams would rank if they had to play the season with the players they have now - and how the positions compare with when I did this six weeks ago...

1) CELTIC (up one place)

OVERVIEW: Yes, I know, I slagged them off mercilessly last week. But Neil Lennon's team are the bookies' favourites, and Rangers, at the moment, are threadbare. A lot depends on whether his signings - Gary Hooper, Biram Kayal, Daryl Murphy and Efrain Juarez, who have cost a combined 7.7 million quid- have a greater impact than the players Mowbray brought to the club in January.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Aiden McGeady looks set to leave - and it's for his own good - as do Andreas Hinkel and Cillian Sheridan. This might mean further funds, but the squad remains a bit too big just now.

2) RANGERS (down one place)

OVERVIEW: This is based mainly on the fact that they only have fifteen players over the age of 21 on the Ibrox books. Only time will tell whether Kris Boyd will be as badly missed as his goalscoring record suggests, or whether Kenny Miller and Kyle Lafferty can make up for his absence. Hopefully Andy Webster will produce the form he showed for Dundee United last year.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Hell yes, though it is worrying there is as much talk of selling (Steven Davis) as buying (Georgie Welcome) in the papers today. As far as I'm concerned, Walter Smith needs another defender, two midfielders and a forward, or he'll be heavily dependent on his youth players when we kick off the campaign.

3) DUNDEE UNITED (up one place)

OVERVIEW: I know they lost Andy Webster, but the rest of the squad remains intact, and is made up of young players who should only get better. This could be a breakout season for David Goodwillie. Peter Houston is a good dependable manager who should get the most out of his team.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Another centre-back would be nice, unless Houston thinks highly enough of Keith Watson. Clubs are still sniffing around Craig Conway, who would be difficult to replace.

4) HEARTS (down one place)

OVERVIEW: Their attempts to sign Craig Bryson have dragged on for so long it's getting boring. At least interest in Andrew Driver has cooled. And they've got shot of most of the disruptive influences - Michael Stewart, Christian Nade, Jose Goncalves, Laryea Kingston. I'm still sceptical that Jim Jefferies is capable enough to take this side to third - his last couple of years at Killie left a lot to be desired, even if he did have no cash.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? They appear to be lacking a midfield playmaker at the moment, and it's difficult to see who will be an efficient partner for Kevin Kyle. I think they can survive without Bryson if Driver stays.

5) MOTHERWELL (up two places)

OVERVIEW: I'm a sucker for Craig Brown, I really am. Well's youngsters appear to have bought into his philosophy, as their European results show. Darren Randolph appears to be an adequate replacement in goal for John Ruddy. Could this be a big campaign for young forward Jamie Murphy? Motherwell have the advantage of having played competitive matches already, and should hit the ground running.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? It'll only be free transfers if they do sign anyone, and they could still do with a winger and a striker to replace the departed Jim O'Brien and Lukas Jutkiewicz. It's unlikely that anyone else will leave.

6) ST. JOHNSTONE (same)

OVERVIEW: Derek McInnes has spread his net wide this summer - bringing in guys from down south like winger Cleveland Taylor and forwards Scott Dobie, Marcus Haber and Sam Parkin. It certainly gives him options to pick from. Most importantly, Michael Duberry is staying, bringing quality and experience to the back line. On paper at least, they have replaced the likes of Filipe Morais and Kenny Deuchar.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? McInnes needs another goalkeeper - there is talk of Hibs' Mark Brown being brought in to compete with Graeme Smith. Other than that, he could do with getting a few guys out the exit door, not least because he now has seven strikers on the books.

7) HIBERNIAN (down two places)

OVERVIEW: While I rate Craig Brown and Derek McInnes, I have no faith in John Hughes; Hibs won only two of their last eighteen matches last season, and got hammered in Slovenia last week. I wonder whether he might have lost the dressing room, and while signings like Michael Hart seem astute, and no big names have left, I think this team might turn out to be less than the sum of its parts.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Sol Bamba is attracting interest from down south, and appears to be in his manager's bad books. Considering the outlay in wages on the likes of Derek Riordan, Anthony Stokes and Liam Miller, I have no idea where the funds would come from for further signings.

8) ABERDEEN (up two places)

OVERVIEW: It's really hard to predict how well the Dons will do. McGhee has bet the house on Paul Hartley being a big player for them - it looks like a good signing, but so did Jackie McNamara when he moved to Pittodrie a few years back. He's also relying on Championship and League One castoffs being good enough for the SPL - to be fair, he could be right. But McGhee could be out the door if the side start slowly.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Another experienced forward might be nice, but there's not a lot of money in the kitty. Stuart Duff might yet be re-signed to provide more experience.

9) HAMILTON (down one place)

OVERVIEW: How much will they miss James McArthur? I'm not a fan of Billy Reid's style, but his team will be difficult to break down and should be good enough to avoid a relegation battle. They will hope former Morton midfielder Jim McAlister and Stirling defender Andy Graham can make the step up like Dougie Imrie did last season.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? If Reid gets any of McArthur's transfer fee to spend, expect him to bring back Mickael Antoine-Curier from Dundee to lead the attack. Joel Thomas, released by Colchester, had a decent loan spell last season at New Douglas Park and might be a cheaper option.

10) INVERNESS (down one place)

OVERVIEW: Like St. Johnstone, they appear to have decent depth; it remains to be seen if the first eleven is good enough to avoid a relegation battle. If one of their Irish forwards (Foran, Hayes or Rooney) can get a decent number of goals, they should be all right, and could yet repeat the Saints' seventh placed finish last season.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? Unlikely. Terry Butcher has signed three defenders in the past week and a half, and no-one seems likely to exit.

11) ST MIRREN (same)

OVERVIEW: I'll be surprised if they don't struggle, since they lost their best players (Dorman, Mehmet) and replaced them with Cowdenbeath players. The two loan signings, full-back Jure Travner and Celtic forward Paul McGowan, look like okay moves though. How well they fare depends mainly on just how good a coach Danny Lennon is.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? More midfield depth would be much appreciated. I'm unclear as to where the goals are going to come from - Michael Higdon and Craig Dargo have been shot-shy for a couple of seasons now.

12) KILMARNOCK (same)

OVERVIEW: Why on earth are they not the bookies' favourites for the drop? They avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth last summer, and since then have moved on thirteen first teamers and signed just one (a Portuguese winger who was let go by CSKA Sofia - not much of a pedigree). They have only sixteen players who have played first team football, and they don't have Kevin Kyle. At the time of writing, they are a shoo-in for the drop.

FURTHER TRANSFER WINDOW ACTIVITY? If Mixu Paatelainen has any funds left, he must use them - his side are deficient in all positions. They may yet have to sell Craig Bryson just so they can bring in three or four guys with the money.

That should do for now. I'll re-evaluate things before opening day in a week and a half.