Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SPL report card - Kilmarnock

A frustrating campaign, and a frustrating coach


LEAGUE: 9th, 45pts (2011-12 - 7th, 47pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Quarter finals
LEAGUE CUP: Second round

OVERVIEW: It was always going to be tough for Kilmarnock to emulate a 2011-12 season which included a League Cup win, but a top six place wasn't an unreasonable expectation.  Whilst results and performances were inconsistent - they managed back-to-back SPL wins only once - you'd expect from a side that often fielded several youngsters at the back.  However, the bottom line is that they needed only 3 points from their final two games, which were at home to the two poorest teams in the league...and they blew it.  Would it be harsh to look on this season as one step backwards?

HIGH POINTS: Killie's first win at Celtic Park in 57 years was not something to be sneezed at - and on the back of a terrific performance too.  Paul Heffernan and Cillian Sheridan each scored hat-tricks at Tynecastle on two other super away days.

LOW POINTS: The SPL campaign floundered mainly because of  only one home league win in 2013; in the final weeks of the season, the players were hearing far more boos than cheers from the Rugby Park support.  As for the League Cup defence, it lasted all of 90 minutes as a shadow side crashed at home to Stenhousemuir.

STAR MAN: Majestic, stylish, graceful, robust and creative; James Dayton's beard was all of these things.  The player himself was bloody good as well, and was above all the one who made Kilmarnock tick in the final third.  When his lung collapsed after a collision with an opponent in Dingwall at the end of March, Killie's form collapsed with it.
ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Mark O'Hara made his first ever start in that Celtic Park win, aged just 16.  The right back looks like a real prospect and is apparently being watched by Everton. 

WASTE OF SPACE: The signing of Livingston's Rory Boulding, a decent but hardly special first division player, on a three year contract looked bizarre at the time; I only hope Killie didn't have to pay off the whole two and a half years of the deal that were left when they punted him in January.  Boulding got his own back, scoring the crucial goal that put his new club, Dundee United, in the top six at Kilmarnock's expense.

THE BOSS: Look, Kenny Shiels is clearly very capable - his achievements last season are testament to that.  His willingness to blood youngsters is admirable, as is his preference for a passing game.  But the Northern Irishman's reputation as a 'rent-a-quote' is irritating, particularly as he spends so much time saying so little of substance.  He spent too much time this season serving touchline bans, and picking fights with the SFA and officials, which cannot have done his team any good.  Chairman Michael Johnston needs to order his boss to speak only in clichés, and to concentrate on what happens on the pitch - if he gets the message across, he can then bet the club's overdraft on a higher league finish next year.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: The news that Kris Boyd is staying seems like a huge boost.  However, I'm not convinced that Boyd has enhanced the team since returning, and whilst he will certainly be good for at least a dozen goals, I worry that Killie have to compromise the way they play to suit him, and will do better as a team with the industry of Heffernan and/or Sheridan up top instead.  The departing Dayton will be very difficult to replace.  At least Shiels has signed two SPL-quality keepers, ICT's Antonio Reguero and St. Mirren's Craig Samson, to replace Cammy Bell.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Cammy Bell (has signed for Rangers), Anssi Jaakola, Kyle Letheren, James Dayton (has signed for Oldham Athletic), Danny Racchi




Tuesday, May 28, 2013

SPL Report Card - St Johnstone

Pragmatic, but effective

StJohnstoneFC crest.png


LEAGUE: 3rd, 56pts (2011-12 - 6th, 50pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fifth round
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals

MOST USED FIRST XI: Alan Mannus, Dave Mackay, Steven Anderson, Frazer Wright, Callum Davidson, Chris Millar, Murray Davidson, Liam Craig, Gregory Tade, Rowan Vine, Steven Maclean

OVERVIEW: Finishing in a European place is an impressive accolade; to manage it in two consecutive seasons is phenomenal for a club of this size.  Yet St. Johnstone managed to finish third in the league without very much fanfare at all.  They weren't at all spectacular, scoring more than two goals in only three matches.  But they were solid and well-organized, and their experienced squad seemed to have the knack for grinding out results.  In the end, they were very deserving of a top three finish.

HIGH POINTS: The Saints sparked their season off with a win over Celtic, which started a run of five straight victories.  A terrific finish to the season, with 10 points in the last 4 games, allowed the club to overhaul Inverness and Ross County.

LOW POINTS: It seems like a long time ago now, but a dreadful start, with just two points from the opening five games had Lomas looking very precarious. 

STAR MAN: Murray Davidson continues to improve every year, and this might have been the midfielder's best yet.  He has even become an aerial threat at set pieces.  It's just a shame that he's decided to move on this summer, probably to a Championship club.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: None of the club's own under 21 players saw much action this season, but I'd expect to see Newcastle loanee Mehdi Abeid, a tricky and useful wide player, to develop into a very good player...though probably not in Perth.

WASTE OF SPACE: Craig Beattie was a hot commodity last summer after his excellent performances for Hearts, but failed to start a single match or score a goal before leaving in January as he struggled with injuries.

THE BOSS: I expect to see Steve Lomas linked with some clubs in the Championship or League One soon enough, given that he's done really well since taking over in November 2011.  The Northern Irishman doesn't send his side out to play aesthetically pleasing football, but I don't think there is a better drilled side in the SPL.  According to one pundit on BBC Sportsound, he doesn't have a great relationship with chairman Geoff Brown, which would increase the chances of him moving on in the near future.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: The loss of star midfielders Davidson and Liam Craig leaves the team brutally short of flair, even more so if Ross County's Richard Brittain reneges on his pre-contract or fails to produce his best form next term.  It may be time to refresh an ageing back line this summer, with Frazer Wright, Dave Mackay, Callum Davidson and Dave McCracken all over 30.  The one missing piece in the puzzle this season was a proven goalscorer, and if St Johnstone can find that, they can be expected to finish in the top six for a third consecutive season.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Mehdi Abeid (end of loan), Jamie Adams, Liam Craig, Murray Davidson, Michael Doughty (end of loan), Gwion Edwards (end of loan), David McCracken, Jonny Tuffey




Monday, May 27, 2013

SPL Report Card - Hibernian

Thank goodness for Leigh Griffiths

Team badge


LEAGUE: 7th, 51pts (2011-12 - 11th, 33pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Runners up
LEAGUE CUP: Second round

MOST USED FIRST XI: Ben Williams, Alan Maybury, James McPake, Paul Hanlon, Ryan McGivern, David Wotherspoon, Tom Taiwo, Jorge Claros, Paul Cairney, Eoin Doyle, Leigh Griffiths

OVERVIEW: Comparing this year's SPL table with twelve months ago, Hibs seem to have made progress, but they actually topped the table in November before collapsing spectacularly in the second half of the season, picking up only 9 points from the 12 games before the split.  Their incredible comeback to beat Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi final seemed to spark a little life into their season, but defeat to Celtic in the final was the culmination of yet another season where, for long periods, the Hibees didn't look anywhere near the sum of their parts.

HIGH POINTS: There was at least a little bit of revenge for that 5-1 result as Hibs finished this season unbeaten in Edinburgh derbies, though all five clashes were so mind-numbingly dull that it hardly feels like something to be proud of.  A 4-0 thumping of Motherwell at Fir Park on live TV on a Friday night was their most impressive league result.

LOW POINTS: No home wins between a 29th December victory over Celtic and a final day win against Dundee is a pretty hideous record.  Their Scottish Cup success wasn't replicated in the League Cup, where they crashed out to second division Queen of the South.

STAR MAN: The cliché 'one man team' probably does apply in this case.  Leigh Griffiths was terrific pretty much all season long, and stood out even more in the second half of the campaign as his teammates floundered around him.  If there was a Most Valuable Player award like in American sports, Griffiths would have been a shoo in.  Not only did he score 28 goals, but he set up several for teammates as well.  It's a disaster for Hibs that Wolves want him back for their League One campaign next season.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Young winger Alex Harris announced himself by spearheading the Hampden comeback against Falkirk and was a regular for the rest of the season.  It was concerning to hear Pat Fenlon refer to him as a key part of the team though - he's only 18.

WASTE OF SPACE: A toss-up between Shefki Kuqi, who was signed to be an impact sub but made no impact at all (and who hasn't featured since the winter break), and Pa Kujabi, whose only appearance since his red card in the Scottish Cup final a year ago was in the League Cup.

THE BOSS: At 3-0 down to Falkirk, I thought Pat Fenlon was heading for the sack.  In the first few months of the season he seemed to have finally got Hibs moving in the right direction, but the drop in form in 2013 was frightening and the attitude of the players looked increasingly familiar to the fans at Easter Road who saw the latter days of John Hughes' reign and the whole of Colin Calderwood's tenure.  I'd say that the Irishman is very much on the hot seat.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: What Tom Petrie would give for a summer where he needed to bring in fewer than ten new players.  A lot of gaps need filled, particularly up frony where the loss of both Griffiths and Eoin Doyle leaves no-one in the squad who scored more than 4 goals this season.  Fenlon has to decide whether to try and keep Jorge Claros, Gary Deegan and Kevin Thomson, all of whom flattered to deceive, or to rebuild the midfield.  St. Johnstone's Liam Craig will add some dynamism.  The defence needs strengthening too - if Alan Maybury starts 28 games for you, you are struggling.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Jorge Claros (end of loan), Matt Done (end of loan), Eoin Doyle (signed for Chesterfield), Leigh Griffiths (end of loan), Pa Kujabi, Shefki Kuqi, Ryan McGivern (end of loan)


Sunday, May 26, 2013

SPL Report Card - Celtic

A workmanlike season still produced a Double


LEAGUE: 1st, 79pts (2011-12 - 1st, 93pts)
LEAGUE CUP: Semi finals

MOST USED FIRST XI: Fraser Forster, Mikael Lustig, Kelvin Wilson, Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre, Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley, Gary Hooper, Georgios Samaras

OVERVIEW: I suppose you can only beat what's put in front of you, and in the SPL Celtic won the title by an impressive sounding 16 points...but on the other hand, they scored 14 points less than last season, lost seven league games and blew their treble chances with a dreadful League Cup semi final performance against St. Mirren.  Given the massive advantage in resources that the Hoops have, some of their domestic performances were inexcusable.  The big positive from the season was the tremendous Champions League campaign, for which the players saved their best efforts.

HIGH POINTS: You had to be heartless - or a Rangers fan - to not enjoy that home win over Barcelona, and in particular Tony Watt's fine second goal and the subsequent pandemonium.  Given Celtic finished ahead of Benfica, eventual Europa League finalists, in their group, qualifying for the last sixteen was surely the greatest feat of Neil Lennon's managerial career so far.

LOW POINTS: The aforementioned League Cup exit was a bit of a shocker.  Home form was patchy at the start of the campaign, with defeats to Killie and ICT, and at the end of the season they managed to go six away games without a win before a final day victory at Tannadice.

STAR MAN: Victor Wanyama takes this accolade despite putting in a series of half-assed performances after new year - that's how good he was in the first half of the season.  Even when he wasn't at his best he could still bestride the midfield area.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: After looking explosive in the first few months of the season, Tony Watt hasn't actually scored a goal for Celtic since November.  Still, he looks to have the tools to be rather more than the next Mark Burchill.

WASTE OF SPACE: You'd expect a lot more from a striker who had previously scored as many La Liga goals as Miku had, but the Venezuelan forward was a huge let down.  He just didn't look up for the more physical aspects of SPL matches.

THE BOSS: So, is Neil Lennon a tactical genius, based on the European successes, or a coach who struggles to motivate his players for more mundane matches?  The truth is probably somewhere in between.  With title successes almost guaranteed for at least the next two years, Lennon's job security is excellent.  He might attract interest from down south, but I wonder if a few club chairman will baulk at his dreadful record with touchline bans.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Whilst there is a real likelihood that a few big names will leave in search of a new challenge, Celtic will look for youngsters such as Watt, Dylan McGeouch and Tom Rogic to really step up next season.  The initial priority will be to get through a Champions League qualifier, which will hardly be a given.  A further league title, on the other hand, probably is.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Rami Gershon (end of loan), Paddy McCourt, Miku (end of loan), Viktor Noring (end of loan), Thomas Rogne




Saturday, May 25, 2013

SPL Report Card - Dundee United

Well, that was a boring season

Dundee United FC logo.svg


LEAGUE: 6th, 47pts (2011-12 - 4th, 59pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Semi finals
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals

MOST USED FIRST XI: Radoslaw Ciernziak, Keith Watson, Sean Dillon, Brian McLean, Barry Douglas, Stuart Armstrong, Willo Flood, John Rankin, Gary Mackay-Steven, Johnny Russell, Jon Daly

OVERVIEW: Well, that was a pretty unremarkable season at Tannadice.  United never looked like challenging at the top of the league, and never looked like being stuck at the bottom either.  In the end, they scraped into the top six, but they finished the campaign with fewer points than the sides in seventh and eighth. Their run to the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup feels like it was the only interesting thing that happened to them.  It was hardly a year to forget, but I doubt it will live long in the memory of many Arabs.

HIGH POINTS: Given the vitriol aimed at United over the last 18 months by Rangers officials and fans, their demolition of the Ibrox side in the Scottish Cup was sweet indeed.  Meanwhile, there was no doubt regarding the best football team in Dundee, as the Terrors were unbeaten in derby clashes.

LOW POINTS: Only Dundee won as few home games as Dundee United - just four.  And two of those were the first two!  United didn't win another home game until February. 

STAR MAN: If only Gary Mackay-Steven could stay fit for more than half a season.  He's a rare breed in the SPL - a player that you'd pay good money to watch.  He has the tricks, but he has an end product as well.  Hopefully he will continue to get better - and stay injury-free.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: John Souttar has made the mistakes that you expect from a 16 year old in central defender, but you can see why he has a lot of people excited.  This kid is a heck of a prospect.

WASTE OF SPACE: The signing of Gregory Vignal was utterly pointless - the French defender got injured and never played a first team game.  A complete waste of a wage, especially considering the club don't have a huge amount of spare cash.

THE BOSS: It's impossible to judge Jackie McNamara on his first few months in the job, given he has only been able to work with what Peter Houston left behind.  At Partick Thistle, McNamara got his team playing some good stuff, but they were often vulnerable away from home.  Houston was a pretty successful manager with Dundee United, but things seemed to go stale this season, and his departure seemed inevitable long before it happened, given there was a lot of backbiting in the media regarding his contract and wages. 

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: McNamara doesn't have an easy job on his hands.  Jon Daly looks past his best, but his leadership will be sorely missed.  If the club can't resist Johnny Russell's suitors, they could be very short of goals, especially since he's unlikely to get much of a budget to replace them.  The jury's out on whether Raith striker Brian Graham is of SPL quality.  The signing of Partick duo Paul Paton and Chris Erskine should boost the midfield, though.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Steve Banks, Rory Boulding, Jon Daly (has signed for Rangers), Robert Thomson


UNLIKELY TO SIGN NEW DEALS: Barry Douglas, Willo Flood


SPL Report Card - Ross County

The SPL newcomers surprised everyone with a terrific debut season

Ross County FC logo.svg


LEAGUE: 5th, 53pts (2011-12 - 1st in the first division)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Second round

MOST USED FIRST XI: Michael Fraser, Mihael Kovacevic, Grant Munro, Scott Boyd, Marc Fitzpatrick, Rocco Quinn, Richard Brittain, Stuart Kettlewell, Paul Lawson, Iain Vigurs, Sam Morrow

OVERVIEW: Aren't newly promoted teams supposed to struggle?  From day one, the Staggies looked like a difficult opponent for anyone in the SPL and were never in the slightest danger of a relegation battle.  Their mid-table spot at New Year looked like a decent feat; their explosion in form at the start of 2013, boosted by inspirational signings such as Ivan Sproule, Evangelos Ikonomou and Steffen Wohlfarth, vaulted them into a top six place and they finished only three points adrift of a Europa League spot.  It pains me to give them a higher mark than ICT, but they certainly merit it.

HIGH POINTS: For the fan of any diddy SPL team, does it get any better than coming back from two down to beat Celtic on your own patch, with a last minute winner thrown into the bargain?  The answer for County fans is probably a yes - defeating Inverness on the last day of the season to stop them getting into Europe was at least as enjoyable for them.

LOW POINTS: Whilst the league campaign was a resounding success, County didn't win a single cup game this season, sending out a shadow side to get thumped at home by Raith Rovers in the League Cup, and then losing a Highland derby Scottish Cup tie in a replay.

STAR MAN: I don't like Iain Vigurs, mainly because of the way he always raises his game in El Kessocko clashes, but his technique and skill are not typical of young Scottish midfield players at all.  Once vilified for his attitude as a young player at Inverness, he's matured considerably...though he sill can't resist winding up ICT fans at derby games.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: A winning goal in a league game against Aberdeen would normally enhance your prospects; instead, young forward Stephen Ross saw less and less action as the season progressed.  He's still only 19 though, and has plenty of potential.

WASTE OF SPACE: Martin Scott's only accomplishment during 18 months at Hibs was to break a teammates cheekbone in a pre-season punch up.  That's rather more impact than he's made during his second spell at Dingwall, where injury and poor performances made him a bit of a non-entity.  I'd be surprised if his loan deal was made permanent.

THE BOSS: Derek Adams has the tactical nous and the ability to get the best from his players; if he could improve his public image (he's so ungracious in interviews, and always looks like he's just sucked a lemon) then he might have a chance of being as likeable as he is admirable.  For me, he's probably the most talented manager in the SPL, and certainly the one most likely to go on to great things.  I still think he's a whingy git, though.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: The likely loss of Vigurs and Richard Brittain (if he honours his pre-contract at St. Johnstone) will be a blow, but County still have Adams, and he in turn has decent backing from Chairman Roy McGregor.  A strong defence will probably still be intact, and expect Ross County to once more be difficult to beat.  If they find that elusive 20-goal-a-season striker, then emulating this season is not beyond them.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Paul Gallacher, Paul Lawson (signed for Motherwell), Sam Morrow, Martin Scott (end of loan)


UNLIKELY TO SIGN NEW DEALS: Richard Brittain (unless he can wheedle out of his St. Johnstone deal), Iain Vigurs


Thursday, May 23, 2013

SPL Report Card - Dundee

The Dark Blues looked doomed from the start, and did nothing to change that perception

Dundee FC.png


LEAGUE: 12th, 30pts (2011-12, 2nd in first division)
SCOTTISH CUP: Quarter finals
LEAGUE CUP: Second round

MOST USED FIRST XI: Robert Douglas, Gary Irvine, Kyle Benedictus, Declan Gallagher, Matt Lockwood, Jim McAllister, Iain Davidson, Kevin McBride, Ryan Conroy, Colin Nish, John Baird

OVERVIEW: It's pretty reasonable to say that the Dark Blues were on a hiding to nothing from the beginning of the season, given the circumstances surrounding their promotion.  But it was reasonable to expect them to be rather more competitive than they turned out to be.  The signings that were made were generally poor (with the exception of Gary Harkins) and the defence is arguably the worst the SPL has ever seen.  They were pretty much doomed even before the clocks went back, and Barry Smith paid for the poor results with his job.  To the surprise of most, John Brown's appointment led to instant improvement, but he had no chance of preventing a return to the first division.

HIGH POINTS: About the only thing to shout about was that terrific recovery towards the end of the season, with three straight wins as part of a run of one defeat in nine matches; for a couple of weeks, survival looked merely improbable, rather than impossible.

LOW POINTS: Where do you start?  One win in the opening eleven games?  Fourteen games without a win around the turn of the year?  Being knocked out of the League Cup by Queen's Park?  The shabby manner of club legend Barry Smith's dismissal?  Failing to win any of the four derby matches?  Take your pick...

STAR MAN: I'm not sure any of these players, except Harkins, who was signed in January, are SPL quality.  Jim McAllister at least gets full marks for effort, having been converted from a winger into a very effective all-action midfielder whose goal threat increased as the campaign progressed.  He may have done enough to attract an offer from another top flight club.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Not many options to choose from here as barely any youngsters saw action, and those who did were pretty mediocre.  I'm going to cheat  a bit and pick Celtic loanee Lewis Toshney, who looked more capable than most in that back line - though that's not saying much.

WASTE OF SPACE: Dundee outbid a few clubs to land ex-Aberdeen and Dundee United midfielder Mark Kerr, who then promptly missed most of the season with injury, and on returning to fitness has been kept out of the team by Kevin McBride.  That's Kevin McBride, for crying out loud.

THE BOSS: Does the resurgence under Bomber's command mean that he's a far more capable manager than he seems, or that Barry Smith wasn't nearly as good as we thought he was?  The answer probably lies somewhere in between.  Smith had to put a team together at short notice, but he certainly didn't make the best of a bad situation.  His failure to strengthen the defence was criminal.  I'm not convinced that Bomber is anything more than a good short-term motivator, but the results he's obtained so far entitle him to the opportunity to prove me wrong.  He may sound like the footballing equivalent of Sarah Palin when interviewed, but that doesn't make him unique in this league.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: As is the case with all newly relegated sides, Dundee will be amongst the favourites to win the first division next season, though it will not be an easy task.  Whilst there will be a lot of departures, John Brown is likely to have a decent backbone left.  If he makes a few good signings and proves to be an above-average coach, we could see the Dark Blues back in the SPL pretty soon - especially if they hold on to Gary Harkins.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Andrew Barrowman, Don Cowan, Robert Douglas, Brian Easton, Davide Grassi, Mark Kerr, Jamie McCluskey, Neil McGregor, Steven Milne, David Morgan (end of loan), Colin Nish (end of loan), Steve Simonsen, Mark Stewart, Lewis Toshney (end of loan), Graham Webster


UNLIKELY TO SIGN NEW DEALS: Gary Harkins, Jim McAllister (if they get offers from SPL clubs)


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

SPL Report Card - Heart of Midlothian

Turbulent times at Tynecastle

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg


LEAGUE: 10th, 44 pts (2011-12 - 5th, 52 pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Runners-up

MOST USED FIRST XI: Jamie McDonald, Ryan McGowan, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas, Kevin McHattie, Jason Holt, Mehdi Taouil, Ryan Stevenson, Andrew Driver, Callum Paterson, John Sutton

OVERVIEW: Frankly, the Jambos' main priority was really just to get to the end of the season in one piece, given the problems they're facing off the field, as Vladimir Romanov's business empire crumbles. Performances on the pitch have not been great, though in fairness the squad is very young and many of the more experienced campaigners have missed long periods through injury.  It's hard to say whether there has been an improvement under Gary Locke's stewardship since he replaced John McGlynn, but time will tell...if, unlike most of his predecessors, he gets any.

HIGH POINTS: Getting to the League Cup final must count as a success, though they did get beaten in the end. A come-from-behind win over Ross County just before the split probably saw the best 10 minutes of football by the team all season, producing three goals.

LOW POINTS: Failure to win any of this season's five Edinburgh derbies will rankle hugely with the support. Losing three times to relegated Dundee was pretty shocking as well. And isn't there something morally reprehensible about convincing your supporters to buy worthless shares just to raise enough money to make it through the second half of the campaign?
STAR MAN: Given the youth and inexperience around him, Hearts could have been even worse off without the nous and consistency of veteran central defender Andy Webster. He's not quite the player he seemed to be during his first spell at Hearts, but he's still one of the best in his position in the SPL.
ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Out of all the kids who have brought into first team action far, far, far too early, midfielder Jason Holt looks like the one most likely to be something special. His goals against Inverness and Ross County were both superb.
WASTE OF SPACE: Reserve goalkeeper Peter Enckelman played only 70 minutes for the club, but it was a hapless 70 minutes at Celtic Park and he was punted in January...not just because the club couldn't afford to keep him on.

THE BOSS: John McGlynn might have been a 'Hearts man' but he was really appointed as 'the cheap option'. His long ball style didn't help him make a lot of friends, particularly when he tried using the diminutive Callum Paterson as a target man. His welcome was so worn out that he wasn't even given the chance to manage the team in the League Cup final. The jury is still out on Gary Locke, but putting the youth team coach in charge makes sense when you're mostly playing the youth team.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Since I'm not a specialist in the economics of Lithuania, I'll have to defer. We already know that most of the older players, including Darren Barr and Marius Zaliukas, will be away. The mid-season share issue was only supposed to get the club to the end of the season intact, so goodness knows where the cash to bring in new players will come from unless a takeover comes to fruition. It's more likely than not that the number of players in the squad over the age of 21 next season will be in single figures, which in itself would make the team vulnerable to a relegation battle, so god help them if they start with a 15 point deduction.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Darren Barr, Danny Grainger, Fraser Mullen, Michael Ngoo (end of loan), Denis Prychynenko, Gordon Smith, Mehdi Taouil, Danny Wilson (end of loan), Marius Zaliukas


UNLIKELY TO SIGN NEW DEALS: Arvydas Novikovas, Andy Webster (unless the club find a lot of cash down the back of the sofa)


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SPL Report Card - Motherwell

Unquestionably the best of the rest



LEAGUE: 2nd, 63 points (2012-13 - 3rd, 62 points)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Third round

MOST USED FIRST XI: Darren Randolph, Tom Hateley, Simon Ramsden, Shaun Hutchinson, Steven Hammell, Chris Humphrey, Nicky Law, Keith Lasley, Jamie Murphy, Michael Higdon, Henrik Ojamaa

OVERVIEW: Stuart McCall's side are unquestionably the second best team in Scotland right now, and are possibly the most fun to watch too. He's assembled a quite impressive array of attacking options, and even managed to absorb the loss of Jamie Murphy in January by bringing in a certain J. McFadden. Whilst occasionally vulnerable at the back, this side always looks capable of scoring goals against anyone, even when not playing well. They deserve all the plaudits they are getting.

HIGH POINTS: Beating Celtic twice at Fir Park in the same season is not too shabby, particularly since the Steelmen were deserved winners on both occasions. They seemed to have a bit of a hoodoo over Inverness too, with 4-1, 5-1 and 3-0 wins against the Highlanders.

LOWLIGHTS: Given their impressive season, it's surprising to recall that they are the only SPL side to lose to Rangers this season, crashing out of the League Cup at Ibrox with a terrible performance.

STAR MAN: It'd look daft if I didn't go for Michael Higdon here, given that the striker is the league's top scorer and won the PFA Player of the Year award. Turns out he isn't just a big lump who can head the ball! But schemer Nicky Law and goalkeeper Darren Randolph deserve special mention.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: I've quite liked the look of defender Adam Cummins, who turned 20 in March and is likely to improve with experience.

WASTE OF SPACE: Jamaican winger Omar Daley has completely faded out of first team contention as the season has progressed and he'll be on his way this summer when his contract expires.

THE BOSS: Stuart McCall's managerial reputation is the highest it has ever been after guiding the 'Well to third place last season and going one better this time around. He's used his knowledge of England's lower leagues to good effect in the transfer market and had his side playing pretty, yet effective football. Can he take this team any further though? At the time of writing, his loyalty to the club appeared about to be tested by an approach from Sheffield United.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Sadly for Motherwell fans, the departures of Randolph and Law have been confirmed, while Higdon and McFadden are out of contract. Keeping both of them is a tall order indeed. So chances are that a lot of work will have to be done to keep the club in their lofty position. Already, the signing of Ross County midfielder Paul Lawson has been confirmed.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Omar Daley, Steven Hetherington, Kallum Higginbotham (end of loan), Nicky Law, Darren Randolph (signed for Birmingham City)


UNLIKELY TO SIGN NEW DEALS: Michael Higdon, James McFadden (in my opinion!)


Monday, May 20, 2013

SPL Report Card - Inverness CT

The Highlanders hit new heights


LEAGUE: 4th, 54 points (2011-12 - 10th, 39 points)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fifth round
LEAGUE CUP: Semi finals

MOST USED FIRST XI: Antonio Reguero, David Raven, Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Graeme Shinnie, Ross Draper, Owain Tudur Jones, Aaron Doran, Andrew Shinnie, Richie Foran, Billy McKay

OVERVIEW: Frankly, if you'd offered me a fourth place finish back in August, I'd have bitten your hand off, along with an arm and a shoulder for good measure. 2012-13 was Caley Thistle's most successful season yet, even though they fell agonizingly short of a Europa League place and a cup final appearance. It wasn't just the results that were good - some of the attacking football was just sublime.

HIGH POINTS: A win at Celtic Park and an impressive record in Highland derbies (until the crucial last one!) deserve attention, but for this supporter the 3-0 home win over Hibernian in December was the most impressive display I've seen by the home side at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, with scintillating football from start to finish.

LOW POINTS: Billy McKay scored 27 goals this season, most of them a lot harder than the sitter he squandered at Easter Road in the League Cup semi final, which ultimately proved costly. As for missing out on third spot in the SPL, I'm not as bothered about the final day defeat in Dingwall as about losing the previous week against Dundee United - three points in that game would have been all we needed, and it was a game that we should have won.

STAR MAN: I love centre-back Gary Warren, and I want to have his babies. He is a proper leader, and our defensive linchpin, as well as a potent threat at set plays. He was badly missed in the final weeks of the season after he got injured.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Trust me, Warren's partner in the heart of the defence, Josh Meekings, is destined for far greater things. This season he reverted from being an uneasy full back to a confident central defender. He's already played more than 60 games for ICT, and he's still only 20.

WASTE OF SPACE: If I was feeling harsh, I'd single out Simon King, who looked rusty at the start of the season and got injured after just 5 games; he was never seen again and it transpires that his knee problem is career-ending. The biggest disappointment was undoubtedly Arsenal loanee Philip Roberts, who scored a spectacular goal against Dundee United in his first start and did little else afterward.

THE BOSS: Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? This season, Terry Butcher changed the way the team played and had ICT looking far more pretty on the eye than ever before. In addition, he (and his scouting team) have shown a real eye for a player from England's lower leagues. Such is his status at the club that the former England captain probably now has a job for life if he wishes it.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: The big task is replacing Andrew Shinnie; whilst he wasn't always at his best in the second half of the season, Shinnie is crucial to the way Caley Thistle play, and there isn't a like for like replacement in the squad. Most of the other first teamers are signed up for next year though, which gives a continuity somewhat lacking at many other clubs. That can't do any harm. After this season, expectations will be somewhat higher than previous.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Jordan Gibbons (end of loan), Chris Hogg, Simon King, Antonio Reguero (signed for Kilmarnock), Philip Roberts (end of loan), Andrew Shinnie (signed for Birmingham City), Shane Sutherland, Charlie Taylor (end of loan)




Sunday, May 19, 2013

SPL Report Card - St. Mirren

The League Cup triumph was all that mattered

St. Mirren FC's Crest


LEAGUE:11th, 41 points (2011-12 - 8th, 43 points)
SCOTTISH CUP: Quarter finals

MOST USED FIRST XI: Craig Samson, David Van Zanten, Lee Mair, Marc McAusland, Paul Dummett, Gary Teale, Jim Goodwin, Kenny McLean, Conor Newton, Paul McGowan, Steven Thompson

OVERVIEW: St. Mirren and their supporters stopped caring about their league placing long ago, having instead chosen to revel in their glorious League Cup triumph. Their excellent run in that competition only partly excuses their struggles on SPL duty though, with only three wins in that competition in 2013. Was their cup win a sign that things are going in the right direction, or does it just cover up the deficiencies of Danny Lennon's side? The jury is still out.

HIGH POINTS: That 3-2 win over Hearts at Hampden will go down as one of the greatest days in the club's history. The manner of the victory, and the quality of the goals scored, was laudable. Upsetting Celtic in the semi final must have felt pretty terrific too.
LOW POINTS: The nadir of their season was probably getting turned over 4-1 at home to Ross County in January. Altogether, the Buddies conceded 4 goals on three occasions at St. Mirren Park, and 5 goals to Celtic as well.

STAR MAN: Steven 'Thommohawk' Thompson continues to enjoy a bit of an Indian summer; the veteran striker led the line well and came up with 16 goals, including a crucial one in the League Cup Final. He used the word 'cathartic' in a post-match interview too, which makes him the most eloquent man in Scottish football by a distance.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Midfielder John McGinn made his first team debut in October and has rarely been out of it since.  The younger brother of former Buddie Stephen McGinn, he may well go on to better things than his older sibling.

WASTE OF SPACE: Sam Parkin is, if you like, the backup Thommohawk, but is a massive drop off in quality. Not only that, but his inclusion in the side seems to lead to his teammates resorting to playing hoofball. It's no surprise that he's been let go.

THE BOSS: Under Danny Lennon, St. Mirren's league finishes have been eleventh, eighth and now eleventh again. He's picked up plenty of plaudits for his insistence on a passing game, but I have to admit that, apart from the League Cup Final, St. Mirren seemed to be quite direct on the occasions I saw them play. He exploited the loan market well, but his other signings from last summer made minimal impact. Despite picking up a trophy, Lennon is likely to be one of the favourites in next season's 'sack race'.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON? Lennon is going to have to do a lot of wheeling and dealing this summer. The departures of Scotland squad keeper Craig Samson and highly rated creator Paul McGowan seem certain, while they may not get loanees Paul Dummett, Conor Newton and Esmael Goncalves back. Kenny McLean will attract attention too. Can veterans Steven Thompson and Gary Teale produce at a high level for another year? It will be a surprise if the Buddies aren't in a fight just to hold on to their top flight status next season, especially if eleventh place results in a playoff.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Graham Carey, Paul Dummett (end of loan), Esmael Goncalves (end of loan), Conor Newton (end of loan), Sam Parkin, Sander Puri, Craig Samson (signed for Kilmarnock), Chris Smith

NOT IN THE MANAGER'S PLANS: Grant Adam, Lewis Guy, Dougie Imrie, Lee Mair



Saturday, May 18, 2013

SPL Report Card - Aberdeen

It'd be generous to say the Dons are making progress

Aberdeen FC logo.svg


LEAGUE: 8th, 48 points (2011-12 - 9th, 41 points)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fifth round
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Jamie Langfield, Joe Shaughnessy, Russell Anderson, Mark Reynolds, Clark Robertson, Gavin Rae, Isaac Osbourne, Stephen Hughes, Jonny Hayes, Scott Vernon, Niall McGinn

OVERVIEW: The Dons started the season really well, which makes it all the more unacceptable that they managed to miss out on the top six for the fourth consecutive season. Craig Brown's side looked functional and hard to beat initially, even if they were heavily reliant on Niall McGinn for goals, but their form dipped drastically after November, not helped by a dreadful home record on a joke of a playing surface, or a distinct lack of menace in attack after Ryan Fraser left for Bournemouth. Yet another season of underachievement.

HIGH POINTS: A narrow opening day defeat at Parkhead was followed by a ten match unbeaten run which seemed to bode well for the season the point that this writer confidently predicted in October that "Aberdeen will finish second in the SPL". Oops...

LOW POINTS: Failing to score in nine of their home league games is unforgivable, while thrashings at Motherwell and Inverness during the winter saw performances as abject as any during the Mark McGhee era, and were part of a run between New Year and the split where they picked up only 11 points out of a possible 36, costing them a top six place that looked a certainty at the end of 2012.

STAR MAN: I shudder to think where this team might have been without Niall McGinn, who has scored as many SPL goals as the rest of his teammates put together, and who won them a few games pretty much on his own.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Ryan Jack, if he can stay fit, will surely be the next to follow in the footsteps of Ryan Fraser and Fraser Fyvie.  The under-21 international is equally adept at right-back and in midfield, but it is in the latter position that he's likely to shine in next season.

WASTE OF SPACE: New Zealand international Rory Fallon has shown that being able to say you've played at a World Cup is no guarantee of quality. He didn't really do enough last season to justify being kept on, and his injury-hit campaign has produced only one goal (admittedly a stonker of a strike against Motherwell). And when Derek McInnes gave him a chance to prove himself, Fallon got sent off at Dens Park.

THE BOSS: It was no surprise at all that Craig Brown chose to 'retire' before he was pushed, as results simply did not back up his claims of progress. The supporters have reached new levels of disillusionment. Ex-St. Johnstone man Derek McInnes is the latest person to take on the accursed challenge of being Aberdeen manager and took charge of the post-split matches. McInnes previously showed he could get the Perth Saints punching above their weight, and given that he won't be given a lot of money to spend, he'll need to repeat that feat with the Dons.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: There's going to be plenty of ins and outs at Pittodrie this summer...the trouble is, we say that every year. Several senior players have already been told they aren't needed for next season. It will be interesting to see if McInnes trusts the club's youngsters to push on and form the backbone of this side, or if he brings in more experienced players and looks for a quick improvement. But yet another finish in the bottom half of the table would be a catastrophe.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Rory Fallon, Mitch Megginson, Rob Milsom, Gary Naysmith, Isaac Osbourne, Gavin Rae, Dan Twardzik

NOT IN THE MANAGER'S PLANS: Jordon Brown, Stephen Hughes



Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Biggest Highland Derby Ever

Since they joined the Scottish Football League in 1994, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County have crossed paths many a time.  These games are always intense; even in the third division days Hugh Dallas was often dragged up the A9 to officiate, and I remember one game at Victoria Park where both goalkeepers were pelted with missiles (the County keeper, to his immense credit, picked up the Mars bar that hit him and ate it right in front of the opposing support).  The peak - or trough, depending on your point of view - of the Highland derbies was the sight of County striker Alex Bone receiving three red cards in one match - one for a bad tackle, one for abusing the ref, and one for trying (and spectacularly failing) to headbutt future ICT boss Charlie Christie on his way off the pitch.

Now the two sides are in the top flight, the importance of these clashes has been ramped up another notch.  Including the two meetings in the Scottish Cup (a replay was required, which ICT won 2-1 after a remarkable 3-3 draw in the first game), this weekend's match will be the sixth time the two teams have crossed swords this season.

And there's more at stake than ever before.  It's the final weekend of the league season.  A win would confirm Caley Thistle in third place, their highest ever finish, and guarantee them a crack at the Europa League qualifiers for the first time.  Until last week's defeat at Fir Park, County were still in with a shot at that European place; now their motivation for Sunday is to deny ICT that position.  Oh, and they can still finish fourth if they win and St. Johnstone lose.  And there's local pride at stake.  And the Dingwall side are still looking for their first El Kessocko (yes, I cringed writing that) win of the season.

So plenty of motivation then.  This one will be tasty.  Some of the rigmarole between the two managers this season has been hammed up for the cameras, no doubt, but some of it hasn't; Terry Butcher and Derek Adams have had a couple of touchline set-to's, and they clearly don't have a cordial relationship.

Will it be a quality, open, attacking game?  I doubt it.  Whilst the first two meetings (a 3-1 Inverness win and the aforementioned cup draw) were great matches, the subsequent three absolutely were not.  The cup replay was played in freezing conditions on a rock-hard pitch, while the other two SPL clashes were tactical battles.  I'm not convinced that you could say Butcher won them, even though ICT took four points out of six from the two games.  The truth is that all five games were incredibly close, and I'm certain there is at least one parallel universe in which Ross County are the team unbeaten in this season's derbies, not Caley Thistle.

The pitch in Dingwall will be a significant factor.  Frankly, there is now so much sand on one side of the park that it could be legally re-classified as a beach.  Celtic recently complained that it was impossible to play passing football, whilst even Kilmarnock chose to deploy a direct style when they won at the (now-named) Global Energy stadium last month.  Inverness are undoubtedly better when they have the ball on the deck and can get Andrew Shinnie on it; the talismanic schemer has been largely a non-factor in the derby games this season, despite scoring two goals in them.  When they have to go long, they struggle badly to retain possession.  The narrow pitch and poor surface mean that the impressive speed and width provided by their attacking players will be somewhat negated.

Richie Foran has been hugely important in these games, initially when deployed as a physical presence up front, and then in the more recent game as a destroyer in midfield; the 2-1 win in April at the Caledonian Stadium saw Foran play alongside the huge figures of Owain Tudur Jones and Ross Draper as Butcher used what John Maxwell of County Tactics and Tell Him He's Pele not unreasonably called "a wall" to stop County playing.  That won't be possible this time - both Foran and Draper are suspended for this one.  It's not clear what starting lineup the visitors will go with.

Most fans think Graeme Shinnie will be pushed into midfield from left-back.  Whilst Charlie Taylor has proved an adequate deputy in defence, experimenting with Shinnie in an advanced role has not produced particularly good results.  I can't recall seeing him played in central midfield, though I could imagine him providing plenty of energy but not a real physical presence.  Nick Ross has played in a deeper position before, but he's so frail that a gust of wind would knock him over.  I wonder whether Butcher will try using centre-back Danny Devine in front of the back four alongside Jones.  I did see Devine coming on as a sub to play in midfield against Kilmarnock this season...which backfired as Killie promptly scored.  So maybe not.  But it's a real dilemma that Butcher has to solve if Inverness are going to win this.  And I think he'll want as many big, strong players as possible out there, especially as defensive linchpin Gary Warren is injured. 

(Of course, another option might be to use Shane Sutherland as a more physical attacking player.  But please, no.  Just no)

Derek Adams has his own problems in picking a team, having lost captain Richard Brittain to a knee injury which, thankfully, isn't as bad as it initially looked on BBC Alba last week.  He's already missing another creative midfield player, in Rocco Quinn, which has meant that Martin Scott has been playing recently as the most advanced central midfielder.  In my opinion, Scott has been pretty ineffectual, and his inclusion has also forced the outstanding Iain Vigurs into a wider and less attacking role.  Vigurs has three goals in derbies this season, and is always hugely motivated against his former club; I bet Adams is hugely tempted to move him further forward again, where he has done huge damage against ICT this season. 

Mark Fotheringham will probably be the automatic replacement for Brittain, but frankly isn't quite as good.  If the midfield is indeed set to be a proper battleground, could there be a recall for the combative Stuart Kettlewell at Scott's expense?  With a less sturdy ICT midfield to face this time, Adams will fancy his players can take control of the centre of the pitch, and the game with it.

He certainly doesn't often ask his midfield players to stand on the touchlines. Even with the pace of Ivan Sproule, the Staggies tend to rely heavily on marauding full-backs Mihael Kovacevic and Evangelos Ikonomou to provide width - which they do very well - with Paul Lawson sitting in front of the defence as insurance.  Unlike Inverness, they do have a target man to hit with long balls in Steffen Wohlfarth, though the German is probably not as good at holding up play as the injured Sam Morrow.  Wohlfarth (if it really is pronounced Wolf-Fart, then brilliant, just brilliant) is more mobile though, and looks more of a goal threat.  All day, County will look for Wohlfarth to come deep and leave space for Sproule to fly inside off the right flank and get in behind.

football formations
(How I think the two teams might line up on Sunday)

What do I think will happen?  I think County will win.  If nothing else, they're due some luck in these matches.  And I think Inverness' absentees will weaken them hugely.  It feels like a match-up that favours the home side.  My hope is that Motherwell win in Perth, which means Inverness finish third anyway, and County finish fourth.  Then everyone's a winner, and there'll be one heck of a mutual pitch invasion at the end!

I'm not sure that this particular Highland Derby will go down as an all-time classic.  But for the fans of the two clubs, it's going to be huge.  I'm already getting palpitations.  And it's not even the day of the bloody game...


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

2012-13 Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year Part 2

Five players down, six to go.  Honestly, the amount of slagging I got for picking Kovacevic over Adam Matthews, and for not selecting Kelvin Wilson.  I shudder to think what 'feedback' I'll receive when someone realises I've picked three Motherwell men and only two Celtic players...

MIDFIELDERS: Victor Wanyama (Celtic), Nicky Law (Motherwell), Murray Davidson (St. Johnstone)
Honourable mentions: Kris Commons (Celtic), Andrew Shinnie (Inverness), Iain Vigurs (Ross County)

I'm going to get a slagging from Hoops fans out there for leaving Kris Commons out, but as far as I'm concerned he was awesome at the start of the campaign, and again in February and March, and that's about it.  Admittedly, Wanyama was magnificent until Christmas and has tailed off dramatically since, but the Kenyan was the best player in the country by a distance up to that point so he gets in.  Anyone who listens to The SPL Podcast will know I'm a big fan of Motherwell midfielder Law, who is hugely underrated in my opinion, while Perth Saint Davidson has been consistently excellent for his club for about three seasons now.  If I'd gone 4-4-2, I'd have probably fitted in Vigurs on the left of the midfield.  Despite being an ICT fan, I'm not convinced Andy Shinnie's inclusion on the player of the year shortlist was justified, but at his best he's a nightmare to defend against.

WIDE PLAYERS: er, none.
Honourable mentions: James Dayton (Kilmarnock), Chris Humphrey (Motherwell), Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United), Gary Teale (St. Mirren)

If I'd gone 4-4-2, I'd have probably squeezed in Dayton, who, having stayed largely injury-free, had his best season at Rugby Park.  And he had a terrific beard.  Is it a coincidence that, as soon as he shaved the beard off, he got crocked?  I don't think so.  Mackay-Steven was superb when fit, but unfortunately he appears to be made of glass.  Humphrey added some consistency to his game this season, while veteran Teale appears to have rolled back the years a bit.

FORWARDS: Leigh Griffiths (Hibernian), Michael Higdon (Motherwell), Billy McKay (Inverness Caledonian Thistle)
Honourable mentions: Gary Hooper (Aberdeen), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Johnny Russell (Dundee United)

I'd have picked Griffiths over Higdon as Player of the Year, personally; Higdon had an excellent supporting cast, while in the case of Griffiths, no-one's had to carry as much on their shoulders since Atlas.  The Hibs forward scored more SPL goals than his teammates put together, and set up plenty too, whilst showing a much-improved maturity.  Higdon has developed into much more than an immobile target-man, and was a nightmare for every centre-back in the SPL.  I just about tossed a coin to pick McKay over McGinn, but picked the former because (at the time of writing) he's scored more goals; the latter has been the only attacking threat the Dons have posed all season long.  Dundee United's Russell has been better than his goals return suggests, while Hooper has been excellent for Celtic again but saved his best efforts for the Champions League.

Right, that's that for another year.  Until next time...


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2012-13 Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year Part 1

It's what you've all been waiting for...the sixth annual Narey's Toepoker SPL team of the year.

Here's the previous ones:

2007/08: Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Wilkie, Lee Naylor, Barry Robson, Stephen Hughes, Barry Ferguson, Aiden McGeady, Scott McDonald, Steven Fletcher

2008/09: Lukasz Zaluska, Andreas Hinkel, Gary Caldwell, Lee Wilkie, Sasa Papac, Scott Brown, Bruno Aguiar, Pedro Mendes, Andrew Driver, Scott McDonald, Kris Boyd

2009/10: John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker, David Weir, Andy Webster, Sasa Papac, Steven Davis, Morgaro Gomis, James McArthur, Anthony Stokes, Kris Boyd, David Goodwillie

2010/11: Marian Kello, Steven Whittaker, Daniel Majstorovic, Michael Duberry, Emilio Izaguirre, Steven Naismith, Beram Kayal, Alexei Eremenko, David Templeton, Nikica Jelavic, David Goodwillie

2011/12: Cammy Bell, Adam Matthews, Carlos Bocanegra, Charlie Mulgrew, Paul Dixon, James Forrest, Victor Wanyama, Ian Black, Dean Shiels, Jon Daly, Gary Hooper

This time around, I thought it only appropriate to seek the advice of the Old Firm managers on who should be in the side.  I wanted some expert guidance...but I couldn't find it, so I went to them instread.

Ally McCoist advised that what I really needed was a Brazilian central defender, a Greek full back and nine Lee McCulloch's.  Though he was really more concerned on whether I would be popping past Greggs in the next hour or so and could I pick up a couple of pies for him please?

Neil Lennon, fresh from slaughtering the PFA player of the year shortlist, suggested the XI should be Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, Wilson, Izaguirre, Commons, Ledley, Wanyama, Mulgrew, Samaras and Hooper - after all, the inclusion of non-Celtic players would be "abysmal" and a sign that I was picking "the most improved player" rather than the best.  At least, I think that's what he said to me.  It was hard to decipher it amid the swearing and the spittle.

The trouble is, in the spirit of the PFA shortlist, I have a worrying feeling that Celtic won't have the most representatives in this team.  If this is the case, I'm sure I will be given plenty of 'constructive criticism' by their supporters.  Each of the first five names on the list makes the side for the first time.  And yes, at last, there is an Inverness Caley Thistle player.  So sue me.

GOALKEEPER: Fraser Forster (Celtic)
Honourable mentions: Darren Randolph (Motherwell), Ben Williams (Hibernian)

It was very difficult to choose between "The Wall" (as the Spanish call him at least, after his magnificent performances against Barcelona) and the very reliable Randolph, who will surely leave Fir Park for greater things this season.  You could toss a coin to pick between them.  I can't remember whether in previous years I've only considered domestic performances, or European ones too.  Regardless, I'll choose Forster, since becoming England's number two keeper whilst playing in a diddy league is no mean feat.  Plus, given Neil Lennon's response to the PFA player of the year shortlist, I'm a bit scared that the Celtic boss will hunt me down if I don't pick enough of his team. 

RIGHT BACK: Mihael Kovacevic (Ross County)
Honourable mentions: Adam Matthews (Celtic), David Raven (Inverness)

Former Dundee United defender Kovacevic was being kept out of the Staggies team by Ross Tokely at the start of the campaign, but he's been terrific since he got in the side.  He's built like a central defender, yet has the pace to get forward and provide some attacking width too.  Matthews has played very well for Celtic this season on either side of the pitch, but he's had a few injuries and I don't think I can justify including someone who has only started 18 SPL games.

CENTRE BACKS: Gary Warren (Inverness), Mark Reynolds (Aberdeen)
Honourable mentions: Andy Webster (Hearts), James McPake (Hibernian), Grant Munro (Ross County)

These were the most difficult choices I had to make this year.  Inverness' poor defensive record cannot be blamed on Warren.  The ex-Newport County man has stayed under the radar despite being consistently excellent, both defensively and as a goal threat at set plays.  I could have chosen any one of about half a dozen players to partner him.  Reynolds gets in because he has anchored a decent Aberdeen back line - the problems at Pittodrie are further up the pitch.  The Dons rate him so highly that they gave him a 4 and a half year contract in January - unheard of outside of the Old Firm these days!  Webster and McPake both started the season well but have lost form since the winter break, while Grant Munro has been solid for County.

LEFT BACK: Stevie Hammell (Motherwell)
Honourable mentions: Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic), Evangelos Oikonomou (Ross County)

There's something comforting about Stevie '7 out of 10 every week' Hammell, who's as reliable as a German automobile.  It's a position where there aren't too many stand outs, though Oikonomou (is that how you spell it?) has looked good since arriving in January.  As for Charlie Mulgrew, where on the pitch should I put him?  Left-back?  Centre-back? Left midfield? Centre midfield?  He's started 46 games this season, and last season's player of the year has probably played in 46 different positions...

Right, that's the defensive side of things sorted.  In the next few days, I'll reveal the rest of the lineup.  A couple of wee clues for you - firstly, Colin Nish isn't up front (bet you're shocked by that!), and secondly, this year I'm using a 4-3-3 formation...