Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Should we support Celtic in Europe?

Tonight's game against Shakhter Karagandy is a heck of a big one for Celtic.  Last season, Neil Lennon's side progressed from a very difficult group which included Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow, before losing to Juventus in the last 16.  As a consequence they made £22 million - about £13 million from prize money, and the rest from TV cash.

After an abject defeat in Kazakhstan last week, the Bhoys have to overcome a two goal deficit at home just to make the group stage.  Succeed, and the rewards will be £16 million minimum.  Fail, and that minimum figure drops to £3.6 million, as the Europa League is very much the Champions' League's poorer cousin.  They could yet increase that sum with a decent run in the secondary competition, but given that the money received for a group stage win in the Europa League is only 20% of that for the equivalent win in the Champions League, the resultant income would be much lower.  Even if they were to win the Europa League, they would still make less than they would have for making the group stages of the Champions League.

If Celtic screw up, there will also be a knock-on effect on Scotland's UEFA coefficient, which of course determines how many European places we get.  It has slumped in recent years.  So far this season, Motherwell and Hibernian added a grand total of nothing to the co-efficient, which is an average of the results all our clubs get on the continental stage.  St. Johnstone contributed a bit, but not much.  Celtic would doubtless pick up a few extra wins in the Europa League group stage, but these would be worth considerably less than equivalent Champions League results.

In my experience, for the most part Scottish football fans - other than those with allegiances to the opposite half of the Old Firm, generally support Scottish sides in Europe - if our teams screw up consistently, we end up with fewer European places.  Personally, I cheered when Rangers made the UEFA Cup final in 2008, and hoped Celtic would win the equivalent tournament in 2003.  I took great joy in watching Aberdeen make the knockout stages of the Europa League under Jimmy Calderwood, and I was delighted by St. Johnstone's victory over Rosenborg.

But is it really in Scottish football's interests for Celtic to make the Champions League group stages?

I already mentioned the lower prize money for taking part in the Europa League - well, it's even lower for the qualifying rounds.  Motherwell got about £120,000 for qualifying for the tournament, as they were dumped out at the first hurdle by Russians Kuban Krasnodar.  The cost of chartering a plane to fly there was £180,000 alone.  Even with the income from the home leg, it's likely that they made a loss.  The same goes for St. Johnstone, who had to pay through the nose to keep the local airport open to fly them home, and to get fast-tracked visas when they played FC Minsk.  Going to Norway wasn't cheap either.  They definitely lost money on last year's tie with Eskisehilspor; they will be lucky to have made any back from this campaign.

The bottom line is that, unless you get a glamour tie like Hearts did with Liverpool last year, there is no cash to be had till you make the group stages.  And Scottish clubs now need to get through two or three ties against stronger opposition in order to get there.  The words "snowball", "chance" and "hell" come to mind.  In hindsight, coming fourth and missing out on Europe may turn out to be a stroke of luck for Caley Thistle, as it has potentially saved money and saved them from disruption to their pre-season that might have affected their domestic form.

So, I would argue that being in Europe, which really doesn't carry a lot of prestige bar the novelty value, really shouldn't be a concern to the non-Old Firm clubs.  What should concern them more is the potential for European football to widen the wealth gap between the Haves and the Have Nots - Celtic made £22 million last year, while the rest made diddly-squat.  So Celtic just become stronger, and the distance between them and the other Premiership teams grows further.  For us diddy fans, I'm not sure it will do us a lot of good if Celtic progress tonight.  What good does it do Scottish football, when none of it trickles down to the rest?  We should (and probably have) give up on any hope of continental success - it should be all about making the domestic league at least a teensiest bit more interesting.

L.

Monday, August 26, 2013

10 Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Danny Lennon takes the lead in the sack race
St. Mirren are a total shambles.  They used exactly the same tactics in Dingwall as they did when Ross County pumped them 4-1 last season...and not surprisingly, they were pumped again.  County are a far better side than their recent form suggested, but that should not detract from the sheer ineptitude of their opponents on Saturday.  Stuart Kettlewell's superb opener probably wasn't preventable, but the third goal, from the simplest short corner routine ever seen, was car crash stuff. 

The starting lineup itself was bizarre, with a central defender (Darren McGregor) at right back, a defensive midfielder (Jim Goodwin) in central defence, a central midfielder (Kenny McLean) on the left wing, and a second striker (Paul McGowan) in central midfield.  Gowser's talents in particular are being wasted just so Danny Lennon can fit the enigmatic Gary Harkins into the team, but the Buddies would be far better suited building their side around McGowan, a far superior player.  Just as worrying is that talismanic striker Steven Thompson suddenly looks very old indeed, while goalkeeper David Cornell has had a rough start to life in Scotland.

St. Mirren have now won only one out of the eleven games since they lifted the League Cup.  Their current squad just does not have the quality required, and there are increasing concerns that their manager doesn't know how to get the best out of them.  Danny Lennon needs to do significant business before the transfer window closes, or it could be a long season in Paisley, and he could be out of a job soon.


Glorious Hearts
If only Hearts could bottle some of that team spirit - plenty of other clubs would pay such good money for it that the financial problems at Tynecastle would disappear in a flash.  Adversity only seems to drive them on further, as shown by the response of their ten men to Aberdeen's equalizer.  It was a special moment for substitute defender Jordan McGhee, only 17 in July, who grabbed the winner and sent a boisterous and numerous Jambo support absolutely barmy.  Hearts are now only nine points adrift, and would be third in the table but for their points deduction.  Whilst their youngsters will inevitably have difficulty keeping this level of performance up, especially as injuries and suspensions mount, there is credibility to their belief that they can avoid relegation.


How good are Dundee United, and how good are St. Johnstone?
I was beginning to really fancy the Perth Saints for second place in the league - but they were absolutely smashed at Tannadice.  Tommy Wright's back four, normally so solid, was run ragged all afternoon.  I'm not sure the blame can be entirely put on goalkeeper Steve Banks, but the 41 year old did look very sluggish at a couple of the goals and has none of the presence of the injured Alan Mannus.

Traditionally, St Johnstone do get a doing from Dundee United at least once a season.  After a poor opening to the campaign, Jackie McNamara's side clicked beautifully, with Gary Mackay-Steven putting in a virtuoso display.  Jackie Mac will be dreading the possibility that another club will make an offer he can't refuse for the wonderful winger before the transfer window closes.  I still think United's defence is dodgy, but that front four is delightful and if they can be kept together, it could yet be a very good year for the Arabs.


How far is Neil Lennon from a crisis?
You had to feel for Celtic and their manager at the weekend - their injury problems left them severely weakened to the point where they could only field eight internationals in their starting lineup (the other three players, incidentally, were Fraser Forster, Amido Balde and Tony Watt).  Worryingly, the same defensive frailties exposed by Shakhter Karagandy, including a inability to defend long throws, were fully evident once more.  Virgil Van Dijk - presumably not used to coping without his brothers Scott, Alan, Gordon and John (arf, arf, arf) was partnered by Efe Ambrose this time rather than Steven Mouyokolo, but each of these central defenders looks like a bombscare.  It has been said before that an Old Firm manager is always only three games from a crisis - if Celtic can't turn around their Champions League tie this week, then Lennon might be under the teensiest bit of pressure.

Spurious stat of the week: Celtic have only been in the lead for 4 minutes in the league so far this season when they have been playing eleven men.


Scott Vernon is a shadow of his former self
The English striker scored 28 goals in his first two seasons at Pittodrie, but now has scored only 4 goals in his last 46 league appearances dating back to March 2012.  A spell in central midfield last season, a role for which he was ill-suited, appeared to wreck his confidence, but he was handed his first start of the season at Tynecastle on Saturday and found himself in excellent goalscoring position more than a few times...only to fluff the lot.  Given the big hulk that is Calvin Zola proved far more effective when brought off the bench, it may be a while before Vernon will get another chance to stake his claim.


Maybe Allan Johnston should stick with the kids
Kenny Shiels thought the Kilmarnock kids were good enough; his successor, who deployed six summer signings in his lineup against Hibs - only one of whom, Celtic loanee Jackson Irvine, is under 25 - clearly disagrees.  He also appears to have ditched the attractive passing game that graced Rugby Park in recent seasons for something far more direct, a decision which is not paying dividends so far.  Whilst veteran Barry Nicholson showed he still has it with a wondrous goal, the jury is out on the others so far after a defeat that leaves Killie winless so far this season.  Out of their recent youth team graduates, only Mark O'Hara played.  Maybe Magic should give the youngsters another go?


Motherwell are a long way away from where they want to be
There isn't really much new to say here after this ditchwater-dull encounter - Partick were stuffy again but lacked quality in the final third once more, while Stuart McCall's side were not drastically better than last week against Inverness, despite the positive result.  Interestingly, McCall left Iain Vigurs and Paul Lawson on the bench after poor performances last time out, and at one point in this game they had two full-backs, Zaine Francis-Angol and Fraser Kerr, playing as wingers.  As I've stated previously, they need to bring in new players this week if they are to challenge for the top six this season.


Referee Watch
Obivously my main gripe was with Craig Thomson, who waved away a very decent ICT penalty claim in the second half, as Van Dijk appeared to barge Doran over.  But it's too much to expect officials to give penalties to the away side at Celtic Park ;-).  It was a much harder day at the office for Alan Muir, who sent off Kevin McHattie and gave Aberdeen a spot kick that goes in the 'mebbes aye, mebbes naw' category (McHattie gets the ball but appears to be giving Zola a hug that bordered on groping), but then booked serial diver Peter Pawlett for diving when he had clearly been poleaxed by Jamie Walker.  Muir also missed what appeared to be a foul on keeper Nicky Weaver at Hearts' winner, and finished his fine day's work by sending Dons boss Derek McInnes and Hearts assistant Billy Brown to the stand.  Rumours that Brown was "strugglin, strugglin" to climb the stairs have not been confirmed (if you don't get that joke, please look up Billy Brown on Youtube immediately).  Except Muir might not actually have been finished...


Funny stuff
...if it is indeed true that Hearts captain Danny Wilson was sent off in the tunnel after the match for shouting "Get it round ye, ye sheep-s****ing bastards!" at Aberdeen players, (and it hasn't been confirmed yet at the time of writing) then that is both the most terrific and the mosr stupid reason for getting a red card I've heard for a while...


And not so funny stuff
I was incredulous when my mum told me the Caley Thistle supporters bus gets a police escort from the motorway to Celtic Park - how pathetic that this should be the case.  Yet it is clearly justified, as said bus - on which my mum was a passenger - was attacked by missiles including a brick after the match.  Thankfully the plexiglass held and no-one was hurt.  For the record, our supporters bus does not contain drunken teenage 'ultras' (I use the word with disdain) - it is mostly a mixture of middle aged women, children and an elderly man who travels with an oxygen cylinder.  On this occasion, it actually also had on board some Celtic fans whose vehicle had broken down on the way south from Fraserburgh, and who had been offered a lift and some Highland hospitality.  I can only live in hope that the hooligan responsible for this is tracked down, and that his weapon of choice is inserted into him in such away that he becomes the first person to literally s*** bricks.

L.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Brittain saga should teach us fans a lesson

Diane Brittain's blog should, I hope, open a few eyes.

To recap: her husband, Ross County captain and stalwart Richard Brittain, signed a pre-contract with St. Johnstone in January.  Within weeks, he had made public his wish to tear that agreement up and to remain in the Highlands.

Many - including myself, I'm ashamed to say - were sceptical as to the reason for the change of heart.  After all, Ross County's chairman, Roy McGregor, is the closest thing the Highlands has to Rich Uncle Pennybags.  Had the skipper's head been turned by a better offer?  (Of course, the rest of us are entitled to change jobs for more money, but when footballers do it?  Outrage!) Brittain's own coyness, telling the press only that there were 'personal reasons' behind it, and St. Johnstone's resistance to the request - without more information, it's only fair to give them the benefit of the doubt over how much or little they knew - only added to the intrigue.

Therefore, for most of this year, Brittain has been the target of a lot of what might generously be called 'stick'; in many cases, it was vitriolic abuse.  It's not hard to find plenty of examples of this on message boards and on twitter.  Of course, the truth is a bit sobering; Brittain's wife, who is from the North, suffered badly from postnatal depression.  Given they had just had a baby, it made rather more sense to stay in an environment where she could be surrounded by supportive family members.  There will be plenty of folk out there, some of whom are from a different generation, some of whom are just ignorant morons, who will scoff at this; hopefully, most fans are more enlightened and appreciate how unpleasant suffering from depression can be.

Of course, the Brittains were entitled to keep this private; on the one hand it is courageous that Diane has waived that right in order to draw a line under the matter, but on the other hand it is terribly distressing that she felt she had to.  Depression is hard enough to deal with; imagine trying to cope with it whilst your family are getting targeted by internet trolls.  I bet most of them aren't as quick to apologize as they are to criticize.

What is particularly galling is the hypocrisy of the Scottish media regarding the issue; plenty of journalists have come out today lauding Diane Brittain and making reference to the abuse the couple received, when frankly this story and the resultant ire was well and truly stoked by hacks who made a big deal out of publicizing the story and kept it in the spotlight for weeks.  Hopefully they feel a bit of shame.  I doubt it though.

As a little aside, anyone who recently watched the BBC documentary on depression in football, or who has read The Secret Footballer's book, will be increasingly aware of the fact that mental health is an issue amongst footballers.  It's hardly surprising - imagine how well you would deal with random people shouting unpleasant things at you in your workplace, either about your competence, or your body shape, or your family?  Maybe you think it's all part and parcel of the game.  In that case, please justify for me the chants I witnessed first-hand by several thousand Sunderland fans of "We wish you were dead" at Newcastle's Steven Taylor last season.

For the love of Pete, it's only a game.

Sadly, even if the supporter in the stands was to show a little more enlightenment, the age of social media has resulted in an invisible army of keyboard warriors, who feel they can say anything and everything they want without fear of retribution.

Thankfully, the Brittains are a thick skinned bunch.  More power to them, I say.

L.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

I doubt this will become a regular feature...but it seemed to work okay last week and there's enough decent material to do it again this week, so let's see how it goes!

What's gone wrong at Ross County?

Even when the Staggies weren't playing well last season, they never rolled over like they did in Perth on Saturday.  The first two defeats of the season could be blamed on an experimental formation and the absence of Richie Brittain and Ivan Sproule, but Derek Adams offered no excuses after the third loss in succession, though his claims that St. Johnstone are "are not the prettiest guys but they do the ugly side of the game very well" goes in the 'damning with faint praise' category.

A major concern will be the defence, which was an area of strength for County last season; however only one member of the back four from the first half of 2013 - Scott Boyd - started at McDiarmid Park.  The decision to leave out Mihael Kovacevic, one of the best right-backs in the league last season, was baffling.

I still expect County to come good, as Adams has proven before that he can identify and fix problems, but they need to get going pronto if they are to repeat last season's top six finish.  The visit of St. Mirren to Dingwall next weekend would be a good time to start playing.


Tommy Wright must think this management lark is easy

Take away that disappointing loss to Minsk - where St. Johnstone were booted off the park - and the former Northern Ireland keeper has had a phenomenal start after replacing Steve Lomas.  The results and the performances are still coming, and Wright carries none of the baggage of his predecessor.  It's all looking very rosy indeed.


Jamie Langfield should have just let Georgios Samaras score

I fully expected TV replays to show the Greek striker leaving his feet behind to win the spot kick at Pittodrie - in fact, he didn't need to, as Aberdeen's keeper clumsily tripped him with his right hand.  Clangers has enough experience to know better.  Aberdeen would still have been one down had Samaras scored, but they would still have had eleven men and a chance to get something from the match.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels that backup Nicky Weaver is a superior goalkeeper, and he will now get his chance to prove it.


Scott Robertson may not have done Hibs any favours

The midfielder's late strike earned the Hibees their first point - and their first goal - of the season, but in the long term it may delay the inevitable exit of Pat Fenlon.  The stick he got from the home support when they went behind - and when he moved Lewis Stevenson to right-back again (the utility man has been torched on multiple occasions when playing in that position this season) - just adds to the impression that the game is up for the beleaguered boss.  There will be no turnaround at Easter Road until the current manager has gone.


Partick are a goalscorer away from being a really good team

Friday night's BBC Alba broadcast was the first time I've got to watch the Harry Wraggs this season, and I couldn't help being impressed by their tidy midfield interchanges and their ability to get their full-backs into threatening wide areas.  But a lack of firepower in the final third prevented them from converting their dominance of Hearts into goals.  Kris Doolan and John Baird are hard-working forwards but neither will get into double figures this season.  That said, Partick would have won had they not switched off after scoring and let Jamie Walker waltz through to equalize - a reminder that top flight teams will punish them for losing concentration.


Kilmarnock may not be crippled by Kris Boyd's absence

Criticizing the former Rangers striker's lack of work-rate brings me dangerously close to a Monty Python "what have the Romans ever done for us?"-type rant, given he's scored both Kilmarnock's goals this season.  But his sending-off yesterday for punching Jim Goodwin (yes, we've all wanted to do that at some point) will probably mean a two match ban, and it will be intriguing to see if Killie are more effective in attack with the rather more industrious Paul Heffernan as the focal point, as Heffernan has proven before that he can play the lone striker role effectively and bring his teammates into the game.


It doesn't get any better for Inverness

I suspect managers adore Saturday afternoons where their team is two up at half-time and are able to coast through the second half in second gear, as Caley Thistle did against Motherwell.  ICT are yet to drop a point or concede a goal...but that record is unlikely to last beyond next weekend, when they travel to Celtic Park.  It's fun seeing my team sit at the top of the table, but it can't last...can it?


McFadden and Vigurs are being wasted

Motherwell are very tidy indeed at passing the ball in their own half...but in contrast to last year their attacking play on Saturday was alarmingly one-dimensional, focused on long balls to John Sutton.  As stated last week, Stuart McCall needs wide players, and he needs them immediately; instead he had to deploy Iain Vigurs on one touchline and James McFadden on the other.  Both are talented players, but both were utterly wasted in those positions - the former was in fact a liability as he failed to track David Raven's marauding runs from right back.  Motherwell will be a much better side when they can get the duo into the thick of the action.


Gary Harkins has a grudge against Kilmarnock

Harkins had a pretty disappointing 18 month spell at Rugby Park which ended last January; he starred and scored in a victory for Dundee there at the end of last season and popped up with another strike against his former club for St. Mirren yesterday.  Danny Lennon needs to hypnotize him and make him believe he's playing against Kilmarnock every week.


What does it take to attract fans to games?

2,800 at St. Johnstone, 3,000 at Inverness (250 of which were Motherwell fans) - don't the people of Perth and Inverness realize how special their local teams are right now?  It doesn't help, of course, that ticket prices remain extortionate - £26 to get a main stand ticket at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.  If fans won't pay through the nose to support their team when the going is this good, then they never will.

L.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Optimism Abounds!

Any Scottish football fan will tell you that it's the hope that kills you.

But the performance and narrow defeat at Wembley, following on from that sensational win in Croatia in June, will inevitably give members of the Tartan Army a strange feeling they've not had for a while.  It's called 'optimism'.

A wee note of caution here - our back four is still absolutely horrendous.  Given the injured Gary Caldwell's poor 2012-13, the defence on Wednesday was probably Strachan's first choice quartet, yet it included a right-back playing at left-back, a right-back who has been frozen out by his club, a centre-back who can only get a game for his club at right-back, and Grant Hanley, for whom the greatest accolade bestowable is that of being the second ugliest player in the national squad (after Leigh Griffiths, of course).  And that pumping the under-21s got at Bramall Lane suggests that we haven't got any new faces coming through any time soon.

But we've come on leaps and bounds under Strachan.  The organization of the side is far superior than it was under Mister Four-Six-Oh - whatever you do, don't talk to Tell Him He's Pele writer John Maxwell about the shape of the central midfield when Levein was in charge, or he'll go on about it for hours - and, unlike his predecessor, he's gone for the novel approach of using players in roles that suit them, which must be a relief to Shaun Maloney.  Having a 34 year old centre forward is not ideal, though much humble pie has been scoffed after that stunner of a goal from Kenny Miller, but Steven Fletcher probably offers an upgrade in this area when he returns.

It's a dangerous thing, optimism.  But I'm more confident about Scotland making it to Euro 2016 than I have been since about 2009.  To be fair, I think the chances are now 'slim-to-middling' rather than 'virtually nil', but it's a start.  And lets face it, I am a cynical bugger.

If you're a Scotland fan who also happens to support Aberdeen, then right now you're probably so optimistic that you expect all your lottery numbers to come up this weekend as well.

To be fair, I'm at least as excited about their lunchtime kickoff on Saturday as I am about Caley Thistle's game against Motherwell (more on that later).  Derek McInnes' Dons have six points out of six.  They looked good in beating Kilmarnock on opening day, and then came from behind to record a deserved win at Fir Park last weekend, even without the injured Barry Robson.  They've looked good defensively, with largely the same solid back four from last season, and, unlike in recent times, they are very dangerous going forward.  Jonny Hayes looks back to his best, while it is just possible that Peter Pawlett, a useful winger when he isn't diving, is beginning to live up to his potential.

Oh yeah, and Niall McGinn appears to be just as potent as he was last season.

After this impressive start to the season, Pittodrie looks set to be sold out for the third game of the campaign.  The opponents?  A certain team from Glasgow, of course...(no, not Partick Thistle).

When I was a student in Aberdeen, I remember there being one or two occasions like this, where the team were in good form, at the top end of the league, and the numbers at home games would skyrocket.  And when the Old Firm came up, there would be a huge demand for tickets.  If the fans start getting optimistic, they start going to matches.  The trouble is, of course, that when the team plays crap, they stop coming - as we saw with some of the rotten attendances last season.

It's a real opportunity for Aberdeen, this - a win on Saturday would be a huge success.  Heck, some of the fans might come back.  In 2002, the Dons finished top four, and won nine home games in a row at one point.  I was at a home win over Livingston in May where the attendance was 19,000!  And not many of them were Livi fans...

And it is, I suppose, as good a time to play Celtic as any.  Many players have been on international duty this week.  They have an away game in Kazakhstan on Tuesday night, and the players hop straight onto an 8 hour flight after the Aberdeen clash.  And we know that, last season, the Bhoys were most vulnerable before and after European games.

That said, Celtic are still the favourites.  An away win would puncture the Aberdeen bubble pretty spectacularly.  After they return from Kazakhstan, they host Inverness, who are, at the time of writing, the only other team with maximum points from two matches.

So much for predictions that ICT would struggle without Andrew Shinnie.  They were sluggish early on against St. Mirren but destroyed the Paisley side in the second half (aided by some of the worst defending in the history of the universe, to be fair), then won at Tannadice far more convincingly than the 1-0 scoreline suggests.  Terry Butcher has managed to compensate for Shinnie's departure by using new signing Jamie Vincent in a more advanced role.  Vincent doesn't have the same level of flair, or the ability to create something out of nothing, but he is powerful, quick, industrious, and has the knack of consistently being in the right place when an attack develops. 

Terry Butcher's insistence on pressing teams high up the pitch, and the pace in the forward line, make them very difficult to play against, especially when chasing the game.  Their defence, very underrated last season, has started this campaign with two clean sheets, which isn't too shabby considering they only managed back-to-back clean sheets once in the league in 2012-13.

The bottom line is that, as a Caley Thistle fan, I'm also in real danger of becoming optimistic about the season ahead.  Saturday afternoon sees a home game against Motherwell, who are always difficult opponents but are clearly less frightening than last season.  At least two-thirds of my brain keeps telling me that James McFadden is due a performance.  If that happens, that 100% record probably goes down the pan.  If it doesn't, ICT could travel to Celtic Park as the side top of the SPFL.

Hey, a guy can dream!

On the other hand, if Celtic win their next two games, beating the sides who have started the new season most promisingly, despite having to chop and change the side as a result of their Champions League obligations, then, frankly, that little smidgeon of hope that there might be a title race will be well and truly snuffed out.  And it won't even be the end of August...

L.

Monday, August 12, 2013

10 Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Pat Fenlon will be lucky to last the week...but who would replace him?
It was the same story as last week for Hibs - the team was set up for no purpose other than to 'try not to lose', and their failure - or refusal - to try to take the Edinburgh derby by the scruff of the neck was their downfall, just as it was against Motherwell last time out.  The contrast with Hearts' spirit and determination could not have been more stark.  Pat Fenlon's departure is now inevitable, but, as is his right, he will wait to be sacked with a decent pay-off rather than walk away from the mess at Easter Road.  The club may regret splashing £200,000 on James Collins which could have been spent on dismissing the coaching staff.

Rod Petrie needs to decide damn quick whether to stick by the Irishman or not - there are less than three weeks of the transfer window left, and there is a danger that the new man - like Fenlon and Colin Calderwood before him - will have to struggle with his predecessor's squad for a few months before making substantial January reinforcements.  And surely a few candidates for the job would be put off by that prospect...though Jimmy Calderwood would probably take the job on regardless...

Hearts win at a cost
Given their transfer embargo, Hearts cannot afford to lose players to injuries; worryingly, Ryan Stevenson went down with a damaged knee early in Sunday's game.  His versatility is critical to the squad, who, without him, would have only one remaining outfield player aged over 23.

Referees are having an auspicious start to the season
It is often said that you can tell when the referee has had a good game because no-one's bothered mentioning him.  Unfortunately we've already had our fair share of dodgy decisions in the first fortnight of the new season.  Dundee United were left feeling aggrieved after ICT's Richie Foran saw only yellow for a rather reckless challenge on Gary Mackay-Steven, though cynics might point out Calum 'bite your legs' Butcher's pair of outrageous tackles against Partick last week, which led to only one booking instead of the two red cards and penalty kick that they should have been punished with, and suggest that what goes around comes around.  Meanwhile, twenty-four hours after the match finished, no-one has worked out yet why Aberdeen were awarded a second spot-kick at Fir Park.

Impatience at Tannadice
It's understandable that United fans expect better than a 1-0 thrashing by Inverness - for that's what it was - but it came as a shock to see Chris Erskine's substitution cheered by the home fans after 63 minutes of his competitive home debut.  Erskine had a poor game, but the winger was impervious for Partick last season, and deserves more time to impress.  It was noticeable that his higher-paid and considerably more lazy teammate, David Goodwillie, got far less stick despite missing a sitter and failing to break a sweat in 90 minutes.

Can ICT keep Billy McKay beyond the end of August?
Many thought the Northern Irish striker's goal return would drop after Andrew Shinnie left Inverness, but two goals in two games suggest otherwise.  His strike on Saturday was gorgeous, a lovely deft touch which left Sean Dillon floundering followed by a cushioned flick past Radoslaw Ciernziak.  Last week's clever glancing back-header to score against St. Mirren was of extremely high quality as well.  With him scoring like this, surely there's bound to be interest in his services from bigger clubs - I'm just relieved that we have him under contract till 2015.

Underestimate Partick at your peril
Of all teams, Ross County should know not to expect an easy ride against newly-promoted opposition.  Yet Derek Adams chose to persist with his 5-4-1 experiment - an unusual tactical gaffe by Adams, given Partick play just one striker - and got his fingers burned badly.  Steven Lawless, a regular scorer in the first division last year despite playing wide, came up with a brace and the 3-1 final score was generous to County.  The consolation for the Staggies is the return next weekend of Richie Brittain and Ivan Sproule from suspension - they have been badly, badly missed.

Partick have started smartly indeed.  They welcome Hearts to Firhill on Friday night.  Before this weekend, Gary Locke would have pencilled that in as a must-win game if the Jambos are to avoid relegation.  Even on the back of a derby win, they may feel a bit different about it now.

Motherwell are too slow
Steven Lawless scored a brace for Partick in Dingwall; Motherwell could really do with a player like him...but they let Lawless leave a couple of years ago.  Stuart McCall has said himself that his side no longer possess the speed in attack that Chris Humphrey and Henrik Ojamaa provided last season, especially as James McFadden has clearly lost a step (and worryingly, started the season with a bit of a whimper).  Motherwell's stop-gap solution is to play quick full-back Zaine Francis-Angol is a more advanced role, which, despite his potential, is simply insufficient for a team expecting a top six finish.  Expect McCall to work very hard to find a pacey winger or two in the next couple of weeks.

Are Aberdeen the real deal?
Maximum points so far and a win away to last season's 'best of the rest' can only build up the hopes of the Pittodrie support.  Next up?  Celtic at home.  Last season, Craig Brown's side went into that fixture on the back of a good start to the season, but were beaten with ease and never really looked the same again.  But I'd expect a bumper home crowd for this one, and a good result and performance for the Dons would probably guarantee bumper home crowds for a few games afterwards as well.

European hangovers
Motherwell  rested John Sutton, James McFadden and Iain Vigurs rather than take them to Russia for a European match which was effectively a dead rubber - and a fat lot of good it did them.  On the other hand, St Johnstone looked leggy at Rugby Park and were lucky to escape with a point.  Allan Johnston will look at it as an opportunity missed as he searches for his first win as Kilmarnock boss, though he will be reassured that Kris Boyd looks as sharp in the penalty-box as ever, even if his girth has left him about as mobile as a wheelie-bin.

Friendly advantage
Last season showed Celtic are at their most vulnerable after European matches.  Following their unimpressive draw in Sweden in midweek, they should have been facing a tricky trip to Paisley...but the league, as agreed in previous years, instead let them play a money-spinning friendly instead.  So the club earn more cash, put off an awkward away game, and (since they played a second choice team in Dublin against Liverpool) get to rest their players for an extra few days.  How is this fair on the other 11 teams in the league?

I've no problem with Celtic pulling out of league games to play friendlies...as long as the matches they miss are awarded as 3-0 wins to the opposition.  The SPFL is now, allegedly, a league for 42 teams, but this rule is purely for the benefit of the Gruesome Twosome.

(That said, St. Mirren were so dreadful last week that they won't have been sorry that this game has been postponed!)

L.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lack of SPFL sponsor is unacceptable

At long last, Scottish football sorted itself out this summer!

Now we have all the things we need for our national game to become great once again - merger of the league bodies, more evenly distributed prize money, the beginnings of a pyramid system - if only we had a ten team top flight, Henry McLeish would even be able to sleep at night...

So, the start of the 2013/14 season heralds a Great New Dawn for the Scottish Professional Football League.  Everyone can agree on that, right?

It seems like the fans aren't the only ones who are taking all this bluster with a pinch of salt.  Sponsors are, too.

The first round of top flight games is already over, yet the league still does not have title sponsorship.  Given that the SPL (Clydesdale Bank) and the SFL (Irn Bru) managed to each have their own sponsors last season, this is a bit of a surprise.

It should certainly be a surprise to Neil Doncaster and the rest of the SPFL board.  Back in mid-June, Doncaster proudly told the press that the new league would "enhance the value of being associated with football in this country".  At that point, nearly two months ago, he claimed "the discussions on a new title sponsor remain ongoing".  By the beginning of July, he was very bullish.  “There is considerable new interest.  Over the last few days we have been contacted by a number of companies in terms of a title sponsorship and other partnership agreements.”

That optimism appears to have been misplaced.  Or, possibly, to have been bulls***.

Not to worry, though, for The Powers That Be came up with a solution that couldn't possibly fail - rename the leagues.  Because 'The Scottish Professional Football League Premiership' is a really snappy title for a product.  Rewind 50 years, and 'the Premiership' was a title that leading Soviet politicians used to kill each other in order to obtain.  Now, it's the name of a league that, in every single parallel universe in existence, is won by Celtic.  How times change.

The lower tiers, have, imaginatively, been named 'The Championship', 'League One' and 'League Two'.  When pressed on this, Doncaster claimed weeks of discussion had taken place before this decision.  One can only hope he was lying - if it took them weeks to decide that the best they could do was copy the names of England's divisions and try and piggy-back on their established brand, then that is a little worrying.  I can't help feeling that, if he had held a Consultation Group in a children's primary school looking for new names, they'd have thought of that.  If you're going to put that little effort in, at least call the top division The Celtic Always Win The League - at least it would do what it said on the tin.

The new names for the divisions, and the rather cheesy new logo, have still failed to tempt a sponsor to part with their hard-earned cash.

But it's okay.  In June and July, the potential increase in sponsorship money was a major reason for reform.  Now, according to Doncaster, it's not actually essential - "More than 90% of the income is from broadcasting.  And title sponsorship is only a part of the remaining 10%".

If nothing else, the man can at least boast that he has chutzpah.

I strongly suspect the proportion of income from a title sponsor to be much higher than that.  If I'm right, the lack of one will have a significant impact on prize money.  Given that financial redistribution was one of the reasons for forming the SPFL, it's going to look bloody stupid giving everyone bigger slices of cake if the cake has actually got smaller.

Putting aside my pathological cynicism for a moment, this summer's reforms were, on the face of it at least, a chance for a new beginning.  But Doncaster and his cronies have stuck to 'promoting' the product in the same old way - through banal statements stinking of spin rather than transparency, which couldn't inspire less trust if they came from the mouth of the Iraqi Information Minister.

The recent launch of the SPFL saw Doncaster joined by Graeme Souness and John Collins.  The main topic of discussion?  Not the summer's transfer activity.  Not who could challenge Celtic on the field, or, at least, who would be best of the rest.  The main topic was how much they liked the f*****g logo.

Over the last couple of weeks, we've had a rare fillip - St. Johnstone's outstanding run in the Europa League.  More than seven thousand people went to the second leg of the Rosenborg tie.  If anyone at the SPFL had any public relations expertise, they would have tried to jump on the back of that and claim that the Perth Saints' shock win over the Norwegian champions was a sign that the quality of Scottish football is higher than some might believe, and that the support is still out there - heck, that statement might actually be more true than anything else they normally spout.  Instead, silence.  And because Scottish sports hacks make their living from being spoon-fed, I looked on the Scotsman website last Friday morning to see the report of the St Johnstone game well down their list of stories...below several articles about a certain third-tier Glasgow club, and two stories about Celtic (one of which was the report on their game with Elfsborg, a full 24 hours older than the St Johnstone game, and the other an interview with new signing Derk Boerrigter).

Plus ├ža change?

Whisper it, but Scottish football actually has a few things to shout about at the moment..

Only one or two, mind.

But if Doncaster and co could shout about these things, instead of spouting the usual crap, that might help.

L.

Friday, August 2, 2013

SPFL Premiership preview - St Mirren

St. Mirren FC's Crest
ST MIRREN

LAST SEASON: 11th, 41 points

NOTABLE INS: Kealan Dillon (Hull City), Christopher Dilo (Blackburn Rovers), Danny Grainger (Heart of Midlothian), Gary Harkins (Dundee), David Cornell (Swansea City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Graham Carey (Ross County), Lewis Guy (Carlisle United), Dougie Imrie (Greenock Morton), Sam Parkin (Exeter City), Sander Puri (York City), Craig Samson (Kilmarnock), Chris Smith (Stenhousemuir,), Paul Dummett (Newcastle United, end of loan), Esmael Goncalves (Rio Ave, end of loan), Conor Newton (Newcastle United, end of loan), Grant Adam

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Samson, Van Zanten, McAusland, Goodwin, Dummett, Teale, Newton, McLean, McGowan, Goncalves, Thompson

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: David Cornell, Christopher Dilo
Defenders: David Barron, Danny Grainger, Lee Mair, Marc McAusland, Darren McGregor, David Van Zanten, Mo Yaqub
Midfielders: Anton Brady, Kealan Dillon, Jim Goodwin, Gary Harkins, John McGinn, Kenny McLean, Jon Robertson, Gary Teale
Forwards: Paul McGowan, Thomas Reilly, Jack Smith, Steven Thompson

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Schemer PAUL MCGOWAN surprisingly turned down offers from down south to remain in Paisley for another year.  He was badly missed when injured last season and the Buddies can't afford to lose him for long periods of time.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Midfield player JOHN MCGINN came out of nowhere to become a first choice last season, and looks rather more mature and well-rounded than you'd expect from an 18 year old...or, at least, an 18 year old Scot!

THE SEASON AHEAD: St. Mirren won the League Cup last year, yet form dipped so alarmingly afterwards that they nearly got pulled into a relegation battle.  Was it just a case of downing tools early, or was the League Cup run an anomaly for a mediocre side?  In recent years, the only consistency about them has been their inconsistency.  The retention of Paul McGowan and arrival of Gary Harkins gives the Buddies plenty of potency in attack...providing Steven Thompson and Gary Teale continue to enjoy Indian summers.  Defensively, they should be all right providing Darren McGregor has recovered from his second cruciate rupture and can return to his pre-injury form, but if he breaks down again there doesn't seem to be much cover.

THE BEST XI?
football formations
With McGregor and Grainger not long back from serious knee injuries, Lennon could do with more defensive cover, especially as Barron and Mair appear to be persona non grata.  McAusland was great last season.  If Goodwin has to be moved back into defence, the midfield will be woefully short of steel, though McLean and McGinn are both outstanding young players who I expect to make a step forward this season.  The attack is well balanced, with Teale staying out on the right touchline and Harkins likely to come in off the left flank.  They can't afford McGowan or Thompson to get injured - at the time of writing there is no cover for either.  In goal, it'll be interesting to see if Swansea loanee Cornell - who has played for Wales under-21s - is an adequate replacement for Scotland squad keeper Samson.

THE BOSS: Danny Lennon would do well to note that the kudos from a League Cup triumph didn't last that long for Kenny Shiels at Kilmarnock.  His defendants will throw out cliches like "attractive style" and "working on a budget" but under his tenure St Mirren have been dreadful as often as they have been terrific, and players like Paul McGowan, Steven Thompson and Gary Teale are not being paid peanuts.  His first three seasons in charge have seen the club finish 11th, 8th, and 11th again; a repeat of last season's position now carries a risk of relegation and, if they look in danger of the drop, he will be quickly under pressure.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "Jekyll and Hyde"

PREDICTION: They'll no doubt be entertaining to watch, but it'll only take a couple of injuries to drastically weaken St. Mirren.  Another season of inconsistency beckons, but I love their front four and I think they'll make a wee step forward this season to EIGHTH.

L.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

SPFL Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

StJohnstoneFC crest.png
ST JOHNSTONE

LAST SEASON: 3rd, 56 points

NOTABLE INSSteve Banks (Dundee United), Brian Easton (Dundee), Dylan Easton (Berwick Rangers), Rory Fallon (Aberdeen), Gary McDonald (Morecambe), David Wotherspoon (Hibernian)

NOTABLE OUTSLiam Craig (Hibernian), Gregory Tade (CFR Cluj), Jonny Tuffey (Linfield, free), Rowan Vine (Hibernian), Mehdi Abeid (Newcastle United, end of loan), Michael Doughty (Queens Park Rangers, end of loan), Jamie Adams, David McCracken

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Mannus, Mackay, Wright, Anderson, C. Davidson, Millar, M. Davidson, CraigTadeVine, MacLean

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Steve Banks, Alan Mannus
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Callum Davidson, Brian Easton, Dave Mackay, Gary Miller, Tam Scobbie, Frazer Wright
MidfieldersLiam Caddis, Patrick Cregg, Murray Davidson, Gwion Edwards, Gary McDonald, Chris Millar, David Robertson, David Wotherspoon
ForwardsDylan Easton, Rory Fallon, Nigel Hasselbaink, Steven MacLean, Stevie May

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Outside of Perth, the exploits of ALAN MANNUS went largely under the radar last season, but the shotstopper had a tremendous campaign and was the main reason for the stinginess of the Perth Saints defence.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? He's banged in loads of goals in loan spells at Alloa and Hamilton over the last two seasons - will STEVIE MAY get the chance to do the same for his parent club?

THE SEASON AHEAD: One swallow may not make a summer, but victory over Rosenborg quickly removed any doubts about new coach Tommy Wright's abilities.  Add in the unexpected decision of Murray Davidson to return for another year and there's plenty of reason for optimism in Perth.  Whilst the departures of Liam Craig and Gregory Tade were a shame, the latter is replaceable and the former's exit will at least partly be covered by the arrival from Hibs of David Wotherspoon.  Davidson aside, there aren't many stand outs in this squad, but that didn't hold them back during the last two seasons.  They don't score all that many goals, but they concede so few that often one or two is enough to win games.

THE BEST XI?
football formations
Callum Davidson's playing commitments will reduce after he became the new assistant manager, so Scobbie and Easton will fight over the left back role.  Anderson and Wright have an excellent partnership and veteran Mackay is as solid a right-back as you'll find in this league.  I wasn't convinced by McDonald's arrival and Murray Davidson is a huge upgrade over him.  Cregg is the holding player.  Millar can play wide or through the centre but Wotherspoon is a more attacking option on the right.  Perhaps Edwards will get his chance on the elft, but maybe Hasselbaink will be used on that flank.  Maclean will play up front either on his own or occasionally partnered by May or Fallon in a 4-4-2.

THE BOSS: The club opted for continuity by appointing Lomas' assistant, Tommy Wright, as their fourth manager in six years.  He'll be doing well to emulate the success of his predecessors, who all went on to bigger things, but he got off to a flyer with that Europa League result.  The former Northern Ireland goalkeeper has previous managerial experience in his native country.  It's unlikely there will be big changes to the formation and style of last season, at least initially.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "Difficult to break down"

PREDICTION: The last two seasons, St. Johnstone have done far better than I expected.  This time around, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Another top six finish beckons, possibly as high as FOURTH.

L.

SPFL Premiership preview - Ross County

Ross County FC logo.svg
ROSS COUNTY

LAST SEASON: 5th, 53 points

NOTABLE INS: Graham Carey (St. Mirren), Melvin De Leeuw (Cambuur), Ben Gordon (Yeovil Town), Marc Klok (Utrecht), Kevin Luckassen (AZ Alkmaar), Darren Maatsen (Excelsior), Brian McLean (Dundee United), Steven Saunders (Motherwell)

NOTABLE OUTS: Mark Fotheringham (Notts County), Paul Gallacher (Partick Thistle), Andre Hainault (VfR Aalen), Paul Lawson (Motherwell), Iain Vigurs (Motherwell), Martin Scott (Hibernian, end of loan), Evangelos Oikonomou, Sam Morrow, Steffen Wohlfarth

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brown, Kovacevic, Munro, HainaultOikonomou, Quinn, Lawson, Brittain, Vigurs, Sproule, Wohlfarth

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Mark Brown, Michael Fraser
Defenders: Scott Boyd, Ben Gordon, Mihael Kovacevic, Brian McLean, Branislav Micic, Grant Munro, Steven Saunders
Midfielders: Richard Brittain, Graham Carey, Alex Cooper, Melvin De Leeuw, Stuart Kettlewell, Marc Klok, Darren Maatsen, Rocco Quinn
Forwards: Gary Glen, Kevin LuckassenStephen Ross, Ivan Sproule

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Having paid St Johnstone £40,000 to tear up his pre-contract, County need captain RICHARD BRITTAIN to produce the same quality, leadership and set-piece delivery he showed last time around, especially since Iain Vigurs has left.

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Pre-season reports of striker KEVIN LUCKASSEN have been very positive (from Tell Him He's Pele's John Maxwell, anyway) and County will be well chuffed if he is the answer to their quest for a goalscorer.

THE SEASON AHEAD: Last season went about as well as could be expected for the 2011-12 first division champions.  The first half of the campaign was all about grinding out results; some superb January business gave the team more of a cutting edge in attack and County went on a magnificent run which culminated in a deserved top six finish.  One suspects that Derek Adams didn't expect to lose so many important players this summer though - he'll have been disappointed to see regulars such as Iain Vigurs, Paul Lawson, Andre Hainault, Steffen Wohlfarth and Evangelos Ikonomou depart.  Adams has brought in some seasoned replacements, but also a quartet of Dutchmen - it'll be interesting to see how they do.  To St. Johnstone's chagrin and County's joy, Richard Brittain will remain in Dingwall this season, which can only be a good thing for the Staggies.  The problem will be up front - who will score the goals?

THE BEST XI?
football formations
 The defence has always been a strength and the arrivals of Ben Gordon, Steven Saunders (if he can stay fit) and Brian McLean make sure there is plenty of depth.  Up front is a bigger concern, with County's current options at centre-forward consisting of the underachieving Gary Glen and unknown Dutch teenager Kevin Luckassen.  Sproule was outstanding last season but will he regress back to the lousy form he displayed for the previous 18 months at Hibs?  Kettlewell should anchor the midfield fine, with Quinn and Brittain providing the creativity and a few goals.  De Leeuw has impressed in pre-season on the flanks, while Carey could also be used on the left hand side of midfield.  County will get plenty of width from the full-back areas, with Kovacevic and Gordon happy to get up the pitch.

THE BOSS: It's almost undeniable that Derek Adams has the sourest face in Scottish football, but there is a case to be made for him also being the most tactically astute manager in this division.  Whilst he is in charge, this side will always be well organized, and difficult to beat, but he is capable of tweaking the team and the system as the situation dictates.  If the Staggies pick up where they left off last season, it will not be long till a bigger club come calling.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "second-season syndrome"

PREDICTION: I'm going to get slagged off almightily for claiming ICT will finish above Ross County again.  But I'm not certain just how good County will be, given there are so many new faces and Iain Vigurs has left.  It's not clear where the goals will come from.  But I can't see them being drawn into a relegation battle.  My conservative guess is SEVENTH.

L.

SPFL Premiership preview - Partick

Partick Thistle FC logo.svg
PARTICK THISTLE

LAST SEASON: First division winners

NOTABLE INS: John Baird (Dundee), Simon Colina (Barcelona), Gabriel (Rayo Vallecano B), Paul Gallacher (Ross County), Mark Kerr (Dundee), Isaac Osbourne (Aberdeen), Gary Fraser (Bolton Wanderers, loan), Henoc Mukendi (Liverpool, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Steven Craig (Wycombe Wanderers), Andy Dowie (Queen of the South), Chris Erskine (Dundee United), Paul Paton (Dundee United), Mark McGuigan (Albion Rovers, loan), Ryan Scully (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Glenn Daniels (Celtic, end of loan), Alan Archibald (retired), Bradley Halsman

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Fox, O'Donnell, Balatoni, Muirhead, Paton, Sinclair, Forbes, Welsh, Lawless, Erskine, Doolan

THE SQUAD (u-21 players in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox, Paul Gallacher
Defenders: Conrad Balatoni, Gabriel, Liam Lindsay, Jordan McMillan, Aaron Muirhead, Stephen O'Donnell, Aaron Sinclair
MidfieldersStuart BanniganJonathan BlackSimon Colina, James Craigen, Gary Fraser, Ross Forbes, Mark Kerr, Steven Lawless, Caolan McAleer, Hugh Murray, Isaac Osbourne, Sean Welsh, David Wilson
Forwards: John Baird, Kris Doolan, Christie Elliott, Jordan LeydenHenoc Mukendi 

IF HE GETS INJURED, THEY'RE SCREWED: Ex-Motherwell midfielder ROSS FORBES and his cultured left foot were too good for the first division, but he didn't make it in the SPL at Fir Park; can he do better second time around?

STAR OF THE FUTURE? Former Celtic youngster STEPHEN O'DONNELL thrived under Jackie McNamara, but declined overtures from Tannadice to sign a new contract with Partick.  He can play either as full-back or in midfield and seems likely to earn himself a reputation as a good top flight player.

THE SEASON AHEAD: It's not as if Partick stumbled over the finish line after Alan Archibald took over - their results were actually better than under Jackie McNamara.  I'd be surprised if the Harry Wraggs followed Ross County's lead by achieving a top six finish, but on the other hand they are considerably stronger than last year's other promoted team, Dundee.  Automatic relegation seems unlikely because of Hearts' predicament, so the club's first aim will be to steer clear of the playoff that would come with eleventh place.  Archibald has added some SPL experience to the side with the arrivals of Paul Gallacher, Mark Kerr and John Baird, while young loanees Gary Fraser and Henoc Mukendi could spice things up a bit.  They've even brought in a Mexican and a Barcelona youth player!  Worryingly, though, Partick don't seem to have adrquately replaced last year's star, Chris Erskine, who followed McNamara to Dundee United.

THE BEST XI?
football formations
Apart from Kerr, who will slot into Paul Paton's role in defensive midfield, I'm not sure how many of the new arrivals to include at the moment.  Either the industrious Baird or the target man Mukendi may be an alternative to Doolan up front.  Lawless can play on either flank but may be asked to cut in onto his left foot.  Fraser is also a winger but is likely to be used as an impact sub.  Forbes often lines up on the left but may come more central as Welsh is injured, with Craigen coming in to the side.  Osbourne is another midfield option.  Even though McMillan is a good right back, and Gabriel is another option in central defence, I'd expect Archibald to stick with the back four that served him well in the first division, at least initially.

THE BOSS: Alan Archibald only has half-a-season's managerial experience, but he guided the club to promotion after Jackie McNamara's departure and the team looked more solid at the back under his guidance.  He's still pretty much a rookie, though, and this season will be a huge step up.  His thirteen years of service at the club should buy him some time and space...but we said that about Barry Smith at Dundee last season, too.  It would be a surprise if he looked woefully out of his depth, though.

CLICHE YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO HEAR: "underdogs"

PREDICTION: It seems fair to make Partick favourites for ELEVENTH and the subsequent playoff - after all, they are the newcomers.  But there's not much of a gap between them and most of the other top flight sides, and they will prove awkward opponents who certainly have the potential to finish higher and cement their Premiership status.

L.