Wednesday, July 31, 2013

SPFL Premiership preview - Motherwell



LAST SEASON: 2nd, 63 points

NOTABLE INS: Fraser Kerr (Birmingham City), Paul Lawson (Ross County), Stephen McManus (Middlesbrough), Gunnar Nielsen (Silkeborg), John Sutton (Heart of Midlothian), Iain Vigurs (Ross County), Henri Anier (Viking, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Henrik Ojamaa (Legia Warsaw, £300k), Michael Higdon (NEC Nijmegen), Chris Humphrey (Preston North End), Nicky Law (Rangers), Darren Randolph (Birmingham City), Steven Saunders (Ross County), Kallum Higginbotham (Huddersfield Town, end of loan), Omar Daley, Tom Hateley, Steven Hetherington

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): RandolphHateley, Hutchinson, Ramsden, Hammell, Humphrey, Lasley, Law, McFadden, OjamaaHigdon

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Lee Hollis, Gunnar Nielsen, Ross Stewart
Defenders: Adam Cummins, Zaine Francis-Angol, Steven Hammell, Shaun Hutchinson, Fraser Kerr, Stephen McManus, Simon Ramsden
Midfielders: Stuart Carswell, Keith Lasley, Paul Lawson, Iain Vigurs
Forwards: Henri Anier, James McFadden, Robert McHugh, John Sutton

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: With all that attacking talent departed, the retention of JAMES MCFADDEN was a big coup, particularly as the former national team talisman looked like he was getting back to his very best form.  Motherwell will offer twice the threat with him in the side.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? A bit-part player for a couple of years, tidy midfielder STUART CARSWELL now has the chance to force his way into the team.  Given the lack of options in that area, he's likely to see much more action than in previous seasons.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Last season was one of the best at Fir Park in recent memory, but the success of the campaign only resulted in other clubs sniffing around 'Well's talented free agents.  Gone are Player of the Year and SPL top scorer Michael Higdon, Estonian international Henrik Ojamaa, flying winger Chris Humphrey, midfield string-puller Nicky Law, right-back and set-piece specialist Tom Hateley and excellent goalkeeper Darren Randolph.  That's a lot of holes to fill.  Stuart McCall has plugged a few of them - the defence, last season's weak point, might actually be stronger after the return to Scotland of Stephen McManus - and the team will score goals as long as James McFadden is on the park  Are they good enough to finish second again though?

football formations
There still seems to be a lack of a natural right-back or right-winger - either Ramsden or Kerr, both central defenders normally, will shuffle across to cover the former position, but I expect McCall would prefer to deploy McFadden just off Sutton rather than out wide, so maybe Carswell could play on the right of midfield and tuck in.  Alternatively Francis-Angol could be pushed into a left midfield role with Vigurs in a more attacking central position where he often played for Ross County.  Anier should provide competition up front, and may even be used in a pairing with Sutton should McCall opt for 4-4-2.  Nielsen will be a decent replacement for Randolph in goal, while the rest of the back four looks strong and Lasley and Lawson will provide good protection for them.

THE BOSS: If there is such an accolade as "Freedom of Motherwell" then Stuart McCall has more than earned it after taking the club to two consecutive top three finishes, and declining the overtures of Sheffield United this summer.  There's not too much intricacy about his tactics, but he seems to know how to get the best out of his players.  It will be interesting to see if he departs from the 4-4-2 which was so successful in the second half of last season.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "always a threat going forward"

PREDICTION: It would be a surprise if Motherwell didn't take a step backwards this season - but it may only be a baby step.  There's still some very good players here.  There isn't much depth, but that didn't hold them back last year.  I don't think THIRD is out of the question at all.


SPFL Premiership preview - Kilmarnock



LAST SEASON: 9th, 45 points

NOTABLE INS: Darren Barr (Heart of Midlothian), Conor Brennan (Leicester City), Antonio Reguero (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Craig Samson (St. Mirren)

NOTABLE OUTS: Cammy Bell (Rangers), James Dayton (Oldham Athletic), Kyle Letheren (Dundee), Ryan O'Leary (Los Angeles Blues), Danny Racchi (Valur), Cillian Sheridan (Apoel Nicosia), Garry Hay, Papa Idris, Anssi Jaakkola, Mahamadou Sissoko

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Bell, Fowler, Barbour, Sissoko, Tesselaar, Perez, Pascali, Clingan, Dayton, Boyd, Heffernan

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Conor Brennan, Antonio Reguero, Craig Samson
DefendersLee Ashcroft, Darren Barr, Ross BarbourGary FisherRory McKeownMark O'Hara, Jeroen Tesselaar
Midfielders: Sammy Clingan, Ross Davidson, James Fowler, Reuben Gabriel, Rabiu Ibrahim, Greg Kiltie, Manuel Pascali, Borja Perez, Greg SlaterJude Winchester
Forwards: Kris Boyd, William Gros, Paul Heffernan, Chris JohnstonRory McKenzieRobbie Muirhead

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Would you rather have the goal threat of Kris Boyd or the work rate of PAUL HEFFERNAN?  I think the latter is more important to Killie's prospects, and it will be interesting to see which of the forwards Allan Johnston ends up building his team around.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Full-back, centre-back, central seems sure what 17 year old MARK O'HARA's best position is yet, but it's reassuring for Kilmarnock that he's looked decent wherever he's filled in.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Eighteen months ago, Kilmarnock won the League Cup and Kenny Shiels was the toast of the town.  But the Northern Irishman got his jotters in June, partly after overseeing a disappointing season but mainly because his outspokenness and penchant for getting into conflict with the authorities was just too much for the club.  Add in a summer of supporter protests against the chairman, Michael Johnston, and you'd forgive new manager Allan Johnston if he wished he'd stayed in Dumfries.  Johnston has done surprisingly little business since taking over, other than the signing of Darren Barr (both Samson and Reguero were signed by Shiels), and convincing Kris Boyd - or, to give him his full name, Fat Kris Boyd - to stay.  Shiels would happily tell everyone who'd listen that Kilmarnock had some terrific youngsters about to break through.  Johnston can only hope his predecessor was right.

football formations

This was, for me, the most difficult lineup to predict.  If Boyd signs, he may be used in a front two, but otherwise Heffernan will start up front on his own with Borja Perez just off him.  In the wide areas there is little choice but to use two youngsters, with McKenzie, Johnston, Davidson and Winchester the obvious options.  There's more experience in midfield, where Clingan and Pascali, or maybe Fowler if the Italian has to be used in defence, will protect the back four.  Johnston has made it clear Barr will play in central defence, and may gamble on another young player such as Barbour and O'Hara alongside him in the hope the ex-Hearts man's experience rubs off.  They at least seem set at left back where Tesselaar and McKeown can do an adequate job, and in goal where they have two good options in Samson and Reguero.  There still doesn't seem to be a natural right-back, but Fowler has proven over the years he can fill in there.  It's unclear if Nigerians Gabriel (a defensive midfielder) and Ibrahim (an attacking midfielder) might fit into this lineup.
EDIT: Following Boyd's signing on a one year deal, he may be used as the lone striker, or even in a front two with Heffernan with Perez pushed wide or left out altogether.  Gros (who has signed a new 3 year deal) will also push for a role in a wide area.

THE BOSS: Allan Johnston's Queen of the South side demolished the rest of the Second Division last season and won the Challenge Cup as well, but going from Palmerston to Rugby Park will not be a picnic for the man known as 'Magic'.  He'll certainly have to work with less than Kenny Shiels or Mixu Paatelainen did.  His previous association with the club may buy him time if results don't come straight away, as will as the fact that any supporter ire is likely to be initially directed at his unpopular chairman.  I'd expect a continuation of the passing style that has characterised this side since Paatelainen.  More reinforcements between now and the end of August are likely, and are necessary as well.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "Keeping it on the deck"

PREDICTION: It's very hard to know how good this Kilmarnock team will be.  I fully expect two or three new players to arrive in the next few weeks which may markedly improve the side.  As it stands, I don't think they've come close to adequately replacing the creativity of James Dayton, and as such goals may be hard to come by.  Maybe the kids will come good.  I don't think they'll be good enough yet and think it'll be a tough season with a TENTH place finish.


(Note: this was edited on 1 August to reflect the signings of Kris Boyd and William Gros on new contracts)

SPFL Premiership preview - Inverness



LAST SEASON: 4th, 54 points

NOTABLE INS: Torbjorn Agdestein (Brighton & Hove Albion), Curtis Allen (Coleraine), Adam Evans (Burnley), Joe Gorman (Crewe Alexandra), Ben Greenhalgh (Concord Rangers), Carl Tremarco (Macclesfield Town), James Vincent (Kidderminster Harriers), Marley Watkins (Hereford United), Danny Williams (Kendal Town), Dean Brill (Luton Town, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Owain Tudur Jones (Hibernian), Gavin Morrison (Brora Rangers), Antonio Reguero (Kilmarnock), Andrew Shinnie (Birmingham City), Shane Sutherland (Elgin City), Jordan Gibbons (Queens Park Rangers, end of loan), Philip Roberts (Arsenal, end of loan), Charlie Taylor (Leeds United, end of loan), Simon King (retired), Chris Hogg

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Reguero, Raven, Warren, Meekings, G. Shinnie, Jones, Draper, Doran, A. Shinnie, Foran, McKay

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Dean Brill, Ryan Esson
DefendersMatthew CooperDanny DevineJoe GormanJosh Meekings, David Raven, Graeme Shinnie, Carl Tremarco, Gary Warren
Midfielders: Aaron Doran, Ross Draper, Adam EvansBen GreenhalghConor PepperLiam Polworth, Nick Ross, James Vincent, Marley Watkins, Danny Williams
Forwards: Torbjorn Agdestein, Curtis Allen, Richie Foran, Billy McKay

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: With Andrew Shinnie gone, ICT will be even more heavily dependent on BILLY MCKAY for goals.  The Northern Irishman was lethal for much of last season and the Highlanders need more of the same.  Thankfully, he's been scoring goals for fun in pre-season.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? He's played 60 games for the club, but central defender JOSH MEEKINGS is still only 20.  If he continues last year's form, Inverness will struggle to hold onto him when his contract expires next summer.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Inverness have actually held on to most of last season's success stories - including the entire back four. Of those who left, Antonio Reguero and Owain Tudur Jones are replaceable.  Andrew Shinnie may not be. The former Rangers man was the team's creative force and it's not clear who will fill his role.  However, there have been plenty of arrivals, mainly from England's lower leagues, and if a few turn out to be rough diamonds then ICT could be very dangerous.  Certainly, expectations of a second successive top six finish are quite reasonable.

football formations

If fit, Esson will be undisputed first choice keeper again, and the back four will be the same as last year, with Devine offering solid backup.  Pre-season lineups suggest that a more orthodox central midfielder - probably Vincent - will play an advanced role to compensate for the exit of Andrew Shinnie; he would provide more energy and physicality but considerably less flair, so Doran and Ross will have to compensate for that.  Alternatively youngster Polworth may get a chance to display his range of passing.  Given that the bench will include pacey wide players such as Williams, Watkins and Greenhalgh, ICT will be very dangerous on the break if they are leading in the second half of matches.  Given the diminutive size of the front trio, the trick, as ever, will be to prevent them receiving the ball on the deck.  If a bigger striker is needed, Foran can be pushed forward, or there may be a role for Allen or Agdestein.

THE BOSS: A year ago, I wondered if Terry Butcher had taken the club as far as he possibly could.  not for the first time, I was completely wrong.  Butcher is now pretty much untouchable at Inverness after the results and performances of last season.  His status and charisma remain a major draw in bringing players to the club from south of the border.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "A difficult place to go"

PREDICTION: It would be a shock if Caley Thistle end up at the wrong end of the table.  Out of caution, I have them coming SIXTH, but it's quite conceivable that they could do better than that.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SPFL Premiership preview - Hibernian

Team badge


LAST SEASON: 7th, 51 points

NOTABLE INS: James Collins (Swindon Town, £200k), Liam Craig (St. Johnstone), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Ryan McGivern (Manchester City), Fraser Mullen (Heart of Midlothian), Rowan Vine (St. Johnstone)

NOTABLE OUTS: Gary Deegan (Northampton Town), Eoin Doyle (Chesterfield), Scott Smith (Dumbarton), David Wotherspoon (St. Johnstone), Callum Booth (Raith Rovers, loan), Paul Grant (Berwick Rangers, loan), Jorge Claros (Montagua, end of loan), Matt Done (Barnsley, end of loan), Leigh Griffiths (Wolverhampton Wanderers, end of loan), Callum Antell, Lewis Horner, Pa Kujabi, Shefki Kuqi, Alan Maybury, Martin Scott

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Williams, Clancy, Hanlon, McPake, McGivern, Thomson, Taiwo, Claros, Harris, GriffithsDoyle

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Sean Murdoch, Ben Williams
Defenders: Tim Clancy, Jordan Forster, Paul Hanlon, Ryan McGivern, James McPake, Fraser Mullen
Midfielders: Paul Cairney, Liam Craig, Alex HarrisDean Horribine, Owain Tudur Jones, Scott Robertson, Sam Stanton, Lewis Stevenson, Tom Taiwo, Kevin Thomson
ForwardsRoss Caldwell, James Collins, Danny Handling, Rowan Vine

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: JAMES MCPAKE suffered a dip in form after Christmas, probably the result of a back problem; the back line badly needs him to be fit again, but the skipper's injury against Malmo is not a good omen.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? It was disconcerting to hear Pat Fenlon call teenager ALEX HARRIS an integral part of the team after only a handful of starts, but the winger showed some flashes of brilliance after forcing his way into the side.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Any readers of this blog or followers of my twitter account will know my feelings regarding boss Pat Fenlon's abilities - feeling that have hardened further after the Hibees started the campaign with a humiliating 7-0 thumping in the second leg of their Europa League tie with Malmo.  Leigh Griffiths carried this team last season; now that he has returned to Wolves (and his strike partner Eoin Doyle has gone too), Fenlon has taken the gamble of splashing £200,000 - a huge sum by Scottish football standards - om Swindon forward James Collins.  It feels like a huge gamble, and given that Fenlon appears to be on borrowed time, this writer believes the money would have been better kept in the bank account to pay for the apparently inevitable sacking of the management team.  Other than Collins, Fenlon has indulged his fetish for central midfield players, yet has only one natural wide player - Alex Harris - in the whole squad.  Hibs appear directionless - unless you count the sideways passes that will come from Owain Tudur Jones and Kevin Thomson.


football formations 

With the arrival of Collins, I assume the plan is for Vine to either come in from the flank, as he did for St Johnstone last year, or to play up front in a 4-4-2.  In the case of the latter, the midfield will be imbalanced, with three central midfielders.  Clancy and McGivern are good defensively but neither offers much going forward from full-back, so the onus is heavily on Harris to provide any width.  Taiwo will do the running in midfield, but I question the need for two immobile side-to-side passers in Thomson and Jones.  Robertson may be an alternative in the centre of midfield.  The first choice defence looks strong but Clancy and McPake are injury prone, so youngsters Forster and Mullen may have to step up.

THE BOSS: Pat Fenlon was already on the hot seat after a torrid end to last season that was only partially overshadowed by a second successive Scottish Cup final.  He's now properly on the shoogly peg after the Malmo debacle.  He's not found a solution to the apparently chronic underperformance of his players, and the lack of discipline increasingly on display since New Year raises concerns about his ability to motivate and organize.


PREDICTION: Where Hibernian finish depends entirely on when they dismiss Pat Fenlon and who they replace him with.  Assuming that Rod Petrie will, as per previous coaches, wait too long to get rid of him, I think his replacement will have too little time to turn things around and get them into the top six.  I think 2013-14 will be another step backwards at Easter Road, with a NINTH place finish.


SPFL Premiership preview - Hearts

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg


LAST SEASON: 10th, 44 points

NOTABLE INS: Danny Wilson (Liverpool)

NOTABLE OUTS: Darren Barr (Kilmarnock), Danny Grainger (St. Mirren), Fraser Mullen (Hibernian), Arvydas Novikovas (Erzgebirge Aue), Denis Prychynenko (Nacional), Gordon Smith (Raith Rovers), John Sutton (Motherwell), Michael Ngoo (Liverpool, end of loan), Mehdi Taouil, Andy Webster, Marius Zaliukas

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): MacDonald, Hamill, WebsterZaliukas, Wilson, Walker, Stevenson, Taouil, Holt, Ngoo, Paterson

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jamie MacDonald, Mark Ridgers
Defenders: Jamie Hamill, Jordan McGhee, Dylan McGowan, Kevin McHattieBrad McKay, Danny Wilson
MidfieldersJason HoltBilly KingScott Robinson, Ryan Stevenson, Callum TappingJason Walker
ForwardsDale CarrickCallum PatersonDavid Smith

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: DANNY WILSON would have probably been the 'marquee' signing of the summer; in fact he's the only one.  A threadbare defence would become a complete disaster without the new team captain marshalling it.  The former Rangers youth talent will be looking to resurrect his career after a rotten spell at Liverpool.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Star of the present, more like, given the club's dependence on their youngsters.  JASON HOLT scored some terrific goals last season, and is attracting interest from Nottingham Forest.

THE SEASON AHEAD: You'd have to be taking an awful lot of psychotropic medication to feel positive about what's been happening this summer down Gorgie way.  Hearts supporters will be less fussed about where the club finish in the table than whether they can actually complete the season at all.  While administration led to only one compulsory player redundancy - John Sutton - it also prevented the club from being able to retain the vast majority of their experienced players.  Thankfully, they managed to exploit a loophole in their ongoing transfer embargo to make Danny Wilson's loan spell permanent.  Even if they manage to exit administration, they are unlikely to be able to sign reinforcements until January; given the quality and depth in the squad currently, overcoming their 15 point deduction looks like a tall order.


football formations

With only two outfield players over the age of 22, it will not come as a surprise that there are precious few options beyond the eleven players listed above.  The back four seems set in stone, with Wilson moving to central defence from the left back role he occupied last season.  McGowan played much of last season in midfield, where he didn't look particuarly special - will he better in defence?  If any of these four gets injured, there is very little cover available though Tapping and Paterson have previously been used as full-backs.  The latter is likely to play wide right or even up front.  Stevenson may also be used as a centre forward; certainly if Holt leaves I'd expect him to move into a more advanced role with Robinson coming into the side.

THE BOSS: With Vladimir Romanov no longer pulling the strings, the role of manager is automatically about a million times less precarious than it has been at any point in the last decade.  But the appointment of youth coach Gary Locke in February smacked of being the cheap and easy option.  On the other hand, Locke may be in a no-lose situation here - if the team struggles, it can be blamed on their off-field problems.  Locke is a Hearts man through and through, and he'll be as desperate as anyone to preserve their top flight status.


PREDICTION: Sorry, but I just can't see how Hearts can dig themselves out of the 15 point hole they start in.  If/when they can bring in new bodies, it could be too late.  I think they'll finish TWELFTH and lose their top flight status for the first time since 1983.


Monday, July 29, 2013

SPFL Premiership preview - Dundee United

Dundee United FC logo.svg


LAST SEASON: 6th, 47 points

NOTABLE INS: Calum Butcher (Hayes & Yeading United), Nadir Ciftci (NAC Breda), Aidan Connolly (Queen's Park), Chris Erskine (Partick Thistle), Brian Graham (Raith Rovers), Kudus Oyenuga (Hayes & Yeading United), Paul Paton (Partick Thistle), Andrew Robertson (Queen's Park), David Goodwillie (Blackburn Rovers, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Johnny Russell (Derby County, £700k), Steve Banks (St. Johnstone), Jon Daly (Rangers), Barry Douglas (Lech Poznan), Willo Flood (Aberdeen), Marcus Tornstrand (Ostersunds), Rory Boulding, Brian McLean, Richie Ryan, Robert Thomson

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Ciernziak, Watson, Gunning, Dillon, Douglas, Armstrong, Flood, Rankin, Mackay-Steven, Russell, Daly

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Radoslaw Ciernziak
Defenders: Calum Butcher, Sean Dillon, Gavin Gunning, Luke Johnston, Andrew Robertson, Ross SmithJohn Souttar, Keith Watson
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci, Aidan Connolly, Chris Erskine, Michael Gardyne, Ryan Gauld, Gary Mackay-Steven, Mark Millar, Paul Paton, Darren Petrie, John Rankin
Forwards: Ryan Dow, David Goodwillie, Brian Graham, Dale Hilson, Kudus Oyenuga

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Some might say Gary Mackay-Steven, but United have invested a lot in the return on loan of DAVID GOODWILLIE and have a paucity of striking options if the Scotland international gets crocked.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Not 18 till December, RYAN GAULD looks like a heck of a talent when drifting between midfield and attack.  He's so slight that he must be at risk of picking up injuries, but that will change as he gets older.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Those of a positive disposition will point out that United are capable of hurting any opponent with the flair and firepower they have up front. The glass-half-empty types will be worried about a threadbare defence which lacks an experienced left-back.  The return of Goodwillie after two years away certainly offsets the gloom of seeing Jon Daly and Jonny Russell depart - the former wasn't great last season but offers tremendous leadership, whilst the latter should do well in The Championship down south.  Chris Erskine was the first division's outstanding player last season and is an exciting signing.

football formations

Jackie Mac used a back three on occasion at Partick, and we may see him changing formations during matches as he sees fit.  It's unclear if Brian Graham has the quality for the top flight, so expect Goodwillie to play up front on his own, with Mackay-Steven and Erskine providing ammunition.  Ciftci is another young wide player.  Armstrong may be the most advanced central midfielder but could be used deeper if McNamara keeps faith with the exciting Gauld, while Gardyne can play that role too.  Paton will be the holding midfielder, but there's a danger that he and the diminutive Rankin could be overrun in the centre of the pitch.  The back four looks weak.  Robertson is the only natural left-back, but played third division football last year.  Gunning is erratic, while captain Dillon is simply ordinary.  I'd say Watson is the only consistently decent defender on the books.  On the bright side, Souttar is a highly-rated prospect and Butcher has played well at centre-back in pre-season.  In goal Ciernziak is the only option just now.

THE BOSS: Having replaced Peter Houston after the January transfer window had ended, Jackie McNamara can now stamp his impression on the squad, though he could have done without having to replace the likes of Willo Flood, Johnny Russell and Jon Daly.  He's an intelligent man, who has already displayed plenty of nous since he arrived at Tannadice, but he may not get as much leeway to mould the team as he did from Partick fans if United have their traditional slow start.  Still, he deserves the time to prove he can be a success.


PREDICTION: I say that, if Goodwillie and Gary 'Mr. Glass' Mackay-Steven stay healthy - an unlikely scenario for the latter - they will do very well.  Even if the latter misses half the season with injuries - again - they should still be good enough to finish top six - I have them to come FIFTH.


SPFL Premiership previews - Celtic

Celtic crest


LAST SEASON: 1st, 79 points

NOTABLE INS: Virgil Van Dijk (Groningen, £2m), Amido Balde (Vitoria Guimaraes, £1.8m), Steven Mouyokolo (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

NOTABLE OUTS: Victor Wanyama (Southampton, £12m), Gary Hooper (Norwich City, £5m), James Keatings (Hamilton Academical), Daryl Murphy (Ipswich Town), Thomas Rogne (Wigan Athletic), Rami Gershon (Standard Liege, end of loan), Miku (Getafe, end of loan), Viktor Noring (Trelleborg, end of loan), Lassad Nouioui, Paddy McCourt

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, Wilson, Mulgrew, Forrest, Brown, Wanyama, Commons, Samaras, Hooper

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster, Lukasz Zaluska
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Joe ChalmersMarcus Fraser, Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews, Steven Mouyokolo, Charlie Mulgrew, Lewis Toshney, Virgil Van Dijk, Kelvin Wilson
Midfielders: Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Paul GeorgeJohn HerronJackson Irvine, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Dylan McGeouchTom RogicFilip Twardzik
ForwardsBahrudin Atajic, Amido Balde, James Forrest, Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes, Tony Watt

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Of course there is plenty of depth in every position, but the man Celtic would miss most is probably keeper FRASER FORSTER, who enhanced his reputation with his Champions League performances and who is far superior to backup Lukasz Zaluska.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? TONY WATT announced himself with that goal against Barcelona...and didn't really do much after that.  If he's to fulfil his great potential, the striker needs to establish himself as a first choice soon.

THE SEASON AHEAD: If Celtic don't win the title again, it will be the biggest shock in Scottish football history. Domestically, expectations are sky-high to the point that anything other than a treble would he underwhelming.  The focus will be primarily on repeating last year's European success, but this will be tough to manage without Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper.  While there is more than enough firepower to bludgeon their Scottish opponents, Hooper's guile will be sorely missed against the continent's elite.


 football formations

Speculating at Celtic's strongest starting lineup is a pretty pointless exercise.  You could fit in Matthews, Van Dijk or Mulgrew into the back four, Ledley and Rogic (and Mulgrew too) into midfield, or Stokes and/or Samaras up front, without this side being weakened.  In league games, a 4-4-2 is likely to be used, but I'd expect a 4-2-3-1 for Europe.  It will be interesting to see if Kris Commons sees more time in an advanced role off the centre forward, where he looked terrific in the second half of last season.  Will Kayal be able to adequately replace Wanyama?  It's possible Ambrose will be moved into midfield to provide a more physical presence.  If Celtic have a weakness, it's in the middle of the pitch, especially if/when Scott Brown gets crocked.

THE BOSS: In Europe last season, he often looked like a tactical genius; domestically, he often seemed to have problems getting the best out of his players.  Would the real Neil Lennon please stand up?  Given that another title appears a formality, it would take an awful lot for the Celtic manager to lose the support of the club and the support.  It would do his team no harm if he could avoid his usual quota of touchline bans this season though.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "Playing in second gear"

PREDICTION: Yes, of course they are going to finish as CHAMPIONS.  It's so obvious that the already daft league name should be changed from "Scottish Professional Football League" to "Celtic Are Certain To Win The League".


SPFL Premiership preview - Aberdeen

Aberdeen FC logo.svg


LAST SEASON: 8th, 48 points

NOTABLE INS: Willo Flood (Dundee United), Barry Robson (Sheffield United), Lawrence Shankland (Queen's Park), Nicky Weaver (Sheffield Wednesday), Gregg Wylde (Bolton Wanderers), Calvin Zola (Burton Albion), Michael Hector (Reading, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Jordon Brown (Peterhead), Rory Fallon (St. Johnstone), Mitch Megginson (Dumbarton), Rob Milsom (Rotherham United), Gavin Rae (Dundee), Stephen Hughes, Gary Naysmith, Isaac Osbourne, Dan Twardzik

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Langfield, Shaughnessy, Anderson, Reynolds, Considine, Jack, RaeHughes, Hayes, McGinn, Magennis

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Jamie Langfield, Nicky Weaver
Defenders: Russell Anderson, Andrew Considine, Michael HectorCraig MurrayClark Robertson, Mark Reynolds, Joe Shaughnessy
Midfielders: Chris Clark, Willo Flood, Jonny Hayes, Ryan JackNicky LowJamie Masson, Peter Pawlett, Barry Robson, Gregg Wylde
Forwards: Josh Magennis, Niall McGinn, Declan McManusLawrence ShanklandCammy SmithCraig Storie, Scott Vernon, Calvin Zola

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Hopefully NIALL MCGINN will have a better supporting cast this season; Craig Brown's decision to convert the Ulsterman to a centre forward role was about the only good thing to happen at Pittodrie last year.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? If RYAN JACK can stay fit, he can either add plenty of energy to the midfield area, or play as an attacking full back.  He seems the most likely to next follow former teammates like Ryan Fraser and Fraser Fyvie by moving south.

THE SEASON AHEAD: The king is dead - or, rather, has moved into semi-retirement as a club director - long live the king!  Craig Brown's replacement, Derek McInnes, has overseen a huge turnover of players this summer and appears to have made some shrewd signings.  Whilst many of the teams who finished above them have been weakened, the Aberdeen squad look stronger.  The midfield in particular has been revamped.  The defence looks solid.  Niall McGinn should be a reliable source of goals.  A fifth consecutive bottom six finish would surely be inexcusable, but, going on past experience, you wouldn't be all that surprised if the Dons were a let-down once more.  But if McInnes can get the best out of his new charges, it could be a very special season at Pittodrie.


 football formations

McInnes used 4-4-2 at St. Johnstone, and may prefer partnering Zola with McGinn in a big man-little man combo, or finding a place for Vernon, but he's likely to need someone with plenty of legs in midfield as Flood and Robson aren't all that mobile.  Jack could provide the energy in the centre of the pitch, but the lack of a natural right-back means he could be deployed there; Clark has also played there in pre-season, and utility defender Shaughnessy did okay on the right of a back four last year.  Considine is a natural centre-back, but is a more reliable option at left-back than Robertson.  Anderson and Reynolds seem the obvious central defensive duo, though loanee Hector may be in the reckoning.  Who would you pick in goal?  I'd go for Weaver, but the Dons may stick with the longserving Langfield initially.  Hayes and Wylde offer width and pace, with Pawlett an alternative to either.  Magennis can also play wide or through the middle.  Young forwards Smith and McManus may see more action this season.

THE BOSS: Derek McInnes is the latest man tasked with restoring the Dons' glory days.  His business in the transfer market looks promising, and he did very well in his last SPL job (at St Johnstone).  But we've said that about plenty of recent Aberdeen managers.  Compared to the previous incumbents, he may be given a bit more breathing space by the fans if results are mediocre, if only because the last few years have filled the Red Army with overwhelming apathy.


PREDICTION: Could this be the year that Aberdeen can finally call themselves 'the best of the rest' again?  I say it could be - and I fancy them to finish SECOND.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Looking ahead to 2013-14

Last season was supposed to be Scottish football's Armageddon.

Thankfully, it seems that the Four Horsemen failed to RSVP.  The implosion of our national sport that was predicted by rather a lot of journalists and rather too many of the game's powerbrokers completely failed to happen - as did the "social unrest" that our esteemed SFA Chief Executive claimed would break out if a certain nameless Glasgow club ended up in the third division.

Given that 'Armageddon' led to my own team having their best ever season, I'm inclined to ask for more of the same, please.

That said, there is still a mild odour of doom hanging over our leagues, after Hearts' finances finally went terminal this summer.  The fact that concrete offers have been made for the club - particularly from the fan-backed Foundation Of Hearts - is encouraging, but their survival depends on events in Lithuania regarding the parent company and the owners of Tynecastle; if that drags on and delays a sale, then the Jambos' situation may become unsalvageable.  Meanwhile, it's only a few months since Dunfermline called in the dreaded administrators, though their situation is looking up.  Who knows what might be in store for other Scottish clubs in these troubled times?  There are so many saddled with outrageous debts that we may yet see a few others hit the buffers, but let's hope not; it would be nice if the focus this season was on the action on the pitch.

The summer has seen a change in acronyms - there is no longer an SPL or an SFL, just an SPFL.  And of course, this means big change for the game in general...apart from the fact that the divisions still have the same name, and the same number of teams...and that the people who were in charge of the SPL are now in charge of the SPFL...and, for another year, there isn't a pyramid system in place...but still, it's a big change.  Honest, Guv.  The redistribution of money, for a start, will allow First Division sides enough money to sustain full-time football comfortably, even for those playing in front of three figure crowds (I'm looking at you, Hamilton Accies) - you can decide for yourself whether subsidizing these clubs to live beyond their means is wise or not.  The other big difference compared to last season is, at last, the introduction of end of season playoffs involving the 11th placed top flight side and the second, third and fourth placed First Division teams.  Whilst I'm delighted by this, it sadly hasn't as yet convinced any companies to put themselves forward as title sponsors for the new league - a  disturbing circumstance given there are only a few weeks before it gets started.

This time last year, I confidently predicted that the SPL title was already a foregone conclusion, and that relegation probably was as well.  I was proved right, and I think it's pretty fair to make a similar prediction ahead of this campaign.  No-one has the quality or the depth in their squad to compete over nine months with a Celtic side who have such a resource advantage.  Distracted by European endeavours, they may yet start more slowly than an anorexic at a three course meal, but another title is inevitable; the success of their season will be determined more by how successful their quest for a domestic treble is, and whether they can repeat last season's Champions League form.

At the other end, Hearts are favourites for the drop - quite right too, given their 15 point penalty and the fact that, at the time of writing, they have only two outfield players over 22.  If, as expected, they are landed with a transfer embargo until January, it's hard to see them managing to overcome their sizeable handicap, especially if they end up flogging talented youngsters like Jason Holt to make ends meet.

As for the other ten teams, your guess is as good as mine.  For the umpteenth year in a row, it seems like no-one has got stronger in the summer, but that each side has become weaker to varying degrees.  The exception may be Aberdeen, where a lot of dead wood has been shifted, and they haven't really lost any talented players - if I was being cruel, I would suggest that they only had one, Niall McGinn, in the first place.  It would be a catastrophe if the Dons missed the top six again...but how many times have I said that in the last few years? 

Hibs were the other bottom six side that obviously underachieved last season, and their league form in 2013 gives cause for concern.  Pat Fenlon has brought in a few reinforcements in the summer, but no-one who looks like producing even a fraction of the impact made by the departed Leigh Griffiths.  Given he has got about a million central midfielders and barely any wingers, I have no idea what Fenlon is planning for the season ahead.  As ever, they still have plenty of talent on paper...but, again, how many times have I said that in the last few years?

Of the sides who made the top six last time out, Inverness appear to have lost the fewest first team regulars, but will find it difficult to replace Andrew Shinnie.  Ross County have lost a few important figures, but their four Dutch signings are intriguing.  St. Johnstone will have to deal with the loss of manager Steve Lomas, and their two best midfield players, Liam Craig and Murray Davidson.  Motherwell's squad has been gutted, but they've strengthened the defence with Stephen McManus and are on the brink of a real coup if they can convince James McFadden to stay.  And it's all change at Dundee United, where Jackie McNamara is looking to put his stamp on the team.

McNamara's former club, newly-promoted Partick, are expected by most to be the team most likely to be overtaken by Hearts but, while the Maryhill Magyars are unlikely to emulate Ross County's efforts from a year ago, they will not struggle like Dundee either and are robust enough to survive.  St. Mirren look strong in attack but weak in defence - will they play like the side that won the League Cup, or the side that finished second from bottom last season?  Meanwhile, Kilmarnock look awfully vulnerable, having lost some good players and done very little business so far under new boss Allan Johnston...though that assessment will change dramatically if he manages to convince Andy Webster and Kris Boyd to play for the club next season.

Hopefully, I'll manage proper previews for the top flight clubs before the big kickoff on the first weekend of August.  Forgive me for delaying them, but given there's plenty of transfer business to be done between now and then, the later I leave them the more accurate they will be (or, at least, the fewer excuses I will have for talking rubbish).


Friday, July 12, 2013

Here come the Newco, same as the Oldco

If you're setting out to win the Scottish Second Division, attempting to sign the division's top scorer from last season is a move that makes plenty of sense.  Hence Rangers' move for Nicky Clark was understandable.

But bringing in a Honduran international midfielder, and potentially a Bosnian international defender?

I'm not sure who currently scouts opposing teams for Ally McCoist, but if they are going to Brechin, Airdrie and Methil, and feeding back to him that he needs to sign players like this, then that particular scout should be wrapped in a straitjacket and dragged away kicking and screaming.

The events of the summer of 2012 could have been a fresh start for Rangers.  No-one, not even Sir David Murray himself, could surely argue against the fact that for years there had been gross overspending on players, with an onus entirely on "winning now" rather than building for the future.  There are plenty of reasons why the club collapsed, but that was one of them.  But the squad that Super Ally was left with when he started the 2012/13 campaign was already strong enough to win the third division at a canter, with experienced players like Neil Alexander, Lee McCulloch, Lee Wallace and Andy Little hanging around.  This could allow them focus on blooding youth players.  They could take the time to hone an attractive playing style which could give the supporters something to crow about.  The old Rangers weren't famous enough for their actions on the pitch, and too infamous for their actions off it; the new Rangers could change that image completely.

But, by the end of the August transfer window, the club had signed nine more players: Hearts midfielder Ian Black, who was on the brink of a Scotland call-up; Kilmarnock's Northern Ireland international Dean Shiels; St Johnstone's top scorer Francisco Sandaza; Brazilian defender Emilson Cribari, who previously played in the Champions League with Lazio; former Scotland international striker Kevin Kyle; French under-21 international defender Sebastian Faure; Greek full back Anestis Argyriou; Australian forward Francesco Stella; and, for an outlay of £800,000, Hearts attacker David Templeton.

"Winning now" and all that.

Some of those players, as we know, were earning £5,000 a week last season.  In contrast, the Montrose players who nicked a draw at Ibrox with a last minute equalizer during the winter were on about £150 a week plus expenses.

Why were all these players signed?  Most likely, it was hoped that these 'marquee' moves would help sell season tickets - and it seemed to work.  Rangers fans lapped up the prospect of charging through the leagues, whilst wreaking revenge on SPL clubs by dumping them out of cup competitions and winning domestic trophies as a lower league club.

So much for that plan.  Rangers beat Motherwell in the League Cup, only to be embarrassed by Inverness at home in the next round. Dundee United annihilated them at Tannadice in the Scottish Cup.  They couldn't even progress far in the Challenge Cup, the competition that involves only sides outside the SPL - Queen of the South beat them on penalties at Ibrox. 

Even the league campaign was a slog.  The title was delivered with plenty to spare, but impressive performances were few and far between.  From the word go, the defence looked vulnerable, and the propensity for losing goals at set pieces was almost as staggering as the continued failure to fix the problem over the course of the campaign.  An attractive style of play?  Nah.  McCoist preferred hoof-ball to Lee McCulloch instead.  The midfield was something to be bypassed, not utilised.  Some youngsters got their chance, though Chris Hegarty and Lewis Macleod were the only players under 21 to start more than half the league matches.  The high-paid stars?  McCulloch, Wallace and Templeton (when fit) earned their keep.  Cribari and Black were not impressive.  Kyle, constantly injured for the previous few years, was, to the surprise of absolutely no-one, constantly injured whilst at Rangers.  Sandaza, of course, left under a cloud.

Still, lessons were bound to be learned, weren't they?

Apparently not.

This summer, seven more signings have been lined up - though none can officially join till the end of the club's transfer embargo on September 1.  Not one of the seven is under the age of 21.  Three come from SPL clubs - Dundee United's Jon Daly, Motherwell's Nicky Law and Killie keeper Cammy Bell.  Two are former Gers returning after a few years away - Stevie Smith and Ricky Foster.  There are also the aforementioned Clark and Honduran Arnold Peralta.  Even though Rangers have moved on high earners such as Alexander, Dorin Goian and Carlos Bocanegra (the last two were out on loan last year, which their wages paid by the loaning clubs), the new signings take the number of players over the age of 21 to nineteen, while I count another 12 youngsters with some sort of first team experience on the books as well - though I don't see much prospect of first team action for them this season.  There are new faces to come yet - Bosnian Boris Pandza seems likely to sign on, as does Tunisian Bilal Mohnsi.

That can't be cheap.  Even if the new guys are on lower wages than Black et al, they will still be on good money.

And to what end?

The division title and promotion, obviously.  The Challenge Cup is a reasonable prospect.  The other domestic cups?  Maybe.  Perhaps the new players could perform to a higher level against SPL opposition that last year's motley crew.  But chances are that Celtic would stand in their way at some point.  There is no way that Rangers would win that particular tie.

But so what?  Given the sums of money that Rangers are used to dealing with, a cup run is not going to be of huge benefit unless they make the Scottish Cup final and qualify for the Europa League.  Ladbrokes, at the time of writing, offer 13-1 against them winning the 2013/14 Scottish Cup.

32,000 season tickets have been sold - a comparable figure to last season - but prices were frozen.  So there is a bigger wage bill, but income is not higher.

And we already know that, for their first seven months, the newco was running at a loss of £1 million per month.  What has changed since then?  How are they going to afford it?

None of this makes much sense.

McCoist's rationale when interviewed for Rangers TV recently was "other teams raise their games against Rangers, so my players have to try harder, so we need a big squad in order to rotate and rest them".  That argument was debatable a few years ago in the SPL for matches against the likes of Inverness and St. Johnstone; when used in the context of part-time opponents, it is ludicrous.

What does 2013-14 hold for Rangers?  Undoubtedly another promotion.  Quite possibly the Challenge Cup - they are justifiably favourites for that.  The other domestic cups?  The problem will be the same as last year - upping their game to play SPFL opponents after taking on part-time sides most weeks.

But the glaring question - and one which is not being asked at all by the Scottish media - is: how is this sustainable?

Rangers squad (* donates under 21 player who has played a first team game) at time of writing

Goalkeepers: Cammy Bell, Scott Gallacher
Full backs: Darren Cole*, Anestis Argyriou, Richard Foster, Lee Wallace, Steven Smith
Centre backs: Emilson Cribari, Luca Gasparotto*, Ross Perry, Chris Hegarty*, Sebastian Faure
Central midfielders: Arnold Peralta, Lewis Macleod*, Robbie Crawford*, Kyle Hutton, Andy Murdoch*, Ian Black, Andrew Mitchell*
Attacking midfielders: Dean Shiels, Danny Stoney*, David Templeton, Fraser Aird*, Tom Walsh*, Nicky Law
Strikers: Barrie McKay*, Kal Naismith*, Lee McCulloch, Andrew Little, Jon Daly, Nicky Clark


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

SPFL summer business so far


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Willo Flood (Dundee United), Barry Robson (Sheffield United), Lawrence Shankland (Queen's Park), Gregg Wylde (Bolton Wanderers), Calvin Zola (Burton Albion)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Stronger, definitely.  Derek McInnes has clearly identified the weaknesses in the squad he inherited from Craig Brown; the lack of a big lug - sorry, I mean 'target man' - and pretty much the whole midfield.  Flood and Robson provide experience and quality in the middle of the park, while Wylde will give them as much pace on one side as Jonny Hayes provides on the other.  Zola, at 6'3", offers something different up front.  The defence should be solid with Andy Considine back from injury (words I thought I'd never write) and, critically, there have been no offers for Niall McGinn.

FURTHER NEEDS: An experienced goalkeeper to compete with Jamie Langfield, and one or two more full backs to provide depth.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Virgil Van Dijk (Groningen, £2m), Amido Balde (Vitoria Guimaraes, £1.8m)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Stronger, at least for now, but Victor Wanyama's departure appears inevitable and Gary Hooper has a lot of suitors.  Van Dijk gives Neil Lennon another option in central defence, while Balde is highly rated despite only 9 goals in the Portuguese League last season; his height and physical presence should give SPFL defenders nightmares.  Even if there are no more new faces, this squad is still light years ahead of any other team in the country.

FURTHER NEEDS: That depends on whether they feel they need a replacement for Wanyama, or if Beram Kayal can fill the gap.  Otherwise, they seem pretty well set.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Calum Butcher (Hayes & Yeading United), Aidan Connolly (Queen's Park), Chris Erskine (Partick Thistle), Brian Graham (Raith Rovers), Kudus Oyenuga (Hayes & Yeading United), Paul Paton (Partick Thistle), Andrew Robertson (Queen's Park), David Goodwillie (Blackburn Rovers, loan)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Possibly a bit weaker.  After the departure of Jon Daly and Johnny Russell, there was much gnashing of teeth at Tannadice, but the return on loan of prodigal son Goodwillie must reassure the supporters.  The Scotland international should easily fill Russell's shoes, though ex-Morton and Raith man Graham will struggle to replace Daly.  Jackie McNamara has brought in two ex-Partick men who should do well - midfield enforcer Paton and the tricky Chris Erskine; with the latter on one flank and Gary Mackay-Steven on the other, there should be plenty of ammunition for the forwards.  There are holes at left back and in midfield after the loss of Barry Douglas and Willo Flood respectively.

FURTHER NEEDS: A new left back and a keeper to back up Radoslaw Ciernziak, definitely.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Danny Wilson (Liverpool, loan made permanent)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Undoubtedly weaker, of course.  Eleven players who played for the first team last season have gone, though Wilson has been signed permanently thanks to a loophole.  If Hearts are punished like Rangers and Dunfermline before them, there's likely to be a transfer embargo until January which, along with their 15 point deduction, would cripple them ahead of the new campaign.  Currently there are only two outfield players aged 22 or over.  Whilst some of the youngsters impressed last year, the defence in particular looks threadbare and there is almost zero depth.

FURTHER NEEDS: Err...the Jambos look reasonably set in goal.  Other than that, they could do with reinforcements in pretty much every position.  Whether they are allowed to bring in anyone else is another matter.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Liam Craig (St. Johnstone), Owain Tudur Jones (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Ryan McGivern (Manchester City, loan made permanent), Fraser Mullen (Heart of Midlothian)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Weaker, simply because Leigh Griffiths isn't coming back - Wolves want him for their League One campaign.  The next best striker, Eoin Doyle has gone as well.  Currently Hibs have only youngsters Ross Caldwell and Danny Handling up front.  Elsewhere, Pat Fenlon has indulged his fetish for central midfield players by bringing in Welsh international Jones, which will look like an odd signing if Kevin Thomson, who fills an almost identical role, signs a new contract.  Keeping McGivern looks like a good move as he will do a good job at left back or in central defence.  Craig proved a potent goal threat from midfield with St. Johnstone.

FURTHER NEEDS: At least two strikers must be brought in.  The exits of David Wotherspoon and Matt Done leave Alex Harris as pretty much the only natural wide player in the squad. 


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Curtis Allen (Coleraine), Adam Evans (Burnley), Joe Gorman (Crewe Alexandra), Ben Greenhalgh (Concord Rangers), Harry Hooman (Cheltenham Town), James Vincent (Kidderminster Harriers), Marley Watkins (Hereford United), Danny Williams (Kendal Town), Dean Brill (Luton Town, loan)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Stronger in terms of depth, but a weaker starting XI simply because Andy Shinnie has gone and doesn't appear to have been replaced; perhaps Nick Ross or Aaron Doran will be deployed in his role this season.  Pretty much all the signings are unproven at this level and Terry Butcher will be hoping he has unearthed a gem or two.  There is certainly an onus on pace, as Greenhalgh, Watkins and Williams are all wide players.  By all accounts, Vincent will rival his new teammate Draper in workrate and tenacity.

FURTHER NEEDS: Every position seems covered, but there might yet be a loanee or two brought in.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Conor Brennan (Leicester City), Reuben Gabriel (Kano Pillars), Antonio Reguero (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Craig Samson (St. Mirren)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Weaker, even if Kris Boyd signs a new contract.  New boss Allan Johnston at least inherits two good keepers to make up for the departure of Cammy Bell, but James Dayton will be badly missed and forwards Cillian Sheridan and William Gros have both gone.  The only outfield player to join up is Nigerian Reuben Gabriel, whose countryman Papa Idris had his contract ripped up after it turned out he was injured when signed (never heard of a medical, guys?).  Momo Sissoko is on trial with Roda JC in Holland, while Ryan O'Leary hasn't signed a new deal, which leaves Johnston hugely lacking in the centre of defence.

FURTHER NEEDS: Experience in central defence would be valuable indeed, which will be why Killie are courting Andy Webster.  Johnston will need to get a handle on how many of the umpteen youngsters brought through by Kenny Shiels are ready for the rigours of a full season in the first team before he can work out where he needs to strengthen further, but his assistant Sandy Clark has suggested up to six signings are needed.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Fraser Kerr (Birmingham City, loan made permanent), Paul Lawson (Ross County), Gunnar Nielsen (Silkeborg), John Sutton (Heart of Midlothian), Iain Vigurs (Ross County)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? See my blog from last week - undoubtedly weaker, with seven of the starting eleven that finished last season gone (unless James McFadden signs a new deal).  Stuart McCall will have to completely rebuild up front, and expect Sutton, in his second spell at Fir Park, to be the fulcrum of the attack.  Lawson is an underrated defensive midfielder, while Vigurs will provide a creative spark in midfield.  The departure of excellent keeper Darren Randolph is covered by the arrival of Faroese international Nielsen.

FURTHER NEEDS: Plenty, even if they can persuade McFadden to stay.  At least one winger, another striker and a right back are a must.  Another central defender wouldn't go amiss either.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: John Baird (Dundee), Paul Gallacher (Ross County)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? If anything, the newly promoted side are currently weaker than when they finished last season, having brought in only the experienced keeper Gallacher, who will likely deputize Scott Fox, and hard-working forward Baird.  However, they have lost Chris Erskine, their outstanding player from last season, and a first choice midfielder in Paul Paton.  Alan Archibald's squad look a long way off being ready for the step up.

FURTHER NEEDS: A forward capable of scoring goals in the top flight is badly needed - Baird does not fit that description, and neither do any of Partick's other strikers.  A combative midfielder to replace Paton will also be on the shopping list.  I'd expect plenty of business to be done between now and the end of August.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Melvin De Leeuw (Cambuur), Ben Gordon (Yeovil Town), Marc Klok (Utrecht), Kevin Luckassen (AZ Alkmaar), Darren Maatsen (Excelsior), Steven Saunders (Motherwell)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Hard to say.  Derek Adams has lost some important players - defenders Evangelos Ikonomou and Andre Hainault and midfielder Iain Vigurs in particular - but ex-Kilmarnock left back Gordon and, if he can stay fit, Saunders, will be good fits.  The Dutch contingent?  County were short of wide players last season, and De Leeuw looks like he will fill that gap.  I don't know enough about the others to comment, but trusting teenager Luckassen and Gary Glen to get goals seems a bit daft.  The most important move of the summer was the agreement with St Johnstone that allowed Richard Brittain to tear up his pre-contract.

FURTHER NEEDS: Adams has himself identified a "15 goal a season striker" as a priority.  Otherwise the squad looks pretty well set.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Steve Banks (Dundee United), Brian Easton (Dundee), Dylan Easton (Berwick Rangers), Gary McDonald (Morecambe), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Weaker; new boss Tommy Wright has been left with a huge hole in midfield to fill after Liam Craig and Murray Davidson left.  I don't see journeyman McDonald filling that gap.  Striker Rowan Vine wasn't offered a new deal, but Gregory Tade's decision to leave caught the club off guard.  On the other hand, Brian Easton could be the long term successor to Callum Davidson at left back, while Wotherspoon is a decent wide midfielder who may benefit from a new start after not quite fulfilling his potential at Easter Road.

FURTHER NEEDS: At least one striker, and that's providing that Wright believes Stevie May is ready for a crack at the SPFL after scoring for fun while on loan in the lower leagues.  Another central and a left-sided midfielder are probably needed too.


SIGNINGS SO FAR: Kealan Dillon (Hull City), Christopher Dilo (Blackburn Rovers), Gary Harkins (Dundee), David Cornell (Swansea City, loan)

STRONGER OR WEAKER? Probably as strong up front after holding on to Paul McGowan and bringing in Harkins from Dundee (although Esmael Goncalves has left), but they will miss Newcastle loanees Paul Dummett and Conor Newton.  The loss of goalkeeper Craig Samson to Kilmarnock is offset by the arrival of Welsh international Cornell on loan.

FURTHER NEEDS: I'd be surprised if Danny Lennon didn't look for another target man to back up veteran Steven Thompson.  We may yet see Dummett and Newton back, but if they don't return then a left back and a midfielder will be needed.  Another centre-back would be a bonus in case Darren McGregor isn't ready to return from long-term injury.

1. Celtic
2. Aberdeen
3. Dundee United
4. Inverness CT
5. St. Johnstone
6. Motherwell
7. Ross County
8. St. Mirren
9. Hibernian
10. Kilmarnock
11. Partick
12. Hearts

There's a long way to go, folks...


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Motherwell decimated

Stuart McCall can, and should, look back on the last couple of years with a huge feeling of pride.

His first full seasons in charge at Fir Park saw Motherwell come third, and earn a Champions League spot when Rangers ultimately self-destructed.  In 2012-13, they pushed on, and were thoroughly deserving of their second place.  The Steelmen were defined by their outstanding attacking play, and their ability to score pretty much all manner of goals.  Michael Higdon, previously little more than an immobile, pondering target man good only for a few headers and roughing up defenders, scored 27 goals and was named Player of the Year.  His physical presence was beautifully complemented by the pace and workrate of Estonian forward Henrik Ojamaa.

The front men were hardly short of ammunition.  Chris Humphrey on the right flank was probably the fastest player in the SPL over the last few seasons; the Jamaican international, often so frustrating, finally displayed some consistent form and terrorized full-backs all year long.  On the opposite side, January arrival James McFadden provided the spark of flair and excitement that we forever associate with his golden days in a Scotland shirt - dare I say that, by the end of May, he was starting to look quite close to the McFadden of old?  And in the centre of midfield, the shaven-headed Nicky Law might have been the most critical cog of all, always a threat with his late runs into the box or his eye for a pass.

Motherwell scored 3 or more goals in thirteen SPL games last season.

They did concede a rather whopping 51 goals in the league as well, with only 7 clean sheets...but with an attack like that, why worry about defence?

Here's a reason; out of the five players I have mentioned so far, how many are under contract for next season?  Zero.

Ojamaa has moved to Polish side Legia Warsaw.  Humphrey signed for Preston North End.  Law, as had been rumoured for several months, was lured to Ibrox - for the prestige of playing East Fife, obviously.  Higdon and McFadden have yet to sign new deals, and neither are at pre-season training.  McCall is resigned to the departure of the former, though has stated that "the door is open" for McFadden to return to the club that first gave him his chance of first team football.  It seems likely, though, that Fadders is sitting at home and willing his phone to ring - perhaps a club from The Championship might take a chance on him staying fit for long enough to contribute, or, more likely, a call from Neil Lennon offering him a move to Celtic Park.  Either option would result in a contract offer far and away above what Motherwell could afford, even if they ploughed the proceeds from Ojamaa's sale - about £200,000 - into a contract for their talisman.

The backline, fragile already, has been weakened further with the loss of the outstanding Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph to Birmingham, while right-back Tom Hateley has left as well.  Hateley wasn't always brilliant defensively - he still clearly hankers after his preferred midfield role - but he was useful going forward and his dead ball skills easily made up for his other deficiencies.

In conclusion, seven of Stuart McCall's first choice XI at the end of last season appear to be either gone or going.  That's quite a turnover.

Not that the manager hasn't been actively trying to find replacements.  Higdon was once considered by Motherwell fans to be "the poor man's John Sutton" - now the boot is on the other foot.  Sutton, two years after leaving Fir Park for Hearts, returns for a second spell.  It is debatable however whether his confidence can be restored after two soul-destroying seasons at Tynecastle.  Paul Lawson and Iain Vigurs arrive from Dingwall; the former will provide some grit in midfield and some protection for the defence that was sorely lacking last season, while the latter had a breakthrough season at Ross County in 2012-13 and will replace some of the midfield creativity that has been lost.  Faroese goalie Gunnar Nielsen can't be too shabby if he was kept on at Manchester City for four years (though he only played one match); he joins up five years after a loan spell at Fir Park where he didn't play a game.  And, lastly, Fraser Kerr has made his loan move from Birmingham permanent, though his fleeting appearances last season suggest he is one for the future, not the present.

Undoubtedly, there will be further signings.  If ex-Celtic man Stephen McManus, currently training with the club, signs on, things will look a lot rosier.  It's not beyond the realms of possibility that McFadden could follow his heart and return to a club where the fans see him as a deity.  But, given that probably more than half the starting lineup will not have played together in a competitive game before the campaign starts with a Europa League tie on August 1, there's likely to be a rocky period whilst they take time to gel.

McCall will have seen this coming - despite this upheaval, he turned down the Sheffield United job last month, so he must fancy he can still keep Motherwell towards the top end of the table.  But the first few months of the campaign could be very difficult as new players get bedded in, and at the moment it would be a surprise if McCall and Motherwell keep their tag as "the best of the rest" when 2013-14 gets going.