Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Your guide to the big game: Celtic v Aberdeen

Monday, February 23, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership

Dundee United look a shadow of their previous selves
"The first goal is always crucial against them, it gives them something to hang on to".  Jackie McNamara's comments were not a completely unfair generalization of St. Johnstone, but in this case it was really rather unfair.  The two-nil scoreline was harsh...on the visitors, who were very comfortable from the moment that Michael O'Halloran gave them the lead.

All of a sudden, Dundee United have hit a right slump.  Their attacking prowess has been neutered by the loss of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven and the simultaneous loss of form of, it seems, all their forwards bar Nadir Ciftci.  Their defence has been fragile all season, but their calamitous play in the last two games has been all the more striking now they are struggling to outscore the opposition they no longer look the menace they were.  The decision to take struggling keeper Rado Ciernziak out of the firing line seemed sensible - it turns out he has been hampered by injury for weeks - until debutant Michal Szromnik blundered just eight minutes into his first match.  He had no chance for O'Halloran's second though, which came after he lost Ryan McGowan far too easily at the back post.  Maybe once McGowan and Paul Dixon, also recently procured, get up to full speed things will get better.  Or perhaps not.

McNamara has a few things to ponder, and not much time to ponder them.  The next game is on Tuesday night at Tannadice against Inverness; defeat there might put an end to their aspirations of third place.  And soon after that they have their triple header (League Cup final, Scottish Cup quarter final, league) against Celtic.  Whether he can quickly correct these deficiencies will decide whether this is a memorable season for his club or not. LS

Panic stations at Partick Thistle
It's not gone unnoticed by folk down Firhill way that Partick Thistle are in danger of being dragged into a relegation battle.  Saturday's loss to Ross County was their fourth on the trot in the league (fifth in all competitions), and, as well as moving the Staggies into a season-high tenth place in the table, also brought them within seven points of their opponents.

Alan Archibald's public worry that his side might "do a Hibs" was designed to focus the players' minds, but it was also an admission of increasing panic at the situation.  And there was plenty of panic on show in this match; for a start, the defending for the opening goal, which was so slapstick that it would make a circus clown blush - under minimal pressure, Frederic Frans smacked a clearance off fellow centre back Danny Seaborne and into the path of Craig Curran for a simple tap-in.

And yet Partick dominated the rest of the first half, taking advantage of having an extra man in midfield.  County were set up to attack, with two strikers supported by Rafael De Vita and Michael Gardyne, and with no holding midfielder; Ryan Stevenson got far too space to operate in, and it was Thistle's misfortune that he was off his game.

But Archibald should have stuck with his strategy.  Instead he blinked, bringing on Kris Doolan at half-time and going 4-4-2, a move that backfired.  No longer were County overrun in the middle of the pitch.  They should have been out of sight when Seaborne had a rush of blood of his own and scythed down Boyce, only for Gallacher to save a powder-puff penalty kick from Curran, and they doubled their lead when De Vita finished coolly from Gardyne's pass.  Gardyne looks reborn in the last few weeks, back to the player he was during his previous spell in Dingwall.

Partick will always have a fighting chance as long as Lyle Taylor is playing, and he headed them back into the game, but, far from cracking, County came up with a classy third goal from Marcus Fraser (helped by a complete failure of any opponents to attempt so much as a tackle as he marauded from one end of the pitch to the other).  From looking doomed a month ago, County now look best placed of the bottom three to stay up.  And from looking an outside bet for the top six a month ago, Partick now look directionless and in danger. LS 

Will Celtic regret not rotating their squad?
Back in August, Ronny Deila rotated his squad for a visit to Inverness, trying to keep his best players fresh for the Champions League game against Maribor.  It was an unqualified disaster - they lost to ICT, and then lost to the Slovenians a few days later too.

So, with a trip to Italy on Thursday, it was striking that Celtic's Norwegian boss made only four changes for the home match with an ailing Hamilton Accies side.  Perhaps it's because he feels most of his stars are better off playing every match, but given five of his starters on Sunday have now started more than 30 games already this season, maybe resting them might not have been a bad move?

More likely, Deila doesn't feel he can trust too many of his backups.  It's becoming increasingly clear who he feels he can rely on - and that doesn't include guys like Callum McGregor, Aleksandar Tonev and Stefan Scepovic - none of them even made the bench for this one.  Nor did Anthony Stokes, whose future looks precarious after his latest off-field misdemeanour.  The likes of Derk Boerrigter (as always) and Tom Rogic are injured, but one doubts they'd be anywhere near the team just now either.  Many of these players, it can be concluded, will be punted come May.

And so Celtic fielded a strong team against Hamilton, and promptly thumped them after a goalless first period.  But I'd expect at least seven of the lineup to start in the San Siro.  Less than seventy-two hours later, they only host Aberdeen on their own patch, in a top of the table clash.  Celtic fans would like to think that the Europa League tie is the biggest match of their season, but in truth it is the one that follows it that matters more; if the home side are tired, the Dons will take advantage, and then suddenly the cat will be amongst the pigeons. LS

Motherwell are lacking in every area
I’ve never edited a football highlights package, or anything for that matter, but I understand the general idea is to show the best moments of the match making sure to include the best chances for each side.  If that is indeed the case, then the YouTube highlights of this match should be terrifying viewing for Motherwell fans - they show just three attempts on goal for 'Well, none of which were within 5 feet of hitting the target.

Dundee took an early lead through Paul McGinn, and if he meant to score from there then he has earned the right to wear that Argentina shirt that Dundee were sporting.  Ian Baraclough claimed the freak goal was the only difference between the teams, but I doubt he believed it.  Dundee beared down on the Motherwell defence at will, with the home midfield providing very little protection. Had the home side had a cutting edge this could have been an even worse day for Motherwell and their goal difference.  A shaky defence, nothing in attack, and seven defeats in eight games is a good enough recipe for relegation as it is.

Dundee were pretty much pushing against an open door on Saturday but still went about their business efficiently enough and their attacking play was pleasant enough for their fans to feel good about a top six push. Motherwell fans can only hope that Saturday was rock bottom because the only way can be up from that performance. IM

Does Locke hold the key to a Kilmarnock revival?
Caley Thistle's error-prone and luckless performance against Kilmarnock perfectly showcased why they will likely fall short in their bold quest to finish second in the Premiership.  The Dons boast the second best defensive record in the league and can rely on a back line that seldoms make mistakes that will cost them valuable points.  Inverness also boast a good defensive record but at times this season have been their own worst enemy with mistakes at crucial moments. 

Whilst the game was high on entertainment for the neutral, home fans saw their side take the lead three times only to be pegged back on each occasion. With each Kilmarnock goal there was a groan of frustration as the rub of the green went the visitors' way; a fortunate deflection set up Eccleston for Killie's first equaliser, while their second came when Slater's wonderful free kick went in via the post and then Ryan Esson's leg. 

The third was less bad luck and down to strange set piece defending. John Hughes likes to keep two or three players up when defending corners; the downside is that it can leave more space in the box as there are less bodies to win the ball.  ICT had been struggling to clear their lines from set pieces most of the day and Kilmarnock took advantage when Tope Obadeyi smashed in a loose ball.

Of course, in the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that ICT had their own good fortune; Nick Ross didn't know much about his goal, and from some angles it looks like Danny Williams' strike took a nick off David Syme as it flew past Samson. But Inverness need to cut out the errors,close out games more effectively and hope a wee bit more luck goes their way if they are to secure third spot as a minimum.  

As for Killie, it's fair to say that Gary Locke is putting forward a reasonable case to be given the role of manager on a longer term basis.   The Kilmarnock side that took to the field on Saturday looked a world away from the one that succumbed to Inverness in January despite having a man advantage. Whereas that Killie side looked lethargic and deflated, Saturday's lineup bustled with energy and worked incredibly hard to close down ICT, seldom allowing them the likes of Greg Tansey, so often their fulcrum, time to settle. 

Each time Inverness scored, Kilmarnock rallied. Were they lucky?  I say that you make your own luck and, for all their hard work and endeavour, Kilmarnock certainly deserved something from the game. This potential turnaround in performances and results might just come in time to give them a chance of breaking into the top six. If they manage that, expect Locke to be in charge at Rugby Park for a little while longer. AS

Goodwin hams it up in Aberdeen
The Reds go steamin' on...with St Mirren struggling, Aberdeen goals were coming.  First Adam Rooney poked in from an Andrew Considine cut-back, then he fired home from close range following a Kenny McLean assist and some nice build up play, before Niall McGinn swung in a corner and Mark Reynolds converted with a header at the back post.  So, on to Celtic Park.

Despite another victory for the Dons, the player that most folk were talking about after the match was St Mirren's pantomime villain, Jim Goodwin.  I say 'panto' villain; some of Goodwin's past acts have been genuinely villainous, not least his violent conduct - the uppercut to the stomach of Steven Jennings, the arm in the face of Stuart Armstrong, the elbow in the head of Aidan Connolly - have made him Scottish Fitba's Public Enemy No.1 (joint, of course, with Lee McCulloch).  To his credit, though, Jim has pointed out that in the last 10 weeks he hadn't been booked - an improvement in on-field discipline that he has bizarrely credited to his decision to grow his hair back.

Last week the Buddies played New York City in the American club's first ever match, but that did not stop the Silver Fox stealing the show as he nutmegged Spanish star David Villa.  

This week, though, it was Goodwin's turn to get shown up after he found himself on the receiving end of some showboating from Shay Logan.  It didn't make the embedded SPFL highlights, but if you check the BBC Alba extended highlights on iPlayer around the 32 minute mark you'll see Shay turn Jim inside out - and round and round - before laying the ball back to Willo Flood, much to Goodwin's chagrin. (That phase of play eventually comes to an end when Shay Logan is fouled by John McGinn after getting beat by having the ball chipped over his head.)  Goodwin's own embarrassment was compounded when, with 10 minutes to go, an attempted shot actually managed to completely clear the top of the Merkland Stand.  This prompted the final denouement from the Dons fans: a chant of "There's Only One Jim Goodwin!"  

Later, following a stoppage in play, Goodwin came to collect the ball (not the one he'd already hoofed out of the stadium - that one landed in my garden...) from the touchline, shaped to smash a shot into the home support in the South Stand, before pulling out at the last minute and flashing a knowingly wicked-looking grin.  This was met with a wonderful mixture of response from the Dons fans, everything from comedy booing and jeering to sporting applause and cheering.

For me, it's those intimate moments between players and fans that often make it worth spending twenty quid to go and watch the fitba' live.  Every club has its own players that the opposition love to hate, and regardless of which emotions you feel towards them, everyone thoroughly enjoy rooting for/against them - and either way, that's entertainment. MI

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, February 18, 2015

Can Aberdeen become Scotland's second force?

Image result for adam rooney aberdeen
It's a long time since supporting Aberdeen has been this much fun

Talk of a real title race in Scotland this season is over-egging the pudding a wee bit.  Sure, Aberdeen trail Celtic by only three points, but they've played a game extra.  And, even with the Europa League to distract them, the reigning champions still have strength in depth that the other sides can only dream of.

But the challenge is rather sterner than usual, and that's not just a reflection on some mediocre performances earlier in the campaign, when the players were still getting their heads around Ronny Deila's philosophy.  Aberdeen are doing extremely well; for comparison, they have more points at this stage than did the Hearts sides that looked like title challengers in 1997-98 and 2005-06.  And it's no fluke.

Last season's League Cup triumph has revitalized the club and its support; forty thousand fans got their first taste of success for at least a generation (in plenty of cases, their first taste of success full stop).  The results and performances on the park have kept up the momentum.  Even the late season collapse that allowed Motherwell to nick second place in the table was easily forgiven, since it came as a result of a last gasp goal in the last game of the campaign that everyone in the stadium, bar the referee, expected to be disallowed.

2014-15 started with a couple of wins in the Europa League and a relatively glamorous tie with Real Sociedad, and league form has never dipped for a long enough period of time to allow negativity to crawl back in.  Off the park, the goodwill factor surely must have contributed to the deal struck in November to clear the club's £14.5m debts.

So they are financially stable once more, so much so that they were able to spend £300,000 on St. Mirren's Kenny McLean on Deadline Day - their biggest outlay on a player in more than fifteen years (Thomas Solberg, since you're asking).  The squad might not be comparable to Celtic's, which is understandable given that the wage bill is less than a quarter of the size, but it can just about boast two good players for every position - or it will do when Inverness left-back Graeme Shinnie joins in the summer.  The most talented players at the club are all contracted at least for next season and, in most cases, beyond.  The teams just below them in the table, in contrast, are watching their top talents fly the nest - Billy Mckay and the aforementioned Shinnie from ICT, Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven from Dundee United.

Oh, and don't forget the new stadium.  Stewart Milne suggested in August that the Dons could leave Pittodrie for a new state of the art ground at Loirston Loch by 2017.  And the club are in negotiations to purchase land from the local university to build a new training ground on.

Whether by accident or design, Aberdeen find themselves in a very strong position.  Celtic are miles ahead in terms of resources.  But with Rangers floundering (so much so that it's quite possible that they won't be promoted this season) there is a gap there for one of the so-called diddy teams to establish themselves as Scotland's second force.  At the moment, Aberdeen are in prime position to take that mantle.  If they can keep it, then they should be able to challenge Celtic next year, and the year after that, and maybe even get so close that there really is a proper title race.

It's certainly a far cry from the Mark McGhee era, isn't it?

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, February 16, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership weekend

Ross County are not doomed yet
This was most definitely Ross County’s most important match of the season to date.  Had they lost against Motherwell, a nine-point deficit would surely have been too much of a challenge to overcome for a side who went into this fixture with only two league wins.

It was make-or-break and it showed for the first 15 minutes.  Each team was set up in bog-standard formations, County with 4-4-2 and Motherwell 4-5-1. Ian Baraclough went with height and strength up front in John Sutton, with Lee Erwin wasted on the left, while Jim McIntyre opted for Craig Curran’s tireless running to complement Liam Boyce’s finesse.  Direct balls bypassed the centre of midfield as each team wanted to use the flanks to provide service for their forwards.

There was precious little quality in the centre of the pitch, with Motherwell’s captain Keith Lasley - a player who many consider has his best years behind him - partnered with natural centre-back Simon Ramsden.  It wasn’t a pairing conducive to quality playmaking and they were matched by Ross County’s Jackson Irvine and Martin Woods.  Irvine and Woods continue to be McIntyre’s first-choice midfielders to the bemusement of many: in theory, Irvine’s energy marries well to Woods’s attempts at dictating play, but together they have rarely protected the space in front of the defence well enough and the latter has been criticised for being too slow on the ball and for slack passes.  In reality, Lasley and Ramsden against Irvine and Woods was probably the most low-rent midfield battle in the league this season and it made for a poor game on a technical level.  With Filip Kiss yet again dropped to the bench and Ruben Palazuelos falling out of the match squad without any explanation, the incumbent partnership simply had to produce to keep County’s hopes of avoiding relegation realistic.

They did, or at least Woods did; he combined with debutant winger Raffaelle De Vita to score a sumptuous volley outside the box for his first goal of the season.  Having scored the goal he looked a more confident player and County looked the better out of the two teams.  Motherwell looked threatening through Conor Grant and by Fraser Kerr beating Irvine in the air at every Motherwell corner kick, yet without getting their full-backs forward in a system that relies so much on quality from those positions, they never truly tested Mark Brown in open play.

County went into half-time with the lead and continued to take the game to their visitors in the second half, with Curran’s doggedness not allowing Motherwell to play from the back and Michael Gardyne winning every duel on the right flank.  Grant’s free-kick was the game’s second moment of quality, but Motherwell weren’t level for long with County scoring two more goals: De Vita had his second assist for a deep free-kick to Paul Quinn at the far post, before he got on to the end of a teasing cross over Craig Reid’s head to smash a near-post volley past George Long.  Kerr had the beating of Irvine at another corner to make the score 3-2, but in open play County generally looked the team best equipped to win.

The result means Motherwell have recorded six defeats and a draw from their last seven matches.  They still have a three point cushion over Ross County but it remains to be seen whether Baraclough can shape a strong enough team with his new signings.  With Paul Lawson and Iain Vigurs having been unavailable for so long, the centre of midfield badly misses a player who can dictate proceedings.  With Sutton up front they will always have a player who can score goals against the run of play, but banking on Motherwell securing points from games in which they might not deserve them from is a risky business.

For Ross County, they now have a run of fixtures from which they can realistically gather some momentum going into the league split.  They still have a lot of work to do to escape relegation, but with another match against Motherwell and two against St Mirren to play, they have given themselves something to play for.  Expectations have to be tempered, however: despite the quality of the goals scored against Motherwell, the performance overall was far from perfect and against stronger opposition they might not have fared so well.  Questions remain over the Woods-Irvine axis when there is arguably better pedigree elsewhere in the squad; if they are paired again in a flat four against Patrick Thistle on Saturday then they will likely not get away with the amount of space they continue to leave behind them.

In any event, it looks like the struggle among the bottom three clubs is likely to continue until the very end of the season. JAM

McLean fits in seamlessly
After the close of the January transfer window, Narey's Toepoker posed the question of where Kenny McLean would fit in for Aberdeen. I saw him playing central/left of Peter Pawlett in midfield with Jonny Hayes and Niall McGinn as wingers and Adam Rooney as striker.

Sunday afternoon at New Douglas Park saw the first time that Derek McInnes got to play that very line-up and formation. The result? Arguably Aberdeen's best performance of the season so far.  Aberdeen were two up inside the first 10 minutes, through close-range efforts from Andy Considine and Ryan Jack, and they had a further two perfectly good goals disallowed - Rooney's strike off the underside of the crossbar bounced a foot over the goal-line but wasn't allowed, while David Goodwillie was incorrectly adjudged to be offside despite Eamonn Brophy playing him several yards on - before McGinn finally finished it with a third.

Between those two disallowed goals, Aberdeen also had a penalty claim denied as referee Willie Collum instead decided to award a free-kick against Rooney for allowing himself to be wrestled to the ground by Hamilton's Jesus Garcia Tena. (Tena would later be sent off by Collum after committing a third... sorry, second bookable offence of the afternoon.)

Overall, it was a superb performance from the Dons, who were utterly dominant in the match.  By contrast, Accies have gained only two points from seven games since the departure of Alex Neil, and on this latest evidence it looks unlikely that they will be turning their fortunes around any time soon. MI

The Deila-bus keeps on going
There's something ominous about Celtic's current form.  Since being held at home by Ross County just after Christmas, they've been brushing opponents aside with relative ease.  Those sort of two-nil and three-nil wins are the results of champions, to be honest.

St. Johnstone at least put up a better fight than many of their peers have done recently, though many would have feared the worst after Leigh Griffiths opened the scoring in the first minute.  The Perth Saints were as stuffy as ever, but were overwhelmed in midfield in the early stages; Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong spent so much time playing central that it was like the visitors had five central midfield players, and so they were utterly dominant.  And of course Emilio Izaguirre and Adam Matthews provide more than enough attacking width.

Whether by accident or design, Tommy Wright managed to counteract this when he lost Murray Davidson to a calf injury in the first half.  He gambled on introducing striker Chris Kane and switching Michael O'Halloran to the left flank.  O'Halloran and Lee Croft got a fair bit of joy going forward, and by pegging back the Celtic full-backs they took considerable pressure off their own defence.

Not that this completely stopped Celtic in their tracks; some lovely linkup play and some rather woeful defending from Tam Scobbie led to a goal for Stefan Johansen which should have killed the game off...yet, remarkably, it was the home side who were pushing hardest at the end; after O'Halloran got one back, only some great goalkeeping from Craig Gordon denied them a point.

Some of this was clearly down to tiredness.  Ronny Deila has Celtic playing a high-tempo game right now, with and without the ball.  He also hasn't rotated this squad much at all in recent weeks, even with a Europa League tie on Thursday to look forward to.  It's a mark of respect to St Johnstone that he threw on another defender in the dying minutes - even if that was Efe Ambrose.

So, in conclusion, it was another ominous win for Celtic.  But this match may have exposed one or two chinks in their armour. LS

United held back by hapless defending
The SFA are currently consulting supporters about lifting the ban on alcohol in football grounds.  Presumably this is to help fans who have to watch their team lose to Kilmarnock thanks to a last minute goal.  As if it’s not hard enough being a Dundee United fan just now...

If we’ve not quite had a four horse title race this season, at least we've had three teams closer behind than usual.  Aberdeen have had the strongest looking squad of the three, and John Hughes has worked wonders with what he’s got at his disposal in Inverness.  But United had so much quality in attack that they looked as capable of keeping up with Celtic as anyone.

Unfortunately the realities of modern football and the double edged sword of being a well run club resulted in the January departures of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic, not only significantly weakening their own team, but adding much needed depth to their rivals.

After being able to rely on a strong attack to cover up their defensive deficiencies for the first half of the season, the Arabs will be hoping that Saturday wasn’t a portent of things to come. Having lost much of their attacking threat, they will have to defend a whole lot better than this if they’re to keep up with Aberdeen and Inverness, never mind Celtic. IM

McGowan makes Dundee tick
Whilst Dundee-Partick was certainly the least exciting of Saturday's matches, the twitter comments from journalists at the match made it sound like World Paint Drying Championships levels of tedium, when in fact there were plenty of chances at both ends.  These are the same journalists who spent the week criticizing the failure of Scottish football's leaders to talk up the game.  Oh, the irony...

A point was the very least Partick Thistle deserved.  Handicapped at home by the horrendous condition of the Firhill pitch, the surface at Dens was at least of enough quality that they could pass it around.  But too often this season have the Jags lost matches they should have drawn or won.  On this occasion, the sucker punch came with almost the last kick of the game, with Gary Harkins laying on a tap-in for Paul McGowan.  I've lost count of the number of times this season that Dundee fans have pointed out my claim at the start of the campaign that Harkins and McGowan can't play together.

McGowan has flown under the radar this season, but he has been integral to Dundee's top six push.  He seems to be operating much deeper than he did during his best seasons at St. Mirren, but arguably with even more effectiveness.  He's such a neat and tidy passer, and he always looks for the ball, even when the opposition have it.  His willingness to harass opponents and put a foot in make him a very good all-round midfield player.  In fact, all that has been missing this season is goals - Saturday's winner was his first for the club.

Gowser's excellent attitude on the pitch remains remarkably juxtaposed with his problems off it, which one suspects are the reason why he hasn't gone on to bigger and better things.  He was lucky to avoid jail in December 2013 after being convicted of two charges of assaulting a police officer; incredibly, in November 2014 he was charged with the same offence again.  He stands trial on 26 March; Dundee will hope to have clinched their top six spot by then. LS

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..

John A Maxwell (JAM) is co-editor of Tell Him He's Pele, the acclaimed website focused on Scottish lower league football.  He is an authority on all things Ross County.  Legend has it that the 'A' stands for 'awesome'.

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, February 13, 2015

A Scottish footballer abroad?

Image result for stuart armstrong gary mackay steven celtic
Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven joined Celtic when they might have been better spreading their wings a bit

As an Arab, seeing Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven hightail it out of Tannadice with unseemly haste was bad enough.  That their destination was Celtic Park made it an even more bitter pill to swallow. Personally, what made that outcome about as painful as it could be was my assumption, erroneous or not, that both had ambitions beyond Scotland, perhaps even on the continent.  But like so many before them, they chose only to move eighty miles west.

So why Celtic?  Why (still) Scotland?  I doubt that either player would have difficulty adapting to a career abroad.  They have the technique to flourish at a higher grade; indeed, I’d argue both are more suited to the sort of football played in GermanySpain, or Portugal.  Their erstwhile teammate Ryan Gauld has shown that a gifted Scottish player need not feel inferior at that level.  GMS has already been out of Scotland once - he went down to Liverpool as a youngster, all the way from Thurso.  So, he’s used to living away from home, in a place where the natives speak a very strange language!  

Twenty-five years or more ago, staying in Scotland would have made sense.  But the world is a much smaller place now.  What’s stopping young Scottish (and, indeed, British) footballers from wanting to test themselves in a completely different environment?  Of course, the easy option of staying in Scotland is still a pretty good one for these guys – more money, a greater chance of medals, and automatic selection in the next Scotland squad.  And the one after that.  And the one get the picture.  But surely they can't all feel the same?  Don't any of them want to improve their game and look at their profession though a completely altered prism?  They could enjoy a different lifestyle, learn a new language, live in a country where the weather is conducive to training outside twice a day, all year round.  They could even play on half-decent grass pitches.  

I doubt it's related to education; I don’t subscribe to the “most footballers are thick as mince” view.  They may not have the academic qualifications due to their career, but they will probably mirror society as a whole.  Armstrong is obviously an intelligent, sensible young man with his head screwed on, as he's sitting a law degree in his spare time!  I’m sure that if many had their horizons broadened, they would have no problem adapting.  I’m loathe to use Ryan Gauld as an example, as his story is so unique, but nevertheless there must be more that can do what he has done so successfully.

Personally, if I was a twenty year old in a first team SPFL squad, I’d have my agent checking out options all over as my contract wound down.  It might not be Sporting Lisbon, but who knows?  You’re out of your comfort zone, but isn’t that the challenge?  After all, the Scottish people have traditionally exerted a disproportionate influence globally due to their ability to rise to such a challenge over the centuries.

The central European Slavic countries, whose domestic leagues are surely not dissimilar to ours in quality, similarly produce countless young footballers who perform at the highest levels across all European leagues. The result of this is when Scotland play teams like Montenegro, they often have one or two players who are playing for top Italian or German teams.  We, by way of contrast, can boast a couple of West Bromwich Albion players, if we're lucky.

Perhaps the lack of any foreign ambitions in the average Scottish professional simply down to the fact they lack the economic hunger to succeed? After all, life in a Scottish town or city is far removed from a Macedonian village.  That should certainly explain some of the reluctance to become an economic migrant, but all of it? What about the Icelanders or Scandinavians?  They’re hardly escaping lives of poverty.  

There are a couple of final points to make. Firstly, I am in no way denigrating the game in Scotland. On the contrary, I see rising standards, good young players breaking through, a welcome emphasis on coaching and youth development, with the concomitant investment in infrastructure.  But it would surely benefit the national team to have two or three in the squad thoroughly imbued with a different approach to the game.

Secondly, I could justifiably be accused of overlaying a twenty-something footballer’s life with my middle-class and middle-aged sensibilities.  A few hours’ training under a clear blue sky, followed by an evening sampling the manzanilla and tapas in the local bars of a Spanish city – what’s not to like?  Fair enough, but nevertheless, I still believe is it shocking that there is only one quality Scottish player playing abroad (I don’t count Jack Harper, as he is Spanish to all intents and purposes) in this day and age.

In summary, my message to young Scottish professionals; be Ryan Gauld, not Barry Ferguson.

Peter Clark saw Dundee United win the league at Dens in 1983. His wife suspects everything since has been a bit disappointing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Talking points from the Premiership (and Scottish Cup!)

County crushed by ruthless Aberdeen
On a weekend where the majority of Scottish fitba's supporters rightly turn their attention the the Scottish Cup, Aberdeen quietly went about the business of securing a further three points in the league against Ross County.  On recent form, this looked as if it may be a tighter game than others may have anticipated. The Dons had failed to win in their last three outings, while I was stunned to learn that the Staggies had only lost one of their last eight away Premiership fixtures.

Fortunately for Aberdeen, County, or more specifically Antonio Reguero, gifted them the opener by fumbling Jonny Hayes low cross and allowing Adam Rooney to pounce.  Aberdeen's second goal, early in the second half,  was rather more beautifully crafted; an elegant through ball from Rooney releasing Peter Pawlett to round the hapless Requero and tap in.  Shay Logan made it three with a superb finish from outside the box into the top corner (a left pegger too!) and David Goodwillie completed a good and proper thumping.

Aberdeen, move level on points with Celtic.  (The further eleven goals they needed to go top on goal difference failed to materialise...) For Ross County, who remain six points adrift at the bottom of the table, there must now be growing concerns amongst the Staggies faithful that if they can't turn results around soon they will be in danger of being set adrift.  In recent weeks, they have at least looked like a side who can defend stoutly; if that trait has now escaped them, there is no hope for the Highlanders. MI

Accies and Killie both have their problems
Both these teams are currently playing like relegation fodder - Accies are still winless in six attempts under Martin Canning, while Killie have two wins in fifteen.  This one really should have gone the way of the home side, who spurned several first half chances and should have had a penalty right at the end when Manuel Pascali cleaned out Nathan Redmond, only for the referee to inexplicably wave play on.

Accies at least have plenty of points on the board already.  They remain fifth, eight points ahead of seventh placed Dundee.  They will surely still be in the top six at the split, although they are making heavy weather of it.  There's plenty for Canning to ponder ahead of next season though; while he might be able to replace left-back Stephen Hendrie via the youth academy, up front is a different matter.  Letting Mickael Antoine-Curier go might have been for the greater good given his apparent effect on dressing room harmony, but they have to muddle their way through the rest of the season with only Jason Scotland.  And as for the rather huge Tony Andreu-shaped gap?  Well, Hamilton appear to be a patient high at risk of contracting second season syndrome.

Killie's problems are the more pressing, though.  It was no surprise that caretaker Gary Locke chose not to depart from Allan Johnston's blueprint, and the board now have to decide whether the ex-Hearts boss is the man to lead them to the summer.  Their current position (eighth) and points tally wouldn't normally be cause for worry, but for the way Hibs collapsed last season.  Killie probably only need another couple of wins to avoid a relegation playoff, but just how confident would one be that they will pull that off? LS

Dundee United v Celtic will be a cracking quarter final
Stranraer away has 'banana-skin' written all over it, so Dundee United deserve credit for taking their League One opponents seriously - at least for the first half-hour, by which point they were three up and could take their foot off the gas.  Even Nadir Ciftci;s attitude was perfect - his through ball for Ryan Dow's second goal would have sliced through far better defences than this one.

Celtic were lucky to leave Dens Park with a draw in August; on Saturday, Dundee were lucky to escape with a moderate defeat.  Plenty has happened since then; for a start, Celtic don't have Jo Inge Berget stinking up the left flank.  What they do have is Leigh Griffiths bang in form, and far more coherence in attack.  Not for the first time in the last few months, they were denied a cricket score by a heroic goalkeeping performance (Scott Bain in this case), which makes one wonder how much of that is down to poor finishing.

The meeting in the quarters between these two sides will be unmissable, not least because it's the dress rehearsal for the League Cup Final the following weekend.  And then they meet at Celtic Park on league duty the week after.  With only one other Premiership side in the last eight, the winner of this game will heavily fancy their chances of lifting this trophy.  LS

Reilly belongs at a higher level
St. Johnstone's defence of the Scottish Cup ended meekly in Dumfries, although it wasn't as much of an upset as it might have appeared to the uninformed.  The Perth Saints toil up front without Steven Maclean and Michael O'Halloran, while Queen of the South have been holding their own in the Championship against sides with far more resources.  Next up for them in the Quarter Finals are Falkirk, who have to travel to Dumfries after beating Brechin City.  There's very little between the two sides in the league, and both will fancy their chances of making the final four.

The first time this writer saw Doonhamers striker Gavin Reilly, he was a gangly seventeen year old thrown on as a late sub in Dingwall by Gus MacPherson.  I assumed he would just be a battering ram and target man, but while Reilly has put on plenty of bulk and muscle in the subsequent four years, he has that cliched 'good touch for a big man'.  It's not often a striker like that is found at this level, and it's safe to assume he won't be at that level for much longer.

Reilly is out of contract in the summer, and surely won't be short of suitors.  Queens' will be entitled to a development fee for him - will it be high enough to put off Premiership clubs, or will see him harassing top flight defenders next season? LS

Rangers defeat wasn't that much of a surprise
I'm not sure there will have been all that much dancing in the streets of Raith last night, not just for the obvious reason but because, well, how much of a shock was their victory at Ibrox?  It's the seventh time this season Rangers have lost to a Championship team either in the league or a cup competition, after all.

I must admit that, when Kenny McDowall claimed that he wasn't picking the team, my first thought was "lucky for Rangers."  Unfortunately, he only had three Newcastle loanees to fit in, and inexplicably he chose to replace Darren McGregor with Remi Streete and keep Lee McCulloch in the team.

McCulloch's misdemeanours have already been addressed in this excellent blog by Iain Meredith today.  But his inclusion is not just outrageous because of his use of the Dark Arts.  His complete lack of pace forces the Gers to play such a deep backline that they can't press at all.  He might be okay at heading a ball, but he's also so vulnerable against an opponent running at him.  McGregor is a vastly superior player, and so too, dare I say it, is Bilel Mohsni.  A better, and stronger, manager than McDowall would have dumped McElbows long ago but, like so many fellow underperformers in this side, he appears to have a guaranteed place in the lineup - even when Mike Ashley decrees that half the team have to be Newcastle reserves.  As for Ashley, what Rangers needed on deadline day was not five new players on loan, but a vaguely competent coach for the ones they already have. LS

And the rest...
Not much to say about the other cup games - most of it will be covered far better elsewhere.  What I would point out is that Hibernian are a real threat in this competition.  That starting lineup is certainly of top-flight quality, even if they play like it only intermittently.  As an ICT fan, I wouldn't fancy meeting them in the last four (assuming we get past Raith, which is not a given).  It's nice to see Spartans clinging on for a bit longer, but the winner of their replay with Berwick won't get beyond the trip to Easter Road in the quarters. LS

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..

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.

McCulloch typifies everything wrong with Rangers

I vividly remember the first football poster I had on my bedroom wall as a child.  It was the squad picture for Rangers ahead of the 1990/91 season.  Featuring prominently were the goalkeeper Chris Woods, and the captain Terry Butcher.  Both were members of the England national team at the World Cup the previous summer, so it was pretty much the equivalent of having Joe Hart and John Terry at the peak of their careers.

As I grew up, it got even better; I had the almost literally unmitigated pleasure of watching Mark Hateley, Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne et al win at their leisure, certainly in Scotland if not always abroad.

If I had only know what was to become of my beloved Bears I would have savoured every moment I looked at that poster.

Of course, Rangers’ most fundamental problems these days are off the pitch, and having to choose between Mike Ashley, Dave King, and Lalit Modi is the definition of being stuck between a rock, a hard place, and another thing.

But one specific incident on the field yesterday typified the club's current situation.  Now, Butcher, Richard Gough, and Barry Ferguson were all players that any fan would love to have as their captain. The former two were commanding, hard-as-nails centre backs, and the latter was a quality, homegrown midfielder.

Unfortunately, Rangers have wasted the last three years building a side in the image of their current skipper.  To be fair, Lee McCulloch was been a pretty decent player in his younger days and was a good signing for Rangers when Walter Smith brought him to the club.  But now he’s miles past his best, to the point that he is out of his depth in a lower division.  Sadly, more often than not he now resorts to violence, presumably either out of frustration or because that is all he actually has left to contribute to a game.

His stamp on Raith Rovers' Dale Carrick yesterday was inexcusable.  It was not shocking, though. Something has to be surprising before it is shocking.  This was typical of him.  After all, McCulloch was behaving in the same petulant way against Celtic last week, and has done this so often in the last two and a half years that one loses count.

And if only he was the only player I could say that about.

Of course I really want to see Rangers back in the Premiership, because like any fan I want my team to win every game and I want them to do as well as they can.  The negative aspects of The Old Firm are well enough documented, but what football fan doesn’t want to see their team compete with their biggest rivals on a regular basis?  No doubt Neil Doncaster is stealing a living and deserves all the criticism he gets for not finding a sponsor for Scotland’s top league, but his job is undoubtedly more difficult without Rangers being in the top flight.  The league is exciting this year and on the face of it a good product, but from a commercial point of view Rangers and Celtic are the only names that will make a meaningful impact outside of Scottish football fans.  That's a sad state of affairs, but it is true.

I don’t however have any great appetite for promotion this season, no matter how unlikely it is starting to look. This Rangers team is, to put it mildly, not nice to watch, and would not do well in the Premiership.  I would rather stay in the Championship and build a young, hungry, well coached team, that even if it can’t stop Celtic’s 10-in-a-row bid (I’m pretty sure it won’t) will be worth watching and provide a reason to watch games without embarrassment.  Heck, they might even be a team to be proud of.  But that might be too much to ask.

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".