Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Are Rangers fans starting to lose interest?

In the league this season, Rangers have been on a hiding to nothing.  A thrashing of one of their part-time third division opponents is met with sneers of "they were only playing Elgin/Clyde/East Stirling".  On the rare occasions that they slip up, such as against Montrose at Ibrox last weekend, when Gable Endie midfielder David Gray actually literally slipped up as he hit a long range effort and the ball looped over Neil Alexander and into the top corner for an improbable late equalizer, they are mocked with "how can you not beat Montrose at home!".

In truth, neutrals expected nothing less than the footballing equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters from Ally McCoist's side this season.  There were claims from some of the more, shall we say, optimistic (it's a choice between that adjective and 'lunatic') Rangers supporters that, despite having to play in the third division, a 'quadruple' involving the League Cup, Challenge Cup and Scottish Cup was a realistic possibility.  The Challenge Cup campaign ended with a penalty shoot-out defeat at home to Queen of the South.  After knocking Motherwell out of the League Cup, expectations were high when they took on another SPL team at Ibrox in the next round...only to be beaten 3-0 by Inverness.  Their Scottish Cup campaign takes them to Tannadice on Saturday; unless they avoid defeat, it will be their last game against full-time opposition this season.

Rangers have also dropped enough points so far this season that the record for points in the third division, set by Gretna in 2004-05, is already beyond them.  That said, they have, at the time of writing, a 20 point lead over the chasing pack - even if second-placed Queen's Park have three games in hand, it is clear that promotion is a formality.  But performances have not been consistently impressive.  Some of the loyal old pros have kept their standards high - Lee McCulloch, named captain, has scored 22 goals already despite spending as much time playing in defence and midfield as he has up front.  Left-back Lee Wallace has also been outstanding, as you'd expect from a Scottish international playing against fourth-tier opposition.  David Templeton, when fit, has wreaked havoc.

But for every high earner who has given their all, there has been one who has been so mediocre that the phrase 'wage thief' comes to mind.  Whilst I can forgive the youth players who are playing well only in patches - they are still finding their feet, after all - it's harder to be patient with the likes of Neil Alexander, Ian Black, Dean Shiels and Francisco Sandaza.  Each are earning approximately £5,000 a week; to put that in perspective, some of the Montrose players they faced on Saturday make £175 a week.  Alexander has looked less like a former Scotland international and more like a guy pulled from the crowd and given a pair of gloves.  Black has cut a frustrated figure, a target for opposing hatchet-men who know he can be easily riled into retaliation.  Shiels has been dogged by injuries, but when available his efforts pale in comparison to those of Templeton.  Sandaza, meanwhile, has managed just two goals for the club.  Last season, the Spaniard was one of the best predators in Scottish football, but since joining Rangers he has shown the explosiveness of a sloth and is about as mobile as a glacier.

As for some of the other signings, is it any surprise that Kevin Kyle is constantly injured, or that Brazilian defender Emilson Cribari has not really taken to the copacabana environment of the Scottish third division?

The most impressive thing about Rangers this season, by a distance, has been their supporters.

Yes, there are still some bad eggs in there - it was easy to hear 'Billy Boys' being belted out during a recent televised game in Peterhead, while my visit to Belfast last week was a painful reminder of what the club stands for in that part of the world, as about half of the loyalist 'flag protestors' that I saw at the City Hall that Saturday afternoon wore Rangers gear.  But you can't fail to be impressed by sell-out crowds to see teams like Queen's Park and Elgin pitch up at Ibrox.  As documented in a previous blog, I was pleasantly surprised by I what I witnessed at a match in October.  Even when the players were making a hash of it, the fans kept up a terrific atmosphere.

So what struck me about the BBC highlights of the Montrose game were the number of empty seats that could be seen throughout Ibrox.  It wasn't dramatic - not like the wide open spaces you frequently see in the stands at Celtic Park for league games - but it was surely the first time this season that more than a few tickets in the home end went unsold.

Maybe it was a one-off.  But maybe it's the first sign of the only thing that the club's Chief Executive, Charles Green, fears: apathy.

Green has rubbed up almost everyone that matters in Scottish football the wrong way this season, the effect, intentional (being cynical, I think it is) or otherwise, has been to galvanise Rangers fans to get behind their team, if only as a two-fingered salute to other clubs.  He's done everything possible to keep the club in the public eye, from slaughtering the SPL's reconstruction plans, to announcing a supporters boycott of the upcoming Dundee United cup fame, to appointing Jim Traynor as the head of PR - a job many would say he was doing for free whilst pontificating on the Gers' behalf on BBC Radio Scotland for years.

Green has already acknowledged that Rangers won't be profitable this season.  The only way he and other investors can get a return on their cash is to keep attracting customers, as prize money and TV income are a fraction of what they were in the top flight.  The narrative of 'Rangers climbing the leagues, winning every division, beating every team in Scotland and fighting, against all the odds, to once more take their rightful place at the top of the tree' has worked so far, but keeping it going for three years of climbing the SFL looked like a tall order.  That probably explains the decision to sign SPL players on high wages rather than cheaper lower league journeymen - fans are more likely to watch David Templeton than guys like Kenny Deuchar, who climbed the leagues with Gretna.

But if fans are getting bored of watching the same outcome most weeks - Rangers huff and puff and toil for about an hour, before their superior fitness and class eventually tell and they run out two-nil winners over their inferior opponents - then the club's owners have a problem on their hands.  Will they be any more entertained when the opposition are Alloa, or Falkirk, if the games turn out roughly the same?

And you can certainly understand why they are so against the idea of a 12-12-18 setup - instead of promotion this season, they would have to play Stirling, Annan et al again next year, and would be no closer to getting back to the top flight and, most importantly, the lucrative games against Celtic than they would be under the current setup.  Green's suggestion of 14-14-14 is surely because it would be easier to justify sticking Rangers in the second tier, one year ahead of schedule.

Frankly, even getting 30,000 in the ground every week would be impressive, in my book.  But Green needs to get more than that through the turnstiles for each home game for the next two and a half years.  Can he do it?


Monday, January 21, 2013

Are Aberdeen making progress under Craig Brown?

The appointment of Mark McGhee as Gordon Strachan's assistant for the national team will have stirred some unhappy memories in plenty of Aberdeen fans.

It's a month over two years since the man with the second most broken nose in football (after Steve Bruce, of course) saw his tenure at Pittodrie come to an end, after 18 months, 62 matches and just 17 wins.  At that point, the club were above bottom spot only because of goal difference.  To refer to his team as a rabble is insulting to disorderly crowds.

Given the shambles that McGhee left behind, it was no surprise that Stewart Milne, the Aberdeen chairman, turned to Craig Brown.  The former Scotland manager was 70 when he left Motherwell to move to the North-East; he clearly doesn't do quiet retirement.  The Dons needed stability, a safe pair of hands.

It's now just over two years since that appointment.  In his first half-season, Brown duly steered the team away from the drop, to an acceptable ninth place in the league.  Last season, his first full campaign in charge, they finished....ninth.  Again.  But, to most members of the Red Army, things still seemed better than under McGhee - if only in the same way that Tennent's Lager is just about more palatable than cat's urine.

The Dons' start to this season seemed to reward their patience.  After a late blunder by keeper Jamie 'Clangers' Langfield cost them a surprise point at Celtic Park on opening day, Aberdeen went unbeaten in the next ten league matches.  There were plenty of draws in there, but it looked like Brown had found the formula for success.  His teams have always been set up to be difficult to beat, but often at the expense of flair and creativity at the other end.  But the arrival of Niall McGinn from Celtic, and his conversion from midfielder to a striker, paid dividends with goals aplenty, helped by another new signing, Inverness winger Jonny Hayes, and the emergence of teenage wide player Ryan Fraser.

At some point in October, I confidently announced on The SPL Podcast that "Aberdeen will finish second in the SPL this season".

That prediction seemed a bit reckless at the time; now it seems downright moronic.  A surprise loss in Dingwall at the beginning of November heralded an abysmal period where they were beaten in 5 out of 7 matches; in fact, including that defeat to Ross County, Aberdeen have only 13 points from their last 12 games.

Might the winter break refresh tired legs and see them get back on track.  No chance.  The Dons have an excellent record at Inverness, but after a fairly even first half, Aberdeen were utterly steamrollered in the second, losing 3-0.  What was particularly surprising was that a side with an experienced backbone - Jamie Langfield, Russell Anderson, Gavin Rae, Stephen Hughes and Scott Vernon are all twenty-nine or over - seemed to go to pieces as soon as they conceded a goal.

I'd have paid more than a penny for the thoughts of Jonny Hayes after that game; he turned down a new contract that would have made him Caley Thistle's highest paid player to move along the A96 last summer.  He's subsequently claimed that his Aberdeen contract didn't give him a higher wage than the Inverness offer, but that he thought they were a bigger club.

However, Caley Thistle are, touch wood, now second in the SPL.  You don't have to tell me how incredible that is.  Aberdeen lie fifth, six points worse off despite having played a game more.  The four teams below them are within five points, and all of them have games in hand.  Having looked the business a few months ago, the possibility of a third consecutive bottom six finish is increasing.

And the fans are beginning to lose their rag.  Broonie's assertion post-match on Saturday - that there was nothing between the teams but the goals - was met with derision.  Previously so solid, the back line looks more fragile than a ming vase during an earthquake.  Up front, the game proved that, if Niall McGinn has an off-day, goals are exponentially harder to come by.  Craig Brown, along with his long-suffering lieutenant Archie Knox, looked less like football coaches and more like characters from Still Game.

So, two years on, have Aberdeen made any progress?  Or are they, ultimately still in the hole that they dug themselves when they sacked Jimmy 'Tangoman' Calderwood in May 2009?

It's only fair to point out that there are mitigating circumstances - namely, injuries.  At times, the number of players unavailable has been close to double figures.  The defence has never been quite so assured since left-back Gary Naysmith, Scotland's answer to Darren 'sicknote' Anderton, wrecked his calf.  Brown would probably prefer to deploy youngster Ryan Jack on the opposite side, but he's been out for ages too.  To cap it all, central defender Andrew Considine broke his leg and won't play again until next season.  Midfield veteran Chris Clark's campaign is over as well.  Hayes, Stephen Hughes and Isaac Osbourne have all had their spells on the treatment table, to the point that centre forward Vernon played several games in the middle of the park, where he struggled mightily.

And, in Brown's defence, he seems cursed to lose his best players.  Since he took over, the likes of Paul Hartley, Chris Maguire, Steven Smith, Zander Diamond, Sone Aluko, Ricky Foster and Kari Arnason have left.  So too have his three most promising youth players - Fraser Fyvie, Jack Grimmer and the aforementioned Ryan Fraser, who signed for Bournemouth last week.  But every other SPL club loses their best players nowadays.  The Dons are no worse off than their peers in this respect.  And, on paper, they should undoubtedly be considered as genuine candidates for second spot.

Whilst claims by The Sun today that the Aberdeen board are looking at the possibility of bringing in Derek Adams from Ross County as manager are likely to be frivolous - if only because any football story in a Scottish red-top should automatically be distrusted - there are certainly more than a few Aberdeen fans who feel that the team won't improve any further under the current manager.  Whilst it would seem ridiculous to consider a change at this point - after all, a win in the Highlands would have actually moved the Dons level on points with Inverness - the early season optimism has fizzled out.  They say at Rangers or Celtic you are only three bad results from the sack.  At Aberdeen, you are probably only five or six, at least in the eyes of the supporters.

And don't forget, Craig Brown turns 73 in July.  He has displayed remarkable longevity and stamina, but for how much longer will he have the strength and will to try and turn this club around?


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Houston, we have a problem

Dundee United have had three successive top-four finishes under his stewardship.  They also won the 2010 Scottish Cup.  They;ve been in the Europa League in each of the last three seasons.

Most SPL clubs can only dream of that level of success.

So why does it feel like Peter Houston is increasingly unwelcome at Tannadice?

On the face of it, you would think that United, and their supporters, would be pretty satisfied with the job he's done.  Yet the 54 year old's contract expires at the end of the campaign, and there appear to be only tentative signs of a new deal for a man who joined the club as assistant manager to Craig Levein in October 2006, and who has been manager since December 2009.  The prospect of him moving on does not seem to cause much in the way of panic; chairman Stephen Thompson was so keen to acquiesce to a potential approach from Blackpool that you'd be forgiven for wondering if he had actually telephoned the English club to offer them his employee.  (Subsequently, it has emerged that Blackpool had little or no interest in Houston and are actually chasing MK Dons boss Karl Robinson).

And are fans of the Tangerines raging over the prospect of losing such a successful coach?  Going by Twitter and internet forums, Arabs are at best showing ambivalence; at worst, there have been dozens of offers from supporters to personally chauffeur Houston down to Blackpool.  It's quite a contrast with the reaction of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and their fans, to the news that Terry Butcher was in talks with Barnsley - the departure of arguably Scotland's most popular Englishman would have led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Depending on whether you count his time as caretaker-manager, Houston is either the longest or the second-longest serving (after Butcher) manager in the Scottish Premier League.  Yet his relationship with Dundee United has never felt even remotely as close as Butcher's with Inverness, and certainly does not compare with the bond between Stephen Thompson's late father and predecessor as chairman, Eddie, and Craig Levein.  From the beginning, it felt like a marriage of convenience; when Levein departed for the Scotland job, the first choice for the role was actually Pat Fenlon, now in charge at Hibs - but compensation could not be agreed with the Irishman's club.  So Houston continued as caretaker, results were generally decent - they could hardly get any worse than his first match in charge, a 7-1 shellacking at Ibrox - and after disposing of Rangers in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup, the draw opened up beautifully so victories over Raith and Ross County were all that were required to bring silverware to the City of Discovery.

At this point, it's worth reminding ourselves of the first choice starting lineup on the day of the final: Pernis, Kovacevic, Webster, Kenneth, Dixon, Swanson, Buaben, Gomis, Conway, Goodwillie, Daly.  How many of those eleven are still at the club?  Just Jon Daly.  It's reasonable to claim that, of the other ten, only Mihael Kovacevic did not leave for 'better things'.

That's a lot of turnover in two and a half years.  All six of the Scottish players have, since then, been capped at least once (though Garry Kenneth is still recovering from the trauma of his sole international appearance.)

Yet, under Houston's stewardship, Dundee United finished third in the SPL a year later.  Despite this, a poor start last season led to rumours that his job was insecure only a few months into the campaign; United recovered to finish fourth in the table.  Another summer of cost-cutting followed, with first team regulars such as Dusan Pernis, Gary Kenneth, Paul Dixon, Robbie Neilson, Danny Swanson and Scott Robertson exiting.  The replacements looked decent on paper, yet have failed to live up to expectations - midfielders Mark Millar and Michael Gardyne have surprisingly struggled to make the step up from the first division, Brian McLean appears a shadow of the centre-back who used to play for Motherwell, Rudi Skacel is more pre-occupied with how he used to play for Hearts than how he currently plays for Dundee United, and the less said about Gregory Vignal the better.  Add in the perenially-injured Gary Mackay-Steven and it's not hard to see why they are eighth in the table.

The cost-cutting doesn't just cover the playing squad, and this may be one of the big issues regarding Houston's future.  He's certainly on a high salary compared to his peers - the more outrageous estimates claim it to be £200,000 a year.  His chairman has made no secret of how he would have to take a wage cut, though negotiating through the press seems tactless at best and disresepctful at worse.  Not that the manager is exempt from this criticism - a thinly-veiled plea via the press for a new contract back in September was unfortunately followed a few days later by a 4-0 thumping in Inverness, and when he did the same thing in December, his players promptly blew a 3-0 lead at home to the same opponents.  Talk about bad timing.

Maybe it's just that the team have gone stale under his stewardship - though given that the turnover of players is such that only Sean Dillon, Jon Daly and Steve Banks are left from the first team squad he took over, that seems a spurious argument; most of them haven't been around long enough to go stale.  Regardless, there's not a lot of love for Peter Houston from the Tangerine half of Dundee, it seems.  One wonders if a new contract, even at a reduced rate, would only delay the inevitable for a few more months.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Team of the half-season

I really loved being part of a discussion on The SPL Podcast regarding a 'team of the half-season'.  Rather than giving my own views, I think the transcript of our argument is far more interesting.  My views were often very different from those of Rab McCracken (Killie fan and assistant editor of Lovely Left Foot) and Paul Fisher (Celtic fan and editor of Write Club).  Our other usual contributor, St. Mirren fan Dave McFarlane, was absent - he has subsequently threatened us with GBH for not picking Steven Thompson...

Rab: The logical place to start, then, is of course, in goal.  I'll go first, and I've picked Fraser Forster.  I think the guy is just, pure and simple, head and shoulders above everyone else in the SPL.
Me: Literally.
Rab: I go down to watch Newcastle and I was pleased they let him go, because I never thought he was going to get a chance, but now I'd be quite happy to see him back!  He's been vital for Celtic, not only with his saves but with the way he organizes his defence.  Every team needs to be built on a good goalkeeper and Celtic have certainly found one.  It's a while since they found someone who is as regularly dependable as Fraser Forster.  He's been such an important player.
Me: No arguments here.  I picked Forster as well.  I think Darren Randolph and Rab Douglas deserve honourable mentions, but it's got to be Forster, even for his SPL form alone - I don't know if we're allowed to consider how amazing he's been in Europe.  But he's been the best goalkeeper in this league.
Rab: Paul, any disagreements?
Paul: Not at all.  He's the first player who came to my mind; I didn't consider anyone else.

Rab: Defenders, gents.  I'll start by putting forward Adam Matthews.
Paul: He's in my team as well.
Me: I've not picked Matthews.  He's started so many games in different positions this season - I think he's played full-back, wing-back, wide-midfield.  Aside from his excellent display at Rugby Park, I think his best perfomances have been in Europe, which is why I didn't pick him.  At right-back, I actually picked Lustig, who has been very good for Celtic.
Paul: I've got Lustig in my team as well, if that counts.  No bias is being shown here!
Me: You've just picked eleven Celtic players, haven't you?
Paul: Naw, I've only picked another one.
Rab: I'll propose another Celtic player then - Kelvin Wilson.  I think he's come on leaps and bounds since last year and he's been very important to Celtic's defence.
Paul: I'd agree with that, but I didn't choose him, firstly because picking three Celtic defenders would be too much.  They have got the best defensive record in the league by a good eight goals.  But obviously a lot of that is down to Forster.  I think Matthews and Lustig just edge Wilson and Ambrose, for me.
Me: As regards centre-halves, I think there are some good ones who play outwith Parkhead.  Wilson has been decent enough, but in the games where Celtic have dropped points, I feel the defence has been very culpable.  I had Mulgrew on my shortlist, but I also looked at guys like James McPake, or Shaun Hutchinson of Motherwell, even Inverness's Gary Warren.  But the two I've picked were Russell Anderson and Andy Webster, two veterans who I think have been very solid this season for their clubs.
Rab: You'll be pleased to hear the other defender I've picked is Josh Meekings.
Me: You're joking.  Whatever pills you're on, I want some of them.
Rab: I think for a young guy, he's actually been fairly good.  I thought Inverness would miss him at the weekend.
Me: Well, we did, but he's not nearly as good as Warren beside him.  Warren has been so solid.  As you'd expect, Meekings is still a bit erratic.  He'll go on to become a better player than Warren, but he isn't there yet.
Rab: I agree with you on Russell Anderson though. I forgot about him.  He's been excellent for Aberdeen this season.
Paul: You mentioned McPake.  I've put McPake in my team at centre-half, along with - I'll get a couple of sniggers for this - Grant Munro.  I think he's been excellent for County.
Rab: I'm surprised you picked McPake, who's been injured for quite a while.
Paul: Hibs are a team I've seen play more than anyone else this season, I think.  Every time I've watched them he's been solid.
Me: McPake's started as many games as Adam Matthews, and more than Lustig.  I think he's fair game.  I think what gives him a chance of getting in this team is how much Hibs missed him when he was injured.  He seemed to be guiding Paul Hanlon through games, and Hanlon looks lost without him there.  That said, in his first two games back...
Rab: He got sent off!
Me: He got sent off in the first one and Hibs lost both of them - at home.  That's probably why I didn't pick him.  Aberdeen fans have waxed lyrical about Anderson this season and Hearts fans are the same about Webster.
Rab: Have we got a left back for consideration?  I struggled.
Me: I had a chat on twitter with John Maxwell of County Tactics about who was a good left-back and we both struggled.  I went for Stevie Hammell.
Rab: Sheer consistency.
Me: He's a seven-out-of-ten player every week. I presume Paul has Matthews at left-back.
Paul: Yes.
Me: John suggested Gary Naysmith, but he's been injured.  I don't know who you take, to be honest, it's a difficult position.  I went for Hammell by default.
Rab: I think that's a good shout.
Me: Tesselaar?  Would he be an option?
Rab: I think he was injured for a big period of time.  If he was regularly in the team, he could be.  The problem is he's so attacking-minded that he often leaves us exposed defensively.  I don't think I could consider him.  Rory McKeown?  (Everyone laughs).  No, we're not having that!  So what's our defence?  At right-back, by popular decision, do we put Adam Matthews?
Paul: Yeah, that's fair enough.  I did have him in at left-back.
Rab: Or should we put Matthews at left-back and Lustig at right-back?
Me: I'd be pedantic and say Matthews hasn't played many games at left-back in the SPL this season.
Rab: Our centre-halves, shall we include Anderson?
Me: On consensus, shall we say Anderson, with either Wilson or McPake?
Rab: Yeah, we'll pick McPake.
Paul: We're representing every club. We're doing well!

Rab: I'll get the bias out of the way and propose Liam Kelly.  He's come on leaps and bounds like I mentioned earlier, earned his first Scotland cap and been vital to what's going on at Rugby Park.
Me: You could use the same argument for Andy Shinnie at Inverness as well.
Rab: You'll be pleased to hear he's on my list.
Paul: He's on my list too, so he's in there.
Me: I considered both of them, and picked neither.  Is it fair to say everyone picked Victor Wanyama?
Rab: Yes.
Paul: Of course.
Me: Wanyama is the best player in Scottish football at the moment, period.  I had Shinnie and Kelly in my thoughts.  I'd have loved to find a place in the team for Nicky Law as well.
Rab: Nicky Law is on my list, actually.
Me: I put St. Johnstone's Murray Davidson in central midfield, with Wanyama.  He's been consistent and scoring goals this season.
Rab: I just picked four midfielders - Liam Kelly, Andrew Shinnie, Nicky Law and Victor Wanyama.
Paul.  I picked three - Wanyama, Shinnie and Ryan Fraser - and went for three strikers.  I couldn't decide between three strikers.
Rab: So Wanyama's in, and Shinnie as well?
Me: I tried to go for 4-4-2, but again there is a dearth of left-sided players, so I've plumped for Vigurs of Ross County, though more recently he's played a central role.  He's been great and scored some great goals, and will go on to better things.  I also really wanted to find a place on the other flank for David Wotherspoon.
Rab: He's come on.  He's been one of Hibs' most improved players, and was abysmal last year.  I think we should go for Vigurs.
Me: So my four across midfield are Wotherspoon, Wanyama, Murray Davidson and Vigurs.
Rab: I think I'll go with Vigurs as well - Dave and me were talking about him on the podcast the other week and how we would both happily take him at St. Mirren and Kilmarnock.  So, Vigurs on the left side, Wanyama in the middle.  Can we decide who's partnering Victor Wanyama?
Paul: I would say Liam Kelly.
Rab: The popular vote then is Wanyama and Liam Kelly in the middle. 
Me: So no place for Andy Shinnie then?
Rab: Not unless we can force him wide right?
Me: He's not been nearly as good when he's been playing wide right.  I can definitely see why we should have Liam Kelly in.
Rab: Who are we going to play on the right hand side?  Wotherspoon?
Me: I'd have Wotherspoon.
Paul: Yeah, I'd say so.  Wotherspoon's been superb for Hibs.
Rab: But we have to give honourable mentions to Andy Shinnie and Nicky Law, two guys who we've been on and on about in this year's podcasts.  Nicky Law is a player I rate really highly, and I think Motherwell would struggle if he wasn't there.

Rab: Now, up front we have no shortage of attacking talent in the SPL this year.  Eoin Doyle, Leigh Griffiths, Billy McKay, Michael Higdon, Cillian Sheridan, Gary do we pick?
Paul: I think you missed the first name on my sheet, Niall McGinn.  He's been fantastic for Aberdeen.  I think along with Billy McKay that would make up my team.  Just missing out is Hooper, who's coming into form, but just hasn't done quite enough so far.
Rab: Is the consensus that we can put Billy McKay in?
Me: Yes.  I find it very difficult to leave him out.  I tried to take into account my bias, but he's top scorer in the league now.  He really has been in unbelievable form in the last couple of months.  He has to be in, I think.  Having him in kicks Niall McGinn out of my team, and Leigh Griffiths as well.  I quite fancied a big man-little man front two...
Rab: So Michael Higdon?
Me: I didn't actually.  I thought about Higdon, but I'm such a big fan of Cillian Sheridan, apart from his jumpers!  He's such a superb centre forward.  He's got the cliched 'good touch for a big man', he's superb in the air, he's a smart guy.  I think he's a phenomenal striker, someone who's far better than the clubs he's played for since he left Celtic.
Rab: He's playing for a massive team now! (chuckles).  He's playing for the Scottish League Cup holders!  It doesn't get much bigger than that!  As much as it pains me to say, Sheridan wasn't on my list.  I've gone for McGinn, simply because the guy wasn't even a striker before this season.  It's almost as if Craig Brown's said "By the way, mate, you're actually going to play up front!"  And all of a sudden McGinn seems to have found his position.  He pips Griffiths for me, because we all knew what Griffiths could do.  We all knew what Michael Higdon could do.  But all of a sudden Niall McGinn has hit ten goals in the league, and that's impressed me.  But we could almost pick a dozen strikers.
Paul: If you're going for the big man-little man combo, I was going to say Georgios Samaras.  He's been brilliant this season, especially in Europe.
Rab: How many league goals has he got, though?
Paul: He's only got three, but his link play with Watt, Lassad and Hooper is second to none.
Rab: This is splitting opinion - who's going to partner Billy McKay.  McGinn, Sheridan or Samaras?
Me: It sounds like you two had McGinn, so lets go with him.  He's really important as a creative force, as well as a goalscorer.  So I think having McGinn is pretty reasonable.

So our SPL team of the half-season:
Fraser Forster (Celtic)

Adam Matthews (Celtic)
James McPake (Hibernian)
Russell Anderson (Aberdeen)
Steven Hammell (Motherwell)

David Wotherspoon (Hibernian)
Victor Wanyama (Celtic)
Liam Kelly (Kilmarnock)
Iain Vigurs (Ross County)

Billy McKay (Inverness)
Niall McGinn (Aberdeen)

And I suspect our subs bench would look like this - Randolph (Motherwell), Webster (Hearts), Wilson (Celtic), A. Shinnie (Inverness), Law (Motherwell), Griffiths (Hibernian), Sheridan (Kilmarnock)



Thursday, January 3, 2013

SPL January needs

The SPL has just started a two and a half week winter break - which, remarkably, many fans (including myself) didn't realise was the case till recently.

My girlfriend is delighted.

So this is what I hope will be the first of three blogs over the winter break, starting with a look at the potential transfer window activity over the next few weeks.  As you'd expect, some teams have more needs than others.  My plan is to produce a formal 'report card' for each team so far, and also to have a look at a potential 'team of the half-season', following on from our discussion on The SPL Podcast last week.


January should see the team's horrendous injury list ease, and that might discourage Craig Brown from bringing in new faces.  But the loss of Andy Considine leaves the defence very thin and another centre back would be very welcome.

The Dons may be tempted to cash in on exciting winger Ryan Fraser if a tempting offer comes in.  Other than that, there may be further loan spells for some of the young players.


Neil Lennon has stated his wish to bring in another left-back, and Rami Gershon, the Israeli international defender, is in talks to join from Standard Liege.  That will most likely to be the only new signing this month.

The club will not encourage bids from down south, with Norwich watching Beram Kayal and Gary Hooper closely.  Young Nigerian Rabiu Ibrahim has signed for Kilmarnock after failing to break into the first team.  Paddy McCourt and Thomas Rogne are both out of contract in the summer; the former has been linked with a move to the USA and the latter with AIK Solna of Sweden.  Celtic will also try to move on troubled defender Andre Blackman.

If they are to stay up, then Dundee will have to do a lot of business as they are woefully deficient everywhere except in goal.  Even then, the odds seem stacked against them - would it be more prudent to accept relegation as inevitable and concentrate on preparing for next season's first division campaign, rather than throwing money at new signings?

Probably depends on who comes in.  With 19 players over the age of 21, it would be useful to get a few players off the wage bill.  Rumour suggests that the most likely departure might be the manager himself.


Peter Houston has already stated that he intends to sign another defender, which is what the club desperately need.  However, he has also said that there may not be any other newcomers, but I suspect he's very keen to get in another striker and a wide player to compensate for Gary "made of glass" Mackay-Steven.

Gregory Vignal has already left after spending most of his brief time at Tannadice on the treatment table.  Milos Lacny has also gone back to Sparta Prague after making only 8 appearances in an injury-hit year on loan in Scotland.  It's unclear if Rudi Skacel's deal will be extended.


In case you've been living under a rock, Hearts aren't allowed to bring in any new players in the transfer window as punishment for late wage payments to players.  Even if they get back on track after the end of January, they'll only be allowed to sign under-21 players, on a 'one-in, one-out' basis.

Anyone who is subject of a bid will probably be allowed to leave.  The departure of Ryan McGowan to Shandong Luneng Taisha (try saying that after a few pints) for around £250,000 seems inevitable.


Hibs' transfer business depends entirely on whether they can extend the loan deals of defender Ryan McGivern, midfielder Jorge Claros and star striker Leigh Griffiths.  All will need replaced if they don't return after the winter break.

Danny Galbraith has no future at the club, and it increasingly seems that Ivan Sproule is in the same boat.  It wouldn't be a surprise if Shefki Kuqi left as well after an underwhelming spell in Edinburgh.


20 year old central defender Danny Devine is set to join after leaving Fleetwood Town, which is a surprise as we appear well-stocked in that area when Simon King and Chris Hogg return from long-term injuries.  There's unlikely to be much more activity, although cover at left-back would be useful.  Philip Roberts' loan from Arsenal has been extended to the end of the season.

Terry Butcher's main concern will be that top scorer Billy McKay may be the subject of interest.  Andre Martins and George Brislen-Hall have both already left after failing to break into the first team.  I wouldn't be surprised to see young forward Jason Oswell go out on loan.  Might King or Hogg be offski?


Rabiu Ibrahim, signed from Celtic, will hopefully provide more flair in the centre of the park.  There probably won't be any more new faces unless a few players currently at the club move on.

Shiels has said he'd like to move on a few senior players - expect third choice keeper Anssi Jaakola and forward Rory Boulding (who has made only 4 appearances since signing in the summer) to be on that list, while Danny Racchi seems to be out of favour.  Young midfielder Ross Davidson has joined Airdrie on loan, and expect a few other members of the club's successful youth side to follow.  Expect interest in on-form midfielder Liam Kelly.


A new forward is badly needed unless Bob McHugh is able to make the step up to become a regular SPL goalscorer.  The emergence of youngsters Zaine Francis-Angol and Adam Cummins means the defence is not a priority, but further midfield depth would be useful.

Jamie Murphy has completed his £200,000 move to Sheffield United; Stuart McCall will hope this gives him the financial clout to see off the interest of Polish team Lech Poznan in Henrik Ojamaa.  Jonathan Page has made permanent his loan move to Hamilton.  The Steelmen's squad is relatively small and they are unlikely to let anyone else go if they can avoid it.


The Staggies have been linked with a move for Norwegian defender Hans Age Yndestad, who would potentially fix a weakness at left-back.  A wide player or two and a goalscorer would be welcomed, and there have been newspaper reports suggesting a possible move for Hibernian winger Ivan Sproule.

Striker Steven Craig has signed for Partick Thistle after a successful loan spell.  Former ICT midfielder Russell Duncan has joined Brora Rangers after being released.  Joe Malin, Jon Bateson and Kurtis Byrne have also been let go.


There's not likely to be much activity at McDiarmid Park, although Steve Lomas is keen to extend Aberdeen wide-man Peter Pawlett's loan deal beyond the winter break.

The club may be tempted to cut their losses on perenially-injured forward Craig Beattie.  Teenage midfielder Liam Caddis has signed for Cowdenbeath on loan.


Newcastle midfielder Conor Newton has joined on loan, and the Buddies hope to extend the loan deal of his teammate Paul Dummett.  American forward Dom Dwyer had a long trial in Paisley but won't be signed. 

For the second January running, highly-rated midfielder Kenny McLean has picked up an injury which will discourage suitors.  Young midfielder Mark Lamont has been released.