Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SPL preview - Ross County, St Johnstone, St Mirren

Right, that's that tour de force over.  Aside from having Celtic to win the title and Dundee to go down, I don't stand by any of my predictions.  I don't stand by my predicted starting elevens either...or the formations used...basically, you shouldn't trust a word I say...


LAST SEASON: Winners of the first division

NOTABLE INS: Jonathan Bateson (Macclesfield), Gary Glen (Hearts) Mihael Kovacevic (Zadar), Ross Tokely (Inverness), Martin Scott (Hibernian, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Johnny Flynn (Falkirk), Michael Gardyne (Dundee Utd), Gary Miller (St Johnstone), David McNamee, Scott Morrison

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Michael Fraser, Joe Malin
Defenders: Jonathan Bateson, Scott Boyd, Marc Fitzpatrick, Mihael Kovacevic, Grant Munro, Ross Tokely
Midfielders: Richard Brittain, Alex Cooper, Mark Corcoran, Russell Duncan, Stuart Kettlewell, Paul Lawson, Rocco Quinn, Martin Scott, Iain Vigurs
Forwards: Kurtis Byrne, Steven Craig, Gary Glen, Colin McMenamin, Sam Morrow

football formations

STAR MAN: Those who remember his efforts for Inverness may not be convinced that he is of SPL quality, but Grant Munro absolutely waltzed through last season as the first division's outstanding centre-half.

YOUNG GUN: In a squad with very few young players, former Liverpool youth player Alex Cooper (the son of former County manager Neale) will hope to emerge.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Ross County look in far better shape than last year's promoted side, Dunfermline - for a start, they have the financial backing of Roy McGregor.  It's a squad full of solid first division players, but in the current climate that might be enough to stay up, even though underrated right back Gary Miller and the outstanding Michael Gardyne have left.  The new signings provide depth in defence, while Martin Scott returns after 18 months at Hibs and Gary Glen has the chance to prove he is an SPL striker.  They won't be relegated; if they are in trouble at Christmas they will strengthen in January.

THE MANAGER: He seems destined to pick up a touchline ban every season, but Derek Adams is a shrewd young manager who knows how to set up a team.  The first division title and that Scottish Cup final appearance two years ago have earned him iconic status, even though he spent nine months as assistant boss at Hibs inbetween.




NOTABLE INS: Patrick Cregg (Bury), Nigel Hasselbaink (St. Mirren), Gary Miller (Ross County), Tam Scobbie (Falkirk), Gregory Tade (Inverness), Jonny Tuffey (Inverness), Rowan Vine (QPR)

NOTABLE OUTS: Carl Finnigan (Dundee), Marcus Haber (Stevenage), Michael Hart (Airdrie), Jody Morris (Bristol City), Jack Compton (Falkirk, end of loan), Lee Croft (Derby, end of loan), James Keatings (Celtic, end of loan), Kudus Oyenuga (Spurs, end of loan), Cillian Sheridan (CSKA Sofia, end of loan), Peter Enckelman, Alan Maybury, Derek Riordan, Francisco Sandaza

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Alan Mannus, Jonny Tuffey
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Callum Davidson, Dave Mackay, David McCracken, Gary Miller, Tam Scobbie, Frazer Wright
Midfielders: Jamie Adams, Liam Caddis, Liam Craig, Patrick Cregg, Murray Davidson, Chris Millar, Kevin Moon, David Robertson
Forwards: Nigel Hasselbaink, Sean Higgins, Stevie May, Gregory Tade, Rowan Vine

football formations

STAR MAN: Murray Davidson was courted by Rangers last season, and the impressive midfielder, who has made a few Scotland squads, will continue to attract interest this time around.

YOUNG GUN: Stevie May went down to division 3 last year on loan at Alloa, and went on a goalscoring spree.  He has scored in the SPL for Saintees before - can he make it a regular occurrence?

THE SEASON AHEAD: The loss of big players like Jody Morris and Fran Sandaza will hurt, but if Rowan Vine turns out to be an adequate replacement for the latter, and he gets the best out of the erratic duo of Hasselbaink and Tade, St Johnstone could be a very decent side.  I really don't know how good they will be - they might be decent enough to challenge for second place, with a bit of luck, or if there are injuries and some underachievers they might miss out on top six.

THE MANAGER: Derek McInnes was a hard act to follow, but Steve Lomas kept the Saintees in the top six, though his January signings were hit and miss.  He's lost some important players this summer, but I'm impressed he was able to attract the likes of Vine north.  We'll see this season just how capable the Northern Irishman is.




NOTABLE INS: Grant Adam (Rangers), Lewis Guy (MK Dons), Sam Parkin (Queen of the South), Jon Robertson (Cowdenbeath)

NOTABLE OUTS: Nigel Hasselbaink (St Johnstone), Jon McShane (Hamilton), Aaron Mooy (Western Sydney), Hugh Murray (Partick), Jeroen Tesselaar (Kilmarnock), Steven Thomson (Dover), Graeme Smith

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Grant Adam, Craig Samson
Defenders: David Barron, Lee Mair, Marc McAusland, Darren McGregor, David Van Zanten
Midfielders: Graham Carey, Jim Goodwin, Dougie Imrie, Jamie McKernon, Kenny McLean, Jon Robertson, Gary Teale
Forwards: Lewis Guy, Paul McGowan, Sam Parkin, Thomas Reilly, Steven Thompson

football formations

STAR MAN: Paul McGowan was a real stand-out last season, either playing wide or up front - the Buddies will look for more from the same.

YOUNG GUN: Kenny McLean might have moved in January but for a poorly-timed broken collarbone.  The under-21 international midfielder is a fine prospect though.

THE SEASON AHEAD: The Paisley side looked like they were heading in the right direction last year, but budget restrictions meant they failed to keep Tesselaar and Hasselbaink, and have made few additions to the squad.  Darren McGregor's return to full fitness after missing most of last year is a boost.  Whilst the starting XI looks very solid, there is an obvious lack of depth and even a few injuries could see them plummet towards the lower end of the league.

THE MANAGER: The board were rewarded for their faith in Danny Lennon last season as the side came close to a top six place, while playing some good football as well.  He's done very well on a tight budget, but may find it difficult to emulate previous results with the purse-strings even tighter.



Monday, July 30, 2012

SPL preview - Inverness, Kilmarnock, Motherwell

The biggest difficulty I've had with these previews is in trying to predict who could come out of the pack to take over the second place in the table previously monopolised by an Old Firm team.  Celtic are obviously one (or several more) steps ahead of everyone else, and I think that it's reasonable to deem the two newly promoted sides, plus Inverness and perhaps St. Mirren, as the most likely candidates for a relegation battle.  As for the other seven teams, there's remarkably little to choose between them.  So, in my opinion, each of these sides is just as likely to come second as eighth.  So please don't shoot me if you disagree...



NOTABLE INS: Ross Draper (Macclesfield), Simon King (Gillingham), Jason Oswell (Crewe), David Raven (Tranmere), Antonio Reguero (Gandia), Gary Warren (Newport)

NOTABLE OUTS: Kenny Gillet (AEK Larnaca), Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen), David Proctor (Edmonton), Gregory Tade (St. Johnstone), Greg Tansey (Stevenage), Ross Tokely (Ross County), Jonny Tuffey (St. Johnstone), Roman Golobart (Wigan, end of loan), Steve Williams (Bradford, end of loan), Sam Winnall (Wolves, end of loan), Claude Gnakpa, Thomas Piermayr

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Ryan Esson, Antonio Reguero
Defenders: Chris Hogg, Simon King, Josh Meekings, David Raven, Graeme Shinnie, Gary Warren
Midfielders: Aaron Doran, Ross Draper, Richie Foran, Owain Tudur Jones, Gavin Morrison, Liam Polworth, Nick Ross, Andrew Shinnie
Forwards: Billy McKay, Jason Oswell, Shane Sutherland

football formations

STAR MAN: Andy Shinnie was just getting into some great form when he broke his foot in January.  Inverness are heavily dependent on his creativity and his late runs into the box.

YOUNG GUN: 19 goals in 20 games for Jason Oswell last season sounds impressive - but they came in the Welsh League.  The 19 year old forward has looked good in pre-season though.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Yet another squad clearout at Inverness - and concerningly several first team players chose to leave rather than to accept new deals.  ICT's form last season dipped alarmingly after Andy Shinnie got crocked and if he and the injury-prone Aaron Doran can't stay fit there will be a lack of creativity as well.  If the new signings contain a gem or two there might be a pleasant surprise for the fans; if not, it will be another struggle near the bottom.

THE MANAGER: Terry Butcher talks a good game, but fans were increasingly frustrated by long ball play and rigid, unsuccessful tactics last season.  While he has built up a lot of credit over three and a half years in the Highlands, and he won't be out the door unless ICT are stuck at the bottom, there is concern over whether he can take the club further.




NOTABLE INS: Rory Boulding (Livingston), Jeroen Tesselaar (St. Mirren)

NOTABLE OUTS: Danny Buijs (Sparta Rotterdam), Zdenek Kroca (Tescoma Zlin), David Silva (Olhanense), Dieter Van Tornhout (Royal Antwerp), Ben Gordon (Chelsea, end of loan), Mohamadou Sissoko (Udinese, end of loan), Lewis Toshney (Celtic, end of loan), Dean Shiels

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Cameron Bell, Anssi Jaakkola, Kyle Letheren
Defenders: Ross Barbour, Gary Fisher, Garry Hay, Rory McKeown, Michael Nelson, Ryan O'Leary, Alex Pursehouse, Jeroen Tesselaar
Midfielders: James Dayton, James Fowler, Gary Harkins, Lee Johnson, Liam Kelly, Manuel Pascali, Danny Racchi, Jude Winchester
Forwards: Rory Boulding, Ross Davidson, William Gros, Paul Heffernan, Chris Johnston, Matthew Kennedy, Rory McKenzie

football formations

STAR MAN: Italian Manuel Pascali enters his fifth season at Rugby Park, and the club will hope he has recovered sufficiently from a broken leg to exert his usual influence either in central defence or midfield.

YOUNG GUN: 18 year old forward Rory McKenzie scored plenty of goals on loan at Brechin last year and appears to have a bright future.

THE SEASON AHEAD: The big loss, aside from loanees Gordon and Toshney, is the manager's own son Dean, who was pivotal to Killie's play.  Paul Heffernan will get goals, but it's hard to see who will complement him.  Jeroen Tesselaar looks a good addition at left back and the team have held onto the highly rated Cammy Bell and Liam Kelly for now.  I'm not sure they will break into the top six, but they will not be in a relegation battle unless their rumoured financial problems turn out to be true.

THE MANAGER: His insistence on passing the ball doesn't always work, but Kenny Shiels at least has earned plaudits for Kilmarnock's style of play and is of course much loved in those parts after the team's League Cup win.  This year will tell us if he can take the team into the top six.




NOTABLE INS: Simon Ramsden (Bradford)

NOTABLE OUTS: Tim Clancy (Hibernian), Jordan Halsman (Morton), Steven Lawless (Partick), Stephen Craigan (retired), Ross Forbes, Steve Jennings, Jamie Pollock, Gary Smith

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Lee Hollis, Darren Randolph
Defenders: Adam Cummins, Steven Hammell, Shaun Hutchinson, Jonathan Page, Simon Ramsden, Steven Saunders
Midfielders: Stuart Carswell, Omar Daley, Tom Hateley, Chris Humphrey, Keith Lasley, Nicky Law
Forwards: Michael Higdon, Robert McHugh, Jamie Murphy, Henrik Ojamaa

football formations

STAR MAN: Nicky Law was superb in an attacking midfield role last season, with his skill and eye for a pass.

YOUNG GUN: It's good to see highly rated defender Steven Saunders is back from a cruciate ligament injury to take his place in Motherwell's back line again.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Can Motherwell sustain last year's progress?  Their obvious weakness right now is a lack of depth, with only one signing so far, and the departures of midfielder Jennings and defender Clancy.  But with Higdon, Murphy and Ojamaa up front, the team will not be short of goals, which gives them a considerable advantage over most of their peers.  That, plus one or two more new faces, may be enough to keep the club near the top of the table.

THE MANAGER: I wasn't convinced by Stuart McCall's managerial credentials before he arrived at Fir Park, but a cup final appearance followed by Champions League qualification (at the expense of Rangers, of course) vindicate his appointment and suggest that he knows what he is talking about. 



Sunday, July 29, 2012

SPL preview - Dundee Utd, Hearts, Hibs

Here we go then - the second part of  those SPL previews.  A wee caveat...I bet there's still plenty of business to be done in this transfer window, and I may feel much differently about my predictions (particularly Hearts and Hibs) at the end of August...



NOTABLE INS: Radoslaw Ciernziak (MKS Krakow), Michael Gardyne (Ross County), Brian McLean (Preston North End), Mark Millar (Falkirk)

NOTABLE OUTS: Paul Dixon (Huddersfield), Scott Robertson (Blackpool), Danny Swanson (Peterborough), Ross Smith (Peterhead, loan), Scott Severin (retired), Garry Kenneth, Robbie Neilson, Dusan Pernis

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Steve Banks, Radoslaw Ciernziak
Defenders: Sean Dillon, Barry Douglas, Gavin Gunning, Brian McLean, Keith Watson
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Willo Flood, Michael Gardyne, Ryan Gauld, Gary Mackay-Steven, Mark Millar, John Rankin, Richie Ryan
Forwards: Jon Daly, Ryan Dow, Dale Hilson, Milos Lacny, Johnny Russell

football formations

STAR MAN: Exciting young striker Johnny Russell was attracting interest from Celtic last season - expect plenty of suitors if United decide they have to sell up.

YOUNG GUN: Under-21 international midfielder Stuart Armstrong has the chance to establish himself as a first team regular this season.

THE SEASON AHEAD: On the one hand, the Arabs have lost several important first team players this summer as they look to cut their budget; on the other, they have brought in arguably the best player in the first division last season, Michael Gardyne, as well as a solid midfielder in Mark Millar and experienced centre-back McLean.  They also have two of the most exciting players outside Celtic Park, Mackay-Steven and Russell.  If they stay fit, and Jon Daly keeps scoring goals, United seem the best placed to be the closest challengers to Celtic.

THE MANAGER: Its incredible to think that there were rumours that Peter Houston was under pressure early last season - three top four finishes and a cup win should surely have earned him plenty of credit. Last summer he did an admirable job of finding new players to replace departing first-teamers - can he repeat the trick?





NOTABLE OUTS: Ian Black (Rangers), Stephen Elliott (Coventry), Gary Glen (Ross County), Jordan Morton (Livingston), Adrian Mrowiec (RB Leipzig), Johnny Stewart (Brechin), Suso (Tenerife), Jason Thomson (Raith), Craig Beattie, David Obua, Rudi Skacel

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jamie MacDonald, Mark Ridgers
Defenders: Darren Barr, Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill, Kevin McHattie, Fraser Mullen, Craig Thomson, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas
Midfielders: Andrew Driver, Jason Holt, Ryan McGowan, Arvydas Novikovas, Denis Prychynenko, Mehdi Taouil
Forwards: Scott Robinson, Gordon Smith, John Sutton, David Templeton

football formations

STAR MAN: Andy Webster might not be quite as impressive as in his first spell at Hearts, but the veteran centre-half was still pretty outstanding last season.

YOUNG GUN: Scott Robinson started several games last season after dropping into a deeper midfield role - expect to see the 20 year old to play even more often this season either in that position or as a striker

THE SEASON AHEAD: Hearts' response to their Scottish Cup win?  Change the manager and have a clear-out of high earners in what appears to be a clear reduction in budget.  It would be surprising if Vladimir Romanov didn't allow any more signings in this window, but it would also be surprising if new boss John McGlynn was given free rein.  At the moment, though, the Tynecastle side look short up front and need their youngsters to step up.

THE MANAGER: McGlynn was a well respected coach at Hearts earlier in his career, and then did a very solid job at Raith Rovers.  He's not managed at this level before though.  Expect Romanov to pull the trigger if the team have a slow start to the season. 




NOTABLE INS: Paul Cairney (Partick), Tim Clancy (Motherwell), Leigh Griffiths (Wolves, loan extended), James McPake (Coventry, loan made permanent), Ben Williams (Colchester)

NOTABLE OUTS: Garry O'Connor (Tom Tomsk), Isaiah Osbourne (Blackpool), Scott Taggart (Morton), Sean Welsh (Partick), Martin Scott (Ross County, loan), Matt Doherty (Wolves, end of loan), George Francomb (Norwich, end of loan), Roy O'Donovan (Coventry, end of loan), Tom Soares (Stoke, end of loan), Richie Towell (Celtic, end of loan), Mark Brown, Ian Murray, Graham Stack

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Paul Grant, Ben Williams
Defenders: Callum Booth, Tim Clancy, Paul Hanlon, Pa Kujabi, James McPake, Sean O'Hanlon, Scott Smith, David Stephens
Midfielders: Paul Cairney, Jorge Claros, Danny Galbraith, Lewis Horner, Sam Stanton, Lewis Steevenson, David Wotherspoon
Forwards: Ross Caldwell, Eoin Doyle, Leigh Griffiths, Danny Handling, Ivan Sproule

football formations

STAR MAN: It's difficult to like Leigh Griffiths, but when he's in the mood he's a problem for any defence.  Hibs just have to hope that the forward has started to mature a bit.

YOUNG GUN: I saw midfielder Sam Stanton play against Inverness last season and he looked very assured with an eye for a pass - the 18 year old will fancy he can force his way into the team this season.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Last season was a horror for the Hibees - a relegation fight and then a hammering in the cup final by their deadly rivals.  So it was no surprise to see a huge turnover of players this summer, getting rid of several underachievers; importantly, they kept hold of Griffiths and James McPake, who certainly showed flashes of quality during loan spells last season.  Paul Cairney was superb for Partick and may prove a good signing.  I'm not sure Hibs will be dramatically better than last season, but I think they may overtake a lot of cost-cutting rivals who have got weaker.

THE MANAGER: Well, Pat Fenlon's had two transfer windows to build a squad as he wants it, so no more excuses.  His budget appears to be superior to many of his peers as well.  Rod Petrie has shown in the last couple of seasons that he's not shy about sacking underachieving managers, so the Irishman can't afford a slow start.



Saturday, July 28, 2012

SPL Preview - Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee

This is the first of (hopefully) 4 blogposts previewing each team in the 2012-13 Scottish Premier League.  Hopefully everything is up to date at the time of writing.  The players mentioned are only those who have played competitive first team games.  The formation picture is simply my opinion of the best 11 at each club.  If you disagree with any of this please feel free to let me know, but also feel free to put it in your pipe and smoke it.  Cheers.



NOTABLE INS: Jonny Hayes (Inverness), Niall McGinn (Celtic)

NOTABLE OUTS: Kari Arnason (Rotherham), Fraser Fyvie (Wigan), Youl Mawene (Fleetwood Town), Rory McArdle (Bradford City), Mark Reynolds (Sheffield Wednesday, end of loan), Mohamed Chalali, Yoann Folly, Darren Mackie, Danny Uchechi

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jason Brown, Jamie Langfield
Defenders: Russell Anderson, Andrew Considine, Clark Robertson, Joe Shaughnessy
Midfielders: Chris Clark, Ryan Fraser, Jonny Hayes, Stephen Hughes, Ryan Jack, Jamie Low, Jamie Masson, Niall McGinn, Robert Milsom, Isaac Osbourne, Peter Pawlett, Gavin Rae
Forwards: Rory Fallon, Josh Magennis, Declan McManus, Mitch Megginson, Michael Paton, Cammy Smith, Scott Vernon

football formations

STAR MAN: English midfielder Robert Milsom looked a class act until an ankle injury at Christmas ruled him out for the season.  He has a superb eye for a pass and will give the Dons a huge boost if he is fully fit again.

YOUNG GUN: Cammy Smith only turns 17 in August, but the young forward has already been compared to 'a young Dennis Bergkamp' by his boss.  No pressure then.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Craig Brown seemed to have finally made Aberdeen solid at the back and hard to beat last season, but they struggled in the final third of the field.  The arrival of schemer McGinn from Celtic - who may be used as a second striker - and winger Hayes from Inverness may give them the spark they sorely missed last year.  Scott Vernon is a reliable source of goals.  If Russell Anderson can roll back the years then the Dons could return to the top six.

THE MANAGER: There's no doubt that Aberdeen must show further improvement this season, or Brown's position will become untenable.  The well-liked 72 year old commands a lot of respect, and that has possibly deflected some of the criticism that might have come his way.




NOTABLE INS: Fraser Forster (Newcastle, loan deal made permanent)

NOTABLE OUTS: Cha Du-Ri (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Efrain Juarez (Club America), Glenn Loovens (Real Zaragoza), Daniel Majstorovic (AIK Solna), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Pawel Brozek (Trabzonspor, end of loan), Darren O'Dea, Mark Wilson

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster, Lukasz Zaluska
Defenders: Andre Blackman, Marcus Fraser, Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew, Thomas Rogne, Lewis Toshney, Kelvin Wilson
Midfielders: Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Paul George, Rabiu Ibrahim, Beram Kayal, Ki Sung-Yong, Joe Ledley, Paddy McCourt, Dylan McGeouch, Filip Twardzik, Victor Wanyama
Forwards: Mohamed Bangura, James Forrest, Gary Hooper, Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes, Tony Watt

football formations

STAR MAN: Gary Hooper has proven a goal machine in Scottish football - 51 goals in 85 games for Celtic.  There's no reason to expect that production level to drop.  Neil Lennon will be relieved if he gets to September 1st and his star striker is still at Celtic Park.

YOUNG GUN: Midfielder Dylan McGeouch looked a real prospect when given the chance last season, and expect the skilful 19 year old to see more action this time around.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Anything less than the league title will not do, given the current circumstances.  In fact, there will be plenty of Celtic fans who will complain if they do not complete a domestic treble.  It's unlikely this squad is strong enough to get into the group stages of the Champions League, though.  And will some of the better players (Hooper, Ki, Kayal) be tempted to head south in search of a new challenge?

THE MANAGER: Neil Lennon is considered a deity by his supporters just now, and his job is secure unless there are surprise domestic struggles.  But does he have the tactical knowhow to succeed on the European stage?



LAST SEASON: 2ND in the first division

NOTABLE INS: John Baird (Raith), Iain Davidson (Raith), Carl Finnigan (St Johnstone), Declan Gallagher (Clyde)

NOTABLE OUTS: Jake Hyde (Barnet), Rhys Weston (KR Reykjavik), John Gibson (Elgin, loan), Graham Bayne (retired), Ross Chisholm, Mark Fotheringham, Craig McKeown

THE SQUAD (u-21 outfield players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Robert Douglas
Defenders: Kyle Benedictus, Declan Gallagher, Gary Irvine, Matt Lockwood, Neil McGregor
Midfielders; Ryan Conroy, Iain Davidson, Kevin McBride, Jamie McCluskey, Stephen O'Donnell, Jamie Reid, Nicky Riley, Graham Webster
Forwards: John Baird, Carl Finnigan, Leighton McIntosh, Steven Milne

football formations

STAR MAN: Former Celtic winger Ryan Conroy was a real standout in the second half of last season, and might be one of the few members of this squad to look comfortable at a higher level.

YOUNG GUN: The club rate striker Leighton McIntosh so highly that they gave the 19 year old a three year contract in 2011.  He saw limited action last year but this might be his chance to shine.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Since their last-minute elevation to the SPL, Dundee have made no further signings, suggesting they will operate on a first division budget. Consequently they look much weaker than anyone else in the league and have to be relegation favourites.  The few players who have top flight experience either were not previously good enough for the SPL, or, in the case of 40 year old keeper Rab Douglas, are surely past their best.

THE MANAGER: Barry Smith is a hero to all at Dens, both as a former club captain who made 400 appearances for the club, and as the manager who steered them out of the mess of their second administration in 2010.  He is under contract for the next two years, and even relegation should not threaten that.



Thursday, July 26, 2012

Looking ahead to the new season

The 2012-13 Scottish Premier League season is going to be like none before it.

That, of course, is mainly because Rangers are not playing in it.  The absence of the Bluenoses from the top flight has resulted in a level of uncertainty normally only experienced when I have to choose between eating seafood or a salad at a dinner party (for the record, I loathe both).  At the time of writing, we don't know if the SPL will have a decent TV deal.  We don't know if all the clubs have enough cash down the back of the sofa to get them through the season in one piece.  Heck, three days before their first game of the season, we don't even know if newco Rangers will be actually allowed to play - which would be a shame, as Sunday's clash with Brechin City would surely result in BBC Alba's highest ratings ever, especially as I think you'll find most of the gaelic speaking north-west of the country would consider themselves as die-hard Rangers fans.

But there is one certainty, at least in most people's eyes - that Celtic will win the title, and at a canter.  I agree with the first part of that, but not the second; I don't think that Neil Lennon's side will have it all their own way - bear in mind that the likes of Hearts, Dundee United or whoever else comes in second will not lose up to 12 points from matches against the Gers, so the point gap will be considerably less than the 31 points that separated the Bhoys from third placed Motherwell last season.  For the record, I'm not certain at all who is best equipped from the 'diddy' teams to put up an alternative challenge for the title - both Hearts and the Arabs have lost important players as part of the cost-cutting measures that have been put in place by most this summer, even before Rangers' demise.  It would be a surprise if Motherwell and St. Johnstone emulated last season's surprise success, and whilst Aberdeen and Hibernian surely can only get better, it's hard to see them getting right up near the top of the table.

And what about at the other end?  This season we have not one, but two promoted teams, for the first time since 1999-2000 (when the league was expanded to twelve teams).  Following Dunfermline's ill-fated campaign last time round, you'd expect the new sides to be the favourites for relegation...and the bookies would agree with you, for Dundee are 2-1 favourites, with Ross County next up at 3-1.  So let me tell you straight off the bat - Ross County will not finish bottom.  The Staggies are far better equipped for the top flight than the Pars were, and were utterly dominant in the first division last year.  Importantly, they have kept the majority of the promotion-winning squad together, and most crucially you can bet that their sugar daddy owner, Roy McGregor, will offer funds in January if they need to strengthen.  At the moment, I would say they look far stronger than their rivals across the Moray Firth, for one.

Dundee, in contrast, had budgeted for another first division campaign, but were invited to take the step up when Rangers' fate was sealed.  I can't resist pointing out the irony here - the team taking advantage of Rangers' financial mismanagement is the one which went into administration twice in the space of only seven years, the second time as recently as 2010.  It's no surprise that they are running a tight ship now - at the time of writing they had not made any extra signings since they were told they were playing a division higher.  They have to be the default favourites to go down...though I remain hugely uncertain about the squad being assembled by Inverness boss Terry Butcher this coming season.  Of course, if some teams get ten point deductions for going into administration, it could twist things a bit...

So that's some predictions for the upcoming season, and here's some more - Scottish clubs will suck in Europe (again), with Celtic missing out on the Champions League (again); the national team will make a hideous start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and Neil Lennon will end up with yet another touchline ban at some point.

Hopefully in the next few days I will be able to put together a full-scale preview of all twelve teams, much like last year.  It's always awkward doing it at the end of July, since it suits the clubs, in the current economic climate, to wait right up till the end of August to bring in players, and so it might be another six weeks before we can be sure who looks strong and who doesn't.  But the universal mood of prudence amongst club chairman suggests we won't have nearly as many signings next month as we did a year ago, so the current squads are unlikely to be strengthened much further.

But, after the fiasco that engulfed Scottish football this summer, I can't wait for the action to begin, so we can focus on what's happening on the field, rather than off it.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Which SPL clubs could go under?

There's been a lot of speculation and conjecture recently about how the Rangers fiasco might cause other SPL clubs to hit the wall, in a sort of domino effect.  So here's some more speculation and conjecture...

I've done my best using google and other searches online (I know it's amateur, but it's still more research than the Daily Record does) and here's my take on each of the 12 Premier League teams - including the new boys - and whether they are vulnerable or not.  Feel free to correct me if I'm completely wrong.

ABERDEEN - debt £13 million as of June 2011 (£10.8 million to the bank)

Aberdeen fans often criticize chairman Stewart Milne for not bankrolling the club to a greater tune - the playing squad has deteriorated in quality considerably over the last five years, and Pittodrie looks like it'll fall apart at any moment.  Milne, however, claimed last year that he covers shortfalls of £60,000 a month.  The club are gambling on rejuvenating their fortunes with a new stadium at Loirston Loch, which will be mostly funded by selling Pittodrie for housing development; however the plan has been delayed by a year, and the earliest the Dons will be playing there is 2014.  Whilst Milne appears to run a tight ship, and you'd like to think that if Aberdeen did run into trouble they would be rescued by some of the rich Oil folk in the North East, they are perhaps more vulnerable than you would expect.

CELTIC - debt £11.6 million as of end of 2011 (£7 million to the bank)

Celtic managed to reduce bank debt in the second half of last year by £2 million, though the club barely made a profit in that period.  But they appear prudently run and whilst they are likely to affected the most in absolute terms by the departure of Rangers from the SPL, qualification for the Champions League would surely make up the deficit...and Neil Lennon's side contain plenty of players who could command impressive fees if cash was needed.  It's hard to see the Bhoys ending up in any trouble.

DUNDEE - no debt as of February 2012

Surely, Dundee couldn't suffer the ignominy of a third administration?  Nah, probably not. For a start, they will have budgeted for the first division so won't be suffering in the same way as other SPL teams.  A statement in February claimed the club had no debt to banks or the taxman and had paid all trade creditors.  Finally, they appear to be on a firm financial footing...just in time to take advantage of the difficulties of others!
DUNDEE UNITED - debt £6.5 million as of end of 2011 (£5.4 million to the bank)

Wowsers.  Concerns over the Arabs' finances had completely passed me by - but in February it was revealed that United were behind on loan repayments, and at that time were supposed to lose their overdraft facility at the end of June.  Whilst the total debt is less than some of their contemporaries, they appear to be struggling to service it.  In 2011 their revenues fell 14% and they made a loss of £500,000 - not good.  Manager Peter Houston has already said he won't be signing anyone else this summer, and I would expect the club to be very open to offers for starlets Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven.  Hopefully the banks are being more reasonable and chairman Stephen Thompson is able to inject some cash, but if not there could be trouble...

HEARTS - debt £24 million as of end of 2011 (how much is to the bank?)

It's impossible to be sure of exactly how stable or otherwise Hearts are...and one suspects Vladimir Romanov would have it no other way.  Last year they claimed to have made a profit and reduced their debt by £12 million - but this may be down to Romanov moving it to another of his companies.  Certainly the clubs difficulty paying wages on time last season raises concerns, and the playing budget appears to have been cut drastically this summer with several high earners offski.  In truth, the viability of Hearts depends entirely on Romanov's own whims.

HIBERNIAN - debt £5.9 million as of July 2011 (how much is to the bank?)

Rod Petrie may be dodgy at appointing managers, but the Hibs chairman has a reputation for running the club prudently.  Last year was the first time they had run a loss in seven years, and a significant proportion of that will have been down to player and management turnover.  I understand they had £2 million in the bank as of last summer, so it would seem they are a long way away from danger...though this is conjecture as I was unable to read last year's Annual Report.

INVERNESS - total debt unclear but minimal (no bank debt) as of December 2011

Word in the Highlands is that chairman Kenny Cameron's ill-timed criticism of the SFL vote on Rangers was actually an attempt to cajole his fellow shareholders into dipping into their pockets.  Indeed, in the last few months there has been a decent cash injection into the club by a group of ex-pats with Highland connections, which was originally to improve the squad but will now address any shortfall.  Inverness hardly run on an excessive budget as it is and their position, for all their bluster, is, as Cameron put it a few days later, "very far from being immediately threatening".

KILMARNOCK - debt £9.7 million as of May 2011 (£8.6 million to the bank)
There's good reason why Killie always crop up when there is talk of clubs at risk of administration - even though they have dropped their debt from a peak of £11 million a few years back and actually made an operating profit in 2010-11.  But £6 million of their debt is linked to their Park Hotel project which cost £6 million to build in 2002 and, presumably, has not made any money since that period.  Killie have also had a nice cash boost from selling three stands of Rugby Park to an Old Firm team on title-winning day the last two seasons - they are unlikely to be third time lucky.  If Lloyds get tough on the debt, chairman Michael Johnston is in up to his neck.  They better hope than talk of fan boycotts is unfounded...

MOTHERWELL - debt £340,000 as of May 2011 (no bank debt)

Considering the club has come off an excellent league campaign and is looking forward to a shot at the Champions League qualifiers, it is striking how negative the noises coming out of Fir Park are.  The club expects losses for 2011-12 to total around £500,000. A club statement at the end of June said “It is clear that, if we are unable to replace significant amounts of income lost under either scenario, the club could be facing an insolvency event” - though this was part of a document submitted to the Well Society fans group that may have been designed to try and convince fans to back the Rangers newco (it didn't work).  The Steelmen have also been very quiet in the transfer market this summer too.  But they have no bank debt and their only creditor is majority shareholder John Boyle, who previously wrote off £8 million of debt after the club completed their hideous administration process. It's not really clear if Motherwell really are in any danger.

ROSS COUNTY - total debt unclear

Last year's first division champions often make a big deal of how they spend within their means, but in truth they can rely on local businessman and multimillionaire (a real one, not like Craig Whyte) Roy McGregor to bail them out if they are in any difficulties.  Because of that, I would argue that they are probably the SPL club in the best position financially at the moment.
ST JOHNSTONE - no debt as of July 2011

On the one hand, Saintees are overdraft-free and have been for a number of years, and are another club often cited as 'well-run', tthough on the other hand they suffered losses of £200,000 in 2010-11.  It was still surprising to hear chairman Steve Brown tell Sky Sports News on Thursday that "We can't rule out administration."  That said, I have wondered on occasion how the Perth side sustained such a decent squad on such meagre attendances.  Considering boss Steve Lomas has been bullish about further signings ahead of their Europa League attendances, you'd think they are unlikely to be at immediate risk...right?

ST MIRREN - debt £20,000 as of November 2011 (no bank debt)

St. Mirren's crippling debts from the last decade disappeared when they sold Love Street to Tesco, which put them on a solid financial footing up till now.  However, the planned takeover of the Buddies by the fans group '10000 Hours' has been put on hold as the club look to evaluate what damage the Rangers affair will do to them - and current chairman Stewart Gilmour has painted a bleak picture, with talk of redundancies and claiming there will be no further additions to the squad this summer.  But that is at a contrast to the fact the club practically broke even in 2010-11.  Further delay in the takeover will not help matters, however.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Where do we go from here?

SPL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster has always been a believer of the maxim 'any publicity is good publicity' - even, to the horror of many, when being asked about the nastier aspects that surround Old Firm matches.

A bright future for Scottish football may depend on him being right about that.  For the events of the last six months have left our national game's reputation in the gutter.  The mismanagement and misdeeds of Rangers FC were an embarrassment and a shock; the way they have been dealt with by the SPL and the SFA has been an absolute farce.  We would be the laughing stock of world football were it not for the fact that our teams are no longer good enough to be of any significance to other countries.

It's depressing to think that next Spring will see the thirtieth anniversary of when an Alex Ferguson-inspired Aberdeen saw off Real Madrid to win the Cup Winners' Cup, and the twentieth anniversary of the season that Rangers, in happier times, fell short of the Champions League final only because of Marseille's cheating and bribery.

Tomorrow's SFL vote, whatever the outcome (at the time of writing, it seemed increasingly likely that the Ibrox side will be forced to work their way back up from third division level) will be a huge step towards the end of this fiasco, I hope...though don't be surprised if newco Rangers runs into brand new difficulties ASAP, and I can't help feeling that, sooner or later, another courtroom will be involved.  But a huge amount of damage has undoubtably been done by this saga, and only time will tell what wounds have been inflicted.  What next?

There seems likely to be a huge financial hit, at least at the top level.  The absence of Rangers from the top flight will hit takings at the gate, with other clubs missing out on a full away support attending once or twice a season.  But of more significance will be the effect on sponsorship and TV.  The underlying message coming from the SPL Chief Executive and his SFA counterpart, Stewart Regan, is that "our product is crap and worthless without having Rangers in it" - why else would they have pushed so hard for special dispensation for them?  It would not be at all surprising if sponsors, plus the likes of SKY and ESPN, took them at their word.

(Interestingly enough, it has been noted by smarter people than me that the SPL's current TV deal is so pitiful that our top flight clubs make considerably less than clubs in Norway and Belgium do from their TV deals as it is - which adds to the growing feeling that the people in charge of Scottish football are incapable of finding their backsides with both hands)

So income will surely drop, at least in the short term.  Whilst the claims of armageddon coming from Doncaster and Regan - who claimed up to six SPL clubs could go bust without Rangers - are almost certainly doommongering and hyperbole, it seems likely that there will be some clubs in significant financial difficulty.  Even before the decision was made not to allow the newco back in the SPL, there was some significant belt-tightening going on.  This of course will lead to a drop in wages, and presumably a decreased quality of player in our league.

That last paragraph appears to be the main concern of Regan, Doncaster and everyone else who wants Rangers back in at as high a level as possible, at whatever cost.

To which I reply...So f*****g what?

Firstly, if your club (I'm looking at you, Kilmarnock) is so dependent on paydays from matches against the Old Firm that it will go to the wall without them, I would suggest that your club's finances are run abysmally.  For a start, it would mean that relegation from the top flight would result in administration even if there are two Old Firm clubs in the SPL.  There's no doubt that many Scottish clubs are not run well and have not been run well for years - the loss of Rangers will be the catalyst for some drastically-overdue prudence.  I know it's easy for me to preach because Inverness are in good shape and in no particular danger, but I would say that any club that goes into administration as a knock-on effect from the Rangers fiasco deserves little sympathy, because they were clearly already on the edge.

As for the lack of quality players, the assumption clearly is that having top players attracts fans and the TV companies.  Whilst we will probably never again see the likes of Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Henrik Larsson playing in Scotland whilst at their peaks, it's somewhat galling that current transfer gossip suggests that Celtic are unable even to satisfy the ambitions of the decent, but hardly world-beating, Ki Sung-Yeung.  Celtic and Rangers fans will doubtless be thinking of how their current sides are but a shadow of the Martin O'Neill team that reached the UEFA Cup final in Seville, or Walter Smith's nine-in-a-row side.  The lack of cash, at least in comparison with Europe's big leagues, leaves this current Celtic squad woefully deficient of the quality required to compete in the Champions' League.

But whilst Old Firm fans think in terms of their great European exploits of the past, fans of 'diddy' teams are far more interested in how they compare to the other 'diddy' sides they are up against.  Inverness may have (indeed, already have) to cut the budget, but so has everyone else.  We should be in exactly the same playing field compared to the likes of Motherwell, St Johnstone et al as we were last season.  We don't only watch our team play when we've signed someone who took part at the European Championships - the diehards go along to every match they can afford, and the more fair-weather go along when the team is doing well.  If Inverness reach top six next season (they won't) then attendances will go up, even if, on paper, the squad is so crap that we still have Billy flipping McKay at centre forward.

And as regards the TV spectacle, quality players do not necessarily mean quality matches.  Two good teams can still produce a nil-nil bore draw.  The best Scottish football games I have ever been at have all taken place in the SFL, not the SPL.  If the games are open and entertaining to watch, then people will watch them - even if Billy flipping McKay is playing.

Does that all make sense?  Or is it just one big late-night waffle?

The point I'm trying to make, I think, is that Scottish football will not die, even if Rangers are stuck in third division.  There will be short term pain.  But this summer has at least shown that your average fan cares about his team and the game, and that his support will remain unwavering as long as integrity and hope are not replaced by greed and corruption.  That is the reason why Scottish football will survive, and why, for risking everything in the chase of pound signs, Regan, Doncaster and plenty of other powerbreakers must be thrown out as soon as possible.  Because, if justice wins the day tomorrow, there is still plenty to be positive about, and hopefully we can start to focus on that again.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Only blackmail and threats can save Rangers

This has, by some distance, been the most exciting summer for Scottish football that I've known.
Depressingly, it's not because of big name, big money signings - there haven't been any (no, making Fraser Forster's loan deal a permanent one DOES NOT COUNT, Celtic fans), nor is it because of success on the pitch.  It is, of course, because of the ongoing newco saga involving The Club Formerly Known As Rangers.

And this week it's managed to get even more mental.

Tuesday was the day of the big SPL vote, where the chairmen of the other clubs (and, bizarrely, Rangers, who got to vote on whether they could play in the top flight!) voted almost unanimously - Kilmarnock made themselves look like complete tits by abstaining - that the newco would not be accepted into the Scottish Premier League for the 2012/13 season.

For the 24 hours beforehand, stories had floated around about some clubs having cold feet, and panic began to spread in the ranks of fans; before the vote, 8 of the chairmen had committed their clubs to vote 'no', to the delight of their supporters, and, one must assume, had seen a massive increase in their paltry season ticket sales as a result.  Surely they wouldn't turn around and shaft us all?

Thankfully, they didn't.  It's a measure of how low fans hold many Scottish football journalists in their esteem that many believe the predictions of delays, and of financial armageddon for SPL clubs in the event of a 'no' vote, were little short of lies and propaganda.

So, problem solved?

No chance.

This crisis is partly the fault of Rangers' hideous activities, and partly the fault of the SPL and the SFA - who turned a blind eye to events for aeons and, who, instead of spending the last few months coming up with a plan for this eventuality, chose to believe the unrealistic claims coming out of Ibrox that liquidation would never happen and didn't lift a finger to intervene until it was far too late.  Yet it has now been dumped on the thirty clubs of the Scottish Football League, the three tiers of clubs below the SPL.

Representatives of these clubs attended a meeting on Monday, prior to the SPL vote, where SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his SFA counterpart, Stewart Regan, to discuss the next move in the event of the Newco being thrown out of the SPL.  For a rather succinct and damning view of the meeting, one should check out the statement issued later in the week by Clyde FC, the Cumbernauld club who finished last season third from bottom of the third division.

Doncaster and Regan did not deliver a proposal; they delivered an ultimatum.

They wanted the Newco Rangers parachuted into the first division, rather than starting at the bottom of the ladder.  To sweeten the deal they offered a £1 million one-off payment (ostensibly to cover TV rights for the Newco's games next season), and the establishment of playoffs in that division to provide a further promotion place.

If this offer was declined, the SPL would renege on its annual contracted £2 million payment to the Scottish Football League - claiming they wouldn't be able to pay it.  An SPL2 would be set up as the second tier of the league, with Rangers, plus any club the SPL invited, playing in it.  The clubs left out of that tier would be left to wither and die.

Clyde described it as "a very unpalatable proposition".  Stranraer claimed "the proposals are produced in haste".  The chairman of Cowdenbeath, Donald Findlay, went further: "Speaking for myself, and myself alone, it is clear to me that people at the highest levels of our game have tried to hold a gun to my head and the heads of my colleagues. That will never work. But I have a long memory and will not forget what they tried to do and the way they tried to bend me, and this Club, to their will. That will never be allowed to happen."  Findlay is best known outside Scotland as one of our most respected QCs - Scottish football fans will recall, however, that he is a die-hard Rangers fan and former director of the club, who was forced to resign in shame after being caught on camera singing sectarian songs.  They don't come much more Bluenose than Findlay.  If even he is resistant to this, then there is something truly putrid going on.

So the clubs of the SFL are the ones who have to sort out this fiasco.  Some, like Stenhousemuir FC, a second division club, have given in - the loss of £50,000 a year, which they believe Doncaster and Regan threatened, could send them to the wall.  It remains to be seen if other clubs will follow suit.  Several have already made statements either confirming opposition to a division 1 Rangers (Clyde, Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, East Fife, Morton, Raith Rovers, Stirling Albion, Stranraer), or strongly hinting at this stance (Alloa, Annan, Falkirk, Hamilton Accies, Livingston, Partick Thistle).  Dundee and Airdrie United, both of whom it seems would be promoted a league if the Newco were sent to the third division, will abstain from the vote.

Regan and Doncaster need 16 of the 30 SFL clubs to vote in favour of the Newco being in the first division. So far we have one 'yes', two abstentions, and eight clubs who seem to have already said 'over our dead body', plus six other clubs who have hinted the same way.

The vote is, somewhat aptly, on July 13th.  Friday the 13th.

It's going to be a hell of a week up till then.  The SPL and SFA are putting huge pressure on the clubs to go one way.  All Scottish football's fans (including, according to polls, supporters of Rangers, who want to see their club start in the third division!) are yanking them in the opposite direction.  Will integrity win the day or not?  And, whatever the outcome, Rangers will have only 22 days from the end of the vote to get ready for the start of the league season (15 days if they are entering the Challenge Cup).  Is that enough time to get the house in order?

Whatever the outcome, the days of Regan and Doncaster are surely numbered, not least after Regan claimed that there was a duty to save Rangers because their demise would cause 'social unrest'!  Not for nothing did the Raith Rovers chairman, the awesomely named Turnbull Hutton, call the authorities "corrupt" even before Monday's meeting.  Even the government are going to investigate the shambles now.  Even when this saga finally ends, the fallout will contaminate our national game for a long time to come.