Monday, July 21, 2014

Rangers at risk from Heart attack

This wasn't in the script.

Rangers' ascent back to their rightful place right at the top of the Scottish football pyramid was supposed to be swift and straightforward.  After all, their vast superiority in terms of talent, resources, and character - after all, they are The People - would result in all lower division teams being cowed and overwhelmed.

And, to an extent, that's what has happened in the last two seasons.  There have been hiccups along the way - failure to scoop even a Ramsden's Cup, workmanlike performances that expose the team to the occasional embarrassing result against far weaker opposition, a general lack of panache on the pitch (and that's before we get on to the off-the-field problems) - but the then-Third Division was won at a canter, and the Ibrox side finished their League One campaign unbeaten.  Credit where credit's due; you can only beat what's put in front of you.

The Championship was always bound to be a step up, with the majority of opponents running full-time operations, but the likes of Livingston, Falkirk and Queen of the South still don't really exist in the same footballing universe.  Rangers have the second biggest wage budget in Scotland, a budget that dwarves every other club in the country bar their greatest rivals.  So The Championship would be steamrollered with minimal fuss.

But then Scottish football all went a bit crazy last season.  And when the dust had settled, the club relegated from the Premiership wasn't the sort of club one would have expected to be relegated - you know, a Killie, or a Partick Thistle, or a St Mirren, or an ICT or Ross County, a club only a bit bigger than those in the Championship, that is supported by only three-to-four thousand hardy souls each fortnight, that might prove a bit of a nuisance but would ultimately be overpowered over the course of a thirty-six game season with a bit to spare.

It isn't one of those clubs Rangers have to battle with in 2014-15.  It's only bloody Hearts.  One of Scottish football's best-supported teams, brought to its knees by years of financial mismanagement coming home to roost.  Sound familiar?  Except Hearts didn't go bust and have to start in the bottom tier.  They took their medicine, and bounced back via administration, albeit having paid the price of relegation.  And, with their fate certain almost from the start of last season, they have ultimately made the most of their predicament.  They enter the season with a young squad of mostly homegrown players, many of whom were thrust into first team action rather earlier than they would, or should, have been if circumstances were different.

And with the experience they have got better and better.  There's plenty of rawness in the squad still, but there is undoubted ability.  Dale Carrick, Sam Nicholson, Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson...these are some of the most exciting young players in Scottish football just now.  And they are all still at Tynecastle.  The new management team at Gorgie - Director of Football Craig Levein and Head Coach Robbie Neilson - have added a bit of experience this summer.  Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis, both of whom excelled under Levein for Dundee United five years ago, should provide a steeley midfield platform.  Swedish striker Osman Sow showed enough talent a year ago that Crystal Palace gave him a contract.  Talented, hungry youngsters augmented by some canny veterans - that's really the path that Rangers should have taken, isn't it?

Of course, the Gers have plenty of quality on their books; on paper, they should blow all opposition, including the Jambos, away...but football is not played on paper.  On grass, Ian Black, Nicky Law and plenty of others (Lee Wallace is the obvious exception) have too often played down to their opposition's level.  When they have been required to step up, they have so often been found wanting, as the Scottish Cup ties with Dundee United in each of the last two seasons have displayed.  If Rangers do not approach the league with utmost professionalism and with a tactical acumen rarely displayed by Ally McCoist, they may be pipped at the post.

Of course, the recent reforms in Scottish football led to the introduction of a playoff for promotion as well, so whichever of Hearts and Rangers does not win the division will still have a second shot.  But, even without pointing out the perils of facing a top flight opponent fighting for their lives, many of you will have noticed the big green-shaped, Leith-dwelling elephant in the room.  Hibs - Hibs! - were also relegated last season.  While their nightmare summer has led me to automatically dismiss them as title contenders - they still don't even have a goalkeeper under contract, for goodness sake - they will surely rebuild sufficiently to finish in the top four and earn a playoff spot.  In which case, all they will need to do is pull themselves together for three playoff ties in May to have a decent shot at getting back up.

The bottom line is, at least one of the five best-supported clubs in Scotland is going to be out of the Premiership next season as well.  Is it so utterly unthinkable that the club on the outside looking in could be The Rangers?


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Premiership transfer business so far

Number of players brought in: 3 (plus one loan made permanent)

Number of players departed: 5 (including one loanee)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 17

Stronger or weaker? A bit stronger

The story so far: Derek McInnes hasn't lost any of his first-choice players, but has strengthened defensively by bringing in seasoned English keeper Scott Brown as competition for Jamie Langfield, and central defender Ash Taylor.  Fringe players Scott Vernon and Josh Magennis are amongst those to depart, while most Dons fans will have been delighted that the club managed to punt Calvin Zola, even though the burly forward had a year left on his deal.  However, a long courtship of Kris Boyd ended up with the striker signing for Rangers, while reported interest in ICT's Graeme Shinnie has turned out to be pie in the sky.  The move for David Goodwillie will look like genius if he can recapture his form of a few years ago, but that's a big 'if'.

More business to come? Aberdeen's heir main objective is surely to sign a good left-back, so they don't have to play Andrew Considine out of position again this season.  Other than that, they've probably done all their shopping for this summer

Number of players brought in: 1

Number of players departed: 3

Number of over-21 players in squad: 23

Stronger or weaker? Weaker...but only marginally.  And still a gazillion times stronger than everyone else.

The story so far: 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner Georgios Samaras is the only first team regular to leave so far, after not being offered a new contract.  The club showed no interest in keeping injury-prone defenders Steven Mouyokolo and Lewis Toshney.  But the only arrival of the Deila era so far is Craig Gordon, making his comeback after long term injury.

More business to come? Big bids for Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk are surely inevitable before the end of the transfer window.  It would be a surprise if new boss Ronny Deila didn't make a few new signings as well.

Number of players brought in: 9

Number of players departed: 16 (including one loanee)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 17

Stronger or weaker? A bit stronger

The story so far: Paul Hartley clearly wasn't impressed with the squad that John Brown left him when arrived at Dens Park in February and has well and truly gutted it.  Quite right too; there was more dead wood than you'd find at a shipwreck, and the only player to leave who might have done a job this season is defender Declan Gallagher, who left the club on the same week that he was alleged to have attacked a man with a baseball bat.  Coincidence?  Hmm.  Whether many of the new faces are up to the task is debatable.  Hartley clearly didn't watch St. Mirren try and fail to play Paul McGowan and Gary Harkins in the same team, or see Phil Roberts' infamous meltdown after being sent off at Alloa for Falkirk last season.  Meanwhile, defender James McPake better have had a stringent medical, whilst fellow ex-Hibbee Kevin Thomson hasn't actually been any good for about three years.  The only signing who looks like a sure thing is midfielder Simon Ferry.

More business to come? Hartley wants another two or three new faces, and could certainly do with a striker.  In order to make space, he will try to offload Kyle Benedictus and Nicky Riley, who have been deemed surplus to requirements.  Exciting youngster Craig Wighton is likely to be loaned out.

Number of players brought in: 4

Number of players departed: 6 (including two loanees)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 16

Stronger or weaker? Probably about the same

The story so far: Three million simoleons for Ryan Gauld.  Woof.  Meanwhile, Gavin Gunning's exit leaves a hole to fill in the centre of defence, but Jackie McNamara will hope that Jaroslaw Fojut might fill it.  Morgaro Gomis left for Hearts after being a perennial sub last season, and it was no surprise to see Mark Millar let out of his contract early after six months on loan at Falkirk.  Youngsters Blair Spittal and Charlie Telfer were signed with a view to the future.  Callum Morris was good at League One level, but is the former Dunfermline player really capable of doing a job at this level?

More business to come? McNamara would love to get Curtis Good back on loan from Newcastle again to provide another option at the back.  United were one of Kris Boyd's many suitors and so are likely to look for another striker.  Expect Chris Erskine and Michael Gardyne to be encouraged to find pastures new by the end of August.  And might someone yet make an offer for Andrew Robertson that they can't refuse?

Number of players brought in: 5

Number of players departed: 4

Number of over-21 players in squad: 14

Stronger or weaker? About the same

The story so far: Accies are determined to resist the temptation to bring in too many veterans at the expense of their own young players, but they have brought in some experience in the form of busy but limited journeyman Dougie Imrie (who is always good for a goal against his former club ICT each season) and Falkirk keeper Michael McGovern, who is an upgrade on Kevin Cuthbert; neither, however, are Premiership quality.  Winger Daniel Redmond is an exciting signing from Wigan, however.  Aside from Cuthbert, the only mainstay of the promotion-winning side to leave is forward James Keatings, who joined Hearts.

More business to come? As it stands, this squad does not have enough to compete in the top flight.  Alex Neil could certainly do with another defender or two, and a forward with more mobility than the evergreen Jason Scotland or lumbering targetman Mickael Antoine-Curier.

Number of players brought in: 0

Number of players departed: 5

Number of over-21 players in squad: 17

Stronger or weaker? About the same

The story so far: Not a lot to report from the Highlands, with John Hughes having signed up last year's squad well in advance of the summer.  It wasn't a surprise to see Ben Greenhalgh released, while youngsters Connor Pepper and Matthew Cooper departed too after failing to establish themselves.

More business to come? It would be a surprise if a forward wasn't snapped up, as ICT could really do with giving Billy Mckay a rest now and then.  Otherwise, they seem quite well set.

Number of players brought in: 6

Number of players departed: 16 (including 4 loanees)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 7

Stronger or weaker? Weaker

The story so far: Rumour has it that a revolving door has been installed at Rugby Park, just to make things more efficient.  Allan Johnston has not retained a single player that he signed during 2013-14 (Craig Samson was signed by Kenny Shiels, so he doesn't count), so Killie fans had better hope that he does a damn sight better in the transfer market this time round.  Most of the departures are justified; however Kris Boyd will be impossible to replace.  Johnston wanted David Goodwillie but the former Blackburn forward chose Pittodrie instead.  So Lee Miller, now 31, has returned to Scotland to lead the line.  He's a good target man but hardly the goalscorer the team needs.  The other new faces haven't caused many ripples of excitement in Ayrshire; Neither Josh Magennis, Jamie Hamill nor Paul Cairney have done enough in the last year or two to prove they are of Premiership quality, while centre back Mark Connolly, formerly of Crawley Town, is a bit of an unknown.  New winger Tope Obadeyi couldn't get a game for Bury in English League Two last year.

More business to come? Unquestionably.  They are short in defence in particular.  Midfielder Graham Carey was training with Killie last week, and would be a decent addition.

Number of players brought in: 1 (plus 1 loan made permanent)

Number of players departed: 7

Number of over-21 players in squad: 13

Stronger or weaker? Slightly weaker

The story so far: 'Well were right to let James McFadden go, given that he looks past his best and was one of the club's highest earners.  Shaun Hutchinson was expected to leave, but he will be hard to replace.  In contrast, Henri Anier blew hot and cold, and getting a fee for him was a good piece of business.  On hte plus side, exciting winger Lionel Ainsworth signed a permanent deal and maybe Dan Twardzik will be an upgrade in goal.  Hey, at least Stuart McCall doesn't have to completely rebuild the team like he did a year ago.

More business to come? Well, it's traditional that they sign an unknown Estonian striker, isn't it?  I'd be surprised if McCall wasn't on the lookout for another defender and another striker, though he has high hopes for youngsters Craig Moore and Lee Erwin.

Number of players brought in: 1

Number of players departed: 8 (including 4 loanees)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 17

Stronger or weaker? About the same

The story so far: The loss of Aaron Taylor-Sinclair is the biggest blow, but had been expected for some time.  The Jags would have liked to sign Lyle Taylor permanently but the big forward signed for Scunthorpe United instead.  Isaac Osbourne would have been an asset if fit...which is never.  The only new face is ex-Hearts player Ryan Stevenson, who should do a job in midfield or as an emergency striker.

More business to come? Another striker or two are a necessity.  Three defenders - Darren Barr (released by Kilmarnock), Carl Magnay and Jordan Mustoe have been on trial; Barr would be a good signing if he has overcome his injury woes.

Number of players brought in: 4

Number of players departed: 13 (including 5 loanees)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 12

Stronger or weaker? Weaker

The story so far: County have made some decent signings - Antonio Reguero is a Premiership-quality keeper who was wasted on Kilmarnock's bench, while ex-Raith winger Joe Cardle will do a job, and it seems a reasonable bet that either Liam Boyce or Jake Jervis will prove to be a decent goalscorer.  The main headache for Derek Adams is that he still has huge gaps in the squad, especially in defence - Erik Cikos, Ben Gordon, Brian MacLean and Evangelos Oikonomou all chose to move on.  The midfield will miss Graham Carey's guile, and it was a shame (but not a surprise) that Filip Kiss chose not to remain in Dingwall.

More business to come? Unquestionably - currently there are only two defenders under contract!  Expect several more signings before the end of August, but there isn't much time to integrate them into the squad before the proper action starts.

Number of players brought in: 0

Number of players departed: 6 (including 1 loanee)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 17

Stronger or weaker? Probably about the same

The story so far: St. Johnstone have so far held onto everyone that matters - or, more specifically, Stevie May.  Tommy Wright has had a wee moan in the press about not being able to afford to bring in anybody, but in truth his starting eleven doesn't need strengthening unless more players leave.  It'll be interesting to see if Murray Davidson signs on for another year once he is fully fit - he's only under contract till August.

More business to come? It's hard to know.  It'd be a surprise if they went the entire summer without a single signing.  A poor start to the season might loosen the chairman's purse strings, I suppose.  

Number of players brought in: 4 (including 1 loanee)

Number of players departed: 11 (including 4 loanees)

Number of over-21 players in squad: 9

Stronger or weaker? Weaker

The story so far: Lots of exits, as there was plenty of dead wood to shift.  Paul McGowan's departure seemed a surprise initially, but he wasn't great last season and may benefit from pastures new.  At least they found a new employer for Gary Harkins, who still had a year on his contract.  The best pieces of business were the signing up of Kenny MacLean and Marian Kello on new contracts.  Whilst it was a shame that impressive young keeper Chris Dilo left, the retention of Kello and the arrival of former Hearts backup Mark Ridgers should be sufficient between the sticks.  The backline looks thin, though.  Can young loanee Ellis Plummer fill the gap left in the centre of defence by Rangers-bound Darren McGregor?  Meanwhile, the best you can say about young forwards James Marwood and Ross Caldwell is that they are low-risk signings.

More business to come? There had better be, since right now the Buddies have only seven outfield players over the age of 21.  They have lots of holes to fill.  One of the features of Danny Lennon's tenure was his poor record in the transfer market, so it's not a surprise that his successor, former assistant Tommy Craig, hasn't set the heather alight so far.  Plenty of depth is needed, particularly in defence, and further wide players would be useful as alternatives to the inconsistent Gregg Wylde and the geriatric Gary Teale.  And is it really wise to assume that St. Mirren can get yet another decent season out of 36 year old striker Steven Thompson?  Then again, I said that last year...


Saturday, July 12, 2014

My kingdom for a Retained List!

As you'll probably be aware, my quest this summer has been to keep on top of all player arrivals and departures in the SPFL, and to focus specifically on the activities of each Scottish Premiership club over the summer.

It's proven to be harder than it sounded.

But that isn't my fault.  The main obstacle is, unquestionably, the lack of information coming out of some clubs.  Particularly galling is the fact that several lower league clubs are far better at communicating with fans than some of the largest in the country - amongst those who deserve commendations are Dumbarton, Stenhousemuir and Albion Rovers.

In England, Football League clubs are required to publish Retained Lists at the end of a season, which confirm which players are staying on, and whether out of contract players have been offered new deals or not.  This is a helpful and useful, typically, the SPFL doesn't bother with them.

So, for the best part of two months, I've been keeping my lists up to date the best I can.  I feel I can claim that they are the most accurate ones you'll find - certainly a million times better than the BBC website's.  And therefore I feel now is the time to slag off certain Premiership clubs about the lack of info they give out, and to laud others.

So, here are the twelve teams, ranked from worst to first on how easy it is to work out who is playing for them, and who isn't!

So, has William Gros left or not? He signed a three year contract last summer, but has been removed from the squad list on the club website and was reported to be on trial at Oldham.  So I reckon he's gone.  But, two months after fans suggested on a forum that he might have left, there has been nothing official.  The status of Jeroen Tesselaar and Alexei Eremenko is completely unclear as well.  And has Mark O'Hara signed a new contract or what?  Nobody outside Rugby Park knows; I wonder whether folk inside Rugby Park know either.  I took advantage of the club's #AskKillie drive a couple of weeks ago to email and ask.  Surprise, surprise, there was no answer.  Fail.

Several players appear to still be at the club, despite newspaper reports as early as June that they were out of contract.  Meanwhile, a few appear to have left (most notably Graham Carey) despite previous indications that they were signed up till next summer.  County haven't announced contract lengths for some of their new signings either.  And, most embarrassingly, they did announce a new deal for Ben Gordon...only for the player to join Colchester United before he'd actually signed it.  Oops.

James McFadden's exit was high profile and got plenty of coverage.  As for other players who left...well, I was only able to work that out when the club announced their squad numbers last week!  And goodness knows how long most of their young players are under contract for.

For a club of their size, you'd think it would have been easier.  But apart from the departure of Georgios Samaras, I had sweet bugger all to work with.  Most journalists reported the likes of Darnell Fisher to be out of contract, yet he presumably signed a new deal since he's on their pre-season tour.  I only worked out that Bahrudin Atajic is still at the club through translating an interview to a Swedish website.  A lot of educated guesses were required here.

A mixed bag, this, as player departures were announced on several different occasions, rather than all in one go.  But at least contract lengths are all publicized, and the official website had several updates from new manager Tommy Craig regarding the likes of Chris Dilo (who eventually left) and Kenny MacLean (who eventually stayed).

No difficulties here, other than having to wait till contracts expired for confirmation of player releases.

The club website was swift to announce signings and departures, though they understandably waited until contracts expired before confirming that players were not staying.  It also helps that the Evening Telegraph and Dundee Courier regularly reported on developments.

Caley Thistle had signed up pretty much their whole squad already, and announced which young players were leaving before the season even ended.  The only uncertainty was over the fate of Ben Greenhalgh; though his release seemed certain, it wasn't confirmed until the start of July, presumably because this was when his contract expired.

The Perth Saints were quick to confirm which players were exiting and which players had been offered new deals.

This was straightforward - every player's contract length was easy to fin out, and they announced player departures as soon as the season was over.

The club website announced the contract status of every single player as early as 15 May...including youth players I'd never even heard of.  So kudos to them.  Though I don't know if all those youth players signed their contracts or not.

Top of the class.  I'm sufficiently geeky to have emailed Accies to check whether a couple of their youngsters were under contract for next season or not...and incredibly I got a reply from club secretary Scott Struthers clarifying this for me.  If that doesn't sound sufficiently awesome, bear in mind that the previous day I'd had an email stating that he was away on holiday.  Mr Struthers, I salute you!