Thursday, November 27, 2014

An A to Z of newco Rangers

So this evening, Rangers announced their latest accounts - a loss of £8 million, and a need for another £8 million just to keep them going.  It's ridiculous...but no more ridiculous than most things that have happened since liquidation in 2012.  In case anyone has lost track of all the craziness that's being going on down Govan way over the last two and a half years, I thought that this might be a good way of chronicling all the A to Z of all the main characters and plot points in this whole sorry saga...which still has some way to go...

A is for...Mike Ashley, unpopular owner of Sports Direct and Newcastle United, who holds about 9% of shares in Rangers and recently provided loans in order to keep the club functioning.  In exchange, he has much more control over operations at Ibrox, and it seems a reasonable bet that he may yet move to take full charge.  Going by his record on Tyneside, Ashley is in this to make a profit; the club's merchandising deal with Sports Direct is lucrative.  Rangers fans fear, understandably, that he won't be keen to spend lavishly on the team.

B is for...erstwhile finance director Brian Stockbridge, much maligned for his role in the club's share issue and for his steep salary.  Or it could be for midfielder Ian Black, who joined the club in the summer of 2012 from Hearts, and has been, for the most part, underwhelming in midfield.  In September 2013, he was suspended and fined for gambling on multiple matches over a seven year period, including betting against his own team on occasions.

C is for...the Dallas Cowboys, who in 2012 were, according to Rangers chief exec Charles Green, setting up a partnership agreement with the club.  The thing is, no-one had actually told the Dallas Cowboys, who were completely oblivious to this.

D is for...Duff and Phelps, the administrators of Oldco Rangers, whose actions during the process seemed hugely fishy to everyone.  Three employees of the firm were arrested this month in connection with "the alleged fraudulent takeover" of the club by Craig Whyte in 2011.

E is for...Sandy and James Easdale, owners of McGill's Bus Services, who are significant shareholders in the club; Sandy, who was imprisoned in 1997 for VAT fraud, is a director, and has not been shy about putting money into the club - including a loan in the summer and taking up the recent opportunity to buy extra shares.  Curiously, putting 'Easdales' into the google search bar results in the prompt 'gangsters', but I couldn't possibly comment on that.

F is for...Francisco Sandaza, the Spanish striker signed from St. Johnstone in the summer of 2012.  Previously a regular goalscorer in the SPL, he scored a grand total of two goals for the club.  He then admitted to a hoax caller (who was posing as an agent) that he was on £4,500/week at Rangers, and that he was only at the club for the money.  He never played for them again and was released before the end of the season.  

G is for...Charles Green.  I simply haven't got time to list all the craziness he was involved in, but thankfully the BBC did so here.  How does he sleep at night?  Why, in a huge French Chateau that he bought with the proceeds from his time at Ibrox.

H is for...Head of Communications James Traynor, former Daily Record hack and BBC Scotland shock-jockey, who was Rangers' equivalent of the Iraqi Information Minister during his 11 months at the club.  His last ever column for the Daily Record remains legendary, for all the wrong reasons, among Scottish football fans.

I is for...IPO or Initial Public Offering, which raised more than £20million in December 2012.  Where is the money now?  It certainly isn't in the club's bank account.  All the money brought in from share issues, investors, gate receipts etc. - more than £60 million total in just over two years - is all gone.

J is for...Jon Daly, the big Irish striker signed in the summer of 2013 from Dundee United.  Daly more than doubled his salary in making the move.  A decent goalscorer in League One, he has been largely stuck on the bench this season.  That's not surprising, considering his knees are so wrecked that he can't train two days in a row.  You'd think concerns would have been raised during his medical.

K is for...Kris Boyd, 31, and Kenny Miller, 34, the veteran strikers signed this summer to try and replicate their glory days together from six years ago.  The duo, who earn roughly £10,000/week between them, have managed a total of six league goals so far.

L is for...Lewis Macleod, the young midfield player who is the only shining light of the whole saga.  To have developed so well in such a shambolic setup reflects on what a talent this kid is.  He will go on to much, much better things.

M is for...the manager, Mister Alistair Murdoch McCoist.  He hasn't come even close to building a squad which justifies the second highest wage bill in the country.  His tactics are archaic and almost unwatchable at times.  Yet until recently at least, he was making £800,000 per annum.  He's clearly not still in a job because of his competence, so one wonders if it is because he is too expensive to sack.

N is for...nine.  That's the number of points that, at the time of writing, Hearts lead the SPFL Championship by.  A side consisting mostly of youngsters, augmented by a few canny veterans, operating on a sensible budget, they are everything that Rangers should have been.

O is for...offshore companies like Laxey Partners, the Isle Of Man-based Hedge Fund group who are the club's largest shareholders.  Who are they, and what do they want with Rangers?  No-one's particularly sure.

P is for...the racial slur, which I won't print, that Charles Green used towards fellow director Imran Ahmad, and which ultimately led to Green's exit.  Ahmad went on to sue the club for £500,000 related to bonus payments; the matter was ultimately settled out-of-court after he managed to get some of their assets frozen. 

Q is for...Queen of the South.  The Dumfries side are just four points behind Rangers in the Championship, despite operating on a relative shoestring.  They also won on penalties at Ibrox in the Challenge Cup in 2012.  (if you can come up with anything better for 'Q', please let me know!)

R is for...Ramsdens Cup.  Rangers have yet to win the tournament for the SPFL's lower division teams, and turned in an abject performance in last season's final, deservedly won in extra time by Raith Rovers.  Now badged as the Petrofac Training Cup, they can lift the trophy this year if they can beat Alloa in the semi-final next week and then Livingston in the final. It could also be for Rafat Rizvi, the convicted fraudster wanted by Interpol who met with the club earlier this year.

S is for...Sons of Struth, the fans group named after former Rangers boss Bill Struth.  They organize lots of protests and boycotts, and moan to the press a lot.  What have they accomplished?  Well, the powers that be don't exactly seem to be quivering in their boots, so I'd say not much.

T is for...David Templeton.  In August 2012, the Hearts winger scored at Anfield in the Europa League qualifiers.  Within a few days, he signed for Rangers for a whopping £700,000.  So far, he's scored 25 goals, at the cost of £32,000 per goal.  Since the start of last season, he's started just 14 league games.  Value for money?

U is for...Dundee United, who appear to be hell-bent on winding Rangers up at every opportunity.  Not only have they knocked them out of the Scottish Cup in each of the last two seasons (including last season's semi-final at Ibrox), but they also poached teenage prospect Charlie Telfer when his contract expired in the summer.  The clubs are still haggling over a compensation fee, while Telfer proved last week that he is capable of performing in the top flight.

W is for...Craig Whyte, the supposed self-made billionaire who owned the oldco when it went bust, and who has been hounding the club for money ever since.  A warrant was issued for his arrest this month in connection with a fraud investigation, and he was picked up by Mexican police this week.  One can only hope that, at the time, he was wearing a sombrero and a fake moustache, and going by the name of 'Miguel Sanchez'.

X is for...the extraordinary wage bill that the club has had - £8 million per season for the last two seasons, with players such as the aforementioned Black, Sandaza and Templeton on salaries of £5,000/week or more.  Other signings have included the likes of Emilson Cribari (because everyone knows that you need a veteran Brazilian centre half in order to win the Scottish third division) and Arnold Peralta (because everyone knows that you need a Honduran midfielder in order to win Scottish League One).  Meanwhile, veterans Lee McCulloch and Neil Alexander TUPE'd their huge contracts across from the Oldco; as of last December, the latter was considering legal action over money owed.  Captain McCulloch is on at least £7,000 per week.

Y is for...the youth setup, which has produced very little in the last two and a bit seasons aside from Macleod and Fraser Aird.  In 2012-13, youth team products started a total of 160 league games between them.  Last season that total dropped to 67 league games, and this season it stands at 18, with only Aird and Macleod having started a match.  No wonder Telfer moved on.

Z is  That's the number of Scottish Cups, League Cups and Challenge Cups Rangers have won in the last two and a bit seasons.  In that time, Aberdeen, St. Johnstone, St. Mirren, Queen of the South and Raith Rovers, all sides operating on much smaller budgets, have won tournaments that Rangers were competing in.

If anyone has some impressive alternatives to my suggestions for each letter, please leave a comment, and I'll add them if they're funny (and not particularly libellous!)


Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

St. Mirren need a regime change
Tommy Craig had a fortnight to think about how to approach a trip to New Douglas Park - and the best he could come up with was to send out a team of kids?  Craig's selection, which included two debuting teenagers, was not a courageous "if you're good enough, you're old enough" decision, but instead a desperate one based on the hope that it might appease the fans and stop them getting on his back.  This wasn't about giving youngsters experience - this was about throwing lambs to the slaughter.  It was cowardly.

So there was no surprise that it backfired spectacularly; the Buddies offered nothing until they were three goals down and even their late rally came as Accies had taken their foot off the gas.  I seem to remember a similar teamsheet being picked by Craig Brewster at the end of his Dundee United tenure - they lost 5-1 and he was sacked the next week.

In his post-match interview, Craig yet again took the opportunity to hang himself with the minimal rope offered, claiming his 4-5-1 formation "would have been 4-3-3 in attack" if they had got any control in midfield, but hadn't worked; however, when asked if he should have tried a different system, he insisted otherwise.

In his defence, it would be difficult for any manager to get a string of results with this squad, even more so given the chronic injury problems.  But Craig is clearly out of his depth.  It would take a brave man to suggest that things will get sufficiently better when everyone is fit.  If St. Mirren are to stay up, they need a new manager. LS

Telfer stars for impressive Dundee United
Few clubs have developed as much exciting young talent as Dundee United over the last few years. While they have undoubtedly had a good start to the season, especially at Tannadice, they perhaps haven’t been as easy on the eye as they were last year.

Hopefully, Saturday’s win against Kilmarnock is a sign of things to come, as they continued their good home form thanks to three lovely goals. Stuart Armstrong and Charlie Telfer particularly impressed, and Nadir Ciftci’s opener was as sweet a strike as you would have seen anywhere in Scotland this weekend.

As a Rangers fan I find it difficult watch Telfer play well. The idea that the likes of Stevie Smith and Ian Black would be seen as better options in any team is obviously deeply troubling, and no doubt the circumstances behind his move are as much a source of joy for Arabs as his good performance on Saturday.

Let’s hope the good form continues, along with that of Inverness and potentially Aberdeen, and Celtic are kept under a bit of pressure into the new year.  IM

How long can the good times last in Inverness?
The ever informative @SPLStats twitter feed noted that there has never been a draw between ICT and Motherwell in Inverness.  For a long time on Saturday that statistic looked under threat as Motherwell held ICT at bay for most of he second half despite offering zero attacking threat.  But the relentless pressure from the home side told and Marley Watkins and Josh Meekings struck late for the home side.

 It was another fantastic win which keeps Inverness level with Celtic at the top of the league.  John Hughes continues to confound his critics; having established a passing game to great effect. he has now meshed it his predecessor's more direct style of play, so that his side have multiple foci of attack.  Marley Watkins maintained his great form and was unlucky not to get a hat trick with two late efforts that crashed off the woodwork.  With Billy Mckay also passing up some good chances and Dan Twardzik making several saves in the Motherwell goal, the scoreline could have been much more lopsided. This ICT side is playing some fantastic football that deserves more attention from the local population than it currently gets.

The question is - how long will all of this last?  We've already had the agent of Graeme Shinnie, a player who deserves to be playing at a higher level, suggesting that the left back is unlikely to sign a new deal and will move on in the summer.  Fortunately, none of this seemed to affect Shinnie who turned in another excellent performance but the Caley Thistle fans must accept that the chances of keeping him are slim.  That is likely also true of the aforementioned Watkins, Mckay and Meekings. All are out of contract in the summer and not likely to be short of admirers given their performances over recent months.  Having overcome the doubters, Hughes now faces the potential challenge of reshaping the squad next summer. All the more reason to appreciate the present; this is a terrific team, and it is a travesty that they aren't playing in front of a bigger local crowd.  The people of Inverness don't know what they are missing out on by staying away. AS

Dons find a way to win
My first thought when Aberdeen's recent highly-praised annual report came out was "shouldn't they be doing better with a wage bill that high?".  After the disappointing end to the 2013-14 season, their form in recent months has been a bit stop-start, and even after their victory at Firhill they lie fifth in the table.

What that wage bill does buy you, though, is a bit of depth.  Derek McInnes was without six first teamers- Shay Logan, Russell Anderson, Clark Robertson, Willo Flood, Nicky Low and Barry Robson - and had to rejig a fair bit to compensate - though not in the crazy 3-4-2-1 formation that Sky Sports suggested before kickoff.  But he had Andrew Considine at right-back, Jonny Hayes at left-back, Cammy Smith in central midfield, and Adam Rooney on the wing.  And it just about worked...enough, anyway, to grind out the win thanks to Rooney's penalty.

Hayes in particular did well - as he has done on several occasions as a full-back this season.  Whilst the Irishman's sheer pace is missed further up the pitch, he is sound enough defensively that McInnes must be tempted to use him in the position long-term, especially with Niall McGinn playing in front of him and constantly cutting in from that flank.  If Logan can return to last season's form, Aberdeen could get frightening attacking width from their full-backs.

As for Partick Thistle - well, no shots on target in a home game tells its own story.  They completely failed to impose themselves on their patchwork opponents - although Stuart Bannigan's horrendous headed miss (not really, it came off his shoulder when he tried to head it) late on should still have got them a point.  They only got going when Gary Fraser and Kallum Higginbotham came off the bench, which begs the question of why neither started.  And as for Ryan Stevenson's haircut - well, that's just about worthy of a points deduction.  LS

Even in defeat, Dundee impress again
Even when two down at Celtic Park, former Bhoy Paul Hartley stuck to his guns and remained convinced that the team and tactics he had chosen would get the job done.  They nearly did, too.  Dundee created chances with a surprising ease against the Champions and had spurned several before David Clarkson (seven goals in seven games!) hit the net and gave the home support a rather nervous half an hour.

The Dark Blues are still sixth in the table, and thoroughly deserve their place in the top half from what we've seen so far.  In fact, I reckon that they're even better than that, especially now Simon Ferry is available after a long illness.  If Dundee can find a bit of decent home form, starting with Caley Thistle's visit in a fortnight - they've only won once at Dens Park so far - they could finish well up the table.

Celtic?  Only three times have they won a league game by more than the odd goal - and one of those games was goalless till Kilmarnock had a player sent off.  This was unimpressive yet again from Ronny Deila's side, who are churning out results only because John Guidetti is a class above the SPFL and because Anthony Stokes' return to form seems to have coincided with his poor recovery from hair-replacement surgery - a kind of Reverse Samson, if you will.  LS

County are up for the fight
With eight points from their last four games, St. Johnstone can now start to look upwards at the top six, rather than worrying about a relegation battle, especially with a nine point advantage over their opponents this weekend.  Tommy Wright appears, at least for the time being, to have found the answer to his striking problems; Michael O'Halloran has hit a nice vein of form, while his fellow scorer on Saturday, James McFadden, has started showing a few glimpses of what we all know he is (or was) capable of.  Murray Davidson's return to full fitness should give them the drive they need to move further away from the bottom.

So at the moment it looks like a three-way fight against the dreaded drop, but with St, Mirren have been dreadful, and Motherwell look devoid of direction, Ross County appear to be the best bet to avoid even a relegation playoff against Rangers or Hibs (probably),  Jim McIntyre has correctly realized that they are scrapping for their lives, and he has picked a team to scrap.  That's not to say they lack quality to go with their heart, as they showed during an excellent second half display which should have rescued a point.  But the players do seem to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in, which will serve them well over the next few months,

Mind you, if County do want to move up the table, they could do with improving the central defence.  Brian Graham won far too many headers in this game, whilst Scott Boyd was terribly culpable for O'Halloran's strike.  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".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Motherwell in limbo

It was really rather nice that Gordon Strachan earmarked Stuart McCall for special praise after the Ireland game, crediting him as the designer of the short corner routine that led to Shaun Maloney's winner.  McCall has had a rough few months, which culminated in his resignation as Motherwell boss two weeks ago.  His refreshingly humble and honest statement to the fans was further evidence of how classy an individual he is.  So is the fact that he walked away; depressingly, it is increasingly the norm for football managers to hang around long after the game is up, waiting for the sack (or 'departure by mutual consent') and the payoff that follows.

Not that he was particularly at risk of being pushed, mind; he was sufficiently popular with the supporters that they organized a display at the next home game thanking him.  They listed his achievements - back-to-back second place finishes, a third place the season before that, a Scottish Cup final, a Champions League qualifier.  Not bad at all.

It's just as well for the Steelmen that they had no need to sack him, as they couldn't really afford to.  The club have made no secret of their need for prudence; they lost nearly £600,000 in 2011/12 and £184,000 in 2012/13, and expect another small loss for this year.  They've been very open about the reasons for their poor financial results, but they seem stuck in a vicious spiral just now - the wage bill gets cut in order to reduce costs...which results in poorer results and a lower league position...which results in less prize money and lower attendances...which results in less income...which means the wage bill gets cut to reduce costs...and so on...

If second place in 2012/13 was impressive, repeating the feat last season was nothing short of a miracle given that they lost the likes of Darren Randolph, Tom Hateley, Chris Humphrey, Nicky Law, Michael Higdon and Henrik Ojamaa that summer.  Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that there's been such a downturn; the surprise was that McCall delayed it for so long.

His departure has left the club at something of a crossroads, off the park as well as on it.  For a start, they are tenth in the league and are set to be embroiled in the relegation dogfight.  If that wasn't enough to be going on with, owner John Boyle has for some time made it quite clear that he is desperate to sell.  Over the last several months, he has given a supporters group, The 'Well Society, the opportunity to raise funds to buy them and set up fan ownership.  The trouble is that they are struggling to come up with enough dough.  So far they've raised £500,000, but unless they can come up with possibly double that again - and that would only be possible with loans, which is hardly ideal - it's a no-no.

Boyle has now indicated that he isn't prepared to wait much longer.  According to a statement today, "discussions are ongoing with interested parties and we are planning to reach a conclusion by the end of the current month."  Not only that, but "as a result, the Board has agreed to delay the appointment of a new manager until the issue of ongoing ownership of the club is resolved."

So he's getting out sufficiently soon that he's not going to appoint a replacement for McCall himself - he'll leave that for his successors.  This means that, for the time being, Kenny Black, McCall's erstwhile assistant, will remain in interim charge.  Black is renowned as another one of football's 'good guys,' though his previous record as a manager, with Airdrie, is nothing to write home about.  He's certainly not a long-term answer.

The question is, who will end up with control at Fir Park?  The 'Well Society appear to have the moral high ground, though it's not clear what they can do to make the club more profitable than it is now.  But it sounds like the need to sell is so desperate that anyone who comes up with enough cash will get the keys, regardless of their motive.  That could well include the consortium reported last week to be looking to use the club to showcase South American players - with ex-Newcastle player Nolberto Solano as coach.  Anyone who remembers Claude Anelka's tenure at Raith Rovers will feel nervous about that idea.  Even more galling is the fact that competent coaches like Billy McKinlay and Owen Coyle are available and apparently interested in the role.

Still, it sounds like the situation will be resolved in the next fortnight...though to whose satisfaction is unclear.  Until then, Motherwell are in limbo, muddling on with an interim manager, with some critical games coming up - Inverness away, Dundee United away in the League Cup, Celtic at home, Ross County at home.  If Black isn't up to it, the new owners, whoever they are, could inherit a side that is bottom of the league.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking Points from the Premiership weekend

Celtic do just enough
So, it's mid-November, and at last Celtic have gone top of the league.  It's quite possible that they won't be knocked off their perch before they are crowned as Champions again in the Spring.  Oh well, it's been fun.

That said, they barely did enough to win at Pittodrie, even before Scott Brown was sent off for his hundredth (approximately) foul of the game.  Derek McInnes even threw on an extra winger for the last few minutes, in an attempt to seize the three points; instead, Virgil Van Dijk's bundled winner nicked them for the visitors.

But, not for the first time this season, Aberdeen were undone by errors - Mark Reynolds' hesitancy allowed Stefan Johansen (just about the only Celtic player who looked dangerous in this game) to cleverly nip in and open the scoring, while Andrew Considine's attempts to mark Van Dijk at the vital corner were akin to watching a blind man searching for a handrail.  The Dons weren't particularly brilliant themselves, and the midfield badly missed Willo Flood after he went off injured early on.  But they should have got at least a draw out of this.

Celtic won this game even though they didn't play well.  But this is what happens when you have so much more quality than your opponents.  LS

Mckay gets his mojo back
Saturday was a wee milestone for John Hughes' Inverness side - the first time they have recovered from losing the opening goal to go on and win the game in his tenure.  The victory put Caley Thistle top of the league...for about 20 hours.  More importantly for them, Billy Mckay ended his three month drought, with his first goals since the opening game of the season...which was against Hamilton.

Much has been made of Mckay's barren spell, with some fans believing he looked jaded and lacking in confidence. His two goals on Saturday, both classic Mckay 'poacher' goals from only a few yards out, will have silenced the doubters for the time being; he looked far more like the dangerous forward we have become accustomed to seeing over the past couple of seasons.  His restored confidence was perhaps best summed up by a delicious side footed effort from an audacious angle which just skimmed past the post in the first half; he wouldn't have tried to pull that one off a few weeks ago. 

Hamilton were ultimately architects of their own downfall as they attempted to play a high intensity pressing game, but as the game wore on they tired and couldn't maintain this approach.  In the second half ICT had the time to pick out balls over the top for Mckay to scurry onto as he took advantage of the reckless high line that the Accies defence held for most of the match.  Jesús García Tena was particularly suspect positionally; when James Vincent was bursting through to score the home side's fourth, the Spaniard had wandered aimlessly out of position, leaving enough space in the centre of the defence for a bus to drive through.

This was proper end-to-end stuff, with Hamilton more than happy to flood players forward, but their defence has now conceded nine goals in three league games and really needs more protection.  Inverness. meanwhile, are up to second; if Mckay has his mojo back, then things are looking pretty sweet in the Highlands. AS

Better to be lucky than good
Maybe Stuart McCall accidentally urinated on an ancient Indian burial ground during the summer or something?  The former Motherwell manager had no luck at all this season before his resignation; interim boss Kenny Black promptly got all the good fortune that McCall was owed on Friday night.  The Steelmen were dreadful for long periods on Friday night against a Dundee United side who seemed to have twice as much energy as their opponents.  At half-time it was a nil-nil thumping. And yet Motherwell stole it with Iain Vigurs' slightly deflected effort (which Rado Ciernziak maybe should have saved) and they would have had a second shortly after but for an erroneous offside decision.  However, they were properly hanging on at the end.  United spurned chance after chance in this game.  They haven't scored in any of their last three away games, and have lost all of them.

This result might give Motherwell food for thought as to whether to appoint Black permanently.  Any such considerations should be dismissed immediately.  Whilst popular with players, Black's previous credentials from managing Airdrie are hardly impressive.   And, if they want evidence that appointing the previous assistant is a bad idea, they should just cast an eye over to Paisley. LS

St. Mirren pay for lack of depth
Partick Thistle may yet manage to catch the top six bus - they're actually only five points adrift of the top half of the table despite going five games without a winner prior to victory in Paisley.  But, most importantly for them, they are seven points clear of the two sides at the bottom, one of whom they vanquished on Saturday.  Like St. Mirren, Partick struggle dreadfully for goals, but they managed to come up with a solitary strike through Christie Elliott (with the aid of some horrendous goalkeeping), and as on so many occasions this season, one was enough to beat the Buddies.  It's the fifth time in seven home league games that St. Mirren have failed to score.

Granted, the home side were down to the bare bones.  Every outfield substitute was 21 or under; three of them have never played for the first team.  There were another four players in the same age group who started.  And they had a full-back (Jeroen Tesselaar) in central defence and a striker (Thomas Reilly) in central midfield.  But it's only taken the loss of six figures to injury and suspension to leave them in this mess.  Clearly, there's not enough depth here; it's not so much that they made poor signings (though there are a few) but that they didn't make enough.

And, most galling, they still had every forward available bar Steven Thompson.  In his post-match interview, Tommy Craig described Thompson as his 'talisman' and seemed to insinuate that it'll all be okay when he returns next month.  That'll be a month before Thommohawk's 37th birthday.  St. Mirren are taking a big risk if they bet it all on his return saving them.  LS

Killie gift County a confidence boost
On a day when the Scotland rugby team scored three tries, Ross County still recorded the most unlikely achievement in Scottish sport - a clean sheet.  Not since 6th May 2014, against a Hibs team that was at the time experiencing the mother of all implosions, have County been able to stop their opponents from scoring.  And that includes games against Stranraer, Hibs, and worse of all, St Mirren.

Jim McIntyre must have been a very relieved man on Saturday night as his team had looked very  bad indeed on Monday against Aberdeen.  A 3-0 win away from home is never to be sniffed at, and with games against St Johnstone, Motherwell and a suddenly fragile Hamilton coming up before the end of the year, it is a distinct possibility that County will start 2015 no lower than 11th in the league.

I think we learned more about County from this game than the hosts.  Losing three goals in the first half is shocking, but on another day they could have been three up themselves. Their performance, particularly at the back, was best summed up by the their clearly well read and erudite captain Manuel Pascali.  I think he was quoting Bertolt Brecht when he said, “we were s***e.”  Mark Connolly certainly will want to forget his part in Michael Gardyne's goal, as his pathetic attempt at a rugby tackle wouldn't have looked out of place in Argentina's back line at Murrayfield.

Killie seem set to spend the season alternating between runs of wins and defeats - I reckon they'll eventually finish around eighth. County will surely finish at least one place above St Mirren., Then again, last month I predicted Stuart McCall would lift Motherwell to comfortable safety, so take that with a pinch of salt. IM

Dundee should have won, even despite Bobby Madden
I don't think Paul Hartley will be sending Bobby Madden a Christmas card; the referee's decision to book David Clarkson for a dive against St. Johnstone, rather than award a penalty and send keeper Alan Mannus off, was the big talking point at the end of the 1-1 draw, not least because it happened only six minutes into the game.

My feeling is that Hartley has the right to feel aggrieved; whilst Clarkson makes a little bit of a hash of dinking it over the goalkeeper, and then goes down easily under the contact, Mannus clearly sticks out his left arm to try and impede the forward.  It's not the most scandalous decision we'll see all season, but one wonders what Madden would have done had the incident not occurred so early in the game.

That said, Dundee should still have won this, after Clarkson fired them in front.  St Johnstone's spot-kick equalizer came courtesy of a brain fart from James McPake, whose tug on Brian Graham was as obvious as it was unnecessary, since Graham was never going to reach the cross ball aimed at him.  It was utter stupidity and, to his credit, Hartley refused to defend his centre-half.  In fact, McPake was lucky not to give away a penalty in the first half, when a shirt-pull on Frazer Wright went unpunished.

This game was simply the latest in a series of home games which the Dark Blues have drawn instead of winning.  Given that they're only six points off top, imagine how they'd be doing if they had won more than one home game.  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".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

McCall calls it quits
Before Sunday night, my paragraph on this game was going to focus on Stuart McCall's decision to play a back three, and how it seemed a risky strategy going forward.  But that's all been rather superseded by his resignation.

In the modern game, most managers hang around long after the game is a bogey, interested only in securing themselves a payoff by getting sacked, even as their club continues to slide.  McCall, in contrast, resigned well before there was any serious danger of being pushed, and then on Monday released a remarkably personable and personal letter to Motherwell fans explaining his actions.

McCall is one of Scottish football's good guys.  Not one for jumping up and down or vitriolic screaming - his worst crime in a dugout was the horrendous tracksuit-top-and-shorts combo that he would persist with even into the winter months - his behaviour and attitude made it very difficult to begrudge him or Motherwell their recent successes.  One hopes he bounces back quickly.

As for Motherwell, to quote Blackadder, "This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you got a moment, it's a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying 'This Is a Large Crisis'."  There are lots of good reasons why they are eleventh in the league.  But if McCall couldn't solve their problems, then who on earth can? LS

Yogi gets it right again, even though ICT lost
Under John Hughes, Caley Thistle have an unenviable record at Celtic Park. Played 3, Lost 3, Scored 0, Conceded 12.  But given that last season saw 6-0 and 5-0 defeats in Glasgow, this was a huge improvement.

This time around, Inverness flooded the midfield by moving Graeme Shinnie up from left back into midfield, with Carl Tremarco coming in at left back.  Surprisingly, Billy Mckay was left out with Marley Watkins starting up front.  It was a selection that had many scratching their heads but Hughes proved the doubters wrong as, although the game ended in defeat, ICT could count themselves unfortunate not to sneak a point.

Whilst Celtic did have chances most were easily repelled by the Caley Thistle defence who looked resolute until slack playgave Celtic a way in just after half time. Appealing for a foul on Williams, Ross Draper stopped and appealed for a free kick; nothing came and Celtic piled forward ruthlessly exploiting the lack of numbers back for ICT . The in-form John Guidetti turned the ball home as Caley Thistle were taught a harsh lesson in playing to the whistle.

By the end, though, it was Celtic who were hanging on as chances to equalise were spurned by Mckay, Tremarco and Danny Williams as Inverness came desperately close to grabbing a draw. If the result didn't quite vindicate Yogi's tactics, the performance certainly did.  Maybe he does know best after all. AS

It never rains but it pours
Given the biblical downpour and dreadful conditions, the game in Dingwall was always destined to either finish a goalless draw or to be decided by some sort of defensive error.  And it always seems to be the way that, when one of the teams in this sort of game is down on its luck, the misfortune inevitably hits them.  And so it was the case for Paul Quinn, who sliced into his own net to give Aberdeen the three points and leave County still rooted to the bottom.

Maybe we shouldn't read too much into this match, given the circumstances.  But under Jim McIntyre's leadership, seven league games have yielded but a solitary win and just five points.  If this is a 'new manager bounce' then god help them when the novelty wears off.  On the other hand, John Maxwell of Tell Him He's Pele was relatively positive about their performance on the County fans forum - and he's consistently proven himself a superior judge of teams than me in the past.  So we'll see! LS

Tommy Craig sounds like a stuck record
'St. Mirren: Tommy Craig bemoans lack of firepower'.  The BBC used this headline for their piece on Craig's post-match interview after his side's drubbing at Dundee United...which I'm sure they just cut-and-pasted from previous post-match interview articles.  It might be reassuring to St. Mirren fans that Craig seems to have finally twigged that a high possession percentage does not score any points, but less so that he still doesn't have a solution to the problem - Saturday was the seventh time in twelve league matches that they've failed to score.  Steven Thompson is due back in December sometime, and the survival hopes of the club, and the job security of the manager, will depend on whether Thommohawk can roll back the years once more when he's got over his chronic groin problem.

Oh, and by the way, Dundee United are top of the league.  Not that you'd notice, what with the media all obsessing about a League Cup semi final tie that is still a few months away... LS

Never a dull moment with Hamilton Accies
What was it I said the other week about Partick Thistle needing to play right up to the final whistle?  So, of course, they concede a 94th minute equalizer to Tony Andreu, having hauled themselves back from two down to lead 3-2 at New Douglas Park.  

Accies, meanwhile, remain hugely potent in attack, but the last couple of league games have seen their back four start to falter; their defending in this game was just dreadful.  It'll be interesting to see if Alex Neil makes a change or two for a tricky trip to Inverness next weekend, with Mikey Devlin and Stephen Hendrie both deserving of a return to the side.  Either way, I'm thoroughly looking forward to that game - with Hamilton always keen to have a go, it should be a cracker. LS

Clarkson and Stewart are a deadly duo
In my horrendously inaccurate season previews (Motherwell top four?!  Killie eleventh?!  Accies bottom?!) I suggested that Dundee would struggle unless German striker Luka Tankulic turned out to be a goalscorer.  Well, Tankulic was pretty hopeless initially and then injured his foot.  But Dundee haven't struggled at all, even though perentially injured veteran forward Peter McDonald has also been, well, injured.  That's because the goals have been flying in courtesy of David Clarkson and Greg Stewart.

It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that Clarkson is banging them in - five in five games now.  After all, the former Motherwell starlet is still only 29 and there was no reason to believe his skills would have started to drop off.  But Stewart?

This is a guy who was playing for Syngenta Amateurs 4 years ago, when Cowdenbeath picked him up.  He scored 37 goals in four seasons for them - and last season he wasn't even their most impressive attacker, with Kane Hemmings' exploits overshadowing him.  But Paul Hartley signed him not so much for the goals, but for his ability to put in a shift on the flank and maybe pop up with a goal or two.

Five Premiership goals later - including two at Rugby Park (the second of which has to be seen to be believed) - and Stewart has proven that he belongs at this level.  He's also proven that his manager is a very astute judge of a player. 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.  

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Guidetti will keep Deila in a job

Ronny Deila only had one task to accomplish, really - taking Celtic to the group stages on the Champions League.

He failed that, even though he got a second bite of the cherry after the Legia Warsaw fiasco.  It was a failure that will cost the club somewhere in the region of £10 million.  And it also rather put the mockers on their entire season.  With no Old Firm games to enjoy, the 'Champions League nights' at Celtic Park are the only matches which fill the stadium now, and the only ones which produce genuine excitement and anticipation.  A Europa League tie against a Romanian team which sounds like it was named after a hatchback car doesn't quite get the juices flowing in the same way.

So, Deila's list of objectives for 2014/15 now reads as follows:
- a decent Europa League run
- win both domestic cups
- win the league by a country mile

After all, the title is a given, such is the difference in resources - Celtic may have cut their wage bill, but it's still ten times that of any other top flight club.  Heck, they'd even win the league if Ally McCoist was in charge.  And everyone knows that, which is why Deila has to win it convincingly if he is to build up some credit.

Well, October ended with the Bhoys only fourth in the league.  Yes, they're only three points off top and have a game in hand, but defeats at Inverness and at home to Hamilton, and draws at Dundee and at home to Motherwell, are not the stuff dreams are made of.

On the scale of Celtic managers, which ranges from Jock Stein at one extreme to John Barnes at the other, Deila maybe rates a tiny bit above Tony Mowbray right now.

It's early days, of course.  The Norwegian has changed a lot tactically, and there have been a few signs recently - a 5-0 win in Dingwall, the 6-0 League Cup thumping of Partick Thistle - to suggest that the attackers might be starting to click.  But if Celtic win the league with only a little to spare, gets dumped out of the Europa League early in the new year, and screw up in the cups in a way that Neil Lennon would be proud of, then Deila might be 'one and done,' as Americans describe sports coaches who are dismissed after only a single season.  The board can't afford two consecutive years without Zadok The Priest being played over the home tannoy.

If Deila succeeds, it will be because of John Guidetti.

He's lucky to have the Swedish striker at all - his loan signing on deadline day from Manchester City wasn't so much at the eleventh hour as at about the thirteenth.  But the SFA ratified it (though he can't play in Europe), and it's just as well for Deila that they did.  Guidetti's hat-trick in midweek took him to eight goals for the season, all in the last six games.  And it's not just the goals; part of Celtic's early struggles up front were because of the lack of a frontman who could lead the line on his own in Deila's preferred 4-2-3-1 setup.  Anthony Stokes, Leigh Griffiths, Teemu Pukki (now gone), Stefan Scepovic so far - none looked comfortable without a partner.  But Guidetti can do it on his own, at least against Scottish defences.

In the last couple of years, Neil Lennon relied heavily on Kris Commons to come up with a goal when the team weren't playing well.  Now Guidetti has assumed that role, with gusto.  So it's no surprise that thoughts have already turned to what happens when his loan deal ends in the summer...which coincides with the end of his contract at Manchester City.

The trouble is, he's far too good for this league.  Already he compares favourably to Celtic's most recent attacking success, Gary Hooper, who left for Norwich City.  His stock was sufficiently high last season that he had a loan spell at Stoke...though he didn't see much action.  Folk on the continent will know of him too - he scored 20 goals for Feyenoord in the Dutch League in 2011/12.  He will be a pretty warm commodity, if maybe not a piping hot one.

And to stay at Celtic, Guidetti would either need to take a wage cut, or convince Celtic to break their own wage structure.  It would be some gamble, given that the club were already cutting costs when they were playing in the Champions League, to spunk two or three million quid a year on one player's wages  whilst trying to compensate for this season's stark drop in income.

But that's all several months ahead.  Right now, Celtic have the league's best player by a country mile, and he's the reason they'll probably walk the league again...and the reason Ronny Deila's stay in Glasgow will last beyond this summer at least.