Friday, January 30, 2015

Caley Thistle at a crossroads

How do ICT replace star striker Billy Mckay?

If I have high cholesterol, it's John Hughes' fault; because of him I've had to eat humble pie with most meals for months.  Not that I'm complaining, mind.

As recently as the start of this season, I still had doubts over whether Yogi was the man for Inverness.  "He hasn't achieved anything much as a manager in years", I said.  "Our players aren't good enough to play the tippy-tappy stuff he wants them to play", I said.  "He's too one-dimensional", I said.  Turns out that I didn't have a clue (you may or may not be all that surprised by that revelation).  At the time of writing, Caley Thistle are third in the table, and deservedly so.  Hell, they're only a single point behind Aberdeen, or, to give them their full name according to the Scottish press, Title Chasing Aberdeen.

There has been shedloads of style to go with the substance, too.  Unlike in his first few months in the Highlands, there is a purpose and incisiveness to the passing.  If it isn't working, then the players have been given licence to be more direct in their play.  In short, Yogi has improved ICT, and has also improved a number of the players.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end.  Celtic aside, all Scottish clubs now face an unwinnable fight to hold onto their best players.  St. Johnstone lost Stevie May in August; Gary Mackay-Steven made it clear long ago that his future is not at Tannadice, and Stuart Armstrong may soon follow; Motherwell's squad has been decimated in each of the last two summers, and they are now suffering terribly because of that.

Caley Thistle captain Graeme Shinnie will join Aberdeen in the summer

And now, it seems, it is the turn of Inverness to watch their best and brightest walk away into the sunset.  The week started with the news that captain and youth team product Graeme Shinnie will join Aberdeen in the summer.  It ends with the departure of talismanic centre-forward Billy Mckay to Wigan Athletic for about £200,000.  The former is one of the best left-backs in the country; the latter has scored more goals in the last two and a half years than anyone else in Scottish football.  Those are two very large pairs of boots to fill.

Admittedly, it has been inevitable for months that both would be on their way; the only surprise is that Mckay's departure is now, rather than in the summer when his contract expired.  So one hopes that Yogi has already been thinking ahead to how he was going to replace them.  But if there is one stick that we are still allowed to beat him with, it's that his record in the transfer market has always been somewhat mixed.  Take his tenure at Easter Road; he brought in Liam Miller and Anthony Stokes (who he also had at Falkirk on loan a few years before) who were huge successes, but look at his other signings: Mark Brown, Patrick Cregg, Edwin De Graaf, Francis Dickoh, Danny Galbraith, Michael Hart, Kevin McBride, Graeme Smith, Graham Stack, David Stephens, Valdas Trakys.  I defy any Hibee to read that list without feeling nauseated.

Maybe he feels he can replace the duo from within.  In recent weeks, Shinnie has been playing in midfield, where the club are relatively well-stocked at the moment.  Occupying the left back slot is Carl Tremarco, a solid and athletic English defender who unfortunately has a penchant for studs-first lunges and controls a ball further than he kicks it.  Yet, having had a run in the team over the last month, he has hit some rather superb form.  Whilst his technique is hugely inferior to Shinnie's, he has certainly improved in an attacking sense.  Like many of his team-mates, he has become a better player under Yogi's tutelage.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many of the youngsters on the books - there is not a flux of talented teenagers ready for an opportunity, aside from the immensely talented Ryan Christie.

John Hughes will find it tough to replace Mckay and Shinnie

Christie may be the answer up front.  It certainly doesn't sound like the club is inclined to spend some of Wigan's hard-earned cash on a replacement striker, which is a shame because Falkirk's Rory Loy would be as close to like-for-like as we could hope for.  But one is reminded that, this time last season, Mckay didn't seem to fit in with the way Yogi wanted to play.  While the strategy was subsequently tinkered with to get the best out of the Northern Irishman, it's no secret that Yogi is obsessed with Barcelona's philosophy, which suggests that he would love to play a group of interchanging forwards rather than an out-and-out striker.  If so, Christie would be a good fit, though one would expect him to need some time to settle in the role.  Marley Watkins has done well when called upon to partner Mckay at times this season, and may be considered a safer alternative.

Yogi needs to find a short-term solution to this conundrum just to keep ICT in the race for a European spot.  That's just the start, though; it's quite likely that Watkins will exit this summer, while Josh Meekings, a young central defender who is hugely underrated, is also yet to sign a new deal.  The most talented squad in the club's relatively short history could be about to break up.  Hughes has impressed us all by taking Inverness to even greater heights; it will be an even greater achievement if he keeps them there.

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, January 26, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

St. Mirren's paranoia won't do them any favours
Perhaps Gary Teale and St. Mirren do have grounds for feeling a bit paranoid; after all, it's only a week since Yoann Arquin was harshly sent off in Dingwall, and less than a month since Kenny Mclean's dismissal against Kilmarnock for doing something that only Willie Collum saw.  And a relegation battle is bound to fray everyone's nerves.

But Teale's post-match comments after the 2-1 defeat to Dundee were out of the ordinary, and they were out of order.  Firstly, he was insistent that Gary Irvine's equalizer was offside, and that he had proof.  "I'm struggling to interpret what the rules are.  The linesman is looking along the line.  If he can't get that decision right I'm not sure he should be there.  I've looked at the pictures again and he's offside.  It beggars belief. It's a straightforward call.  I'm struggling for words in terms of what I can say."

Which is fine, except the highlights, even with the unhelpful angle provided by the TV cameras, show that Irvine was absolutely, categorically, not offside.  It's a great call by the assistant.  How on earth a professional with Teale's experience can claim otherwise is beyond me.  If he's moaning that Irvine was offside earlier in the buildup, then he's playing silly buggers, because the offside rule has been interpreted in this way for years.

If that wasn't inexplicable enough, the caretaker-manager also laid into the referee over the decision to show Arquin a second yellow card for diving.  "I thought both bookings were very, very soft.  Was that maybe because we had the red card rescinded from last week?  It's a very cynical way of looking at things."

Well, in this writer's opinion, the first yellow card was pretty clear-cut, as it was a late tackle not dissimilar to the one that the forward committed last week which resulted ultimately in his red card being downgraded to a yellow.  As for the 'simulation', there probably is contact by James McPake, but Arquin does take a stride before theatrically collapsing to the ground; the (again, unhelpful) TV pictures are inconclusive but it is easy to understand the decision.  And what on earth to make of the conspiracy Teale hinted at?  He seems to be implying that it was revenge for the club challenging the dismissal from last Saturday, which is just bizarre.

One could perhaps dismiss it as heat-of-the-moment stuff, but for the subsequent announcement that St. Mirren are demanding talks with the SFA over the standard of refereeing.  Do the club think that the officiating is just generally poor (in which case it's the same for everyone), or do they seriously believe that there's some sort of anti-Buddies vendetta amongst the refs?  Maybe they're implying that they're all Morton fans?  Sorry, guys, but St. Mirren really aren't significant enough that anybody would be arsed to be biased against them.

By the way, this madness was preceded by a perfectly decent game, in which the home side spurned plenty of chances.  There was another terrific goal from Kenny Maclean, who is thriving now he is playing in his best position.  There are signs here that St. Mirren could yet overtake Motherwell, and that Teale could be a pretty decent coach, if he takes the tinfoil hat off. LS

County couldn't quite stifle Celtic
After covering St Johnstone-Partick last week I didn’t think football could get much worse.  It didn’t, but it was a close-run thing.

From the outset it was clear that County weren’t going to throw men forward at every opportunity; who could blame them after they shipped five the last time Celtic visited Dingwall?  To be fair to the home side, they executed their game plan pretty well.  Celtic’s attackers were generally restricted to playing in front of the defence and midfield shield and they were unable to get in behind to take advantage of the lack of pace in the heart of the County backline.

The biggest problem for the home side was that their inability to hold onto possession for any significant periods of time, which meant that they were under almost constant pressure.  Kris Commons' deflected goal was ultimately all that Celtic needed, with the tired Staggies struggling to build any attacking momentum.  Perhaps they would have considered a point from this match to be a bonus in their relegation fight, but they are four points adrift of St. Mirren and their situation seems to worsen by the week.

The biggest concern for Celtic will be the difficulty they had in breaking County down.  If their strikers find a bit of form then they could well open up a comfortable gap at the top, something they have yet to do this season. Their struggles were epitomised in the second half when Leigh Griffiths was through on goal, only to be denied by Reguero. The ball rebounded to John Guidetti, who showed all the poise of a man with a rank recent goal scoring record, and rattled the ball straight at Jamie Reckord with the goal at his mercy.

If Celtic lose Commons and Virgil van Dik this week then there may well be the first real title race in Scotland for years.  But their fans will be content with wins like this which stretch the lead at the top and so allow them to put all of their time and effort into not caring about Rangers instead. IM

Taylor's absence leaves Aberdeen vulnerable
To any of you who followed the editor's suggestion on Twitter and put your mortgage on Aberdeen, my deepest condolences to you and best wishes on finding new accommodation...

St Johnstone were not at their best last Tuesday at Inverness and injuries were taking their toll.  If anything, though, this provided a chance for others to seize their first team opportunities.  This was exemplified by the great performance of youngster Chris Kane, following a recent return from a loan spell at Dumbarton.  (Out of interest, does anyone know why the town is spelled 'Dumbarton' but the county is 'Dunbartonshire'?  Answers on a postcard please...)

It also looked like the biggest injury miss for either side was actually Ash Taylor, and that observation was reinforced when Andy Considine - reverting to central defence in Taylor's absence - failed to head clear a Steven MacLean cross from the right flank, allowing Simon Lappin to smash home on the volley.

While Lappin isn't exactly prolific in front of goal, Aberdeen's second half equaliser came from a more reliable source. A head flick from David Goodwillie was nodded on by Adam Rooney, who promptly unleashed a 25-yard screamer into the top corner.  That's 20 goals this season already for Rooney, who signed for Aberdeen exactly one year ago to the day.  

Whether you think this was one of the games of the season in the Premiership so far probably depends on a number of factors - your own aesthetic sensibilities; whether you had a vested interest in either of these teams; and whether the result has now made you homeless...  How it only finished 1-1 is anyone's guess, with so many other chances for both teams to score.  

Aberdeen missed the chance to regain the Premiership top spot, and while Derek McInnes didn't feel his side deserved anything more than a point from the match, I think a draw was a fair result for both teams. Well done also to the Dons support for selling out its allocation of tickets for a Friday evening match in Perth.  Next for the Red Army?  On to Hampden. MI

Attack is not Motherwell's best form of defence
Jackie McNamara's selection for this one was a bit odd, and it might have come back to bite him had Dundee United been playing a decent team.  Henri Anier, given his full debut against his former club, struggled as a lone striker (not a surprise, given that he was always best at Motherwell when partnering John Sutton) and clearly lacked fitness - which McNamara knew, given he said pre-match that he would only get an hour out of the Estonian.  United's three goals came only after Anier had been replaced by Nadir Ciftci.  Starting Ryan Dow and Aidan Connolly ahead of Gary Mackay-Steven and Chris Erskine was a surprise too. 

However, the Terrors were playing a Motherwell side who still have no idea how to defend; they've conceded eighteen goals in their five matches this month.  If Charlie Telfer's two strikes were tricky to prevent, Jaroslaw Fojut's goal displayed the problems in the backline.  Simon Ramsden loses Fojut, and is then blocked off by a United player.  No defender attacks the ball, and neither does Dan Twardzik, even though it is only 5 yards from goal when it reaches the Pole's head.  Craig Reid might have got in to pressurize Fojut, were it not for the fact that he was talking to the referee and had his back to play when the corner was taking!  Proper head-in-hands stuff.  Perhaps the United players were embarrassed by how easy it was, as none of them went to celebrate with the goalscorer.  Either that, or Fojut has terrible body odour.

There were some chinks of light for Motherwell; the directness of Stephen Pearson made them more dangerous going forward and John Sutton was a handful all afternoon.  Pearson had a very good penalty appeal denied in the first half - at least, I think being kicked in the knee warrants a penalty.  But the referee didn't.  He did, however, think Sutton's first half effort crossed the line (it didn't) - and then changed his mind; apparently he thought the assistant said "goal" when he actually said "play on".  Because, you know, it's hard to distinguish between the two.

Motherwell won't climb away from the teams below them unless they tighten up at the back, though.  United, meanwhile, will have to play better than this if they are to win their League Cup semi against Aberdeen next week. LS

Pascali does Kilmarnock more harm than good
Some might have seen Saturday as redemption for Manuel Pascali; Killie's Italian captain was in the headlines a few days ago for yelling "f*** off!" as he left the pitch at half-time to the sound of abuse from his own fans when Killie were beaten at Dundee.  This reminded me of the Only An Excuse sketch where a bunch of supporters are giving Neil Lennon dog's abuse, then pause in shock and horror when he gives them the finger, prompting shouts of "Polis!  I'm offended!"

Pascali, who earlier had a goal disallowed, seemed to have won the game for Kilmarnock with his late strike, only for Frederic Frans to bundle home an even later leveller for Partick Thistle.  Luckily, Frans was just onside...because Pascali was too slow to get out after a corner was cleared, and played the Belgian on.  It has to be said that he was culpable for Ryan Stevenson's early opener too, as he was far too slow to get out and close the former Ayr man down.  So make up your own mind as to how 'redeemed' he was.

The last few days sum up Partick Thistle beautifully - a 5-0 demolition of Accies, followed by a performance so bad that Josh Magennis managed to score against them.  The Jags haven't won two league games in a row in the last season and a half; that's why they're only ninth in the league. LS

Accies' top six spot looks under threat
ICT's victory over Hamilton moved them just a single point behind Aberdeen and means that they hang on in with the teams at the top of the league for a wee while longer. And yet comparatively little has been made of the Highland side’s success in the league this season when you look at the other sides around them.  The Dons have garnered a lot of media attention as they continue to chase Celtic, and quite right too; results are good, crowds are up and their squad looks strong for seasons to come.
But currently Caley Thistle and Dundee United are not far behind in the league, and their performances and results are pretty comparable.  This is not meant as a slant on Aberdeen but more on the press who don’t seem fussed about the other sides.  It’s easy to focus on the Dons and everything they are doing well at just now but let’s get more positive about our game and start shouting about the other teams in the league who are doing well, eh?
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s record under Martin Canning doesn’t look great so far. Four games ending in four defeats is a run that needs to be rectified as quickly as possible.  Instead of looking above them a lot of Accies fans will now be glancing nervously over their shoulders as they sit only seven points ahead of Dundee, who they face at Dens Park on Saturday.  Should Dundee win they will be but a mere four points behind Hamilton which was unthinkable a couple of months ago, and Accies' top six spot will be under threat.  Whilst all Accies fans would have bitten your hand off simply to survive this season, a fair number might now be disappointed if they were to fall out of the top half at this late stage.
On a more positive note for them, 5,000 fans took advantage of the 10p entry fee at New Douglas Park, with supporters of many clubs were represented including Rangers, Celtic, Dundee United and Carlisle as well as a healthy 500 or so fans in the Caley Thistle end.  Whilst the result didn’t go the way of the home side there was certainly a significant uptake on the offer as you would imagine.  Hopefully a few of those in attendance will have been persuaded to come along in the future. AS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final..

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.

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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Who's going down?

We're getting towards the business end of the season now.  In the Scottish Premiership, we've reached that point where, bar a postponement or two, everyone's played each other once.  We know who's challenging at the top.  And we know who's fighting relegation (and it's not Hamilton Accies, who I and everyone else predicted for the drop back in July).

It's a three horse race to avoid demotion to the Championship, or the relegation/promotion playoff.  Motherwell, St. Mirren and Ross County are far, far more hopeless than any of the other sides in this division.  Any other year, each of them would finish miles adrift at the bottom.  Yet at least one of them will be a top flight club again next season.

So let's look at the runners and riders, and the reasons why each of them might avoid relegation, and the reasons why each of them might finish bottom of the pile.

Played 22 games, 17 points.  This is Motherwell's worst start to a season since 1995-96.

Motherwell have already got more points on the board than the two teams below them, and have a game in hand on St. Mirren.  In a relegation dogfight, plenty of experience is a good thing, and The Steelmen have it in spades - this week Stephen Pearson became the seventh player aged over 30 at the club. New manager Ian Baraclough hasn't had enough time yet to imprint his philosophy on the team, or to bring in his own players; once he has done so, they'll surely improve. If rumours of a swap deal with Oldham to obtain James Dayton (with Iain Vigurs going the other way) are true, then that adds a bit of pace and flair that is sorely lacking.

So far in 2015, Motherwell have played four, lost four, scored one and conceded fifteen. Most new managers concentrate first on making their team hard to beat, but the defence is just as porous as it has been all season.  If this is a 'new manager bounce', god knows what will happen when it wears off.  Baraclough was supposed to have a lot of contacts in England and Ireland, yet the only new face is an ex-Motherwell player who was most recently in India, who does not exactly tick the boxes of what Motherwell need right now (either a half-decent defender or a midfielder with some pace).  I recently met the club's doctor at a wedding in Edinburgh, where he was quite insistent that his side were the worst in the Premiership.  In his opinion, they had been second-best even in the games they'd won this season.

Played 23 games, 15 points.  The last top flight team with such a poor home record after this many games were Hamilton Accies in 1986-87.

Under caretaker Gary Teale, St. Mirren are a completely different proposition from the shambles that Tommy Craig left behind.  They're well organized, and the decision to play Kenny Mclean in a more advanced role has been a huge success.  Mclean and John McGinn are better players than anyone on the books of the Buddies' relegation rivals, and young Stevie Mallan is playing out of his skin too.  Having picked up four points from their last two games, including that morale-boosting win with ten men in Dingwall, they are in better form than Motherwell and Ross County currently.

They still haven't won a league game at home this season, and haven't managed a single clean sheet home or away.  Teale has been allowed to bring in Yoann Arquin up front, and to shift a few unwanted players out, but until there's some sort of certainty over the club's ownership - and, by extension, Teale's role - it seems unlikely that multiple new signings will be sanctioned.  Arquin has not proven that he can score prolifically, and with Steven Thompson too often lame these days, the club remain badly in need of a striker who is lethal in the penalty box.  There remains a considerable lack of depth and experience, as they only have 10 outfield players (including Teale) over the age of 21.  And don't forget that the teams around them have games in hand.

Played 21 games, 11 points.  Since the summer, Ross County have made twenty new signings and used thirty different players.

The attitude of the players can't be faulted; Jim McIntyre has them working hard on the pitch.  This time last season, chairman Roy McGregor bankrolled a number of new faces so that the Highlanders could climb out of relegation trouble, and it's quite possible that he'll do it again.  Like Motherwell, County have plenty of experienced players, and manager McIntyre has been involved in relegation battles both as a player and as a manager, so he knows what is required.  Perhaps new signings Cameron Burgess and Marcus Fraser will fix the back four.

The trouble for County is that the players' enthusiasm does not compensate for the complete lack of quality in pretty much every area.  Whilst there is plenty of experience available, Richard Brittain's been struggling with injury all season and Scott Boyd is out of favour.  McIntyre still doesn't know his best XI, for all his chopping and changing.  He still hasn't got the defence anywhere near organized, and there is a complete lack of width going forward, at least in the absence of young Tony Dingwall.  In fact, McIntyre's record as County boss is now inferior to that of Tommy Craig's at St. Mirren.  They can't fall back on a good home record; they've won a single game in Dingwall this season, and only four in the past year.  They need to find some form soon, but there may not be many more points in the next few weeks - the next four games are Celtic (H), Inverness (A), Motherwell (H) and Aberdeen (A).  If they don't at least win the third of those matches, they may well be done for.

Who do you think is doomed?

(with thanks to John Maxwell, for his opinions on Ross County's situation)

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, January 19, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Ross County's season hits new depths
The term 'six-pointer' is such a cliche, yet there was some merit in using it to describe Saturday's clash in Dingwall.  That's not to say that defeat has absolutely doomed Ross County to relegation to the Championship; they still have seventeen league games left, after all.  And this loss leaves them only three points adrift of St. Mirren.

But County had to hit spectacular depths of incompetence to screw up this game.  It doesn't help that there is now a palpable sense of panic amongst the players at the prospect of a match in Dingwall, where they have won just once all season and four times in the past twelve months.  But the back line remains utterly shambolic and chaotic, despite (or perhaps because of) frequent changes in personnel; Jim McIntyre has had nineteen matches as manager; surely that's enough time to get this lot organized?

St, Mirren, who are about as threatening as a poodle with its teeth removed (and less pretty on the eye), should have been out of sight by the break, with their young midfield trio of Stevie Mallan, John McGinn and Kenny Mclean causing havoc every time they got the ball down and ran at County defenders.  County were on the ropes, yet they got the perfect fillip when Yoann Arquin, making his debut for the Buddies against the team he left a fortnight ago, was outrageously sent off for stepping on Lewis Toshney's toe.  They would be a man up for fifty minutes, against a side who hadn't kept a clean sheet all season.

And still they made remarkably heavy weather of it, even having brought on another striker, Liam Boyce, at half-time, as St. Mirren bunkered in and hung on.  McIntyre even admitted afterwards that the tempo was far too slow, that there was too little width.  Only Jackson Irvine, inexplicably parked on the right flank, offered any drive from midfield; it was the Ozzie who created a golden opportunity that was squandered pathetically by Craig Curran.  When the equalizer did come, it was soft; a hopeless punt into the box was flicked on by Curran's replacement, Jake Jervis, and finished off by Boyce.  With eight minutes left on the clock, it was more a consequence of tired legs in the defence than skilled attacking play.

And yet County couldn't even nick a point, as Stevie Mallan's diving header won it.  The teenager is making quite a name for himself, following on from his wonderful solo goal against Dundee.  This goal was arguably even more important.

County can still extract themselves from the current predicament.  They still have two weeks to strengthen the squad - and boy does it need strengthened - and they are blessed to be competing in a top flight season with two other utterly inept teams in it.  In most years, Motherwell, St. Mirren and Ross County would all finish bottom by a mile.  This season, at least one of them will stay up.  LS

Aberdeen's run ends...and how!
Ninety minutes later, when they'd somehow escaped with a point, it was hard to remember that this match started so brightly for Aberdeen with David Goodwillie's early opener suggesting business as usual for the side that had won eight straight league games.  When Goodwillie snuck in behind the Dees defence again to tee up Jonny Hayes, it seemed as if the Dons were about to put the game to bed early; as it was, the Irishman's strike was stopped by a combination of some appendage of Paul McGinn's body (I am certain Willie Collum would have seen fit to award a penalty and send the boy aff...) and a Scott Bain reaction save.  Aberdeen were to pay for their profligacy.

As dismal as Dundee are at defending, they're also good for goals - they haven't failed to score in a game since last October.  Aberdeen's defence had been solid rock for weeks, but the Dees proceeded to smash it to smithereens.  First, Gary Irvine marauded into the box and unleashed a hot shot past Scott Brown.  A couple of minutes later, a sublime one-two with Luka Tankulic freed Greg Stewart to power in a second, and by the time Ash Taylor had fly-hacked a Gary Harkins shot past his own 'keeper just after the half-time break it looked as if the Dark Blues were going to take home a valuable three points.

Aberdeen were shell-shocked, the supporters were stunned; a few Dandies even embarrassed themselves by booing the players. Those fans who sneaked out early may have choked on their boiled sweeties as the final drama played out over the radios of their likely traffic-jammed vehicles.  With minutes remaining, teenage sub Lawrence Shankland skipped round Kostadin Gadzhalov, only for the Bulgar to bring him down inside the box (I thought it looked a soft penalty, although in fairness there were few protestations made to the referee).  Hayes duly slotted home to set up the grandstand finish in injury time - a Shay Logan volleyed lob, a Shankland shanked header, a Ryan Jack smash and grab, pandemonium.

For Dundee, it must have been somewhat galling to lose a two-goal lead so late in the day, albeit Paul Hartley didn't sound too displeased during the post-match presser.  As for Aberdeen, if your eight-game winning streak is going to come to an end, it may as well come to an end by coming back from 3-1 down in the last five minutes. Time will tell if it will prove a crucial point gained, or a disappointing dent to their apparent title challenge. MI

Celtic still lack a cutting edge
One can't begrudge Celtic their 2-0 win at New Douglas Park; the scoreline felt like a fair reflection on the match.  Hamilton were their usual high-energy selves, but found that the Bhoys were too capable to be harassed.  With Virgil Van Dijk stepping out of defence and both full-backs raiding forward, Celtic always seemed to have extra men in midfield.  Whilst Dougie Imrie was game to track Emilio Izaguirre down one side, Adam Matthews ran amok on the other; with Stefan Johansen frequently coming inside off the flank and dragging Accies' left-back Stephen Hendrie with him, Matthews had an enormous seam to raid down.  Ali Crawford was nominally the left-sided Hamilton midfielder, but he's not a natural wide player and left Matthews too often.  And so the Welshman blasted in a superb opener and was the provider of the second for Liam Henderson.

That's not to say Accies played badly at all; their attitude was as impressive as previously under Alex Neil and one suspects that centre back and caretaker boss Martin Canning will be appointed as Neil's successor this week despite two defeats.  Continuity is what this club wants.  But Accies didn't have enough up front and, as stated above, lost the midfield battle.

Celtic's problem remains up front.  Leigh Griffiths got the nod for this one.  By my memory, he becomes the sixth different centre-forward used by Ronny Deila in the 4-2-3-1 this season, following John Guidetti, Stefan Scepovic (both subs for this one), Anthony Stokes (usually preferred on the left but currently injured), Teemu Pukki (discarded) and Kris Commons (I'm sure he started the game in Inverness up front).  Griffiths was busy and linked up play well, but he offered little in the penalty box.  And in this Celtic side, with two attacking full-backs and the likes of Commons and Johansen creating, the primary role of the lone striker is to finish off the chances that the others create.

No fewer than three Accies players have more league goals than any Celtic player.  Until Celtic find that prolific striker (or at least until Guidetti, Scepovic or Griffiths find some consistent form), they will remain vulnerable.  LS

St. Johnstone win. Not much else to say, really
Due to lack of there being anything of interest about this game, I have resorted to mean spiritedness and sarcasm.

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  If two mid-table teams play a rubbish game in front of not many people, did it really happen?

I swear I watched the “highlights” of this game five minutes ago and I can barely remember a single thing that happened.  Dave Mackay scored a deflected opener that he had the audacity to celebrate but after that it’s a bit of a blur.  Let me rack my brain.

Partick hit the bar I think, and some St Johnstone player scored a header. Erm… I think there was handball somewhere, and maybe a tackle that led to a corner for a team. I think that might have been it.

Oh, Brian Easton celebrated his goal line clearance as if he’d scored, which was quite right as it was far more exciting that any of the actual goals that were scored.  And Partick Thistle haven’t won in Perth for 22 years, which might be as embarrassing a statistic as there is in football.

Willie Collum was the fourth official.  That might be kind of interesting.

Final score from McDiarmid Park: St Johnstone 2, Partick Something, snore. IM

Won't Somebody Please Think Of The Children Fans?
Due to frozen goal mouths at Tannadice, the Dundee United v Caley Thistle game was postponed.  Sadly for the Inverness support a number of them were already approaching Perth when this announcement was made leaving them with no other option but to turnaround and head back north having wasted most of their Saturday.
Calloffs are always regrettable but this one could have been made at 09:45 when the first inspection took place.  Instead, it took a second inspection at 11:30 to deduce that the pitch was not safe and the match was postponed.  I don't know what measures United did take (or possibly didn't) ahead of Saturday's match but perhaps the various parties need to be more ruthless when making these decisions and think of the supporters who are travelling and likely to be inconvenienced.
There's no way that Dundee United actually wanted the game called off as they would have lost money from the postponement.  But when supporters are travelling quite significant distances to games these decisions should be made at a reasonable time to save fans too much of a wasted journey.
To their credit Dundee United will offer supporters entry to the re-arranged fixture for a mere £5 which is to be commended. However, a midweek trip to Tannadice is unlikely to welcome a large travelling Inverness support despite this generous offer. AS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final..

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.

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. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fans fed up with boring, boring Kilmarnock

This facial expression has been adopted rather frequently by Allan Johnston and the Kilmarnock support this season

It wasn't the most enjoyable week for Kilmarnock fans.

It started on with a home game, and it finished with a home game.  First up, on a Monday night, they hosted a Celtic side who came into the game under considerable pressure.  Ronny Deila's side were not only no longer top of the league, but they had fallen four points behind Aberdeen.  They had picked up only one point from their previous two matches, their star centre forward John Guidetti was out of form, and now they had to play away from home, and on an artificial pitch to boot.  They were very, very vulnerable.

And yet they won far more comfortably than the final score of 2-0 suggested.  The visitors sprayed the ball around with ease...because they were allowed to.  Kilmarnock seemed to think the clock had gone back a decade, that they were facing the likes of Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and John Hartson rather than Stefan Scepovic, Kris Commons and Liam Henderson.  Hell, even Scepovic, the misfit Serbian striker who cost £2.3million but was making only his third league start, scored.  That's how bad Kilmarnock were.

If that level of tentativity was difficult to excuse, even against the reigning champions, then what happened on Saturday was even harder for the supporters to stomach.  After a mediocre first half, they won a penalty against Inverness early in the second period.  ICT's David Raven was sent off, and Alexei Eremenko dispatched the spot kick.  One goal up, one man up, and at home.  And they blew it.  Spectacularly.  Yes, Billy Mckay scored two stunning goals, but Caley Thistle were good value for their victory.  Even with ten men, they controlled the game and created the better opportunities, without playing anywhere near their best football of the season.  Killie, in contrast, seemed unsure whether to push forward or hang back after they scored; once the equalizer went in, they couldn't find any impetus to kick on again.

Part of that was Allan Johnston's fault.  For a start, substituting Eremenko with twenty minutes left was inexcusable.  Yes, the Finn struggles to complete a full match, but no-one else on the club's books has such an eye for a killer pass, or the enthusiasm for getting on the ball.  With Caley Thistle a man short, there was sufficient space and time for him to operate, even if tired.  Without him on the pitch, the defence had no choice but to resort to pumping long balls forward, for the remaining midfielders were completely unwilling to offer themselves.

The home support reacted badly to the switch, with a chorus of booing; they had seen this all before.  The catcalls that greeted it were nothing, however to the response that followed Mckay's late winner.  The Youtube video of the goal is worth watching - it's like 2,000 people at Rugby Park suffered a sudden acute attack of Tourette's Syndrome.

If 2,000 doesn't sound like a big number, that's because it isn't.  The official attendance for this game was just 2,793.  Yes, it was early January, in terrible weather, and with a negligible travelling support, but it's still dreadful.  Kilmarnock have lost a huge proportion of their support in recent seasons.  The last two games give a wee snapshot into why.

On the face of it, they're not doing particularly badly.  They're seventh in the table, only two points off sixth.  More importantly, sixteen points separate them from St. Mirren and Ross County.  Given that they only avoided a relegation playoff last season, thanks to a win at Hibs on the final day, 2014-15 is a considerable improvement.

But Johnston's eighteen month reign has been pretty grim.  It's not just the results - twenty wins in sixty-four games so far.  It's the quality of the fare.  If you want swashbuckling attacking football, this isn't the team to watch.  Only in two matches last season did they score more than twice - both against a Hearts side in administration.  There hasn't even been a cup run to shout about - they've won just once in five cup ties, and that was at home to Ayr United.  In November, they caved in at Ibrox to the worst Rangers side of the last thirty years.  That day they were unambitious and meek, too.

Killie were unable to hold onto the prolific Kris Boyd last summer

At least they had Kris Boyd to shout about last season.  And it's still less than three years since Kenny Shiels led the club to a League Cup triumph.  But other than that, there's not been much excuse for excitement at this end of the A77.  Yes, they've now been in the top flight for 22 consecutive seasons, but, aside from the League Cup and a solitary Scottish Cup in 1997, they've never finished higher than fourth, whilst only being in danger of relegation twice.  They missed out on the top six in six of the last seven seasons.  The last time they managed to win more than half of their home games was 2005-06.  One can understand why the fans are fed up.

They were at least placated by Shiels, a passionate man obsessed with keeping the ball on the deck and 'playing the right way'.  Cliched as that sounds, one would be hard pressed to find a spectator who enjoys the current, direct, style.  I'm always wary of any team who insist on having a big, immobile lump at centre-forward; so keen was Johnston to have such a target man to play up front that he signed two this summer - gangly, clumsy Michael Ngoo, who has been injured most of the season, and veteran ex-Aberdeen striker Lee Miller, who looks a shadow of his former self.

It would be more forgivable if Killie's strategy was similar to that of Hamilton Accies' - both sides play on artificial turf, and the latter have had considerable success with percentage balls towards Mickael Antoine-Curier, with a quartet of buzzing attacking midfielders subsequently getting on the ball in advanced areas of the pitch.  Kilmarnock are doing no such thing, however.  Instead they support their centre-forward with Josh Magennis, who is like a Scud Missile - you point him in the right direction and hope for the best.  Magennis has only three goals this season.  The midfield lacks a player who can burst forward to join the attack quickly, with the exception of top scorer Tope Obadeyi, who is a very direct winger but who is far more intelligent than Magennis; he, however, has been injured.

Instead, it seems like Johnston's Plan A is 'pass to Eremenko and hope for the best', and his Plan B is 'punt it forward and hope for the best'.  Dreams are not made of this.

Killie fans were calling for Johnston's head all the way back in May, after a 5-0 thumping by Hearts
Whilst Shiels' final season in charge at Rugby Park was pretty mediocre, he did blood a significant amount of young players.  It would be hard to pick out one as having improved under his successor.  In fact, Johnston chose to sign a bunch of has-beens last summer and fill the team with them initially (Mark Stewart!  Kyle Jacobs!).  This season has seen more action for the kids but wingers Rory McKenzie and Chris Johnston have struggled to impose themselves at this level, while in defence Lee Ashcroft and Ross Barbour look a long way from the finished article.  Curiously, the best of the crop, Craig Slater and Robbie Muirhead, have often been left on the bench.  18 year old Muirhead is clearly the most gifted finisher in the squad, yet he rarely gets the chance to show it.

Johnston does deserve credit for at least putting together a bunch who are superior to the likes of Motherwell, St. Mirren and Ross County.  But another finish in the bottom half, with functional football, isn't keeping the fans happy.  They're voting with their feet.  And one worries that it might take even more than a new manager to entice them back.

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, January 12, 2015

Talking Points from the Premiership weekend

McGinn hits the headlines for the right reasons
Last week, a picture of Niall McGinn in the Celtic end at Rugby Park (posted on Twitter by his own agent) caused a brief social media storm.  By Thursday night, BBC Sportsound was playing interviews with Dons fans, all of whom saying it wasn't an issue, yet still calling this a 'controversy' in the podcast preamble.  Regardless, McGinn himself responded positively with a match-winning performance in Paisley that should put this to bed (if it wasn't already) - albeit the opening goal wasn't exactly a thing of beauty.

After the Buddies enjoyed the best of the opening half-hour, the Irishman found himself on the left flank, stood up former Don Issac Osbourne and cross into the six yard box.  Jeroen Tesselaar and Adam Rooney contested the crossed ball, neither touched it, and it went all the way through and into the back of the net - much to the bemusement of 'keeper Mark Ridgers, and the obvious chagrin of pantomime villain Jim Goodwin.  Goodwin does like a tantrum when his team concede, doesn't he?

A couple of minutes later, Jonny Hayes crossed from the left and Shay Logan managed to bundle the ball over the line at the back post.  Cue Goodwin slumping to his knees, head in hands, as if he'd just lost the World Cup Final, while Logan scampered away for some celebratory shuffling and dad-dancing at the corner flag.  Aberdeen remained comfortable throughout the second half - they were never likely to be complacent given St Mirren had recovered from the exact same deficit to snatch a draw at Pittodrie in their last encounter - and a further three points were safely in the bag.

Still without a win at home this season, the Buddies now sit bottom of the Premiership table on goal difference.  At time of writing, there were also rumours of the club having been sold to an Argentinian consortium. (It could not be confirmed whether the deal was swung with the 'Free Beans With Hot Food' deal offered to the Argentiine businessmen during their last visit to Paisley.)  Meanwhile, the Dons keep marching on.  Eight wins in a row, bolstered by eight consecutive clean sheets, and a four point gap restored at the top of the league.  Asked whether he was pleased Celtic were in Gran Canaria, Derek McInnes responded that he really couldn't care less.  Ronny Deila might be less pleased now, mind.  MI

No defence for shambolic Motherwell
I’ve not looked up the word 'bleak' in the dictionary, because I am lazy, but I’d be very surprised if the definition wasn’t 'a mid-table scrap on grey January day in Dundee'.  So great credit has to go to Motherwell for not only making this game semi-watchable, but laugh-out-loud funny.

I may be a bit harsh in thinking that Dan Twardzik, my own personal Man of the Match, could have done better for the opener, but he looked like an oil tanker changing direction after Alex Harris’ shot took a big deflection.  And Greg Stewart deserves credit for smart reactions when he headed in for the second after his own shot was pushed onto the bar.

But thereafter Motherwell’s defence and goalkeeper worked in perfect harmony to make Dundee (a team that hasn’t won in the league since the first day of November) look like Real Madrid, as they effortlessly sliced through the opposition at will.  The pure comedy of Dundee’s third and fourth goals were just the highlights of a defensive performance that should worry Motherwell fans.  If Benny Hill had been a spectator, he would have dismissed it as too slapstick for his tastes.

Even though St Mirren and Ross County are still clear favourites for the drop, conceding 11 goals in 3 games is relegation form.  St Mirren may yet improve under a new manager, should they ever get round to appointing one, and County’s new tactic of not actually playing seems to be pulling them up the table.  Maybe Motherwell should try a new strategy - defending competently.  IM

A common phrase in football is that it is harder to play against ten men than eleven.  It was certainly true at Rugby Park, where Kilmarnock surrendered a one goal lead to an Inverness side that saw David Raven sent off only a few minutes into the second half.

Raven brought Josh Magennis down as he looked to latch on to a through ball missed by Gary Warren and was shown a straight red by referee Don Robertson.  Eremenko dispatched the resultant penalty and the majority of those inside a bitterly cold Rugby Park expected Killie to see out the rest of the game with their man advantage key in that respect.

However Caley Thistle stayed disciplined and remained a real threat on the counter, hugely helped by a very negative Kilmarnock who utterly failed to make their man advantage count.  Billy Mckay grabbed an equaliser for ICT and shortly afterwards Allan Johnston bizarrely substituted play-maker Eremenko to a chorus of boos around Rugby Park from the Home supporters. 

Eremenko had been one of the few Kilmarnock players capable of retaining possession and finding a team mate when trying to create chances to retake the lead.  When he went off Kilmarnock resorted almost exclusively to aimless punts up the pitch in the vague direction of Magennis, whilst Inverness remained focused on the passing style instilled by Hughes.  They were to get their reward for all their hard work.

With ten minutes remaining, the busy Mckay robbed Mark O'Hara inside his own half then, after carrying the ball forty yards forward, linked with Nick Ross before gathering the return pass and placed the ball beyond Samson and into the a quite remarkable chorus of boos from a home support horrified by their team's willingness to play for a point against a wounded opponent.  It was just reward for a Caley Thistle side who, despite being a man down, remained positive and continued to take the game to a Kilmarnock side whose caginess and lack of ambition was inexcusable given the advantageous circumstances they found themselves in for the final 40 minutes of the game.  

If Alan Johnston persists with this approach to games he will struggle to survive the season; he certainly isn't getting much goodwill from his supporters just now. AS

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. 

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

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".