Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Predictions for 2014

Here we go...


Celtic win the league (huh, bet you didn't see that one coming), but (shock, horror!) do get beaten a couple of times. Helped by home advantage in the final, they lift the Scottish Cup.

Hearts are relegated from the top flight (bet you didn't see that one coming either!)

Aberdeen finish second, and scoop the League Cup.

Kilmarnock finish eleventh, but survive a playoff.

Dundee return to the Premiership.

Rangers finish unbeaten in League One but don't get past their first Premiership opponent in the Scottish Cup. Their Championship campaign is a lot more awkward however, as they battle for promotion with a resurgent Hearts...leading to some embarrassment that the second and third highest average attendances in the country (or the first and third if Celtic stop fiddling their figures!) are in the second tier.

There's still no sign of armageddon - even Kilmarnock manage to keep their house in order - but another summer of costcutting makes the gap between Celtic and the rest even wider.

Weakened by summer departures, Celtic fail to make the Champions League.  And, of course, no other Scottish team even manages to win a European tie.


Celtic - Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras don't sign new deals. The club accept big summer offers for Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk.

Dundee United - Ryan Gauld moves down south for a seven figure sum. Ditto John Souttar.

Inverness - Someone takes a punt on Billy McKay for, say, half a mil.

Kilmarnock - Chris Johnston is snapped up by a Championship club.

St. Johnstone - Someone takes a punt on Stevie May for about half a mil as well.

St. Mirren - Kenny McLean and John McGinn are sold. Steven Thompson to retire and take up a media role?


I reckon Neil Lennon will move on to pastures new, if a job at somewhere like Norwich comes up. It's not as if he can achieve anything else at Celtic that he hasn't already (except maybe that elusive League Cup!)

Amongst current Premiership clubs, I can't see Allan Johnston or Gary Locke surviving to the end of 2014. Paul Hartley to coach Hearts in the Championship next season?

Even though I suspect they'll avoid a relegation playoff, I reckon Derek Adams might leave Ross County at the end of the season.


The SPFL will get a title sponsor - but not till next season, and it won't be for much more than pennies. Despite this, Neil Doncaster will remain in a job.

Rangers will manage to prevent administration - temporarily - with another share issue. Dave King will be invited to buy a significant proportion of those shares. When the SFA are asked (not by Scottish journalists, of course) how he passes the Fit And Proper Persons Test, their spokesperson will respond by putting their fingers in their ears and shouting "La la la, I can't hear you". Despite this, Stewart Regan will remain in a job.

The role of Compliance Officer is abolished after a team (probably Celtic or Rangers) challenges one of Vincent Lunny's decisions by using legal action.

All the optimism surrounding the national team will have evaporated - hey. I'm just basing that prediction on past experience!  But the women's team will have a playoff to qualify for the World Cup.  And, what the hell, I'm going to say they'll qualify, just so I can make one positive prediction.

And, on that happy note, I wish you all a much better 2014 than I'm predicting!



Thursday, December 26, 2013

January business

Right, the transfer window opens next week.  What business will your side get up to?

Feel free to correct me, in abusive fashion, if I'm hopelessly wrong...

What they need to do: Kidnap Michael Hector and refuse to give him back to Reading.  The English defender has got better and better as the season's gone on, but his loan finishes imminently and his parent club want him back.  With Andrew Considine having torn his calf and Clark Robertson out till February, the Dons are now very stretched defensively, especially given that Russell Anderson really does look past it.  Other than that, Derek McInnes is probably happy with what he has got.

Potential departures: Aside from Hector, there's unlikely to be many exits.  Some of the youngsters, such as Lawrence Shankland and Craig Storie, will probably head out on loan.  Nicky Weaver is out of contract, so a new keeper will be needed if he leaves.

What they need to do: Resist the temptation to spend unnecessarily.  With the title a formality and the European campaign over, there's not really much need for new faces, unless they can find a bargain - which is unlikely as the January transfer window tends to lead to inflated prices rather than knockdown ones.  There are rumours that Partick's Aaron Taylor-Sinclair is on his way for a £75,000 fee.  It would be in the club's long-term interests to take the opportunity to get some of the younger players some extended game time in the second half of the campaign.

Potential departures: I think it's safe to say that, if Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras haven't signed new contracts by now, then they've made up their minds that they're leaving in the summer when their current deals run out.  Might Neil Lennon choose to cash in on whatever he can get for them?  It would probably be the smart thing to do.  Tom Rogic needs first team football if he's to make Australia's World Cup squad.  Dylan McGeouch apparently declined a loan move in August; given he's seen bugger all action this season, he may be reconsidering that decision.

What they need to do: Unplug all the phones so no-one can make a bid for one of their starlets that they can't refuse.  Other clubs are bound to be sniffing all over Ryan Gauld et al.  United probably won't bring anyone in unless someone leaves.

Potential departures: David Goodwillie's loan spell is up in January, and such has been his mediocrity that few tears will be shed if he returns to Blackburn.  Mark Wilson's short term deal runs out soon as well, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him stay. 

What they need to do: Act as if the transfer window never opened - the Jambos won't come out of administration until the spring, and so their transfer embargo still stands.

Potential departures: The squad is already so thin that Gary Locke is probably on the brink of getting his boots out; he certainly can't afford anyone to leave.  Perhaps a Championship club might come in again for Jason Holt though?

What they need to do: Hope Steve Marsella has scouted a few decent wingers; Hibs' new goalkeeping coach and chief scout needs to come up with a few gems to compare with the players he found for Caley Thistle.  On top of that, installing a revolving door in Easter Road might be useful, as there's bound to be plenty of comings and goings - don't believe Terry Butcher for a second when he says he's pleased with the quality of the squad.  But, given the compensation cost of the new coaching staff, there's unlikely to be any money in the kitty, and certainly not enough for Butcher to sign all the ICT players he'd like.

Potential departures: The problem will be convincing players who are under contract to leave, given that few of them will have suitors.  Tom Taiwo and Rowan Vine certainly don't seem to be in the manager's plans.

What they need to do: Find another central midfield player, given that Richie Foran has joined Jamie Vincent on the casualty list.  The worry is that Yogi Hughes will revert to type and insist on signing Kevin McBride and Patrick Cregg, like he has done for so many other clubs.  Goalkeeper Dean Brill has already made his loan move from Luton permanent.

Potential departures: If Billy McKay is lured away during the window, I think it would be best if someone took my ties and shoelaces from me.  Striker Curtis Allen terminated his contract after failing to make a first team appearance this season, but hopefully Toby Agdestein will stay beyond the end of his short term deal.  If either McKay or Agdestein depart, then another forward will be required.

What they need to do: Rip it all up and start again.  Kilmarnock have already used 28 players this season, yet it appears that, aside from Craig Samson in goal and Fat Kris Boyd up front, Allan Johnston is still not happy with the quality of his first team.  Killie have brought in several trialists, but one has to hope they are rather superior to the ones who turned up in the summer and were inexplicably offered contracts...

Potential departures: ...I'm looking at you, Kyle Jacobs and Mark Stewart, players who have never previously looked better than Scottish Championship material and who proved woefully out of their depth.  Their short-term deals will not be extended.  Barry Nicholson is a more likely candidate to have his deal extended.  Johnston will also probably try to extend the loan deal of Celtic's Jackson Irvine, but another loanee, Dundee United's Michael Gardyne, has gone off the boil recently.  I wonder if Kenny Shiels may return to his old club to try and sign some youngsters on loan, or maybe even veteran James Fowler, who is out of favour at Rugby Park.

What they need to do: Convince Stephen McManus and James McFadden that it's January 2008, not January 2014, in the hope that they start playing as well as they did six years ago.  Failing that, another wide player would be useful even if loan player Lionel Ainsworth sticks around.  Stuart McCall will be desperate to keep Henri Anier till the end of the season.

Potential departures: The squad is small enough that they won't be looking to get rid of anyone.  Bob McHugh has gone stale and will be a candidate for a loan move when he returns from injury.  Goalkeeper Dan Twardzik's emergency loan won't be extended as long as Lee Hollis or Gunnar Nielsen are fit again.

What they need to do: Find a few more Premiership-quality players.  Too few of their summer signings were up to the job, and there is zero depth beyond the first XI.  A new left-back will be a necessity if Aaron Taylor-Sinclair signs for Celtic.  Another central defender would be lovely too, so Alan Archibald doesn't have to turn to the hapless Gabriel Piccolo whenever his first choice pair are hurt.  Kris Doolan's good form has reduced the need for another striker, but I'm sure Archibald would jump at the opportunity to sign a good one.

Potential departures: Liverpool loan striker Henoc Mukendi will probably go, given he hasn't made a first team appearance.  Other than him, there probably won't be too many exits.

What they need to do: Replace their January 2014 squad with their January 2013 squad.  County's spirit appears to have been sapped.  They need better defenders, a striker who can score goals, and a defensive midfielder so that Richard Brittain can be pushed further up the park.  The latter problem might be solved by Cardiff's Filip Kiss, who has been on trial in Dingwall.  It will not have gone unnoticed that left-back Evangelos Oikonomou, outstanding last season, has been released by his club in Greece and is available.

Potential departures: It will be a surprise if Swiss forward Orhan Mustafi stays, given that he's been a waste of space.  Ivan Sproule has already returned to Northern Ireland for family reasons.  Derek Adams hasn't been shy in the past about punting players who aren't in his plans, even those who have been around for a while.

What they need to do: With Steven Maclean still out, they could do with another striker.  Attacking midfielder Lee Croft has already returned for a second spell at the club and is building up his fitness.  Other than that, their main aim to be to prevent English Championship sides from sniffing around Stevie May again. 

Potential departures: Tommy Wright seems to have a soft spot for winger Gwion Edwards, but the player's loan from Swansea expires in January and he's not really done enough to justify extending it.  Midfielder David Robertson will definitely go after an injury-hit year.  Sanel Jahic will also be a free agent, and may be surplus to requirements when Steven Anderson is fit again.  If Wright has any sense, he'll try to convince Rory Fallon to leave, as the New Zealander is a waste of a wage.

What they need to do: Sign some decent players, rather than the dross they picked up in the summer.  I'd say that not a single one of the seven signings made in the summer would be in Danny Lennon's first choice XI right now (Marian Kello was signed in October, so he doesn't count, and neither does Conor Newton, who was here last year).  If they can convince Newton to stay for the rest of the season, that would be a big boost; it seems more likely that he will return to Newcastle and be replaced by young forward Adam Campbell, who would take some of the load off Steven Thompson.

Potential departures: Stephane Bahoken's loan from Nice has already been terminated; he was absolutely useless.  David Cornell started the season as first choice keeper and is now third choice, so he's off back to Swansea.  Hopefully, for the Buddies' sake, Paul McGowan's off-field antics don't lead to a loan move for a few months to Barlinnie Prison F.C.


Monday, December 16, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Has Derek Adams lost the plot?
In August, I'd have said that Adams' previous achievements at Ross County made him unsackable.  But is that still the case now?  The defeat to Motherwell was County's tenth of the season in the league; they only lost eleven all last season.  They have won only two games out of thirteen in all competitions since 24 August.  Gone are the solidity and team spirit of the last two seasons.  Adams' team selections have become increasingly erratic, which is surely a worry. Against 'well, he used winger Melvin De Leeuw at centre forward, a ploy which failed miserably against Celtic and which worked no better this time.  By the time he brought on a striker as a first half sub, the damage had been done.  Also, there was no logic to dropping keeper Mark Brown for his clearly inferior deputy, Michael Fraser.  Adams' trademark scowl is now seen so often that you'd think the wind had changed; Will the wind of change blow through Ross County soon?

Trial by TV?
The SFA has previously been accused of only taking retrospective action regarding incidents that are discussed on Sportscene - so it will be interesting to see if Anthony Stokes gets a letter from Hampden this week.  Numerous journalists noted that, after being booted in the air for about the tenth time by Hibs defender Jordan Forster, Stokes took an off-the-ball swipe at the youngster which couldn't have been more obvious to onlookers if it had been preceeded by an impromptu performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" in a beautiful tenor voice.  Referee Bobby Madden took no action - and I can't tell you how bad that decision was because absolutely zero reference to the incident was made in the BBC match report or highlights.  If Stokes gets away with it, then a few managers and fans may file this in the mental folder marked 'preferential treatment for Celtic' which tends to get depressingly large over the course of a season.

Reuben Gabriel's an international player?!  You're kidding, right?
Believe it or not, Reuben Gabriel - or is it Gabriel Reuben? It's not clear - is a Nigerian international with a good chance of playing at the World Cup next summer.  Yet he barely looks capable of holding down a place in a rancid Kilmarnock midfield.  It's only a month since Allan Johnston claimed Gabriel wasn't good enough to get in the side, so his elevation to the lineup in the last few weeks stinks of desperacy on the manager's part...as did Gabriel's rather brief performance on Saturday, where he received two yellow cards in the first 22 minutes.  An international midfield player really should know better than to commit a cynical foul whilst booked - and frankly, any Sunday League player would know better too.  I wouldn't be surprised if the next time we see him, it'll be in the green of his country rather than the blue and white of his club.

Going to Tynecastle? Take your boots
Jamie Walker limped off on Saturday, and looks set to be the latest addition to an injury list that Hearts can ill-afford.  With Jason Holt and Ryan Stevenson already out, the Jambos have bugger all left in midfield.  And, with Danny Wilson playing through shin splints, their only fully fit outfield player aged over 22 is Jamie Hamill, who, was the situation not so desperate, would surely be Left Back In The Dressing Room, rather than Left Back.  Barring the unlikeliest of wins at Celtic Park next week, Hearts will still have a negative points total at Christmas; the club now only has three things left to focus on - a League Cup semi final, coming out of administration, and deciding what season ticket prices should be for a season in the Championship.

The obligatory weekly Dundee United/Ryan Gauld love-in
Yes, I swoon over Dundee United every week.  But Saturday was the fourth time in a row, and the fifth time in six league games, that they've scored four times.  They also stuck five past Kilmarnock in the cup at the end of November.  Their performances are not so much sexy as they are proper top-shelf pornography.  Meaningless stat alert: Keith Watson's goal now means that United's full backs have already scored a total of five goals this season.

Motherwell will beat St. Mirren next week
That claim is simply on the grounds that the Steelmen's league record against the sides in the bottom six this season is a remarkable nine wins out of nine after they saw off Ross County.  Against the other top six sides, they've managed just one point out of twenty-one.  So they'll probably get beaten by Aberdeen on Boxing Day, then.

An important first win for Yogi
To some extent, John Hughes is on a bit of a hiding to nothing at Inverness - he can hardly take them in any direction but down from their current second place.  So getting a win under his belt early will have been very handy, particularly given a run of tricky matches over the Christmas period which includes home games against Aberdeen and Celtic, a derby with Ross County, and travels to Partick and Motherwell.  Given Hearts' current travails, it's becoming increasingly the case that a win over them is a necessity rather than a good result.  It was another masterclass in movement and finishing from Billy McKay, who has now scored five times in three games against Hearts since his infamous miss in last year's League Cup semi final.  I'm not convinced that he won't have moved on to better things by the time the sides meet again at Easter Road in February.

St. Mirren can't afford to lose McGowan
I was interested to find out today that Paul McGowan, the St. Mirren forward, has pled guilty to charges of assaulting police officers - and it's not the first time either.  A solicitor friend of mine tells me that the judge's decision to ask for reports could be meaningful, as these are a prerequisite for a first custodial sentence.  Whilst, unlike most employers in the real world, I can't see the Buddies sacking him, they certainly would struggle if Gowser, unquestionably their best player, was missing for any time - remember that his logical replacement, Gary Harkins, hasn't been on the winning side in any of the six league games he's started for the club, and might as well not have been on the pitch most of the time.

Partick still can't win at home
Yes, I am being harsh - the match at Firhill was abandoned - but Partick Thistle still haven't won a home league match this season, and after their bright start to the season they now have only one win in thirteen games in all competitions since the end of August.  With St. Mirren having picked up in recent weeks, it looks increasingly like the Real Jags will face a three way battle for eleventh place with Killie and Ross County.

No complaints about Useless Euan Norris' decision to send off Reuben Gabriel as discussed above, but he turned down a very good shout for a Killie penalty later for handball against John Souttar.  Bobby Madden apparently had a mare at Celtic Park - but the only big decision to make the highlights was the one he got right - booking Emilio Izaguirre for a dive.  It wasn't as bad a dive as the first half swoon by ICT's Marley Watkins though, which inexplicably escaped sanction from Brian Colvin; however, it may have contributed to Watkins being denied a second-half spot kick after he was rugby-tacked by Kevin McHattie!  Meanwhile, in Dingwall, no-one knows why a Ross County equalizer was ruled out by Crawford Allan except, it seems, the official himself.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Celtic at a crossroads

If a week is a long time in politics, a year can be a very short time in football.

2012-13 saw Celtic scramble their way out of a very difficult Champions League group and into the last sixteen.

In 2013-14, they finished rock bottom of their group, picking up only 3 out of a possible 18 points.  Whereas last season they defeated Barcelona at Celtic Park and were beaten at the Camp Nou only by a last gasp Jordi Alba strike, this time around they lost to the Catalans at home and, on Wednesday night, completed their lousy campaign by losing a dead rubber match 6-1 to the Spanish champions.  Meaningless game or not, you'd have expected the players to be lifted by the opportunity to play such feted opponents; the performance was so bad that you'd have thought Ross County's back four were playing.

No question, Celtic are drastically weaker than they were last season.  Out went Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama and English forward Gary Hooper, for £18 million in total transfer fees.  Neither have been replaced even remotely adequately. 

I know a few Celtic fans who were quite blasé about Hooper's exit, claiming that his goals-per-game ratio in Scottish football was far from outstanding, and who claimed that Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes were superior players.  Yet Hooper proved last season that he could be an effective lone striker, and goalscorer, at continental level.  Stokes' electric start to the season might have convinced Neil Lennon that he could take over that mantle; however his goal against Motherwell last week was his first in any competition since the start of October.  Samaras looked the part last season, especially when playing wide, but has been struck once more by a return of the malaise that plagued his game for so much of his first few seasons at Celtic Park.

Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to see Wanyama in the flesh for Southampton about six weeks ago, when down south.  Against Fulham, he strode around the pitch like he owned it...and it seemed like he did, given his dominance in the middle of the park.  He was simply a special talent, and it's not surprising that Lennon didn't have anyone in the squad who could fill his role.

They were unable to find adequate replacements in the transfer market either.  Lennon summed up the problem himself - "players sometimes won't come unless you have Champions League football guaranteed.  Then, after (you've qualified), it's pretty difficult to get the kind of player you want".  The bottom line is that the club can no longer attract elite players from elite leagues.  They cannot pay these players enough, or offer sufficiently prestigious competition.  Gone are the days that the likes of Chris Sutton, John Hartson or Lennon himself could be signed for huge fees - the equivalent players of 2013 just aren't interested.  After all, Hooper considered Norwich a step up.

So instead they rely either on bringing in cheaper players with potential, or, frankly, rejects from bigger leagues.  The former category included Wanyama and Hooper, who were successes.  It is hard to see many others in this Celtic squad who could be sold on for similar, large transfer fees, however.  Fraser Forster would be the obvious candidate.  Virgil Van Dijk, unquestionably the most successful of the new faces, has been imperious domestically but his limitations were dreadfully exposed in the final two group matches against Milan and Barca.  A couple of years ago, I'd fully expected Emilio Izaguirre and Beram Kayal to be sold at huge profit, but neither has been as impressive in the last twelve months as they were when initially signed.

Even if some players are sold off for big bucks, then what?  Celtic might be able to afford to splash the cash on better players, but, as stated above, how many of them would actually want to come?  The example of Teemu Pukki is not reassuring - the Finnish striker was let go by a Bundesliga club, Schalke, and who has largely looked like he has been phoning in his performances, rather than showing the hunger expected of a player who cost £2.5million.  It would be easier if they had a clutch of impressive youngsters waiting in the wings, but, James Forrest aside, only two academy products (no, Charlie Mulgrew doesn't count, pedants) have started a game this season - Tony Watt, punted on loan to a Belgian club at the end of August, and Dylan McGeouch, who played in the League Cup humbling to Morton.  The best of the club's youngsters is full back Darnell Fisher, who was actually signed from Farnborough in 2011.

To an extent, Celtic are being held back simply by being in Scotland, playing in a mediocre league (which now means three Champions League qualifiers just to get to play with the big boys), dwarfed by it's neighbour south of the border.  Players want to play in the higher quality, more competitive, Premier League instead.  The fans want to watch it on telly instead.  The sponsors want to throw their money at it instead (remember, the Scottish Professional Football League - still!!! - hasn't got a title sponsor).  But the lack of competitiveness up here has come about because of the dreadful imbalance in prize money during the SPL years, and that in turn led to the lack of interest from anyone with money, and the subsequent drop in quality.  Celtic, and of course Rangers, were rather in favour of that at the time.  Now, it's a hindrance.

And I don't see how it is reversible.  The return of the other half of the Gruesome Twosome to the top flight won't change it quickly - I don't believe for a second that Rangers, with all their off-field issues, will be able to turn it into a two horse race quickly...and that's if they make it through another year and a half without another administration event, which is far from a given.  And there is zero chance of escaping to England - what on earth have they got to gain from having either Glasgow club in the league, other than their baggage?

So Celtic are stuck with their lot.  And it's quite likely that their manager and players are increasingly aware of that.  It would be surprising if Forster doesn't respond positively to suitors.  Samaras and Joe Ledley appear reluctant to sign new contracts.  Someone may take a chance on the potential of Van Dijk, Forrest and Adam Matthews.  Lennon?  Save a League Cup win, there is nothing realistically achievable at Celtic Park that he hasn't achieved already.  I can't help feeling that his love for the club may be trumped by his ambition.  After all, 5-0 away wins in the SPFL must be becoming pretty boring for him; they're certainly boring for the rest of us.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The lowdown on Hughes

So, it's John Hughes then.  The outpourings of joy and cheer have been abundant...from fans of other clubs.  Caley Thistle supporters were ready to accept Paul Hartley as their Messiah; however, the Alloa manager pulled out for personal reasons.  So, instead of hiring the brightest young coach in the country, we've got Yogi Hughes.  After our manager left for Hibs, we've replaced him with a man whose last top flight job ended with him being sacked...by Hibs.  That's not encouraging.

So, let's remind ourselves - who is John Hughes?  He was a decent central defender who spent most of his playing career at Falkirk and Hibernian - both of whom he managed later on.  In between, he had a solitary season at Celtic Park.  Apparently he's called 'Yogi' purely because there was another footballer with the same name, 20 years earlier, who had that nickname.  No, it's nothing to do with boo-boos.  (I'll get my coat).  Arguably his finest achievement as a player was being caught streaking in the background whilst Falkirk teammate Mo Johnston was being interviewed on Scotsport.

His first managerial job came at 39, when he took over from Ian McCall at Brockville,.  Initially he was co-manager with teammate Owen Coyle, but he took sole charge from the start of the 2004-05 season.  (Falkirk won the first division in 2003-04, but weren't promoted because Brockville was, well, a death trap.)  I had it in my memory that Yogi was a good manager when at Falkirk, but hindsight offers a different perspective.  His second full season in 2004-05 saw the Bairns win promotion, though, if I recall correctly, they had the strongest squad that year.  Their SPL finishes under his command were as follows: tenth, seventh, seventh, tenth.  In 2007-08, they blew a top six place by losing to Aberdeen in the final match before the split.  But they were very nearly relegated in his final season in charge, only surviving thanks to a last day win against, funnily enough, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who went down as a result.  They did reach the Scottish Cup final that year, losing to Rangers.  

He was entertaining on the touchline, at least.  In 2006, Falkirk visited Inverness for a  League Cup quarter final on a cold Wednesday night.  It was, frankly, one of the worst football matches I've ever seen.  Falkirk won 1-0, but it was such a dreadful spectacle that I was relieved that Graham Bayne missed a late sitter as I couldn't face the prospect of extra time.  The only entertainment on show that evening was provided by the Falkirk manager.  Yogi spent most of the game berating a young Liam Craig over his positioning - "LIAM, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"  If I recall correctly, whilst Falkirk's players celebrated their goal, he took the time to scream at a few of his players, rather than displaying any joy at all.  Most strikingly, there was an incident where, after Caley Thistle had booted the ball out for a Falkirk injury, a Bairns player punted the drop ball out for a throw-in just beside our own corner flag, rather than put it back to the keeper...and Yogi went absolutely ballistic over the poor sportsmanship.  He even ordered his his players not to contest the throw-in, which earned him a fair bit of applause from the home support.

At Falkirk he developed a reputation for 'pretty football', whatever the hell that means.  In this case, it seems to have referred lots of tippy-tapping around the halfway line.  He did, however, bring through talented youngsters such as Darren Barr and Scott Arfield, and, given that he managed to procure some very high quality loanees from down south, including the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Tim Krul and Anthony Stokes (who was an Arsenal youth at the time), he must have a decent contacts book.  But form could be terribly erratic, and he was lucky to be able to call on the mercurial Russell Latapy; as the Trinidadian aged, the club's star began to wane a bit.

Still, there weren't too many complaints when he was appointed as Hibernian manager - at that point he was seen as an up and coming coach.  His tenure at Easter Road started pretty well. At the end of January 2010, Hibs were third, only two points behind Celtic.  Then it all appears to have gone horribly, horribly wrong.  They only won three of the last sixteen league games of the season and stumbled to fourth.  He was dismissed in October, after his side won only one of their first seven SPL matches of the new season.  There was a worrying increase in the use of the long ball towards the end, and reports of a breakdown in discipline which included players refusing to warm down after matches.  How much of this is Hughes' fault is open to debate; his successors did not exactly turn things around.  But it spreads a seed of doubt in my mind regarding his man-management skills.

However, I'm more disturbed by the list of signings he made for Hibernian - Patrick Cregg, Danny Galbraith, Kevin McBride, Graham Stack, Anthony Stokes, Liam Miller, Graeme Smith, Mark Brown, Edwin De Graaf, David Stephens, Michael Hart, Francis Dickoh, Valdas Trakys.  Stokes and Miller (who had one good year at the club) aside, there is no-one on that list who will evoke fond memories in any Hibee.  I have nightmares that, by February, ICT's solid central midfield will have been ditched as the new manager signs Cregg and McBride yet again in the deluded belief that they are any good.

After Hibs, he spent a bit of time as Head Coach at Livingston, working with Director of Football John Collins.  His role there seems to have been more about developing youngsters than getting results, and he was highly though of at Almondvale prior to his departure for Hartlepool United last winter.  The League One side were hopelessly adrift at the bottom and required a miracle worker - instead they got Hughes, who did well enough to get a manager of the month award, but not well enough to save them from the drop or to avoid the sack.

Yeah, it's not a CV that makes one's soul burn with excitement, is it?

That said, it's not fair to automatically dismiss him as a certain failure, either.  And I will at least stand up for him regarding preconceptions that he isn't the sharpest tool in the box.  More than one person that I've spoken to about Hughes' appointment has instantly responded with "he's a moron" - a common viewpoint that seems based less on anything that he has actually said and more on snobbery about his accent; unfortunately, just about anyone from Leith, intelligent or not, is doomed to sound more like a neanderthal than a quantum physicist.   If you listen to what he says, rather than how he says it, he's not bad.  Sir Alex Ferguson wasn't an articulate man, after all.

So, in conclusion, John Hughes has come to Caley Thistle at a time when his career appeared to be heading in the wrong direction, several years after his last success in the dugout.  But then you could say the same about Terry Butcher in January 2009 as well.  That didn't turn out too badly, did it?  I'm not exactly enthralled, but I'm quite happy to give Yogi plenty of time to prove us doubters wrong.  He has inherited a talented squad with an excellent attitude; if he has the sense, and the humility, to keep things much the way they are now, he should at least keep Caley Thistle on track for the time being.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Summer signings, 4 months on

Right, we're four months into the league season now - which means that it's no longer too early to jump to conclusions. We have a good idea about who's going to fight for a top six place, and who is going to be struggling at the other end of the table.  And we've seen enough of each team to be able to judge whether the signings made since the end of last season have been studs or duds.  I've taken a look at how the new players at each Premiership club have performed so far in 2013-14.  Which teams hit the jackpot with their moves, and which teams (I'm looking at you, Killie!) just signed a bunch of diddies?


Best signing: When he's been fit, former Dundee United and Celtic midfielder Willo Flood has added quality to the midfield.
Worst signing: There haven't really been any duds.  Arguably the biggest disappointment so far has been ex-Rangers winger Gregg Wylde, who has struggled to make any impact since returning north of the border and has spent most of the season on the bench.
Verdict: Out of the newcomers, only Michael Hector (on loan from Reading) and Calvin Zola have started more than 10 league games.  Zola looks dreadful, but the lumbering forward has managed three goals and the team seem to be more effective when he is playing.  But Derek McInnes will be happy that he improved squad depth.  The Dons will expect to get a lot more out of Flood and Barry Robson, as both have missed plenty of time with injuries.


Best signing: After a slightly rocky start, Virgil Van Dijk has been tremendous and will be a strong candidate for Player Of The Year honours.  The Dutchman is probably more comfortable on the ball than any central defender I've seen in Scottish football.
Worst signing: I hope Steven Mouyokolo is on a pay-as-you-play contract.  The defender had a dreadful injury history prior to his move to Celtic Park...and, guess what?  He got injured again, after just two games.  A ruptured Achilles has ended his season, and I suspect that it'll end his Celtic career too.
Verdict: As shown by their disappointing Champions' League campaign, Celtic did not come close to replacing the likes of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper.  Derk Boerrigter, Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki cost £6.5million in total, but not one of them has established themselves as a first choice player.  Israeli Nir Biton hasn't really had enough opportunity yet.  The bottom line is that Neil Lennon's business last summer didn't really improve the squad.


Best signing: Andrew Robertson was playing for Queen's Park last season.  By the end of 2013-14, I wouldn't be surprised to see him playing for Scotland.  This young left back is a solid defender, but is also such an attacking threat that he's scored five goals this season.
Worst signing: The biggest disappointment is unquestionably David Goodwillie, who looks a shadow of the player who left for Blackburn two and a half years ago.  He looks bereft of confidence, and Jackie McNamara showed guts to drop the former golden boy.
Verdict: Pretty positive.  Whilst Goodwillie has been a let down and defender Calum Butcher was quickly dropped after looking out of his depth early on, Nadir Ciftci has been superb, as has defensive midfielder Paul Paton, who played under Jackie Mac at Partick Thistle.  Another former Partick player, winger Chris Erskine, was a target for the support after a poor start, and hasn't even been a sub most weeks.  Bringing Mark Wilson back to the club for a second spell has proven an astute move and the defence looks considerably stronger than it did at the start of the season.


Best signing: There was only one - Danny Wilson, whose loan from Liverpool was made permanent.  He's been their best player.
Worst signing: Wilson again, technically...
Verdict: The only verdict that can be made here is that, without strengthening the squad in the summer (and without the opportunity to do so in January), this Hearts squad is far too weak to overcome their 15 point penalty.


Best signing: Liam Craig has shown flashes of the outstanding form of his last couple of seasons at St. Johnstone, though there should still be plenty to come from him.
Worst signing: Another former Perth Saint, Rowan Vine, has been a huge disappointment.  It's incredible to think that Birmingham City once paid £1million for this guy.  Maybe he'd be more mobile if he ditched that dreadful beard, which must be weighing him down no end.
Verdict: None of these players were signed by Terry Butcher, of course.  The issue with Pat Fenlon's summer signings was not so much the lack of quality as the failure to address certain positions, such as the full back and wing areas.  Fraser Mullen is in the former category but was sidelined after some rotten performances after joining from Hearts.  Wideman Abdellah Zoubir looks exciting but doesn't appear to have much end-product.  Owain Tudur Jones, who played for Butcher in Inverness, is just one more central midfielder in a squad with about a million of them.  Paul Heffernan has so far proven to be a more dangerous signing up front than James Collins - though I understand Collins did not cost nearly as much as the quoted £200,000 fee.


Best signing: Aside from one blunder against Partick Thistle, Dean Brill has been solid and dependable in goal for Caley Thistle.  He's already arranged to make his loan move from Luton permanent.
Worst signing: Does Northern Irishman Curtis Allen actually exist?  The striker, signed from Coleraine, got injured in pre-season and hasn't got close to seeing first team action since he returned to fitness.
Verdict: Okay rather than brilliant.  Jamie Vincent looked good before getting injured at the end of September.  More recently, left-back Carl Tremarco and winger Marley Watkins have established themselves in the team.  We've yet to see the apparent best of Toby Agdestein or Ben Greenhalgh yet, though.


Best signing: When you've signed eleven players and the best one is 35 years old, that doesn't reflect well on your actions in the transfer market.  But I'd say that veteran Barry Nicholson has been consistently decent, though not particularly special.
Worst signing: Considering David Silva wasn't particularly good the first time he was at Rugby Park, what possessed Allan Johnston to decide to bring him back?  The winger has only made 3 appearances before getting injured.
Verdict: I think it's fair to say that Kilmarnock's manager doesn't have much in the way of contacts when it comes to signing good players.  Kyle Jacobs (ex- Livingston) and Mark Stewart (ex-Dundee) are no better than Championship level, while Michael Gardyne's performances both at Killie and at Dundee United suggest the same of him.  Jackson Irvine, on loan from Celtic, struggled in defence but has looked better after moving into midfield.  Darren Barr also had a poor start to the season but has improved recently, and the same could be said of full back Sean Clohessy.


Best signing: Stephen McManus has been solid and dependable, just as Stuart McCall hoped when he signed the former Scotland international.
Worst signing: To be fair to Iain Vigurs, he hasn't been truly terrible; however, he's had barely any impact compared to how brilliant he was for Ross County last year.  It doesn't help that McCall hasn't worked out how to get the best from him.
Verdict: On paper, 'Well's transfer business looked great - but Vigurs and ex-Staggie teammate Paul Lawson haven't made an impact.  Lionel Ainsworth and Henri Anier both made quick impacts - Ainsworth scored a screamer against Dundee United, while Anier scored a few goals - but both have regressed in recent weeks, with the latter unable to establish himself as a consistent partner for the more dependable John Sutton.  I expected more from goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen, given he was on Manchester City's books for so long.


Best signing: Isaac Osbourne looked good on occasion in Aberdeen - that is, on the rare occasions that he wasn't actually injured.  But he's been one of the best defensive midfielders in the league this season.
Worst signing: Mexican defender Gabriel Piccolo has been an absolute nightmare whenever he's seen action - which, given how poor he has played, is surprisingly often.  Is he blackmailing Alan Archibald with dodgy pictures, or something?
Verdict: Partick Thistle didn't do a good enough job strengthening for the top flight.  Mark Kerr and John Baird weren't good enough with Dundee last year and haven't got any better.  Gary Fraser, on loan from Bolton, was decent initially but got himself a hefty ban for kicking the s*** out of an opponent in a reserve game.  If they are to stay up, it will be because of the efforts of the players who won promotion last season.


Best signing: Dutch winger Melvin De Leeuw has looked very slick - when he's been moved inside to play off a front man, which has allowed him to assert far more influence on matches.  The less said about Derek Adams' decision to play him as a lone striker against Celtic, the better.
Worst signing: Apparently Orhan Mustafi has played up front for Switzerland's under-23 team.  But he looked unfit when he arrived on loan, then broke a toe.  He still hasn't scored a league goal...which makes him no different from County's other strikers.
Verdict: County's Dutch experiment hasn't been a success so far, De Leeuw aside.  It's been downhill for fellow wideman Darren Maatsen since he scored at Celtic Park on opening day, while Kevin Luckassen has struggled mightily up front and young midfielder Marc Klok has only started one match.  Adams' attempts to reshape the defence have also failed miserably, with Brian McLean showing why Dundee United wanted shot of him and Ben Gordon displaying none of the form from his previous spells at Kilmarnock.  At least Graham Carey has done a good job on the left flank.


Best signing: After looking stale during his final season at Hibernian, David Wotherspoon has been revitalized since moving to Perth.
Worst signing: I presume Rory Fallon was signed to offer a target-man option when the Saints are desperate late in games.  At least, that's the only reason I can think of.  He isn't anywhere near as good as the other strikers in the squad.
Verdict: It's hard to criticize many of the players Tommy Wright brought in.  Brian Easton has been decent at full back, while Gary McDonald has been a pleasant surprise, given that he was nicknamed 'the ghost' at other clubs because of how little impact he had on games.


Best signing: Marian Kello by a distance, even though the Lithuanian keeper was only signed in October.  He's looked far more reliable than either of his predecessors, both of whom were signed in the summer.
Worst signing: The deadline day signing on loan of French forward Stephane Bahoken felt a bit desperate at the time - which is ironic, since 'desperate' is an appropriate way to describe his performances.  After starting two games in September, he has drifted out of first team contention.
Verdict: Not good to be honest, apart from Kello and Conor Newton, who returned for a second loan spell after playing in Paisley last season.  David Cornell was supposed to be the first choice goalie, but made several errors, prompting the signing of Kello.  Ex-Hearts defender Danny Grainger has lost his place at left-back to youngster Sean Kelly.  Another loanee, midfielder Jake Caprice, has seen action only as a sub.  The team's form has improved considerably since the highest profile signing of the summer, Gary Harkins, lost his place in the lineup.


Monday, November 25, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Kilmarnock are sinking fast
Both on and off the pitch, Kilmarnock are a mess.  The team are struggling badly, and any setback they suffer is an opportunity for the home support to display their grievances at chairman Michael Johnston, which in turn hardly produces an atmosphere to inspire the players into a fightback.  The situation is so toxic that there is no way back for Johnston; the worry for Killie fans is that it's not clear that he has realised it yet.  As for his namesake, manager Allan, the ongoing off-field problems are not quite masking how poor his side are playing, and how rubbish most of his signings have been.  If the duo do not leave Rugby Park soon, Kilmarnock will finish eleventh at best, and I wouldn't fancy this bunch in a playoff with the likes of Dundee or Falkirk.

These are the results that will do for Hearts
Overcoming that points deduction was always going to be a tall order, but they simply have to beat the teams immediately above them in the table if they are going to get out of this hole.  They outplayed Ross County on Saturday, yet needed a last minute equalizer against 10 men to steal a point (it could have been all three if Callum Paterson had scored instead of hitting the bar in added time).  In the five matches they've played against the teams who are eighth to eleventh in the league, Hearts have only two points.  The bottom line is that, even though the players are doing their best in the circumstances and the support is tremendous, Hearts would only be tenth in the table even without the points deduction.  They just aren't good enough.#

Derek McInnes is the man Aberdeen have been looking for
Yes, Aberdeen have lost 17 straight league games at Celtic Park (and who can tell me the name of the scorer of the winning goal the last time Celtic lost at home to the Dons?*) but they had no right to do so this time, given that both Willo Flood and Barry Robson were absent and Jonny Hayes was lost to a hamstring problem midway through the first half.  Yet remarkably the Dons went toe-to-toe with the hosts and Niall McGinn was within inches of a late winner.  Celtic created enough of their own to feel that they just about deserved the three points, but it's clear to see that Derek McInnes is taking this team in the right direction, and I'll eat my shoes (I don't own a hat) if they miss out on the top six for a fifth consecutive campaign.

Danny Lennon can sleep at night now
It's only a couple of months since the St. Mirren boss appeared to be on the brink of the sack.  Yet the Buddies have taken 14 points out of the last 7 games and should have beaten Hibs on Saturday lunchtime.  Unlike in Dingwall and Kilmarnock, the early season problems in Paisley appear to have been fixed, and the manager appears to know what his best eleven is.  Is it a coincidence that Gary Harkins hasn't started any of the last 7 games, and that St. Mirren picked up only 1 point from the first 6 matches, all of which the former Dundee midfielder started?

Who are Celtic's best strikers?
Against Aberdeen, Neil Lennon went with Teemu Pukki and Georgios Samaras up top, with Amido Balde appearing from the bench.  Samaras has 4 league goals this season, 2 more than Pukki and Balde, neither of whom so far have justified Celtic's total outlay of £4.3 million on them.  Anthony Stokes has scored 5 league goals, but missed the game for 'personal reasons'; he's out of form however, having managed only 1 goal in his last 12 club games.  Thank goodness for Kris Commons, whose brace against the Dons makes him the team's top scorer both in the league (6) and in all competitions (7).  But given his forwards are not hitting the target at domestic level, it's hard to see them scoring against far superior Champions League opposition.

Dundee United - phwoar again!
That's now five times in the league this season that Dundee United have scored four goals.  Better yet, no team has conceded fewer than they have.  It's really all come together for them right now.  Ryan Gauld set up all four goals.  If he was to suffer a serious injury in the near future, I would actually cry - he really is that special.

Stevie May is the real deal
May actually had a quiet afternoon by his standards in Inverness, but the home fans and defenders were nervous every time he touched the ball.  The service to the St. Johnstone striker was sporadic at best, but his workrate remained outstanding and he won his fair share of headers against the normally dominant Caley Thistle centre backs.  On one occasion just before half-time, a long diagonal was launched towards May on the left touchline; instead of chesting it down, he audaciously used the outside of his right foot to volley it past Graeme Shinnie and then left the full-back for dead, only for an alert Dean Brill to clear the danger.  It was a piece of skill worth salivating over, and it's no surprise that St Johnstone have put a price tag of £800,000 on their star asset.  Why the hell was Fat Kris Boyd called up for Scotland instead of him?

Terry Butcher was hoping for a bigger new manager bounce
The new Hibs boss rang the changes for his first match in charge of the club, bringing in Paul Cairney from the cold, giving a rare start to youngster Danny Handling, and leaving out the likes of James Collins and Kevin Thomson.  But whilst optimists will point out that a clean sheet and an away point are not to be sneezed at, debut wins for new managers are so common that they are almost expected, and the 90 minutes at St. Mirren Park will have reassured Butcher not at all that this team are a top six side-in-waiting.  This Hibernian team will not be quickly fixed.

Is Graeme Shinnie better at right-back than left-back?
Left-footed wingers playing on the right - and vice versa - are pretty commonplace these days, but a left-footed full back playing on the right?  When Inverness got thumped in Perth earlier in the season, they missed right-back David Raven and deployed central defender Danny Devine as a replacement, with catastrophic results.  For the following game, Shinnie moved across to the opposite flank with Carl Tremarco coming in to the left-back role.  The words "duck" and "water" come to mind; Shinnie scored against Kilmarnock, won a penalty and had an assist against Hibs, and was strong again on Saturday as ICT beat St. Johnstone for the first time since, well, a long time.  Naturally inclined to attack, his habit of coming in off the flank seems to confuse opponents, who are far more used to seeing full backs overlap on the right.  Maybe he will be less effective when the novelty has worn off, but right now Shinnie is in the form of his life.

It was quite a reasonable weekend, by usual Scottish officiating standards.  Frankly, it was a surprise to see Willie Collum correctly award a penalty for handball against Dundee United's John Souttar, and he was also spot on with both bookings for Partick's Conrad Balatoni, while it was hard to argue with the straight red for Stuart Bannigan late on.  Meanwhile, even Derek Adams could have no arguments with either of Richard Brittain's yellow cards against Hearts.

*And the answer to my question earlier - a certain gangly forward called John Stewart scored the winner, with Darren Mackie and Fernando Pasquinelli on target as well in a 3-2 victory.


Monday, November 18, 2013

No case for the defence

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County's situation is bad enough without Ivan Sproule auditioning for UFC
On the face of it, Partick Thistle's Gabriel Piccolo is surely the worst defender in the Scottish Premiership right now.  In his last four starts, the club have conceded 14 goals.

But his presence might actually improve the Ross County defence.

County's promotion to the SPL in 2011-12 was built on defensive solidity.  So too was their start to life in the top flight.  Last season, they conceded only one goal in the first six league matches...four of which were goalless draws, mind you.  They shipped rather more goals as the season went on, but that could be blamed on a more expansive style rather than a drop in form - Derek Adams' side went on a great run after Christmas which earned them a surprise top six finish.

football formations
2011-12 promotion winning side

In fact, if anything, the quality at the back was improved during the January transfer window.  The back four that won the first division title consisted of central defenders Scott Boyd and Grant Munro, flanked by Marc Fitzpatrick at left back and Gary Miller at right back.  Miller left that summer, for St. Johnstone, but in came veteran Ross Tokely from across the Kessock Bridge, and former Dundee United defender Mihael Kovacevic.  Initially the experience of the former was preferred on the right side of the back four, but by winter the limitations resulting from Tokely's reducing mobility convinced the manager that further changes were needed.  The more athletic Kovacevic was brought into the lineup, and brought far more attacking threat.  So did another January signing, Greek left back Evangelos Oikonomou, who was so superior to Fitzpatrick that the latter was released before the end of that month.  And, best of all, Canadian international Andre Hainault arrived too.  He took some time to force his way into the heart of the defence, but his comfort in possession allowed County to keep the ball better.  His winning goal against Inverness on the final day of the campaign was in itself enough to earn him legend status amongst the support.

football formations
The starting XI from the second half of 2012-13
What Adams would give to still have the same defensive options as last season.  In Sunday's defeat to St. Mirren, his backline consisted of Steven Saunders, Brian McLean, Boyd, and Branislav Micic.  Hainault has gone, and is playing in Germany now.  Oikonomou left too, returning to Greece.  Kovacevic, one of the best right backs in the league last season, has slumped, as anyone who saw his dreadful performance recently against Celtic will testify.  Munro, meanwhile, is no longer at the Global Energy Stadium.  Stories that he fell out with his manager may or may not be true.  What we do know is that, at 33, he appeared to have slowed down dramatically - the way he was beaten in a sprint by the spring chicken that is John Sutton for one of Motherwell's goals in one defeat came as quite a shock.  The former Caley Thistle captain has dropped to part-time football with Brora Rangers in the Highland League.

The new signings have not picked up the slack.  Saunders deserves a bit of patience, after two injury-ravaged years at Motherwell, and he has only started two Premiership games this season.  But it's hard to believe that it's only three years since he won a Scotland cap.  McLean, in contrast, has performed exactly as expected - as a hoof ball merchant.  It's no surprise that Dundee United cancelled his contract a year early, but goodness knows what Adams saw in him.  During Highland derbies, we have a joke sweepstake on how many times Boyd will punt the ball out for a throw-in during a match; McLean actually surpasses him in this area. 

Micic was actually signed in January, but barely played because of injury.  I'm told he's a cultured player at centre half or left back, but he's yet to justify his club's decision to offer him a new deal in the summer.  But it's another left back, Ben Gordon, who has been the biggest disappointment, given that he had two excellent spells on loan at Kilmarnock in the past, and is still only 22.  But he's offered little of the expected attacking threat, whilst appearing terribly vulnerable against opposing wingers.  He's the last of the seven different players who have started in County's back line this season.

Of course, the first line of defence is the attack, and the Staggies' have plenty of problems further up the pitch.  The best marker of how poor their forwards are is that none of them have yet managed a goal in the league.  Last season, a target man - Sam Morrow or Steffen Wohlfarth - was used as a focal point to hold the ball up and create space for midfield players, most notably Ivan Sproule, to get beyond him.  Neither Morrow or Wohlfarth are still in Dingwall.  The current flavour of the month is Dutchman Kevin Luckassen, who is by a distance the laziest player I've seen in Scotland this year.  He makes Dimitar Berbatov look like the Duracell bunny.  I suspect there were high expectations for Orhan Mustafi, a Swiss player on loan from Grasshopper Zurich, but he was terribly unfit when he arrived and then broke a toe - he hasn't been seen since.  Things have been so bad that Luckassen's countryman Melvin De Leeuw, a left winger, was deployed as a lone striker against Celtic.  It didn't work.

football formations
Lineup in 2-1 defeat to St. Mirren, 17 November 2013

De Leeuw has been one of the few bright sparks, the others are also midfield players; Graham Carey, formerly of St. Mirren, and midfield dynamo Stuart Kettlewell.  But Paul Lawson and Iain Vigurs, who moved to Motherwell in the summer, have been terribly missed.  Lawson, who sat in front of the back four, was a hugely underrated presence.  County's record in the 20 top flight games he started - won 9, drew 7, lost 4.  His record in the 30 top flight games they've played without him starting - won 7, drew 8, lost 15.  Captain Richard Brittain has often been deployed in Lawson's role; not only have the team missed his creativity further forward, but he's been largely redundant as McLean and Scott Boyd punt the ball over his head.

County have lost eight league games already.  They only lost eleven in the whole of last season.

That said, I suspect that, like last season, the January transfer window will be galvanizing.  Uncle Roy McGregor won't hold back from strengthening the squad if there's any sense of danger.  The worst County can finish the season is eleventh, and they only need to be a little better than this to finish ahead of Kilmarnock with a bit to spare.  But there could still be some hard going for the next couple of months.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Hibs squad needs Butchered

So, after leaving a settled Inverness team who are second in the league and in a League Cup semi final, Terry Butcher now dedicates himself to rebuilding Hibernian.  On paper at least, he is going to a club with a bigger support, greater resources and a larger wage budget.  So it shouldn't be too hard, right?  Except the last five incumbents have failed to take Hibs where their fans and board think they ought to be.  For years, it's seemed like the squad has been hugely talented, but that ability never seems to be manifested on the pitch.  So what is Butcher likely to do with this motley bunch, given that he's stuck with them till at least January?

For the most part, Butcher's Caley Thistle side were set out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, bar the latter stages of the 2009-10 first division promotion campaign when he deployed Adam Rooney and Richie Foran as a front two.  Such was his love of this system that the entire ICT squad has been recruited with this system in mind.  There is not one player currently at Inverness who does not fit a role (or more than one role) in a 4-2-3-1.  Occasionally, this would come back to bite him on the bum, as there was no Plan B when the team were struggling, but for the most part it has worked well for him.  I'm not convinced he has the tactical nous to come up with a new formation to suit the players he is inheriting.  Instead, I'd assume he will look to mould the squad into one that can play with the same style and threat as his previous club.  This may prove difficult...

The defence
What he wants: Butcher loves his full-backs to provide an attacking threat (this is the reason why the hapless but extremely athletic Lionel Djebi-Zadi was humoured for so long).  He's willing to risk them being caught upfield, or to leave them isolated against wingers.

What he's got: He inherits a group of central defenders with plenty of potential.  I can imagine Butcher seeing James McPake, a talented player who has lost his way badly amid a series of back problems, into a personal project.  Paul Hanlon, who will be playing under his fifth different Hibs boss, is capable of being a good top flight central defender as well.  I think we may see Ryan McGivern used more often in the middle, rather than as the makeshift left-back that he was so often under Pat Fenlon.  Michael Nelson is an experienced stopgap, if nothing else, while young Jordan Forster has shown a few glimpses of ability.

On the other hand, there are barely any full-backs, let alone any of the sort Butcher has left behind in Inverness.  Alan Maybury is years past his best, while Fenlon lost confidence in Fraser Mullen so quickly that the left-footed midfielder Lewis Stevenson was often used at right-back.  Tim Clancy's versatility will make him useful when he returns from injury, but I would imagine that the new management team will bring some new faces in for these positions.

The midfield
What he wants: In the central midfield, Butcher has often used a holding player, such as Russell Duncan or Owain Tudur Jones, but only alongside someone who provides plenty of industry and bite; this year, he has gone with two such players in Richie Foran and Ross Draper.  At least one pacey wide player is an absolute necessity; in the last couple of seasons, he has deployed two, though previously Foran has been used on the flanks as a more physical option.  Inverness tended to use a creative attacking midfielder as a second striker (Danni Sanchez, Eric Odihambo, Andrew Shinnie) though this year we've seen a more orthodox central midfielder, Jamie Vincent, used in an advanced role instead.

What he's got: The key will be to find someone who can play that advanced midfield role.  Liam Craig might be an option, but he's tended to be at his best when coming in from a wide position.  He's certainly not got the vision or eye for a pass that Andrew Shinnie has.  Paul Cairney, largely ostracized by Fenlon since joining from Partick, could be a wildcard.  Scott Robertson could be used as a more industrious alternative, I suppose?

Further back, there will only be room for one of Kevin Thomson and Owain Tudur Jones; Butcher had the latter for two seasons at Inverness and wanted to keep him, but may feel that the former offers more mobility.  Robertson, who will be an asset if he can recapture the form he showed at Dundee United, could also play in this area, though I can imagine Tom 'Tommy Tackle' Taiwo being the new manager's sort of player.  I'm not sure where Lewis Stevenson would fit in.

As for wingers...er, what wingers?  Pat Fenlon practically had a fetish for central midfielders.  Until the raw but talented Alex Harris returns from injury, Butcher is stuck with just French loanee Abdellah Zoubir.  Fenlon often used forwards James Collins and Rowan Vine as wide players with, shall we say, mixed results.  This squad has less width than Kate Moss during a crash diet.

The attack
What he wants: at Inverness, Butcher inherited Adam Rooney, a tall, strong striker who was deceptively quick and who ran the channels effectively, as well as working his socks off; Billy McKay can't hold up the ball as well, and doesn't provide an aerial threat either, but his movement is better and quicker.  For the last year, the ICT team has been set up primarily to provide ammunition for McKay.

What he has: Is James Collins mobile enough for this sort of role?  I must admit that I've seen very little of him, though what I have seen is enough to know that he doesn't resemble a striker worth the substantial sum that Hibs paid for him.  In contrast, Paul Heffernan did a good job of leading the line at Kilmarnock, and could be a reasonable option for the time being.

Poaching from Inverness?
This may prove harder than many realise, as Inverness have done a superb job of tieing up players on long term contracts.  I'm sure Butcher would love to bring in the likes of Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Graeme Shinnie, David Raven, Aaron Doran and Billy McKay...but all are under contract for at least another 18 months.  How much of a transfer kitty do you think Rod Petrie can stump up, after forking out a six-figure compensation fee for his new management team?  Not enough, I reckon.

Amongst the players that are out of contract is ICT captain Richie Foran, a disciple of Butcher's going back to Motherwell days.  The Irishman has been reinvented as a central midfielder with considerable success, but, given he is 34 in June and there are already plenty of options in the middle of the park at Easter Road, would a move for the veteran be of benefit?

Time will be needed
I think it's pretty obvious that fixing Hibernian will not be a quick job.  It may also require a number of new faces.  But that was the case for the previous incumbents too.  Let's remind ourselves what happened to the previous incumbents:

John Collins - October 2006 - December 2007, made 12 signings
Mixu Paatelainen - January 2008 - May 2009, made 15 signings
John Hughes - June 2009 - October 2010, made 15 signings
Colin Calderwood - October 2010 - November 2011, made 14 signings
Pat Fenlon - November 2011 - November 2013, made 30 signings.

Doesn't bode all that well, does it?


Monday, November 11, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Van Dijk is the best player in Scotland right now
On Saturady afternoon, Celtic defender Virgil Van Dijk told the press that he needs to work on his shooting, and his attacking headers.  This would sound arrogant but for the fact that, after a slightly rocky start to his career in Scotland, the defensive side of his game is coming on fine.  His ambition of becoming a set piece threat was realised in some style in Dingwall, as he came up with two of his side's four goals.  Remember how classy Jean-Alain Boumsong and Carlos Cuellar looked during their brief spells at Rangers?  Van Dijk is their Celtic Park equivalent.  He won't be playing in this diddy league for too much longer, one suspects.

Dundee United - phwoar!
Jackie McNamara must feel awfully good when he turns to his subs bench and sees that the likes of Morgaro Gomis and David Goodwillie are available as a Plan B if needed.  He must feel even better when his first choice side play like they did at Fir Park.  His three teenagers - John Souttar, Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld - were simply delightful, with Gauld scoring twice and full-back Robertson on target too.  The board at Tannadice can stop worrying about any debts - these trio will make them millions in transfer fees.

Extra heading practice for Ross County this week
Last year's solid Ross County rearguard had one glaring weakness - a problem dealing with big strikers.  For example, Michael Ngoo, on loan at Hearts from Liverpool last season, was unstoppable on both occasions that he played The Staggies.  Unfortunately for Derek Adams, things have now regressed to the point where you don't fancy any of their defenders to win a high ball against anybody.  All four of Celtic's goals were headers from crosses into the box; conceding twice to Virgil Van Dijk can be considered a disappointment, but letting Joe Ledley score twice with his noggin is unforgivable.  County have conceded 23 goals in just 11 league games this season.  Apparently Greek left back Evangelos Oikonomou, who left the club at the end of last season, is a free agent again; I wouldn't be surprised if Adams is on the phone to him, pronto.

Partick Thistle aren't designed to come from behind
The Harry Wraggs have come from behind to pick up points only once this season, against St. Mirren; lightning didn't strike twice when they met the Buddies this time around.  Alan Archibald's philosophy has always been about grinding out results and being difficult to break down.  But now their well-documented lack of firepower has been complemented by a defensive ineptitude that the Firhill support hadn't seen since Alan Archibald took the helm in the Spring.  Is it any coincidence that, in the last four games that Mexican defender Gabriel Piccolo has started, Partick have shipped 14 goals?  They have now won just one of nine matches since the end of August, and that came courtesy of a goalkeeping blunder at Inverness.  Worrying times.

It only takes a couple of injuries
Squad depth in the Premiership, other than at Celtic Park, is so frail that losing even two or three first-choice players can cause a top-three side to play like a bottom-three side.  Motherwell were always going to find it hard enough against Dundee United's talented attack; without three first choice defenders - Steven Hammell, Shaun Hutchinson and Simon Ramsden - they had no chance.  Stuart McCall's side is probably entitled to a Mulligan on this occasion.

Barry Robson could cost Aberdeen more than one game
The veteran midfielder's sending off was unquestionably the turning point in the Dons' surprise defeat at home to Hearts.  Robson was a bit of a hot head in his younger days, but he should know better by now than to pick up yellow cards as cheap as the two he received from Iain Brines - one for encroachment at a free kick and the other for a cynical yet unnecessary foul on Jason Holt.  Robson had come on as a sub for Willo Flood, who will miss six weeks with a hamstring injury; the Aberdeen midfield will now have to do without their two best passers of the ball for a time, and will be a whole lot weaker as a result.

Weren't Inverness supposed to be unsettled?
Caley Thistle's players responded to all the rigmarole surrounding their management team in a way even their own fans didn't predict...by producing one of their most dominant performances of the season to breeze to victory at Easter Road, with their manager Terry Butcher sitting in the stand as a 'private citizen' (as the Scotsman curiously put it) ahead of his imminent switch to Hibs.  The away side's particular stars were two youth team products who were given their debuts by Butcher back in 2009 - Graeme Shinnie, who has taken to playing as an emergency right back like a duck to water and followed up his goal last week with an assist and by winning a penalty, and Nick Ross, who converted said penalty and had his best game in a long time.  The man who takes charge of this talented, professional, and hard-working squad will be one lucky bugger, I say.

Hibernian will not be easily fixed
Hibs couldn't have been any worse if Jimmy Nicholl's teamtalk had consisted of "Ach, I can't be arsed what happens today.  To hell with the lot of you".  The malaise is so deep that it's hard to know which players lack confidence, which ones can't be bothered, and which ones just aren't good enough.  I suspect Terry Butcher didn't quite realise the task he was taking on until Saturday afternoon; rumour has it that he was still sitting in the same seat at Easter Road on Monday morning, with his head in his hands.

Let me remind you - Willie Collum refereed a Champions' League quarter final last year.  This is a man who cannot tell the difference between stumbling whilst losing your balance, as Kilmarnock's Jackson Irvine did, and simulation, which is what Collum booked him for.  Irvine went on to receive a second yellow for a sliding challenge which, on replay, looked like it won the ball.  Mind you, by this point St Johnstone were already coasting to victory, with Stevie May at the forefront yet again.  May may be the only player who can stop the Young Player of the Year award heading for Tannadice.

Meanwhile, Iain Brines, from a distance of around 5 yards and with a perfect view, somehow awarded a penalty against Hearts for handball, even though the ball in fact struck Jordan McGhee square in the back.  He should be sent for anatomy lessons along with Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes, who raged against Brines for not giving Aberdeen another penalty for handball, even though on that occasion Dylan McGowan was struck in the face.

Minute's silence or no minute's silence?
I tend towards the feeling that minute's silences, (and the more modern minute of applause), happen too often at football matches; however, it does tend to be the norm that there is a moment of reflection prior to kickoff on the Saturday before Rememberance Sunday.  Whether the fact it only occurred at two matches is worthy of controversy is debatable, but given the protests by Celtic fans during previous seasons (if someone could explain the reasoning behind these protests, that would be smashing) it may be a blessing that Ross County 'forgot' to hold one.  Meanwhile, Hibs fans should be commended, as they made up for the lack of a minute's silence before kickoff by holding multiple, extended periods of silence during the match themselves.  Good for them.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Breaking down Butcher to Hibs

So, after 4 years and 281 days, Terry Butcher's successful union with Inverness Caledonian Thistle appears to be over, as the Englishman moves to take charge of Hibernian.

When Butcher pitched up in Inverness in January 2009, his managerial reputation was in the toilet after an underwhelming period coaching Sydney FC in Australia, and a nightmare spell at Brentford.  Nearly five years on, he's never been hotter property as a coach.

That's not to say that he had non-stop success in the Highlands.  He was unable to save Caley Thistle from relegation from the SPL, though the fact he came so close to doing so was a small miracle in itself.  It's never really been made public knowledge just how much of a mess Craig Brewster left behind; the repair job was remarkably swift.  His first year in the job was nothing special though - in fact, four years ago today, the club were only sixth in the First Division.  But something clearly clicked - they went unbeaten on league duty for the last 20 games of the season...though if Dundee hadn't collapsed so spectacularly they might still have missed out on promotion.

Their first season back in the SPL resulted in a decent seventh place finish; 2011/12 saw a step backwards as an injury-ravaged side stumbled to tenth in the table, but last year it all came together in spectacular fashion.  After a slow start (which had me, as recently as September 2012, questioning whether new blood was required in the dugout), ICT finished fourth in the league.  They then kept the momentum going into this season; at the time of writing they lie third, with a game in hand on second placed Aberdeen.

Most of the credit for this should, of course, go to the big man himself.  Butcher undoubtedly talks the talk - a more media-friendly manager in Scottish football there is not - and his charisma (along with his reputation from his playing days) is put to good use in attracting players to the Highlands.  He is a better tactician than he is given credit for, as shown by the evolution in playing style and formation that he's used over the last few seasons.  I've no idea where this idea of ICT being 'hammerthrowers' has come from; over the last twelve months in particular they have played some very sexy football indeed.

He has shown a good eye for a player too, for the most part.  Not many folk saw the potential in Billy McKay; even fewer felt a two year contract extension was warranted after a barren first season in Scotland.  I'm not sure many SPL managers would have tried to build a team around Andrew Shinnie either.  And the  signing of Jonny Hayes for our First Division campaign might have been the best of the lot.

That said, he has been given plenty of tools to help him succeed.  It's no coincidence that he has been more successful as a manager when he has had Maurice Malpas as his assistant.  It's probably a bit trite to describe the former Dundee United defender as the brains of the operation, but there is more than a ring of truth to it.  Butcher didn't have Malpas in tow at any of the clubs where he failed.  Another critical member of staff is goalkeeping coach and scout-extraordinaire Steve Marsella, the man primarily responsible for spotting Inverness' successful signings from England's lower leagues.  And, above all, Butcher has benefitted from the full support of the club from day one.  If the fans occasionally had gripes, the chairman never did.  Never was he under pressure from the board.  He was given the time and space to do things his own way, in a manner that seems increasingly rare at football clubs.

Caley Thistle have never had it so good, and neither, as a manager, has Terry.  He had a job for life at Inverness.  He also had a lovely house at Abriachan, near Loch Ness, and a football team that was unquestionably his.  On the other hand, it's fair to assume that he was beginning to itch for a new challenge.  The stadium is never more than half full unless Ross County or Celtic visit.  All the good football, and impressive victories made zero difference to that.  If there is one thing that will have attracted him to Hibs, it will be the prospect of serenading 15,000 fans in Easter Road, instead of 3,000 sweetie-rustlers at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.

Will he succeed at Hibs?  I can't say I'm confident that he will.  What worries me is that he is their sixth manager in just over seven years.  It feels like those who came before him - John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon - were all under extreme pressure to improve things quickly.  Both Calderwood and Fenlon effectively brought in brand new squads, such were the number of signings and departures.  Butcher will need time and patience to turn this around, but so did those before him.  They didn't get it.  Will he?  For a start, he's stuck with the squad he's got until January.  I could see him going back to Inverness to try and sign players, but most of their better ones are under contract and would command transfer fees that Hibs probably couldn't pay.  Still, Butcher has done more at Motherwell and Inverness than any of his five predecessors had done as manager before arriving at Easter Road.  He is better placed to succeed then any Hibs boss since Tony Mowbray left.

And where do Caley Thistle go from here?  It is likely that Malpas and Marsella are also on their way down the A9, though memories of Malpas' rotten spell as head honcho at Motherwell (and his subsequent failure as Swindon manager) always cast a shadow over the prospect of appointing him as Butcher's successor.  Kenny Cameron has proven himself an excellent chairman since taking over the role, but this will be his biggest test yet.  At this moment in time, it's not at all clear who the next manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle will be.

What is clear is that there is plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth by the ICT support, who in general recognise that it probably doesn't get any better than Terry Butcher.  But then we thought the same when Steve Paterson left, and when John Robertson left, and when Craig Brewster left...well, the first time he left.  Yet we did all right in the end.

And, while there is considerable disappointment that Butcher left the Highlands for a club lower than us in the league, rather than waiting for a more prestigious job in England (or, perhaps, at Ibrox) to come up, most fans will choose to focus on all the good he has done for the club, and to see him off with grateful thanks, if not necessarily their full blessing.

They will also be keen to point out that, so far, not one of the men who has managed Inverness Caledonian Thistle - Sergei Baltacha, Steve Paterson, John Robertson, Craig Brewster, Charlie Christie, and Brewster again - went on to succeed as managers after they left the club.  Time will tell if Butcher will prove the exception to the rule.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cup venue decision shames the SFA

The issue of Scottish Cup semi final venues has often been a contentious one.

For rather a long time now, the SFA have insisted on always holding both semi-finals, as well as the final, at Hampden Park.  I believe the ticket money from the semi-finals gets split four ways regarding of who plays who, so I think it's about making sure the maximum number of people can attend...and, by extension, the maximum amount of moolah can be made.

In practice, of course, it's not that simple.  I've seen Caley Thistle play in two Scottish Cup semi-finals, which were against Dundee in 2003 and Dunfermline in 2004.  Neither attendance broke the 15,000 barrier.  Hampden's poor design, with the shallow gradient of the stands and the distance between the fans and the pitch, means that it barely counts as atmospheric when full; at less than a third capacity, we're talking quieter than a library, filled with mute people, situated in a graveyard.  McDiarmid Park, Pittodrie, Tannadice - these were all more sensible venues.  Yet they weren't considered for a moment.  Pittodrie was used for the replay of the Inverness-Dunfermline match, and just as well given that the crowd was barely 3,000.

But the SFA kept insisting on Hampden, even when it meant, for example, Dundee United and Raith Rovers travelling all the way to Glasgow instead of playing each other at a closer venue such as Tynecastle or Easter Road, which might have been close to a sell-out.  They'd have insisted on Hampden even if Ross County and Inverness were drawn to play in the semis, or one of the Highland clubs was drawn to play Aberdeen.

But for this season's competition, the SFA faced a predicament, as Hampden Park is being converted for use in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  Still, the semi-finals alone are 6 months away.  We can see who gets knocked out early, and who is left in the latter stages.  There's no need to make a decision now.

Except in the universe that the SFA operates in, of course.

Today it was announced that Celtic Park will host the final, and Ibrox will host both semi-finals.  That's not unless Celtic make the final/Rangers make the semi finals.  That will be the case regardless of which teams make the semi-finals.  If Celtic reach the final, they will get to play at their own ground.  If Rangers make the semi-finals, they will get to play at their own ground.  If two teams who are over 100 miles from Glasgow, with relatively small supports, play against each other in a semi-final, they will have to go all the way to Ibrox and play in a two-thirds empty stadium.

So the national cup final, and possibly a semi-final, could be held with home advantage for one of the teams.  I'd have said that this was unfair.  What do the SFA say?

Well, that's an awful lot of references to money.  Wouldn't just the slightest nod towards integrity be nice?  As regards the dates, there are no top flight fixtures scheduled for the weekend of the Scottish Cup Semi Finals. Do they really believe that Celtic Park might not be available that day?  And of course, if you need a big sports stadium, Murrayfield is the biggest one in the whole damn country.  How about using that?  I bet it's no more expensive than what the SFA are paying Celtic and Rangers for this privilege.  'Reconstruction' was supposed to be about sharing the wealth a bit more, wasn't it?  Instead, the Old Firm once again get to cash in, and with a potential footballing advantage to boot.  There's no definite reason at all to hold both semi finals at a big stadium unless there is an Old Firm club in both.  Even the Aberdeen-Hibs semi-final in April 2012 was attended by only 28,000.  That's barely half the capacity of Ibrox.

 This decision stinks to high heaven.  But, sadly, it stinks of the same odour that Scottish football's authorities have stunk of for a long time now.

On the other hand, can you imagine what it would be like if Rangers and Celtic ended up drawn against each other in a semi-final, or the final?  In that case, I'd say it was a very good idea after all.  But only because Stewart Regan and the other lunatics in charge of the asylum would be feeling rather uncomfortable...