Monday, September 30, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Something to 'Clingan' to?
On the face of it, Saturday was another rotten day for Kilmarnock, shipping five goals to Celtic in front of a home crowd that could generously be described as sparse, as supporter anger at Michael Johnston's running of the club boils over.  But the positive response to going three down is reassuring, and having got back to 3-2, they gave the Hoops a real headache in the second half before two late goals embellished the scoreline.  On his first appearance of the season, Sammy Clingan looked far more effective in midfield than any of his teammates has in recent weeks, and curled in a lovely free kick into the bargain.

Motherwell are quietly getting on with it
After a poor opening few weeks, Stuart McCall's side have, without much fanfare, picked up 13 points out of a possible 15.  And that's with James McFadden still to find his best form.  They must increasingly fancy that they can repeat last year's second place finish.

Gorgeous Georgios
So effective in the Champions League last year, Georgios Samaras has rarely looked as interested when on domestic duty.  Before his hat-trick on Saturday, he had only scored 16 goals in his last 76 league appearances.  But the Greek striker has hit form at the perfect time for Neil Lennon, with Barcelona coming calling on Tuesday night.  Celtic need Samaras to put in another big performance if they are to get anything from that game.

St. Johnstone need to start faster
The Perth Saints don't seem to realise that matches start at 3pm, rather than 3.15.  They were one down at home to Partick before they really got going.  Given their lack of spark early on, it was a surprise to see the energetic Nigel Hasselbaink deployed only as a substitute, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him on from the start against Inverness next week.  St. Johnstone are going through a right rough patch at the moment, with only 2 points from their last 5 games; it's their worst run since the opening 5 games of last season.

Tommy Wright's central defensive duo of Frazer Wright and Stuart Anderson are normally so solid that it was a surprise to see them make a hash of Partick's goal; poor Anderson slipped to let Kris Doolan in, and to add insult to injury he dislocated his thumb in the process.  Wright, meanwhile thought the striker's shot from a tight angle was going wide, and left it when he could have cleared.  Given their excellent partnership over the last two seasons, you can forgive them this blunder; the problem is that the backup for the injured Anderson consists only of right-back Dave Mackay.

Grant Munro's legs have gone
The Ross County defender was never particularly pacey, even at the peak of his career at Caley Thistle.  But it was a bit of a shock to see him thoroughly beaten in a sprint by John Sutton for Motherwell's second goal on Saturday.  Two weeks after his thirty-third birthday, it may be that his days at the top level are numbered.  So solid at the back last year, the Staggies have really struggled defensively this time around.  Eight games in, Derek Adams has used seven different defenders already this season, suggesting that he still doesn't know who his strongest back four are.

Hibs could learn from Caley Thistle's recruitment policy
ICT's lineup on Saturday includes players brought in from Luton, Tranmere, Newport, Macclesfield, Southend, and Northampton plus the youth teams of Blackburn and Ipswich.  Most of them have come to Inverness to try to impress and earn themselves a move to a higher level.  In contrast, the Hibs team is full of players who arrived at Easter Road with their career on a downward trajectory.  The difference in hunger between the two sides was stark.  In particular, Pat Fenlon could really do with a centre-back like Josh Meekings, rather than one like Michael Nelson; Horatio Nelson would have given Billy McKay a greater challenge.

Change is a bad thing
The number of players who have started a league game for each club this season: Kilmarnock 22, Celtic 20, Aberdeen 19, Ross County 18, St Johnstone 18, Hibernian 17, Partick 17, Dundee United 16, St. Mirren 16, Hearts 15, Motherwell 14, Inverness 11.

That's right.  Caley Thistle have used the same starting lineup in every game this season.  But that may change next weekend as Jamie Vincent went off injured in the first half against Hibs.  Ben Greenhalgh gave a good performance off the bench; ICT will inevitably need their reserves to step up and do a job at some point if they are to continue to compete at the top end of the table.

My kingdom for a goalscorer
If Alan Archibald was a Shakespearean actor, that's what he'd be shouting out.  Kris Doolan at least got a goal in Perth, but spurned a ton of chances as well.  Partick keep creating opportunities for their forwards; too often they are being wasted.  The Jags have done enough already to suggest they can steer clear of a relegation battle, but how far could they go with a Premiership-quality centre forward?

Referee Watch
Both Dundee United and Hearts were left aggrieved by disallowed goals in their match at Tynecastle - Nadir Ciftci was denied after Steven McLean spotted a push by David Goodwillie in the build-up; it looked pretty soft to me.  That decision was certainly debatable; the ruling out of Dylan McGowan's tap-in for a foul on Radoslaw Ciernziak certainly wasn't - there was clearly no infringement at all.  It was apparently given by an assistant referee, who managed to spot this apparent foul despite having several bodies between him and the incident.  In light of his x-ray vision, he has now presumably been signed up for this Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show.

Given how well Dundee United have been playing recently, the draw bodes well for Hearts.  They host St. Mirren next week, and a home win would make the sides just above the Jambos very, very nervous.

Monday night football
I'm not sure who thought it was a good idea to put on St. Mirren v Aberdeen at the same time as Everton v Newcastle.  The handful of people who do choose to watch it will see whether Danny Lennon's side can turn the tide; it's worth noting that a win would put them above Kilmarnock in the table.  The Dons, however, are in good form and I'd fancy them to expose the Buddies' extremely frail defence.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Calamitous Killie

After last night's League Cup defeat at home to Greenock Morton, you could forgive Celtic fans for not queuing up in droves to buy tickets for a visit to Kilmarnock this weekend, particularly given that many of them will have already paid a considerable outlay for a seat to watch the Bhoys play Barcelona next week in the Champions League.

Even before Dougie Imrie's extra-time penalty winner at Celtic Park, Michael Johnston, the chairman at Killie, had noticed that uptake of tickets for the away end was slower than usual.  Given that the home support at Rugby Park take up less than 25% of the ground at the best of times, Johnston has shamelessly courted Old Firm fans in the past, to the point of giving three stands to Celtic and Rangers on occasions in recent seasons where either team could - and did - win the title by beating Kilmarnock away from home.

Johnston's apparent affinity to supporting the needs of the Old Firm - culminating in Kilmarnock being the only club not to vote for Rangers to be thrown out of the top flight after their liquidation last year - has long alienated himself from the club's supporters.  Add in the summer dismissal of the loud-mouthed but locally popular Kenny Shiels less than 18 months after a League Cup win, and his relationship with the fans was already at breaking point.  Attendances for each of their home league games so far have dipped under the 4,000 mark.  Given that we  know that the club's finances are, at best, a bit iffy - as of January, the club's debt stood at £9.8million (which was actually slightly higher than the year before) - the club desperately need punters in through the door.

That probably explains Johnston's Machiavellian decision to drop ticket prices from £26 to £20 for the Celtic game...for Celtic supporters only.  Not for his own supporters.  Callously, he seems to have decided that lower prices won't tempt back those who aren't coming, and that the hardcore few who support the team through thick and thin - mostly thin at the moment, apart from Kris Boyd's girth - are so committed that they'll still pay through the nose to watch the team.

After an outpouring of anger and fury, from fair-minded folk as well as Killie's supporters, today the club announced that fans who buy a ticket for Saturday will get a free ticket for the next home match, and that season ticket holders will be able to bring a friend for free for that match.  Not a bad deal for pay-at-the-gate punters, but still a rubbish one for season ticket holders, unless their friend pays them for the privilege of accompanying them.  Kilmarnock fan Robert McCracken lamented on twitter that it was like "using a tampon to clean up an oil spill."  Given the quality of the product on show, I'm not convinced that a free ticket would be considered value for money right now.

Off the park, Kilmarnock are a mess.  On it, they are just as much of a shambles.  Allan Johnston's Queen Of The South side were practically unbeatable in the second division last season.  His Kilmarnock side have managed a grand total of zero wins from seven league matches, as well as a cup exit at home to Championship side Hamilton Accies.

What's worse is that there are so few positives to take from the start to the season.  If his side were still getting used to playing a new, attractive style of football, then they might be afforded some slack.  Ditto if Johnston was blooding a ton of youngsters.  Instead, the opposite is true.  The slick passing game so beloved of Shiels has been ditched in favour of a more direct style.  Significantly, he made the decision early in the season that forwards Kris Boyd and Paul Heffernan were unable to form a partnership - and dispensed with Heffernan, with the hardworking Irishman signing for Hibs on a free transfer.  Boyd, who remains one of the most deadly finishers around, is being used in a target man role, but, even when he was younger and fitter, he struggled to play as a lone striker; now that he is as about as mobile as the Venus De Milo, he is even less effective in that role.  The former Rangers striker's threat is reduced further by Johnston's preference for not using wingers; instead the ball is pinged over a rather narrow midfield towards his head.

On transfer deadline day, Johnston brought in Michael Gardyne on loan from Dundee United to play in 'the hole' just behind Boyd and give him greater support.  Gardyne is one of ten new players brought in since Magic took over as boss.  Given that Shiels gave so many youth team graduates a chance last season, and that a few first-teamers had departed in the summer, Killie's side was expected to be rather young this year.  But promising kids such as Mark O'Hara, Ross Barbour, Chris Johnston and Jude Winchester have instead been sidelined in favour of veterans.  The only signing under the age of 22 is Celtic loanee Jackson Irvine.  There are some players with pedigree such as Scotland squad keeper Craig Samson, Hearts defender Darren Barr and the evergreen Barry Nicholson.  However there are also the likes of Mark Stewart, who spent last year in and out of a relegated Dundee team, Kyle Jacobs, who was barely a first choice for Livingston last year, and Ismael Bouzid, the former Hearts central defender who made just three appearances for a team in his native Algeria last season.  At best, these players are a short-term fix which prevents the youngsters from developing; in some cases, they are no better than the teenagers that were already there.

That said, it is actually young Irvine who has borne more criticism than any other player so far, which is probably because most of his appearances have not been in his preferred central midfield role, but in central defence.  Even now, Johnston has no idea who his best back four are.  Against Inverness, he deployed Irvine and three full-backs.  Bouzid made his debut against Partick on Saturday; he is the eighth different player to play in defence for the club in seven league games.  That doesn't include the experienced James Fowler or Manuel Pascali, who have played either in midfield or not at all, with their nous badly missed.  About the only defensive player guaranteed a place is keeper Samson - though many would claim that his understudy Antonio Reguero was superior last season when the duo played for St. Mirren and Caley Thistle respectively.

Johnston does not give the impression of a manager who knows what he is doing.  But his namesake chairman has nailed his colours firmly to Magic's mast.  He needs Allan Johnston to succeed, not just for his own credibility, but because relegation from the top flight would almost certainly condemn Kilmarnock to following the footsteps of Hearts and Dunfermline towards financial calamity.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Why do Rangers have such a huge squad?

football formations

The above is a hypothetical 'Rangers A' v 'Rangers B', as I see it at this moment in time.

Not bad, eh?

I know a few players are a wee bit out of position, but you'll recognise the point I'm making.  I couldn't even find a place for youngsters like Barrie McKay and Kyle McAusland who have both seen first team action this season.

After a pretty mediocre tilt at the third division last season, the Gers seem to have moved up a few gears this time around.  Aside from the humiliation of defeat at Forfar in the League Cup, they've romped all their other games.  On the one hand it is the least we should expect, but on the other hand you can only beat what is put in front of you.  But does Ally McCoist really need so many options?  He said in pre-season it was so he could rotate his squad.

How does the size of the squad compare to Premiership clubs?  Well, let's look at how many 'over-21' players (that is, under the SPL rule that was used up to the start of this season), each club has on their books currently.

Aberdeen - 15
Celtic - 20
Dundee Utd - 15
Hearts - 6
Hibs - 19
ICT - 16
Killie - 16 (which could increase if Bouzid and Silva are signed)
Motherwell - 14
Partick - 17
Ross Co - 19
St Johnstone - 18
St Mirren - 12

Rangers, at the time of writing, have 19 players over 21.  That of course does not include their talented youngsters such as McKay, Fraser Aird, Robbie Crawford or Lewis Macleod.  That's a lot of guys to keep satisfied with first team football.  And it seems that most Premiership clubs do not need the same amount of options as Rangers do.

This talented yet bloated squad's remit, may I remind you, is to win the Scottish second division and the Challenge Cup and, presumably, wreak revenge on any Premiership sides they might meet in the Scottish Cup.

The wage bill for the playing squad in 2012-13 was, according to the sources I found online, about £7 million, which was the second highest in Scotland.  That didn't include Dorin Goian and Carlos Bocanegra, who spent last year out on loan and had their wages paid by their new clubs.  Apart from those two, the only senior player to depart in the summer was Neil Alexander (admittedly, the highest-paid member of the squad), while Anestis Argyriou has subsequently moved on and Francisco Sandaza came to a settlement over his contract termination.

Rangers have signed nine players since their transfer embargo came to an end on 1 September.  Those signings include two players with Scotland caps, a Honduran international, veteran striker Jon Daly, and Nicky Law, who was one of the SPL's outstanding midfield players last season.

And, on top of that, Ally McCoist has offered a contract to ex-Hearts skipper and Lithuania international Marius Zaliukas, and still apparently wants to sign Bosnian defender Boris Pandza.

Maybe it's that Rangers want to have a settled, talented squad in place for their first go back at the top flight in two seasons time.  That's a long time away.  That wage bill isn't likely to be lower than last season.  We all know that the club have already pissed away most of the cash raised by the newco last year.

So how on earth can the club manage to afford all these players?  And how will they be able to afford them for next season as well?

That AGM next month is going to be interesting.

Still, the 11-on-11 games at Murray Park during training will probably be higher quality than at any other club in the country aside from Celtic...


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Yes, I know it's Tuesday, but I'm afraid Real Life got in the way.  Better late than never, right?

Ryan Gauld could become a hell of a player
It's probably sensible of Jackie McNamara to use young Gauld sparingly given his tender years, and so hopefully reduce the risk of burnout, but the 17 year old was so good in Dingwall that it will surely be impossible to resist the temptation to play him every week.  Let's hope that, for the good of Scottish football, he goes on to fulfil his extraordinary potential.

The inclusion of Gauld wasn't the only big selection decision made by McNamara - he surprisingly dropped David Goodwillie and chose Nadir Ciftci at centre-forward.  Given that Ciftci found the net, and gave the Ross County defence problems all day, there's no doubt it paid off.  Frankly, Dundee United could, and should, have scored more than the four goals they actually managed.

Lousy managerial excuses, part one
Danny Lennon - "We did everything except score a goal and keep a clean sheet".  Given that you can't even draw a football match without doing at least one of these things, that comment doesn't bode well for the St. Mirren manager.  It seems likely that the Buddies board will give him till at least the next international break in October, but the writing remains very much on the wall, in big, bold letters, for Lennon.  The three games before that break?  Hibs away, Aberdeen at home, and Hearts away.  If he doesn't win at least one of those, he is as doomed as a dodo that's been thrown out of an aircraft at 20,000 feet.

Motherwell keep finding ways to win
Stuart McCall's side are nowhere near as delightful as they were last season, but they're still getting points on the board.  Saturday saw them grind out another 1-0 win, this time in Paisley.  Given the limitations in his squad, he deserves plaudits for the substance, if not the style.  And frankly, the man deserves a medal for managing to rehabilitate John Sutton, who grabbed his third goal of the season.

Superb Stokes
The departure of Gary Hooper seems to have galvanised Anthony Stokes, who has been absolutely terrific so far this season.  His all-round game has improved no end, while he scored a lovely goal against Hearts and produced a fabulous piece of skill to set up Teemu Pukki for a debut goal.  The Irishman is in the form of his life, and has got to be an early (very early!) frontrunner for Player Of The Year honours.  But will Stokes get the nod against Milan, or will Neil Lennon leave him on the bench as so often before, and go with his new signing from Schalke?

Fenlon is raging against the light
The final nails got hammered into Pat Fenlon's coffin a few weeks ago...but he appears determined on punching his way out, a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol 2.  Have Hibs turned the corner?  The Irishman must know that his two predecessors were both dismissed just before the October AGM; if he can survive past that, then his job looks much more secure.

Lousy managerial excuses, part two
Allan Johnston -"We aren't getting the breaks".  Except Kilmarnock got a huge break for their equalizer at home to Inverness, when Graeme Shinnie's clearance hit Barry Nicholson's shin and flew into the net.  And they still lost the game.  Johnston was missing Darren Barr at the back, but his decision to field three full-backs and midfielder Jackson Irvine as his defence was always asking for trouble.  How he can't find a place for veteran Manuel Pascali in the lineup, either in the back line or in midfield, is a mystery.  Six league games (and one league cup game) in, and the man known as 'Magic' has still to conjure up a victory as a Premiership boss.

Piccolo hopelessly out of tune
Given Partick's outstanding defensive record last season, it will have been an almighty shock to their support to see the Jags ship goals to the likes of Calvin Zola and Josh Magennis in a crushing home defeat to an Aberdeen side that were missing Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Niall McGinn.  None of these absences were as critical as that of Partick central defender Conrad Balatoni, however.  The performance of his replacement, Mexican Gabriel Piccolo, can't be described using only words allowed before the watershed.  He seemed to pull out of a challenge with Zola in the lead-up to Aberdeen's second goal (if you see the highlights, goalkeeper Scott Fox gives him a look best described as thunderous), and was both outmuscled and outpaced by Magennis for the third, despite having a head start of several yards.  It may be a while before Piccolo next graces a Premiership match.

If one more person makes a 'flares are back in fashion' quip...
What's this sudden fashion with letting off fireworks at games?  Celtic fans seem to have led the way, but I saw pictures of flares being set off by Hearts and Motherwell fans as well.  There were some reports that an away fan at Tynecastle was injured as a result of one on Saturday.

And for all those folk who claim they aren't dangerous, a smoke bomb injured nine supporters, including children, at a Slovakian league game last month.  For god's sake, grow up.  No-one over the age of five thinks colourful smoke is exciting.

Open All Mics is rubbish!
I had the 'joy' of listening to Radio Scotland on Saturday afternoon while driving down the A9.  The Open All Mics format just doesn't work, as the likes of Chic Young shout loudly about nothing for minutes on end (you'd have thought the Motherwell fans had started a riot at St. Mirren Park from the way he was talking) whilst Murdo MacLeod, in contrast, said bugger all about Kilmarnock v Inverness, presulably as he was sulking about not getting to do the Celtic game.  As for Willie Miller, he's about as good on the radio as he is at running a chip shop.  Could they not just use their own journalists, who are presumably able to articulate complete sentences?

In contrast, I listened to Sportsound Extra afterwards and it was tremendous, presumably because it had Graeme Spiers and Tom English - actual journalists - involved.

Hands up how many of you think Willie Collum would have given Hearts a penalty had a Celtic defender handballed in an identical manner to Jamie Hamill.  Exactly.  I'd love to see someone to actually try to deliberately handle the ball in that situation.  There are some great mysteries in the universe, and one of them is how Collum was deemed competent to officiate a Champions League quarter final last season.  I wouldn't even let him run with scissors.

The other big decision of the weekend was in Dingwall, where Derek Adams was left seething after seeing Sean Dillon's apparent professional foul on Kevin Luckassen go unpunished...but replays showed that Luckassen fouled Dillon first.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Giving my tupp-Spence worth

It's been a hell of a week for BBC Scotland journalist Jim Spence.

For those who haven't heard, Spence, discussing the return of former chairman John McClelland to the Rangers board, said the following on the radio:

“John McLelland, who was chairman of the old club . . . some people will tell you the club . . . well the club that died, possibly coming back in terms of the new chairman.”

So, he pointed out that there are some people out there that think that the Rangers that existed before 2012 is dead.  You don't have to look hard to find fans with that view.  But though he didn't say whether he agreed with that view or not, Spence and the BBC were hit by threats of legal action from Rangers regarding the comments.  The Beeb got 400 complaints from Rangers fans (do these people not have jobs and lives?) and felt the need to make an apology for any offence caused.

If only that were the end of it.  Spence also received several threatening texts and emails from Rangers fans.  Because he referred to the complaints while quoting Martin Niemoller on Twitter, he was also accused of insinuating that Rangers fans are Nazis (it has to be said, it takes impressive tangential thinking to come to that conclusion).  To cap it all, a couple of days later he had to contact Tayside police after he and his wife were accosted whilst taking a walk.

Things were sufficiently bad that he volunteered to take redundancy, but he does appear to have been backed by the BBC and his union and persuaded to stay.

The irony?  The statement from Rangers attacking the BBC came from their Director of Communications, who happens to be one Jim Traynor.  In his past life as a Daily Record columnist, Traynor, also a former BBC colleague of Spence, claimed on more than one occasion that "Rangers are dead".

Sadly, these attempts at intimidation are not a rare occurrence.  Plenty of other journalists have come under fire for criticizing the Ibrox club.  The BBC were banned for a period last season.  Then there was the saga regarding the SFA tribunal panel last year that met to  rule on the punishment for the old club's (am I allowed to say that without a bomb being put through my letterbox?) misdemeanours - Ally McCoist, despite knowing who was on the panel, demanded the names of the panel members be made public, then a Rangers website leaked their identities.  The three men and their families required police protection.  One of them was a director of Raith Rovers, and so the club received a threat to "torch Stark's Park".  More ridiculously, Falkirk removed their stadium announcer after complaints about his referral to the Rangers as "Sevco" (the name of the parent company) when reading half-time scores out.

It's been hugely in Rangers' short-term interests to encourage a siege mentality amongst their support - the belief that "it's us against them" has been critical in keeping season ticket numbers up despite the poor quality of opposition and, last season at least, the poor quality of their own team.  If I were being cynical - and, let's face it, I'm always cynical - it's also a useful way of trying to distract from the club's own internal problems.

But it's had a knock-on effect.  For the most part, the club and their fans have got on well with their lower league opponents over the last year or so - the smaller clubs have of course benefitted enormously in financial terms from playing the Gers - but there continues to be regular references to the way top flight clubs allegedly stuck the boot into Rangers when they threw them out of the SPL in the summer of 2012.  Then-Chief Executive Charles Green asked Rangers fans to boycott a cup match at Tannadice in February.  Some Caley Thistle fans were pelted with coins from the Ibrox support when they knocked Rangers out of the League Cup earlier in the season.  And when the Old Firm youth teams - the youth teams, for god's sake - met in May at Firhill, pandemonium insued, with damaged seats, pitch invasions and arrests galore.

Of course, the last incident didn't just involve Rangers fans.  The Celtic supporters were giving at least as good as they got.  Imagine if the two sides got drawn together in the Scottish Cup this season?  In fact, I shudder at the idea of Rangers being drawn against any Premiership side.  For the problem is not just these Rangers 'supporters' - who are clearly still very much the minority in the club's fanbase, but unfortunately seem to be the ones who shout loudest and who are courted by the club - who threaten other people in person or over the internet, or who see football as an excuse or opportunity for violence.  It's the fact that their actions have turned the "us against them" mentality the other way round.  Fans of all the other clubs are developing an increasing loathing for these thugs and what they stand for.

It's all poisonous.  I can foresee a situation where, if this is left to fester, there will be a real problem when Rangers get back to the top flight.  There are too many people who associate with the club who bear real malice and a real grudge against the rest of us.  And I'm sure the number of people who support other clubs who are developing real malice and a real grudge towards Rangers.  Imagine what could happen the first time the Gers visit Pittodrie, let alone when the first post-liquidation Old Firm derby takes place.  It doesn't bear thinking about.

I think the SFA hoped that a few years in the lower divisions would rehabilitate Rangers; that's clearly not happening.  Someone needs to step in now and put an end to this.  Traynor et al could do it themselves, and reclaim a bit of moral high ground, by denouncing threats and violence by so-called fans.  If not, then Stewart Regan needs to come down on any more bear-baiting like a ton of bricks and broker some sort of peace.  That, of course, would require leadership from the SFA's Chief Exec, and so won't happen.  He will instead do what he always does, and quietly pray that the problem will go away.  It won't.

As for the original issue - did Rangers die or not?  Maybe they did - there's evidence to support that.  Maybe they didn't - there's evidence to support that too.  More importantly, who the f*** cares?  For the love of god, it's only football.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013


When this blog started in September 2007, Scotland's national team, under the command of Alex McLeish, looked like it was going places.

For most of the next six years, it has indeed been going places.  These places include Up S*** Creek, and Down The Toilet.

George Burley's reign was a huge disappointment, marred by fall-outs with squad members and that incident with Allan McGregor and Barry Ferguson.  Luck didn't go Burley's way - imagine that Chris Iwelumo scores against Norway instead of producing the worst miss ever in the history of football (I don't think I'm exaggerating there), or Gary Caldwell didn't get sent off in the return game by a jobsworth referee - but there were plenty of poor performances as well and the decision to get rid of him was the correct one.

Burley, however, was the reincarnation of Jock Stein in comparison to Craig Levein, a man who perhaps regrets using his free time to appear on Sportscene and to cultivate his hobo-beard, rather than watching our opponents.  Only once did he send his side into action with a thought-out gameplan. and we all remember what that plan was.  One Scottish journalist (possibly Graeme Spiers, but I can't find the quote) wrote "his headstone will read 'Here lies Craig Levein.  He played 4-6-0 in Prague'".

But at last, for the first time in a long time, I feel confident writing the following words...

Scotland are making progress.

That's not to say I'm confident we'll make Euro 2016, which presumably is our target.  Even though the next European Championships has expanded to 24 teams, a lot will depend on the draw we get.  We'll be in pot four, just like we were for the Euro 2008 qualifiers, and back then we ended up with three teams who made the last eight of the 2006 World Cup, including the two finalists (that said, it didn't seem to do us a lot of harm, given that we nearly qualified).

However, had it not been for that away win in Croatia in June, we probably would be in pot 5, which would most likely leave us an even harder task.  And we wouldn't have won that game, or drawn it, or even come away with dignity in defeat, if Craig Levein was still in charge.

Gordon Strachan's tenure as national team manager didn't start well, with defeats at home to Wales and away to Serbia in the first two competitive matches - a tame friendly win over Estonia before that doesn't count for anything in my book - but since then there has been plenty to feel positive about.  The game against England in August wasn't really a friendly, given the ferocity it was played with.  Then we had the two games in the past week, at home to Belgium and away to Macedonia.

Friday's match split opinion considerably amongst pundits and fans.  Some lamented a home defeat to a country not much bigger than ours, where we were outplayed for long periods and offered little attacking threat; others, including myself, see the Belgians as a far superior team at the moment (though if one more person says "golden generation", I'll give them a slap) and were not too disheartened.

Against Belgium and again last night in Macedonia, Scotland looked like a team with a plan.  Most fans would consider this to be the absolute minimum required from the coaching staff, but its a marker of how bad things were under Levein that it still feels like a novelty to me.  On Friday night, the midfield was set up to make life difficult for Marouane Fellaini and co, with Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Brown excelling.  In Skopje, Strachan used Ikechi Anya's pace to stretch the game and create space for Brown, Barry Bannan and Shaun Maloney to exploit in midfield, while for the most part Mulgrew was able to squeeze Goran Pandev out of the game.

In both matches - even the Belgium one - I felt the players showed enthusiasm and belief and gave it their best shot.  Dare I say it, they even looked capable of passing the ball well.  Against Belgium, they just weren't good enough; against Macedonia, they were.  Compare this to the away defeat in Wales last season, where Charlie Adam just let Gareth Bale walk past him to score the winner.  Now, the team look like they actually give a toss.

That's not to say that there aren't still glaring weaknesses.  The absence of Steven Fletcher and the retirement of Kenny Miller left us with a powder-puff attack.  Against Belgium, the use of Leigh Griffiths as a lone striker was a desperate move, but he wasn't helped by an insipid performance from James Forrest, who was very effective at Wembley when carrying the ball and running at Leighton Baines, but who got no change out of Jan Vertonghen this time round.  In the Celtic winger's defence, he was probably still struggling with an ankle knock from club duty the previous week.

But what was the alternative to Griffiths?  Some journalists (I'm looking at you, Ewan Murray from The Guardian) slagged off Gordon Strachan for claiming that a one-up-front system doesn't suit Jordan Rhodes, but they're right.  The boss improvised by deploying Steven Naismith in that role four days later.  It wasn't perfect - Naismith only had a couple of glimpses of goal - but it was better, particularly because his link-up play was better than that of Griffiths.  It's a stopgap solution anyway - Steven Fletcher will walk into this side when fit, and one feels he will be a better target for wide players such as Anya to aim at.

The other problem is still in defence.  I'm not so fussed about the left-back position, where I felt Steven Whittaker did an adequate job and we're scunnered until our best left-back gets back to playing against full-time sides on a regular basis.  The paucity of central defensive options is a huge worry, though.  Russell Martin has done well, considering he is a right-back by trade, and has proven reliable so far.  Grant Hanley, on the other hand, is dreadfully prone to losing concentration and silly errors, which I guess is par for the course for most defenders in their early twenties.

But, again, what are the alternatives?  The next man up in the squad was Gordon Greer!  Steven McManus and Andy Webster are not good enough any more, Christophe Berra has been dreadful for the last couple of years, and Gary Caldwell, always a man who polarised opinion, has been perenially injured for months.  Hanley is the least-bad option.

On the bright side, though, Strachan was some way off his strongest XI for these games.  Allan McGregor, James Morrison, Liam Bridcutt, Darren Fletcher (hopefully) and the aforementioned Steven Fletcher would all probably strengthen this side.

As I said earlier, I'm not going to predict we'll make it to Euros.  But I'm damned sure we have a fighting chance.  And that's better than we've had for a long while.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Ten talking points from the Premiership weekend

Should St. Mirren stick with Danny Lennon or not?
Saturday's defeat at home to Partick Thistle was more of the same for Buddies fans - players in the wrong positions, baffling team selections (Paul McGowan and Gary Teale were only left on the bench) and a complete crashing of bottle after conceding a goal.  Following on from a gubbing in Dingwall and a midweek cup exit to Queen Of The South, it's been a rough week down Paisley way.

The stats are damning indeed - only one win and nine points from the thirteen league games since their League Cup win, and only three league wins in 2013.  But the transfer window has now slammed shut (why does it always slam?  Can't it be closed gently and quietly?) and, barring a free agent or two, St. Mirren are now stuck with the squad they have until January.  Do they bring in a new boss who will have to try and turn things around with Lennon's players, or do they stick with the manager who has brought them recent silverware?  These questions will undoubtedly be pondered by the club board during this international break. 

Lack of depth could be Hearts' undoing
It was a rough day in the Highlands for the young Jambos side, who looked shattered after being taken to extra time and penalties by Raith Rovers, and who were ripped apart at will in the second half by a profligate Caley Thistle team.  Hearts' back four at Inverness contained two teenagers along with utility man Dylan McGowan in the centre and veteran Jamie Hamill playing out of position at left back.  Gary Locke didn't have much choice, given the absence through suspension of Danny Wilson and Kevin McHattie.  McGowan in particular had a nightmare afternoon, unable to cope with the movement - or, at the first goal, lack of movement - of Billy McKay, who ran him ragged.  Given that a couple of Hearts' subs looked like they'd been in school studying for standard grades the day before the game, Locke's squad is clearly down to the bare bones already, even with only a few absences.  If they are to survive, they can't afford more injuries or suspensions.

Lack of depth won't be Partick's undoing
It must be hugely reassuring to Alan Archibald that he can turn to his bench and see players who have the ability to change the game in his favour.  The Jags were behind against the run of play at St. Mirren Park when they brought on Ross Forbes and Kris Doolan.  The latter proved far more effective than the lacklustre John Baird and his industry helped produce the winner for the former.  Forbes has lost his place in the team because he can't be relied on to do his defensive work, but he has one of the sweetest left feet in Scottish football.

Is Pittodrie the dullest place in Britain to watch football?
Given St. Johnstone's traditional stuffiness, the odds on a goalless draw in the North East must have been pretty short.  Dons fans clearly thought so too, given that the crowd was less than half of that which turned up to watch them play Celtic a fortnight ago.  Aberdeen have now failed to score in 15 of their last 28 home league games going back to December 2012, with only 49 total goals scored in those 28 games.  If Derek McInnes is to make his team more watchable, he needs to get Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Jonny Hayes fit sharpish, and he also needs to find a partner for Niall McGinn.  Josh Magennis was the third different player to start up front alongside McGinn in eight days, and looked no more effective than Calvin Zola or Scott Vernon before him.  Worryingly, McGinn is yet to score from open play so far this season.

Ross County totally own Hibs
The goalless draw at Easter Road was the first league point the Hibees have picked up off County, but the Staggies are still unbeaten after six total meetings between the sides.  They probably should have won this one as well, and the boos at the final whistle suggested that the home fans knew it too.  After a rocky start, Ross County are showing that they will not be afflicted by the mythical 'second season syndrome'.  After a rocky start, Hibs look...well, still pretty rocky.

Allan Johnston needs to find his strongest XI, pronto
Kilmarnock have already used 21 different players in their first five league games of the season!  Allan Johnston seems to have decided that he wants a 4-4-2 focused on Fat Kris Boyd, which is why Paul Heffernan was deemed surplus to requirements.  But he still seems uncertain on who else should be in the team.  Curiously, Manuel Pascali has yet to start a match this season, even though the side are crying out for a robust and experienced player at the back.  Instead, Johnston went with young Celtic loanee Jackson Irvine in central defence, who blundered for John Sutton's winner.  Killie will hope to get more out of Michael Gardyne than Dundee United did, but the loan signing played the best football of his career in the hole behind a lone striker for Ross County.  Can his new club accommodate him in that role?  I'm not sure.

No post-European hangover for Celtic
Unquestionably, Celtic were at their most vulnerable last season after European matches.  You'd have thought Tannadice might have been an anti-climax compared to the atmosphere at Celtic Park in midweek...but for the fact that Dundee United had won only 2 of their last 54 games against the Bhoys.  Whilst it took till the last few minutes for them to find a breakthrough, Neil Lennon's side were utterly dominant and always in control.  The home side defended well, but their front four were surprisingly impotent.  Nadir Ciftci in particular needs to learn that though his tricks look good, there's no point doing them if they aren't benefitting the team.

Billy McKay should never be allowed to take penalties ever again
It's come to something when Terry Butcher feels he can take a strop after a game that Inverness have actually won.  He was seething after the final whistle because Billy McKay had missed a late penalty that would have brought him his hat-trick.  McKay has now missed his last three spotkicks, and wasn't the designated penalty taker - Jamie Vincent has those honours.  Of course, it had no effect on the outcome of the game.  Butcher's focus on that incident shows how these wins are becoming increasingly routine for Caley Thistle...who, by the way, are still top of the table and are the joint second-top scorers in Scotland (after Rangers).  As stated above, McKay was unplayable all day, but special mention must go to Aaron Doran and Nick Ross who were terrific for ICT as well.

Transfer deadline day was no fun at all
To be fair, transfer deadline day in Scotland is rarely entertaining, especially as we no longer get Derek Riordan To Hibernian stories.  The biggest transfer, Celtic's move for Teemu Pukki, had been in the pipeline for a while.  As a consequence, though, Tony Watt was allowed to go out on a Belgian club.  Did no-one in Scotland want him, or did the player fancy a change of scenery?  Watt's progress has stagnated in 2013, but hopefully the talented young striker can set the Jupiler League alight.

What goes around, comes around
Jamie Hamill's late sending off is worth watching, if you haven't seen it yet - Jon Beaton dismisses him for deliberate handball after he clearly blocks a shot on the goalline with his forehead.  Frankly, Hamill's obscene shaved-head-and-bushy-beard combo deserved a red card in itself - it went out of fashion with Limp Bizkit.  The full back was accused of feigning being headbutted to get Raith's Dougie Hill sent off a few days earlier, so was this perhaps a bit of footballing justice?

Beaton was just generally dreadful in Inverness, but his boo-boo was the most obvious one of the weekend.  Kudos to Steven McLean for booking Nigel Hasselbaink for a dive against Aberdeen.  Not so Craig Charleston, who missed a shocker of a challenge by Simon Ramsden in the first half, though the Motherwell man was sent off later on.  Meanwhile, Dundee United raged after Anthony Stokes' winner came from a very soft free-kick where the Irishman appeared to dive.  He then moved the ball back a yard or so to make the attempt a little bit easier.  Stokes went on twitter to tell everyone that he'd seen the TV replays and he was pretty sure he was fouled - you'd think, being the player who was tackled, he'd know without seeing the replays?  That said, given his connections in Ireland, I wouldn't want to argue with him...