Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adams's attitude was his undoing

Derek Adams was presumably a victim of the wind changing one day several years ago
Last Boxing Day, Ross County lost 2-0 at home to Hibs.  I had the misfortune to be in the crowd, watching a match so poor that it nearly made my eyes bleed.  County were absolutely awful - the worst performance I could remember from a top flight team since the dying embers of Gretna's season at that level.  Gretna had been on the brink of going bust though.  What was County's excuse?

So I wasn't surprised to subsequently hear from a fly on the wall that there had been a right rammy in the dressing room at half-time.  According to said fly, Derek Adams rounded particularly on Dutch attacker Melvin De Leeuw, telling him he'd been rubbish for weeks, and that "I'll pay to put you on the next flight back to Amsterdam".  De Leeuw didn't take it lying down, angrily pointing out that he'd taken a big risk by leaving Holland, and that his family hadn't settled in Scotland and had returned to the Netherlands, and then apparently took out his fury on the dressing room toilet, which he unsuccessfully attempted to rip off the wall.

If it were another manager, it might be construed as an attempt to motivate an underperforming player.  But this is Derek Adams we're talking about.  Anyone who watched The Staggies last season would tell you that De Leeuw was the team's best player.  He was their top scorer, and created bags of chances for his teammates too.  Yet he only started half the team's games.  After Boxing Day, he didn't start another match till 15 March.

That, for me, just about sums up the problem with Adams.  He didn't so much have a chip on his shoulder as a winter's supply of firewood.  The universe and its dog were always against him.  He is a psychoanalyst's dream.

He is also a PR nightmare.  Usually the ire would be directed against opponents or officials - it would be possible to scour years of post-defeat comments without finding one that was even gratuitous towards an opponent, let alone praiseworthy.  Touchline aggro was never far away.  There are rumours that he was once seen smiling...back around 1996.  And when things went wrong on the park he would never be far away from getting stuck into his own players - literally in the case of Sean Higgins, who was punched by his manager after a game in 2008.  Plenty of his former players took to Twitter to gloat over his departure, including three members of the squad who won promotion to the SPL (Colin McMenamin, Michael Fraser and Jonathan Flynn).  As De Leeuw discovered, Adams was always happy to find a scapegoat.  Externally at least, he was never to blame for anything.  Heck, he even told the press today that "I outperformed my resources" - as if his chairman, Roy 'Uncle Pennybags' McGregor, had left him wanting at times!  A siege mentality in football is supposed to be 'my team against the world', not 'me against the world'.

It's a shame, because this guy is a very able and tactically astute manager, whose stock was extremely high less than eighteen months ago.  He took Ross County (in two different spells) from the third tier to the top flight and to a Scottish Cup final as well, building a very strong side in the process that not only held its own in the SPL, but with January reinforcement went on to a superb fifth placed finish.  I attended many of their matches in their Championship-winning season, and was rarely unimpressed.  Adams was not short of resources (in comparison with his peers in the second tier) but he used them wisely, building a team that ended up going 40 games unbeaten because a backline commanded by Grant Munro and Scott Boyd and protected by Paul Lawson was hard to score against, yet an attack led by Colin McMenamin and supported by Richard Brittain, Iain Vigurs and Michael Gardyne was capable of all sorts of havoc at the other end.  It was a terrific team, terrifically organized by their young boss.

And, two years later, all of them except Brittain and Boyd have left.  Incredibly, County have used fifty-three - that's not a typo - different players in the last two years.  For three transfer windows running, Adams has just about signed an entirely new team.  Contrast with the situation over the Moray Firth, where the Caley Thistle squad has been almost untouched in that period, and where team spirit is as strong as I have ever seen at a club.

This summer's activities hinted at trouble.  The club announced that left back Ben Gordon had signed a new contract...only for him to join Colchester a week later.  Brian McLean turned down another season and told the press of a "personality clash" with the boss.  Graham Carey seemed to disappear off the face of the earth for the whole summer, only to suddenly appear again for the pre-season tour of Holland as 'a trialist' before signing a new deal.  And, most galling, Stuart Kettlewell, not always the best player but certainly one of the most lionhearted, was let go.  This was despite the fact that the midfielder had delayed hip surgery for months to help out in their fight against relegation; after going for his op in the summer, he was released as he wouldn't be fit till the end of the year.

That decision shocked me, as County have a well-earned reputation as a community club and were expected to be rather more supportive of Kettlewell.  Anyone who has watched them so far this season would also say that their midfield could do with his bite and engine rather badly.  And it didn't seem like the sort of move that Roy McGregor, a thoroughly decent man, would make.

Dismissing a manager on a whim isn't the sort of move that McGregor makes either.  This decision will have been very carefully thought out, over a decent period of time.  So it's not really the recent results that have done for Adams.  They may have lost their opening four league games, but there's still thirty-four to go.  They were very unlucky to leave Tannadice as losers last weekend.  And they successfully navigated a real banana-skin of a League Cup tie at Stranraer 24 hours before his dismissal.  He's been sacked because his positives are finally being outweighed by the negative effect caused by his sour puss.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Marching to Marley's beat
Dean Brill and Ross Draper were two of the top performers on the day for Caley Thistle but for most the outstanding player was wide man Marley Watkins. One of the famous “Butcher Bargains,” Watkins started this season on the bench but made a superb cameo appearance against Hamilton where he was unlucky not to grab a couple of goals despite only being on the pitch for 15 minutes. An injury to James Vincent meant that, against Motherwell, Watkins started his first game of the season and he played a pivotal role as Inverness dominated the side that finished second in the league last season. But his performance against Celtic on Saturday was perhaps his finest in an ICT jersey.

From the off he tormented the Celtic defence as he ghosted up and down the right flank with able support from full-back David Raven and the two exchanged some neat one-twos. Watkins is not just pacey, he is also very tall and can challenge effectively in the air. He was also the perfect outlet for the likes of Tansey and Meekings to drop a more direct pass in behind the Celtic full backs when the chance arose. His ball control is, at times, fantastic and he exhibited this perfectly in the second half with a wonderful turn and spin on the ball, right on the touchline, to get away from his marker. Indeed the Inverness goal came from a Watkins cross from the right which just eluded Mckay before rebounding into the net off the unfortunate O’Connell. With his contract up at the end of the season many ICT supporters will hope the club will opening talks sooner rather than later with Watkins to secure his services.  AS

Aberdeen believing their own hype?
Derek McInnes criticized his own players as being "indulgent" against St. Johnstone.  The Dons never got out of first gear, and looked unprepared for a bit of a scrap.  They could have been punished for a number of defensive mistakes earlier in the game, and couldn't raise their game after Steven Maclean's strike.  I wonder as well if whether having ten days off blunted their match sharpness.  McInnes doesn't tolerate that sort of attitude; I imagine that his players won't make that mistake again in a hurry. LS

Panic in Paisley
Only a fool would make hard and fast predictions in August, but things do not look good for St Mirren. Bottom of the league without any goals going into the weekend, a home game against newly promoted Dundee could have been the perfect chance to kickstart their season. Instead they’re still looking for a point or a goal, and that’s worrying form given a less than arduous fixture list.

They created plenty of chances to win against Dundee, but Tommy Craig doesn’t have the kind of managerial track record that inspires confidence (in fact, he hardly has a managerial track record at all). While this was a good win for a decent Dundee team, it looks like it’s going to be a long, hard season for the Buddies, especially if they can't add some more quality in the final week of the transfer window. IM

Erskine has his mojo back
The star of Partick Thistle's 2012-13 promotion campaign, Chris Erskine was rotten last season.  A player heavily dependent on confidence, he struggled to bounce back after being booed by Dundee United fans in his first couple of games, and then was hit by injury as well.  I saw him play for United in Dingwall in January where he was abysmal, and a loan move back to Firhill didn't lead to an upturn in form.  But the tricky attacker looks revitalized this season, and his cracking finish on Saturday was his second goal as a super sub this season.  Not only has Erskine saved his Tannadice career, but he's also given his manager a bit of a selection headache. LS

Reguero the scapegoat?
Derek Adams' claims that Ross County had been robbed were somewhat crazy, given that Dundee United should have been out of sight long before Jake Jervis' equalizer.  But yes, Yoann Arquin and Jervis both spurned wonderful changes to put the Staggies in front.  However, their defence remains so honking that they might as well give opponents a two goal head start.  Most of the slagging will be for keeper Antonio Reguero, whose feeble attempt at a punch gifted Chris Erskine the winner.  Given that the Spaniard was culpable for a goal last week, I wouldn't be surprised to see him dropped.  Adams does like scapegoating players for poor performances - just ask Melvin De Leeuw.  But the first goal was a disaster for his most reliable defender, Scott Boyd, who was all over the place when he was supposed to be marking Nadir Ciftci.  Back to the training ground for the back four this week... LS

Moron of the week
I feel like this should become a regular feature.  After Scott Fox last week, we have Fraser Kerr's Kung Fu kick on Jamie Hamill.  Yes, we've all wanted to disembowel Hamill with a football boot for some time, but unfortunately the rules don't allow for that.  Kerr had already had a poor game, unable to match the strength of Josh Magennis, and he gave Robbie Muirhead far too much space for the opening goal.  Motherwell are already so short on numbers that Stuart Carswell became their fourth different left-back of the season so far.  With the suspended Kerr added to the absentee list, 'Well fans should probably bring along their boots to next weekend's game, just in case they're called upon. LS

Reffing useless
Willie Collum has been trusted with Champions League Quarter Finals; I wouldn't even risk letting that prat handle a pair of scissors.  The amount of retrospective action required from the SFA after matches he has officiated (last week's Edinburgh derby was the latest Collum fiasco) should surely tell them that he hasn't a clue.  Certainly he should have been given a weekend on the naughty step, but instead he was inflicted on Rugby Park, where he inexplicably missed Manuel Pascali's professional foul on John Sutton and denied Motherwell a penalty after Chris Chantler committed the most blatant handball I'll see all year.  What will it take for this man to be punted?

A wee caveat though - if I'm going to slag off one ref, I should praise another.  Bobby Madden's handling of ICT-Celtic was superb.  He let the game flow, and managed to avoid even a single yellow card.  And I think he was probably right not to give Ryan Christie a penalty.  Chapeau. LS

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ten things we learned from ICT-Celtic

Some of these Celtic players have no future at the club
Yes, a team that has made 10 changes is bound to be unsettled, but each one of that lineup will be earning a much higher wage packet than his ICT counterpart.  Yet you wouldn't have known it from watching some of them.  Out of the youngsters, Dylan McGeouch was a particular disappointment.  I'm sure that, when he first emerged three years ago, he had a turn of pace and an ability to beat a man - but whether because of a lack of confidence or otherwise, he showed none of that on Saturday.  Filip Twardzik, meanwhile, had a mare at left-back, but perhaps deserves a Mulligan given he was out of position.  Out of the veterans, Teemu Pukki's attitude was frankly dreadful, and he was hooked at half-time; it may be a while before he gets another shot.  Ronny Deila will not have much trust in flappy Lukasz Zaluska to be his backup goalkeeper.

A sensible move or a lack of respect?
A few years back, every single point that was dropped by Rangers or Celtic against a 'diddy team' could prove critical; now, with no serious opposition over a 38-game season, Deila not unreasonably felt that the midweek game with Maribor was the bigger priority - and it is, with about £12 million on the line.  But it's a sad reflection on Scottish football that Celtic have the resources to do this.  The English Premier League has a rule (which is hard to enforce) insisting that clubs put out the strongest team available; I doubt Celtic will argue for that to be introduced north of the border!

Deila didn't do his homework...
Anyone who had watched Inverness in the last six months would know that they struggle when opponents press high up the pitch.  Yet in the opening 20 minutes the visitors were more sluggish than a 100 metre snail race.  That allowed Caley Thistle to settle and get comfortable in possession..  Celtic should have been better prepared for this.

...but made effective changes quickly
Celtic's dominance in the latter stages of the first half came as a result of their manager's clever tinkering.  Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons were ineffective on the right flank and up front respectively, but when Griffiths moved into the centre forward role it allowed Commons to drop deeper, where he got between the ICT defence and midfield and caused all sorts of problems.  Commons had several excellent touches in the final third; his teammates failed to make nearly enough of the opportunities he created.

Celtic had no attacking threat from the full-backs
Often I have criticized ICT for being narrow, but it was Celtic who struggled to get the ball wide.  Efe Ambrose, a central defender, and Twardzik started in the full-back roles, and the home side were clearly comfortable with the former being in possession.  He did get to the by-line a couple of times in the later stages but his crossing was dreadful.  At half-time Twardzik was replaced by Stefan Johansen, who isn't a left back either.  Meanwhile Pukki (when he was on), McGeouch, Griffiths (when he was playing wide) and sub Callum McGregor always looked to come inside, where they found a traffic jam of opponents and teammates.  There was a real lack of width without the likes of Emilio Izaguirre or Mikael Lustig.

Is Ross Draper made of concrete?
Draper was absolutely sensational in the midfield area, showing enough strength to battle with the very solid Nir Biton.  The Englishman had one second half tackle (I can't remember who on) where he won the ball with so much force that it registered on the Richter Scale.  At 6ft 5in and built like a lock forward, I wonder if there is a player in this league who is more powerful.

Marley Watkins makes ICT so much better
With James Vincent in the team, Caley Thistle's forwards tend to all end up wandering into the same central area.  Watkins' natural inclination to drift wide offers different points of attack.  It was unclear whether he was under specific instruction to stay on the touchline or whether he just found himself out there, but either way he had a blinder.  His cross for the goal was terrific, and one Cruyff turn in front of the home dugout was absolutely sublime and should be in the highlight reel.

The ICT defence are getting better in possession
It was deeply unpleasant watching Josh Meekings in the last few months of last season, as he tried to get to grips with his manager's insistence on passing out of defence.  The mistakes he made in possession seemed to wreck his overall confidence and his form took a mighty dip.  But Meekings and Gary Warren look far happier with the ball at their feet, and the team now lose possession in their own half a fraction as much as six months ago.  Mistakes will still happen though, and they may be fatal...

Ryan Christie needs a rest
Some papers linked the Highlanders' starlet with moves to big clubs down south recently, but Saturday certainly showed that he's not ready for that step yet.  Christie has pretty decent upper body strength, but he struggled with the physicality of some of the Celtic players.  Of course, he's a young boy and he's played four games in fifteen days; he probably needs a break.

Time to cut Yogi some slack
Some idiot wrote this character assassination of John Hughes last Spring.  Whether Inverness can sustain this form is debatable, but currently the players are happy and the results are good.  That's all anyone can ask, really.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

A second sponsorless season

With the start of the season fast approaching, I thought it was worth a shot.

Getting hold of the Chief Executive of the SPFL was easier than expected.  I found his business card in a local phone box.  "Neil," I said, "I see you're still looking for a sponsor for the league.  Tell you what, I'll give you a can of Tizer if you call it the Narey's Toepoker League."

Neil Doncaster pondered this for a moment.  "It's a tempting offer, no doubt, but I think it underestimates the value of our brand.  If you could throw in a pack of wine gums as well though..."

"Sorry, mate, no dice.  It's the Tizer or nothing."

Okay, so the above anecdote may not be completely true.

What is true, however, is that for the second season running the Scottish Professional Football League is without a title sponsor.  For a professional football league, that's pretty incredible.  Given that Clydesdale Bank previously sponsored the SPL to the tune of £8million per season, that's a rather big financial hole there.  SFL clubs had a much smaller deal with Irn Bru - about £1million per season - but now they are getting diddly squat as well.  So that's a £9million shortfall to the 42 clubs compared to two years ago.

Amalgamating the SPL and the SFL just over a year ago was supposed to improve commercial opportunities, wasn't it?

So either no company/organization is offering enough cash, or no company/organization wants to be so closely associated with our league.  Hmm.

If Doncaster and co give away the sponsorship rights cheaply, then I suppose the risk is that it devalues them for the future.  But surely the longer we go without a title sponsor, the more the value will drop?  The clubs are certainly feeling the pinch - Motherwell said as much when they issued their most recent set of accounts.

If we are going to proceed without a sponsor, then surely some positive move could be made.  BBC journalist Jim Spence had a wonderful idea a few weeks ago about offering the naming rights free to a charity - the suggestion being that, if the league couldn't get any money, it might as well do something generous.  Choosing to highlight a worthy cause instead of taking some cash would surely have been good publicity as well.  Sadly, there's no sign of anything like that happening.  Then again, perhaps no charity wants associated with our league either?

Not only is there no title sponsor, but there was also remarkably little fanfare over the start of the new season.  Duncan Mackay on The Terrace has provided a long list of things which the SPFL should have done to promote the brand.  These are things which would have required remarkably little cost, effort or imagination.  But these proved beyond the men in charge.

And yet...Doncaster and the rest of the board were re-elected last month, aside from changes to the representatives from the lower divisions,  It seems inexplicable from our angle, yet the clubs seem to be satisfied with the job that the head honchos of Scottish football are doing.  Do they really believe that it can't be run better than this?  And if not, why aren't they raising a stink about it?


Monday, August 18, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Home Comforts
John Hughes is now well on his way to stamping his style of football on Inverness. Last season it brought mixed results especially at home where ICT registered just two wins in twelve under Yogi. This showed no signs of improving after a unimpressive showing last Wednesday against Dundee. Inverness were slow to get the ball forward and appeared content to retain possession for the sake of it exhibiting almost zero urgency to execute anything positive from their play. 

With the above in mind and factoring in ICTs unremarkable record at Fir Park against Motherwell few fancied an away win over the Steelmen. Remarkably, Inverness turned in a fine performance dominating a lacklustre home side with a superb display of incisive passing football, aggressive pressing to win the ball back and some fast, direct attacking play that saw two fantastic goals scored by Greg Tansey and Aaron Doran. If Hughes can transpose this same approach to games in Inverness he could start to get a bit more comfy in the ICT hot seat.  AS

Accies are no pushovers
No team has ever been relegated from the SPL or the Scottish Premiership after picking up six points from their opening two games, so the many folk (this blogger included) who tipped Hamilton Accies for the drop are feeling a little less certain about that prediction.  Their win over St. Johnstone came on the back of a dominant first half performance which showcased the strengths of Alex Neil's side - slick passing and plenty of pace in the final third.  It seems to me like another example of the benefit of having a settled team at the start of the season - their strength as a unit compensates for some of the deficiencies in quality.

Most, if not all, of the sides below them in the table will get stronger and better though, so Accies do need to make hay while the sun shines.  Winning their next two home games, against Ross County and Kilmarnock, would go a long way towards keeping them up.  LS

Celtic look frightening
Yes, Dundee United effectively gave Celtic a three goal head start with atrocious set-piece defending and stupid errors (step forward, Paul Paton), but for the first time Ronny Deila's tweaks to the champions' attack seemed to make them more dangerous, as they repeatedly carved United open.  And that's with the likes of Pukki, Griffiths and Forrest left out of the starting lineup.  It's a scary prospect for the other Premiership clubs - there's certainly enough firepower here to thump every domestic opponent.

As for United, it's hard to see how it could have been any worse - not only a 6-1 defeat, but the sight of Stuart Armstrong, outstanding in the early stages, limping off injured.  They will suffer if he misses a few games.  LS

Call Me Maybe?
After another defensive horror show Derek Adams may make further additions to his squad before the end of the month. With eleven new faces arriving in Dingwall to replace twelve departing players it will inevitably take some time for the squad to gel together. Early signs however have not been promising specifically in respect of the sides defensive qualities, with two more dreadful goals conceded to Kilmarnock.  Especially worrying is that Killie had six new faces in their lineup as well, but their signings appear to be bonding far quicker.  

Aside from Scott Boyd the Staggies have a raft of new defenders in the team along with Antonio Reguero in goals and they need to click sooner rather than later.  They desperately miss Yann Songo'o and if County continue to perform as they are Adams might not wait until January to pick up the phone to Evangelos Ikonomou.  AS

Fox let Partick down
It was hard to believe at the time that Gordon Strachan thought Partick Thistle's Scott Fox was worthy of a Scotland call-up last year.  Fox's increasingly erratic performances after that led to Alan Archibald dropping him after Christmas, and it was a mild surprise to see him restored to the starting lineup for the new campaign.  After the goalkeeper let his teammates down with a moronic swipe at Paul McGowan that got him sent off, it seems likely that he'll be consigned to the subs bench again, especially since veteran replacement Paul Gallacher saved a penalty and made a superb save from Peter MacDonald as well.  Some of the Jags' attacking play was top-drawer again against Dundee; Fox's antics let his team-mates down and prevented them from pushing for a win they probably deserved up till then.  LS

Time for Motherwell and St. Johnstone fans to panic?
Naw.  Remember that the Perth Saints were playing their fourth game in ten days.  As for 'Well, they missed Simon Ramsden, Stevie Hammell and Zaine Francis-Angol, while Iain Vigurs and Henrik Ojamaa were only fit enough for the bench.  Stuart McCall had to play an 18 year old out of position at left back.  McCall is usually pretty good at picking up some good signings at the end of the window, so they should be fine.  LS

The kids are all right
Hell of a strike by Partick Thistle's Gary Fraser, his second in four days.  The reply from Dundee teenager Craig Wighton wasn't too shabby either.  LS

And another thing...
Whoever did the commentary for the Dundee-Partick highlights repeatedly referred to Thistle defender Danny Seaborne as "Seagrove".  Pathetic effort.  LS

Monday, August 11, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

European hangovers can have a big effect...
On Thursday night at Pittodrie all seemed right with the world.  The ground was full, the sun was out (please can we have summer football?), and the home side gave as good as they got against La Liga's seventh best team.  Could Aberdeen perhaps dream of mounting a serious challenge to Celtic?

It was back to earth with a bump on Sunday against Dundee United, their old rivals and likely closest challengers for 2nd place come May.  For the last 10 minutes against Sociedad the Dons looked dead on their feet and no doubt that contributed heavily to this performance...though Ash Taylor only played for those last 10 minutes, so I don't know what his excuse for that suicidal backpass to Ryan Dow is.

It will be interesting to see whether playing some draining Europa fixtures before the season starts is a blessing or curse for the Dons.  There was surely a hope that they’d be able to hit ground running, but the worry is that the tank will be empty come the second half of the season.  

United fans will be reassured that they could cope with losing Andrew Robertson and Ryan Gauld.  Gary Mackay-Steven's performance was particularly encouraging, as he took advantage of Aberdeen’s woeful lack of pace at the back in a way that Real Sociedad couldn’t.

It would be good to see someone keep Celtic honest into the business end of the season. With neither Rangers or the Edinburgh clubs in the Premiership, could this season be a new dawn for the New Firm? IM

...or can they?
Less than 72 hours after playing in Slovakia, St. Johnstone must have thought they were back in Cold War-era Europe, but that's an easy mistake to make when you're visiting Dingwall (takes cover).  Tired legs, no Stevie May - the Perth Saints would have been forgiven for losing this one, but their away win was rather deserved in the end.  

In fairness, Ross County gave a debut to seven players and it showed.  The defence, with three debutants in the back four and one in goal, looked in a terrible state for both St Johnstone goals.  It'll be a month or two yet before Derek Adams' new signings can be properly judged.  But why oh why would he leave Melvin De Leeuw on the bench?  Hasn't he learned from last season?  LS

Past comes back to haunt Goodwin
Jim Goodwin's reputation came back to haunt him on Saturday.  In another game, a referee might not have shown Goodwin a yellow card for either challenge, but the Irishman has long lost the right to any benefit of the doubt.  His first booking was for a tackle that did win the ball but appeared a bit reckless, while his second was for managing to connect with the back of John Sutton's head with an elbow while going for a header.  Other players might have been able to argue these were accidental or due to overexuberance; the trouble is that the world and his dog know that Goodwin would hack his grandmother with two feet if it broke up an opposing attack.  After a few years of clandestine niggly fouls that refs kept ignoring, officials are making up for lost time.  LS

Accies need to shake off naivety
It's a bit cliched, but it's also true; newly promoted teams won't get away with mistakes as easily as they did at a lower Mikey Devlin discovered after only 10 minutes when his dreadful passback allowed Billy Mckay to nip in and score.  While ICT's second goal did involve some lovely buildup play by Ross Draper and Danny Williams, the chance came about because Accies lost the ball in their own half.  It reminded me of Caley Thistle's first ever top flight game in 2004, a 3-0 thumping at Livingston.  The Highlanders learnt pretty quickly; Alex Neil's side need to do the same.  LS

Gary 'Iron Man' Harkins
Tony Stark puts on an Iron Man suit and becomes a superhero; Gary Harkins puts on a Dundee strip and the effect is roughly the same.  Harkins was dreadful playing out wide for St. Mirren last season, but Paul Hartley appears to have found a way to make it work.  Harkins won the penalty that he scored, and his willingness to drive infield gave the Kilmarnock backline a real headache.  Dundee will need him to play like this every week if they are to finish well up this league.  LS

Youth policy
This is a brief window of opportunity for Lee Erwin - with Henri Anier and James McFadden gone and Craig Moore injured, and no new strikers brought in, Motherwell have pretty much no other option to partner John Sutton.  And Erwin seized the day, not only scoring the winning goal against St. Mirren but putting in a strong, energetic performance.  Erwin impressed on loan at Arbroath last season and looks like he could make the step up; it would certainly make Stuart McCall's life easier.

Erwin wasn't the only youngster to hit the net; Ryan Christie popped up to tap in for Inverness, while Kilmarnock's Craig Slater curled in a sumptuous free kick.  St. Johnstone's Scott Brown didn't score, but his performance at the base of St. Johnstone's midfield in Dingwall was superb.  Expect to hear his name mentioned a few times this season.  LS

Some players need a trip to Slimming World
Maybe big St. Mirren forward Callum Ball is just big boned.  Or maybe not.  Meanwhile, ICT's Aaron Doran was left on the bench because it seemed unlikely that he could drag his spare tyre round New Douglas Park for 90 minutes.  LS

And one more thing...
That pass from Nadir Ciftci to Gary Mackay-Steven?  Absolute phwoar... LS

Saturday, August 9, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - St. Johnstone

StJohnstoneFC crest.png


LAST SEASON: 6th, 53pts

NOTABLE INS: Kyle Lander (Livingston), Adam Morgan (Yeovil Town, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Chris Iwelumo (Chester City), Zander Clark (Queen of the South, loan), James Dunne (Stevenage, end of loan), Tim Clancy, Patrick Cregg, Nigel Hasselbaink, Wade Joyce

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Mannus, Mackay, Anderson, Wright, Easton, Wotherspoon, Dunne, Davidson, Croft, Maclean, May

In true Shooting Stars form, the question is: "Stevie May: True or False?"

It looks like the answer is 'false'.  Scotland's answer to the Divine Ponytail is set to move to England this weekend, leaving St. Johnstone short of a twenty-goal-a-season striker just hours before the new season starts.  That's not exactly ideal.

May's partnership with Steven Maclean was a joy to watch; they were a duo who complemented each other beautifully, who between them were capable of scoring just about any sort of goal against any sort of team.  But May's departure feels rather a lot like Perth are being left with Art Garfunkel, while Paul Simon goes off on his own.

So, no pressure on Adam Morgan, then; the former Liverpool youngster was brought in on loan from Yeovil Town this week and will probably be expected to lead the line alongside Maclean.  The alternatives are Michael O'Halloran, who was quite effective out wide or up front last season but doesn't seem a huge goal threat, or young Chris Kane, who scored plenty of goals on loan at Dumbarton last season.  It's a big ask for any of them.

The large transfer fee is likely to be spent in true St. Johnstone style - in a business-like way to safeguard their future rather than on the playing squad.  Heck, manager Tommy Wright's reward for back-to-back top six finishes and a sensational Scottish Cup triumph was to told that his budget wasn't going to be increased.  Whilst Wright has publicly expressed his displeasure with the inability to strengthen the squad, the situation is hardly grim, for the Perth Saints had concentrated on keeping together the bunch which have brought them their recent successes.  Their performances in the Europa League against Swiss side Luzerne suggested that they will pick up where they left least it until it became clear that May was offski.

Whoever plays up front won't lack service, with David Wotherspoon, Lee Croft and hopefully Murray Davidson - if the latter can bounce back from a nasty knee injury - around.  A bit of steel wouldn't go amiss though, and the failure to make James Dunne's loan a permanent move was a huge disappointment.  Chris Millar and Gary McDonald are servicable but unremarkable central midfielders, so Wright is depending on youngster Scott Brown (no, not that one!) to fill that role.

If there might be problems in attack, it's a long time since there were any complaints about the St. Johnstone defence.  If they do decline this season, one suspects it will be because veteran defenders Dave Mackay and Frazer Wright finally start to slow down.  I suppose the latter never had pace anyway, but the former, one of the most underrated players in the Premiership, is now 34; can he still produce week-in, week-out like in previous seasons?  But at least Wright's central defensive partner Steven Anderson signed a new deal - he was terrific last season.  Having converted full-backs Tam Scobbie and Gary Miller as their backups is hardly ideal, but both do offer decent cover for Mackay and Brian Easton, who is solid enough at left-back.  And in goal is the consistently excellent Alan Mannus, one of the better keepers in this league.

Given the size of the home support at McDiarmid Park, St. Johnstone have really rather punched above their weight in recent years.  That's because they are a seasoned, dedicated bunch who are hard to beat.  It's only couple of years since they rebounded from losing Francisco Sandaza's goals to finish third in the table, after all.  I doubt they'll manage to repeat that, but it would be a shock if they ended up at the wrong end of the table.  Even without May's pizzazz, they'll probably be in the top half again.  Although they probably won't get the plaudits they deserve for it.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Steve Banks, Alan Mannus
Defenders: Steven Anderson, Brian Easton, Dave Mackay, Gary Miller, Tam Scobbie, Frazer Wright
Midfielders: Scott Brown, Liam Caddis, Lee Croft, Murray Davidson, Gary McDonald, Chris Millar, Craig Thomson, David Wotherspoon
Forwards: Dylan Easton, Chris Kane, Kyle Lander, Steven Maclean, Stevie May, Adam Morgan, Michael O'Halloran


football formations

Friday, August 8, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Kilmarnock



LAST SEASON: 9th, 39pts

NOTABLE INS: Paul Cairney (Hibernian), Mark Connolly (Crawley Town), Jamie Hamill (Heart of Midlothian), Josh Magennis (Aberdeen), Lee Miller (Carlisle United), Tope Obadeyi (Bury)

NOTABLE OUTS: Kris Boyd (Rangers), Sean Clohessy (Colchester United), James Fowler (Queen of the South), William Gros (Oldham Athletic), Rory McKeown (Raith Rovers), Antonio Reguero (Ross County), Jeroen Tesselaar (St. Mirren), Jude Winchester (Cliftonville), Michael Gardyne (Dundee United, end of loan), Jackson Irvine (Celtic, end of loan), David Moberg Karlsson (Sunderland, end of loan), Vitalijs Maksimenko (Brighton & Hove Albion, end of loan), Barry Nicholson (retired), Darren Barr, Ismael Bouzid

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Samson, Clohessy, Ashcroft, Pascali, Tesselaar, Eremenko, Irvine, Slater, McKenzie, GardyneBoyd

Off the field, Kilmarnock appear to have finally got things in order.  A deal with the bank a few months ago effectively wiped out their debt, at last allowing the club and their fans to focus completely on the playing side of things.

Some might wish that they were still distracted.

2013-14 will not go down as one of Killie's better campaigns.  They didn't manage three consecutive games without defeat once.  Manager Allan Johnston didn't manage to work out who his strongest eleven were until about December, and then seemed to forget that vital information after a few weeks.  They only pipped Hibernian to survival by winning their last two matches, including a victory at Easter Road on the final day.

Kris Boyd scored the winner in both those games.  He popped up with the decisive goal on three other occasions.  Only once did they win a game without him hitting the target.  Boyd scored twenty-two league goals last season; his teammates managed only twenty-three between them.  Have I painted a clear enough picture yet?  Atlas thought he had it hard, yet I doubt he'd have managed to carry this Kilmarnock team on his back like Kris Boyd did.

And the striker has only gone and buggered off back to Ibrox, taking his goals and his leadership with him.  That's a hell of a hole to fill - figuratively speaking, given that he lost a lot of weight in the last twelve months.  He's not the only player who needs replaced, not by a long shot.  Fifteen have departed Rugby Park this summer, including a number of regulars from the end of last season; defenders Vitalijs Maksimenko, Jeroen Tesselaar and Sean Clohessy, midfielder Jackson Irvine, attacker Michael Gardyne.  None of them were particularly special and could be easily upgraded by a manager with an eye for a player.  But the man known as 'Magic' has signed 12 players on loan or permanently since he was installed in the dugout.  Only one, Alexei Eremenko, remains.  That doesn't bode well.

Johnston has already brought in three attackers, none of whom will come remotely close to filling the Boyd void.  Veteran target man Lee Miller at least has a pedigree from his days at Aberdeen, but only once did he reach double figures for the Dons.  He's far more effective as a fulcrum for his fellow forwards - who will be either youngsters Rory McKenzie and Ross Muirhead, who have promise but are yet to prove that they belong in the Premiership, or newbies Josh Magennis and Tope Obadeyi.  The latter couldn't get a game for League Two Bury last season.  Magennis, meanwhile, is well known to Scottish football fans as that huge bloke who ran really fast for Aberdeen and St. Mirren, but never seemed to do so in the right direction.

Killie are not in much better nick at the other end of the pitch, excepting goalkeeper Craig Samson.  It's not a good sign when Jamie Hamill can expect to walk into the team.  Johnston badly needs Lee Ashcroft to continue his impressive development in central defence, and for another new face, ex-Crawley stopper Mark Connolly, to form a solid partnership with him.  Connolly can't be any worse than he was the last time he played in Scotland - he made a solitary appearance on loan at St. Johnstone in 2010, where he was hooked at half-time.  Bolton once paid £1 million for him, so there must be some talent there.  Can Magic unlock it?

Manuel Pascali is of course another option, as well as in midfield, but the Italian has slowed dramatically since his broken leg in 2012; he's now useful only for his experience.  Meanwhile, at the time of writing, there isn't a single out and out left-back in the squad.  Jamie McAllister, now 36, has been on trial all summer and may be the best they can manage.  If not Hamill may start the season on that side.

As has been so often the case in recent years, the bright spots are the youngsters.  Hard-working midfielder Craig Slater was electric last season and should only get better.  He'll have to do a lot of running for Eremenko, who has been a shadow of his previous self in his second spell here, and whose lack of a pre-season (he only signed a new deal this week) means that he's probably a long way short of peak fitness.  Meanwhile. there are high hopes for young attacker Greg Kiltie, only 17.  The aforementioned Ashcroft could yet be joined at the back by Ross Barbour or Mark O'Hara, both of whom seemed to fade from view last year after getting their chance from Kenny Shiels.

But there's precious little case to be made for positivity here.  Johnston has gambled on bringing in players like Magennis and Hibs failure Paul Cairney and succeeding where others have failed with them, but the ex-Queen of the South boss has done nothing to deserve the benefit of the doubt here.  Kilmarnock will struggle once more.  The longer that Johnston has the reins, the greater the possibility that their 22 year run in the top flight comes to an end in the summer of 2015.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Conor Brennan, Craig Samson
Defenders: Lee AshcroftRoss Barbour, Mark Connolly, Jamie Hamill, Mark O'Hara
Midfielders: Paul Cairney, Sammy Clingan, Ross Davidson, Alexei Eremenko, Manuel Pascali, Craig Slater
Forwards: Chris JohnstonGreg Kiltie, Josh Magennis, Lee Miller, Rory McKenzieRobbie Muirhead, Tope Obadeyi


football formations


Thursday, August 7, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic crest


LAST SEASON: 1st, 99pts

NOTABLE INS: Craig Gordon (unattached), Jo Inge Berget (Cardiff City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Tony Watt (Standard Liege, £1.2m), Steven Mouyokolo, Georgios Samaras

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Forster, Lustig, Van Dijk, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Johansen, Brown, Mulgrew, Commons, Samaras, Stokes

Writing about Celtic's upcoming season in relation to their Scottish Premiership opponents feels a little bit daft.  It's the equivalent of a Grand Prix race between a Formula One car and some horse-drawn carriages.  Of course the league will be won with plenty to spare.  Even if their players were blindfolded and had one leg tied behind their backs, they'd still win it.  Heck, they'd probably even be champions if Tony Mowbray was manager.  That's the advantage of having a wage budget that is greater than all eleven of your domestic opponents put together.  So any criticisms I make have to be put into that context.  There are more than twenty players under contract at Celtic Park who would walk into any other team in the division, after all.

The club know that another title is a formality, and the fans know that too.  And that means that new boss Ronny Deila will be judged by other criteria, the most significant of which is continental competition.  His main remit was to get to the Champions League, but Legia Warsaw have put paid to that.  A decent Europa League run aside, fans now have nothing to look forward to for the rest of the season but the drudge of domestic competition.  Welcome to our world, chaps!  Deila's rather cackhanded attempt at overhauling Celtic's style of play certain hasn't been successful so far, but he seems determined to play one up front rather than a twin spearhead.  There have been rumours of squad discontent, but I imagine those will dissipate once the league season starts and victories are accumulated.  To keep the fans happy, there needs to be plenty of goals and no repeat of recent domestic cup hiccups.

What I would really like to see, out of a selfish desire to see Scottish players achieving their maximum potential, is for a few youngsters to see more action.  Perhaps they will - Callum McGregor has been plucked from obscurity (on loan at Notts County last season) to become a first choice, with impressive results.  Or perhaps they won't - Tony Watt, hero against Barcelona two years ago, has been sold.  It's a shame that Watt has been shelved in favour of giving game time to the likes of Teemu Pukki and Jo Inge Berget.

The latter's arrival on loan is one of only two signings so far.  Berget is happiest just behind the striker, which probably means he will mainly see action in relief of Kris Commons.  The other new boy is fit-again Craig Gordon, who will compete with Lukasz Zaluska to replace Fraser Forster if 'The Wall' gets a big money move as expected.  Celtic's relative prudence this summer might partly be due to the rather bloated squad that Neil Lennon left Deila.  I daresay he'd like to clear a bit of space by disposing of the likes of Amido Balde, Tom Rogic and Derk Boerrigter, but finding buyers isn't proving easy.  So until the increasingly inevitable sale of Forster and/or the other truly international class player in the squad, Virgil Van Dijk, there might not be any more newcomers.

Of course, those two would be virtually impossible to replace, at least to the same standard.  If Van Dijk leaves, that might have to mean Charlie Mulgrew dropping back from midfield to play in central defence, unless a direct replacement is brought in.  Whether the erratic Efe Ambrose would look quite as comfortable alongside a new partner is open to debate; Celtic will certainly miss Van Dijk's ability to launch attacks and to score at set-pieces.  If they run the risk of being short in that position, they are positively stocked in the full-back areas.  Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre are real assets, while Adam Matthews can do a very good job on either flank.  Darnell Fisher looked alright when he got the chance, and he may see some action when he recovers from a knee operation.

In midfield, Scott Brown has been playing some of the best football of his career in the last year, so his current absence is a blow, though Stefan Johansen might be tucked inside to replace him; the Norwegian impressed in a more wide role after arriving in January.  Alternatively, Liam Henderson looks like a prospect and will hopefully take advantage of the chance to get some more first team action.  Nir Biton got better as last season progressed and will probably see more action in a defensive midfield role than countryman Beram Kayal, even despite objections from his own supporters after some rather 'political' tweets in the summer.

Between them and a lone frontman will be Commons, Scottish football's outstanding player last season.  Deila's life will be a lot easier if Commons picks up where he left off, and remains capable of beating domestic opponents on his own.  I'm not convinced that the new boss knows who he wants in the wide areas though.  McGregor has done enough to cement one position for now, but Berget and an uncomfortable-looking Leigh Griffiths have been used on the other flank without much joy.  Maybe James Forrest, if he can actually keep fit, will prove the solution.  Griffiths would be far better off as centre forward, but appears to be competing for one spot with the likes of Pukki and Anthony Stokes.  Whoever does start up front should be expected to score plenty.

Is that enough players to be going along with?  I could have published a "second-best XI" below which read 'Zaluska, Fisher, Mulgrew, O'Connell, Matthews, Kayal, Henderson, Biton, Boerrigter, Griffiths, Pukki' and still left people out.

As I said, there is no doubt that Celtic will retain the title.  But they might be a bit more vulnerable this season, especially if it takes time for Deila to get them playing the way he wants them to play.  And so the first couple of months could be interesting, much like two seasons ago when they were distracted by the Champions League.  If there is still a title race after Christmas, then that suggests that the Norwegian isn't the right man for the job.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster, Craig Gordon, Lukasz Zaluska
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Joe ChalmersDarnell FisherMarcus Fraser, Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew, Eoghan O'Connell, Lewis Toshney, Virgil Van Dijk
Midfielders: Nir Biton, Derk Boerrigter, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Paul GeorgeLiam HendersonJohn HerronJackson Irvine, Stefan Johansen, Beram Kayal, Dylan McGeouchCallum McGregor, Tom Rogic, Filip Twardzik
Forwards: Bahrudin Atajic, Amido Balde, Jo Inge Berget, James Forrest, Holmbert Fridjonsson, Leigh Griffiths, Teemu Pukki, Anthony Stokes


football formations 


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Ross County

Ross County F.C. logo.png


LAST SEASON: 7th, 40pts

NOTABLE INS: Jordi Balk (Utrecht), Liam Boyce (Cliftonville), Joe Cardle (Raith Rovers), Uros Celcer (Parma), Tim Dreesen (Fortuna Sittard), Jim Fenlon (AFC Wimbledon), Ben Frempah (Leicester City), Jake Jervis (Portsmouth), Rosario Latouchent (Caen), Antonio Reguero (Kilmarnock)

NOTABLE OUTS: Alex Cooper (Falkirk), Michael Fraser (Elgin City), Gary Glen (Livingston), Ben Gordon (Colchester United), Evangelos Oikonomou (Doxa Katokopias), Erik Cikos (Slovan Bratislava, end of loan), Jordan Slew (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan), Yann Songo'o (Blackburn Rovers, end of loan), Michael Tidser (Rotherham United, end of loan), Stuart Kettlewell, Brian McLean

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Brown, Cikos, Boyd, Songo'oOikonomou, Brittain, Kiss, Tidser, Carey, De Leeuw, Arquin

I'll not lie to you; my original draft for this was pretty damn negative.  After all, only two players remain from Ross County's promotion campaign that finished just two years ago, and only nine who were at the club this time last year. That is a hell of a turnover and not one that is conducive to success.

For the third transfer window in a row, Derek Adams has had to revamp the team.  Last summer, he signed a bunch of players who were mostly woeful; County had to bring in seven more, including five loanees, in January to drag them away from a relegation playoff.  Out of those seven, five have left, leaving big holes in the squad.  In particular the loss of commanding central defender Yann Songo'o will be felt.  Out of those who have remained, striker Yoann Arquin is useful but his brief spell AWOL in April must cause concern; it is unlikely that Adams, a manager who does not balk at confrontation, would have reintegrated the Frenchman so swiftly had the situation not been rather desperate.

That said, the Frenchman is sufficiently back in the good books that he has signed a contract extension.  So maybe I'm miles off the mark when I wonder how much Adams has contributed to the squad's unsettled nature.  However, defender Brian McLean openly told the press that he turned down a new deal in Dingwall because of differences with Adams.  The decision of Ben Gordon to sign for Colchester, days after County announced erroneously that he had agreed an extension, seems fishy.  Gone too is midfield bastion Stuart Kettlewell, who delayed hip surgery to contribute to the relegation dogfight; his loyalty was not reciprocated however - after four years at the club, he was cast aside when it became apparent that he would be out till Christmas after his operation.  Make of it what you will.

The disappearance for most of the summer of Graham Carey was also pretty queer, with no acknowledgement by the club of one of their better performers, but, at the eleventh hour, the left-sided midfielder has signed on the dotted line for another year.  That will be a big boost, but not as huge as the return of Filip Kiss for another season on loan from Cardiff.  On the face of it, the Slovak is everything a Scottish Premiership manager dreams of in a central midfielder - powerful yet mobile, strong in the tackle, a comfortable passer, and a definite goal threat.  The trick will be getting him to play well every week; there were times that, after a bright start, he looked increasingly disinterested and unimpressed with his supporting cast.  But having Kiss in the middle of the park changes everything.  It makes County a completely different prospect, and a much better one.

Not a lot is particularly known about the other incomers, aside from goalkeeper Antonio Reguero, who was wasted on Kilmarnock's bench and should do just fine between the sticks.  The other signings have been left pretty late and until after trial periods, which I always feel nervous about; surely if they were good enough you'd know that before you took them on trial?  Left-back Uros Celcer can't be too shabby, given that Parma were his previous club.  There are high hopes for young central defender Ben Frempah, but not necessarily this season, while outstandingly named teenager Rosario Latouchent is surely another one for a few years down the line.  Jim Fenlon might do a job at right-back, but it's not ideal that his manager at AFC Wimbledon cited "attitude" as a reason for his release.  But given the alternative at that position is Steven Saunders, who won a Scotland cap a few years ago before it became apparent that he was made of glass, Fenlon is likely to see plenty of action.

Adams hardly struck gold with his arrivals from Holland a year ago, with just Melvin De Leeuw proving a success; the only bigger joke than striker Kevin Luckassen was that a Czech club paid £100,000 to take him off County's hands!  And yet the boss went back to the Dutch leagues again to get Jordi Balk and Tim Dreesen.  Belgian Dreesen was quite the prospect a few years back and might prove a decent partner for Scott Boyd in the centre of defence.  Balk has looked good in front of the back line in pre-season...but fans said the same of countryman Marc Klok last year, and he looked out of his depth in competitive action.

What County need, and have never had in the top flight, is a goalscorer.  New strikers Liam Boyce, who was prolific in Northern Ireland, and former Birmingham prodigy Jake Jervis, both seem like signings that will either be spectacular successes or spectacular disasters.  Boyce has been working his way back from injury during pre-season, while early reports of Jervis suggested he was a little bit rotund, so that's not encouraging.  Neither will have joined to be bit part players though.  It will be interesting to see which combination of attackers Adams plumps for, given that he has Arquin and De Leeuw - the club's best player in 2013-14 and a million times more effective in a central role than out wide - available too.

Maybe Joe Cardle, who looked alright at this level for Dunfermline a few years back, will give them some natural width, something that they have lacked since Ivan Sproule's departure.  But if Adams punts De Leeuw out to the wing again then it will be a complete waste of the Dutchman's talent and finishing ability.  At least in midfield they can still count on the leadership and set-piece threat of captain Richard Brittain. Brittain wasn't great in a deep lying role at times last season and would be better off coming in from the flank, but Adams can only use him there if he's comfortable that Balk can thrive in the holding role.

The Staggies still seem a wee bit short of being top six material, but I'd imagine they'll be closer than they were last season.  A slow start is to be expected, given the number of new faces.  Perhaps the pieces will come together to form a coherent jigsaw this time round.  Even if there's a repeat of last season's rocky start, surely Roy McGregor will bail them out again in the winter transfer window.  Whether the chairman would tolerate having to bankroll yet another spell of tinkering by Adams is another matter; he is entitled to expect more from a coach who has previously proven himself to be very adept at setting up a team, but who could really benefit from learning how to make friends and influence people.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Mark Brown, Antonio Reguero
Defenders: Jordi Balk, Scott Boyd, Uros Celcer, Tim Dreesen, Jim FenlonBen Frempah, Rosario Latouchent, Steven Saunders
Midfielders: Richard Brittain, Joe Cardle, Melvin De Leeuw, Filip Kiss, Marc Klok, Darren Maatsen, Rocco Quinn
Forwards: Yoann Arquin, Liam Boyce, Jake Jervis, Steven Ross

football formations


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Partick Thistle

Partick Thistle FC logo.svg


LAST SEASON: 10th, 38pts

NOTABLE INS: Abdul Osman (Crewe Alexandra), Ryan Stevenson (Heart of Midlothian)

NOTABLE OUTS: Lee Mair (Dumbarton), Caolan McAleer (East Fife), Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (Wigan Athletic), Ryan Scully (Dunfermline Athletic, loan), Prince Buaben (Carlisle United, end of loan), Chris Erskine (Dundee United, end of loan), George Moncur (West Ham United, end of loan), Lyle Taylor (Sheffield United, end of loan), Isaac Osbourne

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Gallacher, O'Donnell, Balatoni, MairTaylor-Sinclair, Bannigan, Osbourne, Fraser, Higginbotham, Craigen, Taylor

Tenth place seemed about right for Partick Thistle last season, given that they never seemed poor enough to deserve relegation, yet they struggled for long periods in the campaign, particularly at home.  In fact, after their bright start, they won only five of their last thirty-three league games.

But Alan Archibald's side achieved what they set out to do - consolidate their top flight status.  Doing so again would be quite a feat.  The Harry Wraggs haven't managed three consecutive seasons at this level in nearly twenty years.  Finishing higher up the league would be even more impressive, as goalkeeper Paul Gallacher is the only player who was born before the last time they finished above eighth in the table, all the way back in 1981.

So history is against them a wee bit, then.  And at the moment a repeat of last season's scrap doesn't seem too unlikely.  Reinforcements have been rather sparse so far, though Alan Archibald has tried out more trialists this summer than he would probably care to remember, He has been particularly searching for a left back to replace the superb Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, who earned the chance to move down south.  The rest of the defence often struggled to make the step up from the Championship, although it was stabilized by plugging Lee Mair in during January.  The man affectionately known as "Night" has been punted though, in favour of younger options.  But Conrad Balatoni, Aaron Muirhead and Gabriel Piccolo all looked vulnerable last season.  Having a fully fit Stephen O'Donnell available again at right back is a boon, at least, and Gallacher is a reliable old hand in goal.  As for left-back, Jordan McMillan is the incumbent until Archibald finds someone better.

If the backline is a source of worry, so too is the forward line.  Lyle Taylor scored a few goals after joining on loan in January, but was just as important for his holdup and link play.  But he has gone, leaving the hardworking but limited Kris Doolan as the only senior striker at the club.  Doolan did manage 11 goals last season, far more than expected, but Thistle really need to bring in an alternative or two.

If only they could just play a team of midfielders; maybe this is in fact the manager's grand plan.  In Stuart Bannigan and Gary Fraser, they have two young creative players who are getting better and better.  After Isaac Osbourne inevitably got injured last season, they suffered from not having a ball winner in the middle of the park, which is a role that powerful new signing Abdul Osman is expected to fill.  If Osman proves a disappointment, then at least the solid Sean Welsh is back after a long-term injury.

The attacking threat from midfield will come from Kallum Higginbotham and Ryan Stevenson, the latter of whom has joined from Hearts.  Stevenson is far more effective in a central role, but may be required to come in from the wide areas like Higginbotham, good for a few spectacular goals each year but frustratingly erratic, will.  Or he may even be used as another option up front, where he filled in on occasion at Tynecastle.  However, if either of them get injured, or struggle, Partick will have a problem, as the alternatives, Christie Elliott, James Craigen and Steven Lawless didn't look up to the challenge last season.  I'm surprised they haven't been let go in order to free up space for new faces.  Archibald likes his full-backs to provide width, and he'll need them to do so.

As the start of the season beckons, it feels like a lot of work still needs done at Firhill.  Partick Thistle can be guaranteed to play good passing football and to take the game to the opposition.  Unless they can strengthen at both ends of the pitch, they are also probably guaranteed to finish in a similar position to last season, and to face another battle to avoid the drop.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox, Paul Gallacher
Defenders: Conrad Balatoni, Liam Lindsay, Jordan McMillan, Aaron Muirhead, Stephen O'Donnell, Gabriel Piccolo
Midfielders: Stuart Bannigan, Jonathan Black, James Craigen, Gary Fraser, Kallum Higginbotham, Steven Lawless, Abdul Osman, Ryan Stevenson, Sean Welsh, David Wilson
Forwards: Kris Doolan, Christie Elliott, Jordan Leyden


football formations


Monday, August 4, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - St. Mirren

St. Mirren FC's Crest


LAST SEASON: 8th, 39pts

NOTABLE INS: Callum Ball (Derby County), Ross Caldwell (Hibernian), James Marwood (Gateshead), Mark Ridgers (Heart of Midlothian), Jeroen Tesselaar (Kilmarnock), Ellis Plummer (Manchester City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Gary Harkins (Dundee), Paul McGowan (Dundee), Darren McGregor (Rangers), David Van Zanten (Dumbarton), Stephane Bahoken (Nice, end of loan), Adam Campbell (Newcastle United, end of loan), Josh Magennis (Aberdeen, end of loan), Conor Newton (Newcastle United, end of loan), Anton Brady, Chris Dilo, Eric Djemba-Djemba

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Kello, Naismith, McGregor, McAusland, Naismith, Newton, Goodwin, McGinn, McLean, McGowan, Thompson

After four years under Danny Lennon, St. Mirren were going stale.  They never finished higher than eighth under his stewardship, and last season they only found a bit of form in the final few weeks, just enough to dig them out of a fairly deep hole, but not enough to paper over the deep, deep cracks.  That 2013 League Cup victory seems a long time ago.  A new manager, with new ideas, is exactly what they needed.

In Tommy Craig, Lennon's erstwhile assistant, they have that new manager.  Does that mean new ideas though?  Lennon's tactics and transfer moves (Gary Harkins!  Stephane Bahoken!!  Eric Djemba-Djemba!!!)  were often criticised; Craig, with his Newcastle contacts, certainly had some say in the latter, and one would imagine he advised on the former.  So is he really the right man to drive the Buddies forward?

Craig has at least been able to shift the deadwood that Lennon left him, though he would have much preferred not to lose central defender Darren McGregor to Rangers.  The loss of Conor Newton was a shame, but not an enormous loss as the midfielder blew hot and cold.  More importantly, Kenny McLean chose to sign a new contract, a welcome surprise for the supporters as his excellent finish to last season was expected to earn him a move down south.  With McLean alongside technically gifted youngster John McGinn, they should be okay in midfield.  If Craig has any sense he will use Jim Goodwin, the master of football's dark arts, as his anchor, where he wields far more influence compared to when he sits in the backline.  Like him or not, you can't argue that his skill at breaking up play doesn't come in handy.

So not too many problems in the middle of the pitch, but things aren't as rosy up front.  Can they really rely yet again on Steven Thompson for goals?  Thommohawk will be 37 in January.  Last season my prediction of his demise was premature;  If he fails to prove me wrong again, Craig does have a like-for-like replacement in new signing Callum Ball, while youngsters Ross Caldwell and Thomas Reilly are available as alternatives but probably aren't good enough.  Whoever does play up front may lack support.  The decision to let Paul McGowan go was risky but calculated, given his off-field problems and poor form last season, but he won't be easily replaced.  The burden of emulating him will fall on James Marswood, brought in from Conference side Gateshead.  In the wide areas, all they have are another old man, Gary Teale, and the inconsistent Gregg Wylde; they really need Wylde to fulfil the potential he showed as a youngster at Rangers.  It's possible that McLean ends up on the flank like he did at times last season, which is a complete waste of his talent.  The Buddies would be much better off playing 4-3-3 than 4-4-2 if they can find another winger somewhere.

At least the defence is in better nick.  Manchester City's Ellis Plummer has arrived on loan to replace McGregor, and maybe he will slot in okay beside Marc McAusland, though reports from his spell at Oldham last season were not positive.  However, youth products Jason Naismith and Sean Kelly were impressive full-backs last season and should only get better.  The signing of left-back Jeroen Tesselaar is curious - I wonder whether Craig may look to use him in the centre of defence rather than as a replacement for Kelly.  And while young French keeper Chris Dilo left, Marian Kello is a perfectly decent goalie.

The bottom line is that St. Mirren don't look any better than they did last season...and last season they nearly got relegated.  That doesn't bode well.  And will the new face in the dugout really make a sufficiently positive difference?

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Marian Kello, Mark Ridgers
Defenders: Sean Kelly, Marc McAusland, Jason NaismithEllis Plummer, Jeroen Tesselaar, Mo Yaqub
Midfielders: Jim Goodwin, John McGinn, Kenny McLean, Gary Teale, Gregg Wylde
Forwards: Callum Ball, Ross Caldwell, James Marwood, Thomas Reilly, Steven Thompson


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(comments on Twitter)

2014-15 Premiership preview - Dundee United

Dundee United FC logo.svg


LAST SEASON: 4th, 58pts

NOTABLE INS: Mario Bilate (Sparta Rotterdam), Jaroslaw Fojut (Tromso), Callum Morris (Dunfermline Athletic), Blair Spittal (Queen's Park), Charlie Telfer (Rangers)

NOTABLE OUTS: Ryan Gauld (Sporting Lisbon, £3m), Morgaro Gomis (Heart of Midlothian), Gavin Gunning (Birmingham City), Dale Hilson (Forfar Athletic, loan made permanent), Farid El Alagui (Brentford, end of loan), Curtis Good (Newcastle United, end of loan), Mark Millar

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Ciernziak, Watson, Dillon, Gunning, Robertson, Rankin, Paton, Armstrong, Gauld, Mackay-Steven, Ciftci

Dundee United certainly weren't the best side in Scotland last season.  But they were surely the most entertaining.  The swashbuckling attacking play was reckless at times and they got their fingers burned more than once.  Either way, it was fun for the neutrals.

The pace and skill in the final third could be frightening, with Gary Mackay-Steven's trickery, Ryan Gauld's exuberance and the sheer je ne sais quoi of Nadir Ciftci.  All three were prone to infuriating inconsistentency, but when on song they were a lethal combination.  One particularly crucial cog to the attack was actually left back Andrew Robertson, who came out of nowhere (well, Queen's Park) to become one of the stars of the campaign.  More than capable at either end of the pitch, Robertson's pace, skill and intelligence meant that he could look after his entire flank on his own, in attack or defence.  In short, he is a wonderful player.

And he's gone.  Robertson signed for Hull City this summer.  Gauld left too, joining Sporting Lisbon.  The duo brought around £6 million to Tannadice, but Jackie McNamara won't get to see much of it.  Gauld might be an exciting talent but he went off the boil at the end of last season and United found ways of compensating.  Replacing Robertson?  No chance.  They got Conor Townsend on loan from Hull as part of the deal, but if he was as good as Robertson then obviously Hull wouldn't have made the move in the first place.

So Jackie Mac is going to have to put his thinking cap on if United are to be as dangerous as last season.  The mediocre play by his strikers last season often required Ciftci to play up front, but maybe big Dutch striker Mario Bilate will improve the attack and allow Ciftci to drop deeper.  If Ciftci or Mackay-Steven are sold or get crocked, it will be a big blow, though it is softened somewhat by the sudden improvement in Ryan Dow's play in 2014.  A more direct option than Mackay-Steven, his workrate and speed offer a completely different threat.  Chris Erskine and Michael Gardyne are both still at the club, but both spent most of last season out on loan, where they proved once and for all that they aren't cut out for the Premiership.  Neither have a future here.

Otherwise, United are in pretty good nick.  The centre of midfield should be fine, with John Rankin and Paul Paton proving an excellent combination last season.  With Gauld and Robertson gone, Stuart Armstrong should finally start getting the plaudits he deserves.  Armstrong can do everything well.  He will be the next player to command a fat fee.  And highly-rated youngster Charlie Telfer may see some action too - he had better, given United will have to pay Rangers a fee for him.

At the back, Gavin Gunning has also left, but that's not an insurmountable loss by any stretch; he could be impervious, but he could also be a walking catastrophe.  McNamara has brought in Polish defender Jaroslaw Fojut to replace him.  Fojut can't be too shabby, given that Celtic were on the brink of signing him two years ago before a cruciate ligament injury.  Hopefully this will be the year that John Souttar takes a step forward, as the teenager didn't really impress last season.  If not, it will be captain Sean Dillon who will fill in.  Dillon played his best football in 2013-14, but that isn't saying much.  Another new signing, ex-Dunfermline man Callum Morris, is surely only a backup.

Behind them, Radoslaw Ciernziak is no longer secure as first choice keeper after another Pole, Michal Szromnik, was brought in.  Maybe the competition will focus Ciernziak's mind and lead to him cutting out the errors that stop him from playing at a higher level.  Maybe not.  At right back, Keith Watson seems to be established as first choice over veteran Mark Wilson.  He's decent, but he doesn't provide the attacking threat that Robertson did, not by a long shot.

So, unless one or two of the young players make a big impact, Dundee United won't be quite as fluid as last season.  But McNamara can be trusted to bring some through; surely at least one of Telfer, Souttar and Blair Spittal will take the Premiership by storm.  If that is the case, they will be a team to watch again.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Radoslaw Ciernziak, Marc McCallumMichal Szromnik
Defenders: Calum Butcher, Sean Dillon, Jaroslaw Fojut, Callum Morris, John SouttarConor Townsend, Keith Watson, Mark Wilson
Midfielders: Stuart Armstrong, Nadir Ciftci, Aidan Connolly, Chris Erskine, Scott Fraser, Michael Gardyne, Gary Mackay-Steven, Paul Paton, Darren Petrie, John Rankin, Scott SmithBlair SpittalCharlie Telfer
Forwards: Mario Bilate, Ryan Dow, Brian Graham, Kudus Oyenuga


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(comments from Twitter)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Dundee

Dundee FC.png


LAST SEASON: Championship winners

NOTABLE INS: Grant Adam (Airdrieonians), Simon Ferry (Portsmouth), Gary Harkins (St. Mirren), Thomas Konrad (Eintracht Trier), Paul McGinn (Dumbarton), Paul McGowan (St. Mirren), James McPake (Hibernian), Philip Roberts (Falkirk), Greg Stewart (Cowdenbeath), Luka Tankulic (Wolfsburg), Kevin Thomson (Hibernian)

NOTABLE OUTS: Ryan Conroy (Raith Rovers), Steven Doris (Stirling Albion), Declan Gallagher (Livingston), John Gibson (Alloa Athletic), Matt Lockwood (Sutton United), Carlo Monti (Pollock), Christian Nade (Raith Rovers), Dan Twardzik (Motherwell), Jamie Reid (Stenhousemuir, loan), Adam Cummins (Motherwell, end of loan), Craig Beattie, Sean Bonnet-Johnson, Stephen Hughes, Leighton McIntosh, Stephen O'Donnell, Gavin Rae

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Letheren, Irvine, Davidson, Gallagher, Dyer, Conroy, McBride, Rae, McAllister, Boyle, MacDonald

Given that he has signed eleven players and let sixteen go, it's fair to say that Paul Hartley wasn't enamoured with the squad that Bomber Brown left him.

With resources that dwarved those of their opponents, Dundee should have cantered to the Championship title last season.  But they were stuttering long before the axe fell on Bomber at the start of February.  The appointment of Hartley as his replacement seems astute so far; he certainly steadied the ship sufficiently to get them over the line.  Back-to-back promotions with Alloa suggest that he knows how to set up a team...though it's worth noting that he left Recreation Park last winter just as the wheels seemed to start falling off.

This will be by some way his biggest test in the dugout up till now, but he comes across as an able and intelligent young coach who does not lack tactical acumen.  The first few months of the season will definitively prove whether he is a genius in the transfer market and if he can handle the pressure of a potential dogfight.  Of course, some time might be required for the new players - and, as stated above, there are many - to gel together, and for the best XI to become apparent.  That might hurt the Dark Blues at the start of the season, but Hartley and his paymasters will fancy that the squad is strong enough to cement their top flight status.

That said, few of his signings look like safe bets to succeed.  There's no question that most of them are an upgrade on their predecessors - after all, the only player to leave that couldn't be described as 'dead wood' was central defender Declan Gallagher, whose exit was more due to off-field issues.  For much of last year, Dundee used Gallagher and midfielder Iain Davidson in central defence; they will hope that Thomas Konrad and James McPake will prove a sturdier combination.  I'm not going to lie to you; I know very little about Konrad or his countryman Luka Tankulic, the new striker who was also signed from the German lower leagues.  But I do know that Hartley requires plenty from both players.  If Tankulic can't lead the line effectively or chip in with some goals, the alternative is 33 year old Peter MacDonald, prolific in the Championship but never in the top flight.  If Konrad isn''t solid at the back, then Davidson or Kyle Benedictus - who, along with Nicky Riley, has been told he can leave - might need to be called upon.

Meanwhile, McPake and his former Hibs teammate Kevin Thomson both come with a bit of risk attached.  The former has barely played in eighteen months due to chronic back problems; the latter has barely performed in the same time period, often sauntering around Easter Road like he was out for a Sunday stroll, rather than getting stuck in like the international midfielder that he once was.  Hartley can't afford not to get the best out of both; they will form the side's backbone.

The only newcomer I especially love is the all-action Simon Ferry, a former Celtic youngster who has down well in England's lower leagues with Swindon and Portsmouth.  Ferry may sit along Thomson, or play just ahead of him.  The latter move would provide more stability but leave Hartley without a schemer, a role presumably earmarked for Paul McGowan or Gary Harkins.  Surely the manager knows from watching St. Mirren last year that these two can't play together.  McGowan was poor last season, but may bounce back if he's finally got his life in order.  Harkins, however, was atrocious at St. Mirren.  Admittedly, he has been outstanding in his two previous spells at Dens, but can lightning strike a third time?

If Hartley picks them both, then one - probably the former - will be punted out to the left flank, where they would provide scant cover for a very vulnerable left back, Willie Dyer.  But it's unthinkable that there won't be a place in the lineup for Jim McAlister, who whether playing wide or in the middle has been Dundee's most consistent player over the last two seasons.  His industry is a boon and he would certainly be a better all-round option on that side (if he doesn't play in the centre instead).

On the right, another new face, Paul McGinn, is a better full-back than Gary Irvine, but it's unclear if he's ready for the top flight.  Hartley used Martin Boyle, a forward, on that wing last season; supporters can only hope that he isn't tempted to replace him with Philip Roberts, who was inexplicably given a two year deal despite effectively being sacked by Falkirk last season (his tantrum after being sent off at Alloa is a Youtube video worth searching for).  Roberts won't last five minutes against physical Premiership defences, who will either cow him or provoke him into doing something stupid.  If Dundee play him regularly, they won't do well.

There is also a choice to be made in goal, where Scott Bain, a favourite of Hartley's from Alloa, is probably a superior keeper to Kyle Letheren.  But Letheren did nothing wrong last season and may have earned the right to start the season between the sticks.  He was pretty iffy in his appearances for Kilmarnock in the previous two campaigns though.

Roberts aside, there haven't been too many young players mentioned here.  If there is one to look out for, it's Craig Wighton, who only turned 17 at the end of July.  The youngest ever goalscorer for Dundee, he was trained by Ian Cathro, the man behind Ryan Gauld's success, and could yet follow in Gauld's path.  This season might be a bit early for him though, and he may be loaned out to a Championship side to help his development.

I don't think it's going to be particularly pretty to watch Dundee this season.  This is a squad built for scrappy rather than silky football.  But I don't think that's a bad move.  This bunch is good enough to compete on an even keel with the clubs that finished 2013-14 in the bottom six.  And if they aren't, then I daresay the American owners will provide the January reinforcements required to keep them out of trouble.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Grant Adam, Scott Bain, Kyle Letheren
Defenders: Kyle Benedictus, Willie Dyer, Gary Irvine, Thomas Konrad, Paul McGinn, James McPake
Midfielders: Iain Davidson, Simon Ferry, Gary Harkins, Cameron Kerr, Jim McAlister, Kevin McBride, Nicky Riley, Kevin Thomson, Craig Wighton
Forwards: Martin Boyle, Peter MacDonald, Paul McGowan, Philip Roberts, Greg Stewart, Luka Tankulic


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(comments from Twitter)