Monday, November 25, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Kilmarnock are sinking fast
Both on and off the pitch, Kilmarnock are a mess.  The team are struggling badly, and any setback they suffer is an opportunity for the home support to display their grievances at chairman Michael Johnston, which in turn hardly produces an atmosphere to inspire the players into a fightback.  The situation is so toxic that there is no way back for Johnston; the worry for Killie fans is that it's not clear that he has realised it yet.  As for his namesake, manager Allan, the ongoing off-field problems are not quite masking how poor his side are playing, and how rubbish most of his signings have been.  If the duo do not leave Rugby Park soon, Kilmarnock will finish eleventh at best, and I wouldn't fancy this bunch in a playoff with the likes of Dundee or Falkirk.

These are the results that will do for Hearts
Overcoming that points deduction was always going to be a tall order, but they simply have to beat the teams immediately above them in the table if they are going to get out of this hole.  They outplayed Ross County on Saturday, yet needed a last minute equalizer against 10 men to steal a point (it could have been all three if Callum Paterson had scored instead of hitting the bar in added time).  In the five matches they've played against the teams who are eighth to eleventh in the league, Hearts have only two points.  The bottom line is that, even though the players are doing their best in the circumstances and the support is tremendous, Hearts would only be tenth in the table even without the points deduction.  They just aren't good enough.#

Derek McInnes is the man Aberdeen have been looking for
Yes, Aberdeen have lost 17 straight league games at Celtic Park (and who can tell me the name of the scorer of the winning goal the last time Celtic lost at home to the Dons?*) but they had no right to do so this time, given that both Willo Flood and Barry Robson were absent and Jonny Hayes was lost to a hamstring problem midway through the first half.  Yet remarkably the Dons went toe-to-toe with the hosts and Niall McGinn was within inches of a late winner.  Celtic created enough of their own to feel that they just about deserved the three points, but it's clear to see that Derek McInnes is taking this team in the right direction, and I'll eat my shoes (I don't own a hat) if they miss out on the top six for a fifth consecutive campaign.

Danny Lennon can sleep at night now
It's only a couple of months since the St. Mirren boss appeared to be on the brink of the sack.  Yet the Buddies have taken 14 points out of the last 7 games and should have beaten Hibs on Saturday lunchtime.  Unlike in Dingwall and Kilmarnock, the early season problems in Paisley appear to have been fixed, and the manager appears to know what his best eleven is.  Is it a coincidence that Gary Harkins hasn't started any of the last 7 games, and that St. Mirren picked up only 1 point from the first 6 matches, all of which the former Dundee midfielder started?

Who are Celtic's best strikers?
Against Aberdeen, Neil Lennon went with Teemu Pukki and Georgios Samaras up top, with Amido Balde appearing from the bench.  Samaras has 4 league goals this season, 2 more than Pukki and Balde, neither of whom so far have justified Celtic's total outlay of £4.3 million on them.  Anthony Stokes has scored 5 league goals, but missed the game for 'personal reasons'; he's out of form however, having managed only 1 goal in his last 12 club games.  Thank goodness for Kris Commons, whose brace against the Dons makes him the team's top scorer both in the league (6) and in all competitions (7).  But given his forwards are not hitting the target at domestic level, it's hard to see them scoring against far superior Champions League opposition.

Dundee United - phwoar again!
That's now five times in the league this season that Dundee United have scored four goals.  Better yet, no team has conceded fewer than they have.  It's really all come together for them right now.  Ryan Gauld set up all four goals.  If he was to suffer a serious injury in the near future, I would actually cry - he really is that special.

Stevie May is the real deal
May actually had a quiet afternoon by his standards in Inverness, but the home fans and defenders were nervous every time he touched the ball.  The service to the St. Johnstone striker was sporadic at best, but his workrate remained outstanding and he won his fair share of headers against the normally dominant Caley Thistle centre backs.  On one occasion just before half-time, a long diagonal was launched towards May on the left touchline; instead of chesting it down, he audaciously used the outside of his right foot to volley it past Graeme Shinnie and then left the full-back for dead, only for an alert Dean Brill to clear the danger.  It was a piece of skill worth salivating over, and it's no surprise that St Johnstone have put a price tag of £800,000 on their star asset.  Why the hell was Fat Kris Boyd called up for Scotland instead of him?

Terry Butcher was hoping for a bigger new manager bounce
The new Hibs boss rang the changes for his first match in charge of the club, bringing in Paul Cairney from the cold, giving a rare start to youngster Danny Handling, and leaving out the likes of James Collins and Kevin Thomson.  But whilst optimists will point out that a clean sheet and an away point are not to be sneezed at, debut wins for new managers are so common that they are almost expected, and the 90 minutes at St. Mirren Park will have reassured Butcher not at all that this team are a top six side-in-waiting.  This Hibernian team will not be quickly fixed.

Is Graeme Shinnie better at right-back than left-back?
Left-footed wingers playing on the right - and vice versa - are pretty commonplace these days, but a left-footed full back playing on the right?  When Inverness got thumped in Perth earlier in the season, they missed right-back David Raven and deployed central defender Danny Devine as a replacement, with catastrophic results.  For the following game, Shinnie moved across to the opposite flank with Carl Tremarco coming in to the left-back role.  The words "duck" and "water" come to mind; Shinnie scored against Kilmarnock, won a penalty and had an assist against Hibs, and was strong again on Saturday as ICT beat St. Johnstone for the first time since, well, a long time.  Naturally inclined to attack, his habit of coming in off the flank seems to confuse opponents, who are far more used to seeing full backs overlap on the right.  Maybe he will be less effective when the novelty has worn off, but right now Shinnie is in the form of his life.

It was quite a reasonable weekend, by usual Scottish officiating standards.  Frankly, it was a surprise to see Willie Collum correctly award a penalty for handball against Dundee United's John Souttar, and he was also spot on with both bookings for Partick's Conrad Balatoni, while it was hard to argue with the straight red for Stuart Bannigan late on.  Meanwhile, even Derek Adams could have no arguments with either of Richard Brittain's yellow cards against Hearts.

*And the answer to my question earlier - a certain gangly forward called John Stewart scored the winner, with Darren Mackie and Fernando Pasquinelli on target as well in a 3-2 victory.


Monday, November 18, 2013

No case for the defence

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County's situation is bad enough without Ivan Sproule auditioning for UFC
On the face of it, Partick Thistle's Gabriel Piccolo is surely the worst defender in the Scottish Premiership right now.  In his last four starts, the club have conceded 14 goals.

But his presence might actually improve the Ross County defence.

County's promotion to the SPL in 2011-12 was built on defensive solidity.  So too was their start to life in the top flight.  Last season, they conceded only one goal in the first six league matches...four of which were goalless draws, mind you.  They shipped rather more goals as the season went on, but that could be blamed on a more expansive style rather than a drop in form - Derek Adams' side went on a great run after Christmas which earned them a surprise top six finish.

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2011-12 promotion winning side

In fact, if anything, the quality at the back was improved during the January transfer window.  The back four that won the first division title consisted of central defenders Scott Boyd and Grant Munro, flanked by Marc Fitzpatrick at left back and Gary Miller at right back.  Miller left that summer, for St. Johnstone, but in came veteran Ross Tokely from across the Kessock Bridge, and former Dundee United defender Mihael Kovacevic.  Initially the experience of the former was preferred on the right side of the back four, but by winter the limitations resulting from Tokely's reducing mobility convinced the manager that further changes were needed.  The more athletic Kovacevic was brought into the lineup, and brought far more attacking threat.  So did another January signing, Greek left back Evangelos Oikonomou, who was so superior to Fitzpatrick that the latter was released before the end of that month.  And, best of all, Canadian international Andre Hainault arrived too.  He took some time to force his way into the heart of the defence, but his comfort in possession allowed County to keep the ball better.  His winning goal against Inverness on the final day of the campaign was in itself enough to earn him legend status amongst the support.

football formations
The starting XI from the second half of 2012-13
What Adams would give to still have the same defensive options as last season.  In Sunday's defeat to St. Mirren, his backline consisted of Steven Saunders, Brian McLean, Boyd, and Branislav Micic.  Hainault has gone, and is playing in Germany now.  Oikonomou left too, returning to Greece.  Kovacevic, one of the best right backs in the league last season, has slumped, as anyone who saw his dreadful performance recently against Celtic will testify.  Munro, meanwhile, is no longer at the Global Energy Stadium.  Stories that he fell out with his manager may or may not be true.  What we do know is that, at 33, he appeared to have slowed down dramatically - the way he was beaten in a sprint by the spring chicken that is John Sutton for one of Motherwell's goals in one defeat came as quite a shock.  The former Caley Thistle captain has dropped to part-time football with Brora Rangers in the Highland League.

The new signings have not picked up the slack.  Saunders deserves a bit of patience, after two injury-ravaged years at Motherwell, and he has only started two Premiership games this season.  But it's hard to believe that it's only three years since he won a Scotland cap.  McLean, in contrast, has performed exactly as expected - as a hoof ball merchant.  It's no surprise that Dundee United cancelled his contract a year early, but goodness knows what Adams saw in him.  During Highland derbies, we have a joke sweepstake on how many times Boyd will punt the ball out for a throw-in during a match; McLean actually surpasses him in this area. 

Micic was actually signed in January, but barely played because of injury.  I'm told he's a cultured player at centre half or left back, but he's yet to justify his club's decision to offer him a new deal in the summer.  But it's another left back, Ben Gordon, who has been the biggest disappointment, given that he had two excellent spells on loan at Kilmarnock in the past, and is still only 22.  But he's offered little of the expected attacking threat, whilst appearing terribly vulnerable against opposing wingers.  He's the last of the seven different players who have started in County's back line this season.

Of course, the first line of defence is the attack, and the Staggies' have plenty of problems further up the pitch.  The best marker of how poor their forwards are is that none of them have yet managed a goal in the league.  Last season, a target man - Sam Morrow or Steffen Wohlfarth - was used as a focal point to hold the ball up and create space for midfield players, most notably Ivan Sproule, to get beyond him.  Neither Morrow or Wohlfarth are still in Dingwall.  The current flavour of the month is Dutchman Kevin Luckassen, who is by a distance the laziest player I've seen in Scotland this year.  He makes Dimitar Berbatov look like the Duracell bunny.  I suspect there were high expectations for Orhan Mustafi, a Swiss player on loan from Grasshopper Zurich, but he was terribly unfit when he arrived and then broke a toe - he hasn't been seen since.  Things have been so bad that Luckassen's countryman Melvin De Leeuw, a left winger, was deployed as a lone striker against Celtic.  It didn't work.

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Lineup in 2-1 defeat to St. Mirren, 17 November 2013

De Leeuw has been one of the few bright sparks, the others are also midfield players; Graham Carey, formerly of St. Mirren, and midfield dynamo Stuart Kettlewell.  But Paul Lawson and Iain Vigurs, who moved to Motherwell in the summer, have been terribly missed.  Lawson, who sat in front of the back four, was a hugely underrated presence.  County's record in the 20 top flight games he started - won 9, drew 7, lost 4.  His record in the 30 top flight games they've played without him starting - won 7, drew 8, lost 15.  Captain Richard Brittain has often been deployed in Lawson's role; not only have the team missed his creativity further forward, but he's been largely redundant as McLean and Scott Boyd punt the ball over his head.

County have lost eight league games already.  They only lost eleven in the whole of last season.

That said, I suspect that, like last season, the January transfer window will be galvanizing.  Uncle Roy McGregor won't hold back from strengthening the squad if there's any sense of danger.  The worst County can finish the season is eleventh, and they only need to be a little better than this to finish ahead of Kilmarnock with a bit to spare.  But there could still be some hard going for the next couple of months.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Hibs squad needs Butchered

So, after leaving a settled Inverness team who are second in the league and in a League Cup semi final, Terry Butcher now dedicates himself to rebuilding Hibernian.  On paper at least, he is going to a club with a bigger support, greater resources and a larger wage budget.  So it shouldn't be too hard, right?  Except the last five incumbents have failed to take Hibs where their fans and board think they ought to be.  For years, it's seemed like the squad has been hugely talented, but that ability never seems to be manifested on the pitch.  So what is Butcher likely to do with this motley bunch, given that he's stuck with them till at least January?

For the most part, Butcher's Caley Thistle side were set out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, bar the latter stages of the 2009-10 first division promotion campaign when he deployed Adam Rooney and Richie Foran as a front two.  Such was his love of this system that the entire ICT squad has been recruited with this system in mind.  There is not one player currently at Inverness who does not fit a role (or more than one role) in a 4-2-3-1.  Occasionally, this would come back to bite him on the bum, as there was no Plan B when the team were struggling, but for the most part it has worked well for him.  I'm not convinced he has the tactical nous to come up with a new formation to suit the players he is inheriting.  Instead, I'd assume he will look to mould the squad into one that can play with the same style and threat as his previous club.  This may prove difficult...

The defence
What he wants: Butcher loves his full-backs to provide an attacking threat (this is the reason why the hapless but extremely athletic Lionel Djebi-Zadi was humoured for so long).  He's willing to risk them being caught upfield, or to leave them isolated against wingers.

What he's got: He inherits a group of central defenders with plenty of potential.  I can imagine Butcher seeing James McPake, a talented player who has lost his way badly amid a series of back problems, into a personal project.  Paul Hanlon, who will be playing under his fifth different Hibs boss, is capable of being a good top flight central defender as well.  I think we may see Ryan McGivern used more often in the middle, rather than as the makeshift left-back that he was so often under Pat Fenlon.  Michael Nelson is an experienced stopgap, if nothing else, while young Jordan Forster has shown a few glimpses of ability.

On the other hand, there are barely any full-backs, let alone any of the sort Butcher has left behind in Inverness.  Alan Maybury is years past his best, while Fenlon lost confidence in Fraser Mullen so quickly that the left-footed midfielder Lewis Stevenson was often used at right-back.  Tim Clancy's versatility will make him useful when he returns from injury, but I would imagine that the new management team will bring some new faces in for these positions.

The midfield
What he wants: In the central midfield, Butcher has often used a holding player, such as Russell Duncan or Owain Tudur Jones, but only alongside someone who provides plenty of industry and bite; this year, he has gone with two such players in Richie Foran and Ross Draper.  At least one pacey wide player is an absolute necessity; in the last couple of seasons, he has deployed two, though previously Foran has been used on the flanks as a more physical option.  Inverness tended to use a creative attacking midfielder as a second striker (Danni Sanchez, Eric Odihambo, Andrew Shinnie) though this year we've seen a more orthodox central midfielder, Jamie Vincent, used in an advanced role instead.

What he's got: The key will be to find someone who can play that advanced midfield role.  Liam Craig might be an option, but he's tended to be at his best when coming in from a wide position.  He's certainly not got the vision or eye for a pass that Andrew Shinnie has.  Paul Cairney, largely ostracized by Fenlon since joining from Partick, could be a wildcard.  Scott Robertson could be used as a more industrious alternative, I suppose?

Further back, there will only be room for one of Kevin Thomson and Owain Tudur Jones; Butcher had the latter for two seasons at Inverness and wanted to keep him, but may feel that the former offers more mobility.  Robertson, who will be an asset if he can recapture the form he showed at Dundee United, could also play in this area, though I can imagine Tom 'Tommy Tackle' Taiwo being the new manager's sort of player.  I'm not sure where Lewis Stevenson would fit in.

As for, what wingers?  Pat Fenlon practically had a fetish for central midfielders.  Until the raw but talented Alex Harris returns from injury, Butcher is stuck with just French loanee Abdellah Zoubir.  Fenlon often used forwards James Collins and Rowan Vine as wide players with, shall we say, mixed results.  This squad has less width than Kate Moss during a crash diet.

The attack
What he wants: at Inverness, Butcher inherited Adam Rooney, a tall, strong striker who was deceptively quick and who ran the channels effectively, as well as working his socks off; Billy McKay can't hold up the ball as well, and doesn't provide an aerial threat either, but his movement is better and quicker.  For the last year, the ICT team has been set up primarily to provide ammunition for McKay.

What he has: Is James Collins mobile enough for this sort of role?  I must admit that I've seen very little of him, though what I have seen is enough to know that he doesn't resemble a striker worth the substantial sum that Hibs paid for him.  In contrast, Paul Heffernan did a good job of leading the line at Kilmarnock, and could be a reasonable option for the time being.

Poaching from Inverness?
This may prove harder than many realise, as Inverness have done a superb job of tieing up players on long term contracts.  I'm sure Butcher would love to bring in the likes of Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Graeme Shinnie, David Raven, Aaron Doran and Billy McKay...but all are under contract for at least another 18 months.  How much of a transfer kitty do you think Rod Petrie can stump up, after forking out a six-figure compensation fee for his new management team?  Not enough, I reckon.

Amongst the players that are out of contract is ICT captain Richie Foran, a disciple of Butcher's going back to Motherwell days.  The Irishman has been reinvented as a central midfielder with considerable success, but, given he is 34 in June and there are already plenty of options in the middle of the park at Easter Road, would a move for the veteran be of benefit?

Time will be needed
I think it's pretty obvious that fixing Hibernian will not be a quick job.  It may also require a number of new faces.  But that was the case for the previous incumbents too.  Let's remind ourselves what happened to the previous incumbents:

John Collins - October 2006 - December 2007, made 12 signings
Mixu Paatelainen - January 2008 - May 2009, made 15 signings
John Hughes - June 2009 - October 2010, made 15 signings
Colin Calderwood - October 2010 - November 2011, made 14 signings
Pat Fenlon - November 2011 - November 2013, made 30 signings.

Doesn't bode all that well, does it?


Monday, November 11, 2013

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

Van Dijk is the best player in Scotland right now
On Saturady afternoon, Celtic defender Virgil Van Dijk told the press that he needs to work on his shooting, and his attacking headers.  This would sound arrogant but for the fact that, after a slightly rocky start to his career in Scotland, the defensive side of his game is coming on fine.  His ambition of becoming a set piece threat was realised in some style in Dingwall, as he came up with two of his side's four goals.  Remember how classy Jean-Alain Boumsong and Carlos Cuellar looked during their brief spells at Rangers?  Van Dijk is their Celtic Park equivalent.  He won't be playing in this diddy league for too much longer, one suspects.

Dundee United - phwoar!
Jackie McNamara must feel awfully good when he turns to his subs bench and sees that the likes of Morgaro Gomis and David Goodwillie are available as a Plan B if needed.  He must feel even better when his first choice side play like they did at Fir Park.  His three teenagers - John Souttar, Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld - were simply delightful, with Gauld scoring twice and full-back Robertson on target too.  The board at Tannadice can stop worrying about any debts - these trio will make them millions in transfer fees.

Extra heading practice for Ross County this week
Last year's solid Ross County rearguard had one glaring weakness - a problem dealing with big strikers.  For example, Michael Ngoo, on loan at Hearts from Liverpool last season, was unstoppable on both occasions that he played The Staggies.  Unfortunately for Derek Adams, things have now regressed to the point where you don't fancy any of their defenders to win a high ball against anybody.  All four of Celtic's goals were headers from crosses into the box; conceding twice to Virgil Van Dijk can be considered a disappointment, but letting Joe Ledley score twice with his noggin is unforgivable.  County have conceded 23 goals in just 11 league games this season.  Apparently Greek left back Evangelos Oikonomou, who left the club at the end of last season, is a free agent again; I wouldn't be surprised if Adams is on the phone to him, pronto.

Partick Thistle aren't designed to come from behind
The Harry Wraggs have come from behind to pick up points only once this season, against St. Mirren; lightning didn't strike twice when they met the Buddies this time around.  Alan Archibald's philosophy has always been about grinding out results and being difficult to break down.  But now their well-documented lack of firepower has been complemented by a defensive ineptitude that the Firhill support hadn't seen since Alan Archibald took the helm in the Spring.  Is it any coincidence that, in the last four games that Mexican defender Gabriel Piccolo has started, Partick have shipped 14 goals?  They have now won just one of nine matches since the end of August, and that came courtesy of a goalkeeping blunder at Inverness.  Worrying times.

It only takes a couple of injuries
Squad depth in the Premiership, other than at Celtic Park, is so frail that losing even two or three first-choice players can cause a top-three side to play like a bottom-three side.  Motherwell were always going to find it hard enough against Dundee United's talented attack; without three first choice defenders - Steven Hammell, Shaun Hutchinson and Simon Ramsden - they had no chance.  Stuart McCall's side is probably entitled to a Mulligan on this occasion.

Barry Robson could cost Aberdeen more than one game
The veteran midfielder's sending off was unquestionably the turning point in the Dons' surprise defeat at home to Hearts.  Robson was a bit of a hot head in his younger days, but he should know better by now than to pick up yellow cards as cheap as the two he received from Iain Brines - one for encroachment at a free kick and the other for a cynical yet unnecessary foul on Jason Holt.  Robson had come on as a sub for Willo Flood, who will miss six weeks with a hamstring injury; the Aberdeen midfield will now have to do without their two best passers of the ball for a time, and will be a whole lot weaker as a result.

Weren't Inverness supposed to be unsettled?
Caley Thistle's players responded to all the rigmarole surrounding their management team in a way even their own fans didn't producing one of their most dominant performances of the season to breeze to victory at Easter Road, with their manager Terry Butcher sitting in the stand as a 'private citizen' (as the Scotsman curiously put it) ahead of his imminent switch to Hibs.  The away side's particular stars were two youth team products who were given their debuts by Butcher back in 2009 - Graeme Shinnie, who has taken to playing as an emergency right back like a duck to water and followed up his goal last week with an assist and by winning a penalty, and Nick Ross, who converted said penalty and had his best game in a long time.  The man who takes charge of this talented, professional, and hard-working squad will be one lucky bugger, I say.

Hibernian will not be easily fixed
Hibs couldn't have been any worse if Jimmy Nicholl's teamtalk had consisted of "Ach, I can't be arsed what happens today.  To hell with the lot of you".  The malaise is so deep that it's hard to know which players lack confidence, which ones can't be bothered, and which ones just aren't good enough.  I suspect Terry Butcher didn't quite realise the task he was taking on until Saturday afternoon; rumour has it that he was still sitting in the same seat at Easter Road on Monday morning, with his head in his hands.

Let me remind you - Willie Collum refereed a Champions' League quarter final last year.  This is a man who cannot tell the difference between stumbling whilst losing your balance, as Kilmarnock's Jackson Irvine did, and simulation, which is what Collum booked him for.  Irvine went on to receive a second yellow for a sliding challenge which, on replay, looked like it won the ball.  Mind you, by this point St Johnstone were already coasting to victory, with Stevie May at the forefront yet again.  May may be the only player who can stop the Young Player of the Year award heading for Tannadice.

Meanwhile, Iain Brines, from a distance of around 5 yards and with a perfect view, somehow awarded a penalty against Hearts for handball, even though the ball in fact struck Jordan McGhee square in the back.  He should be sent for anatomy lessons along with Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes, who raged against Brines for not giving Aberdeen another penalty for handball, even though on that occasion Dylan McGowan was struck in the face.

Minute's silence or no minute's silence?
I tend towards the feeling that minute's silences, (and the more modern minute of applause), happen too often at football matches; however, it does tend to be the norm that there is a moment of reflection prior to kickoff on the Saturday before Rememberance Sunday.  Whether the fact it only occurred at two matches is worthy of controversy is debatable, but given the protests by Celtic fans during previous seasons (if someone could explain the reasoning behind these protests, that would be smashing) it may be a blessing that Ross County 'forgot' to hold one.  Meanwhile, Hibs fans should be commended, as they made up for the lack of a minute's silence before kickoff by holding multiple, extended periods of silence during the match themselves.  Good for them.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Breaking down Butcher to Hibs

So, after 4 years and 281 days, Terry Butcher's successful union with Inverness Caledonian Thistle appears to be over, as the Englishman moves to take charge of Hibernian.

When Butcher pitched up in Inverness in January 2009, his managerial reputation was in the toilet after an underwhelming period coaching Sydney FC in Australia, and a nightmare spell at Brentford.  Nearly five years on, he's never been hotter property as a coach.

That's not to say that he had non-stop success in the Highlands.  He was unable to save Caley Thistle from relegation from the SPL, though the fact he came so close to doing so was a small miracle in itself.  It's never really been made public knowledge just how much of a mess Craig Brewster left behind; the repair job was remarkably swift.  His first year in the job was nothing special though - in fact, four years ago today, the club were only sixth in the First Division.  But something clearly clicked - they went unbeaten on league duty for the last 20 games of the season...though if Dundee hadn't collapsed so spectacularly they might still have missed out on promotion.

Their first season back in the SPL resulted in a decent seventh place finish; 2011/12 saw a step backwards as an injury-ravaged side stumbled to tenth in the table, but last year it all came together in spectacular fashion.  After a slow start (which had me, as recently as September 2012, questioning whether new blood was required in the dugout), ICT finished fourth in the league.  They then kept the momentum going into this season; at the time of writing they lie third, with a game in hand on second placed Aberdeen.

Most of the credit for this should, of course, go to the big man himself.  Butcher undoubtedly talks the talk - a more media-friendly manager in Scottish football there is not - and his charisma (along with his reputation from his playing days) is put to good use in attracting players to the Highlands.  He is a better tactician than he is given credit for, as shown by the evolution in playing style and formation that he's used over the last few seasons.  I've no idea where this idea of ICT being 'hammerthrowers' has come from; over the last twelve months in particular they have played some very sexy football indeed.

He has shown a good eye for a player too, for the most part.  Not many folk saw the potential in Billy McKay; even fewer felt a two year contract extension was warranted after a barren first season in Scotland.  I'm not sure many SPL managers would have tried to build a team around Andrew Shinnie either.  And the  signing of Jonny Hayes for our First Division campaign might have been the best of the lot.

That said, he has been given plenty of tools to help him succeed.  It's no coincidence that he has been more successful as a manager when he has had Maurice Malpas as his assistant.  It's probably a bit trite to describe the former Dundee United defender as the brains of the operation, but there is more than a ring of truth to it.  Butcher didn't have Malpas in tow at any of the clubs where he failed.  Another critical member of staff is goalkeeping coach and scout-extraordinaire Steve Marsella, the man primarily responsible for spotting Inverness' successful signings from England's lower leagues.  And, above all, Butcher has benefitted from the full support of the club from day one.  If the fans occasionally had gripes, the chairman never did.  Never was he under pressure from the board.  He was given the time and space to do things his own way, in a manner that seems increasingly rare at football clubs.

Caley Thistle have never had it so good, and neither, as a manager, has Terry.  He had a job for life at Inverness.  He also had a lovely house at Abriachan, near Loch Ness, and a football team that was unquestionably his.  On the other hand, it's fair to assume that he was beginning to itch for a new challenge.  The stadium is never more than half full unless Ross County or Celtic visit.  All the good football, and impressive victories made zero difference to that.  If there is one thing that will have attracted him to Hibs, it will be the prospect of serenading 15,000 fans in Easter Road, instead of 3,000 sweetie-rustlers at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium.

Will he succeed at Hibs?  I can't say I'm confident that he will.  What worries me is that he is their sixth manager in just over seven years.  It feels like those who came before him - John Collins, Mixu Paatelainen, John Hughes, Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon - were all under extreme pressure to improve things quickly.  Both Calderwood and Fenlon effectively brought in brand new squads, such were the number of signings and departures.  Butcher will need time and patience to turn this around, but so did those before him.  They didn't get it.  Will he?  For a start, he's stuck with the squad he's got until January.  I could see him going back to Inverness to try and sign players, but most of their better ones are under contract and would command transfer fees that Hibs probably couldn't pay.  Still, Butcher has done more at Motherwell and Inverness than any of his five predecessors had done as manager before arriving at Easter Road.  He is better placed to succeed then any Hibs boss since Tony Mowbray left.

And where do Caley Thistle go from here?  It is likely that Malpas and Marsella are also on their way down the A9, though memories of Malpas' rotten spell as head honcho at Motherwell (and his subsequent failure as Swindon manager) always cast a shadow over the prospect of appointing him as Butcher's successor.  Kenny Cameron has proven himself an excellent chairman since taking over the role, but this will be his biggest test yet.  At this moment in time, it's not at all clear who the next manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle will be.

What is clear is that there is plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth by the ICT support, who in general recognise that it probably doesn't get any better than Terry Butcher.  But then we thought the same when Steve Paterson left, and when John Robertson left, and when Craig Brewster left...well, the first time he left.  Yet we did all right in the end.

And, while there is considerable disappointment that Butcher left the Highlands for a club lower than us in the league, rather than waiting for a more prestigious job in England (or, perhaps, at Ibrox) to come up, most fans will choose to focus on all the good he has done for the club, and to see him off with grateful thanks, if not necessarily their full blessing.

They will also be keen to point out that, so far, not one of the men who has managed Inverness Caledonian Thistle - Sergei Baltacha, Steve Paterson, John Robertson, Craig Brewster, Charlie Christie, and Brewster again - went on to succeed as managers after they left the club.  Time will tell if Butcher will prove the exception to the rule.