Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cup venue decision shames the SFA

The issue of Scottish Cup semi final venues has often been a contentious one.

For rather a long time now, the SFA have insisted on always holding both semi-finals, as well as the final, at Hampden Park.  I believe the ticket money from the semi-finals gets split four ways regarding of who plays who, so I think it's about making sure the maximum number of people can attend...and, by extension, the maximum amount of moolah can be made.

In practice, of course, it's not that simple.  I've seen Caley Thistle play in two Scottish Cup semi-finals, which were against Dundee in 2003 and Dunfermline in 2004.  Neither attendance broke the 15,000 barrier.  Hampden's poor design, with the shallow gradient of the stands and the distance between the fans and the pitch, means that it barely counts as atmospheric when full; at less than a third capacity, we're talking quieter than a library, filled with mute people, situated in a graveyard.  McDiarmid Park, Pittodrie, Tannadice - these were all more sensible venues.  Yet they weren't considered for a moment.  Pittodrie was used for the replay of the Inverness-Dunfermline match, and just as well given that the crowd was barely 3,000.

But the SFA kept insisting on Hampden, even when it meant, for example, Dundee United and Raith Rovers travelling all the way to Glasgow instead of playing each other at a closer venue such as Tynecastle or Easter Road, which might have been close to a sell-out.  They'd have insisted on Hampden even if Ross County and Inverness were drawn to play in the semis, or one of the Highland clubs was drawn to play Aberdeen.

But for this season's competition, the SFA faced a predicament, as Hampden Park is being converted for use in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  Still, the semi-finals alone are 6 months away.  We can see who gets knocked out early, and who is left in the latter stages.  There's no need to make a decision now.

Except in the universe that the SFA operates in, of course.

Today it was announced that Celtic Park will host the final, and Ibrox will host both semi-finals.  That's not unless Celtic make the final/Rangers make the semi finals.  That will be the case regardless of which teams make the semi-finals.  If Celtic reach the final, they will get to play at their own ground.  If Rangers make the semi-finals, they will get to play at their own ground.  If two teams who are over 100 miles from Glasgow, with relatively small supports, play against each other in a semi-final, they will have to go all the way to Ibrox and play in a two-thirds empty stadium.

So the national cup final, and possibly a semi-final, could be held with home advantage for one of the teams.  I'd have said that this was unfair.  What do the SFA say?

Well, that's an awful lot of references to money.  Wouldn't just the slightest nod towards integrity be nice?  As regards the dates, there are no top flight fixtures scheduled for the weekend of the Scottish Cup Semi Finals. Do they really believe that Celtic Park might not be available that day?  And of course, if you need a big sports stadium, Murrayfield is the biggest one in the whole damn country.  How about using that?  I bet it's no more expensive than what the SFA are paying Celtic and Rangers for this privilege.  'Reconstruction' was supposed to be about sharing the wealth a bit more, wasn't it?  Instead, the Old Firm once again get to cash in, and with a potential footballing advantage to boot.  There's no definite reason at all to hold both semi finals at a big stadium unless there is an Old Firm club in both.  Even the Aberdeen-Hibs semi-final in April 2012 was attended by only 28,000.  That's barely half the capacity of Ibrox.

 This decision stinks to high heaven.  But, sadly, it stinks of the same odour that Scottish football's authorities have stunk of for a long time now.

On the other hand, can you imagine what it would be like if Rangers and Celtic ended up drawn against each other in a semi-final, or the final?  In that case, I'd say it was a very good idea after all.  But only because Stewart Regan and the other lunatics in charge of the asylum would be feeling rather uncomfortable...


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Looking ahead to the Highland Derby

It'll only be the eleventh league game of the campaign, so it would be hyperbole to suggest that the result of this season's first Highland Derby will define the seasons of Ross County and Inverness.  But it's not all that far from the truth.  Caley Thistle are second in the league, after a stunning start to the campaign, but have stuttered badly in recent weeks.  County are ninth, and need to start putting results together to keep in touch with the other teams battling for a top six position.

In this special blog, I preview the game from the ICT point of view, while the famous John Maxwell of County Tactics and Tell Him He's Pele kindly offers a Ross County outlook. Enjoy!

From the South side of the Kessock Bridge

If you haven't been following recent results, you'd have picked up your newspaper and noticed that Inverness are second in the league.  So far, so good.  But that doesn't tell the story of how ICT, who were so impressive in the early weeks of the season, have lost three of their last four in the league, including the last two - a 4-0 hammering at the hands of St Johnstone, followed by a 2-1 home loss to Partick Thistle.  The latter match was, of course, overshadowed by cornergate and other officiating decisions (I have expunged a planned blog on the subject because I was at risk of libelling the officials involved), and the game was only lost as a result of a dreadful blunder by goalkeeper Dean Brill.

But in those last couple of games the performances have dipped well below the standard set in the opening two months of the campaign, when ICT topped the table.  Inverness used the same starting eleven in their first eight league games; it's not a coincidence that they have stuttered after being forced to make changes.  In Perth, they missed David Raven with a groin problem, though he returned last weekend.  However, attacking midfielder Jamie Vincent injured his knee in the victory over Hibernian on 28 September.  Scans showed a small fracture of his tibia bone and he won't play again before Christmas.  On the face of it, the loss of Vincent, who played as the link between midfield and Billy McKay, doesn't look too crucial - he only has one goal this season, and that was a penalty.  But his physical presence, his industry, and his uncanny knack to be in the right place to receive the ball after a headed clearance by an opposing centre-back are traits that his replacements have so far failed to replicate.

Against St. Johnstone, youngster Liam Polworth was used; he looked like a rabbit in the headlights.  For the Partick game, Aaron Doran, Nick Ross and Ben Greenhalgh, all natural wide players, rotated positions.  None of them looked comfortable in a more central role.  All are tidy on the ball, but they are all lightweight compared to Vincent, which means they can't hold up the ball or win headers regularly.  As a result, too many high balls are punted at Billy McKay, who won't win them against big defenders.  If County force Caley Thistle to do more of this, then their chances of victory will exponentially increase.

So Terry Butcher's big decision for Friday is whether to stick with that eleven, or change it around again.  Marley Watkins added a real spark as a substitute on Sunday, but he is yet another winger; if he was to be included (presumably at Greenhalgh's expense), then I'd expect more of the same problems from last time out.  It's worth noting that Caley Thistle struggled almightily to keep the ball on the deck in their games at the Global Energy Stadium last season, partly due to the terrible playing surface, partly due to the crowded, tight County midfield, and partly due to the narrow pitch.  I understand that there is actually some grass to play on this season, but the other factors are unchanged and this might be an occasion where a more direct style is required.

I'm not usually a fan of playing two up front, but it could be Toby Agdestein's time to shine.  The Norwegian has been a perennial substitute since joining from Brighton, but he has height and strength.  It would require a change in style, but for this occasion I think it might be a necessary alteration.  In their two league visits to Dingwall last year, Caley Thistle failed to score, and in honesty created Sweet Fanny Adams.  Certainly, more of the same will not suffice.

From the North side of the Kessock bridge (by John Maxwell)

It is difficult to establish exactly where Ross County stand going into this derby.

Historically, County have little to fear.  Although Inverness Caledonian Thistle have won more derby games in Dingwall than County have, Terry Butcher has never managed his side in a win over the bridge in five attempts.

Of more relevance, County have been in poor form this season.  The very beginning saw an experimental 5-4-1 formation back-fire, wholesale changes further back-fire, and then a more settled unit eke some mediocre performances.  However, the team have looked good in convincing wins at home to St Mirren and Aberdeen (albeit less so against Hearts), so there is some scope for optimism.

There are significant doubts about Graham Carey's fitness leading into this match.  Until his absence at Kilmarnock, the left sided midfielder had been an ever present in the team and has quickly established himself as not only a key player but a favourite of some supporters.  His work ethic is improving since his previous time at St Mirren, but his game will always be based around the imperious technique with his left foot.  Carey's set-piece delivery can arguably be covered, but his ability to cross from open play is peerless and undoutbedly County's most reliable option for creating chances within the box.

Without Carey, it is difficult to know where clear cut chances are going to come from.  Since their ascension to the top flight, Ross County have relied heavily on goals from midfielders and particularly from strikes outside the penalty area.  Ivan Sproule added a different dimension to the team: his inward diagonal runs from the flank were so often un-tracked, he was a crucial player in the team's relative success in the second half of last season.  His form has tailed off significantly, however, and it is arguable that Darren Maatsen deserves a reprise to the starting XI sooner rather than later.

Ross County failed to have one of their strikers score against Caley Thistle last season and it would be a surprise if that changed this Friday.  The lack of a goal threat up front extends to the observation that it is sometimes difficult to pick out Steven Ross in highlight reels from recent weeks.  Although Ross offers mobility and can distract centre-backs just enough to give time for the central midfielders to advance, he is nowhere near being a consistent danger to the opposition.

Where does this leave Derek Adams's strategy going into the match?  One criticism from most of last season's derby matches was that Terry Butcher had the upper hand on Adams in tactical terms: although Butcher rarely deviates from his first choice team when he doesn't have to, he hasn't been adverse to using reactive tactics to block County's play-making from midfield.  For example, while dropping Richie Foran back into deep midfield from a more advanced position might be one of Caley Thistle's tactical themes this season, it was debuted in the Scottish Cup replay last season.  Adams failed to come up with a solution to this and to other tactical patterns within the matches, instead focusing on his team's own style of play.

However, the last match of the season saw Adams surprise Butcher, with Stuart Kettlewell performing a man-marking role on Caley Thistle play-maker Andrew Shinnie.  In the age of zonal marking, the occurence of a man-marking job in midfield is so rare at this level of competition that Butcher seemingly didn't figure out what to do to counter the move. Thus Shinnie was shadowed out of the match, Billy McKay was easily marshalled and a midfield containing Danny Devine lost control of the match.  Adams eventually showed that he could mix up his tactics to great effect.

County have recently been lining up in a 4-4-1-1 position - a return to the First Division winning system - with left-winger Melvin de Leeuw playing behind the striker.  The 1-0 home victory against Aberdeen showed that de Leew has the technique, movement and a deceptively strong heading ability to play between the lines of the opponent's mdifield and defence.  However, that space will be particularly compressed among Caley Thistle's centre-backs, Foran and Ross Draper.

What might be more likely is the return to a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 formation, with de Leeuw starting on the left in Carey's absence.  That seems to be the most natural approach to this match, to this writer at least, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, there would be a fitting assymetry between de Leew (who would have licence to drift infield and affect the playmaking) and either Sproule or Maatsen remaining high on the right flank.  With Caley Thistle's attacking left-back Graeme Shinnie an important outlet to the team in open play, County's right-winger could pin Shinnie back.  While David Raven has proved to be a considerably better all-round player than his initial form showed last season, County will be least concerned about letting him get forward out of the two full-backs, so de Leew's free role from the left strikes a balance in both County's attacking and defensive transitions.  In summary, Ross County's lack of symmetry in style from their wingers would match positively against Caley Thistle's different kind of full-backs.

Secondly, reverting to the use of a dedicated holding midfielder (which under 20 player Marc Klok seems to be the heir to) would block the space that Aaron Doran enjoys dribbling into with the ball.  In Andrew Shinnie's Absence, Doran has proved more of a goal threat from open play by cutting inside and attacking beyond his marking full-back's weak foot.  Deploying Richard Brittain in the deepest mdifield position would better block off this kind of play.

Thirdly, using Brittain as the spare midfielder would allow a triangle to form in the middle of the pitch against Foran and Draper.  There is a suspicion that just two of Ross County's central midfielders on their own would struggle to navigate around Caley Thistle's midfield base, but three versus two would tip the battle in County's favour.  That would tempt one of Caley Thistle's attacking midfielders to drop short to make up the numbers, but as their more advanced players are typically wingers, whoever is volunteered to do so might find themselves out of their depth.

Ross County's big concern will be defending set-pieces.  There are precious few players in the team who are particularly good at defending aerial challenges.  Even after considering that County's centre-backs Scott Boyd and Brian McLean might mark Caley Thistle's better exponents of the headed goal (and that alone fails to inspire much public confidence), that still leaves the others to mark Draper, Josh Meekings and Billy McKay (who should never be underestimated with a bouncing ball in the penalty area).  With Doran's in-swinging corners on top of the goal-keeper, it will be a strong performance to keep Caley Thistle out.

County could have the better of midfield possession on the day, but they will be relying on a piece of brilliance from de Leeuw, a central midfielder to break into the penalty area or a direct free-kick to break the stalemate.  Caley Thistle, on the other hand, have more obvious and reliable routes for goalscoring and it is that which might prove the difference on Friday.

football formations


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rangers: Mather best men win!

The newco Rangers appear to have been afflicted by some sort of curse - either things will be rosy on the field, or they will be rosy off the field, but never both at the same time.

After all, the first few months of last season saw millions of pounds of cash come into the club under the supervision of Charles Green, while the team dropped far more points than they were entitled today against squads of part-timers who often earned less in a year than Gers players made in a week.

This season has seen a complete reversal.  Aside from an embarrassing League Cup exit at Forfar, Rangers have been imperious.  Only Stenhousemuir and Raith Rovers stand in the way of the Ramsdens Challenge Cup.  In the Scottish League One, they have played eight matches, and won eight matches, with a goal difference of +32.  Whatever Ally McCoist is doing differently this season - mostly it involves using Lee McCulloch in defence and the signing of players who have attributes (and attitudes - see Francisco Sandaza) more suited to the lower tiers of Scottish league football - it is working a treat.  Not unreasonably, fans are eyeing up the Scottish Cup with interest and hunger; whilst last year's Rangers were feeble when they were knocked out by Dundee United, this term's vintage are far more robust.  They will fancy themselves against Premiership opposition, particularly if they are drawn at Ibrox.

And so they should, since the club's wage bill is the second highest in Scotland, after Celtic.

Which brings me to my main point...

In the boardroom, Rangers lurch from one fiasco to another, with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel.

On October 1st, having left it as late as was possible under Companies House rules, the club finally submitted audited accounts for the year up to the end of June 2013.  Chief executive Craig Mather's take on them?  "We enjoy financial stability and have a solid platform from where we can focus all our efforts on achieving success."

The accounts included the following snippets of info:

- Operating losses of £14 million
- Total income of £19 million
- A wage bill for players of £7.8 million
- Total staff costs of £17.9 million - so non-playing staff costs were £10.1 million (I believe it is unheard off for the cost of non-playing staff to be higher than that of players)
- £11.2 million left in cash
- Ally McCoist's salary was £800,000
- Charles Green earned £933,000 (of which £360,000 was 'a bonus')
- Brian Stockbridge, the finance director, earned £409,000 (of which £200,000 was 'a bonus')

So Rangers are losing more than £1 million a month.

More than half the money raised by the IPO in December has been spunked already.  Stockbridge admitted a couple of months ago that the amount of cash left was actually now down to £10 million.  So, if current losses continue, the money will run out sometime next Spring.

Could income will increase?  The accounts laud several sponsorship deals that have been signed, but the refusal of the club to give actual figures for these deals suggests that they are not worth very much at all.  Meanwhile, season ticket prices were frozen, so income from them will stay roughly the same.

Will costs come down?  Doubtful.  Rangers still have an enormous squad and brought in several new players on decent money at the start of September.  At best, given the departure of a few high earners such as Sandaza and Neil Alexander, the wage bill will stay about the same.  In comparison, Inverness CT got by last season on a wage budget of £800,000 for their players.  As for those astronomical staff costs, well, that depends on who the staff are, doesn't it?

And that in turn depends on what happens at the AGM, where every board member is up for re-election.  That AGM was originally scheduled for Thursday 24 October at 1030am...which is odd, because those many minor shareholders with jobs and lives would really struggle to attend it.  If you were a cynic, you'd almost think that this was a deliberate move by the current incumbents.  Of course, the board have been subject to big protests at recent home matches, and their positions are precarious indeed.  There would have been another large protest at the home game with Dunfermline on Saturday, but the club called it off on the pretext that 5 players were away on international duty.  This despite the fact that the match was due to be televised, which would in turn have provided further income for the club, and despite the fact that the absence of 5 players is hardly a handicap for this bloated first team squad.  Draw your own conclusions.

But there was yet another twist to the tale this week.  On Monday the courts ordered postponement of the AGM at the behest of some of the more prominent opponents of the board, which include former director Paul Murray, and Clyde Blowers billionaire Jim McColl.  Murray, plus three others, had asked to be put up for election to the board at the AGM; however Mather and co claimed there wasn't enough prior warning to put that motion on the agenda.  The judgement seemed to insinuate that the current board were doing their best to obstruct shareholders from exercising their democratic rights.

Given that Companies House rules required the AGM to take place by the end of October, I daresay we'll hear about the rearranged date very soon.  A fat lot of good it will do Mather, who resigned as Chief Executive this morning.  His statement failed to mention Monday's events, but it's clearly as a consequence of the court judgement and the goings-on that preceded it.  Rangers fans spent much of last season trumpeting about various 'world records' the club had set in the fourth tier of Scottish footbal.  Here's another one for them to celebrate - the largest number of different directors in an eighteen month period.

So the main characters left in the Ibrox power-struggle are thus: 

- Brian Stockbridge, current finance director, and likely to be be forced out by the same mud that has stuck on Mather.
- James and Sandy Easdale, bus company entrepreneurs from Greenock who have been gradually increasing their stakes in the club over the last several months.  Both are now on the board.  Sandy Easdale was imprisoned for 18 months from 1996 for VAT fraud.  If you put 'Easdale Greenock' into google, 'Gangsters' comes up.  That's all I'm saying.  In the meantime, I won't be travelling on any buses in the near future.
- Paul Murray, former director of the Oldco who failed to save Rangers in 2012 when part of the Blue Knights consortium.  He unquestionably cares a lot about Rangers, but doesn't seem to have the money to back himself up.
- Jim McColl, the richest man in Scotland.  He's also a Rangers man, but seems determined to wield as much influence as possible while investing as little cash as he can.  He's a successful businessman; successful businessmen do not throw away millions on football clubs.
- Dave King, Castlemilk-born businessman who made millions through business in South Africa.  He lost £20million that he invested in the club prior to 2012.  He's keen to have a big role in the club again and had been courted by Mather in recent weeks.  Oh, and by the way, he also recently pleaded guilty to 41 breaches of South Africa's Income Tax Act, which required him to cough up £44 million.  Just saying.

So what happens next?  It seems less and less likely that the current incumbents will hang on.  They now have a reputation amongst the Rangers support as a bunch of shysters who are running the club into the ground, whilst lining their own pockets.  But what about the new crew?  Murray and King would seem like excellent choices to take control...but will they be allowed?

The SFA's rules say this:

The Board must be satisfied that any such person is fit and proper to hold such position within Association football. The Board hereby reserves its discretion as to whether or not such a person is fit and proper, as aforesaid, after due consideration of all relevant facts which the Board has in its possession and knowledge, including the undernoted list which is acknowledged to be illustrative and not exhaustive:-

(a)   he is bankrupt or has made any arrangement or composition with his creditors generally;
(b)   he is of unsound mind and has been or is to be admitted to hospital as suffering from a mental disorder following an application for admission for treatment under the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 or Mental Health Act 1983 or a Court having jurisdiction in the United Kingdom or elsewhere has ordered in matters relating to mental disorder his detention or the appointment of a curator bonis or any other person to exercise power with regard to his property or affairs;
(c)     he is under or is pending suspension imposed or confirmed by the Scottish FA;
(d)   he is listed in the Official Return of another club in full membership or associate membership;
(e)   he is currently participating as a player of another member club or referee in Association football;
(f)     he is the subject of an endorsed Disclosure from Disclosure Scotland;
(g)   he has been disqualified as a director pursuant to the Company Directors’ Disqualification Act 1986 within the previous five years;
(h)   he has been convicted within the last 10 years of (i) an offence liable to imprisonment of two years or more, (ii) corruption or (iii) fraud;
(i)     he has been suspended or expelled by a National Association from involvement on the administration of a club;
(j)     he has been a director of a  club in membership of any National Association within the 5-year period preceding such club having undergone an insolvency event;

(k)    he is currently under or is pending suspension imposed by or confirmed by the Scottish FA in accordance with the Anti-Doping Charter.
Both King and Murray are hampered by (j) - they were directors at Rangers prior to the 2012 insolvency event.  King's shenanigans in South Africa surely come under the jurisdiction of (h).  Amusingly, Sandy Easdale's fraud conviction doesn't appear to disqualify him.

Of course, the bit at the top of the quotation allows the SFA room for manoeuvre.  Who would bet against Stewart Regan et al bending the rules for The People's benefit?  I wouldn't, especially following the leaks from Charlotte Fakeovers which suggested the SFA had a big hand in secret deals surrounding the formation of the Newco.  Interestingly, Celtic's Chief Executive, Peter Lawwell, is part of the SFA board.  Would his actions be affected by Celtic's best interests?  And are Celtic's best interests to hinder the progress of their old rivals, or to hasten their return to the top flight?  It will be very intriguing to see how this plays out.  

I still think that the business plan all along for Rangers was for Green and his cronies to make a packet, run the club into the ground, and rely on a sugar daddy letting his heart rule his head and coming in to prevent a second insolvency event.  McColl ain't for budging, though.  King may not be allowed to stick his oar in.  And neither may Paul Murray.

This story isn't over yet, folks.  But as time passes, a happy ending looks less and less likely.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Look, I know it's Tuesday, but a few days recovery is needed after seeing your side gubbed 4-0 in Perth. ..

A fatal blow for Hearts?
St. Mirren had been playing so badly that Hearts had pencilled this match in as a definite must-win if they were to avoid the drop.  Defeat, and a poor performance to go with it, is an enormous blow.  The Jambos have to pick themselves up over the international break - their next two matches are away to Motherwell and Kilmarnock, and Hearts' away form this season has been guff, possibly because they don't have the wonderful Tynecastle support to drive them on.  It's conceivable that, by the end of October, Gary Locke's side could be no closer to the teams above them than when the season started. 

Danny Lennon goes back to basics
Anyone with half a brain has been saying it since the season started - St. Mirren needed to stick Jim Goodwin in midfield to give them some steel, restore Darren McGregor to his favoured central defensive position, and use Paul McGowan as the closest support to Steven Thompson.  Lennon finally makes these blatantly obvious changes, and, lo and behold, the Buddies take four points from two games.  They are further away from Hearts and above Kilmarnock now as well.  An international break would have been the perfect time to sack the manager; Lennon has bought himself a bit more time now.

Celtic looking ominous
It's taken more than two months of the season for Celtic to take an overall lead at the top of the table...though to be honest that's mainly been because they have had a game in hand.  Victory over Motherwell was their fifth league win on the bounce though, and it was also another win straight after a Champions League game.  Given that this is where they were so weak last season, that is pretty ominous for the rest of us.

Will Lee Hollis and Craig Samson still be in goal in a fortnight?
After Darren Randolph's departure, I was surprised that Stuart McCall plumped for his perennial backup to take over the gloves; Faroese international Gunnar Nielsen, so long an employee of Manchester City, seemed to have a greater pedigree.  To be fair, Hollis hasn't done too much wrong, apart from a rotten blunder for Celtic's opener on Saturday.  But he's not a patch on Randolph.

Samson, meanwhile, moved to Kilmarnock with a strong reputation, mostly as a result of occasional Scotland call-ups.  But he was far too slow when he tried to block Nadir Ciftci's effort which, though powerful, was quite close to him.  It's not his first error of the season.  Allan Johnston has a capable alternative on the bench in Antonio Reguero, and may yet be tempted to go to him.

May the best men win
The question is, why did it take St Johnstone so long to give Stevie May a chance?  He spent the last two seasons banging them in for Alloa and Hamilton during loan spells, but only now has he been deemed ready for top flight action.  May's all-action, never-give-up style compliments the more cerebral approach of his strike partner Steven Maclean; the former never stopped moving, while the latter kept finding space by using his brain rather than his legs.  Both gave Caley Thistle's hitherto-excellent defence a hell of an afternoon.

No plan B for ICT
Caley Thistle were as terrible as St Johnstone were good.  In all honesty, this was probably a bad day at the office, the sort of off-day that afflicts all teams once or twice a season.  What is of concern is that the two enforced changes to the lineup weakened the team so much.  Young midfielder Liam Polworth was largely anonymous, as Jamie Vincent's uncanny knack for winning the second ball was badly missed.  Meanwhile, Daniel Devine, replacing David Raven, looked like a central defender playing at right back, which is exactly what he was.  His lack of attacking nous can be excused; his terrible defending at the fourth goal, and his repeated attempts to play high diagonal balls towards little Nick Ross cannot.  In hindsight, I bet Terry Butcher wishes he had swapped Devine and Josh Meekings around.

Ciftci the signing of the season?
Nadir Ciftci has been shunted back to the flank after a period at centre forward, but his stunning volleyed winner against Kilmarnock shows that the positional change hasn't diminished his goal threat.  After a poor first few games in tangerine, he's been absolutely the point that he is actually keeping Gary Mackay-Steven out of the team.

Are Hibs really on the way up?
The Hibees' smash-and-grab win at Firhill really was a travesty.  Pat Fenlon's side played no better than they did when they were thumped in Inverness last week, yet are actually level on points with Aberdeen.  Out of their four wins, only their victory in Perth has been particularly impressive; their other two wins over Kilmarnock and St. Mirren, two definite relegation candidates, were fairly stolid.  Time will tell if they are really top six material.

De Leeuw settling in at County
Out of Dingwall's Dutch contingent, only left winger Melvin De Leeuw has really made an impact.  With Iain Vigurs having left, and Richard Brittain playing deeper, County were in desperate need of some more creativity in midfield and he's providing it.  His fellow midfielders, Rocco Quinn, Stuart Kettlewell and Graham Carey, are all playing well at the moment, which gives County a decent platform as they try to get into the top six mix.

Referee watch
I don't know about anyone else, but I've often wished that refs could be fans in Dingwall saw that wish come true as Crawford Allen was replaced by David Somers.  Apparently Ross County-Aberdeen was held up for 7 minutes as a result - Allen clearly should have been booked for time wasting instead of getting off the pitch sharpish (arf arf!).


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Billy McKay's vintage year

Here's a particularly amusing stat for you (one I tweeted earlier in the week)- Billy McKay has scored as many league goals so far this season - eight - as Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle and St. Johnstone, and more than Hearts, Hibs or St. Mirren.

I certainly wouldn't have seen that coming at the end of the 2011-12 season.

In the summer of 2011, Caley Thistle were desperately in need of a goalscorer to replace Adam Rooney, who had just left for Birmingham.  Terry Butcher brought in a Northern Irishman whose biggest career achievement before moving to the Highlands from Northampton in 2011 was scoring a goal in a cup win over Roy Hodgson's Liverpool.  In that first season, McKay did not look the answer at all.  Injury prevented him managing more than 17 minutes of first team action before December - just one name on a long casualty list which, combined with a ropey start to the season, led Butcher to shelve an expansive style of play in favour of using the athletic but clumsy Gregory Tade at centre forward.

When he got to full fitness, McKay scored in his first home start against Dundee United, heading home when unmarked, but the team blew a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2.  He didn't score again until the last Saturday of April.  Before a double at Rugby Park (in another defeat), he had managed just that solitary goal in 1,422 minutes of first team action for Inverness.  So I was as surprised as anyone when we offered him a two year deal in the summer of 2012.  Two years!  For a forward who wasn't big enough to be a target man and play up front on his own, who didn't score enough goals, and, well, who didn't seem to be good enough even for us!  It was crazy, absolutely crazy, a waste of a wage.  Or so I thought at least

McKay scored 27 goals last season.  This is just the latest example of how Terry Butcher knows much, much more about football than me.

Though he started 2012-13 as a first choice, and scored on opening day at St. Mirren, the goals seemed to dry up again, and Richie Foran's move to centre forward seemed to galvanise the team into form.  However, Foran limped off in the Highland derby in October and McKay was restored to the starting lineup for a Friday night game at Dens Park, where he scored twice.  He scored in the next league game...and the next...and, like Forrest Gump running from one end of America to the other, he just kept going.

John Maxwell of Tell Him He's Pele once told me - in the pub, mind you - that Caley Thistle's team were entirely set up for McKay's benefit.  Last season, ICT established the style of play they'd wanted to bring in a year earlier, and he thrived on balls played into his feet or into the channels for him to race on to.  The service he got was excellent, to the point that there were more than a few sceptics who thought his numbers would diminish after his main provider, Andrew Shinnie, moved on at the end of the last campaign.  Nine goals in nine games in all competitions suggests they were completely and utterly wrong.  Whilst his teammates continue to create plenty of chances for him, a number of his goals have come out of almost nothing; take his lovely individual effort against Dundee United, or his long range strike against Hibernian.  He is not only a good scorer of goals, but a scorer of good goals.

His movement off the ball is particularly impressive.  It can't always be the defenders' fault when he wanders into a great big gap in the middle of the back four.  Both against Motherwell and Hearts he drifted off his marker to the edge of the box to find space before a cross came in, and scored both times with sweeping right-footed finishes.  And, if he wasn't already endearing himself enough to his manager, he harrasses defenders, chases lost causes, and just generally makes a nuisance of himself.

And, of course, he keeps scoring.  Which helps.

On the down side, his diminutive size means that he is never going to win aerial battles with your typical Scottish league centre half, but he has bulked up a bit and is certainly stronger at holding the ball up with his back to goal.  Just don't let him take a penalty kick ever again - he's missed his last three.  And questions about how he handles big occasions will remain until he receives an opportunity to avenge his dreadful miss in last season's League Cup semi-final.

Since 19 October last season, he has managed 34 goals in 43 matches, so we're now well beyond what could be called a Purple Patch.  This guy is unquestionably one of Scottish football's elite strikers. But, in the greater scheme of things, how good is he?  And how much is he worth?

Well, last season, he tied for second in the SPL's top scorer standings with Hibs' Leigh Griffiths, with Michael Higdon of Motherwell ahead of them both.  Neither of those players are still playing up here.  Griffiths returned to his parent club, Wolves.  So far this season he's scored 5 goals in 9 League One appearances.  Higdon, meanwhile, eloped to Holland.  His new club, NEC Nijmegen, are rock bottom of the Eredivisie, but the big Englishman has managed to score 3 times for them.  The latter is so different a player to McKay that you can't compare them, but Griffiths is a bit more similar, in terms of being a small but nippy forward capable of scoring all sorts of goals.

If you asked me to choose between the two, I must admit I'd probably say that Griffiths shades it.  But I'd also say that he's certainly a player who would cope in The Championship.  It's worth noting that Adam Rooney, McKay's predecessor at Inverness, didn't really succeed at that level.  Could McKay?  Maybe, maybe not.

As for a potential price tag, it's only a few years since Wigan paid Kilmarnock £600,000 for Connor Sammon.  That was following about 6 months of good form, whilst McKay has managed twice that.  It's not unreasonable to think that ICT would be looking for a similar figure, especially given he is under contract until the summer of 2015.

Being a pessimist, this is what I think will happen: sometime in the next few months, a Championship side will tempt Butcher back south for one last crack at the big time.  And at the first transfer window opportunity, he'll go after McKay.  Hopefully I'm wrong about that.  However, he can't stay in Inverness for ever; it's inevitable that the Ulsterman will get his crack at a bigger league than the Scottish Premiership.  And then we'll know if he's up to it.

But in the meantime, it's great to have him.