Saturday, May 31, 2014

A long summer ahead at Ibrox

Rangers are off on a tour of North America this summer.

No, really.  I'm not making this up.

According to Ally McCoist, it's a chance to connect with the enormous fanbase the club have in that part of the world.  With opponents the calibre of Ventura County Fusion, Sacramento Republic and Victoria Highlanders, it's bound to generate huge excitement and act as a huge positive advertisement for the Rangers brand, right?

One can only assume and hope that the trip is being paid for by sponsors and well-wishers.

That's because Rangers are pretty much broke.

The club only crawled to the end of the season thanks to two seven-figure loans - one from supporter George Letham, and one from director Sandy Easdale.  Both these loans are due to be paid back from season ticket monies, as soon as they are raised.

Which is a problem, what with the supporters largely refusing to buy season tickets.  As of the end of the week, the club had sold less than ten thousand, thanks to the campaign led by fans group Union Of Fans, whose figurehead is South Africa-based businessman Dave King.  That's the Dave King who was convicted of 42 accounts of tax evasion in South Africa.

By my estimates, though, 10,000 season tickets should be enough to pay back a total of £3million or so in loans.  Which makes it curious that, apparently, the club have been evading Letham's attempts to find out how close they are to repaying him.  Since the loan is lodged with the Stock Exchange, they won't be able to evade him for very long.

So, once those loans have been paid back, then what next?

The club has no credit line.  In fact, it's credit rating is so poor that they aren't allowed to sell season tickets by credit card or direct debit.  One wonders how many Rangers season ticket holders are unable to renew because, in the current financial climate, they can't afford to take £400 out of their bank account as a lump sum even if they wanted to (NB - that's not meant as a cheap shot at the income of the average Rangers fan, honestly - we're still in a recession, even if the Tories claim otherwise).  So going cap in hand to the bank is out of the question.

Given that the club has blown more than £60million in two years - in order to win the two lowest tiers in Scottish league football and to reach a Challenge Cup final - then you'd think there would be some pretty savage cost-cutting going on.  The obvious target would be the playing staff, who cost somewhere in the region of £6million annually.  That's easily higher than every other Scottish club except Celtic.

The trouble is, nearly all the players are under contract for next year.  If attempts have been made to move them on, then these have been resisted.  I imagine that there are a few who feel that they are unlikely to be paid several thousand pounds per week if they were to agree to leave Ibrox.  So far this summer the only players to move on are forward Andy Little and defender Chris Hegarty.  The phrase 'drop in the ocean' comes to mind.

So the players are still being paid.  Money is still leaking out of Rangers like water out of the Titanic.  And yet it feels like very little is being done about it.  There is a taste of Nero and his fiddle to it all.

Another share issue is an option - the board have the ability to create and sell more shares to current shareholders.  That would raise some capital, but how much?  Certainly nowhere near the £20million-plus that the club's share issue eighteen months ago produced.  And it wouldn't entice the supporters back.  An EGM could be called in order to organize a wider share issue; that would be entertaining.  And would any investor be willing to risk putting their cash into this shambles of an organization?

So at the moment it feels like the folk in charge of the club are just muddling on, hoping all the problems will go away.  How they're going to meet payroll over the summer period remains unclear though.  So King and his supporters appear to be succeeding in destablizing the club.  But to what end?

If Rangers run out of money, they will need to go into administration; if they can't make an agreement with their creditors - and it's difficult to make an agreement with them when you have absolutely no cash - they would be liquidated again.  (Maybe King intends to buy them on the cheap?  That would be an interesting move, since, under it's current wording, there is no way in hell that he would pass the SFA's Fit and Proper Person test).

So Rangers fans are, to an extent, between a naturally occurring solid aggregate of one or more minerals or mineraloids and a place that isn't very easy.  A work colleague of mine who supports the club has joined the Union Of Fans.  His reasoning?  He doesn't trust the folk currently in charge of the club, and he doesn't trust Dave King either.  But he thinks Dave King is going to win.

On the field of play, 2014-15 is likely to be a challenge as well.  While the Scottish Championship was bound to be a step up, one assumed that the Gers would still steamroller the likes of Falkirk and Queen of the South over an entire season, even if they dropped a few points here and there.

But now they face a season in the same division as Hearts and Hibs.  Three of Scottish football's biggest clubs are competing for one automatic promotion spot, and one possible promotion spot via playoffs.  If you've watched a few of Rangers' performances over the last two seasons, you'll agree that the current odds of 1/5 that they'll win that division are rather too short.  I had wondered if the club might gamble on going into administration and scraping into the playoffs with a huge points deduction - that now seems much too risky given the presence of the Edinburgh clubs.

There is at least one thing we can all be certain of - Rangers cannot afford to miss out on promotion.  If that happens, then the midden really will hit the windmill.


Monday, May 26, 2014

2013-14 report card - Kilmarnock

Going nowhere fast

LEAGUE: 9th, 39pts (2012-13 - 9th, 45pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Second round
MOST USED FIRST XI: Craig Samson, Sean Clohessy, Lee Ashcroft, Manuel Pascali, Jeroen Tesselaar, Chris Johnston, Jackson Irvine, Craig Slater, Michael Gardyne, Rory McKenzie, Kris Boyd

OVERVIEW: Well, that was a rough ride.  Killie had a rotten start, an okay middle period where they seemed to have found their feet, and then a dreadful finish that nearly plunged them into a relegation playoff.  The fans had plenty of reason to find fault with the two Johnstons - chairman Michael and manager Allan - and precious little to cheer.  Kris Boyd, at least, rolled back the years and was the one player who could be counted on.  But it was a season to forget.  No team conceded as many in the league (66) as they did.  About the only silver lining was that the club's sorry financial state appears to have been sorted out.

HIGH POINTS: Finding the bottle in the last two games to win both and guarantee survival.  Apart from that, there wasn't too much to shout about.  A 4-1 win at Tynecastle on Boxing Day was probably the best performance of the season.

LOW POINTS: Going without a league win till October put the team on the back foot from the start.  The nadir, however, was losing 5-0 to Hearts post-split.  Killie had none of the quality, organization or enthusiasm of their opponents, and it was obvious to all.

STAR MAN: Without Boyd, goodness knows what might have happened.  He scored as many SPFL goals as all his teammates put together.  No-one else managed more than four in the entire campaign.  I questioned his attitude before the start of the season, but I'm happy to admit that he proved me and all his other doubters wrong by leading the line impressively all year long.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Craig Slater made a central midfield berth his own, and his engine and range of passing make him one to watch.  Disappointingly, many youngsters who impressed under Kenny Shiels regressed this season.

WASTE OF SPACE: Where to start?  Mark Stewart, Kyle Jacobs and David Silva were pointless signings and out of their depth.  A decent keeper, Antonio Reguero, took up a wage but didn't play all season.  January loan signing David Moberg Karlsson, who Sunderland paid £1.75m for last summer, only played in four games.

THE BOSS: After a rough start, Johnston appeared to have turned things around and worked out his best eleven; however, the late season collapse will be of concern.  Fans used to Kenny Shiels' tiki-taka approach were nauseated by the more direct football used this season and there are question marks over whether the man known as Magic is cut out for management at this level.  If he survives the summer, he'll still be on the hot seat come August.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: With the club's bank debt now settled, the club are in a good position to move forward in 2014/15, as long as they keep Boyd.  Whether that will be with Johnston at the helm is debatable.  Kilmarnock need someone who will nurture and improve their academy graduates, but only Slater looks like he has improved under this manager's tutelage.  If they can't convince Boyd to stay, they will be lucky to find a replacement who can provide half as many goals.  It's still possible that Rugby Park will have an artificial surface next year, and it will be intriguing to see if that gives them an advantage.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Michael Gardyne (end of loan), Jackson Irvine (end of loan), David Moberg Karlsson (end of loan), Vitalijs Maksimenko (end of loan)


Sunday, May 25, 2014

2013-14 report card - Hibernian

An omnishambles of a club
Team badge

LEAGUE: 11th, 35pts (2012-13 - 7th, 51pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fifth round
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Ben Williams, Jordan Forster, Michael Nelson, Paul Hanlon, Ryan McGivern, Lewis Stevenson, Scott Robertson, Tom Taiwo, Liam Craig, Sam Stanton, James Collins

OVERVIEW: There was not a single redeeming feature to Hibernian's 2013-14 season, which will go down as one of the most infamous in Scottish football history.  This squad - in reality an overpaid, undermotivated motley crew (the club had the third highest budget in the Premiership!) utterly embarrassed themselves with a capitulation the scale of which is rarely seen at this level of sport.  I said before the season began that where Hibs finished in the table "depended on how soon they got rid of Pat Fenlon" (or words to that effect) - I was right, but not in the way I anticipated.  The team seemed to believe that it was too good to be relegated, until it was too late.  The final denouement at home to Hamilton Accies, blowing a 2-0 lead from the first leg, seemed an apt summary for their farce of the campaign - , there was an arrogance that the job was done, and then once there was a sign of trouble, their a*** collapsed.  To end up in this situation takes a special degree of incompetence at every level of the organization.

HIGH POINTS:  Hibs only had one win against a top six side all season, and they lost four out of five derby clashes.  There was no high point.

LOW POINTS: Bloody hell, how long have you got?  The second leg of the playoff was the lowest of many low points.  Heck, being beaten at home by Raith in the Scottish Cup was bad enough (Raith have won as many games at Easter Road in 2014 as Hibernian have).  And to think that most fans probably thought that it couldn't get any worse after Hearts knocked them out of the League Cup in October.  Just to recap, they won two of their last twenty-one matches in all competitions.

STAR MAN: Only two players were even decent.  One was keeper Ben Williams.  The other was Sam Stanton, whose emergence was a rare bright spark.  A crafty, skilful midfield player, he suffered in the last few weeks of the campaign mainly because the team was so utterly dependent on him.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Aside from Stanton, forward Jason Cummings deserves a mention, simply because his goals against Hamilton were of sufficient quality to prove that he can clearly play a bit.  I imagine a few more will follow when he plays against Championship opposition every week.  Too soon?

WASTE OF SPACE: See the opening sentence of the 'low points' section.  Take your pick over who was worse.  The goal-shy striker James Collins, who cost a six figure fee but managed only half a dozen goals?  Rowan Vine, who lasted less than six months after claiming he was leaving St Johnstone for a bigger club?  Ryan McGivern, who could be the most hapless defender to ever start more than thirty league games in Scotland's top division?  If none of these choices satisfy you, there are plenty others...

THE BOSS: Remarkably, Terry Butcher's decision to leave ICT made two sides worse - and making Pat Fenlon's side even more hopeless is a feat so remarkable that, had he deliberately set out to do so on purpose, he couldn't have made them any worse than they ended up.  Fenlon left a dreadful, imbalanced squad, but Butcher proved woefully unable to improve them.  Initially, with some success, he went with the sensible option of concentrating on making them difficult to beat.  But with his attackers barren in front of goal, they were screwed when Paul Hanlon got injured and the rest of the back four lost form.  For a man who prides himself as a motivator, his inability to raise squad confidence or to induce the slightest sense of fight is a pretty poor indictment.  If he had stayed at Inverness, he might have guided them to second in the league and a League Cup final...

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Well, The Championship should be interesting.  With no more than two teams able to win promotion, Hibs can't afford to feel sorry for themselves, or they'll be left behind Hearts and Rangers.  Butcher may yet cling on to the manager's job, as he knows what it takes to win Scotland's second tier, but it's hardly a sure thing.  Whoever is in charge, the playing squad will be decimated next season.  If I were in charge at Easter Road, I would keep Williams, Hanlon, Stanton and Liam Craig (on the grounds that he can't have become a terrible player in a single season) and punt everyone else I could.  That's a lot of new faces to bring in.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Unclear, but expect the number to be in double figures.


2013-14 report card - Celtic

Same old Celtic, always winning
Celtic crest

LEAGUE: Champions, 99pts (2012-13 - champions - 79pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Third round
MOST USED FIRST XI: Fraser Forster, Adam Matthews, Virgil Van Dijk, Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre, Stefan Johansen, Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Ledley, Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes

OVERVIEW: So, how to judge a Celtic season?  Well, they reached the Champions League group stages again and they won the league by about a million points, with only a solitary defeat.  The caveat is that the domestic cups eluded them and they were far less competitive on the continent than in 2012-13.  And, of course, their wage budget is greater than that of every other Premiership team put together, so a convincing league win seems like the minimum expectation.  I suppose they can only beat what's put in front of them.  But the sheer predictability seems to be driving fans away - Celtic Park was less than half full for some league matches - and Neil Lennon has departed having clearly decided that he can't take the club any further.

HIGH POINTS: That sensational comeback in the final Champions League qualifier against Shakhtar Karagandy was something to behold.  Domestically, wins over Caley Thistle (6-0) and Motherwell (5-0) showcased some of the best football of the Lennon era.

LOW POINTS: Crashing out of the Scottish Cup at home to Aberdeen was a bit shoddy.  Losing to Greenock Morton at Celtic Park in the League Cup was downright embarrassing.

STAR MAN: I expect both Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk to move on this summer.  Forster was as reliable as ever in goal, and impressed on the European stage again.  Van Dijk, meanwhile, was pure class from the off.  His skill on the ball surpasses that of many of the forwards he opposes in Scotland, while his defending is simply excellent.  Both players will be wanted by clubs who can pay far more than Celtic can.  But it was Kris Commons who scooped the Player of the Year awards, and quite right; playing in a more advanced role, he was lethal in front of goal domestically, and set up plenty for his teammates as well.  At 31, he is playing the best football of his career.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: The club hasn't blooded that many youngsters in recent times, so it was good to see young midfielder Liam Henderson get a run in the team at the end of the campaign.  He's neat and tidy and looks like a player; hopefully there are more opportunities to come.

WASTE OF SPACE: A contest between £1.8m misfit Amido Balde and the perenially injured £3m winger Derk Boerrigter.  Neither really contributed anything of note and were very poor pieces of transfer business last summer.  It's hard to know how Lennon ever saw the lumbering Balde fitting in to a side who rarely play direct football.

THE BOSS: I wasn't surprised to see Lennon depart.  On the budget he has, he's going to struggle to get the team beyond the Champions League group stages in the future, and he's even recognised that getting them there will get harder and harder.  His reputation could only be harmed if he stayed at Celtic Park for longer.  As for 2013-14, the team came very close to going unbeaten in the Premiership, which suggests he has got better at keeping the players motivated for less important games, but being dumped out of Europe earlier probably helped that.  Even after four years in charge, it's difficult to gauge how capable a manager he is because of the paucity of opposition he has had.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Can I be the first to congratulate the new Celtic manager on winning the 2014-15 league title?  In seriousness, the new man will probably have at least a year's leeway, given the miniscule likelihood of there being a challenge from another Premiership club.  However, Champions League qualification will be harder than ever with having to play the home ties at Murrayfield.  I also recall that the O'Neill and Strachan sides split up very quickly following each coach's respective exit; will there be a lot of players who follow Lennon out of the door?  I know it seems odd to suggest a title-winning season could be a bit bleak, but that's a sign of the situation that Celtic and Scottish football are in...



Saturday, May 24, 2014

2013-14 report card - Motherwell

Who needs style when you have this much substance?

LEAGUE: 2nd, 70pts (2012-13 - 2nd, 63pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Gunnar Nielsen, Simon Ramsden, Stephen McManus, Shaun Hutchinson, Stevie Hammell, Lionel Ainsworth, Stuart Carswell, Keith Lasley, Iain Vigurs, James McFadden, John Sutton

OVERVIEW: This was supposed to be the year that Motherwell took a step backwards.  After all, they lost half their team last summer.  They didn't look great shakes in the early weeks of the campaign.  And yet, while Dundee United got praise for their play, and Aberdeen and St Johnstone achieved cup glory, Stuart McCall's side seemed to spend the season quietly grinding out results, frequently without playing any spectacular football.  They were simply a decent, consistent team who knew how to win matches.  Remarkably, they scored more points than they did with Michael Higdon and Nicky Law in the team.  They are the second best team in Scotland; they just don't really make a song and dance about it.

HIGH POINTS: It doesn't get much better than nicking second place in the last seconds of the last game, right on Aberdeen's doorstep.  In terms of performances, the run around Christmas where they won five games in a row, including thumpings of St. Mirren, Partick and St Johnstone, was sensational.

LOW POINTS: From a financial point of view, Motherwell really could have done with a cup run.  So being dumped out of the Scottish Cup by League Two Albion Rovers was not exactly ideal.  In fact, they have won only one of their last thirteen matches in cup competitions going back to March 2012.

STAR MAN:  Without Michael Higdon, there was expected to be a chronic shortage of goals.  Step forward John Sutton, whose two dismal seasons at Tynecastle now seem a distant memory.  His 22 goals were a significant reason for the team's success

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Jack Leitch, whose father Scott was a club stalwart, started six league games in midfield and looked the part.  Expect the teenager (19 in July) to see far more action next season.

WASTE OF SPACE: It seems a bit harsh to criticize Paul Lawson, who has hardly become a bad player overnight.  But the fact remains that the former Ross County midfielder isn't a good fit for the team, particularly with Keith Lasley alongside.  Add in the fact that he was injured for the last few months, when the side hit it's best run of form, and it's hard to see a future at Fir Park for Lawson.

THE BOSS: It's hard not to like the affable, chirpy McCall, who rarely has a bad word to say about opponents or officials.  Add in three successive top-three league finishes, despite ever-diminishing budgets, and you have a very decent manager indeed.  He should be able to hold on to the majority of this season's squad, but one feels the call from a bigger club is inevitable, and that he would probably answer it.  It's hard to see how he can achieve anything more with Motherwell.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Unlike last summer, there shouldn't be a huge player exodus, which means they might hit the ground running in 2014-15.  The return of wide man and goal threat Lionel Ainsworth is a priority, while McCall will hope that Dan Twardzik, signed from Dundee, will prove more reliable than Gunnar Nielsen or Lee Hollis between the sticks.  The Steelmen will certainly hope to be near the top of the table again.  If anything, the bigger concern is the disappointing crowds and dwindling income which could lead to major cuts at the end of next season.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Lionel Ainsworth (end of loan), James McFadden


Thursday, May 22, 2014

2013-14 report card - St Johnstone

If only every game were a cup tie
StJohnstoneFC crest.png

LEAGUE: 6th, 53pts (2012-13 - 3rd, 56pts)
LEAGUE CUP: Semi finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Alan Mannus, Dave Mackay, Steven Anderson, Frazer Wright, Brian Easton, David Wotherspoon, Murray Davidson, Gary McDonald, Chris Millar, Nigel Hasselbaink, Stevie May

OVERVIEW: Given that the Perth Saints hardly have a big budget to work with, another top half finish was pretty decent work.  Of course, of far more significance was the club's first ever Scottish Cup triumph, which is the first trophy of significance (the lower divisions and Challenge Cup don't count!) in the club's history and means that 2013-14 will go down as arguably the best season in the club's history.  If only all the club's matches were in knockout competitions - they won nine and drew one of their twelve cup ties this season.  As in previous years, the team were more functional than stylish, but the emergence of young striker Stevie May was terrific to witness.

HIGH POINTS: That cup win, obviously - it'll be many aeons before that's topped, I think.  Aside from that, knocking Rosenborg out of the Europa League all the way back in July was pretty sensational.  In the league they thumped ICT, Motherwell and Dundee United at home this season.

LOW POINTS: The Saintees' worst performance of the season came at just about the worst possible time - a 4-0 hammering in the League Cup semi final against Aberdeen.  They at least got revenge at the same stage of the Scottish Cup.

STAR MAN: I love everything about May except his dodgy ponytail.  He has everything that a coach is looking for in a centre forward - pace, strength, a good touch, and the ability to score from anywhere in the final third.  Next season I can see him emulating his 27 goal tally for this campaign.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: There wasn't much action for other young players this season, but Englishman Scott Brown took his opportunity with both hands late in the season, scoring against Celtic.  With Paddy Cregg leaving, he may see more action in central midfield next season.

WASTE OF SPACE: Rory Fallon until January, then Chris Iwelumo afterwards.  Both were signed purely as big strikers who could be brought off the bench in desperate circumstances, and both were in fact desperate.  Iwelumo never even got into a dangerous enough position to attempt to recreate his famous Scotland miss.

THE BOSS: Formerly Steve Lomas' assistant, Tommy Wright kept things ticking over nicely.  The league finish probably would have been better if his relatively small squad hadn't had to play as many as fifty matches in all competitions.  The signings of James Dunne, Lee Croft and Michael O'Halloran in January were all astute and, with his cup victory, there's no question that he's the right man in the dugout going forward.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: It's unlikely that St Johnstone will lose anyone they wanted to keep this summer, which obviously bodes well.  The retention of May, his strike partner Steven MacLean and outstanding centre back Steven Anderson is particularly pleasing.  Confidence should be high for next season, though another early Europa League start could be a hindrance later on.  Wright could do with a younger alternative to the aging Frazer Wright at centre-back, and perhaps a winger too.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Tim Clancy, Patrick Cregg, James Dunne (end of loan), Nigel Hasselbaink, Chris Iwelumo


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2013-14 report card - Ross County

Short term fixes aren't the solution
Ross County FC logo.svg

LEAGUE: 7th, 40pts (2012-13 - 5th - 53pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Second round
MOST USED FIRST XI: Mark Brown, Brian McLean, Scott Boyd, Yann Songo'o, Ben Gordon, Richard Brittain, Stuart Kettlewell, Rocco Quinn, Graham Carey, Melvin De Leeuw, Jordan Slew

OVERVIEW: Any expectation of a second successive top six finish was always going to be optimistic given the number of key players who left Dingwall last summer, but County's season-long dogfight to avoid the promotion/relegation playoff slot came as a surprise to many.  A poor first half of the season was mainly down to many of the new signings failing to impress, but Derek Adams' choice of tactics (a back five?!) at times didn't help.  Thankfully, a plethora of New Year reinforcements provided a much needed spark, but the team remained inconsistent until the close of the campaign.  Seventh place sounds decent, but such were the fine margins that County would have finished eleventh if they had lost their last two matches, instead of winning both.

HIGH POINTS: I was present for the January victory over Dundee United, where Filip Kiss scored an absolute peach and County attacked with a style and penetration that was rarely seen otherwise during the season.  Thankfully I wasn't present when they upset the form book with a New Year win in Inverness, their first away win of the season.

LOW POINTS: The Boxing Day loss to Hibs at home - I haven't seen a top flight side so inept since Gretna's dying days.  Within a week half of a new starting lineup had been brought in.  Being knocked out of both cups at the first attempt was a disappointment, with the defeat to Stranraer in the League Cup a particular embarrassment.

STAR MAN: I did consult John Maxwell on this - he insisted that, even though he started only half the league games, Dutchman Melvin De Leeuw was the obvious pick.  Ostensibly a left winger, De Leeuw proved far more effective when deployed through the middle, just off a lone striker.  His nine goals made him the team's top scorer.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: from loanee Yann Songo'o, only one player under 21 played for County this season - forward Steven Ross, who finished the campaign at Brora on loan and may not even get a contract for next season.  So it'll have to be Songo'o, even though the cultured central defender's future is likely to be back at parent club Blackburn.

WASTE OF SPACE: How Roy McGregor wangled a hundred grand out of Czechs Slovan Liberec for Kevin Luckassen is beyond me; the Dutch striker wasn't just inept, but also lazy, yet he got plenty of games simply because Adams was devoid of other options.

THE BOSS: Adams' stock took a bit of a hit this season, though he has built up enough credit at County that there was no question of him being punted.  To be fair he had to make big changes to the playing squad and it's not that much of a shock that they took time to gel.  But he needs to make better transfer moves this summer to avoid a repeat of 2012-13.  He could also do with improving his relationship with the media; too often he comes across as a petulant moaner.  In fairness, he didn't exactly do the dying swan act when Jamie Hamill flattened him, when he could have made a real meal of it.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: With the right signings - and most importantly a 15 goal a season striker - a return to the upper half of the table is a reasonable aim.  Of course, it could just as easily go the other way.  The arrival of Joe Cardle could mean a change in the attacking play, given that Adams hasn't really deployed a winger like him in previous seasons.  The gaps left by departing loan players such as Cikos, Songo'o, Kiss, Tidser and Slew need filled, preferably with players who might stay for a few years rather than a few months.  A new keeper will be brought in to compete with Mark Brown.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Erik Cikos (end of loan), Alex Cooper, Michael Fraser, Gary Glen, Filip Kiss (end of loan), Evangelos Oikonomou, Jordan Slew (end of loan), Yann Songo'o (end of loan), Michael Tidser (end of loan)


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

2013-14 report card - St. Mirren

Mediocre yet again
St. Mirren FC's Crest


LEAGUE: 8th, 39pts (2012-13 - 11th, 41pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fifth round
LEAGUE CUP: Second round
MOST USED FIRST XI: Marian Kello, Jason Naismith, Marc McAusland, Darren McGregor, Sean Kelly, Conor Newton, John McGinn, Jim Goodwin, Kenny McLean, Paul McGowan, Steven Thompson

OVERVIEW:  The Buddies dabbled with eleventh place all season, before finally finding a semblance of form in April that saved them.  The eighth place finish matched Danny Lennon's previous best as manager, but don't be fooled - they scored fewer points than last season and this was not a good campaign.  Lennon's problems were largely of his own making, having made too many dreadful signings - out of all the outfield players brought in, only Gregg Wylde and the much maligned Gary Harkins are still at the club .  Attack was a particular problem, with Harkins unable to fit into the system and Paul McGowan seemingly distracted by off-field problems.  The only bright sparks were the good performances from youths and the evergreen Steven Thompson.

HIGH POINTS: Coming from two down to beat Motherwell just before the split.  Lennon's job looked on the line, with the team having won only one of the previous ten.  But two goals in the last four minutes turned the match on its head and sparked the revival that kept them out of relegation danger.

LOW POINTS: Their defence of the League Cup only lasted one game - a defeat at Queen of the South.  Thumpings in Dingwall in August and Dundee in October will live long in the memory as two of the worst and most disorganized performances by the team in recent years.

STAR MAN: It's a sad indictment of the senior pros that the young players were probably the most impressive performers this season.  John McGinn, still only 19 stood out in midfield, and has the skills and temperament to go a long way.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Both full-backs look like real prospects.  Neither Sean Kelly on the left nor Jason Naismith on the right were anywhere near first team consideration in August, yet both are now cemented as first choices.  Given that Kelly is 20 and Naismith 19, there's still plenty of room for improvement.  Chris Dilo was also excellent in goal at the end of the season.

WASTE OF SPACE: Transfer business was so dreadful that there are no shortage of candidates - David Cornell, Eric Djemba Djemba and Harkins would all have been acceptable choices.  But I called Stephane Bahoken the worst signing of the season for good reason.  The French striker has been surplus to requirements since about the end of September, but St. Mirren's attempts to get shot of him failed.

THE BOSS: I wasn't surprised that Lennon was let go.  The board's decision to let his four year contract run down turned him into a bit of a lame duck in the last few months.  Their concern will be that plenty of new faces are needed, and that the manager cannot be trusted to sign the right players.  It took him until the final weeks of the season to find his best eleven - and that included only two players who weren't at the club last season.  So what does that say about the other dozen signings he made?  In the last 2 years, ICT, St. Johnstone and Ross County have all made the top six, which makes it rather galling that St. Mirren have never been close to that achievement.  That said, the appointment of Lennon's assistant, Tommy Craig, isn't the radical alternative I'd expected, which is a shame as I think a radical alternative is exactly what the Buddies needed.  At 63, Craig is hardly a long-term answer either...but I suppose there's no such thing these days?

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: There will be considerable squad turnover yet again - even if the likes of McGinn can be retained.  Thompson and Gary Teale, both of whom will be 36 at the start of next season, are surely living on borrowed time now; Teale will probably concentrate more on the coaching side now.  The good news is that all the dead wood will depart in the summer, so there is plenty of scope for making the signings required to improve the team.  The bad news is that Kenny McLean, who finished the season in fine form, will also probably leave.  Retaining McGowan would be a big boost, as would be the return of Conor Newton on a permanent deal.  But it will be the quality of the newcomers who will determine whether the Buddies are embroiled in a relegation battle in 2014-15.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Stephane Bahoken (end of loan), Anton Brady, Adam Campbell (end of loan), Eric Djemba-Djemba, Josh Magennis (end of loan), Conor Newton (end of loan), David Van Zanten.


Monday, May 19, 2014

2013-14 report card - Dundee United

Plenty of style, and the substance will come
Dundee United FC logo.svg

LEAGUE: 4th, 58pts (2012-13 - 6th, 47pts)
LEAGUE CUP: Quarter finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Radoslaw Ciernziak, Keith Watson, Sean Dillon, Gavin Gunning, Andrew Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, Paul Paton, John Rankin, Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Gauld, Nadir Ciftci

OVERVIEW: At their breathtaking best - and at times the football really was breathtaking - Dundee United were unquestionably the second best side in the country.  But, as you'd expect from such a young team, inconsistency was a big problem, which is why Jackie McNamara's side finished fourth in the league and lost in the Scottish Cup final.  McNamara's attacking philosophy won plenty of plaudits though, and after a few stutters at the end of the Peter Houston era, United appear to be on the up again both on and off the field - the club's financial issues were resolved this season too.  That said, they may not be able to turn down decent offers for their talented youths.

HIGH POINTS: The run of form between October and December, when they won seven out of eight games (the other was a draw at Celtic) and scored 27 goals, was absolutely electric and will stick in the memory.  The crushing of Inverness in the Scottish Cup, and the late season destruction of Motherwell (has there ever been a game where so many goals were set up by backheels?) were also sensational.  United scored three or more goals in seventeen games this season.

LOW POINTS: I witnessed a capitulation to Ross County in January that was just the pits.  That was part of a rotten run around the Christmas period, which had previously seen successive heavy defeats in Paisley and Perth after the kids ran out of steam.

STAR MAN: Left-back Andrew Robertson went from playing for Queen's Park to his first international cap in less than a year.  The hype is justified - he is probably the first modern attacking left-back that Scotland has managed to produce (no, Gary Naysmith does not count) and he has the talent to command the entire wing by himself.  Someone will pay big money for this boy.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Ryan Gauld's performances dropped off a touch in the second half of the season, but its easy to forget that he is only 18, given that he has already played 50 times for United.  Expect the attacking midfielder to be even better next season.

WASTE OF SPACE: Chris Erskine was hindered by injuries at the start of the campaign, but even when he was fit he looked a shadow of the player that starred for McNamara's Partick Thistle side.  A return to Firhill on loan in January was the best move for both parties, and I doubt the winger has a future at Tannadice.

THE BOSS: McNamara's stock is sufficiently high that he was courted by Blackpool ahead of the Scottish Cup final.  There's plenty to like about his philosophy, and his willingness to give young players a chance.  He does need a better Plan B than 'bring on a big striker and punt it up to him', because that didn't really work when it was tried.  But the fans have got to be pleased with the man in their dugout.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: It's likely that central defender Gavin Gunning will leave, which will leave a big hole to be filled, given that John Souttar is still very raw and Sean Dillon is, frankly, not very good.  If anyone else significant moves on, it will be for a decent sized transfer fee which can be used to bring in reinforcements.  A new striker would be nice, as Nadir Ciftci is better in a deeper role, and neither Brian Graham and Farid El Alagui are mobile enough for the system McNamara likes to play.  It's likely that Souttar, Robertson, Gauld and Stuart Armstrong, amongst others, will be even better next season, which is an exciting thought.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Gavin Gunning, Morgaro Gomis, Dale Hilson


Friday, May 16, 2014

2013-14 report card - Partick Thistle

Staying up was all that mattered
Partick Thistle FC logo.svg

LEAGUE: 10th, 38pts (2012-13 - first division champions)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Third round
MOST USED FIRST XI: Scott Fox, Stephen O'Donnell, Conrad Balatoni, Aaron Muirhead, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, James Craigen, Stuart Bannigan, Gary Fraser, Kallum Higginbotham, Steven Lawless, Kris Doolan

OVERVIEW: Mission accomplished, really.  The Harry Wraggs' sole aim was to stay up, and they managed it, though not with too much to spare.  It became a bit more of a struggle than most expected after an impressive start to the season; once opponents worked out how to take advantage of the recklessness of Thistle's attacking full-backs, results took a nosedive.  Most glaringly, the team didn't win a home league game until February, and were victors at Firhill only once more after that.  But the away form was good enough that sufficient points were ground out to keep them out of the bottom two.

HIGH POINTS: Performances didn't really get much better than the victory over Ross County in August, where the result was 3-1 going on 5-1.  Beating Aberdeen to break the home duck was pretty sweet too.

LOW POINTS: Before that win over the Dons, Partick managed just one win in sixteen league games, a run which might have got some managers the sack (not that this would have been justified in this case).  The nadir was probably being gubbed 5-1 at home by Motherwell just after Christmas.

STAR MAN: Aaron Taylor-Sinclair wasn't quite as good in 2014 as he was in 2013, but the full-back definitely belongs at Premiership level and, now his contract has expired, he seems likely to leave for a bigger club - possibly even Celtic, who are known to have been impressed by his abilities going forward.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Midfielder Gary Fraser is lucky still to be at the club - an assault on a Dunfermline player in a under-20s game in October led to a nine game ban and other employers might have got shot of him.  However, Partick instead chose to make permanent his loan deal from Bolton, and the teenager has rewarded their faith with some impressive passing displays.  His late season strike against Hearts is particularly worth watching.

WASTE OF SPACE: Neither Mark Kerr nor John Baird were sensible signings by Alan Archibald, and neither did very much for their wage before leaving in January.  Kerr never even played a league game, while Baird was even less effective up front than he was at Dundee in 2012-13.

THE BOSS: Archibald is still relatively inexperienced - 2013-14 was his first full season as manager - and it showed at times.  His lack of a plan B was exposed on many an occasion over the winter, but some astute January moves - in particular the arrival of Lyle Taylor - made the team a bit more robust.  I'm still not convinced that he knew his best eleven even by the end of the season though, and next season's squad will still contain many players who have not shown yet that they are cut out for the top flight.  In his defence, he missed his two best defensive midfielders - Isaac Osbourne and Sean Welsh - for several months.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Thistle's chances of avoiding a relegation battle next season depend on who they can bring in this summer.  Tying up Taylor and Chris Erskine is a major priority.  However, the defence may need a complete makeover, especially if Taylor-Sinclair departs.  The club haven't managed three consecutive seasons in the top tier for nearly two decades, and major reinforcements are needed if they are to pull that off.  But the retention of Fraser, Stuart Bannigan and Kallum Higginbotham means the midfield should be pretty decent.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Prince Buaben (end of loan), Chris Erskine (end of loan), Lee Mair, George Moncur (end of loan), Lyle Taylor (end of loan)


Thursday, May 15, 2014

2013-14 Report Card - Aberdeen

Something to shout about at last
Aberdeen FC logo.svg

LEAGUE: 3rd, 68pts (2012-13 - 8th, 48pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Semi finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Jamie Langfield, Mark Reynolds, Russell Anderson, Andrew Considine, Joe Shaughnessy, Ryan Jack, Willo Flood, Jonny Hayes, Barry Robson, Peter Pawlett, Niall McGinn

OVERVIEW: The loss of second place in the final seconds of the campaign shouldn't detract from what has been the best season for Aberdeen in a generation.  The League Cup win was all the more wonderful as it came in front of 40,000 Dons fans, many of whom will never have known success like it.  The squad seemed to run out of steam in the last few weeks, also missing out on a Scottish Cup final, but most supporters will focus on the first top six finish in five seasons and the largely entertaining football on display, and thank their lucky stars that their club is a million miles ahead of where it was under Mark McGhee and Craig Brown.

HIGH POINTS: Even as a Caley Thistle fan in the losing end, it was impossible not to feel a little bit happy for the Red Army that descended on Celtic Park on a Sunday in March.  It was a rotten game, but Aberdeen deserved the win.  And what a party it was!

LOW POINTS: It says something about how good 2013-14 was for Derek McInnes' side that narrowly missing out on second place and a second cup final appearance is something to moan about.  But Craig Reid's winner for Motherwell, and Stevie May's strikes for St. Johnstone were blows in games that Aberdeen should have won.  The Reid goal in particular will be talked about for a while.

STAR MAN: I can't believe that Mark Reynolds has committed himself to spending the best years of his career at Pittodrie - he should be playing at a higher level.  Solid in the air and on the deck, and comfortable in possession too, I can't understand why he isn't in Gordon Strachan's plans.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: It's two years since Craig Brown suggested that Cammy Smith had a bit of Dennis Bergkamp about him, which is a hell of a label for a young boy.  But I've been impressed whenever I've seen him play, and I reckon we'll see a step up in play from the forward, 19 in August, in 2014-15.

WASTE OF SPACE: Calvin Zola.  Dear oh dear.  He did actually score a few goals, but that hasn't prevented opinions about him ranging from "clumsy" (mine) to "the worst player I've ever seen" (a close friend's).  He's under contract for next season, but I would be surprised if the big forward is in the manager's plans.

THE BOSS: McInnes has made a huge impact, no question, and this season has already largely restored a managerial reputation damaged by a rotten spell at Bristol City.  His signings have not all been hits, but he has improved the team in all areas both in terms of personnel and organization.  Given what Aberdeen fans have gone through in the last couple of decades, they'll probably build a statue of him if the team is half-decent next season.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: Second place has to be the target, and it's a realistic one too.  A wee run in the Europa League would be nice, too.  Expect McInnes to use his contacts down south to find a left back and another forward, while convincing Shaleum Logan to make his loan move permanent is a priority.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Shaleum Logan (end of loan), Josh Magennis, Alan Tate (end of loan), Scott Vernon, Nicky Weaver


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

2013-14 report card - Inverness CT

A season of two halves

LEAGUE: (2012-13 - 4th, 54pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Quarter finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Dean Brill, David Raven, Gary Warren, Josh Meekings, Graeme Shinnie, Ross Draper, Richie Foran, Aaron Doran, James Vincent, Nick Ross, Billy Mckay

OVERVIEW: A second top five finish should feel like a success, but Caley Thistle dropped off dramatically after a bright start...or, to be honest, after John Hughes was appointed to replace Terry Butcher in December.  It took till the final match of the season for ICT to earn more points with Yogi at the helm (29 from 25 games) than they did without him (28 from 13 games).  Some of that can be blamed on the distraction of the run to the League Cup final and the subsequent fixture pile-up, but drastic changes to the team's playing style did not reap dividends.  In the end, it feels like a case of "what could have been".

HIGH POINTS: The sensational opening few months, which left the club in second in the table, demonstrated some of the best football ever seen in these parts.  But, for moments of sheer euphoria, the win on penalties against Hearts in the League Cup and two derby wins in Dingwall might not be topped for a while.

LOW POINTS: The tame, defensive tactics used in the League Cup Final felt like a huge letdown, especially given the atmosphere and the support. Crashing 6-0 and 5-0 at Celtic Park, and 5-0 at home to Dundee United live on TV in the Scottish Cup, were just embarrassing.

STAR MAN: Graeme Shinnie stepped up a gear this season, proving himself to be excellent not just in his natural left-back role, but on the opposite side and even in central midfield.  He walked away with all the club's end of season awards, and probably would have got international recognition but for the emergence of Andrew Robertson.

ONE FOR THE FUTURE:  Ryan Christie, son of former captain and manager Charlie, was given his chance by Hughes and has grabbed it in style, with a goal in each of his three starts.  For me, he is the greatest talent the club has ever produced.

WASTE OF SPACE: Curtis Allen got injured just after arriving, and never found enough fitness to warrant selection for the first team.  His return to Northern Ireland in January was one of the reasons why the club were woefully short of alternatives to Billy Mckay up front.

THE BOSS: Yogi is a bit of a decisive figure amongst the support, and his record so far at the club, whilst not nearly as abysmal as that of our former manager's at Hibs, is a huge drop off from the previous 18 months.  His insistence on a passing game has often led to slow, directionless play, and loss of possession in dangerous areas.  It's fair to say that the team look far better when he reverts back to the quicker, more direct style of his predecessor.  Maybe a summer of drilling the squad will lead to better results next season.  Or maybe not.  To be honest, I'd forgive him a fair bit if he stopped firing his Cliche Cannon every time he did an interview.  That comment about "drinking from the well" was just the most cringeworthy.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: This is a talented squad, it really is.  And therefore a third consecutive finish in the top half of the table is a fairly modest target in my opinion.  But everything depends on whether Yogi can either prove me wrong and get his way of playing to produce dividends, or alternatively if he just goes back to the Butcher way, which will do just fine.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Matthew Cooper, Adam Evans, Conor Pepper


Monday, May 12, 2014

2013-14 report card - Hearts

One step back, but many forward

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg

LEAGUE: 12th, 23pts (2012-13 - 10th, 44pts)
SCOTTISH CUP: Fourth round
LEAGUE CUP: Semi finals
MOST USED FIRST XI: Jamie MacDonald, Dylan McGowan, Brad McKay, Danny Wilson, Kevin McHattie, Jamie Walker, Jamie Hamill, Scott Robinson, Ryan Stevenson, David Smith, Callum Paterson

OVERVIEW: It's strange; Hearts have been relegated, as was inevitable following their 15 point deduction, yet hope and optimism haven't been this high down Gorgie way for a long time.  Off the pitch, the debris left by the Romanov regime has finally been cleaned up, while there was enough spirit and vim on the field to keep the supporters onside.  Fears that this season would destroy some of their talented youngsters were unfounded - most of them have come on leaps and bounds with the experience they've obtained.  With everyone pulling in the same direction, the future of the club looks bright.

HIGH POINTS: Beating Hibernian four times out of five will have felt pretty sweet, especially given the travails of their local rivals.  The Ryan Stevenson goal which won the League Cup tie between the two Edinburgh sides was special indeed.

LOW POINTS: Being denied a League Cup final appearance by 9 man ICT will have stuck in the craw.  The 7-0 home loss to Celtic in the Scottish Cup was unquestionably the worst point of the campaign though.

STAR MAN: Jamie MacDonald's exploits in goal bordered on heroic at times.  Given the lack of experience and quality in his backline, he saw plenty of action, and made the most of the chance to impress.  I'm surprised he hasn't received a Scotland call yet.  Which makes the decision to let him go (and, going by rumour, replace him with Marian Kello) a bit bizarre...

ONE FOR THE FUTURE: Callum Paterson was decent on the wing, decent up front and then absolutely superb in his preferred right-back position in the final few games.  Just 19, he seems the most likely of this cohort of young players to go on to big things.

WASTE OF SPACE: Hearts got to make one signing in January - and they wasted it on big lummox Paul McCallum, whose main contribution up front was persistently fouling defenders.  Thankfully, it wasn't long until Locke came to his senses and brought Dale Carrick back into the team.

THE BOSS: The departure of Locke, despite a strong finish to the campaign, surprised me.  He made plenty of mistakes - for example, the failure to break down Caley Thistle's 9 men was primarily down to his tactical inflexibility - but he seemed to learn from these and was certainly able to keep his charges motivated.  The new head coach, Robbie Neilson, is a rookie.  But appointing Craig Levein (whose record domestically is superb, however traumatized we are by his period in charge of Scotland) as Director of Football appears astute and the decisions on players and coaches have been made by him.  Fans will trust that he and new majority shareholder Ann Budge know what they are doing.

PROSPECTS FOR NEXT SEASON: In any other season, you'd bet your mortgage on Hearts winning the Championship, but of course they'll be up against Rangers.  This will be a much tighter battle than most folk at Ibrox would like to believe, though.  Given that most of the squad will be retained, a top two finish and a playoff spot is the minimum expectation.

FIRST TEAMERS DEFINITELY LEAVING: Jamie Hamill, Jamie MacDonald, Dylan McGowan, Mark Ridgers, Paul McCallum (end of loan), Ryan Stevenson, Callum Tapping


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Narey's Toepoker Team of the Year part 2

And here's the remaining six players.  So there are more Celtic guys (three) than there were last year (two).  That's got to keep folk off my back, doesn't it?  Doesn't it?

MIDFIELDERS: Scott BROWN (Celtic), Stuart ARMSTRONG (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Willo Flood (Aberdeen), Richie Foran (Inverness CT), Keith Lasley (Motherwell)

Brown is a shoo-in.  Given the hip problems that plagued him for the last couple of seasons, it's remarkable that he's now playing the best football of his career.  It was a toss-up between any of the other four.  I'm going with Armstrong who has been consistently good for United, though he's been overshadowed by some more flamboyant teammates.  Flood has kept Aberdeen ticking over beautifully, while Lasley and Foran were critical to their teams both through their performances and through their leadership.

Honourable mentions: Nadir Ciftci (Dundee United), Ryan Gauld (Dundee United), Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell)

For the second season running, I've not picked a natural wide player.  Ciftci was probably more impressive in a central role than he was when playing on the flank, while Gauld's performances dropped after Christmas.  Commons was just absolutely amazing all year long and deserved all the honours that he got.  He was unquestionably the best player in Scottish football this year.  Pawlett was an absolute revelation after being moved into the middle of the park.  I still get nightmares about him running at ICT's central defenders in December.  

FORWARDS: Kris BOYD (Kilmarnock), Stevie MAY (St. Johnstone)
Honourable mentions: Anthony Stokes (Celtic), Billy Mckay (Inverness CT), John Sutton (Motherwell)

Everything about Stevie May is terrific except for his haircut.  He is the complete striker and has a bright future ahead of him.  I'd be amazed if someone doesn't make St. Johnstone an offer they can't refuse for him.  I plumped for Boyd as his partner simply because he almost literally carried his teammates - he scored 22 goals, whereas his teammates scored 23 between them all season.  Sutton and Stokes have been on the rampage in 2014, while conversely Mckay has gone off the boil in recent months - though I believe that, had Terry Butcher remained his boss, he would have got close to 30 goals.

At first glance, I believe that Boyd is the first player that I've picked in my Team of the Year three times - though its been a while since the last time!

Right, that's it for another year.  I'm looking forward to hearing all the objections...


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Narey's Toepoker Team of the year part 1

Sorry, I'm a bit late this year, since I've been distracted by Real Life.  I know that the PFA and most of the media have already selected their best XI of the season, but leaving it late has meant that I could make one or two slightly different picks.  As ever, I'm going to get a slagging for the lack of Celtic players, but I can deal with that.  I've selected more than I did last season, anyway.

For your amusement, here are the previous six selections.  It's a blast from the past, this...

2007/08: Allan McGregor, Alan Hutton, Carlos Cuellar, Lee Wilkie, Lee Naylor, Barry Robson, Stephen Hughes, Barry Ferguson, Aiden McGeady, Scott McDonald, Steven Fletcher

2008/09: Lukasz Zaluska, Andreas Hinkel, Gary Caldwell, Lee Wilkie, Sasa Papac, Scott Brown, Bruno Aguiar, Pedro Mendes, Andrew Driver, Scott McDonald, Kris Boyd

2009/10: John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker, David Weir, Andy Webster, Sasa Papac, Steven Davis, Morgaro Gomis, James McArthur, Anthony Stokes, Kris Boyd, David Goodwillie

2010/11: Marian Kello, Steven Whittaker, Daniel Majstorovic, Michael Duberry, Emilio Izaguirre, Steven Naismith, Beram Kayal, Alexei Eremenko, David Templeton, Nikica Jelavic, David Goodwillie

2011/12: Cammy Bell, Adam Matthews, Carlos Bocanegra, Charlie Mulgrew, Paul Dixon, James Forrest, Victor Wanyama, Ian Black, Dean Shiels, Jon Daly, Gary Hooper

2012/13: Fraser Forster, Mihael Kovacevic, Gary Warren, Mark Reynolds, Stevie Hammell, Victor Wanyama, Nicky Law, Murray Davidson, Leigh Griffiths, Michael Higdon, Billy Mckay

So, without further ado, here is the Seventh Annual Narey's Toepoker Team Of The Year.  As always, it's split into two parts.  Surprisingly, I couldn't find a place for Jamie Hamill, Eric Djemba Djemba or Jordan Slew.

Honourable mentions: Fraser Forster (Celtic), Alan Mannus (St. Johnstone)

Forster is the fashionable pick, of course, having set a new record for minutes without conceding and earned his first England cap.  But he had a back four of international players in front of him, whereas Jamie MacDonald spent all season being 'protected' by a bunch who spent most of the week preparing for their Standard Grades.  The Jambos suffered from the odd heavy defeat, but that wasn't down to their goalkeeper, who was for me the best shotstopper in the country in 2013/14.

RIGHT-BACK: Dave MACKAY (St. Johnstone)
Honourable mentions: Adam Matthews (Celtic), Jason Naismith (St. Mirren)

This was really difficult, because the best right-back in the league is Mikael Lustig, but injury prevented the Swede from starting more than a handful of domestic games.  It doesn't seem right to pick Adam Matthews, when he isn't even his team's best player in that position.  I liked Shaleum Logan as well, but the Aberdeen loanee has only been up here for just over three months.  So the veteran Mackay gets the nod.  The Perth Saint is hardly spectacular, but he's so reliable that you can set your watch by him.

LEFT-BACK: Andrew ROBERTSON (Dundee United)
Honourable mentions: Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic), Graeme Shinnie (Inverness CT)

If there weren't too many worthy candidates at right-back, there were a plethora on the opposite flank.  Shinnie, who impressed at right-back and central midfield at times as well, would probably have a Scotland cap but for the revelation that is young Robertson; the Dundee United defender is the real deal and is going to go on to become a hell of a special player in the next few years.

CENTRE-BACKS: Virgil VAN DIJK (Celtic), Mark REYNOLDS (Aberdeen)
Honourable mentions: Efe Ambrose (Celtic), Gavin Gunning (Dundee United), Steven Anderson (St. Johnstone)

Van Dijk is the sort of foreign talent that is all too rare in Scottish football now.  I can't see him playing for Celtic next season, especially as it's likely that he'll miss out on Holland's World Cup squad for no other reason than that he plays in a diddy league.  He's good enough to be at a mid-table English Premier League team at least.  I picked Reynolds last year too, but I think he's been even better this time round.  It's his comfort in possession which always impresses me, and Aberdeen have utilized his ability to step out of defence with the ball to good effect.  In other seasons, Ambrose and Anderson would have been picked - both have largely flown under the radar this season, with the former having cut out the mistakes but been overshadowed by Van Dijk, while the latter has had an excellent campaign and deserves to be in just for that backheel goal he scored.

Part two to come in a few days, if life doesn't get in the way...


Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Scottish football fan's Australian diary

Friday 18 April
I got extremely agitated on the flight to Dubai after realizing that it didn't have WiFi - my hopes of using SkyGo to watch Inverness-Aberdeen went down the tubes.  Instead I had to watch the Alan Partridge movie, which contains the same amount of slapstick and farce in an hour and a half as the average Scottish league game.

I got even more agitated at Dubai airport when I couldn't connect to their free WiFi to check the score.

Finally, on the Dubai-Sydney connection, we got WiFi, but the wife only went and nicked the iPad to look at photos of our wedding on Facebook!  I couldn't believe it.  She hasn't got her priorities right at all!

At last, at about 3am BST, I found out the score.  It was a nil-nil draw.  Just for a moment, I felt like a bit of a pillock.

Saturday 19 April
Got to the hotel late on Saturday night.  There was a quick chance to check the scores before bed.  It's a nine hour time difference and it was only just after midnight, but Hibs are already two down.  This amuses me.

Sunday 20 April
Unbelievable - I've only been on the other side of the world for five minutes and I've already missed Jamie Hamill poleaxing Derek Adams.  However, I've finally found something that the SPFL is good for - its Youtube channel, which allowed me to see the highlights of yesterday's games.  This doesn't exactly make up for the (approximately) 3,276,523 ways in which the SPFL has ruined Scottish football so far, but I suppose it's a start.

I showed the wife the footage of the Hamill-Adams incident.  She told me she wasn't impressed.  I was about to tell her she was absolutely right, that it was a scandal and that the book should be thrown at Hamill...but then I realized that the wife was probably talking about me.

Monday 21 April
Did the Harbour Bridge Climb today. My ears pricked up when the instructor starting talking to another tourist about how much he loved "the footie". I was gutted to have missed out on the chat...till I got back to the hotel and checked the guide book. Here, apparently "the footie" is Rugby League. I mean, what the hell? They barely even kick the ball in Rugby League.  The guidebook refers to Rugby League, Rugby Union, Tennis, Aussie Rules and about a million other sports - but it doesn't mention football.  I need to get back to civilization sharpish.

Tuesday 22 April
This cafe we visited in Sydney appears to have stolen Jamie Hamill's likeness for its logo.  He should probably sue.


Wednesday 23 April
The wife has begun to notice that I'm suffering from withdrawal symptoms - it's the shakes that give it away - and offers to let me go to an A-League game.  However, even I know that taking your wife to watch the A-League on honeymoon could be used as grounds for an annulment later on.  Besides, the Aussies watch their soccer in the same way we watch it back home - eschew the mediocre domestic stuff in favour of watching far superior English Premier League games on the telly.  They're a clever bunch..

Thursday 24 April
Tour of the Blue Mountains today.  I met a Taiwanese chap who, on discovering I'm from Scotland, immediately exclaimed "MOYES!!!".  So now, whenever anyone on the other side of the world meets a Scot, they automatically think of David Moyes.  That's depressing.

Friday 25 April
News reaches me of the Rangers 120-day review.  These are the only people in Rangers tops I've seen so far in Sydney.

Which is odd, because I thought they were supposed to have 100 million fans worldwide, so you'd think there'd be a few here.  I suppose they might just not be wearing their tops.

Saturday 26 April
I saw a clip of Australian Rules Football on the TV today.  As far as I can tell, it involves about 30 huge men having a punch up in a field, with a ball in the general vicinity.  I think Jim Goodwin has missed his calling in life.

Sunday 27 April
The wife can't stand my withdrawal symptoms any longer and lets me watch Sunderland-Cardiff before bed, bringing me back from the brink.  Before bed, I check the scores from back home.  Hibs are already two down.  This amuses me.

Monday 28 April
I wake up to read that John Hughes has been firing his Cliché Cannon again...which is never a good sign.  This may be karma for making the wife sit through a game last night.

Apparently ICT "need to learn" from a 6-0 drubbing at Celtic Park - which I'm pretty sure is what he said after we lost 5-0 at Celtic Park a couple of months ago.  I consider whether I should stay in Australia until Hughes leaves Inverness.  The wife is quite happy with this prospect.

Tuesday 29 April
We're now in Melbourne, and today the rain was practically biblical.  We're toured the Great Ocean Road today, where everything was sodden and muddy.  I blame John Hughes for this.  Mind you, he would probably insist these were the perfect conditions for getting your centre-backs to pass out of defence.  I had a stomach upset and felt horrendously ill all day.  I blame John Hughes for this as well, though my wife's suggestion that I've been eating and drinking too much crap may also have some merit, I suppose.

Wednesday 30 April
Here in Melbourne, 'footie' is Aussie Rules Football.  This does at least seem to involve kicking the ball a little bit more than Rugby League does, but still...
The family we're staying with are huge Aussie Rules fans.  I asked about attendances at these games.  The reply?  "well, for a game between smaller teams, there'd only be about twenty thousand".  Strewth.  I wish Scottish football could attract twenty thousand to a game between smaller teams.

Thursday 1 May
We walked around Melbourne today.  From the Eureka Skydeck, we could see panoramic views of the entire city.  There are about a million huge sports stadia within walking distance.  This might be the greatest city in the world ever.  However, we are here for about the only four-day period in the history of mankind when there is not a sporting event taking place in Melbourne.  Hell, I'd have even gone to an A-League game if it meant getting inside one of those grounds.

Friday 2 May
Home today.  The way the flights work out, we won't get back till Inverness till 4pm Saturday, which means I'll miss the home game against Dundee United.  Strangely, I'm not in the slightest bit disappointed about this...