Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How will Ross County fare in the SPL?

To many fans, I think this Scottish Premier League season has been a dismal campaign, more a chore than entertainment.

Of course, there will be plenty Jambos (cup finalists), Arabs (fourth in the league and rising), Saintees (top six), Steelmen (holding onto third) and Killie fans (league cup winners extraordinaire) who will take happy memories from 2011-12. But even they would admit that much of the football this season has been dross, about as entertaining as four hours of hearing John Major talk. And, ultimately, the biggest story of the year is not Celtic's title triumph, nor Kilmarnock's league cup win, nor the tantalising prospect of an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup Final, but Rangers' off-field gloom and potential demise. The highlight of my season as a Caley Thistle fan, incidentally, will be if I win the £20 I have with a work colleague that Rangers will be liquidated. That's less a reflection on my tendency towards schadenfreude (or schad-hun-freude, as the joke goes) and more about just how bloody depressing it has been to watch Inverness recently.

The main driving force behind me renewing my season ticket, and committing myself to spending 90 minutes every alternate Saturday with my head in my hands is the impending arrival in the SPL of our rivals from across the Moray Firth, and the return of Highland Derbies. I look back fondly on our matches in the lower leagues - they even used to send Hugh Dallas to referee our division 3 clashes, which included one where the Inverness keeper got hit by a coin from the crowd, and where the Ross County goalie responded to chants of 'Sumo!' (he was built for comfort, not for speed, shall we say) by picking up and eating a Mars bar chucked at him from the Caley support.

Other epic games included a 3-0 away win in Dingwall where County striker Alex Bone picked up three red cards - one for bad tackle, one for foul and abusive language, and one for trying (unsuccessfully) to headbutt future Inverness manager Charlie Christie as he left the field. And, of course, it's a chance to get out the Politically Incorrect Songbook, which includes such hits as 'The Wheels On Your House Go Round And Round" and "Who Put the O and Y in County?"

Seriously, though, on paper it looks like a tough task for Ross County to stay up. Look at what's happened to Dunfermline, promoted last season - attendances have been poor, and their first division title-winning squad have proven woefully out of their depth. And they are a club with history, from a decent sized town. In contrast, the entire population of Dingwall could fit inside Ross County's Victoria Park ground. They too have won the first division with a squad made up of players who have played at this level for several years - and who almost invariably failed to make an impact during brief spells playing the SPL earlier in their careers. For example, striker Colin McMenamin has scored 16 league goals this season, and led the line brilliantly. But he is 31 years old. He played in the SPL for three years with Livingston and scored only 10 goals. Gretna didn't feel he was good enough to play for them in the top division, even though he had banged them in in division one. And when he was made redundant by Dundee in 2010 it was Queen of the South who signed him, not an SPL team. McMenamin's story is typical of a lot of his teammates.

And, to cap it all, the team's outstanding attacking player, Michael Gardyne, has signed a pre-contract with Dundee United. So it's not unreasonable to think that it might be hard going for them to avoid a return to the second tier within twelve months. But their situation is different, and their survival chances far higher than Dunfermline's were this season.

 The reason? Money, of course.

 And not in the Brooks Mileson Spending Money Gretna Can't Afford way either. For Ross County are backed by a man named Roy MacGregor, chairman of Global Energy Group, described on their website as 'A leading energy industry service company'. They have fingers in the oil, gas and renewables pies. They are doing so well that, even in a recession, they have been making a profit. And MacGregor is a local man who has been involved with County almost since they were admitted to the Scottish League in 1994. Instead of throwing huge sums of money at the club to ensure super-quick success, he has instead concentrated on fostering steady improvement and community involvement. Dingwall may be small, yet Ross County's efforts to drum up support from Caithness and Sutherland (plus more than a few folk from Inverness as well) mean the club easily get 2,500 through the gate - this figure has increased further with the club's recent success on the field. The Highland Football Academy is next door to their ground, and there are plenty of opportunities for local kids to play football under the supervision of community coaches.

The occasional grand gesture from the chairman, such as funding every single supporters bus laid on for County's 2010 cup semi-final with Celtic and subsequent final with Dundee Utd, does no harm at all. Manager Derek Adams may well have the largest wage budget in the division, but I would wager that it is still smaller than any SPL budget. Ross County, in short, are a wonderfully run club. Dunfermline's experience will be taken on board by MacGregor, Adams et al. The squad will need strengthened considerably for the step up to the top flight. They will not be spending six figure sums on players, but I would bet the chairman will look to give his coach what he needs. Adams has proven himself an excellent coach, and it is long forgotten in these parts how he ditched County in October 2010 to become assistant boss to Colin Calderwood at Hibs; the following summer, with the club having spent the season in the wrong half of the table under the stewardship of Willie McStay and Jimmy Calderwood, MacGregor had the humility to take Adams back, and has been royally rewarded.

History dictates that County will probably start 2012-13 as relegation favourites, and that they may struggle to find their feet. But I wouldn't be surprised if they stayed up - and of course, the potential punishments awaiting Rangers may improve County's chances even further...but that's another story...


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Rangers and the repo men

Thank goodness for Murray Park, Ally thought, as the training session came to a close. What with all this administration malarkey, there was rather depressing air around the corridors of Ibrox these days. The two men from Duff & Phelps resided there these days, doing what Ally understood to be important things designed to rescue Rangers. What these things were was beyond his understanding; all he knew from a few surreptitious looks in an office window was that they involved an abacus and lots of tearing up of paper tissues.

But Murray Park felt like a mile away from all that, where he and the players could at least pretend that all the off-the-field stuff wasn't happening.

He was just collecting the cones when one of the youth team players came up to him, looking nervous. Ally looked up, and saw two stocky, heavy-set men dressed all in black, with leather jackets, right behind him. "Gaffer," the pimply youth squeaked, "these guys have come to see youse. They say they're bailiffs."

"Bailiffs?!" Ally exclaimed. He turned to the men; they might have been intimidating to both men, but years of showering with Dave McPherson and Mark Hateley meant that it took a lot to scare him. "What's all this about, then?"

One of the men took out a document from the pocket of his jacket, and handed it to him. "I'm sorry, Mr McCoist, but we've been sent from Edinburgh."

"Okay, what do you want?"

The man looked slightly awkward for a moment. "Uh...Lee Wallace".

"You what?"

"We've been sent to bring Lee Wallace back to Edinburgh. You see, Rangers haven't paid the £800,000 they still owe Hearts for him. You know how, if you don't keep up payments on your car, it gets repossessed? Same idea. Or, at least that's what Mr Romanov said." Ally tried to get a word in edgeways, but the man appeared to be reading from a script in his head. "It's all there in that documentation."

Ally looked down at the form and read it, his lips occasionally moving as he did so. He showed it to the man, pointing at it; "Can you tell me what that long word is?"


"Bugger. Okay, this all seems in order, damn it." He turned round to the youth player, who was still standing nearby. "Go and get Lee, will you?"

Lee came out a few minutes later in his training kit. "What's going on, boss?" Ally sighed. "I'm sorry, Lee, but you've got to go with these bailiffs. We haven't kept up our payments to Hearts, so they've got a court order to get you back".

Afterwards, Ally could have sworn that he saw the whites of Lee's eyes. "Naw, naw," he stammered, "I'm no going back to Tynecastle!" He turned and fled in the opposite direction. "Damn," muttered the other Heavy, who had stayed mum up to this point, "Mr Romanov said it would be like this. I'll go get the syringe and straitjacket out of the car".

When, a while later, a comatose Lee Wallace had been bundled into the trunk of the car and been driven off down the M8, Ally was just grateful that there had been no journalists around to see the full-back trying to climb one of the ten foot high fences to escape. It would have cost a fortune in lamb dinners and red wine to cover that up.

He and the players were just leaving Murray Park for the night when, to his horror, he found another two men waiting for him. Before he could say anything, one of the men spoke. His accent was Italian.

"Mr McCoist, we have come from Sicily, to take back what is ours. Give us Dorin Goian."

Ally was, by now, completely confused. "Goian. Why?"

"Palermo have not received the latest installments of his transfer fee. So they want him back. Now and again there is a use in Serie A for a big, immobile, clumsy centre back."

"And if I say no?"

The man leered, "Do you remember the film The Godfather? When the man woke up to a horse's head? Now, imagine how scary that would be if it was you, in your bed, waking up next to the head of Craig Whyte, huh?"

Ally thought briefly of Whyte's bulging eyes. Even Steven Naismith wasn't worth that horror. "Okay, okay, you win." He turned round and shouted at Doian, who was just getting into his car. A few minutes later, the Romanian defender was in a large cardboard box with FRAGILE and THIS WAY UP written on it, and that was the last Ally saw of him.

But it was not the last situation he had to deal with that day. That evening, whilst relaxing at home, the front doorbell rang. Surprise, surprise, it was two men dressed in black and wearing leather jackets.

"Our apologies, Mr McCoist, for bothering you so late in the day. But we have flown all the way from Vienna to pick up Mr Jelavic."

Ally furrowed his brow, not for the first time that day. "Jelavic? But he's been gone since the end of January."

One of the men looked sceptical. "Now, Mr McCoist, I know you will do anything to keep your star striker. But Rapid Vienna are owed £1 million from his transfer, and we demand Jelavic back."

"No, seriously, he's not in Glasgow. In fact..." Ally had a rare brainwave, "I know exactly where he is. All you need to do is go and visit a Mr D. Moyes. His address is Goodison Park, Liverpool. I'm sure he'll be able to help you. Good night". He shut the door.

That night, Ally reflected in bed on what had been a pretty rocky afternoon. Just as he was about to fall asleep, the phone rang. "Hello?" he said in a dozy voice.

"Sorry to bother you Mr McCoist," said the voice at the other end. "I am calling from the Swedish club Orebro. You haven't paid the fee for Alejandro Bedoya, and so we wish his registration returned to us."

"Oh, right. Thats, um, a shame. Well, please let me give you his address, telephone number and car registration so you can track him down as quickly as possible."

As the saying goes, McCoist thought, every cloud has a silver lining.

Of course, Rangers players will not be repossessed during all this rubbish. However, the list of creditors published by Duff & Phelps last week includes the above clubs, several other teams (to a total of £3.8 million), Strathclyde Police (£50,000), the company who made a glass decanter which was given to David Weir as a retirement gift (£350), the local newsagents (£500), the local deli (£260), and a plethora of other small companies who seem unlikely to ever get the money they are owed.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Inverness are in a mess

St. Johnstone are having an absolutely superb season. Fifth in the table as we head for the split, there is an excellent chance they will qualify for next season's Europa League. All this despite the lowest average attendance in the SPL (up by only 150 from last season, despite their considerable success), and despite losing their manager, Derek McInnes, to Bristol City in October, they have gone from strength to strength under their new boss, former Manchester City and West Ham midfielder Steve Lomas.

They came to the Highlands last midweek, and ground out a 1-0 win through a Francisco Sandaza penalty. The spotkick decision was debatable, and Caley Thistle spurned a few excellent chances, but the fact is that Saints, without playing particularly well, always looked comfortable and in control. Whilst target man forward Cillian Sheridan offers them an out-ball when they are under pressure, midfield duo Jody Morris and Murray Davidson (injured last week) are sufficiently comfortable in possession that Lomas' team are not displeasing on the eye.

What Caley Thistle fans would give for a team which vaguely resembles the side assembled 100 miles down the A9 at McDiarmid Park.

The last nine days summed up Inverness' season; it started with a 1-0 win at Pittodrie where ICT dominated the first half and then, after the sending off of young full-back Josh Meekings, a heroic backs-to-the-wall defensive effort to hang on with ten men for 34 minutes against what was, admittedly, an abysmal Aberdeen side who, to quote Blackadder, offered as much creativity as a group of blind a bag.

That was a first win in seven matches. Any raised hopes among the support were dented by the loss to St Johnstone in midweek, then well and truly trampled on by a 3-2 loss to struggling Hibernian on Sunday. An utterly dominant first half from the home side produced no goals, and though ICT took the lead early in the second half through a penalty - their first since November 2010 - they collapsed after Hibs earned a cheap equalizer and lost 3-2. Hibs managed all of three clear-cut chances in the entire game.

After 32 games, Inverness have 31 points - a total which is no better than they had at this point three years ago, as they lurched towards relegation. Their goal difference is worse than it was then, too. We can count ourselves lucky that, this time around, the ineptitude of Hibernian and Dunfermline has made demotion an extremely remote possibility. But it has also acted as a smokescreen for what has been a hugely disappointing campaign for Terry Butcher.

Last season's seventh place finish raised expectations amongst the support, and Butcher only stoked them further with grandiose talk of making the top six. In order to achieve this, he gutted the squad, most controversially releasing seasoned veterans Grant Munro and Russell Duncan. Both signed for Ross County, where Duncan has barely featured; centre-back Grant Munro, on the other hand, is huge favourite to be the first division's player of the year. Munro has not been adequately replaced. Neither, unsurprisingly, has striker Adam Rooney, who left to try his luck with Birmingham City.

The arrival of players like cultured Welsh international Owain Tudur Jones from Norwich, and Irish winger Aaron Doran from Blackburn, were supposed to be part of a change in style from a robust, direct team to an eloquent, passing side, not least since he replaced the 6'2" Rooney with 5'7" Northampton forward Billy McKay. McKay has scored a grand total of one goal, having played 1,187 minutes of football this season. He has spurned a lot of chances. But he has also hardly benefitted from a constant stream of high balls aimed at him which are meat and drink to the centre-backs marking him. Doran and Jones have missed much of the season with injury, as has centre-back Chris Hogg and arguably the most impressive signing of last summer, midfielder Andy Shinnie.

But you can only blame so much of Caley's current woes on injuries. The style of play has been hideous; at times this season home games have been unwatchable. Several of Butcher's signings, including a number of loanees, have been a complete waste of time. Some of our emerging young players, Nick Ross and Shane Sutherland, have regressed, not helped by being in and out of the team; others such as captain Richie Foran and summer signing Greg Tansey, seem undroppable whatever they do. The personnel in the backline may have constantly chopped and changed, but the manager and his assistant, Maurice Malpas, are two former international defenders who don't seem able to organize a defence. And up front, even when we are creating chances, our forwards can't take them - yet, as shown by the stats of McKay I quoted earlier, the boss still picks them.

Worst of all, the performance in the win against Aberdeen showed a level of desire and character that has been all too rare as the season has progressed. The players certainly look disorganized. Increasingly, they look demotivated. The current situation reminds me of the end of the 2007-08 season, where a run of 3 wins in 16 games (2 of which came against ailing Gretna) set off a few alarm bells. The club stuck with Craig Brewster till January 2009 - his dismissal came ultimately too late to stave off the dreaded drop.

Butcher has now been manager of Inverness for more than three years. Is this season just, as I hope, a blip on the radar? Or is it, as I fear, a sign that he has taken Caley Thistle as far as he can, and that we're headed for a downward spiral that could make us relegation favourites next time around?