Sunday, June 29, 2014

Killie are gubbed without Boyd's goals

Kris Boyd was a goal machine for Kilmarnock last season - how will they cope without him?
Let's face it, it's easy to understand why Kris Boyd has returned to Ibrox. He's 31 in August, so this is probably going to be his last chance of a decent payday.  He's a Rangers fan.  And he'll get to play in front of 45,000 fans every fortnight...well, maybe fewer than that if the season ticket boycott continues, of course.  And he can probably still score 30 goals and be a hero even if he gets fat and lazy again.

The alternatives were not all that enticing.  Aberdeen offered European football - briefly, until they are inevitably knocked out by mid-August like all other Scottish clubs bar Celtic will be - but the only other differences between them and his club from last season would be a bigger crowd, some more league wins and maybe a shot at winning a cup.  And as for staying at Kilmarnock?  No chance.

Boyd only remained at Rugby Park last season because a better offer didn't come. He probably spent the whole of July 2013 staring desperately at his mobile phone, willing a call from an A. McCoist to come through.  But I, like many, thought the former Scotland striker would prove an expensive luxury for a struggling Kilmarnock side; I haven't been more wrong about something since I voted for Danny Alexander at the last general election.  Boyd was simply a behemoth last season.  He scored 22 league goals.  The rest of the Killie squad managed just 23 between them.  Only once did they win a league game without him scoring.  Five times - including in the decisive final two games of the season - he came up with the winning goal in a match.

Given that they only finished a dismal tenth even with him leading the attack, Kilmarnock would have been well and truly screwed without him.

And now they are without him.

It doesn't get much worse than losing your star player...unless you haven't really got anyone else.  And, at the time of writing Kilmarnock have three - yes, three - players over the age of 21 under contract for next season; Craig Samson, Jamie Hamill (their sole summer signing) and Manuel Pascali.  There are another nine youngsters who have varying degrees of first team experience.  That's it.  Thirteen players have left so far this summer, with another three (Tesselaar, Clingan and Eremenko) still to decide whether to spend another season in Ayrshire.

That's a lot of holes to fill in not very much time.  And the man charged with filling them is Allan Johnston.  In his first season at Kilmarnock, Johnston signed twelve players, including loanees (I'm not counting Samson and Antonio Reguero - both of whom were snapped up by Kenny Shiels).   How many of them are still there?  Err...none of them.  They were either dreadful, or injured, or borrowed from other clubs.  And how good is Johnston in the transfer market?  Well, he thought Kyle Jacobs and Mark Stewart could do a job in the Scottish Premiership, and gave William Gros a three year deal.  That ain't encouraging.

Killie are not the only ones who have a hell of a lot of rebuilding to do.  Ross County have shed twelve players; St. Mirren have shifted eleven.  In the last few seasons, it's been quite clear that the teams who have settled squads start the campaign so much better than those who are still gelling together - County would be an excellent example of that from 2013-14.  And with newbies Dundee and Hamilton reinforcing considerably for their return to the top flight, the likes of Kilmarnock could be left with a lot of catching up to do after a month or two of action.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Should Hibs have kept Butcher?

Given that Terry Butcher abandoned Inverness Caley Thistle in November to take the Hibs job, you won't raise an eyebrow on learning that I'm experiencing a wee bit of schadenfreude just now.

You might, however, be a bit surprised that I'm going to defend him.  Just a little bit.

It's not easy to do so.  Hibs are totally within their rights to chuck him.  After all, he's accomplished what we all thought impossible - he managed to make Pat Fenlon's team even worse.  They won only two of their last twenty-one games of the season.  They blew a two goal lead in the playoff with Hamilton.  For god's sake, they've been relegated from the Scottish Premiership, despite possibly the third biggest wage budget in the division.  And, in the last few months, they played football so archaic that they should only have been allowed to play on TV in black and white.  Team spirit had not only gone down the toilet, but it had been flushed round the u-bend and ended up in the sewage works.

And yet...everyone knew that Hibernian needed a clean start.  The plan was always to muddle through to the end of the season and then, well, 'butcher' the squad.  It wasn't just that Fenlon left behind a complete lack of full-backs and wingers, and had a fetish for central midfielders.  The footballers at Easter Road were a pitiful bunch, containing too many has-beens (I'm looking at you, Kevin Thomson) and never-weres, who either couldn't pull up their socks when the going got tough or who quite blatantly chose not to.  Terry Butcher is hardly a Guardiola-type when it comes to tactics, but few would question his motivational skills.  He'd have had an easier job coaxing Ally McCoist to eat his vegetables than to gee up this mob.  He may have told them to play the long-ball rubbish partly because none of them seemed up to the complicated task of an accurate five yard square pass.

I'm not saying that no manager could have fixed Hibs this season; only incompetence in all areas, including in the dugout, can explain such a collapse.  Relegation is a catastrophe, particularly considering the circumstances - Hearts and Rangers are opponents next year, and there are only a maximum of two promotion spots.  Three into two won't go.  At least one of those clubs will be out of the Scottish Premiership until the summer of 2016 at the earliest.  That's a sobering thought.

Butcher at least knows how to win Scotland's second tier - he did it with ICT in 2009-10 (albeit with the help of an almighty collapse from Dundee).  So many players have left Leith already that he could now bring in his own faces, and mould the team in the way he wanted - which, given the last 18 months of his tenure in the Highlands, would have involved football far easier on the eye than the recent guff.  And, in the public eye at least, you'd fancy that he might handle the pressure of the 'win-at-all-costs' environment a bit better than rookie Robbie Neilson at Hearts and the useless oaf in charge at Ibrox.

Am I convincing you?  Perhaps not.  I've barely convinced myself.  The new manager will also have a clean slate to work with.  But unless new Chief Exec Leanne Dempster has a rabbit in her hat - and I don't think Stuart McCall could fit in her hat - Hibs will end up appointing someone who has considerably less pedigree than Butcher, and that's a risk too.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scotland's 2014 World Cup squad

So it's now sixteen years - or, depressingly, more than half my life - since Scotland made it to a World Cup or European Championship.  With just a few days until the 2014 jambouree begins in Brazil, we are once more stuck on the outside looking in.  It's just a little galling to remember that in qualifying we defeated Croatia home and away, yet it is the Croats who will take centre stage on Thursday, taking on the hosts in the opening match.

Why didn't we finish ahead of Croatia in our group, and earn the coveted playoff spot?  Because we picked up only two points from the first four matches under Craig Levein, who couldn't have been more of a lame duck had he been covered in feathers and shot in the knee.  What if Gordon Strachan had been in charge from the get-go?  Could we have been at the 2014 World Cup?  It's certainly possible.

And, since we're now firmly ensconced in fantasyland, let's have a wee bit of fun.  Who do you think Gordon would have taken to South America, and who would you have taken?

Here's the 23 players that would make up my mythical Scottish 2014 World Cup squad:

Starter - David Marshall
Backups - Allan McGregor, Matt Gilks
(Left at home - Cammy Bell, Jamie MacDonald)

We're rather blessed right now between the sticks, since Shagger has proven at Hull that he is one of the better keepers in the English Premier League.  Marshall would be my number one on current form though, coming off a season so impressive that Arsenal want him.  I remember being enthralled by his performance in the Nou Camp for Celtic as a teenager, and it's lovely to see him fulfilling his potential.

The third choice keeper pretty much never plays, so it would be nice to take a decent youngster and give them the experience...but we don't have any.  So Matt Gilks it is, with Jamie MacDonald missing out because we've never seen him in a Scotland shirt, and Cammy Bell missing out because players from Scotland's third tier shouldn't be playing on such a stage.  I suppose he might end up being flown out in an emergency, however, since Shagger would be the most likely to do an Andy Goram and leave the squad in a huff.

Starters - Alan Hutton, Russell Martin, Gary Caldwell, Andrew Robertson
Backups - Steven Whittaker, Grant Hanley, Gordon Greer
(Left at home - Phil Bardsley, Christophe Berra, Mark Reynolds, Lee Wallace)

Central defence is not so much the achilles heel as the achilles-both-legs-and-half-the-torso.  I have no love for Grant Hanley, yet Strachan and Levein both felt the young Blackburn man is worth a regular start.  He's only 22, so he has plenty of scope for improvement, I guess.  But with Gary Caldwell fit again, I would fit him in to the lineup at Hanley's expense, alongside the relatively reliable Russell Martin.  Greer has been better than Berra this year so I'd take him as backup, though frankly I would be tempted to find a spot for Reynolds, who has done well at Aberdeen.

In contrast, the options at full-back are pretty decent.  Hutton is a polarizing figure, but his performances for the national team have always impressed me and his remarkable athleticism provides a great attacking outlet.  Robertson really has already done enough to justify a start at left-back.  Given that Steven Whittaker can cover both flanks, and Charlie Mulgrew would be more than adequate cover at left-back or in central-defence, there's no need for any more defenders.  So Phil Bardsley can spend the summer in the casino, and Lee Wallace can sit at home and bemoan the fact that playing against Brechin four times a year wasn't enough to prepare him for a World Cup.

Starters - Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew, Robert Snodgrass, Ikechi Anya
Backups - Liam Bridcutt, Charlie Adam, James Morrison, Shaun Maloney, James Forrest
(Left at home - Stuart Armstrong, Barry Bannan, Graham Dorrans, James McArthur, Craig Bryson)

Now we have options!  Given our opponents would probably be rather superior to us, I'd probably pick a three man midfield screen, with the engines of Fletcher and Brown complimented by Mulgrew's passing and defensive work.  Bridcutt offers a like-for-like backup in that role, so he gets a seat on the plane, though McArthur would feel unlucky to miss out.  Morrison offers a more attacking central midfield option, so he gets to come too.  And whilst I shudder at the thought of Charlie Adam dragging his fat ass around in forty degree heat, he does offer something a little different in the centre of the pitch.  Craig Bryson has been terrific in recent months though, so maybe he should come instead?

Anya and Snodgrass are the flavours of the month in the wide areas, and quite right too.  Forrest would make a terrific impact sub, if nowt else, while Maloney is too good to be left behind and offers backup for Snodgrass.

It's just a bit too soon for Stuart Armstrong, while Graham Dorrans doesn't provide anything that the squad doesn't already have.  And I just don't rate Barry Bannan, who spends too much time on the fringes of matches.

Starter - Steven Naismith
Backups - Steven Fletcher, Leigh Griffiths, Ross McCormack
(Left at home - George Boyd, Kris Boyd, Chris Martin)

Naismith has to be the first choice centre forward, for me - he's proven he can fill that role for Everton and Scotland, and his intelligent movement opens up space for his teammates.  Fletcher is the best goalscorer that we have, though, and is the next best alternative, assuming unrealistically that he would be fit.  Griffiths has done enough since January to earn a spot, though would the SFA object to him being picked given he is under investigation by them?  I'd take McCormack too, as he can play through the middle or wide, though Boyd could do that too.  I haven't seen enough of Chris Martin to be able to say if he would warrant a place.

Kris Boyd?  No.  You wouldn't start with him, and he's never been effective as a substitute.  Though the thought of bringing Kenny Miller out of retirement intrigued me...

So who would be in your 2014 World Cup squad?  And how would it compare to the pool that we took to France '98?  For one thing, I'd feel more comfortable if I had Boyd, Calderwood and Hendry at the back now.  But at least it's easy to predict how we'd get on.  We'd be beaten narrowly by the best team in the group, get embarrassed by the weakest team and get a result off the other team.  Isn't that how it always is?


Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer on Narey's Toepoker

I'm always sick of how nobody seems to ever have a completely accurate list of transfer moves anymore.  Sure, you can just about trust the BBC to get Celtic's and Rangers' signings correct...but the other 40 SPFL clubs?  Iffy at best.

So, much like I did in January, I've set out to sort that out.  You'll see a link on the taskbar above, alongside the one for Premiership clubs and their 2014-15 squads.

I hope that I can keep this page up-to-date for the whole summer window, with a list that all Scottish football fans can trust.  It will of course be harder this time, because a whole lot more happens in the summer, and Scottish clubs aren't forced to publish 'retained lists' in the way English ones are!

To avoid clutter, only players with first team experience will be listed in a club's 'OUT' section.  I'm not going to the trouble of confirming that some 16 year old has quit Elgin City to work in Starbucks.  But youngsters who drop down a division or two will be listed in their new club's 'IN' section, on the assumption that they'll be in their new club's first team squad.

Does that make sense?

If I've made a mistake, then please for the love of god tell me, either by Twitter or in the Comments section here.

If anyone wants to copy-and-paste this stuff, then go ahead.  I don't understand copyright law or any of that guff, so I won't do anything about it.  If you could acknowledge your source, though, then that would be appreciated.