Sunday, May 22, 2011

Motherwell and Killie - a flash in the pan?

Have I already used the line "Mixu Paatelainen did more with Kilmarnock than Jesus did with five loaves and two fish" or something along those lines?

I'm far too lazy to check back through previous blogposts to see if I have, but I don't care - I'm so proud of that comparison that I will use it twice. It's my blog, dammit.

But you only have to see how Killie collapsed after big Mixu left to see how much they missed him...or alternately, how caretaker boss Kenny Shiels is to football management what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to reasoned political debate. Killie failed to win any of the eight games under Shiels' direction, which means chairman Michael Johnston will surely go looking for another coach this summer; if nothing else, I'm sure there are a few jakies in the local high street who could go do the job better, and would only need to be paid in bottles of Buckfast.

But, whilst big Mixu was in charge, he got his side playing lovely passing football, with the his fellow Finn, Alexei Eremenko, the conductor-in-chief. When Killie gave Caley a good going over after Christmas, I said at one point "Look at Eremenko strut around like he's the best player on the pitch"; within a few minutes he became clear that he had good reason to do so. Paatelainen also got the best of Moroccan Mehdi Taouil, and turned Irish forward Connor Sammon from a plodding pubteam player into an explosive striker who an English Premier League team felt they could take a punt on in January.

But finding a new coach is just the first of the club's worries; there's no way they can afford to make Eremenko's loan deal permanent. Taouil and another midfielder, Craig Bryson, are likely to move on under a Bosman, while full-back Jamie Hamill appears to have earned a move to Hearts. The team's weak spot was always at the back, but it will be even more vulnerable unless they can sign another on-loan player, defender Momo Sissoko, and convince Scotland squad keeper Cammy Bell to sign a new contract.

In short, Kilmarnock are pretty much back where they were twelve months ago - manager-less, with a thin squad and a lack of quality or depth in the squad. Can they really strike the jackpot again, or was this season just a brief escape from perpetual relegation worries?

The latter, most likely - expect them to be back in the bottom half next year.

I suspect Motherwell might be there too.

When Craig Brown left for Pittodrie in December, taking Well's most potent striker, the on-loan Nick Blackman, with him, not many would have bet on the team making it to the top six, not least when highly-rated centre back Mark Reynolds legged it to Sheffield Wednesday in the transfer window. The appointment as manager of Stuart McCall seemed a bit underwhelming given his rather mediocre record down south with Bradford City, but he steadied the ship nicely and managed to get the results despite playing on a pitch that looked like a scene from The Battle of the Somme. He even guided the team to the cup final, even if they rarely threatened to deny Neil Lennon his moment of glory.

It's just a shame that McCall insists on patrolling the touchline in a tracksuit top and too-short shorts combo.

Dear oh dear. That really should be illegal.

Unlike Kilmarnock, though, Motherwell have a reasonable chance of holding on to most of their squad - though goalkeeper Darren Randolph has gone from being Charlton Athletic reserve to Ireland squad member in a year, while electric but inconsistent winger Chris Humphrey, signed from Shrewsbury two years ago, is being linked with teams ranging from Rangers to Liverpool (no, I can't believe it either). The decision of striker John Sutton to leave for Hearts was a blow though.

But they might get a half-decent fee for Humphrey and, if they do, they could afford to keep Randolph and young forward Jamie Murphy. Couple that with a youth system which seems to solidly produce one or two new first team players a season and McCall has a recipe that could keep Motherwell in the top six; they certainly appear to be in better shape than Kilmarnock are.

League: 6th, 46pts
League Cup: semi final
Scottish Cup: final

Star man: John Sutton had always looked like a journeyman forward until this season, but chose a contract year to take his game to the next level. Sadly for Motherwell, he's signed for Hearts for next season.
Waste of space: Craig Brown didn't make many mistakes in the transfer market, but the signing of the lesser-spotted Spanish striker Esteban Casagolda was one of them - 13 appearances and no goals later, he will almost certainly be on his way.

Confirmed first team departures: Gavin Gunning (end of loan), John Sutton
Other likely departures: Esteban Casagolda, Angelis Charalambous, Francis Jeffers, Steve Jones, Maurice Ross
Needs for next season: A target man and a centre-half to take over from veteran Stephen Craigan.

League: 5th, 49pts
League Cup: quarter final
Scottish Cup: 4th round

Star man: Finn Alexei Eremenko was a breath of fresh air and a class above any other player outside the Old Firm; do not rule out seeing him wearing a Rangers or Celtic shirt next season.
Waste of space: The signing of Willy Aubameyang from Milan in January sounded exotic, but he has made little impact so far. At least he chose not to put his first name on his shirt, unlike in Italy...

Confirmed first team departures: Kieran Agard (end of loan), Alexei Eremenko (end of loan), Jamie Hamill
Other likely departures: Craig Bryson, Mohamadou Sissoko, Mehdi Taouil
Needs for next season: Strikers, and lots of them, plus creative midfield players and a new right back.


Friday, May 20, 2011

Can Caley and St Johnstone take the next step?

Aww, do I have to talk about St. Johnstone as well?

Oh, all right then.

It works quite well, actually, as Inverness find themselves in roughly the same position as the Perth Saints did twelve months ago - at the end of a successful first season back in the top flight having never flirted with relegation and instead come close to the top six.

Derek McInnes was quite active in last summer's transfer market, bringing several players in from south of the border to try and take his team forward. McInnes remains a bright prospect in the management business, but the last twelve months have not really enhanced his reputation...though they have not damaged it either. But whilst his side were never in danger of the drop, they never got as close to top six status as they came last year. St. Johnstone's biggest problem is in front of goal; their total of 23 in 38 league games exacerbated by a horrendous spell in the early Spring where they scored only once in twelve matches, and that was an own goal.

I suppose you can turn that around and say that their defence deserves praise - they only conceded 43 league goals - but it made for pretty dull football, especially at their own McDiarmid Park, where half their matches had one goal or fewer in them. This wasn't helped by a pitch only slightly less hideous than Motherwell's, but it's unlikely to bring in the fans. McInnes has already acted to correct this, bringing in attacking midfielder David Robertson (Dundee Utd) and striker Sean Higgins (Dundee) for next season. But his watertight defence is likely to lose veteran defender Michael Duberry, best known down south for flattering to deceive at Chelsea and Leeds, but even at 36 a class above your average SPL centre-half.

St. Johnstone's destiny might well depend as much on McInnes' future; he turned down the manager's job at League One Brentford last week, quite possibly because he expects better offers. If (or, more likely, when) he leaves, he will be hard to replace.

There's no such danger of Terry Butcher leaving Inverness; after some bad experiences down south (including at Brentford, actually), he appears to have decided that Inverness is for him, and has started making big statements about the future of the club. He's been backing up these statements with huge decisions too, not least his decision to chuck long-serving players Grant Munro and Russell Duncan, both of whom started more than half our league games this season.

They were part of a successful side too, who showed a willingness to go toe-to-toe with anyone - they beat every team in the league except Hearts and Rangers at least once, but also lost to every team at least once too. A bit of inconsistency and naivety is to be expected following promotion, I guess, and every ICT fan would have been delighted if offered a 7th place finish nine months ago. Whilst hopes of top six evaporated with a nightmare run at the turn of the year, an excellent finish to the campaign (the highlight being the 3-2 win over Celtic, worth the entire season ticket outlay) means that Butcher has the trust of the supporters.

If St Johnstone's immediate future depends on the geographical location of McInnes, Inverness' outlook depends just as much on whether striker Adam Rooney signs a new contract with severtal clubs sniffing around; he will be hard to replace if he goes, and I can't help feeling that offers from Championship clubs might turn his head. But it seems that Caley's plan is to bring in more 'Rooneys', young players from down south who can try and make a name for themselves. It might go horribly wrong, and leave us back where we were when Butcher came in, or it might go wonderfully right and we might emulate the success of Kilmarnock this season.

So can Inverness or St Johnstone push on and become top six sides?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Come on, you didn't expect a straight answer from me, did you?

League: 7th, 53pts
League Cup: 3rd round
Scottish Cup: quarter final

Star man: Adam Rooney got the plaudits for the goals, but goalkeeper Ryan Esson was supporters player of the year and deservedly so; my biased opinion is that he should be on the brink of a Scotland call-up.
Waste of Space: Young Israeli Gil Blumenshtein was labelled "Blumen-s****" by a fellow supporter within an hour of his debut; he lived up to that label whilst on the pitch, but spent most of the season "blumen"-injured.

Confirmed first team departures: Gil Blumenshtein, Russell Duncan, Stuart Golabek, Chris Hogg, Chris Innes, Alex MacDonald, Roy McBain, Grant Munro, Eric Odhiambo, Danni Sanchez
Other likely departures: Aaron Doran, Adam Rooney
Needs for next season: Probably another striker. Definitely another centre-back and right-back. Is a creative midfielder too much to ask for?

League: 8th, 44pts
League Cup: quarter final
Scottish Cup: semi final

Star man: Michael Duberry can't do anything other than head the ball really far, or punt it really far - but he does these things so well!

Waste of Space: Veteran Scott Dobie, a former Scotland international, was supposed to bring experience and guile to the forward line, but he got injured early on and scored only one goal before being offloaded on loan to Bradford City.

Confirmed first team departures: Scott Dobie, Danny Invincibile, Andy Jackson, Peter MacDonald, Arvydas Novikovas, Jordan Robertson, Kevin Rutkiewicz, Collin Samuel, Graeme Smith, Cleveland Taylor
Other likely departures: Michael Duberry, Murray Davidson
Needs for next season: A proven striker and, if Duberry goes, a dominating centre-half.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Accies and St Mirren - the best argument yet for two up, two down

It sticks in the craw a bit to know that when Caley Thistle were relegated two years ago, and my mum reduced to tears, that our total of 37 points would have been enough to finish tenth this season.

St. Mirren came up to Inverness on boxing day, when we were riding high in fourth, with our last three results having been draws with Celtic, Rangers and Hearts. That success had clearly gone to our heads - the Buddies came up north and outfought and outscrapped us, returning down the A9 with a 2-1 win.

I can't help feeling that we were unlucky to be on the end of that particular St. Mirren performance. Danny Lennon's side didn't win again till the beginning of April, when they beat Hamilton 3-1; even then, they nearly managed to blow the twelve point cushion they had over Accies with a set of abysmal results, so that when they returned to the Highlands the weekend before last they still weren't safe. This time, the elan was sorely missing, and even when Caley had a player sent off they still looked more toothless than a man with scurvy, gingivitis and a penchant for chewing diamonds as they lost 1-0. Thankfully for them, they nicked a win at Pittodrie in their penultimate game in order to stay up.

No team has finished with fewer points and avoided relegation since the SPL expanded to twelve teams in 2000. That's how bad Hamilton have been.

The table doesn't lie. Hamilton didn't win a league game at their own New Douglas Park (would you believe their old ground was called 'Douglas Park'? Original, creative name for the new ground there) until their penultimate match there. Three of their five league victories came in the last month of the season. I'd tipped Billy Reid's side for the drop for both their first two seasons in the top flight, and been left with some egg on my face both times; this year, I predicted they'd come ninth.

What went wrong this time? Well, when they came up in 2008, they could boast James McCarthy (now at Wigan and an Ireland international), James McArthur (now at Wigan and a Scotland international) and Brian Easton (now at Burnley). These three have never been replaced. To cap it all, Reid lost captain and influential midfielder Alex Neil for the season, and another experienced player, Simon Mensing, for a month for taking an illegal dietary supplement.

In previous years, he managed to mould together some gritty veterans with some enterprising young players to make a solid team; this year, his team were, basically, a bit rubbish. No, actually, they were very, very rubbish indeed. They were to the SPL what Hayden Christiansen is to Star Wars - not only were they boring, flat and hopeless, they did their level best to ruin it for everyone else; I can remember seeing them take the ball to the corner flag once to run out the clock on a 1-0 lead...with 15 minutes left. Their keeper, Tomas Cerny, must be the slowest goal kick taker ever...though Hamilton fans maintain that he is just as slow when they are losing as when they are winning.

Billy Reid's one hope is that the youngsters he has blooded this season are up to the task of battling out of division one; he at least has held on to the likes of Neil and Mensing, who should stand out in that league. But it's one heck of a division to get out of...

And as for St. Mirren, they have survived on a shoestring, yet are set to cut their budget even further this summer. Lennon got the job because of what he accomplished with no money at Cowdenbeath, and because he convinced the board he could find quality players in the lower leagues, a claim backed up only by the outstanding Darren McGregor. Whilst the arrival in the top flight of striker Gareth Wardlaw, a postman given his first full-time contract at age 30, seemed romantic, it was also a bit of a waste of a wage. Yet, unless talk of a "community takeover" finally comes to something, Lennon will have to do much more with even less next season. Unless he comes up with a miracle, or his club come up with some cash, the Buddies are overwhelming relegation favourites.

But I said that about Kilmarnock this time last year as well...

League: 11th, 33pts
League Cup: 2nd round
Scottish Cup: quarter final

Star man: striker Michael Higdon got into double figures for goals despite being in a team which carried less offensive threat than a blind hedgehog trapped in a paper bag.
Waste of space: Lennon persisted with on-loan Celtic forward Paul McGowan all season - his crowning achievements were one league goal, an appearance similar to the neds on 'Chewing The Fat' and a threat to a critical Caley fan a fortnight ago to "see me outside after the game".

Confirmed first team departures: Garry Brady, Patrick Cregg, Craig Dargo, Nick Hegarty, Sean Lynch, Jamie McCluskey, John Potter, Gareth Wardlaw
Other likely departures: Michael Higdon, Paul McGowan
Needs for next season: Some good wide players. If Higdon goes, an entirely new forward line as well.

League: 12th, 26pts
League Cup: 2nd round
Scottish Cup: 5th round

Star man: On balance, probably midfielder Dougie Imrie, who has at least been energetic; he is likely to sign for St Johnstone.
Waste of space: I believe Hamilton paid a five-figure fee to Dundee Utd in August for Argentine striker Damian Casalinuovo, who was let go before the end of the season having scored a grand total of zero goals.

Confirmed first team departures: David Buchanan, Mark Carrington, Damian Casalinuovo, David Elebert, Tom Elliott, Grant Evans, Flavio Paixao, James Gibson, Andy Graham, Marco Paixao, Gary McDonald, Sean Murdoch, Gavin Skelton, Aaron Wildig
Other likely departures: Dougie Imrie
Needs for next season: Depends on how good these youngsters are. Several of the squad might actually have found their level following relegation.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Aberdeen and Hibs - the revolution begins...again

It seems like only a couple of years since Aberdeen and Hibernian were last in this situation - an underwhelming season, new managers, a huge rebuilding job and overhauling of the playing squad required this summer.

Wait a minute - it is only a couple of years. Flashback to May 2009; Aberdeen forced out Jimmy Calderwood despite the fact that the perma-tanned tweedle-dee lookalike had guided the team to five consecutive top six finishes, amid claims, particularly from the supporters, that the club had gone stale. Hibernian, meanwhile, terminated the 18 month reign of Mixu Paatelainen, despite having finished sixth - big Mixu might have had success at Cowdenbeath and in Finnish football, but he was clearly out of his depth at SPL level.

I wonder whether Hibs chairman Rod Petrie lay awake at night during this season, thinking of what Mixu accomplished at Kilmarnock (Jesus might have fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish, but I strongly doubt he could have got 18 goals out of Connor Sammon by January) and wishing that maybe he shouldn't have pulled the trigger so hastily? It had looked like a shrewd move for the first six months, with the side starting the 2009-10 season with a bang under ex-Falkirk boss John Hughes, but the wheels fell off spectacularly in the second half of the campaign; when Hughes got his P45 in October 2010, he had won just four of his last 28 games in charge.

The only surprise about Hughes' exit was that it came before that of Mark McGhee at Pittodrie. McGhee was supposed to take Aberdeen to the next level, whatever the heck that means - in the end he did a good job of trying to take them to the level below. Whilst the nucleus of Calderwood's squad disintegrated faster than the Italian army in 1941, their replacements were, to diplomatically put it, not up to the required standard. Take, for example, Jerel Ifil, the centre-back signed from Swindon who appeared to apply more attention to his afro than his defensive duties.

The Dons finished a lowly ninth last time around, and with the quality of football as turgid as the results McGhee started this season under pressure. Any remaining credibility sunk without trace after he agreed a transfer-deadline day loan swap with Rangers, picking up Lithuanian forward Andrius Velicka in exchange for full-back Ricky Foster. Foster went on to be a solid, unspectacular squad player at Ibrox who even started a few Champions' League games; Velicka started only one game and scored only one goal; it transpired his knee was so dodgy that he couldn't train on the club's artificial training pitch.

Unsurprisingly, he was away by January, a month after Craig Brown had left Motherwell to take over at Pittodrie, and two months after a 9-0 humiliation at Celtic which left McGhee a lame duck. Whilst Brown oversaw a bounce in form, it transpired to be of the "dead cat" variety - at the season's end his 22 league games had produced an unremarkable 28 points. To cap it all, his captain, Paul Hartley, has announced his retirement, while defender Zander Diamond is likely to leave for Hearts and winger Sone Aluko and exciting forward Chris Maguire could move as well. Aberdeen have almost no experience in their squad for next season, bar ex-Colchester striker Scott Vernon, and they have no cash to bring it in. Yet attendances have slumped and Pittodrie has all the atmosphere of a morgue on matchdays. Brown's task is an unenviable one.

At least Brown got some sort of upturn in form when he was appointed; Hughes's successor at Easter Road, Colin Calderwood, looked like a solid appointment on paper having done a solid job at Nottingham Forest and been a coach at Newcastle but, aside from a shock 3-0 win away to Rangers, the first three months were a nightmare. By the time Hibs were shunted out of the cup by Ayr United, the vultures were not only circling, but licking their lips and tying napkins around their necks. Luckily for Calderwood, something finally clicked on the pitch and his side won five straight league games from the start of February, pulling them away from a relegation battle.

But since then it's unclicked again, with only one win in the last ten games of the season. Calderwood has bought himself some time by having shown in January that he has an eye for a player, with young Icelandic midfielder Victor Palsson and journeyman forward Akpo Sodje having looked shrewd buys. But Derek Riordan is set to skedaddle and there's no guarantee the likes of Liam Miller will stay either. And the club have already announced twelve departures from their first team squad.

So expect lots of new faces at these two clubs over the post-season. The goal is clear; anything other than being an established top six side is unacceptable. But they said that two years ago as well; what price that, in the summer of 2013, both teams will have gone back to the drawing board once more?

League: 9th, 38 pts
League Cup: semi final
Scottish Cup: semi final

Star man: Chris Maguire - he finally began to fulfil his potential this season. If he leaves Pittodrie expect to see him in the Championship.
Waste of space: Andrius Velicka - not just because he was unfit and goalshy, but because the Dons traded away a good defender in exchange

Confirmed first team departures: Myles Anderson, Nick Blackman, Paul Hartley, Mark Howard, Dean Jarvis, David McNamee, Nikola Vujadinovic, Derek Young
Other likely departures: Sone Aluko, Zander Diamond, Steven Smith
Needs for next season: Pretty much everywhere except midfield, but especially

League: 10th, 37pts
League Cup: third round
Scottish Cup: fourth round
Europa League: third qualifying round

Star player: Derek Riordan - he might be a lazy bum, but when he can be bothered he is one of the most potent players in the country.
Waste of space: Colin Nish - the big forward's confidence has been destroyed by the supporters, and he offered no threat at all this season.

Confirmed first team departures: Kurtis Byrne, Darryl Duffy, Kevin McBride, Kevin McCann, Colin Nish, John Rankin, Graeme Smith, Steven Thicot, Valdas Trakys
Other likely departures: Liam Miller, Derek Riordan, Ricardo Vaz Te
Needs for next season: At least two new forwards, plus some creative midfield players and a new centre-back.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lennongate - Where do we go from here?

Just when you thought Scottish football couldn't get dragged any lower, some complete and utter moron attacks Neil Lennon at Tynecastle. The reputation of our domestic game was already just about in the gutter; now it's languishing in a deep, dark Victorian sewer.

My blog on Neil Lennon last week, filled as it was with criticism of his touchline demeanour and garnished with somewhat unflattering pictures of the Celtic manager, might have given readers the impression that I am not particularly fond of him.

Let's just say I wouldn' buy him lunch. In fact, if he was on fire I would probably refrain from urinating on him.

But in the greater scheme of things, Lennon is a wind-up merchant - making provocative comments in interviews, gestures to opposing fans, over-celebrating Celtic's goals. He is the Abanazar of Scottish football - we all boo and hiss (and some shout things that you wouldn't normally hear at the pantomime) but, in the greater scheme of things, it's all part of the show and the entertainment.

So, no, I don't like Neil Lennon very much, and yes, I took great amusement in his antics at Inverness last week. But what went on at Tynecastle was just sickening. Let me put it this way; Neil Lennon is a football manager. That's all he is. He is not a terrorist, nor a mass murderer, nor a corrupt, cruel despot. He is just a football manager. So how on earth can anyone possibly justify, in their own minds, sending death threats, or parcel bombs, or trying to attack him during the game?

Of course, with enough alcohol on board, some people will do anything, and I suspect this was the fuel powering the lunatic Hearts fan who jumped the barriers and went for the Celtic dugout. Hopefully, when it comes to sentencing him, the judge's words will include "throw", "away" and "key".

But it's just another addition to the long list of shameful incidents that have tarnished Scottish football this season. The end of the campaign, the cup final on 22 May, can't come quickly enough. But where do we go from here?

Scottish football faces a summer of reckoning as it is. There has already been a talent drain in recent years from the SPL; over the next few months it will be not so much a drain as a whirlpool. We already know that some of the best players at non-Old Firm clubs - Conway, Gomis and Buaben at Dundee Utd, Riordan at Hibs, Eremenko at Kilmarnock, and possibly Inverness' Rooney and Aberdeen's Maguire - are likely to leave, probably to go south of the border. And it's no surprise; I'm reliably informed that former Caley Thistle midfielder Don Cowie increased his basic wage six times over when he signed for Watford two years ago, so Championship clubs have huge financial clout compared to the SPL. League One might be ahead as well - note how close Derek McInnes came to leaving St Johnstone for Brentford this week.

And as for the Old Firm, Rangers' new owner has been bullish about the funds Ally McCoist will have available, but the club still have a huge HMRC investigation hanging over them. Celtic, meanwhile, will need to fight off suitors of Izaguirre, Hooper and Kayal - will they be able to resist the lure of the English Premier League? Bluntly, you can expect so much wheeling and dealing this summer that you'd think Del Boy Trotter was in charge of some of these clubs.

So where will we be come the end of July, and the start of the 2011-12 season? I've no idea.

But it can't go on like this. Scottish football is haemorrhaging talent, and it's haemorrhaging interest as well. It's turning into World Wrestling Entertainment - a lot of trash talk, a lot of posturing, and most of the fighting is half-hearted and pretend. And like WWE, it's only entertaining to children and to people with IQs in single figures who have no life and are tanked up on substances.

It's not fair, you know; Caley have won four of their last five games and steamed to a creditable 7th place finish, pretty damn good for a side who have just been promoted. Why can't I blog about them instead?


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year part 2

See, I told you El Hadji Diouf wouldn't get in. And surely I deserve respect for resisting the temptation to include Caley players?

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Beram KAYAL (Celtic), Alexei EREMENKO (Kilmarnock)
Honourable mentions: Paul Hartley (Aberdeen), Morgaro Gomis (Dundee United), Rudi Skacel (Hearts)

I don't expect to see Kayal or Eremenko to be in the SPL this year. I've already talked up the Finn previously, and he is the primary (maybe even the only) reason why Killie made into the top six. Kayal, meanwhile, missed most of the first half of the season with injury (and will miss the end of it too) but his combination of skill and industry are attracting interest from south of the border.

WIDE MIDFIELD: Steven NAISMITH (Rangers), David TEMPLETON (Hearts)
Honourable mentions: Craig Conway (Dundee Utd), Jonny Hayes (Inverness), Vladimir Weiss (Rangers)

Ah, it's nice to be able to pick a left sided midfield player this season - thankfully Templeton was awesome before Christmas and has returned to form in the last few weeks. At 21, I think he might have a bright future. After some injury hit seasons, Naismith is finally realising his potential, with goals in the Champions League and for Scotland this year as well as starring for Rangers/

ATTACK: David GOODWILLIE (Dundee United), Nikica JELAVIC (Rangers)
Honourable mentions: Gary Hooper (Celtic), Adam Rooney (Inverness); Michael Higdon (St. Mirren)

Goodwillie was a no-brainer - he has had a wonderful season despite spending much of it with a charge for rape hanging over his head (and chants of "You only score when she's sleeping" at away games). Jelavic has only started half of Rangers' games, but he gets in because he has carried the Gers in the last few months, whereas Gary Hooper's form has dipped a little in the last little while.

So that's the team of the year, then. Feel free to slag it off if you wish, I won't be too offended.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Neil Lennon's antics: helping or hindering Celtic?

Neil Lennon wasn't even at Celtic when Super Caley went Ballistic eleven years ago.

But "ballistic" seemed an appropriate word to describe the Northern Irishman on Wednesday night, as Celtic's title challenge took an almighty blow.

It was supposed to be so easy; the Hoops were in control of their destiny, one point behind Rangers but with a game in hand and a superior goal difference. They were in top form, with only one league defeat since November. None of their first choice eleven were missing. Meanwhile, as an Inverness fan, I feared the worst - the weekend had seen a timid defeat by Aberdeen, while two days later the club announced the impending departure of ten first team players at the end of the season. Logic dictated that morale would be low and, with little to play for other than pride, motivation would be hard to find. My pre-kickoff prediction was a repeat of the 5-0 thumping Rangers gave Motherwell at Fir Park four days earlier.

Which all goes to show that football is a funny old game. For Caley Thistle buzzed around the pitch like a swarm of hornets, as if they didn't have a care in the world. The 3-2 scoreline, in the end, did not tell the whole story; Celtic's second goal was a last gasp penalty, whilst Caley spurned two gilt-edged chances to extend the lead to 4-1. Centre-half Grant Munro, a local boy who has totted up more than 300 appearances for the club over more than a decade, smashed in a stunning left-footed strike for the second goal...the ultimate two-fingered salute to his manager for announcing only 48 hours before that Munro would not be getting a new contract. A hackneyed Hollywood scriptwriter would have ended the scoring after that, but five minutes later 20 year old forward Shane Sutherland slammed in a volley that nearly broke the far post on the way in to the net. For that goal, and in the build up to Caley's first half opener, Scotland's player of the year, Honduran full back Emilio Izaguirre, was conspicuous by his abysmal positioning.

Celtic's players by contrast looked nervous, disjointed and unhappy from start to finish, but that was nothing on their manager; Lennon is a one-man entertainment show all in himself, fidgeting on the touchline as if a ferret and a mongoose were holding a running battle in his trouser legs. Even the most blatant fouls by his own players would prompt an expletive-filled scream, the trademark snarl, a flapping of arms so frantic that you wouldn't have been surprised if he had risen into the air under his own power. The coup de grace came in the dying moments when Paddy McCourt flung himself to the ground in a desperate attempt to win a second penalty. The referee (a Mr O'Reilly...the jokes write themselves) was not conned, so Lennon ran onto the pitch himself, then turned around, skipped a few steps in a rather camp way (one poster on pie and bovril likened it to "Julian Clary taking a penalty"), then launched an almighty kick at a bunch of defenceless water bottles on the touchline.


Though, in his "defence", the Celtic manager seemed to treat his own players with the contempt he saves for the rest of the universe - every misplaced pass was greeted with a bounce and a tantrum. Perhaps this is just the way he coaches. I suspect that, at times, his passion and will-to-win can be a superb motivating tool; it certainly explains why, despite the fact that Celtic lost the league cup final and now have a significant chance of missing out on the SPL title too, the Celtic support have given him messianic status.

But Wednesday evening in Inverness was a time for a cool head, not a hot one. Panic set in for the away side at 3-1 down; the last thing they needed was to look at the touchline and see a human volcano on the brink of exploding. And Lennon's curious decision to leave Georgios Samaras on the bench and replace Gary Hooper with the mediocre Daryl Murphy when chasing the game smacked of a man who was a bit desperate and not thinking completely clearly. It was the move of an inexperienced manager under pressure.

As it stands, Celtic might yet nick the title, but the odds are against them. And if Celtic end the season with only a Scottish Cup to show for it (assuming they do see off Motherwell), with no prospect of the Champions League next season, and having lost out for the title to a Rangers side that has been patchwork and down to the bare bones for months, despite having a vastly stronger squad, will Lennon still be as holy in the eyes of the Celtic faithful then? And does Dermot Desmond give him another year and another transfer budget?


(The team of the year will be continued at some point, I promise!)