Thursday, December 18, 2014

Between Ashley and the deep blue sea

A work colleague of mine happens to be a Rangers fan.  Now, it's a given that all Rangers fans answer any awkward question about the club with a loud shout of "We are the people!", but he's one of an increasingly large bunch of them who say it with an ironic grin.  He told me the other day how his oldest son, brought up as a Teddy Bear, has told him that he'd rather support Caley Thistle, as it was more enjoyable.  What an age we live in!

My colleague bought some shares in the club when they had that IPO a couple of winters back, the one that raised much of the money that has been subsequently pissed up against a wall.  His motivation for this was not profit (though that was his motivation when, several years previously, he actually bought Celtic shares!).  Part of it was loyalty.  Part of it was the opportunity to pitch up at the annual AGM.

He's taken a day off work to travel down from Inverness to Glasgow for this year's event, scheduled for Monday.  He did the same last year and had a whale of a time.  He's been looking forward to this one for weeks.  The entertainment on offer beats any Christmas pantomime.

And a pantomime it is...except, of course, for the lack of a hero.  There are, however, plenty of villains to go round, as I detailed in my rather successful 'A to Z guide to Newco Rangers' from a few weeks ago.  Auditioning for the role of Abanazar, whether they like it or not, are the current board, particularly the Easdale brothers, and Mike Ashley.

With most of the more dubious board members of the past two years having left the stage, James and Sandy Easdale seem, in the minds of the fans, to be the public face of the club's ownership...though, of course, the major shareholders are offshore hedge funds and companies who we know little or nothing about.  They are certainly the ones who stick their necks above the parapet most often.  And they put their money where their mouths are - Sandy provided an interest-free loan to help get the club through the summer.  Unfortunately, their reputation precedes them; Sandy was convicted of VAT fraud in 1997, and let's just point out again that, if you put "Easdales Rangers" into Google, one of the search engine's suggestions is 'gangsters'.

Whilst they've helped provide a life support machine for Rangers, the Easdales do not have sufficient cash to keep it going until the club has finally stopped haemorrhaging money; they need £8million of external funds to keep them going till the end of 2015, according to their recent accounts.  This is where Ashley, Sports Direct mogul and owner of Newcastle United comes in.  The regime at Ibrox previously gave Sports Direct a ridiculously favourable merchandizing contract which remains a nice little earner.  If he wants to continue milking that particular cash cow, he needs to prop the club up.

And so far, the evidence is that he is willing to do so - he increased his shareholding in October, and provided a recent loan to get Rangers through to the New Year in one piece.  A billionaire, he has more than enough cash to rescue them.  But the fans, who have so long hoped for a rich sugar daddy to come in and lavish his untold wealth on the playing squad (a la David Murray), know that this isn't Ashley's game.  That's because, at Newcastle, he's proven himself to be in it for the money.  If I was to guess, I'd say that, under Ashley, the Rangers team would be just strong enough to finish a distant second to Celtic in the league.  If that got 30,000 punters through the Ibrox turnstiles, and kept the shirt sales ticking over, that'd probably leave him with a nice wee profit.

But it probably wouldn't result in 'Zadok The Priest' being played over the tannoys in the near future.

But it's not a given that Ashley will take control; for a start, the SFA are already unhappy with his influence, which goes far beyond his 9% shareholding.  Their rules state that no-one can have significant influence over the running of two clubs.  Therefore, whilst he rules the roost at Newcastle, he can't do the same in Govan.  But one imagines that, if Ashley wants his way, a team of high-priced lawyers may be able to beat our governing body into submission.  And, if Rangers claim that Ashley is the only man who can prevent administration, would the SFA really put their foot down and potentially contribute to their collapse?

Add in the supporters' overwhelming hatred of him, though, and the cost of turning this shambles into a functioning business, and he may yet walk away.  Then what?  Who will save Rangers then?  The only other man wealthy enough to save the day, Dave King, has plenty of issues of his own, though his previous convictions in South Africa for tax evasion don't seem to upset Rangers fans particularly much.  It's worth noticing that, for all his bluster, King has never actually bothered to buy any shares - a simple, straightforward and, at the moment, cheap (18p each!) way to gain some influence.

So Rangers are, in effect, caught between Ashley and the deep blue sea.  Either he has his way, or there's probably no way back from the abyss.

So next week's AGM will be a hell of a show.  And that's without even mentioning, the warm-up act, a certain Mr McCoist, who will be worth the admission fee alone.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Under Pressure - dum dum dum da da dum dum...
Four-nil to Partick Thistle!  

It was a scoreline that no one saw coming, a result that saw ICT lose their unbeaten record at home and bust many a coupon up and down the country.  Some punters were so agitated by the result that they took to phoning up Caley Thistle to scream abuse at their staff!

Partick Thistle just seem to have the edge over Inverness.  The result on Saturday made it an "aggregate" score of 7 - 1 in favour of the Glasgow Jaggies after two meetings this season.  In both matches Partick have been nothing short of magnificent.  Why don't they play like this against anyone else?

Partick stop ICT playing by pressuring them, and they do it far better than any other side in the league.  The style of football John Hughes likes to play is well known but ICT have been so good at passing the ball about, and doing it quickly, that not many sides have gotten near them.  Partick however were not just pressuring them when they had the ball but they were on top of them almost before they received the pass.

At goal kicks Dean Brill likes to play it short to a centre-back or knock it wide to a full-back. Thistle knew this and kept no fewer than six men inside the ICT half to stifle them.  The second goal for Thistle typified this - ICT conceded possession high up the pitch thanks to the harassment, leading to Ryan Stevenson's second of the day.  ICT seldom had a chance to release the ball from defence and start an attacking move with their opponents swarming all over them. 

It is almost impossible to maintain a high tempo pressing game as Partick did on Saturday, certainly not for 90 minutes anyway. But if sides can force errors from ICT and capitalise on them to score early to build a respectable lead before half time then Caley Thistle will struggle to recover. AS

Dundee United are not title challengers
There were some crazy folk out there who said last week that Dundee United might be good enough to challenge Celtic for the league.  These people probably also believe Elvis is still alive and wear tin-foil hats to prevent the government reading their thoughts.

United have been scintillating at their best, but had lost four league games even before they crashed to Aberdeen at Tannadice.  In fairness, they were put on the back foot early on by Radoslaw Ciernziak's early blunder (if I had dropped that shot during five-a-sides, I'd have been slaughtered), but they managed only a single shot on target.  Hardly the efforts of title challengers.

But, when you look at the teamsheet, there's remarkably little to choose between the sides.  Aberdeen, certainly, are as worthy of labelling as 'dark horses'.  That is, they're not worthy either.

Jackie McNamara will be concerned by his side's second half performance though - at 2-0 down, they offered nothing.  This comes only a week after they downed tools with 20 minutes left in Dingwall and nearly squandered a 3-0 lead.  They don't seem to realize that matches last 90 minutes, and too often this season they have given up when the going has got tough.  That's got to change if United, and not Aberdeen, are to finish second, which is a very realistic ambition indeed. LS

County can't afford such profligacy
Surely events at Fir Park on Saturday were enough to make a nominative determinist out of even the most ardent skeptic. By all accounts young Tony Dingwall was the outstanding player on the park, and two goals against relegation rivals will do more to ingratiate himself with the fans than sharing a name with their home town ever could. With a clear bottom three beginning to emerge, earning a point away to one of your rivals with a last minute goals should only be really looked at as a positive.

Yet County really should have won this game quite comfortably. I imagine professional footballers have nightmares about missing open goals against their former clubs, a nightmare that Paul Quinn lived at the weekend. Who knows how Michael Gardyne managed to smash the ball against the keeper from two yards out, and those were only two of the twenty shots County had in this game, eight of which were on target.

And they weren’t much better better at the back where some very stand-offish defending allowed Motherwell to score from two of their meagre three shots on target. New ‘Well manager Ian Barraclough was watching from the stands before taking charge of the team this week and no doubt would have been disappointed to see his new team come back from a goal down only to concede an equaliser with the last kick of the game. But what should be of much greater concern to him is the fact that they were so comprehensively outplayed at home to one of their closest rivals.

Both these teams know that every point will be precious over the next few months, especially now that they can’t rely on the one things that will have helped them sleep at night so far this season - for Tommy Craig is no longer the St Mirren manager. IM

St Mirren aren't worth getting out of bed for
You can only beat what's in front of you.  St. Mirren had pretty much given up on this game already, given that they chose last midweek to sack Tommy Craig and start looking for a replacement; if this match was an audition for Gary Teale, it would be like asking an actor to play the role of Hamlet without a script in front of him.

But whilst Thursday's defeat in Zagreb could be partly blamed on rather mediocre motivation amongst the Celtic squad, this was a fully professional performance - though scoring three times in the opening twenty minutes helps.  Those who turned up to cheer them on were treated to yet another virtuoso performance by Norwegian midfielder Stefan Johansen, an excellent turn by James Forrest and a standout effort by Anthony Stokes, who is beginning to revel in his 'wide forward' role.

Unfortunately, not very many turned up.  The official attendance figure was 44,827 - absolutely laughable going by the TV pictures, unless everyone was sitting on the roof.  Maybe half that?  At most?  The apathy is worrying, particularly given this game wasn't even on television.  And it's a shame, because Celtic are playing some very decent football right now.

What will it take for the seats to be filled again?  Sadly, I suspect only the return of their beloved Rangers to the top flight will do it.  And that might be a while yet... LS

Killie in a tailspin
It's now one point out of the last eighteen available for Kilmarnock (which of course doesn't include their humiliating cup capitulation at Ibrox), who dropped out of the top six and below St. Johnstone after losing at home to them.  Going by Killie's current form, it's hard to believe that we ever contemplated that they might finish higher than the Perth Saints, who have dragged themselves up the table in recent weeks.

Allan Johnston picked an experienced side for this one - a recurrent theme whenever his side hit the rocks last season - but one wonders if he would be better going with his youngsters.  Robbie Muirhead, unquestionably their most dangerous player in this match, was the only Academy product to start, with five others on the bench.  Certainly there's no discernible reason why Johnston prefers the likes of Darryl Westlake (who gave away a penalty) and Manuel Pascali to the youthful Lee Ashcroft and Ross Barbour, or why Craig Slater, outstanding last season, can't get a game.

Of course, the current absence of Alexei Eremenko doesn't help.  With a busy but limited midfield duo of Jamie Hamill and Sammy Clingan, the team inevitably become more direct, but the inclusion of Lee Miller as a target man hasn't made them more dangerous.  They've scored only three goals in their last seven matches.

Certainly Kilmarnock are a bottom six side.  But they do have enough points on the board to avoid a relegation battle...don't they? LS

Neil provides some steel
Accies' player-manager Alex Neil has been more manager than player this season - the win over Dundee was only his fourth league start of the campaign - but I imagine that, with his side going through a rocky patch, he might have included himself for this one even if Jon Routledge hadn't got stupidly sent off at Pittodrie last week.  His young team needed a bit of experience and know-how in the centre of midfield, and Neil certainly provided it.  At 33, and with a lengthy history of injuries, he won't be involved every week, but he's still good enough to do a job at this level.

As an aside, is it just me or does Mickael Antoine-Curier only ever break into a sprint when he's celebrating a goal?  He never seems anywhere near as quick in open play.  Mind you, his volley was a strike worth celebrating... LS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taxi for Tommy!

One typical Tommy Craig pose...

At least Tommy Craig avoided the ignominy of having the shortest reign of any St. Mirren manager, but then it will take some doing to wrest that particular title away from Iain Munro, in charge for just 24 hours in September 1996.

In the end, Craig lasted less than seven months as boss in Paisley, presiding over just nineteen matches.  His record?  Three wins, three draws, thirteen defeats, thirteen goals scored, thirty-three goals conceded.  One of those wins came against League One Dunfermline in the League Cup.

Nineteen games doesn't seem like very long.  Yet it is a rather damning indictment of his reign that it feels like he could have been dismissed much earlier.

Part of that is because his appointment in the first place was utterly stupid.  Danny Lennon's departure in the summer was not unexpected, nor was it unjustified; whilst he had won the League Cup in 2013, St. Mirren never finished higher than eighth in his four seasons.  Until a very late resurgence in form at the end of last seasons, they were not so much flirting with a relegation playoff as inviting it around to the house for a nightcap.
and another typical Tommy Craig pose...

The Buddies seemed to have gone stale under Lennon, a likeable man (despite his weird references to himself in the third person during interviews) who got the team passing the ball around, but who struggled badly in the transfer market, too often bringing in players who should have been in the bin rather than the bargain bin.

St. Mirren needed new men and new ideas - and instead they went for Lennon's assistant, a man linked to the previous failed regime, whose managerial CV was not worth speaking about.  Sure, he had a good reputation as a coach, having previously assisted Billy McNeill at Celtic, Roy Aitken at Aberdeen and John Collins at Hibs, as well as seven years as first team coach at Newcastle.  As a manager, not so.  Aside from five years in charge of Scotland's under-21s in the nineties, the only other club he had managed was Belgian side Charleroi.  He only lasted nineteen games there, too.  At Charleroi he won only two.

...and another typical Tommy Craig pose...
His transfer market record has, unsurprisingly, been reminiscent of his predecessor's.  Whilst some of this is down to bad luck - Ellis Plummer has been injured, while former Derby prodigy Callum Ball has to spend more time getting his weight down than practicing his shooting - others certainly weren't.  The injury-prone Isaac Osbourne can't be trusted to play very often.  Meanwhile, anyone who has watched forward James Marwood (signed from Gateshead) will agree that he doesn't belong at this level, for example.  But Marwood's dad is the Chief Exec of Manchester City, who have loaned the club a few youngsters.  Coincidence?  I couldn't possibly say.

Meanwhile, on the field, they've been dreadful.  Of course, the injuries to talismanic forward Steven Thompson haven't helped.  Thompson has started only two league games, and was withdrawn at half-time due to injury in both.  Craig has sounded like a stuck record in interviews, blaming Thommohawk's absence for their impotence up front (only three league goals at home!).  But relying on a 36 year old striker was always going to be a risky strategy.  Craig didn't help himself with a curious announcement at the club's AGM a fortnight ago where he held up a piece of paper with, he claimed, the names of several strikers that he had tried and failed to sign in the summer.  But he refused to let anyone actually see the piece of paper!

Tactically, his master plan has not been clear.  I can't tell whether he wanted to them to play at a fast or slow tempo, with a direct style or a passing one, with an attacking or a defensive mindset, simply because they were so poor at keeping possession or holding their shape anyway.  Meanwhile, his recent decision to blood youngsters Jack Baird and Stevie Mallan was not a courageous move but a desperate one.  Neither looks ready for first team action, and many fans felt that, by playing them, Craig was trying to protect himself from criticism for bad results, as he could say "well, I'm playing a bunch of kids".  But debuting them away at Hamilton Accies, where the side were thumped 3-0, had a feeling of lambs to the slaughter about it.  And playing Thompson, just back from three months out, three times in eight days, resulting in another muscle strain this weekend, was a recipe for disaster, but that's how desperate things were at St. Mirren Park.

...and...well, you get the picture!
If there is one silver lining to be taken from this sorry situation, it is that St. Mirren are, remarkably, not adrift at the bottom of the table.  In fact, they're not even bottom, with goal difference keeping them above Ross County.  Motherwell are only two points better off.  But, having seen all three teams in recent weeks, there is a spirit and scrap about the other two clubs that St. Mirren simply don't have.  Craig's replacement has a job on his hands.  His first task must be to strengthen the squad, particularly in central defence and up front.  There are two very special players at the club - Kenny McLean and John McGinn - who have regressed this season, and who need to be revitalized.

But expect Motherwell (under a new manager themselves) and Ross County (with the benefit of their chairman's cheque book) to improve during the transfer window too.  Will St. Mirren's board be able to provide the funds required to build a squad capable of remaining in the Premiership?  Tommy Craig's terrible tenure has left St. Mirren in a terribly deep hole, which will take some climbing out of.  To most, and with justification, they are favourites for the drop.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Orchestrator Johansen on song again
I've often been critical of Celtic this season for their failure to win by convincing margins (seven of their eleven league victories have been by the odd goal), but this game was 1-0 going on 11-0.  The champions' attacking play was a joy to watch at times, with repeated flicks and backheels and dummies.  Stefan Johansen was a particular joy; the Norwegian has been terrific this season and orchestrated proceedings so effectively that one expected to see a baton in his hand.  He should now probably join John Guidetti and Virgil Van Dijk in the 'far too good for this diddy league' category.

But Celtic's finishing let them down, and whilst Dan Twardzik had an excellent game in goal for Motherwell, the truth is that many sitters were passed up - John Guidetti (twice), James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre were particularly guilty.

So too was 'Well sub Lee Erwin though, who managed to head wide late on; his team, under the cosh for the whole match, could have nicked a point.  It was an ignominious cameo from Erwin, who then got himself booked for an embarrassing dive.  His day maybe wasn't quite so bad as teammate Simon Ramsden's - partly to blame for the goal, the English central defender chased shadows all afternoon until he eventually decided to hack one - and 'hack' does not quite do his red-card-inducing assault on James Forrest.

And even then, neither had the worst game of any Motherwell player.  Fraser Kerr was the main culprit for the goal, with a terrible backpass, and then spent half an hour being skinned down the Celtic left before, on his first venture forward, he twisted his ankle.  Heck, even his single attempt at a long throw-in was rubbish.  LS

Jack inspires Aberdeen revenge over Accies
Back in warm, sunny October, there was no finer team in the land than Hamilton Academical.  After starting the season as relegation favourites, and playing like it in their opener against Inverness, they went on a stunning eleven game unbeaten run.  It all came to a head when they picked up three points at Parkhead and followed that up by blowing Aberdeen away 3-0 at home.

But they have gone on to win just one game since them, and as it was against St Mirren it barely counts.  Normal service has been resumed and there was a nice symmetry to the score on Saturday in a game that was a pretty good example of what these teams are; a pretty good home side that will be pushing for second place come May, and pretty average visitors that are on slide and lacking confidence but won’t be in any real danger of relegation.

Aberdeen fans, being Aberdeen fans, spent a lot of time complaining that it wasn’t more, but this was a very efficient victory with Ryan Jack impressing in particular.  Jack has established himself as an important part of this team and it will be interesting to see how he develops, and Gordon Strachan should be keeping an eye on him.

Hamilton were pretty awful and their “defending” for Niall McGinn’s goal was a particular lowlight, although Jon Routledge getting a red card for either wiping two Aberdeen players out with one terrible tackle or for punching Jack for having the audacity to be one of said two players was also quite spectacular. IM

County's late rally doesn't disguise their failings
My word, Jim McIntyre's an optimist.  The Ross County manager bemoaned Yoann Arquin's decision to stay on his feet when clipped by Radoslaw Ciernziak, thus apparently denying them a penalty which would have been a critical turning point in this match.  Except County were already 3-1 down at that time, and, frankly, the 'contact' was so minimal that I'm not convinced that Arquin's minimal stumble before losing control of the ball justified a foul anyway.

To be honest, County's late rally allowed McIntyre to claim that his side had played well and been let down by poor finishing; the BBC report's claim that 'The Staggies produced a fine display against Dundee United' was clearly written by someone who thought the home side were wearing orange.  From the moment that Paul Quinn gifted Nadir Ciftci the opener till the Turkish forward struck his second and the visitors' third, there was only one team in Dingwall.  County were a defensive shambles - Quinn and Lewis Toshney made up their ninth (!) different central defensive partnership of the season, and it showed - whilst in attack Jake Jervis got no service, whilst Joe Cardle always gives the impression of a winger who can make something happen...but then never actually does.

That said, County showed enough heart and scrap that they were able to yank themselves back into the contest when United downed tools at 3-0.  But for the previous 40 minutes they were outstanding, with Chris Erskine and especially Stuart Armstrong absolutely flying.  After a poor patch earlier this season, Armstrong is back to his best, producing a trademark lung-busting burst from midfield to score.  His side certainly look very good bets for 'best of the rest', whilst County, at least, still look a hell of a lot better than Motherwell or St. Mirren. LS

Forward thinking needed
Even Barry Hearn couldn't have talked up proceedings at Firhill, where both teams managed a solitary goal and very little else of note, other than an amusing little contretemps between teammates Mark Connolly and Jamie Hamill.  Throw in some clothes made of animal skin and a couple of wooden clubs and it could have been two male neanderthals having a spat.

The lack of goalmouth action wasn't surprising really, given the forwards on display.  Partick's crop are so inspiring that they played midfielder Ryan Stevenson (no league goals in 12 games this season) up front, with Kris Doolan (1 goal in his last 11 games) only a sub.  For Killie, winger Tope Obadeyi notched up his fifth of the season, but up top they had Lee Miller (yet to score for the club) and Josh Magennis (2 goals in his last 17 appearances for club and country, both of which came in the same game).

This game at least ended Kilmarnock's run of five consecutive league and cup defeats.  And, remarkably given their recent run, they are back in the top six.  I can't help feeling that it'll be temporary though.  Their lack of confidence was obvious in this game; they were on top in the early stages and deservedly in front, but retreated into their shell after conceding,  Partick, meanwhile, have won only one of eight in the league, and only one of their league wins has come against a team above them in the table.  So their current ninth spot feels rather appropriate. LS

St. Mirren couldn't score in a brothel
Certainties in life include death, taxes, Nigel Farage saying at least one stupid thing a week, and St. Mirren failing to win at home - they've picked up only one point out of a possible twenty-four in Paisley this season, with St. Johnstone the latest beneficiaries of some Greater Glasgow generosity.

To be honest, the game was up as soon as Michael O'Halloran blasted the Perth Saints into an early lead.  That's because, in six of those eight home games so far, St. Mirren haven't even scored a goal.  Two of their three strikes on their own patch barely count, since they came against a Ross County defence that outdoes Santa at giving away gifts.

Tommy Craig has been saying all season that he needs talismanic striker Steven Thompson back.  Well, Thommohawk returned last weekend in the cup, played in the midweek replay, and then started this game...only to be subbed at half-time with another injury.  In hindsight, Tommy, maybe you shouldn't have made a 36 year old play three games in a week  immediately after a long layoff? LS

ICT can win ugly
Caley Thistle have won admirers for their football this season but the 2 - 1 victory against Dundee marked a different side to the team - when it came down to it, with Inverness not hitting the heights that they have already this season, they were still able to win, and win ugly.

The victory on Saturday meant ICT are now undefeated in their last seven visits to Dens Park.  Both sides largely cancelled each other out with defences very much on top.  David Clarkson was unable to net his ninth goal in nine games and ICT were left attempting long range efforts for most of the first half.

In the second half, with Dundee leading 1 - 0, Inverness drew level with a fortunate goal from Billy Mckay and just before 90 minutes were up Ryan Christie started and finished a fine counter attacking move to secure the win. 

People often say winning when playing poorly is the mark of champions. This might not be entirely applicable to Inverness who are unlikely to keep pace with Celtic at the top of the league for the entire season.  Nonetheless, with each passing game the confidence grows and grows and fans start to believe that they may just hang on to second place and secure European football at long last.  AS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cup tickets a step too far

There were some delicious ties in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup this weekend; no fewer than five all-Premiership clashes, plus Hearts v Celtic and Rangers v Kilmarnock.  As is the way with football, some of these lived up to the hype - the match between Dundee and Aberdeen was pulsating, whereas Sunday's games were a let-down thanks to Morgaro Gomis' early misdemeanour and an effort from Killie at Ibrox that only amounted to slightly more than lying down to their opponents.

Regardless of the quality of the action on display though, there was a worrying trend on show this weekend - crap attendances.

Tynecastle, sold out for league games against the likes of Cowdenbeath, had plenty of empty seats for the visit of the champions.  There were less than 2,000 hardy souls at St. Mirren Park for a game against ICT, and only a few hundred more at St. Johnstone and Partick Thistle.  Even Dundee's home gate was vastly inflated by a travelling support which actually made up more than half the crowd.  (I'll not mention Ibrox because there are a gazillion other reasons why three men and a dog turned up there)

Caley Thistle and St. Mirren will replay their tie in the Highlands as soon as tomorrow - apparently because John Hughes "wants it out of the way".  So, with a couple of days notice, on a cold Tuesday night in December, the entrance fee for adults will be £18.  If this paragraph were a tweet, I'd finish it with #ripoff.

It's unclear who is to blame for this craziness - after all, ticket prices for cup ties have to be agreed between the two teams.  St. Mirren, whose travelling support will be virtually nil, would presumably prefer that everything be done to milk as much money out of the home supporters as possible.

But the attendance figures will be embarrassing.  Supporters are already paying through the nose to watch their side play in the flesh.  My season ticket at Inverness costs £340 a year.  I took my father-in-law to the recent home match with Hamilton. His ticket?  £26.  Heck, my income puts me in the top tax bracket, and I still vomited a little into my mouth at that.  God knows how the majority of supporters feel.

As this weekend proved, there is only so much that clubs can squeeze supporters before their wallets say "no more".  But it's simply a prominent symptom of a wide problem.  Football is too expensive to watch in Scotland, and it's turning people off.  But instead of trying to attract fans back, which will surely help in the long-term, the clubs are focussed on simply fleecing the die-hards who still wouldn't dream of missing a game.  There's no future in this strategy that simply drains the goodwill from the mugs who go along every fortnight.

Well, folks, even mugs like me have to draw the line somewhere.  £18 for a cup replay against St. Mirren on a cold Tuesday night in December seems like a good place.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

An A to Z of newco Rangers

So this evening, Rangers announced their latest accounts - a loss of £8 million, and a need for another £8 million just to keep them going.  It's ridiculous...but no more ridiculous than most things that have happened since liquidation in 2012.  In case anyone has lost track of all the craziness that's being going on down Govan way over the last two and a half years, I thought that this might be a good way of chronicling all the A to Z of all the main characters and plot points in this whole sorry saga...which still has some way to go...

A is for...Mike Ashley, unpopular owner of Sports Direct and Newcastle United, who holds about 9% of shares in Rangers and recently provided loans in order to keep the club functioning.  In exchange, he has much more control over operations at Ibrox, and it seems a reasonable bet that he may yet move to take full charge.  Going by his record on Tyneside, Ashley is in this to make a profit; the club's merchandising deal with Sports Direct is lucrative.  Rangers fans fear, understandably, that he won't be keen to spend lavishly on the team.

B is for...erstwhile finance director Brian Stockbridge, much maligned for his role in the club's share issue and for his steep salary.  Or it could be for midfielder Ian Black, who joined the club in the summer of 2012 from Hearts, and has been, for the most part, underwhelming in midfield.  In September 2013, he was suspended and fined for gambling on multiple matches over a seven year period, including betting against his own team on occasions.

C is for...the Dallas Cowboys, who in 2012 were, according to Rangers chief exec Charles Green, setting up a partnership agreement with the club.  The thing is, no-one had actually told the Dallas Cowboys, who were completely oblivious to this.

D is for...Duff and Phelps, the administrators of Oldco Rangers, whose actions during the process seemed hugely fishy to everyone.  Three employees of the firm were arrested this month in connection with "the alleged fraudulent takeover" of the club by Craig Whyte in 2011.

E is for...Sandy and James Easdale, owners of McGill's Bus Services, who are significant shareholders in the club; Sandy, who was imprisoned in 1997 for VAT fraud, is a director, and has not been shy about putting money into the club - including a loan in the summer and taking up the recent opportunity to buy extra shares.  Curiously, putting 'Easdales' into the google search bar results in the prompt 'gangsters', but I couldn't possibly comment on that.

F is for...Francisco Sandaza, the Spanish striker signed from St. Johnstone in the summer of 2012.  Previously a regular goalscorer in the SPL, he scored a grand total of two goals for the club.  He then admitted to a hoax caller (who was posing as an agent) that he was on £4,500/week at Rangers, and that he was only at the club for the money.  He never played for them again and was released before the end of the season.  

G is for...Charles Green.  I simply haven't got time to list all the craziness he was involved in, but thankfully the BBC did so here.  How does he sleep at night?  Why, in a huge French Chateau that he bought with the proceeds from his time at Ibrox.

H is for...Head of Communications James Traynor, former Daily Record hack and BBC Scotland shock-jockey, who was Rangers' equivalent of the Iraqi Information Minister during his 11 months at the club.  His last ever column for the Daily Record remains legendary, for all the wrong reasons, among Scottish football fans.

I is for...IPO or Initial Public Offering, which raised more than £20million in December 2012.  Where is the money now?  It certainly isn't in the club's bank account.  All the money brought in from share issues, investors, gate receipts etc. - more than £60 million total in just over two years - is all gone.

J is for...Jon Daly, the big Irish striker signed in the summer of 2013 from Dundee United.  Daly more than doubled his salary in making the move.  A decent goalscorer in League One, he has been largely stuck on the bench this season.  That's not surprising, considering his knees are so wrecked that he can't train two days in a row.  You'd think concerns would have been raised during his medical.

K is for...Kris Boyd, 31, and Kenny Miller, 34, the veteran strikers signed this summer to try and replicate their glory days together from six years ago.  The duo, who earn roughly £10,000/week between them, have managed a total of six league goals so far.

L is for...Lewis Macleod, the young midfield player who is the only shining light of the whole saga.  To have developed so well in such a shambolic setup reflects on what a talent this kid is.  He will go on to much, much better things.

M is for...the manager, Mister Alistair Murdoch McCoist.  He hasn't come even close to building a squad which justifies the second highest wage bill in the country.  His tactics are archaic and almost unwatchable at times.  Yet until recently at least, he was making £800,000 per annum.  He's clearly not still in a job because of his competence, so one wonders if it is because he is too expensive to sack.

N is for...nine.  That's the number of points that, at the time of writing, Hearts lead the SPFL Championship by.  A side consisting mostly of youngsters, augmented by a few canny veterans, operating on a sensible budget, they are everything that Rangers should have been.

O is for...offshore companies like Laxey Partners, the Isle Of Man-based Hedge Fund group who are the club's largest shareholders.  Who are they, and what do they want with Rangers?  No-one's particularly sure.

P is for...the racial slur, which I won't print, that Charles Green used towards fellow director Imran Ahmad, and which ultimately led to Green's exit.  Ahmad went on to sue the club for £500,000 related to bonus payments; the matter was ultimately settled out-of-court after he managed to get some of their assets frozen. 

Q is for...Queen of the South.  The Dumfries side are just four points behind Rangers in the Championship, despite operating on a relative shoestring.  They also won on penalties at Ibrox in the Challenge Cup in 2012.  (if you can come up with anything better for 'Q', please let me know!)

R is for...Ramsdens Cup.  Rangers have yet to win the tournament for the SPFL's lower division teams, and turned in an abject performance in last season's final, deservedly won in extra time by Raith Rovers.  Now badged as the Petrofac Training Cup, they can lift the trophy this year if they can beat Alloa in the semi-final next week and then Livingston in the final. It could also be for Rafat Rizvi, the convicted fraudster wanted by Interpol who met with the club earlier this year.

S is for...Sons of Struth, the fans group named after former Rangers boss Bill Struth.  They organize lots of protests and boycotts, and moan to the press a lot.  What have they accomplished?  Well, the powers that be don't exactly seem to be quivering in their boots, so I'd say not much.

T is for...David Templeton.  In August 2012, the Hearts winger scored at Anfield in the Europa League qualifiers.  Within a few days, he signed for Rangers for a whopping £700,000.  So far, he's scored 25 goals, at the cost of £32,000 per goal.  Since the start of last season, he's started just 14 league games.  Value for money?

U is for...Dundee United, who appear to be hell-bent on winding Rangers up at every opportunity.  Not only have they knocked them out of the Scottish Cup in each of the last two seasons (including last season's semi-final at Ibrox), but they also poached teenage prospect Charlie Telfer when his contract expired in the summer.  The clubs are still haggling over a compensation fee, while Telfer proved last week that he is capable of performing in the top flight.

W is for...Craig Whyte, the supposed self-made billionaire who owned the oldco when it went bust, and who has been hounding the club for money ever since.  A warrant was issued for his arrest this month in connection with a fraud investigation, and he was picked up by Mexican police this week.  One can only hope that, at the time, he was wearing a sombrero and a fake moustache, and going by the name of 'Miguel Sanchez'.

X is for...the extraordinary wage bill that the club has had - £8 million per season for the last two seasons, with players such as the aforementioned Black, Sandaza and Templeton on salaries of £5,000/week or more.  Other signings have included the likes of Emilson Cribari (because everyone knows that you need a veteran Brazilian centre half in order to win the Scottish third division) and Arnold Peralta (because everyone knows that you need a Honduran midfielder in order to win Scottish League One).  Meanwhile, veterans Lee McCulloch and Neil Alexander TUPE'd their huge contracts across from the Oldco; as of last December, the latter was considering legal action over money owed.  Captain McCulloch is on at least £7,000 per week.

Y is for...the youth setup, which has produced very little in the last two and a bit seasons aside from Macleod and Fraser Aird.  In 2012-13, youth team products started a total of 160 league games between them.  Last season that total dropped to 67 league games, and this season it stands at 18, with only Aird and Macleod having started a match.  No wonder Telfer moved on.

Z is  That's the number of Scottish Cups, League Cups and Challenge Cups Rangers have won in the last two and a bit seasons.  In that time, Aberdeen, St. Johnstone, St. Mirren, Queen of the South and Raith Rovers, all sides operating on much smaller budgets, have won tournaments that Rangers were competing in.

If anyone has some impressive alternatives to my suggestions for each letter, please leave a comment, and I'll add them if they're funny (and not particularly libellous!)


Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

St. Mirren need a regime change
Tommy Craig had a fortnight to think about how to approach a trip to New Douglas Park - and the best he could come up with was to send out a team of kids?  Craig's selection, which included two debuting teenagers, was not a courageous "if you're good enough, you're old enough" decision, but instead a desperate one based on the hope that it might appease the fans and stop them getting on his back.  This wasn't about giving youngsters experience - this was about throwing lambs to the slaughter.  It was cowardly.

So there was no surprise that it backfired spectacularly; the Buddies offered nothing until they were three goals down and even their late rally came as Accies had taken their foot off the gas.  I seem to remember a similar teamsheet being picked by Craig Brewster at the end of his Dundee United tenure - they lost 5-1 and he was sacked the next week.

In his post-match interview, Craig yet again took the opportunity to hang himself with the minimal rope offered, claiming his 4-5-1 formation "would have been 4-3-3 in attack" if they had got any control in midfield, but hadn't worked; however, when asked if he should have tried a different system, he insisted otherwise.

In his defence, it would be difficult for any manager to get a string of results with this squad, even more so given the chronic injury problems.  But Craig is clearly out of his depth.  It would take a brave man to suggest that things will get sufficiently better when everyone is fit.  If St. Mirren are to stay up, they need a new manager. LS

Telfer stars for impressive Dundee United
Few clubs have developed as much exciting young talent as Dundee United over the last few years. While they have undoubtedly had a good start to the season, especially at Tannadice, they perhaps haven’t been as easy on the eye as they were last year.

Hopefully, Saturday’s win against Kilmarnock is a sign of things to come, as they continued their good home form thanks to three lovely goals. Stuart Armstrong and Charlie Telfer particularly impressed, and Nadir Ciftci’s opener was as sweet a strike as you would have seen anywhere in Scotland this weekend.

As a Rangers fan I find it difficult watch Telfer play well. The idea that the likes of Stevie Smith and Ian Black would be seen as better options in any team is obviously deeply troubling, and no doubt the circumstances behind his move are as much a source of joy for Arabs as his good performance on Saturday.

Let’s hope the good form continues, along with that of Inverness and potentially Aberdeen, and Celtic are kept under a bit of pressure into the new year.  IM

How long can the good times last in Inverness?
The ever informative @SPLStats twitter feed noted that there has never been a draw between ICT and Motherwell in Inverness.  For a long time on Saturday that statistic looked under threat as Motherwell held ICT at bay for most of he second half despite offering zero attacking threat.  But the relentless pressure from the home side told and Marley Watkins and Josh Meekings struck late for the home side.

 It was another fantastic win which keeps Inverness level with Celtic at the top of the league.  John Hughes continues to confound his critics; having established a passing game to great effect. he has now meshed it his predecessor's more direct style of play, so that his side have multiple foci of attack.  Marley Watkins maintained his great form and was unlucky not to get a hat trick with two late efforts that crashed off the woodwork.  With Billy Mckay also passing up some good chances and Dan Twardzik making several saves in the Motherwell goal, the scoreline could have been much more lopsided. This ICT side is playing some fantastic football that deserves more attention from the local population than it currently gets.

The question is - how long will all of this last?  We've already had the agent of Graeme Shinnie, a player who deserves to be playing at a higher level, suggesting that the left back is unlikely to sign a new deal and will move on in the summer.  Fortunately, none of this seemed to affect Shinnie who turned in another excellent performance but the Caley Thistle fans must accept that the chances of keeping him are slim.  That is likely also true of the aforementioned Watkins, Mckay and Meekings. All are out of contract in the summer and not likely to be short of admirers given their performances over recent months.  Having overcome the doubters, Hughes now faces the potential challenge of reshaping the squad next summer. All the more reason to appreciate the present; this is a terrific team, and it is a travesty that they aren't playing in front of a bigger local crowd.  The people of Inverness don't know what they are missing out on by staying away. AS

Dons find a way to win
My first thought when Aberdeen's recent highly-praised annual report came out was "shouldn't they be doing better with a wage bill that high?".  After the disappointing end to the 2013-14 season, their form in recent months has been a bit stop-start, and even after their victory at Firhill they lie fifth in the table.

What that wage bill does buy you, though, is a bit of depth.  Derek McInnes was without six first teamers- Shay Logan, Russell Anderson, Clark Robertson, Willo Flood, Nicky Low and Barry Robson - and had to rejig a fair bit to compensate - though not in the crazy 3-4-2-1 formation that Sky Sports suggested before kickoff.  But he had Andrew Considine at right-back, Jonny Hayes at left-back, Cammy Smith in central midfield, and Adam Rooney on the wing.  And it just about worked...enough, anyway, to grind out the win thanks to Rooney's penalty.

Hayes in particular did well - as he has done on several occasions as a full-back this season.  Whilst the Irishman's sheer pace is missed further up the pitch, he is sound enough defensively that McInnes must be tempted to use him in the position long-term, especially with Niall McGinn playing in front of him and constantly cutting in from that flank.  If Logan can return to last season's form, Aberdeen could get frightening attacking width from their full-backs.

As for Partick Thistle - well, no shots on target in a home game tells its own story.  They completely failed to impose themselves on their patchwork opponents - although Stuart Bannigan's horrendous headed miss (not really, it came off his shoulder when he tried to head it) late on should still have got them a point.  They only got going when Gary Fraser and Kallum Higginbotham came off the bench, which begs the question of why neither started.  And as for Ryan Stevenson's haircut - well, that's just about worthy of a points deduction.  LS

Even in defeat, Dundee impress again
Even when two down at Celtic Park, former Bhoy Paul Hartley stuck to his guns and remained convinced that the team and tactics he had chosen would get the job done.  They nearly did, too.  Dundee created chances with a surprising ease against the Champions and had spurned several before David Clarkson (seven goals in seven games!) hit the net and gave the home support a rather nervous half an hour.

The Dark Blues are still sixth in the table, and thoroughly deserve their place in the top half from what we've seen so far.  In fact, I reckon that they're even better than that, especially now Simon Ferry is available after a long illness.  If Dundee can find a bit of decent home form, starting with Caley Thistle's visit in a fortnight - they've only won once at Dens Park so far - they could finish well up the table.

Celtic?  Only three times have they won a league game by more than the odd goal - and one of those games was goalless till Kilmarnock had a player sent off.  This was unimpressive yet again from Ronny Deila's side, who are churning out results only because John Guidetti is a class above the SPFL and because Anthony Stokes' return to form seems to have coincided with his poor recovery from hair-replacement surgery - a kind of Reverse Samson, if you will.  LS

County are up for the fight
With eight points from their last four games, St. Johnstone can now start to look upwards at the top six, rather than worrying about a relegation battle, especially with a nine point advantage over their opponents this weekend.  Tommy Wright appears, at least for the time being, to have found the answer to his striking problems; Michael O'Halloran has hit a nice vein of form, while his fellow scorer on Saturday, James McFadden, has started showing a few glimpses of what we all know he is (or was) capable of.  Murray Davidson's return to full fitness should give them the drive they need to move further away from the bottom.

So at the moment it looks like a three-way fight against the dreaded drop, but with St, Mirren have been dreadful, and Motherwell look devoid of direction, Ross County appear to be the best bet to avoid even a relegation playoff against Rangers or Hibs (probably),  Jim McIntyre has correctly realized that they are scrapping for their lives, and he has picked a team to scrap.  That's not to say they lack quality to go with their heart, as they showed during an excellent second half display which should have rescued a point.  But the players do seem to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in, which will serve them well over the next few months,

Mind you, if County do want to move up the table, they could do with improving the central defence.  Brian Graham won far too many headers in this game, whilst Scott Boyd was terribly culpable for O'Halloran's strike.  LS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Motherwell in limbo

It was really rather nice that Gordon Strachan earmarked Stuart McCall for special praise after the Ireland game, crediting him as the designer of the short corner routine that led to Shaun Maloney's winner.  McCall has had a rough few months, which culminated in his resignation as Motherwell boss two weeks ago.  His refreshingly humble and honest statement to the fans was further evidence of how classy an individual he is.  So is the fact that he walked away; depressingly, it is increasingly the norm for football managers to hang around long after the game is up, waiting for the sack (or 'departure by mutual consent') and the payoff that follows.

Not that he was particularly at risk of being pushed, mind; he was sufficiently popular with the supporters that they organized a display at the next home game thanking him.  They listed his achievements - back-to-back second place finishes, a third place the season before that, a Scottish Cup final, a Champions League qualifier.  Not bad at all.

It's just as well for the Steelmen that they had no need to sack him, as they couldn't really afford to.  The club have made no secret of their need for prudence; they lost nearly £600,000 in 2011/12 and £184,000 in 2012/13, and expect another small loss for this year.  They've been very open about the reasons for their poor financial results, but they seem stuck in a vicious spiral just now - the wage bill gets cut in order to reduce costs...which results in poorer results and a lower league position...which results in less prize money and lower attendances...which results in less income...which means the wage bill gets cut to reduce costs...and so on...

If second place in 2012/13 was impressive, repeating the feat last season was nothing short of a miracle given that they lost the likes of Darren Randolph, Tom Hateley, Chris Humphrey, Nicky Law, Michael Higdon and Henrik Ojamaa that summer.  Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that there's been such a downturn; the surprise was that McCall delayed it for so long.

His departure has left the club at something of a crossroads, off the park as well as on it.  For a start, they are tenth in the league and are set to be embroiled in the relegation dogfight.  If that wasn't enough to be going on with, owner John Boyle has for some time made it quite clear that he is desperate to sell.  Over the last several months, he has given a supporters group, The 'Well Society, the opportunity to raise funds to buy them and set up fan ownership.  The trouble is that they are struggling to come up with enough dough.  So far they've raised £500,000, but unless they can come up with possibly double that again - and that would only be possible with loans, which is hardly ideal - it's a no-no.

Boyle has now indicated that he isn't prepared to wait much longer.  According to a statement today, "discussions are ongoing with interested parties and we are planning to reach a conclusion by the end of the current month."  Not only that, but "as a result, the Board has agreed to delay the appointment of a new manager until the issue of ongoing ownership of the club is resolved."

So he's getting out sufficiently soon that he's not going to appoint a replacement for McCall himself - he'll leave that for his successors.  This means that, for the time being, Kenny Black, McCall's erstwhile assistant, will remain in interim charge.  Black is renowned as another one of football's 'good guys,' though his previous record as a manager, with Airdrie, is nothing to write home about.  He's certainly not a long-term answer.

The question is, who will end up with control at Fir Park?  The 'Well Society appear to have the moral high ground, though it's not clear what they can do to make the club more profitable than it is now.  But it sounds like the need to sell is so desperate that anyone who comes up with enough cash will get the keys, regardless of their motive.  That could well include the consortium reported last week to be looking to use the club to showcase South American players - with ex-Newcastle player Nolberto Solano as coach.  Anyone who remembers Claude Anelka's tenure at Raith Rovers will feel nervous about that idea.  Even more galling is the fact that competent coaches like Billy McKinlay and Owen Coyle are available and apparently interested in the role.

Still, it sounds like the situation will be resolved in the next fortnight...though to whose satisfaction is unclear.  Until then, Motherwell are in limbo, muddling on with an interim manager, with some critical games coming up - Inverness away, Dundee United away in the League Cup, Celtic at home, Ross County at home.  If Black isn't up to it, the new owners, whoever they are, could inherit a side that is bottom of the league.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking Points from the Premiership weekend

Celtic do just enough
So, it's mid-November, and at last Celtic have gone top of the league.  It's quite possible that they won't be knocked off their perch before they are crowned as Champions again in the Spring.  Oh well, it's been fun.

That said, they barely did enough to win at Pittodrie, even before Scott Brown was sent off for his hundredth (approximately) foul of the game.  Derek McInnes even threw on an extra winger for the last few minutes, in an attempt to seize the three points; instead, Virgil Van Dijk's bundled winner nicked them for the visitors.

But, not for the first time this season, Aberdeen were undone by errors - Mark Reynolds' hesitancy allowed Stefan Johansen (just about the only Celtic player who looked dangerous in this game) to cleverly nip in and open the scoring, while Andrew Considine's attempts to mark Van Dijk at the vital corner were akin to watching a blind man searching for a handrail.  The Dons weren't particularly brilliant themselves, and the midfield badly missed Willo Flood after he went off injured early on.  But they should have got at least a draw out of this.

Celtic won this game even though they didn't play well.  But this is what happens when you have so much more quality than your opponents.  LS

Mckay gets his mojo back
Saturday was a wee milestone for John Hughes' Inverness side - the first time they have recovered from losing the opening goal to go on and win the game in his tenure.  The victory put Caley Thistle top of the league...for about 20 hours.  More importantly for them, Billy Mckay ended his three month drought, with his first goals since the opening game of the season...which was against Hamilton.

Much has been made of Mckay's barren spell, with some fans believing he looked jaded and lacking in confidence. His two goals on Saturday, both classic Mckay 'poacher' goals from only a few yards out, will have silenced the doubters for the time being; he looked far more like the dangerous forward we have become accustomed to seeing over the past couple of seasons.  His restored confidence was perhaps best summed up by a delicious side footed effort from an audacious angle which just skimmed past the post in the first half; he wouldn't have tried to pull that one off a few weeks ago. 

Hamilton were ultimately architects of their own downfall as they attempted to play a high intensity pressing game, but as the game wore on they tired and couldn't maintain this approach.  In the second half ICT had the time to pick out balls over the top for Mckay to scurry onto as he took advantage of the reckless high line that the Accies defence held for most of the match.  Jesús García Tena was particularly suspect positionally; when James Vincent was bursting through to score the home side's fourth, the Spaniard had wandered aimlessly out of position, leaving enough space in the centre of the defence for a bus to drive through.

This was proper end-to-end stuff, with Hamilton more than happy to flood players forward, but their defence has now conceded nine goals in three league games and really needs more protection.  Inverness. meanwhile, are up to second; if Mckay has his mojo back, then things are looking pretty sweet in the Highlands. AS

Better to be lucky than good
Maybe Stuart McCall accidentally urinated on an ancient Indian burial ground during the summer or something?  The former Motherwell manager had no luck at all this season before his resignation; interim boss Kenny Black promptly got all the good fortune that McCall was owed on Friday night.  The Steelmen were dreadful for long periods on Friday night against a Dundee United side who seemed to have twice as much energy as their opponents.  At half-time it was a nil-nil thumping. And yet Motherwell stole it with Iain Vigurs' slightly deflected effort (which Rado Ciernziak maybe should have saved) and they would have had a second shortly after but for an erroneous offside decision.  However, they were properly hanging on at the end.  United spurned chance after chance in this game.  They haven't scored in any of their last three away games, and have lost all of them.

This result might give Motherwell food for thought as to whether to appoint Black permanently.  Any such considerations should be dismissed immediately.  Whilst popular with players, Black's previous credentials from managing Airdrie are hardly impressive.   And, if they want evidence that appointing the previous assistant is a bad idea, they should just cast an eye over to Paisley. LS

St. Mirren pay for lack of depth
Partick Thistle may yet manage to catch the top six bus - they're actually only five points adrift of the top half of the table despite going five games without a winner prior to victory in Paisley.  But, most importantly for them, they are seven points clear of the two sides at the bottom, one of whom they vanquished on Saturday.  Like St. Mirren, Partick struggle dreadfully for goals, but they managed to come up with a solitary strike through Christie Elliott (with the aid of some horrendous goalkeeping), and as on so many occasions this season, one was enough to beat the Buddies.  It's the fifth time in seven home league games that St. Mirren have failed to score.

Granted, the home side were down to the bare bones.  Every outfield substitute was 21 or under; three of them have never played for the first team.  There were another four players in the same age group who started.  And they had a full-back (Jeroen Tesselaar) in central defence and a striker (Thomas Reilly) in central midfield.  But it's only taken the loss of six figures to injury and suspension to leave them in this mess.  Clearly, there's not enough depth here; it's not so much that they made poor signings (though there are a few) but that they didn't make enough.

And, most galling, they still had every forward available bar Steven Thompson.  In his post-match interview, Tommy Craig described Thompson as his 'talisman' and seemed to insinuate that it'll all be okay when he returns next month.  That'll be a month before Thommohawk's 37th birthday.  St. Mirren are taking a big risk if they bet it all on his return saving them.  LS

Killie gift County a confidence boost
On a day when the Scotland rugby team scored three tries, Ross County still recorded the most unlikely achievement in Scottish sport - a clean sheet.  Not since 6th May 2014, against a Hibs team that was at the time experiencing the mother of all implosions, have County been able to stop their opponents from scoring.  And that includes games against Stranraer, Hibs, and worse of all, St Mirren.

Jim McIntyre must have been a very relieved man on Saturday night as his team had looked very  bad indeed on Monday against Aberdeen.  A 3-0 win away from home is never to be sniffed at, and with games against St Johnstone, Motherwell and a suddenly fragile Hamilton coming up before the end of the year, it is a distinct possibility that County will start 2015 no lower than 11th in the league.

I think we learned more about County from this game than the hosts.  Losing three goals in the first half is shocking, but on another day they could have been three up themselves. Their performance, particularly at the back, was best summed up by the their clearly well read and erudite captain Manuel Pascali.  I think he was quoting Bertolt Brecht when he said, “we were s***e.”  Mark Connolly certainly will want to forget his part in Michael Gardyne's goal, as his pathetic attempt at a rugby tackle wouldn't have looked out of place in Argentina's back line at Murrayfield.

Killie seem set to spend the season alternating between runs of wins and defeats - I reckon they'll eventually finish around eighth. County will surely finish at least one place above St Mirren., Then again, last month I predicted Stuart McCall would lift Motherwell to comfortable safety, so take that with a pinch of salt. IM

Dundee should have won, even despite Bobby Madden
I don't think Paul Hartley will be sending Bobby Madden a Christmas card; the referee's decision to book David Clarkson for a dive against St. Johnstone, rather than award a penalty and send keeper Alan Mannus off, was the big talking point at the end of the 1-1 draw, not least because it happened only six minutes into the game.

My feeling is that Hartley has the right to feel aggrieved; whilst Clarkson makes a little bit of a hash of dinking it over the goalkeeper, and then goes down easily under the contact, Mannus clearly sticks out his left arm to try and impede the forward.  It's not the most scandalous decision we'll see all season, but one wonders what Madden would have done had the incident not occurred so early in the game.

That said, Dundee should still have won this, after Clarkson fired them in front.  St Johnstone's spot-kick equalizer came courtesy of a brain fart from James McPake, whose tug on Brian Graham was as obvious as it was unnecessary, since Graham was never going to reach the cross ball aimed at him.  It was utter stupidity and, to his credit, Hartley refused to defend his centre-half.  In fact, McPake was lucky not to give away a penalty in the first half, when a shirt-pull on Frazer Wright went unpunished.

This game was simply the latest in a series of home games which the Dark Blues have drawn instead of winning.  Given that they're only six points off top, imagine how they'd be doing if they had won more than one home game.  LS

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.  

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.