Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The SPFL is already failing

Which donkey would you rather have in charge of Scottish football?

"What have the Romans ever done for us?" goes the famous quote from Life Of Brian.

So, when I thought to myself, "what has the SPFL done for Scottish football?", I imagined that, if I looked reasonably hard, I could, like the People's Front for Judea, find a few positives about the organization that took over the running of Scottish league football in June 2013.

I'm still looking.  And I can't find anything.

Life isn't getting any better for the clubs - at least, not going by Motherwell's AGM results, which revealed that, during the 2012/13 season, the club lost £180,000.  That's despite finishing second in the league, and despite playing European games at the beginning of the campaign.  Whilst I haven't managed to see their accounts, you'd be hard pressed to claim that their wage bill was high, given that the size of the squad was relatively compact and, aside from James McFadden, it wasn't exactly filled with big names either.  

The Fir Park directors did make one particularly cutting comment - "The directors also express disappointment that no main sponsor has been found to replace the Clydesdale Bank.  The effect on this season's commercial distribution is clear".  Let me remind you once more - the Scottish Professional Football League remains without a title sponsor.  It's now safe to say that there won't be one before the summer.

As for the other sides, it would be a push to claim that many top flight clubs strengthened this summer.  The standard of the Premiership certainly is not an improvement over the SPL of recent years.  We have a second tier where nearly a third of the clubs are part-time.

The treatment of fans isn't improving, either.

Yesterday, the league announced that St. Mirren v Aberdeen was being moved to a Saturday lunchtime kickoff for TV reasons.  In less than 3 weeks time.  In February.  I know it's worse in Spain - where kickoff times are routinely decided with less than 2 weeks notice for all games - but away supports in Spain are almost non-existant.  Aberdeen would normally take a thousand or more to Paisley; what odds that their support will hold up now?  

And, this weekend, we have the League Cup semi-final between Inverness and Hearts...which is being played on neutral ground in Edinburgh (hands up how many of you did a double take there?  Exactly) at 1215 on a Sunday.  Ever driven the A9 in the dark in winter?  I bet Neil Doncaster hasn't?  He would probably take the train...but there aren't actually any trains early enough to get fans from Inverness to Edinburgh for kickoff.  After promising to aid ICT fans, the best the SPFL could come up with was subsidized supporters buses, which are being subsidized mainly by the Scottish Sun.

Well, it seems like less than 2,000 will trek from the Highlands for this one.  I'm one of those staying at home.  Three and a half uncomfortable hours each way in a bus (I'm 6ft 4in), travelling down a potentially treacherous road in the dark, to pay 20 quid to sit at Easter Road in early February temperatures, when the game is on telly?  Bugger that.  Call me a fair-weather fan if you like.  But I'm a fan who is sick of high ticket prices and poor value for money.  I already pay far too much for a season ticket at Inverness.  I draw the line at being shafted by this, too.

So the fans are screwed, and the clubs aren't benefitting.  So who on earth is doing well out of it?

Well, Neil Doncaster got a pay rise of £28,000 last year, and now has a salary of £200,000.

And he and his fellow donkeys couldn't even find a sponsor for the league.

The problem is, of course, that the name of the organization is the only thing that's really changed.  The same old people are in charge.  And the quality of the job they're doing is about the same.

So, in the first seven months of it's existence, what is the SPFL doing for Scottish football?

Why, they're making it worse.


Monday, January 20, 2014

10 talking points from the Premiership weekend

The Brian Colvin Horror Show
Six goals, two penalties, three red cards and Ryan Stevenson grabbing Alan Mannus by the ear - what more could you ask for?  Of course, it helps that referee Brian Colvin had what could be diplomatically described as 'a shocker'.  Tam Scobbie, the St. Johnstone defender (and, amusingly, emergency keeper after Mannus' sending off) told journalists after the game that Colvin's ridiculous decision to send off Steven Anderson for a professional foul in the first half seemed to be on the advice of his assistant, and that Colvin spent the rest of the match asking players whether they thought it was the right decision!  True or not, the official evened things out somewhat by giving two terrible penalty decisions in favour of St Johnstone - the first was probably a foul outside the box, while the second was never deliberate handball in a million years.  Should we slag off his ineptitude, or thank him for his significant contribution to one of the best matches of the league season?

I'm at least grateful to Colvin for sending off Stevenson - his red card for violent conduct rules him out of the League Cup semi final in a fortnight's time, which should surely improve Caley Thistle's chances...

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang!
Derek Adams actually described himself as 'brave' for picking six players who weren't even at Ross County three weeks ago - in fact, given the dramatic improvement in his team's performances, it would have been rather braver, and foolish, not to have done so.  Filip Kiss was obviously the standout with a brace - his second strike, a 30 yard curler into the top corner, was enough to elicit a collective purr from those present.  But County have improved in all areas, with Evangelos Oikonomou and Yann Songo'o at the back, Kiss and Michael Tidser in midfield, and Jordan Slew and Yoann Arquin up front.  In Tidser, they finally have a player to take the ball from the back four and keep possession, a role they have struggled to fill since Paul Lawson left last summer.

The first thing I did on returning from Dingwall after the game was to have a look at the table.  Eight points adrift of St Johnstone with eleven games till the split - do Ross County still have a shot at the top six?

Statement win for Yogi
After five games without a win, and a hapless performance or two by his side, John Hughes was badly in need of a result.  Pittodrie didn't seem a likely place to achieve it, but to the surprise of even the most diehard ICT fans, the away side were absolutely dominant and deserving of a much bigger victory than 1-0 against the side currently second in the table.  And that was with Richie Foran, Ross Draper, Marley Watkins and Gary Warren all missing.  There was also the welcome sight of Jamie Vincent for the first time since September.  Hughes has at least shown that he can learn from mistakes; restoring David Raven to the back four and Aaron Doran to the right flank has led to a sharp lift in the form of the latter.  Perhaps Yogi's appointment isn't a boo-boo after all?

Can anyone beat Celtic before May?
The way Kris Commons is playing, Celtic could probably start every match with 10 men and still win.  Victory over Motherwell made it 10 wins in a row for Neil Lennon's side, and the level of their dominance over a side who are third in the league was striking.  Some pillock on BBC Sportsound queried whether anyone would take a point off Celtic between now and the rest of the season - there's no chance they'll win every single game left, but the possibility they could finish the league campaign unbeaten is increasing by the week.

Given the impotence of their other forwards this season, they might be just the teensiest bit vulnerable without Anthony Stokes, who got himself stupidly sent off for poleaxing Keith Lasley when the game was already won...but Commons will probably just pick up the slack, won't he?

When did Pat Fenlon become Hibs boss again?
At half-time at Pittodrie, apparently the announcer read out the score from Easter Road twice, such was the incredulity - Hibs were three down to St. Mirren by that point.  Terry Butcher has done a terrific job of making them more difficult to beat since moving to Leith, but the absence of Paul Hanlon with a thigh strain seemed to completely destabilize the back four.  The first half an hour was so farcical that it could have been from a Keystone Cops movie...or from one of their games under Pat Fenlon's charge.  A second half recovery at least suggests that team spirit is a damn sight better than during Fenlon's days, though.

Partick Thistle must be developing a complex
Eleven home league games, no wins.  Saturday is the closest that Partick Thistle have come to winning at Firhill, denied by Robbie Muirhead's last ditch equalizer for Kilmarnock.  But last week they blew a 3-1 lead at home to Ross County, while on Boxing Day they missed about a million chances in a goalless draw with ICT.  Earlier in the campaign they contrived to lose 1-0 to Hibs despite being utterly dominant, and let in a late equalizer to Hearts despite being utterly dominant as well.  It would be incredible if this terrible record didn't dwell on the minds of the players, though in truth the Jags have not been particularly good on their travels either - they have won only two out of their nineteen games since the start of September.  The next two home games are against Dundee United and Aberdeen - can they break their duck at last?

St. Johnstone can't find consistency
Considering that, in Stevie May, they have the league's joint top scorer, St. Johnstone really should be doing better than battling over sixth place.  Over the last couple of months, they've struggled to put a string of good performances together; a win over Dundee United in December was followed by a 4-0 thumping at Motherwell, while they failed to build on last week's easy win against St. Mirren by drawing with Hearts - and probably bust many a coupon in the process.  To make matters worse, Murray Davidson has wrecked his knee just as he was returning to his best form, and will miss the rest of the season.  The Perth Saints will now be terribly short in midfield as well as attack - Gary McDonald and Patrick Cregg would never be referred to as a dynamic duo in the centre of the park.  Tommy Wright will surely re-double his efforts to get Rory Fallon off the wage bill, so he can free up some funds for reinforcements.

Why can't St. Mirren play that well every week?
Every so often St. Mirren seem to turn on the style - this was the fourth time in the league that they've scored three or more goals.  Why can't they do it all the time?  At Easter Road, the Buddies could only keep up the performance level for 45 minutes, and they were hanging on at the end.  But Danny Lennon will be delighted by how slick the attack looked - Adam Campbell appears to be a superb addition who has already clicked in partnership with Steven Thompson, and Paul McGowan is playing as well as he has done in a long time - possibly because he is no longer weighed down by the prospect of a prison sentence?

Higginbotham only does the spectacular
Incredibly, that strike from Kiss wasn't even the best goal of the week - Kallum Higginbotham's bicycle kick pips it.  Higginbotham only seems to score spectacular goals - his only other Partick goal was smashed it from distance against St. Mirren, and he came up with one of the best strikes of last season with a scissors kick for Motherwell.  Perhaps it might be better for Partick if he started scoring some mundane goals, but at a higher rate, rather than just two 'worldies' a year.

Arabs shouldn't panic
Yes, Dundee United were horrific at the weekend, and yes, they've only managed 2 points out of a possible 18.  But Jackie McNamara's squad was stretched remarkably thin, especially after he chose to give John Souttar and Ryan Gauld a mini-winter break to reduce their chances of burnout.  Stuart Armstrong was also left out of the starting lineup.  Given that Gavin Gunning was injured, United were without their first choice central defence, and Callum Butcher in particular struggled in relief, unable to cope with the hustle and bustle of Jordan Slew.  At the other end, they missed Brian Graham badly (who ever thought we would say that?!) but Farid El Alagui may improve when he has a few games under his belt.

Given his resources are stretched, it's no surprise that Jackie Mac has taken the chance to give Chris Erskine a run of games to see if he is up to playing at this level; 50 minutes of complete ineptitude in Dingwall (he was hooked shortly after the second half began) seems to have told McNamara all he needed to know - Erskine was shipped back to his old club, Partick Thistle, on loan this morning.  United will be fine once they are back closer to full strength.


Monday, January 13, 2014

The farce of Celtic's winter break

In his press conference this weekend, Neil Lennon had a good whinge about fixture overcrowding.  “I am sure all the managers at the top level would agree with that, as the amount of matches we play is nothing short of is incredible.  Allied to the Champions League and Europa League commitments, it takes its toll on the players, the squad — and even the management at times!”

On the face of it, it's not an unreasonable complaint, given that, if they reach the Scottish Cup final in May, Celtic will be playing their fifty-sixth competitive match of the season.  They had six Champions' League qualifiers even before they made the group stage.  And, given the comfort eating that Ally McCoist partakes in even when Rangers are cruising towards another promotion, god knows how stressed Neil Lennon is. 

So it's not an unreasonable complaint...that is, until, you remember that this press conference was not at Celtic Park, but in Turkey.  Celtic didn't play a league match this weekend.  They were allowed to postpone their home match with Kilmarnock in order to go gallivanting abroad.

Why did they go?  Why, for the prestige, of course.  After all, the Antalya Cup gave them the chance to pit their wits against world-class teams, and was played in front of enormous crowds with wall-to-wall TV coverage that can only enhance Celtic's brand abroad.  Right? 

Well, the other teams involved were Galatasaray, Trabzonspor and Ajax.  That's because the Turkish and Dutch leagues were actually having their winter breaks, while every other league had either finished their break or doesn't have one.  And those leagues don't let teams postpone league matches in order to take part in these major events.  Well, I say major - a grand total of 75 folk pitched up to watch the Celtic-Trabzonspor match.  But it was on Premier Sports, so I presume most fans chose to watch it at home?

Heck, the only thing that would make this more ludicrous would be if the actual trophy got broken...except it did.  It got knocked off its plinth and damaged.  I'm not kidding.

Celtic's lineup for the final, which they lost on penalties to Galatasaray, was: Zaluska, Herron, Fraser, O'Connell, Fisher, Biton, Henderson, Forrest, Boerrigter, Pukki, Balde.  That's how serious this competition was.  I think it's rather sweet that Lennon gave his reserves a chance to lift a trophy, given that barely any of them will even make the bench if Celtic win the Scottish Cup.

The reason for this debacle, of course, was moolah.  Sadly, I can't say with certainty how much - though if the figure of £700,000 that was claimed on Pie & Bovril is true, then Peter Lawwell will be rubbing his hands with glee.  For the second time this season.  Because a home game with St Mirren way back in August was also postponed, so the Bhoys could play Liverpool in Dublin.  They didn't put out a strong team that day, either.  But they did make a decent amount of cash.  Six months on, the match against St. Mirren still hasn't been played.

I'd wager that the income from those two trips have cancelled out any reduction in prize money that Celtic agreed to when the SPFL was created.  Am I wrong?

Interestingly, whilst I was researching for this blog, I trawled through the SPFL rulebook to find this daft rule which allows teams to do this.  There isn't one.  I asked around on twitter, and I was helpfully informed by Don Johnstone, who is heavily involved with Caley Thistle, that "it's not a direct rule, it was an agreement formulated under rule G3 (and further sanctioned by the clubs) for this season...some clubs wanted a winter break, some didn't. This was the compromise which (I believe) was carried unanimously."

For my fellow anoraks, Rule G3 states "the Board shall have discretion to schedule and to reschedule the date, time and/or venue of any Official Match as it shall consider appropriate."  So apparently an all-expenses paid trip to Turkey is an appropriate reason to call off games, in the eyes of the SPFL board.  As for the debate over a winter break, I can't help feeling that the fact that only one SPFL club has taken up this opportunity suggests that either there wasn't a very high demand for it, or that other clubs aren't taking the opportunity because they can't afford a trip abroad, nor are they being offered one at the expense of a Turkish Airline.  This seems crass and unfair to me - a rule that benefits only one club.  And the toadying to Celtic from the SPFL board is matched only by the unwillingness - as always - of the vast majority of the Scottish sports press to upset one of the two hands that feed them by calling out Lennon for his incredulous comments.

So, Celtic get an advantage, thanks to an interpretation of the rules that seems to assist only them.  We should be used to that by now, given the way referees officiate their matches, I suppose.  Still, as they and the SPFL continue to ensure that the gap between them and the other sides in Scotland gets bigger and bigger, surely in the future Lennon will be able to send half the squad to Turkey, and keep half the squad to crush the increasingly weak domestic opposition?  That way, everyone wins, don't they?


Friday, January 10, 2014

Premiership half-season review - Part 2

What I said in pre-season: TENTH.  "It's very hard to know how good this Kilmarnock team will be.  I fully expect two or three new players to arrive in the next few weeks which may markedly improve the side."

How wrong was I? Kilmarnock's current position - eighth - is about as high as they've managed all season, courtesy of 12 points from 6 matches between the start of December and the start of January; crucially, those 4 wins came against the 4 sides below them in the league.  Despite this, Allan Johnston still doesn't seem to know what his best lineup is yet - they've used 27 different outfield players this season, a level of tinkering that would put Claudio Ranieri to shame.  As I predicted at the start of August, plenty of new faces were brought in after the start of the campaign...most of whom have proven woefully inadequate, suggesting that they were panic signings.  Thankfully, Killie have already made arrangements to move on several of them, which may create space for new arrivals that might actually enhance the squad.

Who's on fire? Where would they be without Kris Boyd?  Not only has he shed some of his excessive poundage, so that, in medical terms, he is merely overweight, but he has rediscovered the appetite for goals that made him such a weapon for Rangers in the past.  Boyd has 12 league goals.  The rest of the Kilmarnock team put together have scored 13.  At last, Johnston has started to trust some of his young players, and Chris Johnston and Rory McKenzie have been terrific in recent weeks.

Who's a damp squib? You'd think Nigerian internationals would enhance most Scottish teams.  Not Reuben Gabriel or Rabiu Ibrahim, both of whom have now departed.  Question marks have to be raised about both signings, especially since the club also signed another Nigerian, Papa Idris, last Spring who never played for the first team. Ibrahim spent a year at Celtic where he showed nothing, and then a year at Killie where he wasn't any better.  Gabriel's sole contribution was a first half red card against Dundee United in December.  Two August signings, Kyle Jacobs and Mark Stewart, have already sunk from first team contention and neither will have their deals extended beyond this month.

What'll happen between now and May? It must be worrying that Boyd is being linked with a move back down south; this team will collapse without him.  Regardless, a charge for sixth place is well beyond them, and I still think there's a real chance that they could end up in the relegation playoff.

What I said in pre-season: THIRD.  "It would be a surprise if Motherwell didn't take a step backwards this season - but it may only be a baby step.  There's still some very good players here.  There isn't much depth, but that didn't hold them back last year."

How wrong was I? Since Motherwell are currently third in the league, I appear to have been spot on.  That's not to say they've always been terrific - the nadir being a Scottish Cup exit to Albion Rovers.  That result was followed by a 5-0 drubbing at home to Celtic, but Stuart McCall has clearly stuck a rocket up the players' backsides since - they have won five on the trot, scoring 15 goals in the process.  They actually have 7 more points than they did after the same number of games last season, so they must be doing something right.  The improvement may be the result of McCall finally finding a solution to the lack of width the team had in the early months; Iain Vigurs is playing his best football of the season, while loanee Lionel Ainsworth has hit top form on the other flank.

Who's on fire? Though they've had their rough patches, forwards John Sutton and Henri Anier have scored 17 between them, which has compensated for James McFadden's lack of contribution until recent weeks.  Sutton simply seems to suit Motherwell better than he suited Hearts.  Anier's loan deal runs out imminently; the Estonian will be a huge loss if he departs.  Ainsworth, as mentioned above, is playing well, while Keith Lasley continues to show a remarkable engine for a man now well into his thirties.

Who's a damp squib? McFadden just appeared to lose his mojo, though a return to the scoresheet in the games either side of new year is reassuring.  McCall finally found a reliable goalie - but Dan Twardzik was only an emergency loan, so now he'll have to choose once again between Gunnar Nielsen and Lee Hollis.  Neither have looked reliable so far.  And readers of The Terrace will have noted their recent dissection of Stephen McManus' poor season in central defence.

What'll happen between now and May?  I predict a fourth place finish.  I just feel Aberdeen and Dundee United have that little bit more, but Inverness, St. Johnstone and Hibs have that little bit less.  Given the squad turnover last summer, that would still represent success, and another impressive addition to their manager's CV.  

What I said in pre-season: ELEVENTH.  "there's not much of a gap between them and most of the other top flight sides, and they will prove awkward opponents who certainly have the potential to finish higher and cement their Premiership status."

How wrong was I? The division's newly promoted side started so well - in away wins at Ross County, St. Mirren and Inverness they looked far too good to get dragged into a relegation battle, playing neat passing football with a strong midfield and excellent width from their full-backs.  So what went wrong?  A win at Tynecastle last week - hardly an achievement at the moment - ended a run of just 1 win in all competitions since mid-September.  They still haven't won a league game at Firhill this season.  And, as a consequence, The Jags are now just 2 points above the dreaded eleventh place, and there seems a decent chance they'll have to beat a Championship side to make the playoffs. 

Who's on fire? Kris Doolan has been far more effective than his scoring record at lower levels suggested, managing 7 goals and leading the line well.  Full-backs Aaron Taylor-Sinclair and Stephen O'Donnell look like they belong at this level too.  But the standout has been defensive midfielder Isaac Osbourne - when fit.  Sadly, the ex-Aberdeen man is probably done for the season after an ankle operation.

Who's a damp squib? Doolan's decent play has also exposed the poor quality of the backup forwards, particularly the goalless John Baird.  Winger Gary Fraser looked good after joining on loan from Bolton but hasn't played since August; Partick showed no interest in extending his deal after he got a lengthy ban for assaulting a Dunfermline player in a reserve game.  Meanwhile, regular readers will know of my disdain for Gabriel Piccolo, but to be fair the Mexican has improved in the last few matches and, dare I say it, now actually resembles a football player.

What'll happen between now and May? The signing of Lyle Taylor as an alternative option up front looks like a wise move.  But Alan Archibald needs more from a defence that has only managed two clean sheets since the opening day of the season.  Do they have enough quality to overhaul Kilmarnock or St. Mirren?  We'll see.  I think they could do with bringing in two or three more players.

What I said in pre-season: SEVENTH.  "I'm not certain just how good County will be, given there are so many new faces and Iain Vigurs has left.  It's not clear where the goals will come from.  But I can't see them being drawn into a relegation battle."

How wrong was I? Back to back wins to start 2014 have given County a bit of momentum, but their start to their second top flight campaign was far worse than just about anyone predicted - 3 wins from 18 in all competitions, including a League Cup exit at Stranraer.  The defence looked disorganized and the attack was toothless - even now, not one of the squad's out-and-out strikers has scored a league goal.  Though they are close to the teams above them, they currently occupy the playoff place.

Who's on fire? Graham Carey seemed to have a reputation at St. Mirren for being talented but lazy.  I certainly have seen some of the former but very little of the latter, even while he's been shunted from left midfield to left-back to central-midfield.  He has one of the most dangerous left feet in the top flight, and his prowess from dead balls is to be feared by all.

Who's a damp squib? You could pick any of the forwards, but Kevin Luckassen has been particularly honking.  Given the number of starts he's made, he must look good in training; however, on matchday, the young Dutchman's workrate is just too poor for a lone striker.  I've been slagging off Richard Brittain all season, but the County captain then produced a man of the match performance in the Highland Derby, presumably just to spite me.

What'll happen between now and May? Already, Derek Adams has made moves to strengthen all areas by bringing back Evangelos Oikonomou at left back, and loaning midfielders Michael Tidser and Filip Kiss and striker Jordan Slew.  There's already been a positive impact, and I believe the only way is up, though the top six may be too great a leap.  They certainly will not finish in their current position.

What I said in pre-season: FOURTH.  "there aren't many stand outs in this squad, but that didn't hold them back during the last two seasons.  They don't score all that many goals, but they concede so few that often one or two is enough to win games."

How wrong was I? Will the real St Johnstone please stand up?  They've thumped Dundee Utd, ICT and Ross County at home, yet been thumped by Dundee Utd and Motherwell away.  Their current poor form - just 4 points out of 21 in the league - has seen them drop out of the top half of the table for the first time in months.  The fact that they've managed only one away win - at Tynecastle - is a huge concern.

Who's on fire? Stevie May is a pretty special centre forward, trust me.  He's strong enough to lead the line, yet his movement is excellent, he's pretty quick, and he makes good decisions.  And he's a damn fine finisher.  He, and St. Johnstone have suffered since his strike partner, the more cerebral Steven Maclean, got injured though.  It's also been a good campaign for David Wotherspoon, who has shaken off the malaise that inflicted him at Hibs.

Who's a damp squib? Murray Davidson hasn't been particularly awful, but he's been nowhere near as good as he was in the last couple of years - possibly the result of missing pre-season while he tried to orchestrate a move to a better club.  If you're looking for downright hopelessness, try Rory Fallon; the New Zealand striker's most memorable moment in a Saints shirt was getting himself sent off against former club Aberdeen, about 3 milliseconds after he came on as a sub.  Tommy Wright has said he can go in January, but who in their right mind would take him?

What'll happen between now and May? St. Johnstone do have a team good enough for the top six, it's a mystery why they struggle so much away from McDiarmid Park, but it's their form on their travels that could keep them in seventh place, even if May keeps banging them in.  If Wright can sort that out, I can see them overhauling at least one of Inverness and Hibs.

What I said in pre-season: EIGHTH.  "it'll only take a couple of injuries to drastically weaken St. Mirren.  Another season of inconsistency beckons, but I love their front four and I think they'll make a wee step forward this season"

How wrong was I? St Mirren were consistent at the start of the season - consistently dreadful, that is, as they managed only 2 points from their first 7 games.  Danny Lennon's head was on the block, but then he had the novel idea of using players in their best positions - Jim Goodwin in midfield, Paul McGowan as a second striker, Gary Harkins as a substitute - and the Buddies found their feet.  That said, they have hit another bad patch with only one win in the last 8 in the league.  They currently lie ninth, only 5 points ahead of Partick in eleventh.  

Who's on fire? Convincing Conor Newton to come back on loan from Newcastle was the best move that Lennon made last summer; the hard-working midfielder loves a goal or two and has been playing really well.  The emergence of young full-backs Sean Kelly and Jason Naismith has been a welcome surprise, and their performances justify their inclusion ahead of more experienced players such as Danny Grainger and David Van Zanten.  Whilst Goodwin is arguably the most detestable player in the league (at least to opposing fans), the Buddies are so much better with him anchoring the midfield.

Who's a damp squib? St. Mirren managed only 2 points from the 7 league matches Gary Harkins started, and it's no secret that they improved after the talented but work-shy attacker was dropped; he's now been loaned to Oldham.  Goalkeeper David Cornell has also left, returning to his parent club Swansea, after a hapless loan spell that eventually saw him go from first- to third-choice between the sticks.  But the worst of the lot was deadline-day loan signing Stephane Bahoken, who was just useless, and who has thankfully been shipped out.

What'll happen between now and May? I can't see them finishing in the top half, but the signing of Adam Campbell gives them a bit more firepower, and that could be the key to avoiding that eleventh spot.  I think they'll stay up, but I'm not sure I would bet my mortgage on it.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Premiership half-season review - Part 1

What I said in pre-season: SECOND.  "You wouldn't be all that surprised if the Dons were a let-down once more.  But if McInnes can get the best out of his new charges, it could be a very special season at Pittodrie."

How wrong was I? The Dons are indeed currently the best of the rest, though there's not much between them and the chasing pack.  The defence has been mean, the midfield has improved markedly since Willo Flood and Barry Robson returned to full fitness, and Niall McGinn and Scott Vernon are in good form up front after an underwhelming first few months.  Curiously, they seem happier on their travels than at Pittodrie, but if they rectify that problem then they should finish the season in their current position.

Who's on fire? Last I heard, Peter Pawlett was a mediocre winger whose only skill was diving to win penalties.  Derek McInnes has given him licence to rove between midfield and attack and he's been a revelation.  And, ironically, he now gets properly fouled in the box...yet gets booked for diving instead.  Jonny Hayes has continued to wreak havoc on the flanks, and most surprisingly Jamie Langfield and Andrew Considine appear to have developed into proper footballers at last.

Who's a damp squib? It isn't easy to like Calvin Zola, is it?  Maybe it's the way he acts like a bouncer rather than a footballer, or maybe it's because he seems to do nothing but give away fouls.  He has managed a goal or two, but he has been usurped up front by Vernon and few Dons fans are disappointed by that.  Meanwhile, Russell Anderson looked finished a year ago.  Is 'even more finished' a valid description?

What'll happen between now and May? It wouldn't be Aberdeen if they didn't muck it up, right?  True, but it's a long time since things have been as rosy as this.  The loss of Michael Hector is a blow, but Swansea loanee Alan Tate should fill that gap.  They're still the best bet for that second place...and probably the favourites for the League Cup too.  Could 2014 be the year that Aberdeen become 'famous' once more?

What I said in pre-season: CHAMPIONS.  "Domestically, expectations are sky-high to the point that anything other than a treble would he underwhelming.  The focus will be primarily on repeating last year's European success, but this will be tough to manage without Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper."

How wrong was I? Depressingly on the money, given that Celtic remain unbeaten in the league, despite practically phoning in some of their performances.  The only Scottish team to beat them this season?  Morton, in the League Cup, a competition Neil Lennon seems destined never to win.  Everyone - even their own support, given the poor attendances at recent matches - is bored to tears of them domestically, but they can only beat the dross that's put in front of them.  However, their Champions League campaign was an almighty disappointment, as they finished bottom of their group and won only one match.

Who's on fire? Virgil Van Dijk looks bored with how easy defending in Scotland is and has now got into the habit of wandering forward with the ball - which, depressingly, has given Celtic more of an attacking edge rather than weakening them at the back.  I don't believe for a second that Arsenal and Man City want him, but I don't believe for a second that he'll stay in Scotland for long either.  At the other end of the park, Kris Commons has had a sensational 2013 and has been scoring for fun, which is just as well as Celtic's strikers have been poor this season.

Who's a damp squib? Van Dijk aside, Lennon's summer reinforcements have not really enhanced the squad at all.  Nir Biton, Derk Boerrigter, Teemu Pukki, Amido Balde - none of these guys have had any impact as of yet.  His other signing, injury-prone Steven Mouyokolo, got injured - who'd have thought it?

What'll happen between now and May? Well, they can pretty much sleep-walk to another title.  The question is whether they can stay motivated enough to manage an unbeaten season.  After the League Cup debacle, I would expect that Lennon will make retaining the Scottish Cup a major priority.

What I said in pre-season: FIFTH.  "Those of a positive disposition will point out that United are capable of hurting any opponent with the flair and firepower they have up front. The glass-half-empty types will be worried about a threadbare defence"

How wrong was I? Initially, I appeared completely wrong - United's defence was far more solid than expected, thanks to the emergence of Andrew Robertson, whilst David Goodwillie was far more impotent than his surname suggests (sorry!) and the attack misfired.  Then Jackie McNamara tried using Nadir Ciftci at centre-forward, which seemed to act as a catalyst for a stunning run of results which produced 26 goals in just 7 games in November and December.  A recent stutter has left them fourth in the table.

Who's on fire? Which of the young players should we focus on first? Left-back Robertson was playing for Queen's Park last season, and looks like he could be playing international football in the near future.  The hype surrounding Ryan Gauld is entirely justified, while his fellow midfielder Stuart Armstrong has come on leaps and bounds this season.

Who's a damp squib? Goodwillie is the obvious disappointment, a poor imitation of the player that left Tannadice for £2million a couple of years back.  He's been kept out of the team by Brian Graham, for crying out loud.  Chris Erskine has seen very little action after some poor performances in August, but the former Partick winger has been struggling with injuries and may yet come good.

What'll happen between now and May? I think it's more likely that Gauld and Robertson will depart in June than in January, which should leave United equipped to make a run at second spot.  It's do-able, but I think third or fourth is more likely.  Whatever happens, their swashbuckling style should continue to excite fans and neutrals alike.

What I said in pre-season: TWELFTH.  "Even if they manage to exit administration, they are unlikely to be able to sign reinforcements until January; given the quality and depth in the squad currently, overcoming their 15 point deduction looks like a tall order."

How wrong was I? Well, I didn't predict that Hearts would come out fighting at the start of the season, with 7 points from their first 4 games.  But nor did I foresee that they would be so poor that subsequently they've managed only 6 points from the last 17 games.  Already 19 points adrift, they are doomed to the drop.  And, since they're still in administration, they are unable to bring in a player or two to ease the burden on their exhausted youngsters.

Who's on fire? Goalkeeper Jamie McDonald has impressed this season, which is just as well since he's been so busy.  It's a miracle that he hasn't slipped a disc from bending over to pick the ball out of his net so often.  Jason Holt has looked good when fit - which hasn't been too often.  Danny Wilson's form has dipped drastically in the last couple of months, but that's because he's been playing with shin splints.

Who's a damp squib? Many of the youths look hopelessly out of their depth, but I'll let them off with that.  Jamie Hamill, on the other hand, has been around for years and, as one of the squad's senior players, he needs to be performing better than this.  Left-back, right-back, central midfield - he's looked terrible in all these positions.  And that shaved head and beard combo is just criminal.

What'll happen between now and May? The League Cup semi-final at the start of February will be a welcome distraction, but the rest of the campaign promises to be purgatory for the club and their fans.  Whether they can even beat Gretna's points total from 2007-08 - 13 points after a 10 point deduction - is is up for debate.

What I said in pre-season: NINTH.  "Where Hibernian finish depends entirely on when they dismiss Pat Fenlon and who they replace him with.  Assuming that Rod Petrie will, as per previous coaches, wait too long to get rid of him, I think his replacement will have too little time to turn things around and get them into the top six."

How wrong was I? Thankfully for Hibs fans, the plug was pulled on Pat Fenlon before a top six place became an impossibility.  Not only that, but they managed to tempt Terry Butcher down the A9; the former ICT boss has made an immediate impact, and has already dragged them into sixth place.  And that's just with the unbalanced, mediocre bunch than Fenlon left him; imagine how good Hibs could be after a transfer window or two.

Who's on fire? Until Butcher arrived, absolutely no-one.  Form has improved considerably since then, with Liam Craig perhaps the stand-out.  The midfielder is showing the form - and goal return - that tempted Hibs to sign him from St. Johnstone.

Who's a damp squib? Did a team really once pay £1million for Rowan Vine?  Bloody hell.  His only achievement since joining from St Johnstone has been the growth of a beard you could hide a badger in.  He offers as much of a goal threat to Hibs as I do.  Vine will probably be punted in January, as will Kevin Thomson, who is a shadow of the player who started his career at Easter Road and appears to have been frozen out by Butcher in favour of more dynamic midfielders.

What'll happen between now and May? The way Butcher's going, Hibs will probably do the double and go on to win the 2014-15 Champions League.  In seriousness, I expect a few new faces in January, and for them to achieve that top six finish.

What I said in pre-season: SIXTH.  "there have been plenty of arrivals, mainly from England's lower leagues, and if a few turn out to be rough diamonds then ICT could be very dangerous.  Certainly, expectations of a second successive top six finish are quite reasonable."

How wrong was I? ICT's electric start to the season exposed me as a pessimist (who knew?), and, up until the managerial change, they appeared to be the best bet for second place.  Then Terry Butcher was seduced by Hibs, and we replaced him with a manager that Hibs previously discarded.  It may be coincidental that form has collapsed since Yogi Hughes arrived - Richie Foran got injured soon after - but I don't think it is.  ICT now lie fifth, albeit with games in hand over the teams above them.

Who's on fire? If Billy Mckay hasn't scored, it's because he hasn't got any decent service.  I'd go as far as to say that he is the best striker in Scottish football right now, and that includes the overpaid heffalumps at Celtic Park.  Up until recently, it felt like everyone was playing well, with Foran, now converted to a central midfielder, having a real Indian Summer.

Who's a damp squib? Not surprisingly for a guy who is famous for winning a reality TV show, Ben Greenhalgh is all showboating and no substance.  And what's the deal with that quiff?  There's scarily little backup for Mckay, with Toby Agdestein (no goals in about a gazillion cameos as a late sub) and Curtis Allen (no appearances) having both departed after brief, underwhelming spells at the club.

What'll happen between now and May? You know that feeling Han Solo got when he saw the Death Star.  Well, I'm Solo, and Hughes is the Death Star.  If Mckay stays, we'll probably scrape enough results together to stay in the top half of the season - which will probably just mask our problems.  But don't worry, I'm sure our new boss will bring in some new faces to improve things...such as Patrick Cregg, Burton O'Brien, Kevin McBride, Russell Latapy and Darryl Duffy...


Friday, January 3, 2014

January moves in Scotland

It never fails to annoy me how poor news outlets are at tracking the comings-and-goings during transfer windows.  Lists in the newspapers, or on the BBC site are always incomplete or inaccurate (unless, of course, Rangers or Celtic are involved).  How hard can it be to get this stuff right?

Well, I'm about to find out.  I pledge to do my best to update this article as often as possible over January, and hopefully to track all moves in the four divisions of the SPFL - with your help, if you would point out any moves I've missed, either by twitter or by adding comments.  

The criteria?  Well, I've listed a few moves that happened in the second half of December, because I think they're relevant.  I won't mention a player leaving a club (on loan or otherwise) unless they've played first team football before.  And I won't mention players returning to clubs from loan spells - though I will note their departures.

Does that seem enough to go with?

Wish me luck...

(last update: 23:00 on 31 January)

IN: Adam Rooney (Oldham Athletic), Shaleum Logan (Brentford, loan), Alan Tate (Swansea City, loan)
OUT: Gregg Wylde (St. Mirren), Josh Magennis (St. Mirren, loan), Jamie Masson (Elgin City, loan), Lawrence Shankland (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Michael Hector (Reading, end of loan), Chris Clark (released)

IN: Stefan Johansen (Stromsgodset, £2m), Leigh Griffiths (Wolverhampton Wanderers, £1m), Holmbert Fridjonsson (Fram Reykjavik, £150k)
OUT: Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace, £700k), Bahrudin Atajic (Shrewsbury Town, loan), Joe Chalmers (Falkirk, loan), Paul George (Hamilton Accies, loan), Dylan McGeouch (Coventry City, loan), Tom Rogic (Melbourne Victory, loan), Mo Bangura (released)

IN: Farid El Alagui (Brentford, loan), Curtis Good (Newcastle United, loan)
OUT: Ross Smith (Peterhead), Chris Erskine (Partick Thistle, loan), Kudus Oyenuga (Boreham Wood, loan), David Goodwillie (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan)

IN: Paul McCallum (West Ham United, loan)
OUT: Adam King (Swansea City, £200k)

IN: Daniel Boateng (Arsenal, loan), Danny Haynes (Notts County, loan), Duncan Watmore (Sunderland, loan)
OUT: Fraser Mullen (Raith Rovers), Rowan Vine (Greenock Morton), Ross Caldwell (Alloa Athletic, loan), Tim Clancy (released)

IN: Greg Tansey (Stevenage)
OUT: Curtis Allen (Glentoran), Toby Agdestein (released)

IN: Alexei Eremenko (Kairat Almaty), David Moberg Karlsson (Sunderland, loan), Vitalijs Maksimenko (Brighton & Hove Albion, loan)
OUT: Gary Fisher (East Fife), Reuben Gabriel (Beveren), Kyle Jacobs (Livingston), Mark Stewart (Derry City), James Fowler (Cowdenbeath, loan), Jude Winchester (Cliftonville, loan), Rabiu Ibrahim, David Silva (released)

IN: Henri Anier (Viking Stavanger, loan made permanent)
OUT: Adam Cummins (Dundee, loan), Bob McHugh (Queen of the South, loan), Dan Twardzik (Dundee, end of loan)

IN: Lee Mair (St. Mirren), Gary Fraser (Bolton Wanderers, loan made permanent), Prince Buaben (Carlisle United, loan), Chris Erskine (Dundee United, loan), George Moncur (West Ham United, loan), Lyle Taylor (Sheffield United, loan)
OUT: John Baird (Raith Rovers), Ross Forbes (Dunfermline Athletic), Mark McGuigan (Albion Rovers), Hugh Murray (Dumbarton), Liam Lindsay (Alloa Athletic, loan), Henoc Mukendi (Liverpool, end of loan), Mark Kerr (released)

IN: Yoann Arquin (Notts County), Evangelos Oikonomou (Veria), Erik Cikos (Slovan Bratislava, loan), Filip Kiss (Cardiff City, loan), Jordan Slew (Blackburn Rovers, loan), Yann Songo'o (Blackburn Rovers, loan), Michael Tidser (Rotherham United, loan)
OUT: Steven Ross (Brora Rangers, loan), Orhan Mustafi (Grasshopper Zurich, end of loan),Mihael Kovacevic, Branislav Micic (released)

IN: Fisayo Adarabioyo (unattached), Chris Iwelumo (Scunthorpe United), Wade Joyce (Barnsley), Michael O'Halloran (Bolton Wanderers), Mark Davies (Nottingham Forest, loan), James Dunne (Stevenage, loan)
OUT: David Robertson (Greenock Morton), Liam Caddis (Alloa, loan), Chris Kane (Dumbarton, loan), Gwion Edwards (Swansea City, end of loan), Rory Fallon, Sanel Jahic (released)

IN: Gregg Wylde (Aberdeen), Adam Campbell (Newcastle United, loan), Josh Magennis (Aberdeen, loan)
OUT: Kealan Dillon (Athlone Town), Danny Grainger (Dunfermline Athletic), Lee Mair (Partick Thistle), Gary Harkins (Oldham, loan), Jake Caprice (Blackpool, end of loan), David Cornell (Swansea City, end of loan), David Barron (released)

IN: Liam Caddis (St Johnstone, loan), Ross Caldwell (Hibernian, loan), Liam Lindsay (Partick Thistle, loan)
OUT: Declan McManus (Aberdeen, end of loan), Alex Salmon (Carlisle United, end of loan)

IN: Chris Kane (Dunfermline Athletic), Sammy Stewart (Glenavon), Sebastian Usai (AFC United), Darren Brownlie (Partick Thistle, loan), James Fowler (Kilmarnock, loan) David Gold (Hibernian, loan)
OUT: Grant Adam (Airdrieonians), Marc McKenzie (East Fife), Andrew Russell (Berwick Rangers), David Cowan (released)

IN: Mark McLaughlin (Greenock Morton), Hugh Murray (St. Mirren, loan made permanent), Chris Kane (St Johnstone, loan), Michael Miller (Celtic, loan), Callum Thomson (St. Mirren, loan)
OUT: Martin McNiff (Annan Athletic), Kevin Smith (East Fife), Ally McKerracher (Kilbirnie Ladeside, loan), Owen Ronald (Kirkintilloch, loan), Aaron Barry (Sheffield United, end of loan)

IN: Sean Bonnet-Johnson (unattached), Stephen Hughes (East Fife), Christian Nade (unattached), Adam Cummins (Motherwell, loan)
OUT: James Thomson (Broughty Athletic), Leighton McIntosh (Arbroath, loan)

IN: Mark Beck (Carlisle United, loan), Joe Chalmers (Celtic, loan)
OUT: Jay Fulton (Swansea City, £250k), Craig Comrie (Stirling Albion), Rakesh Bingham (Wigan Athletic, end of loan)

IN: Darren Cole (Rangers), Jamie McCormack (Wigan Athletic), Garry O'Connor (unattached), David Robertson (St Johnstone), Ben Sampayo (Brighton & Hove Albion), Jack Smith (East Fife), Rowan Vine (Hibernian), Stuart Findlay (Celtic, loan), Barrie McKay (Rangers, loan)
OUT: Michal Habai (Livingston), Mark McLaughlin (Dumbarton), Jonathan Page (Dunfermline Athletic), Tomas Peciar (Ostersunds), Stephen Stirling (Stranraer), Jake Nicholson, Nacho Novo, Craig Reid (released)

IN: Jason Scotland (Barnsley), Paul George (Celtic, loan)
OUT: Ryan Finnie, Jon McShane (released)

IN: Michal Habai (Greenock Morton), Kyle Jacobs (Kilmarnock), Nejc Mevlja (Maribor), Craig Sives (Hume City)
OUT: Stefan Scougall (Sheffield United, £200k), Coll Donaldson (Queens Park Rangers, £150k), -Patrik Twardzik (Celtic, end of loan)

IN: Bob McHugh (Motherwell, loan)
OUT: Dan Orsi (Annan Athletic)

IN: John Baird (Partick Thistle), Fraser Mullen (Hibernian)
OUT: Kevin McCann, Colin Stewart (released)

IN: Grant Adam (Cowdenbeath), Chris McCluskey (Rossvale), Stefan Milojevic (FK Bezanija), Florian Moulet (unattached), Keigan Parker (Shettleston)
OUT: Jamie Barclay (Pollok), Andrew Duncan (Pollok), Mick O'Byrne (Stirling Albion), David Sinclair (Pollok), Willie McLaren (released)

IN: Paul McManus (Forfar Athletic), Kevin Nicoll (Albion Rovers), Sandy Wood (Montrose), Leighton McIntosh (Dundee, loan)
OUT: Darren Smith (Stirling Albion), Graham Bayne (released)

OUT: Kyle McAusland (Rangers, end of loan)

IN: Ryan Ferguson (Dundee United), Robert Thomson (Dunfermline Athletic) 
OUT: Stuart Anderson (Formartine United), Ryan Donnelly (Albion Rovers), Calum Antell (Queen of the South, end of loan)

IN: Ross Forbes (Partick Thistle), Danny Grainger (St. Mirren), Jonathan Page (Greenock Morton), Lawrence Shankland (Aberdeen, loan)
OUT: Chris Kane (Cowdenbeath), Robert Thomson (Brechin City), Ryan Ferguson (Dundee United, end of loan)

IN: Marc McKenzie (Cowdenbeath), Kevin Rutkiewicz (Carolina Railhawks), Kevin Smith (Dumbarton), Gary Fisher (Kilmarnock, loan made permanent), Stephen O'Neill (Aberdeen, loan)
OUT: Michael Andrews (Berwick Rangers), Stephen Hughes (Dundee), Jack Smith (Greenock Morton), James Thomson (Dundee, end of loan), Alexis Dutot, Blair Henderson, Cedric Tuta (released)

OUT: Bryan Deasley (Montrose), Paul McManus (Arbroath)

OUT: Andrew Mitchell (Annan Athletic), Barrie McKay (Greenock Morton, loan)

IN: Stewart Greacen (Derry City)
OUT: Josh Watt (East Stirling, loan), Ross Smith (Dundee United, end of loan)

IN: Stephen Stirling (Greenock Morton)

IN: Ryan Donnelly (Brechin City), Mark McGuigan (Partick Thistle, loan made permanent)
OUT: Jordan Allan (Dundee United, end of loan), Kevin Nicoll (Arbroath)

IN: Luke Hammond (unattached), Andrew Mitchell (Rangers, loan made permanent), Martin McNiff (Dumbarton), Dan Orsi (Queen of the South), Josh Todd (Carlisle United, loan made permanent)
OUT: Greg Anderson (Dalbeattie Star, loan), Steven Logan (Newcastle United, end of loan)

IN: Michael Andrews (East Fife), Paul Currie (Bonnyrigg), Ross McMullen (Tranent Juniors), Andrew Russell (Cowdenbeath)
OUT: Neil Janczyk (Clyde), Paul Grant (Hibernian, end of loan), Owen Ronald (Dumbarton, end of loan), Gary O'Connor (released)

IN: Bradley Coyne (Stirling Albion), Neil Janczyk (Berwick Rangers), Joe McGovern (Dundee United, loan)
OUT: Sean Fitzharris (East Kilbride, loan made permanent), Grant Dickie (Cumnock Juniors, loan), Kieran McGachie (Civil Service Strollers, loan), Gavin Brown (released)
IN: Andrew Grimshaw (Larbert Athletic), Josh Watt (Stenhousemuir, loan)
OUT: David McCaughie (Luncarty, loan), Calum Gallagher (Rangers, end of loan)

IN: Jamie Masson (Aberdeen, loan)
OUT: Ross McKinnon (released)

IN: Bryan Deasley (Forfar Athletic, loan made permanent), Craig Duguid (Aberdeen), Calum Ferguson (Inverness CT, loan)
OUT: Sandy Wood (Arbroath)

OUT: Reece Donaldson (Raith Rovers, end of loan)


IN: Craig Comrie (Falkirk), Mick O'Byrne (Airdrieonians), Darren Smith (Arbroath)
OUT: Jamie Clark (Bo'ness United), Bradley Coyne (Clyde)